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SGPC: A Sikh Rebellion

SGPC: A Sikh Rebellion

Above: The General House of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee

For the first time, an association has questioned provisions in the Sikh Gurdwara Act for giving control of gurdwaras to the SGPC

~By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), housed in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, is considered the Mini Parliament of the Sikhs. It holds sway over the affairs of this community with huge funds and vast powers at its disposal.

The Committee, which was set up under the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, is seen as a protector of Sikh maryada (traditions) and awards religious punishments, including excommunication from the community. It lays down strict guidelines on how respectfully the Guru Granth Sahib (holy book of the Sikhs) is to be carried. It gives permission to set up new gurdwaras and organise prayers in gurdwaras and homes.

Besides having a major say in Panthic affairs, the SGPC has an annual budget of Rs 1,064 crore and the collection from the golak (offering by devotees in gurdwaras) runs into crores of rupees. Besides managing gurdwaras, the SGPC runs several welfare and educational institutions, including medical colleges.

However, its powers have now been challenged in the Delhi High Court by the “Inter Continental Association of Lawyers” which has questioned provisions of the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925. The Court has issued a notice to the central government as well as the SGPC.

The plea by the Association says that the Act is unconstitutional as it gives management and financial control over gurdwaras in Punjab and elsewhere to the SGPC in violation of Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. It says that while Hindus, Jains and Buddhists have the right to establish their places of worship anywhere, only Sikhs are restricted from doing so as per the provisions of the Act.

The petitioner, Debasis Misra, who is also president of the Association, has said that the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, passed during British times, says that a person intending to establish a gurdwara is to seek permission from the SGPC. He said that in 2011, one Kirpal Singh Panesar had established a gurdwara in Jeeda village in Punjab, but it was demolished at the behest of the SGPC as no permission had been taken. After failing to get any relief from the authorities, including the Punjab government, he moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court. His writ petition was decided on May 15 last year and the High Court gave him permission to file an appropriate representation.

The petitioner had first filed a PIL in the Supreme Court on July 6, 2018, which directed him to approach the High Court. He then filed a writ petition under Article 226/227 for issuance of “writ of Certiorari, or Mandamus or any other” against the respondents for enforcement of the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution.

The petition says, “A Hindu can establish his own temple and operate without control of anybody. But the big temples are controlled through Management Boards due to big risk of pilgrimage and donations” and asserted that when “Mughals came to India and started converting the Hindus to Muslims by force, Guru Nanak developed the Sikh sect in Punjab in order to protect the Hindus from forcible conversion and atrocities of the Mughals.

“That the present writ petition is filed for the entire Sikhs residing in the territory of India and throughout the world who are not knowing whom to approach and which court of law to approach for their grievances (sic).

“That the Petitioner Association is registered under Section 8 of the Indian Companies Act, 2013 and is preferring the instant Writ Petition in furtherance of its activities mentioned in the Memorandom of Association for establishment of constitutionalism more specifically the protection of fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India of the Sikhs residing in the territory of India and throughout the world.” It goes on to declare that the petitioner association will pay the costs, if any, imposed by the Court.

The petition says that different authorities had recorded the statement/evidence of the petitioner, but he did not get any response over the past 10 years. It says the SGPC is “not only having monopoly over the construction and operation of gurdwaras on world soil but also has developed the concept of Rehat Maryada by which they have controlled/interference on the day-to-day prayer/rituals on the different gurdwaras of the world and has also control over a Sikh marriage which has to be compulsorily performed in gurdwaras”.

It says that the High Court may examine and decide on the substantial question of law about whether the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, is a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution or not.

It further says that it is a violation of the human rights of Sikhs in India because not only is their religious freedom controlled, so are their cultural freedoms—of marriage, and so on—because a Sikh has to compulsorily get a marriage solemnised only in a gurdwara.

The SGPC has not yet responded, but its reply is expected to be on predictable lines—that it is an internal issue of the Sikhs and that no other party has any right to interfere with Sikh religious rights. A spokesman of the organisation, who did not want to be quoted since the issue is before the courts, said that the petition was uncalled for and the SGPC would not leave any stone unturned in fighting the case. He was hopeful that the petition would be rejected at the initial stages itself. He warned that religious fundamentalists and mischievous elements may try to fish in troubled waters if the sensitive issue was stretched.

The SGPC is also likely to question the locus standi of the petitioner.

The SGPC, which is formed after elections held periodically, is under the complete control of the Badal family. The candidates put up by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and nominated by former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son, former deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, have been sweeping the elections to the Committee. Sukhbir is also the president of SAD. The father-son duo decides who will head the Committee and which important decisions are taken.

Any court hearing on the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, would have a direct bearing on the Badals and they would vigorously defend the provisions of the Act. One has not heard the last on this subject.