Punjab cries foul as Haryana Sikhs prepare to leave SGPC

Last Updated 25 July 2014, 17:31 IST

An inescapable upshot of a separate Gurdwara panel to manage Sikh shrines in Haryana has been its widespread politicisation.

 Both Punjab and Haryana refuse to retreat. Simply put, the issue at the heart of the matter is about the control of Sikh shrines in Haryana that have remained under the rule of the cash-rich Amritsar-based Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) for decades. Round one has been to Haryana’s clear advantage, which has now enacted a law for a separate panel to manage Sikh shrines in Haryana, independent of the all-powerful SGPC.  

Punjab’s ruling establishment, the Akali Dal, enjoys near complete hegemony in Gurdwara affairs, much to its advantage, politically. The party has threatened it wouldn’t mind taking to the streets on the issue, beginning with a mega Sikh congregation on July 27 to draw out its plan of ‘agitation’. But the matter in its current form has not only assumed more complex proportions, it also points to a deeper simmering annoyance among Sikhs in Haryana and a need for greater democratisation of the affairs of the SGPC.

In fact, the demand for a separate Gurdwara panel to run Sikh shrines in Haryana has been there since 2005. It has been a manifesto promise of the Congress-run Bhupinder Singh Hooda government, now at its fag end of second term in office. Haryana goes to Assembly poll in the next few months. Hooda faces a definitive disadvantage, at least going by the outcome of the Lok Sabha polls where the party faced a near rout.

Many question the timing of the move, but the state legislative Assembly passed the bill on July 11 that paved the way for a separate Haryana SGPC. The governor, who relinquishes his charge on July 26 this year, was quick to accorded consent to the new law. Hooda says he’s fulfilled the aspirations of the Sikhs in Haryana who had been feeling alienated by the SGPC.

In question are 72 Sikh shrines in Haryana, including eight of historical significance, which are to be taken over by the ad-hoc HSGPC. Control over the management of assets and, more significantly, the cash offerings at these shrines has a lot to do with what has unfolded over the past few weeks. The SGPC, which has an annual budget of nearly Rs 950 crore passed within less than 5-minutes each year, says the cash offerings generated from shrines in Haryana is about Rs 30 crore. The claim made by the Haryana ad-hoc committee far exceeds the figure. Then there are allegations that the SGPC is essentially Punjab-centric, toes the line of Punjab politicians and discriminates against Haryana Sikhs when it comes to jobs in shrines and institutions run by it.  

The SGPC currently manages the historic Sikh shrines only in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh. Delhi has a separate Gurdwara management panel since 1971, just like the ones in Jammu and Kashmir. Historic Sikh shrines in other parts of the country, including Patna Sahib in Bihar and Hazur Sahib at Nanded in Maharashtra, have their own managements independent of the SGPC.

Political setback

The Akali Dal, perhaps, senses a setback in its political dominance if it allows Haryana to have its way. It accuses the Congress of orchestrating this plan to divide the Sikhs. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal minces no words calling the move “unconstitutional” and terming it as another big assault on the Sikh community by the Congress after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in the national capital.

 The urgency for greater transparency and decentralization of powers of the SGPC was long felt, but never took shape. Just when the SGPC realised this, it was too late, even as it offered to set up sub-committees in a bid to mellow down those pitted against the SGPC in Haryana. That, no more seems a possibility. The current impasse has also arguably raked up matters of constitutional impropriety, besides issues of infringement on the federal structure to which the SAD has been always claimed a victim. Leaders of the SAD -- a strong ally of the NDA government at the Centre- have met all from PM Narendra Modi to home minister Rajnath Singh to undo what Haryana has done.

The Centre’s support for Punjab came through a letter from Union home secretary. It invited strong criticism from Haryana ministers who sought its withdrawal saying it ‘violates principals of federalism’, the Centre yet again sent a letter this week saying it has a right to give directions to a state government on the issue of legislations, citing Article 256, wherein the Centre has executive power to give such directions to a state. Noted Supreme Court lawyer HS Phoolka said the contention should be addressed by the court, and not on the streets.  

The matter has certain overpowering legal issues. The concurrence of the central government and the assent of the President will be required for the state legislation to override the central legislation -- the Sikh Gurdwara Act 1925. This act enables the SGPC to control Sikh shrines.

The SGPC came into existence by an act of parliament, and so it is parliament alone which is authorized to take any decision on this matter, SAD leaders argue. But Haryana counters it saying that the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925 is a provincial Act passed by the Punjab Assembly.

 The Punjab legislature, it says, has amended the Sikh Gurdwara Act more than 30 times. Section 72 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966 provides for a separate Gurdwara body. But Article 254 of the Constitution lays down that law made by Parliament will prevail if any provision of the law made by state legislature is repugnant to any provision of the law made by Parliament.

 Experts point out the need for an All India Gurdwara Act to address all such issues. They say Sikh shrines anywhere in the country, other than those managed by the SGPC or other such panels, are in fact even today governed under the Hindu Religious and Charitable (Endowment) Institution Act

(Published 25 July 2014, 17:31 IST)

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