Open Letter to the President of India

Respected President

The 1925 Sikh Gurdwara Act passed by the Punjab Legislative Assembly established Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to manage historic Gurdwaras in Punjab. SGPC has a vast physical network and budgetary resources only second to those of the Government of Punjab. It is eyed and lends itself to serve as an attractive political base.

The 1925 Act defined that for electoral purposes a “Sikh means the person who professes the Sikh religion” and subscribes to the declaration that “I solemnly affirm that I am a Sikh, that I believe in the Guru Granth Sahib, that I believe in the ten Gurus, and that I have no other religion”. Wanting to deny voting rights to certain section of Sikhs in SGPC elections, the ruling Akali Party steered the Sikh Gurdwara (Amendment) Bill in the Parliament. Each and every MP, irrespective of Party affiliation or belief, with a lone exception, was silently or vocally a party to its adoption. The Act lays down that no person shall be registered as a voter for the SGPC polls who trims or shaves his beard or keshas (hair), smokes and takes alcoholic drinks (The Tribune, 9 May 2016). The equally restrictive Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1971, stipulates that a Sikh voter for the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Managing Committee (DSGMC) elections must be an Amritdhari (baptized). Ipso facto, the Parliament has defined a ‘Sikh’, or the characteristics of a ‘Sikh’.

These Gurdwara Acts betray the Sikh Value System. Sikhism is inclusive; the Acts are exclusive. By design or by irrationality, the Acts have narrowed the demographic base of the Sikhs. There is also a vivid impropriety in the Parliament singling out the Sikhs, without defining other religious constituents of India (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, et al). Equity warrants that these unjust and discriminatory Sikh Gurdwara Acts should be repealed.

Rescinding the acts should not destabilize the institutionalized establishments. There exist adequate legal alternatives. For one, SGPC and DSGMC can Register themselves as non-profits religious organizations with their own By-Laws, defining their own Membership. Already, a vast number of Gurdwara Committees in India and abroad govern themselves in this manner.

‘Sikh look’ of a male Sikh with a beard and turban is internationally recognized and respected. There in an eternity to it which must be honored and safeguarded. However, two potent forces are in interplay. (i) About 36% of the total Sikh population, that is, 9 million are now settled outside of their original homeland of Punjab. The 2011 Census of India places the Sikh population at 16.0 million in Punjab and 4.3 million spread in other States of India. Associated estimates reckon worldwide Sikh population at around 25 million, implying that about 4.7 million Sikhs are living outside of India. (ii) A diversity has been in progress in that the numbers with trimmed beards are even shorn hair without necessarily discarding the turban has been on the rise.

Around 1950, excluding the historically prominent but small numbered Sehjshari Sikhs, and estimated 1% Sikh trimmed their beards, while those who cut their hair was less than 0.1%. Since then, these numbers have steadily multiplied. Lacking documented data, educated guesses based on visual observations of attendance at Sikh religions and social gatherings around the world put their 2015 numbers at around 40-50% of all male Sikhs, with older Sikhs being on the low end of the scale and the younger ones at the high end. (Similar change among the female Sikhs has been minimal). The social acceptance of Sikhs with trimmed beards and/or shorn hair has dramatically increases. Many of them head laudable Sikh institutions and have attained high offices of Prime Minister, Premier, Governor, and Minister in India and abroad.

Universally, person defines one’s own religious affiliation. Who should define a Sikh? It is the Sikhs who should define themselves. The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Punjabi University, Patiala 1998, defines a Sikh as ‘the disciple of Guru Nanak (1469-1539) and his nine spiritual successors’, and portrays the historical panorama of Sikhism. To take cognizance of the steady dispersion of Sikhs since long, and the increasingly changing ‘look of male Sikhs in recent decades, a need has arisen to reinforce the definition of the term ‘Sikh’ or the coining of new phraseology. A possible mode could be a Round Table of Sikh institutions convened by the Punjabi University.

It is unfortunate that instead of courageously dealing with their issues head on, Sikh politicians have conveniently opted to hide behind the ‘voice vote’ of hundreds of non-Sikh Parliamentarians. Whatever the Sikhs do or don’t do to tune up their religious houses, Parliament should stay out of singularly defining the characteristics of a ‘Sikh’.

As an Indian citizen, and a concerned Sikh, hoping for your kind consideration.

Respectfully yours,

Dr. Shamsher Singh
Ex-Policy Advisor, The World Bank, Washington DC – 6 June 2016

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