|This paper was presented in International Sikh Conferences 2004
SRI GURU GRANTH SAHIB AND SIKH GURDWARAS ACT 1925
The Supreme Court of India, while deciding cases under the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, frequently referred to Sri Guru Granth Sahib and correctly appreciated its role, status and significance. Observations of the Court in this regard are noteworthy. Some of those are reproduced hereunder.
“One of the most fascinating aspects of Sikhism is the process which began with human Gurus, continued during the period of duality in which there were human Gurus and a collection of sacred writings and ended with the present situation in which the full authority is enjoined with the scripture. In every respect the scripture is what the Gurus were.
Both the Gurus and the Book deserve respect, which they are accorded because of the Bani, which they express, the word of divine truth. Therefore, it was possible for Guru Arjan, the fifth in the human line, to bow before the collection which he has complied and installed in the newly built Darbar Sahib in 1604 for he was acknowledged as the higher authority of the Bani due to the personal importance and significance which he possessed as Guru.
The Sikh Gurus were ten in number each remaining faithful to the teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Guru and when their line was ended by a conscious decision of Guru Gobind Singh, the last Guru, succession was invested in collection of teachings which was given the title of Guru Granth Sahib. This is now the Guru of Sikhs.
An important characteristic of the teachings of Sikh Gurus is their emphasis upon the message, the Bani. It is this stress which made possible the transfer of Guruship to the Scripture. The Holiest book of the Sikhs is Guru Granth Sahib compiled by the fifth master, Guru Arjan. It is the bible of Sikhs. After giving their Sikhs a central place of worship, Hari Mandir he wanted to give them a holy book. So he collected the hymns of first four Gurus and to these he added his own. Now this Guru Granth Sahib is a living Guru of the Sikhs. Guru means the guide. Guru Granth Sahib gives the light and shows the path to the suffering humanity. Whenever a believer of Sikhism is in trouble or is depressed, he reads the hymns from the Granth.”1
Guru Gobind Singh expressed in no uncertain terms during his last days that there would not be any living Guru after him. He told his disciples that after him Guru Granth Sahib would be their Guru from which they will seek guidance and answer to every problem. Whenever the Sikhs need guidance or counsel, they are ordained to assemble before the Granth in all sincerity and decide their future line of action in the light of the teachings of the Master, as embodied in the Granth. The following couplet of Tenth Guru’s couplet is daily recited in Gurdwaras:
The Eternal father willed, and I raised the Panth. All my Sikhs are ordained to believe the Granth as their preceptor. Have faith in the Holy Granth as your master and consider it the visible manifestation of the Gurus. He who hath a pure heart will seek guidance from its holy words.
In Dharam Das v. Sate of Punjab2, while discussing the tenants of Sikhism, the Supreme Court observed that the Sikhs believe in Guru Granth Sahib which is a Rosary of sacred poems, exhortations, etc.
In another case before the Supreme Court, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee v. S.N.Dass3, Justice A.P. Misra observed :
In the Sikh religion, Guru is revered as the highest reverential person. The first of such most revered Gurus was Guru Nanak Dev, followed by succeeding gurus, the tenth being the last living, viz., Guru Gobind Singh Ji. Guru Granth Sahib was compiled by fifth Guru Arjan and it is that book which is worshipped in all the Gurdwaras, while it is being read, people go down their knees to make their reverential obeisance and place their offerings of cash or kind on it, as it is treated and equated to a living Guru. It is with this faith and conviction, when it is installed in any Gurdwara it becomes a sacred place of worship. Sacredness of Gurdwara is only because of placement of Guru Granth Sahib in it.
The very first verse of the Guru Granth Sahib reveals the infinite wisdom and wealth that it contains, as to its legitimacy for being revered as guru. It states:
“The creator of all is one, the only one. Truth is his name. He is a doer of everything. He is without fear and without enmity. His form is immortal. He is unborn and self-illumined. He is realized by Guru’s grace.”
Guru Granth Sahib is a matchless treasure of wisdom, knowledge and experience. It has 1430 pages of large size. The Sikhs worship only the Formless God, which is imbibed in the shabad contained in Guru Granth Sahib. The fifth Guru compiled it in between the years 1599 and 1604. It is in Gurmukhi script and contains several spoken languages from different parts of India along with Persian. It contains the teachings of six Sikh Gurus and of thirty other bhagats belonging to different regions, religions and castes, who lived in between 1175 and 1675. Macauliffe said that the Granth Sahib is to the Sikhs, “the embodiment of their Gurus, who are regarded as only one person, the light of the first Guru’s soul having been transmitted to each of his successors in turn.”4 Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the second President of the Indian Union, described Guru Granth Sahib as “the living voice of all prophets and preceptors.”5
The revered Scripture has got the status of a living guru for the Sikhs. The Sikhs are the followers/worshippers of the Holy Word (Bani) that is embodied in the Guru Granth Sahib. The Holy Word is about the Eternal Truth or God. The Indian Supreme Court has correctly observed, “No doubt the Sikh Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, is a sacred book but it cannot be equated with the sacred books of other religions as the reverence of Guru Granth Sahib is based on different conceptual faith, belief and application in comparison to other sacred books. It is the living and eternal Guru of the Sikhs.”6
Gurdwara is a hallowed institution of the Sikhs where Guru Granth Sahib is majestically installed and displayed. Gurdwara is thus the seating place of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. It is an integral part of the Sikh faith. In fact around the Holy Granth and the Gurdwaras revolves the religious and social life of the community.
The Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925
The historical background leading to the enactment of this Act is of great importance and is thus briefly mentioned. The Courts in India7 have discussed the history of the Gurdwara management in great detail while deciding cases under the Act. Their account is mostly an adaptation of some portions of Ruchi Ram Sahni’s book Struggle for Reform in the Sikh Shrines. We follow the Punjab and Haryana High Court8 by directly quoting from Sahni’s work as follows:
During the time of the Sikh Gurus, the Gurdwaras were either under their direct supervision and control or under their Masands (missionary agents). After the tenth Guru, when the Panth (community) was recognized as the corporate representative of the Guru on earth, the conduct of the Gurdwaras naturally passed into the hands of the Panth and was exercised through Granthis and other Sewadars (incumbents) who were under the direct supervision of the Local Sangats (congregations).
In Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time Sikhism become the state religion. Large estates were attached to the more important Gurdwaras though some Jagirs had also been granted by the more liberal among the Mughal Emperors. Throughout the pre-British times the Sangats (congregations) were supposed to be in charge of the Gurdwaras. They exercised the right to punish any one who happened to transgress the social and religious injunctions of the faith.
After the establishment of the British rule (1849), a radical change came about in the legal position of the Mahants in respect of the Gurdwaras. The new law in its practical working converted the Mahants, who were mere servants of the Panth, into virtual proprietors of the temples. Being no longer responsible to the community, the Mahants began to misappropriate the income of the Gurdwaras to the private use and alienate and sell the trust property at will. Irresponsibility and wealth inevitably resulted in immortality and the places of worship became the haunts of evil men. In these circumstances the first thought of the Sikhs was to recover control of their Gurdwaras through law courts, but it was not very long before they came to realize the difficulties of the new situation in which they found themselves. To the dilatory procedure of the courts and heavy expenses involved in litigation was added, as they now realized, the unsympathetic attitude of the Government. The officials were reluctant, they came to believe, to see the Gurdwaras passed to the hands of the Panth because nothing was likely to consolidate them so much and make them into a compact and powerful body as the control and supervision of their holy places.
The sacred places of pilgrimage and Gurdwaras with an income of lacs of rupees were in the possession of Mahants, who by the operation of section 92, Code of Civil Procedure, had become indifferent to public opinion and entirely dependent upon the wishes of the Government Most of them slandered their huge resources in unworthy objects and not a few of them lost their characters. It is true that these vices are common to places of worship of all denominations. But the Sikhs feel the humiliation more keenly then the other communities do. They find it very difficult to put up with the pollution of their shrines taking place everyday under their very eyes.
The Mahants who were in charge of the Sikh Gurdwaras could either be Sikh Mahants or Udasi Mahants. The Sikhs began to assert their rights for the recovery of their holy shrines. A gathering of Sikhs at Amritsar in November 1920 constituted a committee representing all shades of opinion with the name of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. The Government refused to recognize its representative character. In 1921 the SGPC got itself registered under the Societies Registration Act. After several attempts were made to arrive at a settlement and after trying many draft bills the government of the time brought forward a measure which provided a Central body called the Central Board, for the management of the historical Gurdwaras. The Sikh Gurdwaras and Shrines Act was passed in 1922 but the Sikhs refused to accept it and it remained a dead letter. By then the SGPC had taken the control of many of the Gurdwaras from the Mahants who were either religious minded or more prudent realizing that their personal interest or of the shrines in their charge lay in their seeking the protection of the Committee that has formed specially for the purpose of managing and maintaining the Gurdwaras on lines consistent with the teachings of Gurus and the wishes of the community. They had voluntarily placed the Gurdwaras under the control of SGPC, some other Mahants, on the other hand, believed that their interest could be better served by continuing to manage the Gurdwaras on the lines on which they had hitherto been doing, namely, with the support and guidance of the local officials. On October 18, 1923, the SGPC was declared an unlawful assembly and criminal cases for sedition etc. were registered against its members.
The important milestones in the Gurdwara Reform Movement are- Nankana Tragedy of February 20, 1921 wherein 168 Sikhs were brutally butchered or burnt alive, delivery of snatched keys of the treasury of Golden Temple by the Government representative to the President of SGPC at Akal Takht on January 19, 1922 as per terms of the Sikhs, recovery of Gurdwara Guru-ka-bagh (District Amritsar) after a non- violent heroic struggle (August to November 1922) with 5605 arrests and serious injuries to about 1700 Sikhs, Jaito Morcha (August 1923- August 1925) where about 250 Sikhs were shot dead under Government orders and ten thousands of them were arrested when they went to perform religious ceremony of Akhand Path at historic Gurrdwara of Jaito in connection with the protest against deposition of Maharaja of Nabha for helping Sikhs and national movement. According to S. Narain Singh MLC, “After the trgedy at Nankana Sahib, about 30,000 Sikhs have been sent to jail, more than 2,000 have been sentenced under Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 431 have been martyred, about 54 editors of various newspapers punished and (15) lakhs of rupees realized as fine.”9 Thus the unwilling and mighty British (Punjab) Government was compelled to hand over the Gurdwaras to their rightful owners through legislation. After all these sacrifices, the Government was compelled to introduce the Sikh Gurdwaras and Shrines Bill in the Punjab Legislative Council.
In order to provide for the control and management of these gurdwaras which were claimed by the Sikhs to be the Sikh Gurdwaras, a bill which later became an Act in 1925, the aims and objects of which were, inter alia, stated as follows-
The present Sikh Gurdwaras and Shrines Bill is an effort to provide a legal procedure by which such Gurdwaras and shrines as are, owing to their origin and habitual use, regarded by Sikhs as essentially places of Sikh worship, may be brought effectively and permanently under Sikh control and their administration reformed so as to make it consistent with the religious views of that community.
The present bill provides a scheme of purely Sikh management, secured by statutory and legal sanction, for places of worship which are decided either by legislature or by an independent tribunal set up for the purpose, or by an ordinary court of law, to be in reality places of Sikh worship which should be managed by Sikhs……………
6. Once a Gurdwara or a shrine has been placed for management under Part III the jurisdiction of the courts in respect of matters relating to it will be curtailed in several directions so as to give the Central Board and Committees of management, set up under the provisions of that part, a satisfactory provision of independent control. A temporary bar against procedure in ordinary Courts is also provided pending adjudication by the tribunal of matter over which it is given jurisdiction.
7. The scheme of management provided under Part III contemplates the constitution of a Central (Sikh) Board of Control consisting principally elected members, and the formation of committees of management, describes their functions, invests them with special powers, lays down certain principles by which they are to be bound and provides for financial responsibility and audit. It also provides for the appointment of a judicial commission, consisting of three Sikhs, by which certain disputes relating to the administration of places of worship declared or held by the tribunal to be Sikh Gurdwaras or shrines are to be settled.”10
Sri Guru Granth Sahib is mentioned six times in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act. Firstly, the interpretation clause, Section 2 of the Act, while defining ‘Sikh’ says that a person shall be deemed to be a Sikh on the making of the declaration that he is a Sikh, believes in the Guru Granth Sahib and in the Ten Gurus, and has no other religion
Next, in Section 45 and 46, which prescribe qualifications of elected and co-opted members respectively, one of the qualifications in both the cases is that a person, to be eligible for the respective membership, should be able to read and write Gurmukhi. Then explanation attached to the respective clauses provides that a person shall be deemed to be able to read Gurmukhi if he is able to recite Shri Guru Granth Sahib in Gurmukhi. Similarly Sections 90 and 91 provide for a similar qualification for elected and nominated members of the Committee(s) of Management or Local Committee(s) of the Gurdwaras and similarly require the capability of reading Shri Guru Granth Sahib in Gurmukhi.
Then Section 134 of the Act, containing grounds for the dismissal of hereditary office-holders and ministers, provide inter alia that they can be dismissed if they fail persistently to perform their duties in connection with the management or performance of public worship or the management or performance of any rituals and ceremonies in accordance with the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
Further in Schedule I of the Act, which contains a list of Gurdwaras which were held by the legislature to be the Sikh institutions, seven Gurdwaras are such which have their names as ‘Gurdwara Guru Granth Sahib’. These are included in the Schedule I at serial numbers 155, 186, 294, 299, 304, 328 and 407 and four of these are situated in District Sangrur and one each in the districts of Ludhiana, Ferozpur and Kapurthala. These names of the Gurdwaras based on the Holy Scripture refer to the Sikh institution of Gurdwara but not to the Holy Scripture itself.
Section 16 (2) of the Act prescribes test to be applied by the tribunal and the courts to decide whether an institution is a Sikh Gurdwara or not. Five clauses of the sub-section refer, inter-alia, that to declare an institution to be a Sikh Gurdwara the Sikhs should have used it for public worship. As the Sikhs worship nothing else then Guru Granth Sahib, it had to be explored in these cases whether Guru Granth Sahib was installed there for public worship. Though provision in the Act doesn’t specifically refer to Guru Granth Sahib but the decisions of the adjudicating authorities are always based upon the availability and commanding central position by Guru Granth Sahib in the institution.
Now we discuss and elucidate the definition of ‘Sikh’ and ‘Sikh Gurdwara’ and the qualifications of members of SGPC and Local Gurdwara Committees as the reference has been made to Sri Guru Granth Sahib in the related provisions of Sikh Gurdwara Act.
Definition of “Sikh”
The historical background, as regards the various attempts to define ‘Sikh’, is of relevance and use. The Sikhs were listed as a separate community in the census for the first time in 1868. But the enumerators were supplied a definition of ‘Sikh’ for the first time only for the census of 1891. It required unshorn hair and abstinence from smoking for being listed as a Sikh. Later, in the 1911 census, everyone who claimed to be a Sikh was entered as a Sikh.11
The Government of India Act (Montague-Chelmsford Reforms) 1919 acceded separate electoral rights to the Sikhs in the central and provincial legislatures. Southborough Committee, which was constituted to determine as to who will be entitled to vote as a Sikh, submitted its report in February 1919. It recommended “Anyone claiming to be a Sikh and being prima facie being what he represents himself to be” would be regarded as a Sikh. The electoral officer would accept the declaration of the elector unless he is satisfied that the declaration is not made in good faith. In fact, the Southborough Committee recommendation that a person claiming to be a Sikh “being prima facie what he represents himself to be” point towards every Sikh to be Keshadhari. The electoral officer was authorised to reject declarations of non-Sikhs for not having been made in good faith.
Sehjdharis, Nirmalas, Udasis and others besides the Keshadharis were allowed to enroll themselves as voters in the Sikh constituencies.12 The Sikhs agitated over the liberal meaning being attributed to the term ‘Sikh’. The Government invited Aroor Singh, Sarbrah of Golden Temple, and Gurbaksh Singh Bedi as Sikh representatives to appear before the Reform Advisory Committee in 1920. They endorsed the Southborough Committee recommendations to accept every claimant as a Sikh. The Sikhs condemned it and passed resolutions for considering only Keshadharis as Sikhs.13
The SGPC adopted its new constitution within a few months of its formation and also got itself registered under Societies Registration Act on April 30, 1921. Voting rights were given to the Amritdhari Sikhs not less than twenty-one years of age who observe elementary rules of Sikh conduct such as rising early in the morning, reading the holy Word, contributing daswandh and keeping the baptismal vow.
The Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925 defined ‘Sikh’ in Section 2(9). The original definition was as follows:
‘Sikh’ means a person who professes Sikh religion; if any question arises as to whether any person is or is not a Sikh, he shall be deemed respectively to be or not to be a Sikh according as he makes or refuses to make in such manner as the local government may prescribe the following declaration:
I, solemnly affirm that I am a Sikh;
that I believe in the Guru Granth Sahib;
that I believe in the Ten Gurus and
that I have no other religion.
It may be mentioned that many Hindus and Udasis objected to the last clause in the declaration.14 They were interested to be (Sikhs) voters without being exclusive votaries of Sikhism. In fact they did not like the Sikhism to be treated as a separate and independent religion. Two important and vocal Hindu members of the Punjab Legislative Council, Raja Narendra Nath and Dr. Gokul Chand Narang had appended their dissent in the Select Committee Report for the Bill.15 They wanted the last two sentences of the declaration to be deleted. Their opposition to the last clause is understandable for they wanted to allow people to be considered as believers of both the faiths simultaneously and did not like Sikhism to be recognized as an independent religion. But it is not clear why they objected to the other clause. Perhaps they have a selected liking from amongst from the Sikh Gurus and disliked the allegiance to all of them.
After the Bill emerged from the Select Committee and the Council debated it clause by clause on July 6, 1925, the first amendment was introduced again by Dr. G.C. Narang for the deletion of the last two sentences in the declaration. However, he withdrew it on persuasion by the other members.16 Perhaps, Raja Narendra Nath was having the definition of ‘Sikh’ in mind when he commented in the Council, “I must confess that the movement, of separation of the Sikhs and of their being recognized as a separate community from the Hindus, has been looked upon with slight disfavour by the Hindus, but there is the fact well established and well recognized that Sikhs now do form a separate community.17
The working of the Act brought out the discrepancies in the definition of ‘Sikh’ as given in section 2(9). The major difficulty arose while determining a deceased person to be Sikh or not. Being dead, he could not make the prescribed declaration. Then, no one who lived before the pontification of tenth Guru could be a Sikh even though he had full faith in the earlier nine Gurus, as it was not possible for him to believe in all the ten Gurus. So the definition, being irrational, was amended by the Sikh Gurdwaras (Amendment) Act 1930.
The amended definition, as at present, is in these words:
‘Sikh’ means a person who professes the Sikh religion or, in case of a deceased person who professed the Sikh religion or was known to be a Sikh during his lifetime.
If any question arises as to whether any living person is or not a Sikh, he shall be deemed respectively to be or not to be a Sikh according as he makes or refuses to make in such manner as the State Government may prescribe the following declaration:
I solemnly affirm that I am a Sikh; that I believe in the Guru Granth Sahib; that I believe in the Ten Gurus, and that I have no other religion.
Hindu Councilors including Dr. Narang objected to the new definition also. According to him, “the expression “or was known to be” is vague. “Known to be” to whom? The clause does not indicate to whom that person should be known to be a Sikh, whether to two persons or to three persons or to two thousand persons or only to the members of his family. The clause does not say specifically to whom that person should be known to be a Sikh during his lifetime. It may be all right in cases of historic personages but if it is a case of less known persons, a private individual whose property comes to be disputed before a Sikh Gurdwaras Tribunal, it would cause trouble.”18
So under the existing definition the persons having faith in other religions; the persons not believing ‘that after the Ten Gurus Guru Granth (and not any living person) is the only Guru’ cannot be Sikhs. Therefore, Namdharis, Radhaswamis etc. do not qualify to be Sikhs due to their belief in living Gurus. Udasis are being held not to be the Sikhs by the Courts.
Definition of ‘Sikh’ in section 2(9) accepting the declaration of the person as to his being a Sikh or not, is a continuation from the rules framed for the working of the Government of India Act 1919. It has been misused also. The Chief Commissioner, Gurdwara Elections is on record of having experienced the non-Sikhs included in the voters’ list for Gurdwara Elections.19 So he proposed amendment in the definition of the ‘Sikh’ by adding the condition of keeping unshorn hair and deleting the line about deceased person. The SGPC accepted the suggestion and forwarded the same to the Union Government for formal amendment20. It was recommended that the definition of ‘Sikh’ in the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Act should be adopted. The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Act defines ‘Sikh as under:
‘Sikh’ means a person who professes the Sikh religion, believes and follows the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and Ten Gurus only and keeps unshorn hair.
For the purposes of this Act, if any question arises as to whether any person is or not a Sikh, he shall be deemed respectively to be or not to be a Sikh according as he makes or refuses to make in the manner prescribed by rules the following declaration:
I solemnly affirm that I am a Keshadhari Sikh; that I believe and follow the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and Ten Gurus only and that I have no other religion.
The SGPC recommendation was criticized as it would unnecessarily erode or delimit the base of Sikhism by excluding non-keshadhris from Sikhism. To block the intrusion of non-Sikhs as voters in Gurdwara elections, it was suggested that the condition of keeping unshorn hair should be made compulsory for all the voters. Accordingly the SGPC revised its recommendation. Consequently, the Government of India has made the necessary changes in the Act in October 2003 by amending the qualifications of voters in Gurdwara elections.
To have a comprehensive view of the definition of ‘Sikh’, some other closely related terms which are defined in the Act also require mention and a combined reading of all these is necessary. These are ‘Amritdhari Sikh’, ‘Sahjdhari Sikh’ and ‘Patit’. Section 2(10) of the Act defines ‘Amritdhari Sikh’as follows:
‘Amritdhari Sikh’ means and includes every person who has taken khande-ka-amrit or khanda- pahul prepared and administered according to the tenets of Sikh religion and rites at the hands of five pyaras or ‘beloved ones’.
In a case not falling within the purview of the Act, the Sindh High Court observed that ‘Khalsas’, ‘Akalis’, ‘Singhs’, all mean the same thing viz., Amritdhari Sikhs who have been initiated in the manner prescribed by Guru Gobind Singh and observe and use the five Kakkas21.
The Act requires all the elected members of the SGPC (Board) and Committees of Management to be Amritdhari Sikhs. The co-opted members of SGPC and nominated members of the Committees should also be Amritdharis in case they are Keshadharis.
Section 2(10A) defines Sahjdhari Sikh, it was added to the Act in 1959. It reads:
Sehjdhari Sikh means a person-
who performs ceremonies according to Sikh rites;
who does not use tobacco or Kutha (Halal meat) in any form;
who is not a Patit; and
who can recite Mul Mantar.
So there are two affirmative and three negative requirements for a person to be a Sehjdhari Sikh. The affirmative requirements are- performing religious and social ceremonies including that of birth, marriage, death etc. according to the Sikh rites, and ability to remember and recite Mul Mantar. The negative requirements are that one does not use tobacco or kutha (Halal Meat) in many form and is not a patit.
It may be mentioned that the affirmative requirements of performing ceremonies and reciting of Mul Mantar are not specifically prescribed even for the Amritdharis Sikhs though the negative ones may be deemed to be applicable to them. Then the Sikhs other than the Sehjdharis and Amritdharis are not subjected to any of these affirmative or negative requirements except that a keshadhari becomes patit on trimming or shaving the beard or keshas. It would have been better if all the conditions now meant only for Sehjdharis were made applicable to every Sikh and were incorporated in the definition of ‘Sikh’.
According to Macauliffe Sikhs can be divided into two categories- Amritdhari and Sehjdharis. Similar is the view of a High Court when it says Sehjdharis are also orthodox Sikhs who, however, do not go through the ceremony of initiation or observe or wear the five kakkas22. As to the distinction between Amritdharis and Sehjdharis, the High Court observed:
There is no essential or doctrinal difference between Amritdhari Sikhs (Akalis, Khalsas or Singhs) and Sehjdhari Sikhs. The former are distinguished by the fact that they go through a ceremony of initiation or baptism and observe with strictness the five Kakkas; Sehjdharis are indifferent about these forms; but all are Sikhs in that they believe in the ten Gurus and Granth Sahib and accept no other authority in religion23.
In fact it is not clear how, when and why the word ‘sahajdhari’ became associated with Sikhs. Word ‘Sehj’ as mentioned in Guru Granth Sahib refers to higher spiritual position attained by an individual. Of course this meaning cannot be attributed to the term Sahjdhari Sikh as they have never been considered a superior or higher category of Sikhs. Then word ‘sahajdhari’ in Panjabi language also means slow or gradual adopter. New entrants to Sikhism without taking Amrit were known as Sehjdhari Sikhs. It meant that they are adopting Sikhism or inculcating Sikh principles by and by. Another possible meaning of Sahjdhari Sikh may be as described by Macauliffe that all the non-Amritdharis are Sahjdharis. However, another meaning being attached to these words in the recent times is that it refers to non-keshadharis. Distinction is made between keshadharis and sahjdharis. It is a direct consequence of some provisions in the Act. For example S. 2 (11) defines ‘patit’ inter alia as “a person who being a Keshadhari Sikh trims or shaves his beard or keshas….” Then prescribing different forms for keshadharis Sikhs and sehjdharis Sikhs for registration of voters in Gurdwara elections under the Rules (see Form I and Form I-A appended to the Sikh Gurdwaras Board Election Rules, 1959 for keshadharis and sehjdharis Sikhs respectively) also gives credence to the distinction between keshadharis and sehjdharis. But the word sehjdharis cannot be used as an antonym of keshadhari. Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha, a known theoligian, has included a photograph of a person with full beard and moustaches with a caption underneath ‘a Sahajdhari Sikh’. Then the requirement in the definition that a Sahajdhari Sikh should not be a patit refers to the fact that some, if not all, of them are Keshadharis. So classification of Sikhs as keshadharis and sahjdharis is not correct. The Sikh Gurdwaras Board Election Rules had unnecessarily created confusion by prescribing separate voters’ registration forms for the Sahajdharis. However, after the amendment in the Act in 2003 depriving non-keshadharis from voting rights will obviate the necessity of having separate forms for them. Keshadharis can be Sahjdharis and vice versa.
It is submitted that the term Sahjdhari unnecessarily creates confusion. Sikhs should be distinguished from non-Sikhs and no intermediary category like Sahjdharis is required.
When the SGPC proposed amendment in the definition of the ‘Sikh’ by adding the condition of keeping unshorn hair and deleting the clause defining ‘Sahjdhari Sikh’in its general body meeting on November 30, 2000, it was correctly argued that discarding or disassociating the Sahajdharis entirely will not augur well for Sikhism. Then the SGPC changed its recommendation by not insisting on amendment of definition of ‘Sikh’ and deleting the definition of ‘Sahajdhari Sikh’. To block the intrusion of non-Sikhs as voters in Gurdwara elections, it was suggested to make the condition of keeping unshorn hair compulsory for all the voters in Gurdwara elections. Consequently, the Government of India has made the necessary changes in the Act by amending the qualifications of voters in October 2003. It may be relevant to note that the number of Sahjdharis in the freshly prepared voters’ list just before this amendment was a little less than 9 lakh out of a total of 90 lakh enlisted voters for SGPC elections [The Tribune, Chandigarh, Oct. 21, 2003]. A writ petition has been filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court to question the validity of this amendment. It is argued that the fundamental right of the sahjdharis to elect representatives of their choice for the management of Gurdwaras is taken away even without giving them a hearing. It is submitted that there is hardly any chance of success of this petition for the Supreme Court has already held that right to vote is not a fundamental right and all the sahjdharis are not deprived of voting rights, the keshadharis amongst them are entitled to vote.
Patit is defined in Section 2(11)as follows:
“Patit” means a person who
being a Keshadhari Sikh trims or shaves his beard or keshas or
being an Amritdhari Sikh commits any one or more of the four kurahits.
Four Kurahits though not defined in the Act are prohibitions which the Sikhs are ordained to avoid. These are prohibitions from- a) having extra-martial sex, b) trimming or shaving hair, c) use of tobacco in any form and d) use of Kutha. The clause applies all the abovesaid prohibitions to the Amritdhari Sikhs and only one of the prohibitions to the Keshadhari Sikhs. Those who are neither Amritdharis nor Keshadharis cannot become patit under the Act. It implies that the Sikhs other than these two categories cannot be declared patit even if they violate any or all the prohibitions. This is not desirable; the prohibitions should be applicable to all the Sikhs. It would have been better if the ‘Patit’ was defined as any Sikh who commits any of the four kurahits.
It is clear from the provision that a Keshadhari after hair-cut becomes patit and not a Sahjdhari Sikh. Similarly an Amridhari cannot claim to be a Sahjdhari after committing any of the Kurahit.
Words ‘Gurdwara’ or ‘Sikh Gurdwara’ is not defined in the Act. Which ‘gurdwara’ is a ‘Sikh Gurdwara’ apart from those mentioned in Schedule I of the Act, is to be determined by the Tribunal or Court in accordance with the provisions contained in section 16(2) of the Act.
Conditions to declare an institution a Sikh Gurdwara: Sub-section (2) of the section 16 lays down conditions on the fulfillment of which the Tribunal can declare an institution to be a Sikh Gurdwara. Each of the five clauses of sub-section describes different kinds of the Gurdwaras. While clause (iii) deals with the non-historic Gurdwaras the remaining clauses deal with the historic Gurdwaras. One common condition relating to the user is applicable to all the Gurdwaras described under different clauses of the sub-section. An institution can be a Gurdwara only on the fulfillment of two conditions. These are-
1. Public use as Sikh place of worship: First condition is that the institution has been used for public worship by the Sikhs before and at the time of presentation of the petition under section 7(1). So it is necessary that the Sikhs are using at present and have been using in the past the particular institution for public worship. Requirement is that a) it should be a place of worship, b) worship should be by the Sikhs and c) worship should be public as distinguished from private. The Sikhs worship One Formless God or Shabad as contained in Guru Granth Sahib. So only that place can be a Gurdwara where Guru Granth Sahib is there.
Sikh Gurdwara cannot be there without the presence of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. A three Judge bench of the Supreme Court has held the presence of Guru Granth Sahib as the distinctive feature of a Sikh Gurdwara. In its words: “the central object of worship in a Gurdwara is Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book and sine qua non for an institution being a Sikh Gurdwara is that there should be established Guru Granth Sahib and the worship of the same by congregation, and a Nishan Sahib.”24
In Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee v. Som Nath Dass it was held, “when Guru Granth Sahib is installed in any Gurdwara it becomes the sacred place of worship. Sacredness of the Gurdwara is only because of the placement of Guru Granth Sahib in it … The installation of Guru Granth Sahib is nucleus or nectar of any Gurdwara. If there is no Guru Granth Sahib in the Gurdwara, it cannot be termed as a Gurdwara. When one refers a building to be a Gurdwara, he refers it so only because Guru Granth Sahib is installed therein … It is very heart and spirit of Gurdwara”.25
In Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee v. Bagga Singh 2003 (1) RCR (Civil) 264 the Supreme Court held that the sine qua non for an institution to be treated as Sikh Gurdwara is that there should be established Guru Granth Sahib, and the worship of the same by congregation, and a Nishan Sahib. There may be other rooms of the institution made for other purposes but the crucial test is the existence of Guru Granth Sahib and the worship thereof by the congregation and Nishan Sahib.
Thus the existence of the Gurdwara is not possible without the installation of Guru Granth Sahib as the central object of reverence. But converse is not true, every place where Guru Granth Sahib is read or worshipped, is not a Sikh Gurdwara. Some non-Sikh institutions, which are not Gurdwaras, do revere and worship Guru Granth Sahib. Where mahants of the institution were all along Udasis and ceremonies observed by Udasis and Hindus were performed, It was held not to be a Sikh Gurdwara and the mere fact that Guru Granth Sahib was read there did not make it a Sikh Gurdwara.26
The Privy Council in Hem Singh v. Basant Dass27 noted the distinction between Sikhs and Udasis and pointed out that Udasis venerate Sikh scriptures. So the Udasi institution cannot be termed as Sikh Gurdwara simply because Guru Granth Sahib is read and venerated there. So far as the recitation of Guru Granth sahib in the institution in dispute is concerned it is well known that the Udasis used the same sacred writings as the Sikhs and the recitation of Guru Granth Sahib is very common feature.28 “If the institution is established by Udasis sect but later reading of Guru Granth sahib also commenced there, that would neither be decisive of the character of the institution nor sufficient to bring the institution within the section 16(2)(iii) of the Act”. The Supreme Court has also held: “In an institution of Udasi sect, one can visualize reading of the Guru Granth Sahib or veneration of the Sikh scriptures. But that itself is not decisive of the character of the institution”29
2. Purpose of the establishment: Second condition relates to the reason or purpose of the establishment of the Gurdwara or its connection with some tradition related to the Sikh Gurus or incident relating to the Sikh religion. Clauses (i), (ii) and (iv) require the proof of establishment of the Gurdwara for the specific reason or purpose and clauses (ii) & (v) require proof that user of the Gurdwara is predominantly by Sikhs due to any tradition connected with any of the Ten Sikh Gurus or some incident connected with the Sikh religion respectively. The second condition, which is different under different clauses, can be either of these-
the Gurdwara was established by any of the Ten Sikh Gurus or in commemoration of any incident in the life of any of them [cl. (i) of sub-section (2) of section 16].
the Gurdwara was established in memory of any of the Ten Sikh Gurus or of any Sikh martyr, saint or historical person [clauses (i) and (iv) of sub-section (2)].
the Gurdwara was established for use by Sikhs for the purpose of public worship [cl. (iii)].
due to some tradition connected with one of the Ten Sikh Gurus, the Gurdwara is used for public worship [(clause (ii)].
due to some incident connected with the Sikh religion the Gurdwara is used for public worship (clause (v)).
The courts have been categorical in laying down that to declare an institution to be a Sikh Gurdwaras the fulfillment of two distinct conditions is necessary. If satisfaction of one condition were to be accepted as a ground for proving the fulfillment of the second, it would have been unnecessary for the legislature to specify as necessary the fulfillment of the second condition30.
In Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee v. M.P. Dass31, the Apex Court held that under Section 16(2), the burden of proving an institution to be a Sikh Gurdwara is on the person who asserts the same.
It is submitted that the legislature intentionally prescribed two conditions so that the lesser number of institutions are covered within the ambit of ‘Sikh Gurdwara’. In some cases the second requirement was difficult to be complied with when the object or purpose of establishment of gurdwara could not be traced. In such cases the Sikhs lost the claim to those shrines. Only the first requirement that the institution is of a Sikh character by long user should have been sufficient to be declared the place as Sikh Gurdwara. So the inclusion of the second condition seems to be unnecessary burden on the Sikhs to refute their cause. Then the approach of the higher judiciary is also not been sympathetic towards the Sikh cause. Though the language of the Act is not that categorical but the court interpretation has put the entire burden of proving both the conditions upon the Sikhs. The first condition requiring the pubic place of Sikh worship, the courts have correctly referred to the presence of Sri Guru Granth Sahib but other requirement, i. e., the presence of Nishan Sahib is unnecessarily attached. Similarly, where the non-Sikh custodians of the Gurdwaras introduced non-Sikh practices like idol worship etc., the character of the institution as a Sikh Gurdwaras should not be deemed to be adversely affected. Inspite of such non-sympathetic attitude of the authorities the Sikhs have been successful to get considerable number of institutions declared as Sikh Gurdwaras and put under the statutory management.
Qualifications of SGPC and Committee Members
The SGPC is to consist of 170 elected members including twenty Scheduled Caste and thirty female members, 15 co-opted members of whom not more than five can be from Punjab and 6 ex-officio members which include Head Granthi of Sri Darbar Sahib and five Takht Jathedars.
Section 45 and 46 prescribe the qualifications of elected and co-opted members of the Board (SGPC) respectively. No qualification is prescribed for the designated or ex-officio members presuming that they being the holders of high religious offices must be qualified in every way. Section 45 enumerates the persons who are not eligible for election as a member of the SGPC.
In case a person
(i) is of unsound mind;
(ii) is an undischarged insolvent;
(iii) is a patit;
(iv) is a minister of a Notified Sikh Gurdwara other than the head minister of Darbar Sahib or any of the five Sikh Takhts;
(v) is a paid servant of any Notified Sikh Gurdwara or of Board other than a member of the Board’s executive committee;
(vi) being a keshadhari Sikh is not a amritdhari
(vii) takes alcoholic drinks;
(viii) not being a blind person cannot read and write Gurmukhi;
(ix) is not registered on the electoral roll of any constituency;
(x) is less than twenty five years in age;
he or she is not eligible for election as a member of the Board.
The qualifications for election to SGPC are laid down in sub-section (1), (2) and (2A) of Section 45. Sub-section (3) allows a patit to seek the election but if a person elected is found and held to be patit by the Commission, his election shall be void. It is quite strange that this sub-section does not prevent a patit from contesting the election even if one is patently patit. A Kesadhari person who shaves or trims the hair or amritdhari who shaves or trim hair, uses tobacco or kutha or is guilty of rape or adultery or extra marital relations will be allowed to contest the election. It is submitted that such persons should be straightway debarred from contesting the election. Why to waste the time and energy to get him declared as patit after the election and conducting the re-election or keep the seat vacant. It is also possible that such a person is not elected but he may considerably affect the chances of election of another candidate by weaning away some votes in his favour. So it is better if sub-section (3) is deleted and a patit is totally debarred from seeking election.
Clause (iv) of Section 45 (1) declares ministers of notified Sikh Gurdwaras ineligible for SGPC election but allows the Head Granthi of Darbar Sahib and five Takht Jathedars to contest the elections. The exception in favour of these religious heads by declaring them eligible for election is unnecessary as they are ex-officio members of SGPC and need not seek election to be its members.
Paid servants of the SGPC of any notified Sikh Gurdwara are also debarred from being candidates for SGPC elections. However, Executive Committee members of SGPC receiving salary or other remuneration are not to be treated as paid servants of SGPC for this purpose.
Clause (vi) was added to the Act in 1944, it should have been amended along with Section 49 in October 2003 to read simply as “is not amritdhari”. After this amendment only keshadharis can be registered as voters in the Gurdwara Elections and only the registered voters can be candidates for membership. Therefore, all the members of SGPC from 2003 onwards are required to be amritdharis even though there has hardly been any exception earlier also. Till date there is a solitary example of election of a Sehjdhari Sikh, Bhai Khushi Ram from Khanewal District Multan in 1939.
Clause (vii) debars takers of alcoholic drinks only from becoming SGPC members. The disqualification should be extended to the addict of other intoxicants also some of which are more dangerous and harmful than alcohol. There was allegation against a former SGPC President that he was an opium addict but technically he could not be covered within the provision of this clause.
Capability to read and write Gurmukhi is also made compulsory for the SGPC members except the blind ones by clause (viii). Explanation attached to the clause says that a person shall be deemed to be able to read Gurmukhi if he is able to recite Guru Granth Sahib in Gurmukhi. It is doubtful whether all the SGPC members are able to recite Guru Granth Sahib fluently.