All India Gurdwara Bill, 1999 – The Genesis and Future… – Gurcharanjit Singh Lamba

All India Gurdwara Bill, 1999 – The Genesis and Future…

Gurcharanjit Singh Lamba, editor ‘Sant Sipahi’

In recent months, regional and national media has been carrying a number of reports regarding the Sikh Gurdwara legislation. The reports fall in all sort of categories: some motivated, others full of gaping holes, a few largely correct but with some bona-fide mistakes and a lot of them simply confusing and only adding to cacophony.
This little note is primarily drafted to give an overall picture of what is at stake and what could be the possible ramifications of some provisions in the suggestions mooted by quarters as responsible as the Gurdwara Election Commission (GEC).

Chief Commissioner of Gurdwara Elections, Punjab, Chief Justice (Retd.) Harbans Singh has prepared two separate documents. One is a draft notification proposing certain far-reaching amendments in the existing Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925 and the other is a draft of ‘The Sikh Gurdwara Bill, 1999’ aimed at replacing the existing Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, in its entirety.

These two drafts have received ample coverage in the media and thus, have attracted the desired attention of those who are concerned with its application. Since both the drafts have been prepared by the same person and have also been circulated almost simultaneously, these two drafts have been confusingly intermingled with each other. For this reason the confusion prevails even amongst those who are expressing their views on the subject, leave aside those who have little or no access to the documents.

Briefly, first the draft which is a Draft Notification and seeks to amend the existing Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925 was forwarded by the GEC to the Government on 9th August, 1999. Without making any additions or alterations to this draft the same was sent by the Home Ministry to the SGPC on 25th August, 1999. The SGPC was asked to give their comments on the draft within a week’s time, i.e. by the end of August. SGPC on 31st August forwarded the draft to its executive members for information. Later on when the draft evoked strong reaction from different quarters, the SGPC decided to elicit views from different Sikh organizations within two month’ time and also to form a committee to look into the matter thoroughly. The SGPC also declared that it had conveyed to the Government of India that its decision will be given only after completion of this process. The most intriguing fact of this episode is, and the SGPC has also asked GEC to explain as at whose instance it had prepared this draft. SGPC has also categorically challenged the authority of the GEC to suggest such far-reaching amendments because according to it the GEC is empowered and authorised only to conduct the Gurdwara elections.

Though this draft had some very welcome long awaited features like removal of Sahajdhari as voters but it unscrupulously deleted the disqualifying bar on alcoholics and Patits apostates from becoming voters and members respectively. It didn’t stop at this but made very detrimental and disparaging changes in the definition of a Sikh. Almost all the amendments suggested in this draft notification with further dilution find place in the draft of the All India Gurdwara Bill, 1999.

These two drafts hit at the very roots of the Sikhs and to put it simply it is no exaggeration that these are the most damaging and humiliating documents thrust upon the Sikhs in this century.

Although the draft of the All India Gurdwara Bill is the subject matter of the present paper but the real and immediate threat is the draft notification sent by GEC to the Union Government for amending the existing Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, by a notification. Basically this draft notification is being objected to on the following four grounds.

  • Despite a declaration to adopt Delhi Gurdwara Act’s definition of the Sikh, the same has been drastically changed.
  • The bar on an alcoholic becoming a member has been removed.
  • The disqualification of a Patit has been withdrawn.
  • The amendments are proposed not through legislation but by administrative notification.

Despite loud protestations from every Sikh organization and its universal condemnation the same has neither been withdrawn nor cancelled but the same is being pushed through constantly at different levels including the National Commission for Minorities. Any slackness or indifference on this count will be catastrophic for the entire Sikh Nation now living throughout the world.

It is therefore desired that the draft notification seeking amendments to the existing Sikh Gurdwara Act should be addressed first.

The Genesis of the All India Gurdwara Bill, 1999.

The demand for an all India Gurdwara legislation emanated from the Gurdwara reforms movement and finds mention of this in numerous resolutions passed by the SGPC or the Akali Dal. The first hint of such a legislation was given in 1930 by the then Governor of Punjab Lord Malcolm Hailey. This find mention in the Regional Formula, Anandpur Sahib Resolution and the Longowal Accord also. In 1954 a private Bill to this effect was presented in the Parliament by S. Amar Singh Sahgal from Madhya Pradesh. This remained a Bill and could not become an Act. In 1977 the Janta Government entrusted the job of drafting the Bill to CJ (Retd.) Harbans Singh. The draft prepared by him was approved by the SGPC and the same was sent to the Home Ministry by the Punjab Government in 1979, which in turn sent it to the cold storage. Rajiv-Longowal Accord too had a clause that the All India Gurdwara Act will be enacted and accordingly in 1986 the Union Government sent the 1979 draft to the Punjab Government. The Punjab Government headed by S. Surjit Singh Barnala constituted a Review Committee headed by S. Natha Singh Dalam. The Review Committee in turn constituted a redrafting committee with Dr. Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia as its Convenor Secretary including Dr. Gurnam Singh Teer and Giani Lal Singh as its members. It was strange that the Review Committee could appoint a redrafting committee.

The Redrafting Committee held eight meetings in a month and was in a hurry to draft and keep the entire proceedings in secret. No one, not even the SGPC, Chief Khalsa Diwan, and the Singh Sahiba leave aside the common Sikhs were given access as to what was in the offing for their future.

The rival Badal Akali Dal constituted a Committee comprising of Dr. Rajinder Kaur, S. Bharpur Singh, S. Mewa Singh Gill Advocate, Bhai Ashok Singh Bagrian and S. Gurratanpal Singh Advocate. This committee also warned the J. S. Ahluwalia Committee to desist from taking a hasty decision. S. Atma Singh wrote a lengthy article in Daily Ajit of 28th October, 1986 exposing the alleged anti-Sikh designs of the Ahluwalia draft.

The main objection emanating from different Sikh organizations was that this draft was being carried through in bizarre haste at a time after the Operation Blue Star and the Government had not even bothered to consider any of the other important demands of the Sikhs but was too eager to give them the All India Gurdwara Act. According to Principal Labh Singh of the Guru Kanshi Institute published by the Institute of Sikh Studies in their book on Gurdwara Legislation the writers of the draft had made their designs clear that in consonance with the National policy there was need for secularisation of the Gurdwara Management and keep it detached from narrow fundamentalist approach. Even S. Natha Singh Dalam in his own article published in Punjabi Tribune of 2nd December, 1986 wrote, “The Central Board with the help of enlarged SGPC will endeavour to face the challenge of complex issues of separatism and communalism, acquired by the Sikhs and also to bring the role and importance of the Takhat within the purview of the law.” So the main emphasis of Ahulwalia draft was to clear the religious places from religion.

Large scale protests from different Sikh organizations were ignored, and the Ahluwalia committee went ahead in its program and got the proposals approved in a seminar held in Amritsar at Guru Nanak Dev University. But because of the fall of the Barnala Government, the Panth was saved from the secretly conceived and catastrophic All India Gurdwara Act in 1986.

But as the luck would have it CJ (Retd.) Harbans Singh ji picked up the same abandoned Ahluwalia draft, crossed it with his own 1979 draft, prepared the final draft of the All India Gurdwara Bill, 1999 and sent to the Union Government and of course with the courtesy of sending a copy of this to the SGPC,
Let us now examine what has been said and what actually has been done.

The Brief Notes on draft of the Sikh Gurdwara Bill, 1999 and objects and reasons of its clauses appended to the Gurdwara Bill, 1999 note very clearly that, “The definition of the “Sikh” should be the, same as in the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1971 and the right to vote at the election should be given only to “Sikhs” so defined; and the right to vote given to “Sehajdharis” for the first time in 1959, for the Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) Gurdwaras being brought under the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925, be omitted.”

No doubt, the draft bill proceeds to drop Sehajdharis from those as qualifying for voters, but in the process, for reasons that only Harbans Singh can explain, also modifies the definition of ‘Sikh’ in a queer way going back even on his words that the definition version of Delhi Gurdwara Act, 1971 was best. We reproduce below various definitions that we have come across. All versions are quoted verbatim from the original documents.

Existing Clause in Punjab Gurdwara Act, 1925:

2(9) Sikh -‘Sikh’ means a person who professes the Sikh religion or, in the case of a deceased person, who professed the Sikh religion or was known to be a Sikh during his lifetime.

If any question arises as to whether any living person is or is not a Sikh, he shall be deemed respectively to be or not to be a Sikh according as he makes or refuses to make in such manner as the (State) government may prescribe the following declaration:

I solemnly affirm that I am a Sikh, that I believe in the Guru Granth Sahib, that I believe in the ten Gurus, and that I HAVE NO OTHER RELIGION. (Emphasis added)
Existing clause in Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1971:

2(n) “Sikh” means a person who professes the Sikh religion, believes and follows the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the Ten Gurus ONLY and keeps unshorn hair. For the purpose of the Act, if any question arises as to whether any living person is or is not a Sikh he shall be deemed respectively to be or not to be a Sikh according as he makes or refuses to make in the manner prescribed by rules the following declaration: “I solemnly affirm that I am a Keshadhari Sikh, that I believe in and follow the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the ten Gurus ONLY and that I HAVE NO OTHER RELIGION.” (Emphasis added) Now, dear reader be kind to also read how the Draft Bill defines the Sikh as

2(9) : ‘Sikh’ means a person who professes the Sikh religion, believes in the teachings of the Ten Gurus and Sri Guru Granth Sahib and in the Khande-ka-Amrit bequeathed by the Tenth Guru and keeps unshorn hair and does not use tobacco in any form.

In this definition though it claims to have borrowed the Delhi definition but the shocking revelation is that it has deleted/omitted the following from the Delhi definition:

The words “only” and “follows” from “believes and follows the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the Ten Gurus ONLY” “I HAVE NO OTHER RELIGION.” from the declaration.

While the gaping holes in the definition are only too obvious, we list here the objections. Where is the need to change the 1971 Act definition, which, to quote Justice Harbans Singh himself, was the one version with complete consensus.
The 1925 Act definition said in the affirmation that “I have no other religion”. Similarly, the 1971 definition, also says that the person making declaration must state that he not just believed in teachings of Sikh Gurus but believed in them ONLY and must also state that “I HAVE NO OTHER RELIGION”. The proposed definition drops, without much ado, the words ONLY and the words that I HAVE NO OTHER RELIGION. What is more, he has the temerity to state on record that these were MINOR MODIFICATIONS (See brief note on proposed amendments appended by Justice Singh to the draft) as if there is no difference between believing in a particular thing and ONLY believing in that one thing and NO other: Why, for the love of God, did the Judge make ‘minor modifications’ at all beats every sane person.
Then a Kurahit about use of tobacco has been included in the definition of a Sikh. Why not other don’ts about alcohol, about cohabiting, about? Pray, why only tobacco?

Now, our point is that it would be virtually impossible to include every ‘DON’T’ in the definition. So why not return to the document that is Panth-approved, has never been a subject of debate and has served the purpose so well all these years – THE SIKH REHAT MARYAD. For the benefit of the readers, we quote the definition of SIKH from the REHAT MARYAD; (English version as per the translation published by none other than the SGPC)

THE DEFINITION OF SIKH


ANY HUMAN BEING WHO FAITHFULLY BELIEVES IN (I) ONE IMMORTAL BEING, (ii) TEN GURUS, FROM GURU NANAK DEV TO GURU GOBIND SINGH, (iii) THE GURU GRANTH SAHIB, (iv) THE UTETERANCES AND TEACHINGS OF THE TEN GURUS AND (v) THE BAPTISM BEQUATHED BY THE TENTH GURU, AND WHO DOES NOT OWE ALLEGIANCE TO ANY OTHER RELIGION, IS A SIKH.

We would like to be enlightened as to what is the problem with the SIKH REHAT MARYADA definition of Sikh? This makes the definition very loose and vague and will lead to more complications. Since the comments of the SGPC have been sought, the SGPC should only prescribe to the definition of Sikh given in the Sikh Rahat Maryada or the definition of Delhi Act without any modifications.
The Ardas of a Patit (apostate) and a tankhaia (alcoholic) is forbidden at the Akal Takhat in the Sikh Rehat Maryada, However, the Patit is cleared for contesting the election of the SGPC.

The condition for a voter, not to be taking alcohol, is also proposed to be deleted in the proposals. It is argued that for all practical purposes this is a superfluous clause. However,we are of the view that in case this become a part of the statute it may open the floodgates for a negative approach.

Any amendment to the said act is proposed to be done with consultation only of the
SGPC. This may also prove to be disastrous in case of a malicious intent. Therefore it has to be first approved by a 2/3rd majority of the general house of the SGPC (as provided in the Nehru-Tara Singh Pact.)

The Bill has many anomalies. To list a few:

The Akal Takhat Sahib is the symbol of the concept of Miri-Piri and it is not a Gurdwara but the Bill has declared it to be just another Gurdwara.

It is proposed in the Bill that the Jathedar of the Akal Takhat will have to take oath by appearing before the President of the Board or its nominee.

No new Gurdwara will be established without prior permission of the Registering Authority. Violation of this will make the person liable for imprisonment.

If a Gurdwara is not being used as a Gurdwara the same will not be recognised as a Gurdwara. Does this mean that the Gurdwaras of Pakistan for which the ardas is done are no more Gurdwaras?

It has to be proved that the Gurdwara has been established by the Sikhs. If the found/er of a Gurdwara is held to be not conforming to the definition of Sikh will that mean that with him the Gurdwara will also be declared as a non-Gurdwara. Will it not encourage the unscrupulous people to get them selves declared as non-Sikhs to take the gurdwaras out of the purview of the Act?

The concept of Gurmata, Sangat, Panj Piares , Guru Panth, Sikh Rahit Maryada do not find a place anywhere in the Act.

In a situation of failure on the part of the committee to pay revenue to the Central Board it will be recovered as land revenue.

The historic name SGPC has been removed and instead new name Kendri Gurdwara Prabandhak Board has been prescribed.

The rules for the management of the Gurdwaras will be made by the Government.
The basic Sikh principle is of Puja Akal Ki, Parcha Shabad Ka, Didar Khalsa Ka. But contrary to this the Act has declared the Gurdwaras as a place of worship of Guru Granth Saheb.

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