Let There Be Light by I.J. SINGH December 7th, 2009 The news these days is of Professor Darshan Singh, a well known scholar of gurbani, who was summoned to The Akal Takht on some issues related to the Dasam Granth. That is not at all on my mind today, but related matters are. Darshan Singh is hardly the first person to have been so summoned on some alleged infraction or another. Not so long ago, it was Gurbaksh Singh Kala Afghana, and some years before him, Professors Pashaura Singh and Piar Singh, and in the early 20<sup>th</sup> century, it was Gurmukh Singh and Teja Singh Bhassaur who faced questioning of their respective beliefs or practices. A few notables - Surjeet Singh Barnala, Giani Zail Singh and Buta Singh - were summoned in recent memory for causes that are best described as political. There are certain others Sikhs who, too, have achieved this dubious honour. But for a religion that is 500 years old, the number of believers who seemingly fell afoul of the Sikh Code of Conduct and were summoned to explain and justify their conduct are mercifully few when compared to the numbers who have faced pastoral wrath in many other religions - say Catholicism, as one such example. That borders on a way of looking for validation of Sikh behaviour, so let's drop that. There appear to be many procedural failures that one can question in the case of Professor Darshan Singh. The latest, dating from just a few days ago, highlights a lesson that should not be ignored and would be child's play to fix. On Saturday, December 5, 2009, The Akal Takht found Darshan Singh guilty of the charges against him. But the trial never really happened! According to The Akal Takht, Darshan Singh had been summoned but he did not appear on the stipulated date of the trial. In a sense then, he was sentenced in absentia on the charges. I know that sometimes in legal proceedings this is the only option when the accused flees the jurisdiction of the court. Prof. Darshan Singh claims that he was present at the stipulated venue, The Akal Takht, at the scheduled date and time, and the press as well as the sangat was witness to that. He avers that he waited an hour or so and then left. It seems the Jathedars wanted him to appear for a trial in camera - that is, behind closed doors, with no press or members of the public present; effectively, a secret trial! - while he wanted an open trial so that the world wide Sikh community could watch the legal proceedings against him. ["In camera" is a legal term used for closed trials in situations where, for example, national security is at risk. The term, a Latin phrase, has nothing to do with cameras.] A press release from the Jathedars confirms that their hearings are now routinely held in camera as of the past nearly ten years. Prior to that date all hearings were public - in an open setting. That is, open to the public, open to the press. This makes we wonder. Why on earth would one move towards secret hearings and trials? Why was the open policy changed to secret trials ten years ago? I cannot comment on the judicial system in India but I present to you the judicial thinking and practices in the United States. I know that not so long ago the courts in this country routinely barred TV or still cameras or any kind of live coverage. The right of press coverage and open trials is only recently won and stems from the First and the Sixth amendments. The First specifies that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. The Sixth guarantees the accused a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of peers. Sometimes the two can be in conflict, for example when publicity about a particularly heinous crime might make it difficult to get an impartial jury. Then the right to a fair trial outweighs the right of the press to free speech. Perhaps the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby almost a century ago was the first open well publicized trial. But the clear trend today is towards open trials. The Appeals Court allowed cameras in the court in 1996. The Supreme Court still balks at such openness - but is nevertheless open to the public and the press. In this matter of openness, the American system is generally no different from the Canadian system, which is no different from the British ... which is the very system that gave birth to the India's system of jurisprudence. The Sikh view of an egalitarian progressive society, too, demands a transparent system of justice with fair rules of evidence where people have a stake and a voice. This is integral to due process in judicial proceedings. And due process is integral to being fair and just. Surely some retrogressive steps are also seen sometimes. I point to the fate of an uncertain number - perhaps hundreds - of detainees that have spent a number of years in detention in places like Guantanamo without any hope of trials. And in that matter, the push and pull of secret trials vis a vis transparency and due process according to law dominate our attention. We all also know the few show trials of a few of the accused of the 1984 killings of Sikhs that are an insult to justice and fair play. Notwithstanding such blips in progress, it seems to me that the world is slowly but surely moving towards a more open system of justice where the citizens understand how the legal system functions. It makes for better and more informed citizenry. Why then is the Akal Takht moving regressively? What state secrets are we talking about that would worry the good people at Akal Takht? What has Sikhi got to hide? Dirty laundry is best cleansed in sunlight. Let there be light.