The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) hastily convened an internal committee meeting on June 16, where the services of Giani Harpreet Singh, the executive Jathedar of Sri Akal Takht Sahib for nearly five years, were terminated. The sudden removal of Giani Harpreet Singh and the appointment of Jathedar of Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib, Giani Raghbir Singh, in his place has sparked intense discussions about the political reasons behind this decision. Panthik circles are now urging for a proper procedure to be established for the appointment, retirement, and delineation of duties and responsibilities of the Jathedar.
The global Sikh community recognizes the significance and supreme position of Sri Akal Takht Sahib in the Sikh Panth. Throughout history, Sikhs have revered the decisions made by the Panj Pyaras (Five Beloved Ones) and the messages/orders issued by the Jathedar from Sri Akal Takht Sahib’s inscription. Disobedience to the Panth’s doctrines has led to the expulsion of Sikhs from the community, regardless of their positions. The Panth has always sought to reintegrate Gursikhs, both individually and collectively, in order to eradicate any ideological laxity or religious disobedience from their lives. In some cases, rewards such as salaries have been offered as a gentle punishment to encourage complete dedication to the Sikh Panth. Examples from Sikh history abound, highlighting influential personalities who were punished for defying the Panth. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sher-e-Punjab, was once disciplined by Jathedar Akali Phula Singh of Sri Akal Takht, establishing the supremacy of Akal Takht in Sikh history. The Takht Sahib has also bestowed special honors and titles upon individuals dedicated to the Panth.
The historical background of Sri Akal Takht Sahib dates back to 1606 AD when Sri Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji established it after the martyrdom of the fifth Guru, Sri Guru Arjan Dev Ji. Gursikh Baba Buddha Ji and Bhai Gurdas Ji were responsible for its construction. The establishment of Takht Sahib and the adoption of the Miri-Piri concept by the sixth Guru marked significant political moves to solidify Sikhism. Thus, Akal Takht is not merely a building; it is the creator of a sovereign institution.
After the era of the Gurus, the Sikh Panth overcame major historical crises under the leadership of Sri Akal Takht Sahib. Recognizing the paramount importance of this revered shrine, Mata Sundari Ji (the wife of the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh Ji) instructed Bhai Mani Singh to take charge of Akal Takht Sahib’s service following the martyrdom of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur. Bhai Mani Singh accepted the responsibility in the mid-18th century and began gathering the scattered Sikh community at Akal Takht Sahib during Diwali and Baisakhi. He aimed to provide a new direction to the Sikh community and address Sikh issues based on the Guru’s values and principles. Although Bhai Mani Singh was martyred in 1738, his contributions to the Sikh community ensured that Sri Akal Takht Sahib remained a pillar of principles and unity. Under his leadership, the foremost institutions of the Sikh community, including the Budha Dal, Tarna Dal, and Dal Khalsa, were formed as a unified army. Subsequently, the Jathedari (leadership) of Sri Akal Takht Sahib passed through the hands of Nawab Kapur Singh (until 1753), Baba Gurbakhsh Singh Shaheed (until 1764), Jassa Singh Ahluwalia (until 1783), Akali Phula Singh (until 1823), and Baba Hanuman Singh (who was martyred in 1845 while fighting against British rule). After the martyrdom of Jathedar Prahlad Singh in 1846, the management of Sri Akal Takht Sahib fell under the control of the British government.
Akal Takht Sahib has long symbolized Sikh autonomy, serving as the decision-making center for religious, social, and political matters concerning the Sikh community. The Jathedar of Akal Takht Sahib, as the main speaker, used to announce the decisions to the Sikh community, which were made after careful deliberation. This practice continued during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and for a period after the establishment of the Shiromani Committee. However, following the defeat of the Sikh state, the British government, well aware of the significance and influence of Takht Sahib among Sikhs, took nefarious steps that undermined its authority and the unity of Sikhs against British rule. During this period, the ruler of Takht Sahib, Arudh Singh, presented a Siropa (robe of honor) to General Dyer, who was accused of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Furthermore, the British government declared historical Gurdwaras and their properties to be under the control of Mahants (priests). In response, Panthak circles launched a campaign to liberate Gurdwaras from the influence of Mahants. It was during this phase that Teja Singh Bhuchar became the Jathedar of Sri Akal Takht Sahib. On November 15, 1920, a meeting of the Sikh Sangat (Sarbat Khalsa) was held at Sri Akal Takht Sahib, laying the foundation of the Shiromani Committee. On December 14, 1920, the “Gurdwara Sevak Dal” was established to engage in political and social struggles, later renamed as “Akali Dal.”
Meanwhile, the British government drafted the Gurdwara Bill, which was presented in the Punjab Council on July 9, 1925, and subsequently passed. The Gurudwara Act came into effect on November 1, 1925, with the Governor’s approval. Although the Act excluded the Jathedar institution of all Takhts from its purview, it included certain phrases like ‘Head Minister’ that referred to the Chief Granthi (Jathedar). This diplomatic act undermined the independence of the Jathedar institution. Consequently, the Shiromani Committee began appointing Jathedars and imposing their own rules upon them. As a result, today, it is challenging for any Jathedar to carry out their duties without being aligned with a political alliance. While this became a necessary part of Akali political propaganda, it has also weakened the authority of Akal Takht.
The concept of Takht is fundamentally different from that of the historical Gurdwara institution. Historically, the ‘throne’ did not serve as the political center of a particular individual or a subservient entity to any worldly power. However, with the advent of vote politics, the sectarian method of appointing the Jathedar was abolished. Given that the Akali Dal has dominated the Shiromani Committee for a considerable period, the Jathedars are compelled to make decisions that align with the political aspirations of the Akali Dal. Historical evidence demonstrates that whenever a Jathedar of Sri Akal Takht Sahib aligned themselves with the interests of a particular political faction, the supremacy and authority of Sri Akal Takht Sahib suffered. This is why the sectarian ban on accepting the decisions of Jathedars has been weak. For example, the Panj Singh Sahibans (the Five Beloved Ones) decided to boycott Dera Sirsa and its leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim in 2007. However, on September 24, 2015, under the influence of the Shiromani Committee and Akali Dal, the decision to pardon Gurmeet Ram Rahim was made, which was vehemently opposed by the Panth. To garner support for their decision, the Shiromani Committee spent a significant sum on newspaper advertisements. Eventually, due to public anger, the Singh Sahibans were forced to withdraw their decision on October 16, 2015.
In this context, Jathedar Gurbachan Singh, who failed to uphold the dignity and supremacy of the Holy Throne, faced disapproval from the Sikh Sangat. Consequently, on October 30, 2018, Giani Harpreet Singh, Jathedar of Takht Sri Damdama Sahib, was assigned the additional responsibility as the Executive Jathedar of Sri Akal Takht Sahib. Although not everyone agrees with Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh’s actions, it cannot be denied that his far-sighted and sincere decisions and performance restored the dignity of the Jathedar position and revived faith among Sikhs in the country and abroad. His concern for the Sikh community compelled him to speak out against any excesses or shortcomings at the governmental level that aimed to fulfill political aspirations. During his tenure, he began questioning the inadequacies and mistakes of the Sikh political class, particularly the Akali Dal and the Badal family. Unsurprisingly, the Akali Dal resented the audacity of a Jathedar imposed upon them. How could he dare to question the Akali Dal? As a result, differences and resentment emerged between the Jathedar and the Akali leadership.
Regarding the case of the 328 missing Swaroops of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Jathedar Harpreet Singh called for legal action against the officials of the Shiromani Committee. Initially, the Shiromani Committee accepted this demand but later retracted its steps. The PTC channel, owned by the Badal family, used to broadcast Gurbani Kirtan from Darbar Sahib and claimed intellectual property rights over it, which was difficult to tolerate. In response, the Jathedar urged the Shiromani Committee to establish its own independent channel and network for broadcasting Gurbani Kirtan from Darbar Sahib, separate from the influence of the Akali leadership. Although the Shiromani Committee made some progress on this matter, it was unable to fully accomplish it.
Additionally, the Jathedar’s failure to take action against the officials of the Haryana Gurdwara Committee and his attendance at the wedding of former Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi’s son in October 2021, as well as his presence at the engagement of AAP MP Raghav Chadha and actress Parineeti Chopra in Delhi on May 13, 2023, provided an opportunity for the Akali leadership to criticize the Jathedar. Despite there being no violation of protocol, Shiromani Akali Dal leader Virsa Singh Valtoha raised objections. The disintegration of the Akali-BJP alliance further exacerbated tensions, as Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh’s proximity to the BJP caused jealousy among some Akali Dal leaders. Giani Harpreet Singh had formed alliances with Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP Punjab in-charge and Union Minister Gajjen Dar Singh Shekhawat, both of whom visited him at the Akal Takht Office. Additionally, influential Aam Aadmi Party leaders Raghav Chadha and Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann admired the Jathedar. Giani Harpreet Singh displayed resilience during several important events. He did not support the demand for calling a Sarbat Khalsa, an extremist gathering, but he advocated for the release of several innocent individuals arrested during the controversy surrounding the gathering. The Jathedar also praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for repealing the controversial agricultural laws and expressed concern about certain groups within the Kisan Andolan (farmer’s protest) who were deviating from Sikh values, heritage, and unity. His ability to quickly adapt to his role was evident.
Taking a jibe at the Akali leadership, Jathedar Harpreet Singh made harsh remarks, stating that the Shiromani Akali Dal, which was once a party of workers and farmers, had now become a party of capitalists. He emphasized that unless the Akali Dal advocates for the rights of workers and farmers, it will not thrive. Furthermore, he highlighted the decline in the Sikh Panth and Gurdwaras’ thinking over the past 50 years, which did not sit well with the Akali leadership.
Advocate Harjinder Singh Dhami, President of the Shiromani Committee, claimed that Jathedar Harpreet Singh voluntarily stepped down from his additional responsibilities at Sri Akal Takht Sahib. However, Giani Harpreet Singh’s social media post expressing gratitude to Waheguru and seeking blessings raised suspicions about his removal. It seems that Sukhbir Singh Badal, the President of the Akali Dal, failed to manipulate the Jathedar in his favor, resulting in his removal. The Akali leaders attempted to pressure the Jathedar into restoring their respect within the Panth, but the Jathedar demanded that Sukhbir Singh Badal resign from the presidency before appearing at Sri Akal Takht Sahib, which the Akali leadership found unacceptable. They feared that the Jathedar could initiate significant changes within the Akali leadership.
The relationship between the Akali leadership and the Jathedar had its challenges. The Jathedar’s display of an independent identity made the Akali leadership believe that he was no longer suitable for their agenda, leading to his dismissal. The Jathedar paid the price for advising the deviant Akali leadership to prioritize the Panth’s interests over their political ambitions. Undoubtedly, Giani Harpreet Singh demonstrated his abilities during his tenure at Sri Akal Takht Sahib.
The repeated dismissals of Jathedars in the past reveal that they are merely pawns in the hands of the SGPC and SAD. Unfortunately, despite repeated calls from scholars, there are still no established criteria for selecting Jathedars. Unless a proper procedure is defined for their appointment, retirement, and delineation of duties and responsibilities, these flaws will persist, potentially causing deeper divisions in the future.