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Authority in the Sikh Panth: Then and Now
By PUNEET SINGH LAMBA
Puneet Singh Lamba is a Boston-based software consultant. He founded The Sikh Times (sikhtimes.com) in 1999 and is author of Five Myths and Other Musings on the Sikh Condition. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. This paper was presented at a gathering organized by the Sikh Foundation at the Asilomar Conference Grounds (Monterey Peninsula, Pacific Grove, California), September 22-24, 2006.
The Sikh Times, Sep. 23, 2006
Photo: Akal Takht, the traditional center of Sikh authority
The following is a brief discussion on the evolution and current state of authority structures in Sikhism. This paper is a clarion call for Sikhs to reach for greater levels of democratization and consensus formation. Efforts at broadening Sikhism's appeal are often misrepresented as a dilution of Sikhism's principles. On the contrary, it is suggested here that a plural, inclusive, liberal and democratic 'Pan-Sikhism' will require the discovery and strengthening of core Sikh principles.1
In theory, the S.G.P.C. represents a model for the democratization of religious institutions. However, in practice the S.G.P.C. is mostly autocratic.
According to Jagmohan Singh, a former general secretary of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), 'this Sikh parliament assembles just twice a year, once to elect its president and once to pass its annual budget. The meetings consist of monologues by carefully chosen speakers, last just a few hours, and are devoid of debate, discussions, and questions.'2 Naturally, where there is no debate there can be little occasion to refer to the Sikh Gurdwaras Act that governs the S.G.P.C. Indeed, it is perhaps easier to arrange a viewing of the Kartarpur Bir than to obtain a copy of the esoteric Act.3
The neglect accorded to the Act by traditional centers of Sikh authority can arguably be attributed to the Act's egalitarian and liberal stance on matters such as the definition of a Sikh and eligibility for office.4 Another possible reason for the neglect is that amendments to it are controlled not by the Sikhs themselves but by India's central government in New Delhi.5
During the eighty years since its establishment in 1925, the S.G.P.C. has been controlled by one party, namely the Akali Dal. That's about as much democracy as we have in China and Russia with their respective single party systems.
Although the S.G.P.C. seeks to exert influence internationally, in fact its legal influence does not extend even to Delhi, Nanded, or Patna. Attempts to evolve Sikh institutions of authority outside India have given rise to bodies such as the World Sikh Organization, the World Sikh Council, the Sikh Federation, the International Sikh Confederation, and the American Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. While the evolution of these quasi-democratic groups is commendable, the splintering is perhaps indicative of a failure to democratize sufficiently.
Most of the above mentioned groups have their leadership nominated rather than elected. Partly that is for good reason because, unfortunately, the Sikh community's experience with the democratic process has generally been tainted with threats, harsh words, and even violence.6
However, this writer continues to hope to witness the emergence of Sikh organizations that refuse to give up on democracy and use creative means to sidestep violence. For example, candidates could post their election manifestos on the Internet and the voting could also be conducted over the Web. Reputed third parties could be chosen to host the Web sites so that candidates are unable to influence Webmasters. Where there is a will there is a way.
It is useful to consider whether the failure to act democratically began early in Sikh history. Starting with the third guru, Amar Das, eight of the ten Gurus exposed themselves to the charge of nepotism in decisions regarding succession. Although nepotism is often justified as necessary to prevent factionalism, it would be farfetched to propose that the largely dynastic rule by the Gurus be viewed as a model for democracy.
However, the absence of democracy need not imply that majority opinion is completely without influence. A most intriguing case in this regard is Guru Hargobind's decision to militarize the Panth. The decision may be viewed as either unilateral (undemocratic) or the culmination of majority opinion (quasi-democratic), as has been suggested by McLeod.7 In the latter case, Bhai Gurdas's opposition to Guru Hargobind's militaristic direction would perhaps have to be viewed as elitist.8
Sikhs generally take comfort in the belief that Guru Gobind Singh gave a boost to democratic ideals when he vested authority jointly in the Guru Granth and the Guru Panth. However, in the absence of personal leadership, the Guru Panth has struggled to evolve satisfactory authority structures in response to Guru Gobind Singh's desire to instill democracy.
Over the years, while the authority of the Guru Granth has flourished, that of the Guru Panth has been factionalized. In contrast, Sainapati, a contemporary of Guru Gobind Singh, wrote in Gur Sobha that 'only' the Guru Panth be recognized.9
Many Sikhs, unaccustomed to collective decision making, continue to seek personal leadership in the form of babas, sants and gurus. The rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale over the elected Sikh leadership may be viewed as an extreme manifestation of this apparent need to attribute God-like status and power to one individual.10
Today, most Sikh organizations treat the unorthodox Sikh majority (i.e. those who do not believe in the outward Khalsa form) as second class citizens who either cannot vote or cannot hold the highest offices. These organizations often fail to realize that their claims to represent all Sikhs require true democracy with equal citizenship for all Sikhs. Sikhs who passively accept the status quo and support organizations that deny them first class citizenship would do well to recall that the American Revolution was founded on challenging the absurdity of 'taxation without representation.'
The above mentioned scheme for second class citizenship is an institutionalized form of discrimination. There are two parties to every form of discrimination. One, those who practice and justify discrimination. Two, those who suffer discrimination but fail to raise their voices in opposition.
The Akal Takht, and in particular its jathedar (leader), has emerged as the traditional apex of Sikh authority in the post-Guru period. However, the jathedar is appointed by the S.G.P.C. rather than elected and is, therefore, answerable not to the people but to the politicians who control the S.G.P.C. Furthermore, the Akal Takht has scarcely been able to function independently and the purpose for which its authority has been used has generated plenty of dissatisfaction.
In 1919, Arur Singh, sarbarah (manager) of Amritsar's Golden Temple, earned much critique for allowing the British colonialists to influence him into honoring Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, the architect of Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh massacre that cost at least 379 lives.11 More recently, the Akal Takht jathedar has been accused of misusing excommunications and other threats to silence opponents.12
This paper has discussed several aspects of authority, i.e. how authority is acquired and exercised (democratically or otherwise) and the purpose for which authority is exercised once acquired.
These are merely embryonic ideas, which I hope to see other Sikhs develop and extend. Sikhs must believe that they, too, can enjoy the fruits of true democracy. However, for that to happen Sikhs must want it badly enough to struggle for it rather than sit back and accept the status quo or hope that someone else will do the needful.
My fear is that the Sikh community is disillusioned with democracy and tends to glorify those who seize power by force (e.g. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale) over those who acquire power democratically (e.g. Master Tara Singh, Harchand Singh Longowal, Gurcharan Singh Tohra). I would be thrilled to have my fear proved wrong.
I'll share an inspiring story to end this discussion on a positive note. The Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) is a free open-source encyclopedia on the Web. Anyone can anonymously reference or contribute to the encyclopedia. It is an Internet-based collaborative marvel that has given Encyclopaedia Britannica plenty to worry about. As a recent Time magazine article on the Wikipedia project explained, 'It's the same principle that New Yorker writer James Surowiecki asserted in his best seller The Wisdom of Crowds: large groups of people are inherently smarter than an elite few.'13 Surowiecki's thesis aptly sums up the thrust of this paper.
In closing, I restate my case for 'Pan-Sikhism.' The process of consensus-building requires compromise. And the mechanics of compromise involves the determination of core values, i.e. values that cannot be compromised. Enlightened compromise, therefore, helps to define rather than erode core values. One hopes that Sikhs will find that the most precious values are not those that divide us, but those that unite us.
Let us build bridges, not walls.
- Lamba, Puneet Singh, Fostering Unity and Encouraging Diversity in the Sikh Panth. The term 'Pan-Sikhism' was first introduced in this paper, presented at the conference 'Tasks Before the International Sikh Confederation (I.S.C.),' sponsored by the Institute of Sikh Studies (I.O.S.S.), held at Chandigarh, April 8, 2006.
Singh, Jagmohan, S.G.P.C.: An Insider's Viewpoint, Sikh Spectrum, April 2003.
Singh, Kashmir, Commentary on the Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925, Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University, 2004, p. iii.
Barrier, N. Gerald, 'Sikhs and the Law: A Century of Conflict Over Identity and Authority,' contained in Religion and Law in Independent India, edited by Robert D. Baird, Manohar, 2005, p. 174.
Singh, Kashmir, p. i.
Byala, Munish, S.G.P.C. Elections Marred by Violence, Alcohol, and Hypocrisy, Sikh News Network, July 13, 2004.
McLeod, Hew, Sikhism, Penguin, 1997, p. 36.
McLeod, W.H., Sikhs of the Khalsa: A History of the Khalsa Rahit, Oxford, 2003, p. 33. Also see McLeod's Sikhism, p. 35. This is a reference to Bhai Gurdas's Var 26.
McLeod, S.O.T.K., p. 234.
Lamba, Puneet Singh, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale: Five Myths, The Sikh Times, June 6, 2004.
Singh, Mohinder, The Akali Movement, Macmillan, 1978, pp. 13-14.
Lamba, Puneet Singh, Kala Afghana's Right to Freedom of Expression, The Sikh Times, February 1, 2003.
Taylor, Chris, 'It's a Wiki, Wiki World,' Time magazine, June 6, 2005, p. 41.