A churning is taking place among the Sikhs in Punjab out to challenge and demolish the archaic religious and political constructs that dominated the community in the last 50 years.
The Sewa Dal of 1920, prior to the enactment of the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925, led to the creation of the Shiromani Sewa Dal, only to get transformed into Akali Dal in the 30s. It was a part of the democratisation process started by the British that has very recently taken shape of Shiromani Akali Panth (SAP). The new non-political entity aims to protect and maintain the Sikh shrines in Punjab besides rejuvenating the community in accordance with the philosophy of the Gurus.
Former president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Bibi Jagir Kaur, the founder of the SAP, seems to be attempting to unite the Sikhs working in different political parties and social groups under one umbrella. The professed aim of the nascent organisation, as of now, is only to do “some sort of surgery” to remove the malignant growth (malpractices) within the Sikh community.
The decay in the social and cultural life of the members of the community, many feel was maximum during the continuous 27-year-long presidency of the SGPC of Gurcharan Singh Tohra – one of the most influential and controversial leaders – that is now being rectified. Tohra dabbled into religion and state politics, at the same time, always trying to checkmate his contemporary Parkash Singh Badal.
On the other hand, Parkash Singh Badal always remained busy to keep Tohra under check, not allowing him to grab power and usurp the position of Chief Minister. Badal became CM 5 times despite the machinations of Tohra. The degeneration in the Sikh ethos and politics set in mostly during the previous regimes of Akalis and, even the Congress.
After one and a half decades of terrorism, the sacrilege incidents of 2013 onwards, discredited the Badal-led Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which today has just 3 MLAs in the state Assembly. The Congress is also in disarray with infighting taking over and the garrulous Navjot Sidhu hitting at and ignoring the state president Raja Amrinder Singh Warring. The splinter Akali groups and other smaller parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Communist Party of India ((CPI) and Trinamool Congress (TMC) are in-consequential in Punjab.
The existing social and political vacuum – as detailed above – is now seeking to be filled up under the leadership of Bibi Jagir Kaur. The formation of SAP (Shiromani Akali Panth) on June 3, 2023, is a step in the same direction. On the face of it, going by the public announcements made by Bibi, this religious grouping seeks to unite all the Sikhs who followed Guru’s secular philosophy, though they might be politically active in Congress, the BJP, the Communists, the BSP representing Dalits or any other party.
For the first time, an all-encompassing approach is envisaged to challenge the monopoly of the Badal family-led SAD over the Gurdwara-controlling SGPC. For a long time, the ‘lifafa’ (envelope) culture promoted by Badals would lead to the hoisting of a new president of the SGPC instead of a regular voting process. Many Sikh thinkers termed this practice a result of the total “mental, moral and financial subjugation” of the SGPC members.
Bibi Jagir Kaur, who remained a political lackey of the Badals for many years, ultimately, in early 2023, dared to stand up to reject the “religious fascism” as exhibited by the complete “unprincipled” surrender of the SGPC members to ‘lifafa’ culture in SGPC. A US-educated Sukhbir Badal was declared as an heir to his political legacy Badal senior and made president of SAD. He was also allowed to run the government as Deputy CM from 2012 to 2017, with all powers vested in him.
According to a member of the think-tank of the SAP, the new group would ensure the fielding of only educated and clean candidates for contesting the coming elections to the general house of the SGPC. Before choosing a candidate to contest the election, his devotion to the Gurus’ philosophy and adherence to the Sikh ‘rehat-maryada’ would be the main deciding criterion for the selectors. The historical preference of Badals to mostly field Jats for Gurdwara elections is certain to be dispensed with. In other words, the SAP seems to be making an attempt to instil an estimated about 80 per cent of non-Jat members of the Sikh community to pilot the ship themselves in otherwise somewhat troubled waters of Punjab.
In view of the churning process, the nervous SAD is firing salvos at Bibi Jagir Kaur, branding her as the B-team of the BJP-RSS combine, which does not seem to be true. Talking to a web channel, Bibi said, “It was Badal-led SAD that forged an alliance with the BJP and repeatedly won elections with its support. Admittedly I too, at that time, acquiesced with the decision of the party president and, they are now trying to hide their past just to discredit me,” she added.