In blow for Badals and SGPC, panthic churn rages after SC order on Haryana Sikh body

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The beleagured Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) has suffered another setback as the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Haryana Sikh Gurdwaras (Management) Act, 2014 on Tuesday, thereby legitimising the formation of the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (HSGMC) for handling the Sikh shrines in the state, which were until now managed by the SAD(B)-controlled Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the Sikh community’s apex elected religious body.

Formed in November 1920, the SGPC has been managing the Sikh shrines in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh since Independence. Conceived as a political-institutional wing of the SGPC, the Akali Dal has been traditionally aligned with the body, with many of its members always contesting and winning the SGPC elections. The trend goes back to 1960 when the Akalis won 136 of the 140 seats in the SGPC polls. Even today, there is a smooth fluidity between the two, with the SGPC members often fighting Assembly or even parliamentary elections on the SAD(B) ticket. A recent example is that of Bibi Jagir Kaur, the SGPC’s first woman chief, who has also been a veteran Akali legislator.

Delivered after eight years, the apex court’s judgment comes at a time when the SAD(B) has been tottering on the brink. The party could win just three out of 117 seats in the February Punjab Assembly elections, its worst-ever tally, and came last in the subsequent Sangrur parliamentary bypoll, which was clinched by its arch panthic rival, SS Mann, chief of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar).

The apex court’s verdict also paves the way for the SGPC elections, which were last held in 2011. The SGPC has a general house of 190 members, of whom 175 are elected while 15, including five Jathedars of the Takhts, are nominated. The SAD(B) had swept the 2011 SGPC elections, with its 182 elected or nominated members affiliated to the party.

Even though SGPC president Harjinder Singh Dhami has said they will file a review petition in the top court, HSGMC chief Baljit Singh Daduwal, a hardliner preacher who quit as the parallel Jathedar of Takht Damdama Sahib for this position, is already seeking the handover of Haryana gurdwaras, which reportedly generate a revenue of Rs 150 crore in donations a year for the SGPC.

Sikhs make up nearly 5 per cent of Haryana’s 2.5 crore population, who are concentrated in districts adjoining Punjab. Eyeing on their votes, the SAD(B) had fielded its candidates in a number of constituencies in the 2019 Haryana Assembly polls.

Its latest setback may lead to further shrinking of the SAD(B)’s panthic space, which is already being claimed by SS Mann in Punjab. The SAD(B)’s attempts to “co-opt” the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) came a cropper last year when the latter’s president Manjinder Singh Sirsa quit the party to switch to the BJP.

Even as the SGPC continued its Delhi push by running free buses from the national capital to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the DSGMC has also entered their turf, opening an office in Amritsar this July ostensibly to spread the message of the Gurus and bring back into the Sikhism fold those who have converted to Christianity. The DSGMC has been blaming

a “weak and ineffective” SGPC for conversions, a charge that prompted the officiating Akal Takht Jathedar, Giani Harpreet Singh, to express his concern and dismay even though it was not a recent phenomenon.

The SGPC had challenged the constitutional validity of the Haryana Sikh Gurdwaras (Management) Act, 2014, which has been dismissed by the apex court. This law was passed by the then Bhupinder Singh Hooda-led Congress government in July 2014 ahead of the Haryana Assembly polls.

Both the SAD(B) and the SGPC openly blame the BJP for allegedly weakening their hold on the Sikh shrines. Dhami alleged on Tuesday that “Former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda is a part of the Congress class that massacred Sikhs, but it is sad that the incumbent BJP government also followed in his footsteps and became partners in breaking the foremost representative institution of Sikhs. The politics of breaking up SGPC and dividing Sikh power is not right and the governments should not interfere in Sikh issues.”

Following the apex court’s verdict, senior Akali leader Balwinder Singh Bhunder said on Wednesday, “The sewa (service) of our gurdwaras is being denied to us for the second time since the partition of the country in 1947 when a sizable number of gurdwaras were left behind in Pakistan…we will fight this tooth and mail through democratic struggle.”

The SAD (B) president, Sukhbir Singh Badal, has also been slamming the BJP for its “meddling” in the Sikh affairs. At the Baisakhi conference in Talwandi Sabo this year, he had said, “The Centre has taken control of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee by various covert means. Now their target is SGPC, which was formed by our forefathers 100 years ago after giving many sacrifices… This is your own house, it is a community’s heritage. We will not let them overpower us.”

With decks cleared for the SGPC polls after more than a decade, there is bound to be a flurry of activity on this front too.

Buoyed by his triumph in Sangrur – which is CM and AAP leader Bhagwant Mann’s home turf – SAD (A) chief Mann has already declared his party’s intention of contesting the SGPC polls. Some other veteran leaders like Rajya Sabha MP SS Dhindsa, president of the SAD (Sanyukt), have also called for “freeing the SGPC from the clutches of Badals”.

With the Akali Dal losing power, smaller outfits such as the Panthic Akali Lehar (PAL), Panthic Talmel Sangathan (PTS) led by ex-Jathedar of Takht Damdama Sahib Giani Kewal Singh, Sikh Sadbhavana Dal (SSD) led by Bhai Baldev Singh Wadala, and Sehajdhari Sikh Party (SSP) helmed by Paramjit Singh Ranu also sense an opportunity in the coming SGPC elections.