Posted by: Singh Is King | Thursday, September 13, 2007

All India Gurdwara Act and Justice Harbans Singh: A 25-year journey

Open Letter to Sikh religious, social and political leaders:

Respected Sikh leaders:

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!

Around thirty years ago, two frail, skinny but well-dressed leaders with pleasing personalities checked into the large nondescript guesthouse of the Khalsa College in Mumbai.  The two had come from Punjab and my mentor who was the professor of history in the college; Prof. Dalip Singh called me to meet them.  The two gentleman leaders were former Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court, Justice Harbans Singh and a former All India Sikh Students Federation president, Sardar Bhan Singh.  It was a memorable time I spent with them and at that meeting I first learnt the need and importance of the All India Gurdwara Act.

I had barely started taking interest in Sikh affairs and the manner in which Justice Harbans Singh was seeking opinion on various aspects of the All India Gurdwara Act from us and many others was a lesson for all activists.  Living in Mumbai, it was one of my first forays into the Sikh world and I learnt the importance of meticulousness during my interaction with these eminent Sikh personalities. Armed with a lengthy questionnaire, Justice Harbans Singh sought replies on a number of contentious issues and concerns.  His devout wife was also always there to interject a point or two during the course of the discussions.  He and his wife travelled the entire length and breath of the country where Sikhs reside and documented replies from Sikh leaders of respective regions and the opinion of important Gurdwara management committees regarding the fundamental need for the All India Gurdwara Act.

Today I see many of you writing about the All India Gurdwara Act in a rather cursory manner.  This pains me.  Most leaders, writers, columnists and legal luminaries are more concerned about making a point in the media, rubbishing the proposed law, alleging motives, rather than debating the need and significance of the Act. 

I wonder how many of you have read the provisions of the Act. I am keen to know how many of you are aware of the trials and tribulations that Justice Harbans Singh and his team underwent over a period of thirty long years. From 1996 till his death in 2004, while working on amendments to the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, the diplomatic manner in which Justice Harbans Singh resurrected the All India Gurdwara Act proposals, without prompting from any quarter whatsoever was a treat to watch. 

How many of the present leaders are aware of the role of the Akali leadership to trivialize the All India Gurdwara Act proposals from time to time? Like established governments -the SGPC and Akali leadership, while upholding the proposal of establishing an All India Gurdwara Act on paper, made all efforts and used subterfuge and misplaced logic to perpetuate their own fiefdom.  Today, only one thing is certain and that is that the Badal government is again not handling the issue with the seriousness it deserves.  All centenary celebrations in the last decade have been handled in a kid-glove manner.  Similar treatment is being meted out to this serious issue and it is quiet unlikely that the 300 years of Guruship of Guru Granth Sahib will be celebrated with the dignity and decorum it deserves. 

What is the opinion of Sikhs beyond the frontiers of Punjab? In the present times, no one has attempted to elicit their viewpoint, as was done by Justice Harbans Singh.  In fact, the Punjab leadership perceives the participation of non-Punjabi Sikhs as a threat to Akali domination of Sikh Gurdwara affairs.  For many Sikh leaders and commentators in Punjab, the viewpoint of the Sikhs living elsewhere does not seem to matter. Representative Sikh leaders of Sikhs living all over India need to crystallize their thoughts and force the established SGPC leadership to involve them in the decision-making process not only regarding the All India Gurdwara Act but on every substantive issue that affects the personal and social life of the Sikhs.

Sikhs living in the Diaspora need to evolve a mechanism for full participation in SGPC affairs.  How this can be done is the moot point.  Anyone suggesting that the All India Gurdwara Act is petty in nature merely because it deals with the Sikhs residing in India betrays the significance of the proposals of the Act.

I vividly recall that in the late nineties of the last century, when this bill was being drawn, a large cross section of Sikh thinkers, law experts and leaders had chosen silence as the best way out, perhaps waiting for an opportunity to resort to rhetoric and more rhetoric. The ageing Justice Harbans Singh was visibly upset over no responses from the SGPC and the learned members of the community and certainly not at the criticism of his proposals.

Law making is a long, tedious and path-breaking process.  It is more so for the Sikhs as it is a 543-member Indian parliament, comprising of no more than 10-15 Sikh members at any given point of time, who have to decide upon the proposed legislation.  Despite all difficulties and hurdles, if someone has managed to present the legislation and there seems to be a remote possibility that it will become law, then it is the dire need of the hour that we resolve all the concerns and contradictions in the draft bill and not debunk it without rhyme or reason.

Those who think that it will amount to gross interference in Sikh affairs need to know that this can happen only if the Sikh leaders allow it.  Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.  Had the Sikh leaders in the past not chosen to collude with the Indian government to postpone elections to the SGPC general house, it would not have been possible for elections to be postponed for 17 years from 1979 to 1996.  The elections to the Gurdwara Committees under the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925 were held in 1996 after a gap of 32 years! Sikh leaders were colluding with the state to perpetuate their hold and Sikh thinkers and masses were totally blissfully unaware of the developments. Who is to blame?

After a gap of 17 years when elections were to be held to the General house of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, in 1996, Simranjit Singh Mann wrote to the then Prime Minister of the country, Mr. Narsimha Rao, expressing among other things, the need to stop the Sehajdhari Sikhs from having voting rights during elections to SGPC.  It is to the credit of Justice Harbans Singh that for the first time in the history of SGPC functioning, he created two forms for voters –Kesadhari Sikhs and Sehajdhari Sikhs. Though the Sikh leadership was unable to convince the Ministry of Home Affairs to debar Sehajdhari Sikhs from having voting rights in that election, subsequently in the next election, better sense prevailed.  This rendered infructuous my petition on the subject filed with SGPC member Baldev Singh Sehajra in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Had Justice Harbans Singh not segregated the voter forms, it would not have been possible to present the case before the government that there were a little less than 1 million non-Sikhs who wanted to cast their franchise in the SGPC elections!

As I mentioned earlier, meticulousness and eye for detail came very easily to Justice Harbans Singh because of his judicial background and being a practising and disciplined Sikh.  I look for such traits in everyone who is seriously concerned about the All India Gurdwara Act and wants to comment on its provisions.

The Sikhs in Punjab have a Sikh Gurdwara Act.  Not many of you maybe aware that apart from the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Act, there exist legal provisions for management of Gurdwaras in Jammu and Kashmir, Nanded and Patna Sahib.  None of these Acts are foolproof and all of them contain discrepancies, contractions and enabling provisions for state intervention.  Similarly, how many of our leaders are aware that there are various Acts to govern Hindu shrines in various states of India?

Codification of any religious practice should be welcomed but it should be borne in mind that some amount of state intervention may accompany such a law. So long as the provisions give legitimacy and do not enable the state agencies to interfere with the functioning and management of religious shrines, it should be acceptable.  In the formulation of any new set of rules and regulations and conventions, the danger of creating a new class of religious bureaucrats and a priestly class of theocrats is inherent.  What checks and balances should be built into such religious law is to my mind, one of the biggest challenges for Sikh religious leaders and lawmakers.  To those who exaggerate the scope for state intervention, bear in mind that the even after the formation of a Sikh state at some time in the future, the unique place of Akal Takht will always be paramount and no law even then will be able to restrict or manipulate the authority and dignity of this institution.

India has a plethora of laws to deal with all kinds of problems. What it does not have is the political will to implement these laws. In such a scenario, will another law be of any help? It is easy to ask for a Sikh personal law.  It is a Herculean task to resolve the prime question of equal rights to men and women, equal property rights, preparing divorce laws where none exist in the Sikh religion.

All Sikh leaders and activists of all hues and shades across the spectrum need to urge the SGPC to convene a series of meetings to deliberate the draft All India Gurdwara Act bill. Even before the provisions are debated point by point, we need to evolve some basic postulates and seek answers to fundamental questions:

1.                  Do the Sikhs need an All India Gurdwara Act?

2.                  Do the Sikhs living in various parts of India need the Act?

3.                  How many copies of the Draft bill have been circulated amongst Sikhs living all over the country? After Justice Harbans Singh, has anybody even endeavoured to seek their opinion?

4.                  While we cannot absolve the government of India for its malafide attitude, but is it not true that the real culprit is the present leadership of SGPC which wants to ride roughshod of all democratic norms and procedures?

5.                  Are we ready for a lame duck Gurdwara Act in the same manner that we accepted an incomplete and inconsistent Nanakshahi calendar?

I have strong and stable opinion on these issues and a say on the provisions of the draft bill.  I have consciously avoided presenting them in this letter.  I will wait to see if my present note can spur some rethinking and discussion on the issue.

Justice Harbans Singh was a hardcore democrat and he exhausted all means available to him to solicit the opinion and response of the SGPC to his draft proposal before sending a copy of the same to the Ministry of Home Affairs.  The disgusting manner in which the then SGPC president, Jagir Kaur treated him and ignored the Gurdwara Election Commission should be a study in itself. The shabby manner, in which he was replaced as the Chief Commissioner Gurdwara Elections, is another classic example of how the Akali Dal party treats Sikh scholars as soon as it is felt that “he was not falling in line”. Not that he ever did so. 

In 2004, Justice Harbans Singh died unsung at the ripe age of 90 years and hardly any Sikh leader of repute paid tributes to him, which is a sad reminder of how as a nation we do not recognize the work and talent of such stalwarts. 

I have no hesitation in saying that the soul of Justice Harbans Singh will be happier to see the All India Gurdwara bill become law, irrespective of changes that the present Sikh leadership may deem fit. Guru Rakha.

Sincerely

Jagmohan Singh

(Jagmohan Singh is a social, religious, health and political activist. He may be contacted at <!– var prefix = ‘ma’ + ‘il’ + ‘to’; var path = ‘hr’ + ‘ef’ + ‘=’; var addy96881 = ‘jsbigideas’ + ‘@’; addy96881 = addy96881 + ‘gmail’ + ‘.’ + ‘com’; document.write( ‘‘ ); document.write( addy96881 ); document.write( ” ); //–>\n jsbigideas@gmail.com <!– document.write( ‘‘ ); //–> This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it <!– document.write( ” ); //–> )


Responses

  1. Dear Sardar Sahib,
    Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.

    It was a pleasant surprise to read your 13.9.2007 write up on the contribution of my father Late Justice Harbans Singh at drafting the All India Gurdwaras Bill.

    Unfortunately, after his death on 10.10.2004, I was not able to find the draft of the Bill, some articles which he wrote outlining the broad features of the proposed Bill, the reactions of the SGPC, efforts of scholars like Dr. Malkiat Singh Rahi and the torpedo efforts of some self styled leaders.

    You have apparently gone through a lot of the concerned material & maybe in possession of the same.I shall be highly thankful to you if I could lay my hands on these documents.

    Awaiting your response

    Yours Sincerely,

    Lakhinder Bir Singh
    Advocate
    58, Sector 4 Chandigarh
    Mob: #981500-9976
    E Mail: laki2k5@yahoo.co.in

  2. criticism is something we are able to avoid easily by, saying nothing, performing nothing and becoming nothing……….


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