This legal hair-splitting may strip Sikhs in Punjab and elsewhere of their religious identity. On January 16, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which runs all Sikh religious institutions in Punjab and is commonly referred to as the Sikh parliament, filed an affidavit in the Punjab and Haryana High Court defining who is a Sikh. Going by this definition, all those with shorn or even partially trimmed hair are 'patit' or apostate, even if they practise the faith in all other ways. Given that a lot of Sikhs today trim their hair, and many have done away with the turban too, the SGPC's definition would render more than 70 per cent of Sikhs apostates.
It all began quite innocuously, when some students from Amritsar filed a petition before the Punjab and Haryana High Court for being denied admission under the 'Sikh quota' in an SGPC-run educational institution on grounds that they did not qualify as 'Sikhs' because they had trimmed their hair. The students contended that they were 'Sehajdhari Sikhs', a term loosely used for Sikhs with shorn hair. At this, the high court asked the SGPC to define a 'Sehajdhari Sikh' exactly and the importance of hair in Sikhism. Its response triggered a furious debate within the community on a subject that is vital to their identity.