The sudden resignation, under peculiar circumstances, by the Akal Takht Jathedar, Giani Harpreet Singh, has brought into sharp focus the procedure of appointments and removal of Jathedars done not entirely on merit but coloured by sheer politics.
Since October 2018, Giani Harpreet Singh has been serving as the acting Jathedar of Akal Takht, and during this period, his several controversial decisions received flak from the community. In the absence of any laid down procedure for the appointment of the Jathedars and their terms of service, the authority and role of the Jathedars are perceived by many as compromised. To maintain the continuity and the sovereignty of the institution of Akal Takht, the timeless throne symbolising worldly authority and power, founded by Guru Hargobind ji somewhere between 1606 and 1612, to challenge the oppressive throne of the then rulers, the Jathedar, once appointed, ought to be above the ordinary and also above suspicion. Guided by the understanding of the institution and the philosophy it represents, the appointments must be visibly transparent and generally all-inclusive.
The foundation of the Akal Takhat by Guru Hargobind ji was not the foundation of the throne (a platform) or a building but of a philosophy and practice of resisting physical and political force in the same terms to guard spirituality and freedom. The coalescence of Akal Takht – known as Akal Bunga originally – and Harimandir Sahib in the same premises was a new experiment of juxtaposing the institutions of power and spirituality not for contrast or precedence but for complementarity. The essence of bringing the two so close to each other in the same complex was to preach the completeness of a human in the simultaneous presence of a saint and a soldier in him.
Later, the existence of the two culminated in the distinctive ideology of the Sikh faith and practice. By founding the Akal Takht just opposite Harimandir Sahib, the Guru clarified his concepts of Miri (Kinghood, richness and power) and Piri (Sainthood) for the principle of righteous living and practice. Hence the name Akal Takht meant that it was a timeless throne, unlike the temporary thrones of the emperors. Wearing a tuft and dressing up like an emperor, Guru Hargobind Ji challenged the authority of the Muslim emperor who tortured his father and the fifth Guru to death. He used to sit on a throne named Akal Takht and hold court meetings for the public. As advised by his father, Guru Hargobind raised a unit of armed soldiers trained in guerrilla warfare. Guru Ji put on two swords of Miri (worldly authority) and Piri (spiritual authority) around himself. Then onwards, the tradition of peaceful resistance practised by the first five Gurus against injustice had been blended with armed resistance, if needed. The sword was literally a weapon to check the oppressor and metaphorically a weapon of wisdom to check the evils. The two swords on both sides of his body symbolised the empowerment of an individual both physically and intellectually for a righteous life. Akal Takht is the site for Miri; Harimandir Sahib is the site for Piri.
The relationship between Miri and Piri is not of precedence of one over the other; It is the relationship of balancing the two forces strengthening the individual to occupy the position of Akal Takht Jathedar (the leader of the community). The Jathedar can issue collective orders for the whole community to follow and can summon any Sikh individual to explain his behaviour for his wrong actions. By tradition, he can award the punishment to the guilty. The Akal Takht Jathedar is thus the de facto supreme authority with the sanction of Sikh tradition over and above any other authority or earthly law. For example, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a king but he was summoned and awarded punishment by the then Akal Takht Jathedar, Akali Phoola Singh.
Historically speaking, the first Hukamnama was delivered by Guru Hargobind himself from the Akal Takht, asking the Sikhs to donate horses and weapons rather than precious articles for the fighters. When the Guru was arrested and imprisoned in the Gwalior fort, Bhai Gurdas ji looked after Akal Takht while Baba Budha ji performed services at Darbar Sahib. Due to its appeal against injustice, oppression and subjugation, Akal Takht suffered attacks and was even demolished, only to be rebuilt more than once. That reveals its perennial strength. To practice inclusiveness and wider acceptability, in the past, there has been a practice of appointing the Jathedar with consensus in the Sarbat Khalsa, a representative gathering of all Sikhs.
In view of the changing times and to make inclusion transparent, it is necessary to bring structural changes, systematise the procedure and set the eligibility criteria for the appointment of the Akal Takht Jathedar. It may help alleviate the ”controversy factor” increasingly associated with the institution. Finding a more acceptable way, the appointments of the Jathedars of all Takhts, including the Akal Takht Jathedar, may be systematised by setting up a collegium of selectors that may include a representative of the SGPC, the Granthies (Guru Granth Sahib reciters) and the Jathedars of all the Takhts, besides members of various Sikh bodies. The collegium, thus created, needs to prepare the panel of three persons unanimously or by a two-thirds majority vote. One of the three shall be selected by the Panj Piaras involving two eminent Sikh scholars, two Sikh philanthropists and one Sikh social activist nominated by the SGPC. The Jathedar’s selection and appointment should be announced in the presence of a large representative gathering of the Sikhs.
The Jathedar should have at least a master’s degree. More appropriately a Ph.D. in comparative religion or at least two published books of international standards. He should have proficiency in Punjabi, Persian and Sanskrit languages. He should have a thorough knowledge of the Sikh religion, History and world politics. His age should be between 60 to 75 years old. A Jathedar’s appointment should be for a full term of five years with an independent charge extendable for another two or five years each. He should draw the supporting allowance and perks from the Akal Takht corpus, specially created by one-time contributions from the SGPC and the Sikh community. He could be removed, before his term, only in case of moral turpitude. The Jathedar, once appointed, should be independent of all political and administrative pressures. After his retirement, he can engage in research on Sikhism and serve as a member of the advisory council to the Akal Takht.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Khalsa Vox or its members.