While the finance minister was presenting budget proposals in the Punjab Assembly on July 16, Chief Minister Parkash Badal was conspicuous by his absence in the House. He was not unwell. He was in the national capital, meeting the union home minister Rajnath Singh and finance minister Arun jaitley, pleading for central intervention to stop Haryana from constituting a state-level Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC).
Badal reportedly threatened to resign if his demand was not met.
The Haryana government has since hardened its stance by appointing 41 members to the ad hoc state-level SGPC and disregarded the central government’s directive to the state government asking Governor Jagganath Pahadia to withdraw his assent to the controversial Bill.
The central government, sources said, is planning to issue the Haryana government a directive under Article 256 of the Constitution and following it up with a threat of using Article 365 of the constitution in case Haryana refuses to budge.
In a bid to pre-empt a possible takeover of Gurudwaras in Haryana, the Amritsar-based SGPC has amassed 50-100 cohorts at Gurudwaras which were, until recently, under its control.
Haryana, carved out of Punjab in 1966, has longstanding disputes with Punjab over land, water and Chandigarh as the joint capital of the two states. And now the prospect of the NDA government stepping in to intervene over their control of Gurudwaras has lent an extra edge to the impending Assembly elections in Haryana.
The SGPC, the highest body of the Sikhs, has an annual budget of Rs 905 crore and controls the affairs of Gurudwaras as well as educational institutions, orphanages and hospitals run by it. The contribution of the 72 Gurudwaras in Haryana reportedly is a paltry Rs 30 crore a year. But clearly it is much more than the money as the SGPC moved in to excommunicate three Sikh leaders from Haryana for their role in according legitimacy to the Haryana Assembly taking the decisive step of enacting the law and securing the assent of the Governor at extraordinary speed.
Randeep Surjewala, a Haryana minister and Congress spokesperson rubbishes claims that the move is politically motivated and a pre-poll gimmick. He points out that the Punjab Reorganisation Act of 1966 has provision for a separate body for the management of Gurdwaras in Haryana.
However, the Akalis are not ready to buy the argument. “The Congress has always tried to divide the Sikhs,” alleges M.S. Garewal, general secretary of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). He says the Akalis are opposed to the law because it would divide the Sikhs and that the state government is not authorised to pass the Bill. “Only the country’s Parliament can pass such a law,” he maintains.
He points out that former prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru had an unwritten understanding with the Sikhs since 1955 that the Gurudwara Act would be amended only after the SGPC would approve of it by a two-third majority. Interestingly, the Delhi SGPC was also brought into being by the central government.
The SGPC has also reacted violently, excommunicating three prominent Sikh leaders from Haryana. “No Sikh will have any dealing with them,” ordered the apex body of the Sikhs.
“Politics would be a motivating factor. It is a popular demand of the Sikhs in Haryana,” says Manpreet Badal, president of Punjab People’s Party and the estranged nephew of the Punjab Chief Minister.
But there are those who are questioning the timing of the move. “If the Congress is concerned about the demands of the Sikhs, they should have acted several years back,” says Tarlochan Singh, former chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities.
Badals are accused of controlling the SGPC as a personal fiefdom. “The Akalis and the SGPC have mismanaged the situation,” complains Manpreet Badal. The situation now, he claims, is in stark contrast from the one in 1930s when the SGPC would fund children good in studies to study abroad. The SGPC would not use the money collected from Haryana gurdwaras for their upkeep leading to resentment among Sikhs in the state, he alleges.
Echoing similar views, Surjewala alleges that the Siromani Akali Dal (Badal) and the Indian National Lok Dal of the Chautalas view Sikhs as a political constituency and the religious institutions as areas to disseminate their political agenda. He accuses the Akalis of misusing the proceeds obtained from Gurdwaras in the state, while not utilising them for the welfare of religious institutions.
The new law has had a ripple effect in other states, including Rajasthan, where a clamour among the Sikhs for a separate religious body is growing by the day. “It is a major drawback in the states and the country as a whole in not having provisions for state SGPCs,” says Didar Singh Nalvi, president of the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee.
“The issue will not divide the Sikhs. It is actually not a religious issue, but one involving money and property,” says Gulzar Singh Sandhu, prominent Punjabi writer. Several Sikhs seem to agree.
Ordinary Sikhs are not losing their sleep over it, claims a businessman from Amritsar, adding, “ but Badals certainly are”.