Jathedar Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabbar : The Life And Times

Jul 10, 2004
In a seminar held by the Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh in November 2001 on the "Institutional Failure in Punjab with respect to Sikhism" a resolution was unanimously passed recommending setting up an International Sikh Apex Body. Its purpose is to control and coordinate the entire Sikh affairs under the supremacy of the Akal Takht Sahib Amritsar. The SGPC, as the most representative organisation of the Sikhs, was requested to convene a meeting to draw up a concrete plan to set up a Sikh Apex Body based on the doctrine of Guru Granth-Guru Panth as envisaged by Guru Gobind Singh Sahib. Apart from a decision by the SGPC to set up an International Advisory Council, not an Apex Body as recommended by the seminar, no further action has been taken thus far. The delay by the SGPC to set up an Apex Body is unfortunate and could presumably be due to concerns about an erosion of their authority.

The Institute of Sikh Studies has in the last two issues of the Abstracts of Sikh Studies (April-June 2003; July-September 2003) described the various problems and controversies facing the Panth which need urgent attention. The limitations of the two existing statutory bodies (i.e., SGPC and DSGMC) to handle Sikh world affairs were also discussed.

During the last century two other developments have further confounded the crisis. The first was the mistaken appointment of Takht jathedars following the enactment of the Sikh Gurdwara Act of 1925. The second was the election of the governing body members of these two bodies, as well as other gurdwaras and Sikh institutions / organisations, by votes along political lines.

The following facts indicate that there is no tradition or history of appointment of Takht jathedars :

a) During the Guru's times and in the later period upto 1925, the term jathedar did not exist. Respected and devoted gur-Sikhs were either called `Babas' or `Bhais' like Baba Budha ji, Bhai Kanahiya, Bhai Nand Lal etc. The Misl heads were called sardars like Sardar Kapur Singh, Sardar Jassa Singh, etc.
b) Guru Gobind Singh Sahib before shedding his mortal frame did not appoint any particular person as his successor nor create any authoritative post such as a jathedar.

c) The term jathedar applied to the heads of the armed groups (Jathas) during the Misl period and to the un-armed jathas which were sent out from the Akal Takht Sahib during the Akali Movement of 1920s to liberate gurdwaras from the corrupt mahants.

d) The terms jathedars does not even exist in the Sikh Gurdwara Act of 1925 under which the SGPC came into being. In the Act, granthis are listed as ministers and the Takht heads as head ministers.

A general notion that Bhai Mani Singh and Akali Phula Singh were jathedars of the Akal Takht Sahib is incorrect. Bhai Mani Singh was appointed as a granthi-cum-custodian of Har-mandir Sahib by Mata Sundriji. Akali Phula Singh was the head of the Nihang Dal looking after the Akal Takht Sahib. He was a most courageous and pious leader and it was in that capacity that he admonished the Maharaja for his moral lapses.

The appointment of jathedar has led to two violations of Sikh ethos. First, the elevation to a position of authoritative post does not exist in Sikh hierarchy. Second, their inclusion in the Punj-Piara panel, as nominated members by the SGPC, is not right as Panj Piaras are to be approved by the Panth. As nominated members their judgement cannot be impartial and in the best interest of the community. Their decisions during the past two decades have been discriminatory and controversial. A wrong impression has been created in the general public that Sikhism is a fundamentalist and a medieval religion as their leadership, management of institutions and politics appear to revolve around the priests. This impression is far from reality.

During the Guru's times, or even upto 1925, when the Sikh Gurdwara Act of 1925 was enacted, the custodians of the Sikh gurdwaras and institutions were selected by the local or area sangat based on their proven devotion and commitment to the Sikh faith. After the introduction of elections by votes for the SGPC, all the other gurdwara and institutions followed the same system to elect their governing bodies. In addition, they have made their own rules to perpetuate their hold by limiting their electoral college to a certain number and to members who paid admission or annual fees. Due to election by votes where money, liquor, and muscle power is freely used, questionable individuals can end up managing Sikh institutions. Nowadays membership is considered as a stepping stone towards political power and there is no check to prevent entry of undesirable elements. As a result, the Sikh bodies are not radiating true Sikh spirit and are failing to inspire devotees, particularly the youths.

Election by votes breeds factionalism, nepotism, and corruption and is against the tenets and ethos of Sikhism. The Sikh conception of leadership is based on Guru Nanak Sahib's'' dictum "Panch parwan, panch pardhan" which implies that only devoted and approved persons should form the presidium. Guru Gobind Singh Sahib brought this aspect into focus when in 1699 he selected Panj Piaras at the point of his sword stressing the importance of self-sacrifying and devoted persons.

Concept of Guru Granth-Guru Panth

One of the most important aspect of Guru Nanak Sahib's mission, was to produce an ideal group of persons who are saintly at heart and soldiers ready to fight injustice and oppression even at the cost of their lives. This conception is based on his dictum _ "Should you like to play the game of love, enter my lane with your head on your palm, and once on this path, then sacrifice your head ungrudgingly." Guru Hargobind Sahib (1595-1644) openly brought out the concept of "saint soldier" (Piri and Miri) when he ascended the throne in 1606 wearing two swords representing spiritual (Piri) and temporal (Miri) power. He thereby, stressed that both these aspects are complementary, inseparable, and are fundamental to Guru Nanak Sahib's spiritual concept. A person cannot remain a bystander to rampant injustice and oppression. It took Guru Nanak Sahib and his nine successors Gurus 230 odd-years to accomplish the task of producing `an ideal group of person' Guru Gobind Singh called them the Khalsa when in 1699, five devoted Sikhs offered their heads to become the first Panj-Piaras. Thereafter, the Guru asked them to initiate him as well to become a member of the Khalsa brotherhood. By this action the Guru merged himself in the Khalsa, and bestowed Guruship on the Panth by taking amrit from their five representations. This is a unique feature in the world history whereby a prophet places himself as not only equal but also lower than his followers. He demonstrated this subordination by quitting the Chamkaur Garhi at their bidding and paying a fine imposed by them for bowing to the Pir-Dadu's grave. He further explained the role of Panj-Piaras when he detailed five devoted Sikhs to accompany Baba Banda Singh Bahadur as his advisors when he was sent to Punjab to establish rule of law there by ousting the tyrant Moghuls.

The second concept of Guru Granth was accomplished when Guru Gobind Singh, before departing the earth in 1708, enthroned the Adi Granth Sahib as the eternal Guru of the Sikhs and ended the succession of living Gurus.

During the reign of the Gurus (from 1469 to 1708) both the spiritual and temporal powers were vested in Gurus. Guru Gobind Singh Sahib bifurcated this power into two and vested Piri with Guru Granth and Miri with the Guru Panth with the proviso that Guru Granth, being the Divine Light, is supreme. The role of Guru Granth is eternal, inalienable, clear, and distinct. The conduct of temporal affairs, being dependent on various circumstances, factors, time, and situation are changeable. For this reason `Miri' was entrusted to Guru Panth. Only those Panthic decisions which are taken in the presence of Guru Granth and are in the spirit of gurbani bear the stamp of `Gurmat' or `Hukamnama'.

The placing of the Golden Temple and the Akal Takht Sahib close to each other and flying of two flags on the premises are also indicative of inseparability and collectivity of the two aspects of spirituality and temporality. The advantage of collective leadership is that the power remains in the hands of the Panth and not in any individual. An individual can be corrupted by power, self, and wealth, but not the collective body approved by the Panth.

The concept of collective leadership was most successfully used by the Misl sardars during the 18th century. They constituted an apex body called Sarbat Khalsa, under the umbrella of the Akal Takht Sahib, which was attended by all the twelve Misl sardars and the common Sikhs. From amongst the assembly, five devoted and respected Sikhs were chosen to form a presidium of Panj-Piaras to control and coordinate all the Panthic and general public affairs. This experiment was such a success that the Misl sardars' jurisdiction extended from Saharanpur in the south to the north of Lahore (now in Pakistan). The Khalsa army under Sardar Baghel Singh even held Delhi for six months. Where the 30,000 strong Khalsa army camped is still called Tees Hazari. In spite of extreme hardship and tribulations suffered by the Sikhs, the 18th century is the most glorious period of the Sikh history.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, on assuming sole power over the Sikh empire abolished the institution of the Sarbat Khalsa along with the concept of Panj-Piaras, but remained subservient to the sovereignty of the Akal Takht Sahib. These step created dissension during his life and his empire collapsed soon after his death. The Khalsa army made a desperate effort to revive the collective leadership by Panj Piaras but it was too late. The present plight of the Sikhs is also due to the problem of individual leadership. There are half a dozen of Akali parties under self-glorifying leaders and a mushroom growth of `sant deras' with their own brand of Sikhism.

The Akal Takht Sahib

Closely connected to the concept of Guru Granth-Guru Panth is the distinguished institution of the Akal Takht Sahib constructed by Guru Hargobind Sahib in 1608. Here the Guru sat in state with all the regalia wearing two swords representing the spiritual and the temporal power. Apart from infusing martial spirit amongst the Sikhs, he discussed all the religious, political, social, and economic problems facing the community and humanity at large. He also issued edicts to the Sikh sangat for implementation. The Guru moved to Kiratpur Sahib in 1634. As none of the successor Gurus stayed in Amritsar thereafter, the Takht sovereignty remained with them wherever they were. In 1708, it reverted to its original edifice in Amritsar, along with the conceptual spirit of Guru Granth-Guru Panth. The Akal Takht then became the hub of the Sikh world and centre of resistence against injustice and oppression. It is the only Takht that existed during the Gurus period and, as such, is supreme. Three more Takhts at Anandpur Sahib (Punjab), Patna (Bihar), and Nander (Maharashtra) were recognized by the Panth in the 18th century and the fourth at Sabo-di-Talwandi (Punjab) in the 20th century.

Constitution of Apex Body

It can be argued that if Sikhism is passing through a crisis, so articulated, why do the Sikhs need an Apex Body when no other religion has it or has felt need for it ? Sikh identity is distinct from other religions, including its ideology, its doctrine of Miri and Piri, its collective leadership of Guru Granth-Guru Panth and its institutions of the Akal Takht and Panj-Piaras. Above all Sikhism's unprecedented scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, contains sayings of saints of other castes, creeds, and religions and is honoured as Sikh eternal Guru.

Constituting an Apex Body is not a new innovation in Sikhism. It is ingrained in the concept of Guru Granth-Guru Panth. The Misl Sardars successfully constituted an Apex Body known as Sarbat Khalsa. Representatives from the twelve Misls and the common Sikhs attended meetings held twice a year on Diwali and Baisakhi days at Amritsar. Apart from discussing mutual problems and strategies to oust the foreigner rulers from India, the main agenda was the selection of Panj-Piaras to coordinate and supervise all Panthic — related affairs during the ensuing period.

The dispersion of Sikhs throughout the world combined with the presence of two statutory bodies, two government controlled boards (at Patna and Nander) and political domination over religion, makes constituting an Apex Body a complex exercise. It is suggested that the Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh should take a lead in this effort. As a first step, local scholars, intellectuals, theologians, and representatives of like-minded organizations should meet to discuss the matter and draw up a plan of action. An all-India and global seminar should follow as the next step in creating consensus.

A suggested layout of the proposed Apex Body is given in Appendix A. It envisages that this supreme body works under the aegis of the Akal Takht Sahib which is the highest spiritual and temporal authority, commanding respect and allegiance of all Sikhs (irrespective of their status and nationality). Sikh affairs should be handled by the Panj-Piaras, who are approved by the Apex Body derived from representatives from the Sikh world. The Panj-Piaras shall be assisted by an secretariat of capable gursikhs known for their zeal, piety, and devotion to Sikhism. One of the Panj Piaras can be chosen as a spokesman. There should be no Takht Jathedar or post of a president.

To make the Apex Body fully representative, its members should be drawn from all locales and the main Sikh organizations and institutions. The author also suggests : i) Creating 22 Sikh regions internationally (Honouring Guru Amar Das Sahib's [1479-1574] model from the 16th century), ii) Having each region send five representatives to Amritsar to form the Body, iii) Giving women fair representation in the selection of regional members and in appointments to the Secretariat, and iv) Name the Body as "Sarbat Khalsa".

The agendas of the Apex Body would be to; a) consider ways and means to implement the concept of Guru Granth-Guru Panth from the Apex Body to the gurdwaras/institutions level; b) free the Akal Takht Sahib from any institutional control, so that its sovereignity is upheld for independent functioning; c) abolish the Takht Jathedari and elections by votes systems, and d) intensify Dharam Parchar to disseminate Sikh ideals amongst Sikhs and to humanity at large.


The Sikhs are basically religious, liberal, and secular. The main cause for the drift from the high ideals of Sikhism is lack of religious instruction, i.e., Dharam Parchar; lack of knowledge of its history, tradition, and its uniqueness. This weakness is being exploited by politicians and pseudo-saints for selfish ends and glorification.

Guru Gobind Singh Sahib clearly indicated how panthic affairs and management of gurdwaras and institutions should be conducted under the concept of Guru Granth-Guru Panth. The introduction of the Panj-Piaras system was not a new development: it was based on the old Indian tradition of Panchayat-Raj, Guru Nanak Sahib's dictum of "Panch Parwan", and the practice of the earlier Gurus to have their own piaras or advisors. When Sikhs successfully practiced these concepts in the 18th century they progressed in all arenas. From the 19th century on, Sikhs disregarded these concepts and the larger aspects of their institutional life fell into disarray. Constituting an Apex Body is an important and progressive step which will help restore integrity and the glory of the Panth.

prem judge

Dec 18, 2004
I understand that on at least one occasion a golden light was seen to come from the
Akal Takat and merge into the Sir Guru Granth Sahib. This incident it seem was witnessed
by numerous people. Anyone able to throw some light into this ? Many Thanks.