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Tasks Before the I.S.C.: A Conference Report


The Sikh Times, Jun. 7, 2006

Ashok Singh Bagrian

Gurdev Singh

Kharak Singh Mann

Sardara Singh Johl

Kiranjot Kaur

Manjit Singh Calcutta

Puneet Singh Lamba

Balwant Singh Dhillon

Karmjit Singh Aujla

Kirpal Singh

Kulwant Singh

Harnam Singh Shan

Charn Kamal Singh

Nanak Singh Nishter

Sadhu Singh Deol

Gurdial Singh Pandher

Hardit Singh

Har Narinder Singh

Gurbachan Singh Bachan

Birendra Kaur

Kartar Singh Gill

Harbans Lal

Kamalla Rose Kaur

Mota Singh

  • Introduction
  • Day One (April 8, 2006)
  • Views Expressed by Speakers Without Abstracts
  • Abstracts
  • Day Two (April 9, 2006)
  • Concluding Remarks


    The conference 'Tasks Before the I.S.C.' was organised by the International Sikh Confederation (I.S.C.) on April 8 and 9, 2006 in the main auditorium of the Shivalik Public School, Phase VI, Mohali, Punjab. (Mohali is a Chandigarh suburb.)

    The conference was structured such that day one would be a seminar devoted to individual presentations and day two would involve a general body meeting of the I.S.C.

    Day One (April 8, 2006)

    First, a short note about the structure of this report. Except for the bottom row, the photographs above represent people who actually spoke on day one of the conference. The photographs are in the order in which the speakers were invited to present. Several other well-wishers sent in paper abstracts and/or papers for publication in the conference proceedings. All of the abstracts received in time for the conference have been reproduced below. Those who made presentations but did not provide abstracts have been listed below separately along with their core message, if any. (Kulwant Singh presented on Mota Singh's behalf.) The actual papers are expected to appear in future volumes of the I.O.S.S. journal Abstracts of Sikh Studies.

    Ashok Singh Bagrian kicked off the conference. The I.S.C.'s convenors, Gurdev Singh and Kharak Singh Mann, delivered inaugural addresses. Mann, a former member of the S.G.P.C.'s Dharam Parchar Committee (proselytization committee), estimated that apostasy in Sikhism was at eighty per cent and put forth a formidable list of nine problems of urgent importance (see details below). Sardara Singh Johl, vice chairman of Punjab's Planning Board, delivered the presidential address lamenting Punjab's record on education, employment, and addiction.

    Erstwhile Akali Dal stalwart Tara Singh's grand-daughter Kiranjot Kaur was the first delegate to speak. At the end of her speech, Bagrian suggested a short break. However, Manjit Singh Calcutta swiftly vetoed the idea. The break would follow rather than precede Calcutta's speech. And quite a speech it was. Calcutta dominated the next half hour, grossly exceeding his allotted time. Later, he gave a rather loud media interview sitting in the front row, seemingly oblivious to Balwant Singh Dhillon's presentation proceeding on stage. As I was to discover later, Calcutta is a major funder of the I.S.C.'s projects.

    Apart from a few speakers who spoke with genuine passion on the need for education reform, most speakers had little original to say and sounded like broken records parroting the ubiquitous calls to check apostasy. My own presentation was intended as a clarion call for a different kind of reform. This reform is to be triggered by the realization that the primary impediment to Sikh unity isn't apostasy, it is the alienation of the unorthodox Sikh majority (eighty per cent, in Mann's own words). The current schism is the product of an awakened unorthodox Sikh majority that has rejected second-class citizenship and derogatory nomenclature (e.g. apostate, patit (fallen), mona). The failure to reform and salvage unity threatens to drive a permanent wedge between orthodox and unorthodox Sikhs.

    I was ostensibly honored by being invited to sit on stage. There was what seemed like a genuine applause at the end of my presentation. Many conference attendees came up to me during the breaks to show appreciation for what I had said. The unity-in-diversity thesis forwarded by me was supported (explicitly or implicitly) by Mota Singh, Charn Kamal Singh, Gurdit Singh, Hardev Singh Virk, and others. In one of the few refreshing approaches, Mota Singh's paper quoted Bertrand Russell to make the point that we ought not to sermonize but to reason it out with the younger generation.

    Unfortunately, though, there was no I.S.C. resolution or action item to indicate that any of the above had any lasting effect. The I.S.C. Web site (accessed June 1, 2006) still stipulates that executive committee members (i.e. everyone except the general body members) must be 'amrit-dhari Sikhs.'

    Toward the end, Amrinder Singh got up on stage to make what seemed like an impromptu speech. He reprimanded those who refer to martyrs as terrorists and added that doing so might be pardonable in a Hindu gathering but not in a Sikh gathering. One gentleman in the audience, who apparently couldn't take it any longer, boldly stood up and requested Amrinder to stop. Sadhu Singh Deol, who was stage secretary for the second half of the day, swiftly escorted Amrinder off stage. Amrinder's colleague Balbir Singh, whom I met during a break, claimed to be a saathi (colleague) of Babbar Khalsa Chief Jagtar Singh Hawara. Hawara is the primary accused in the cinema hall bombings carried out to protest the screenings of the movie Jo Bole So Nihaal.

    I ought to mention that Deol was, thankfully, much more of a stickler when it came to limiting speakers to their allotted time. To be fair, however, Ashok Singh Bagrian, who was stage secretary for the first half of the day, had to contend with heavyweights like Calcutta. During one of the breaks I asked an I.O.S.S. functionary, 'Why isn't there a simple bell or light system to remind speakers about the time?' 'No one wants to be the bad guy and ring the bell,' he replied. So there you have it. We're far too polite to be punctual.

    There was some apparent confusion around language. Most of the abstracts were submitted in English. One presumes, therefore, that most of the papers were also written in English and will be published in English as part of the formal conference proceedings. Yet, almost everyone delivered their verbal presentation in Punjabi. Why two standards for presentation - one for verbal (Punjabi) and another for written (English)? I was one of the very few who spoke in English. Since almost no one can claim equal proficiency in both English and Punjabi, it would seem prudent that those who feel more comfortable speaking in Punjabi (i.e. most of the speakers) should be submitting their abstracts and papers for publication in Punjabi, not English.

    Several of the presentations seemed unrelated to the conference topic. Presenters spoke at length on various topics without tying their ideas to actionable items for the I.S.C. Many speakers did not submit abstracts of their papers in advance and, in the absence of an abstract, it was not always possible to determine the name of the speaker and the crux of the message. Inexplicably, even the abstracts that had been sent in were not being distributed. I asked three or four different organizers for a copy in vain before snatching one from the center table on stage. Later, while chatting with the I.S.C.'s resident computer expert, Chander Mohan, I suggested that perhaps each speaker's name, affiliation, and topic could have been projected up on the screen behind the stage. He said that was the original idea but it had been rejected in favor of displaying the cloth banner.

    Views Expressed by Speakers Without Abstracts

    Ashok Singh Bagrian; stage secretary, first-half-of-day-one; vice president, Institute of Sikh Studies (I.O.S.S.)

    Gurdev Singh; I.A.S. (Retd.); co-convenor, I.S.C.

    Kharak Singh Mann; Ph.D.; convenor, I.S.C.
    We hope that the I.S.C. would give expression to the Guru Panth doctrine. Problems demaning immediate attention of the Panth include, a standard English translation of the Guru Granth, an education fund, a television channel, Akal Takht and the S.G.P.C., Sikh personal law, academic controversies, research and publications, deras, and sports.

    Sardara Singh Johl; Ph.D.; vice chairman, Planning Board, Punjab; former vice chancellor, P.A.U., Ludhiana
    Shockingly, not a single student from Punjab's rural areas has been admitted to the Punjab Agricultural University (P.A.U.) this year. Let us set up an education corpus fund. Those benefiting from the fund should become job providers rather than job seekers and help to replenish the fund. Punjab's politicians set a poor example by distributing free alcohol and drugs to win votes. Sikhs ought to care more about practice than form.

    Kiranjot Kaur; former secretary, S.G.P.C.; grand-daughter of Master Tara Singh
    We need to place a check on adhoc hukamnamas (religious edicts), combat female foeticide, and allow women to perform kirtan (singing of hymns).

    Manjit Singh Calcutta; former secretary, S.G.P.C.
    I promise to secure funding for I.S.C. projects.

    Balwant Singh Dhillon; Ph.D.; professor, Department of Guru Nanak Studies, G.N.D.U., Amritsar

    Harnam Singh Shan; Ph.D.; chairman, Departments of Punjabi Studies and Sikh Studies, Punjab University, Chandigarh

    Charn Kamal Singh; Ph.D.; secretary general, Guru Gobind Singh Study Circle, Ludhiana
    The I.S.C. should work to confederate major Sikh organisations such as the S.G.P.C., the D.S.G.M.C., the P.G.P.C., and all such parbandhak committees in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and other countries with significant Sikh populations.

    Nanak Singh Nishter

    Gurdial Singh Pandher; I.P.S. (Retd.); director general (retd.), National Security Guard (N.S.G.)
    We need to formalize the Anand Marriage Act.

    Hardit Singh; Brig. (Retd.); member, I.O.S.S.
    Decision-making should follow the panj-piara (five beloved) model. The I.S.C.'s leadership needs to be much more inclusive. For example, the I.S.C. won't have any authority over sahaj-dharis unless sahaj-dharis are included in the leadership.

    Har Narinder Singh; author, Sikh Vision 2005; Gurdaspur Institute of Advanced Sikh Studies, Anandpur Sahib

    Gurbachan Singh Bachan; former secretary, S.G.P.C.

    Amrinder Singh; former member, S.G.P.C.; founding member, I.S.C.
    Young Sikhs and women should be included in all I.S.C. committees.

    Kulwant Kaur; Ph.D.; president, Mai Bhago Brigade International, Patiala
    The Mai Bhago Brigade is like a branch of the I.S.C., working to improve the standard of living in poorer sections of Sikh society. Many of my colleagues are former defence officers who are working with great dedication and without fanfare.

    Kartar Singh Gill; Lt. Gen. (Retd.); P.V.S.M.
    We have the support of several major Sikh organisations, including the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (D.S.G.M.C.), the Chief Khalsa Diwan (C.K.D.), Chandigarh area gurdwara committees, eminent Sikhs, and members of the S.G.P.C. Our membership drive has been vigorous but selective, with an emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Our current strength is nearly 200. Our gratitude goes out to Raghbir Singh Dhillon who brings fifteen years of Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha experience to his involvement in the I.S.C. consitution revision process, Gurcharn Singh Sethi (Railways), Col. Perminder Singh, computer wizard Chander Mohan, Jetinder Singh Sodhi (chief engineer), Devinder Singh Bedi (director, Shivalik Education Trust), and Jaswant Singh & Jagjit Singh (I.S.C. office workers).


    Puneet Singh Lamba; founder, The Sikh Times (
    The International Sikh Confederation should consider adopting the Indian unity-in-diversity model wherein natives of Assam, Kashmir, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu speak different languages and maintain unique cultures but nevertheless consider themselves Indian. Let us strive for pan-Sikhism, i.e. a plural, inclusive Sikhism. Let us build bridges, not walls.

    Karmjit Singh Aujla; president, Sirjandhara (a literary organisation)
    Integrating the Sikh Saroop with Today's Fashion
    Managing unshorn hair and beard have always been a challenging task for Sikhs. The British came up with novel ideas on how to simplify the care and management of unshorn hair (e.g. the beard net). We need to think creatively to come up with similar innovations in accordance with today's needs in order to encourage Sikhs to keep unshorn hair.

    Kirpal Singh; Ph.D.
    Significance of History in Sikhism
    History and religion constitute two separate subjects with well defined boundaries. The histories of the martyrdoms of the Sikh Gurus and other Sikhs for the principles of their faith have become a part of the faith. Similes and metaphors of daily life have been adopted in the Guru Granth to explain gurmat philosophy. Challenging the corrupt and tyrant government is history, which reveals the directions of the faith. Excellent libraries should be setup to educate the populace.

    Mota Singh; U.K.'s first Asian judge
    Problems Faced by Sikhs in the Diaspora
    The world is suffering from scepticism of faith and anarchy of morals. There is a certain duplicity in human nature that makes us do things even when we recognize them to be wrong. We must strip away all pretence and be honest with ourselves. Only the arrogant believe that they have enough wisdom and virtue to rule the rest. What we need is a sense of true humility. This paper analizes the problems faced by the Sikh diaspora in preserving the Sikh identity in alien cultural surroundings and ends with a note of optimism.

    Harbans Lal; Ph.D.; emeritus professor and chairman, Department of Pharmacology and Neuroscience, University of North Texas
    The Future of the Sikh Faith and Sikhs
    At the time of its entry into the twenty-first century, the Guru Panth is going through a major transition towards its renaissance. The areas impacting the Sikh faith have been mentioned here in order to initiate further discussion. They include, capitalizing on new technologies, proliferating diversity, encouraging prosperity, globalization, maintaining roots in the Sri Guru Granth, significance of symbols and mystiques, and getting future generations to indulge in the community's future. A center should be set up for studying the Sikhs and the Sikh faith in a global environment.

    Darshan Singh
    Some Suggestions
    Gurdwaras outside S.G.P.C. control, in India and abroad, are currently answering to their own constitutions. These ought to be brought under the purview of the Akal Takht, which is our ultimate arbitrator. The I.S.C. should reach out to such gurdwaras and institutions.

    Sadhu Singh Deol; stage secretary, second-half-of-day-one
    School Education in Punjab
    The future of a community depends to a great extent upon the quality of education its members receive. As a large proportion of Sikhs reside in villages, rural education needs to be given special importance. Presently, the quality of primary education is declining. We must motivate village gurdwaras to contribute toward primary education in their respective villages. The Akal Academy system is a good example to follow. It has twenty-two schools, all of which are in rural areas. Their students have achieved distinctions at the national level.

    Sarjit Singh Sandhu; W.S.C., U.S.
    Translation of Gurbani
    The I.S.C. should sponsor a new English translation of the Guru Granth. Current translations are based on individual efforts and do not adequately convey the message of Gurbani.

    Kulwant Singh; professor
    A Blueprint for Educational Resurgence in Modern Punjab
    Education is the most effective tool for the empowerment of youth in the modern age. There is a total failure of the schooling system in Punjab. The extent of the failure has been highlighted in surveys against the backdrop of the recommendations of the Yashpal Committee. The I.S.C. could oversee the creation of a Sikh Education Fund along the lines of the Jewish paradigm. Selective conditional incentives for deserving and meritorious students are required at the higher educational levels. Effective participation of I.S.C. members in social work is urgently needed.

    Rupinderjit Kaur
    Propagation of the Guru's Message
    The message of universality of the Sikh faith ought to be spread through the institutions of sangat (Sikh congregation) and pangat (Sikh congregation sitting in a line without regard for caste differences). Teaching and training institutions of the community can play a useful role in explaining the greatness and uniqueness of the Sikh sidhant (principles).

    Kamalla Rose Kaur; former columnist,
    Interfaith Relations
    The Sikh philosophy of Prem Ki Jeet (Love Conquers) needs to be followed in practice for building a good image of the Sikh faith and the Sikhs.

    Mohinder Singh
    Promoting Youth Entrepreneurship via Counselling
    Sikh youth, particularly in rural areas, urgently need counselling to help them find suitable career options. Government agencies hardly disseminate any knowledge and awareness in this regard. However, the Sikh principles of chardi kala (high spirits) and kirt karni (hard work) provide good motivation. This paper offers self-employment suggestions and guidelines for the youth. I.S.C. and other organisations can assist via self-help groups and an endowment fund.

    Saran Singh, editor, The Sikh Review
    Some Critical Issues Facing the Panth
    The world knows little about the beliefs and history of minority religions. The much touted Indian religious tolerance is a myth. The Sikhs are depicted as uncultured. A negative image is painted in movies, newspapers, television, and other mass media. Surprisingly, the government's tourist literature does not even mention the Golden Temple at Amritsar. The Indian Constitution lumps the Sikhs as a sect of Hinduism.

    Harjot Shah Singh; director (retd.), Hydel Design (Punjab); former member, Shiromani Gurdwara Sewadar Committee
    Education Through Kalgidhar Trust
    More than twenty Akal Academies have sprung up in rural areas since July 4, 1986. They are all affiliated with the C.B.S.E. in Delhi. The students at these Academies have excelled at both academics and sports. Our mission is world peace. The villages near our Academies are showing great social change. Drugs, alcohol, and other vices have diminished.

    Gurbakhsh Singh
    Dharam Parchar and our Responsibilities
    Gurmat parchar (Sikh proselytizing) should aim at the unity of the Panth. The current parchar of different maryada (code of conduct) by the deras, sants, scholars, and gianis has created schisms in the Panth. The founding of the I.S.C. was a necessary step toward the goals of Guru Granth and Guru Panth. Our leaders, gurdwara committees, granthis, and managerial staff should be models of exemplary conduct and strictly follow the prescribed maryada.

    Gurmat Singh
    Important Legal Problems of the Sikhs
    Sikhs have no state of their own. Therefore, under the law, they cannot raise any issue at international forums such as the United Nations (U.N.) or the International Court of Justice (I.C.J.). Until we Sikhs have our own state we must try to acquire consultative status as a non-governmental organisation (N.G.O.). Perhaps the Sikhs can get the I.C.J. to appeal to the British to return the Sikhs their kingdom under the Treaty of Bhyrowal. Sikhs can also claim a legal right to wear the turban in France's schools under the International Bill of Human Rights of December 10, 1948.

    Sukhdev Singh; Engineer; general secretary, Guru Angad Dev Educational & Welfare Council, Ludhiana
    Reviving Lapsed Sikh Communities
    Lapsed Sikh families with Sikh connections going back upto 300 years, both in Punjab and abroad, can and should be revived.

    Gurcharan Singh Sethi, Railways
    Suggestions for Action
    Depending on available resources, humanitarian activities to help those hurt by natural calamities such as floods and earthquakes may be undertaken in cooperation with other similar organisations.

    Birendra Kaur; Ph.D.; member, I.O.S.S.
    But Not the Least
    The Panth must utilize the wisdom and resources of gurdwaras in order to meet the objectives of the I.S.C. In view of the changing world, we must discuss all issues relating to the Sikh Rahit Maryada (code of conduct) in order to keep it updated. Everything is debatable except the 5Ks.

    Day Two (April 9, 2006)

    Although I was only able to attend the first two hours of day two, I learnt later that the I.S.C.'s Interim Executive Committee had approved 'A Standard English Translation of the Guru Granth Sahib' as its first project, to be sponsored in large part by Manjit Singh Calcutta who promised to arrange a sum of Rs. 1 crore (Rs. 10 million) via his contacts at the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (D.S.G.M.C.).

    A slide show of the new constitution was presented to the general body for ratification. Several committees were formed and resolutions passed. As is customary, general body members indicated their support via a show of hands.

    Concluding Remarks

    Kharak Singh Mann is the driving force behind this movement. During his time at the microphone, he expressed the hope that the I.S.C. could serve as an implementation of the Guru Panth doctrine. However, he did not say how the I.S.C. would be different from other existing and defunct international Sikh bodies.

    Based on thoughts articulated by the various speakers at the conference, it was difficult to determine whether the I.S.C. hopes to work in parallel with or merge with existing international Sikh bodies like the World Sikh Council (W.S.C.). The I.S.C. and the W.S.C. have their strongholds in India and the U.S. respectively. Basic incompatibilities between the I.S.C. and the W.S.C., especially on the topic of Sikh self-determination, don't bode well for a merger. No member of the I.S.C. leadership is likely to have a pro-separatist record. Also, no pro-separatist statements were made at the conference. Meanwhile, the W.S.C.'s current chairperson, Manohar Singh Grewal, was once president of the World Sikh Organization (W.S.O.). In that capacity, he wrote to the U.N. secretary general in 1988 demanding that India be asked to hold a 'referendum' in Punjab and 'lift the occupation of the Sikh homeland.'

    As an unorthodox Sikh, I applaud Mann's statesmanship in inviting me to speak and for honoring me at the conference. However, his fundamental position is apparent from the comments he made as I was getting ready to leave on day one. He said, 'Sahaj-dharian nu asi apne nede liana hai (We need to bring sahaj-dharis closer to us).' That can be interpreted in two ways. One, orthodox Sikhs wish to embrace unorthodox Sikhs as they are, without making orthodoxy an issue. Two, orthodox Sikhs wish to convince sahaj-dharis to embrace orthodoxy. However, any doubt I had was cleared up by Mann's subsequent comment. He turned to Kartar Singh Gill and said, 'Puneet di daadhi vi vadd jaayegi (Puneet will surely continue to grow his beard).'

    Many people have asked me why I decided to grow a ten-day stubble (beard) and wear a turban for the conference. My answer is twofold. One, I like wearing the Sikh turban, which looks better with a beard than without. If there is any chance of the Guru Granth being present, I prefer to be wearing a turban rather than scamper for a rumaal (handkerchief) to cover my head. I refuse to relinquish to orthodox Sikhs the exclusive right to wear the Sikh turban. Two, I tend to wear a turban at Sikh gatherings as a show of solidarity. The Sikh turban is a proud part of my heritage. I enjoy wearing a turban but reject the notion that there is any spiritual superiority associated with wearing a turban or any of the 5Ks.