Sikh Institutions Still Undergoing Growing Pains


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Sikh Institutions Still Undergoing Growing Pains


Though this piece was first published a few years ago, it is being reproduced here because it remains pertinent to the issues confronting our community today.

At the very outset, I want to clearly state my motives in writing this piece.

Let there be no question that I write as a Sikh. In my view, Sikhs have the right and the obligation to talk about these matters for these are issues of internal debate within the Sikh community.

Even the most charitable observer of Sikh institutions would have to concede that they are in disarray. (Disarray seems too mild and inadequate a word.) Are Sikhs on the merry road to self-destruction? Are we imploding because of some inherent defects - genes that dictate fissiparous behaviour?

Our critics delight in our intrinsically contradictory actions while at the same time trying desperately to claim us as just another sect of their own belief system. Witness the abundance of articles, even books, by respectable wordsmiths who claim that Sikhism is a restatement either of Hindu or Islamic belief. (The choice depends entirely on whether the author is Hindu or Muslim.)

I would be flattered by their eagerness to enclose Sikhism in their own fold except that in doing so, they distort history as well as Sikh scripture, and rob Sikhism of its uniqueness.

This matter of how others portray us deserves serious and detailed analysis, but at another time. Here I wish to focus attention on the current health of Sikh institutions and how well (or ill) they serve their purpose.

For starters, just look at the plethora of hukumnaamas (edicts) that have emanated from the Akal Takht over the past year or two.

"Thou shalt not partake of langar sitting on tables and chairs."

"Thou shalt not marry in a rented hall like a hotel room."

"Thou shalt not perform kirtan in a gurdwara unless you meet certain criteria." ... And so on.

Mind you, I am not arguing here against any specific edict or directive. That is not my intent at all. I can marshal respectable arguments for or against each position; those with credentials as scholars of Sikhism can do even better.

The purpose here is to examine our institutions - how they function, what they are designed to deliver.

Consider our premier body - the Shiromini Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), founded in the 1920s after a titanic, even historic, struggle. Denuded of its political veneer, the fight was for the empowerment of ordinary Sikhs.

At that time, Sikh gurdwaras were controlled by a corrupt system of managers (mahants) answerable to an alien (British) government, not accountable to Sikhs.

In the major gurdwaras in the pre-SGPC days, un-Sikh-like practices dotted the landscape. Idols were installed in gurdwaras where dancing girls also offered their wares and wine flowed freely. Also, gurdwaras were not equally open to Sikhs of the so-called lower classes.

Ordinary Sikhs were right to rise against such denigration of Sikhism and Sikh tradition. They did it with a moral force that shook the British Empire and even taught a lesson or two in nonviolence to Mahatma Gandhi, who later adopted the same methods and earned accolades for them all over the world as the apostle of nonviolence.

The beginnings of the SGPC are rooted in such glorious history.

Circumstances were different then. The British ruled India. The structure of the SGPC required an act of the government of the day for it to be recognized under law. The birth of the SGPC was not easy or painless; the Sikhs debated it and the British negotiated it before it saw the light of day.

The SGPC has served Sikhs for over 70 years, sometimes well, sometimes not.

Times have changed. Even if our needs have not, our perceptions have altered. The organizational structure of the SGPC perhaps now lies at the root of many of our current institutional problems and forms the backdrop of many of my comments here. I will return to it a little later. Let us start instead with two of the most frustrating and annoying situations that appear to challenge us repeatedly.

Over the past five or seven years, upwards of over 20 of the nearly 100 gurdwaras in the United States and Canada have faced election-related violence within the gurdwara premises, or the political factions have ended up in the judicial system (civil and criminal courts) suing each other.

Keep in mind that the money spent on legal fees comes from an immigrant community and robs the gurdwaras or other community-based programs.

As an example, one New York gurdwara has spent over $40,000 in legal fees, with like amounts spent on revision of their bylaws and on election expenses. Some of the contentious matters were also referred to the Akal Takht, which issued directives, and again ended up in the American courts.

Another matter that seems to have turned out to be most divisive for Sikhs relates to the Akal Takht itself. The many hukumnaamas that have reverberated in a steady stream from the Akal Takht have not endeared the institution to the ordinary Sikh.

The rapidity and seeming mindlessness with which the jathedars are appointed or replaced makes one cringe at the system.

I wish to underscore the point that these matters form the jumping points for initiating a debate. I write neither to endorse nor to castigate any particular person, action or event. The purpose here is not to analyze individuals - however venal or venerable though they may be - but to examine the system.

To survive and thrive, an institution depends on a codified system of laws, rules and traditions. Without a system in place, an institution can neither survive nor thrive.

When ordinary Sikhs question an edict from the Akal Takht, many view such behavior as disrespectful and an affront to the office and authority of the Akal Takht.

When jathedars are replaced in rapid-fire succession, many deem it sacrilegious.

To some Sikhs, the Akal Takht is the Vatican, its jathedar is akin to the Pope and deserves similar allegiance.

Opponents of this view assert that the Akal Takht was never that important in Sikh history; in fact, the last four Gurus never visited the place. The Akal Takht, they say, was just another bunga until political realities in the past few decades elevated and transformed it; the jathedar remains a bureaucrat who serves at the pleasure of the SGPC. (Dear reader: Please read on before you take umbrage at this thought.)

I will not argue with the historians on the Akal Takht through history, but I wonder if the prevailing situation should remain unchanged from what it was in 1708.

Living religions evolve; they bloom while remaining consonant with their history and their heritage. Based on need and tradition, institutions change or arise to cope with the compulsions and requirements of the community.

For example, in keeping with the authority vested in it by Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikh Panth systematized its Rehat Maryada (Code of Conduct); it also created a new fifth Takht as recently as the 1950s. Clearly Sikhism can respond to new needs and changing circumstances with a deliberative response and has the power to do so.

The Sikh Panth can also re-examine the role of the Takhts. The position and purpose of the Akal Takht, and indeed of all Takhts, can and should reflect our changing realities and our sense of self, without contravening our timeless traditions.

How closely the hukumnamas of the Akal Takht are heeded by the faithful depends largely on tradition and the credibility of the institution. The institution deserves respect; the person who occupies the chair may not always merit or receive it.

As an example, look at the United States. The office of the President is universally revered, although many of the office holders, including some of the ones who have vacated the position in recent years, may be viewed as particularly venal, corrupt or contemptible.

Similar parallels can be drawn from every society or nation. My familiarity extends mostly to the North American scene, so it forms the backdrop for many of my observations.

In the past, some of our jathedars have been less than true to their office. Witness, for example, Jathedar Aroor Singh, who bestowed a siropao on General Dwyer, the man responsible for the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh.

Jathedars are human and are not immune to human frailties and errors. But the position of the jathedar of the Akal Takht seems to have become, in recent years, a revolving door with little credence - and a hostage to Punjab politics.

We have five Takhts and five jathedars. How should they function, what powers should they have, what obligations?

We often feel that the voices of Sikhs worldwide are or should be channelled through the five Takhts. It follows, then, that we look to the Takhts to resolve our disputes. It is not important here whether that was the role that they played during the lifetime of the Gurus. The community has evolved and now is widely distributed all over the world.

The expectation that follows, that the Takhts be representative of the global Sikh community, is not so unreasonable. As I said, the community has added a Takht that did not exist at the time of the Gurus, and thus has the authority to make structural, organizational changes that remain true to doctrine and tradition.

Come, let us now take a leap of imagination. Let us envision what can be. How to get there will be a different matter and we will worry about it later, even though I know the devil is in the details.

I can envision the five jathedars collectively constituting the bench of the Supreme Court of Sikhs. Again, I look at the United States, which has a nine-member Supreme Court. This court does not accept every case that comes to it. In fact, it hears very few and selects only those that appear to have a widespread impact on the lives of Americans. Any referral that has a narrow agenda or a limited focus is not entertained.

The court doesn't always provide reasons for not hearing a case; often it sends a case back to the lower courts without any comment.

Sometimes, a case that the Supreme Court ignored for many years may be heard if it reappears on its calendar later. Why? Because circumstances may have changed. The court reflects societal realities that change with time; the judges are human and not unaffected by societal issues.

Racial and gender discrimination in the United States are prime examples of such matters - ignored for years, but not anymore. The court may also reverse its decisions, though it does not do so lightly. The decisions of the Supreme Court usually are not handed down in a hurry. There is an orderly presentation of differing viewpoints and a deliberative process.

It is perhaps unnecessary to remind my readers that the judgments of the court are not always popular, but they are usually accepted with good grace. The rulings become the law of the land. The court's decisions on a woman's right to an abortion are a case in point. It is the law, although a significant percentage of Americans remain unaccepting of it.

I point to the presidential election in November 2000 as another example. The country was evenly divided, as was the judiciary. The rulings of the Supreme Court put George W. Bush in the Oval Office in a decision that many Americans found wrong on law and on facts. Yet, the losing candidate, Albert Gore, accepted the decision with elegance; the transition of power was peaceful.

Just imagine if such a close election occurred in a gurdwara or in India. It is important to acknowledge a system and accept it with good grace without anointing it with an aura of infallibility.

I can envision this apex body of the five jathedars opting to hear a case only if it affected the life and existence of the Sikh community, not if the case had a narrow focus that involved a local community dispute. The local community acting at the local level with considerable autonomy should resolve the latter.

Keep in mind that Sikhs are now found all over the globe. Local communities outside India often respond to local needs, conditions and laws. Issues such as housing and jobs, framed in the laws of the host community and the language of equal opportunity, become their paramount concerns in which gurdwaras can provide the lead.

To carve their place in a new society, Sikhs often have to define themselves relative to others in interfaith interaction without compromising their own belief and practice.

These ground realities, special to our far-flung communities, may not be the priorities of our institutions in India. The Sikh communities may be small and mixed; the rules and laws by which they manage their gurdwaras will reflect the composition of the community at a given time. As the community changes, so will the rules.

As an example, one major New York gurdwara, at its inception in the 1970s, was formed by a small community where keshadhari Sikhs were few, if any. Consequently, their constitution did not address the issue. When the community grew, the rules changed to reflect the new realities; now all office bearers are amritdhari.

I suggest, for example, that it may be unwise for the Akal Takht to get embroiled in the local election dispute in a community gurdwara, or to stipulate the qualifications of its members. Such matters are indicative of the composition of the community at a given time. To summon people to the Akal Takht on such trifling matters demeans the institution. We must not forget that even in India not all gurdwaras function under the aegis or authority of the SGPC or the Akal Takht; very few do, and most community gurdwaras do not.

Once again, from my limited view as a non-lawyer who is also far removed from the culture and reality of Punjab, I use as an illustration the U.S. Supreme Court.

True, the judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, but, once confirmed, they serve without threat of easy removal. They are not civil servants serving at the whim or pleasure of the bureaucracy that appointed them.

Impeachment by Congress may not remove a Justice except after conviction by the Senate, which demands a two-thirds majority. The process of removal is almost impossibly onerous. Why? Because only then can independence of the Judiciary be assured. Coupled with it is the fact that the process of appointment is open, slow, deliberative and careful. Only then can good people be found.

Not that mistakes are not made. These are human institutions; mistakes are inevitable. But a system exists that has functioned for 200 years.

I can see such a rota consisting of the five jathedars functioning with the jathedar of the Akal Takht serving as the Chief Justice, since history and the Panth have accorded the Akal Takht the position of being pre-eminent among the Takhts.

The jathedars may even differ in their opinions, but the system could mandate that their deliberations are held in camera and that only their decisions are made public, not the attending dissent or controversy. All decisions would become the unanimous voice of the court. To function in this manner, the collective of jathedars would need an appropriate infrastructure of technocrats and the necessary authority.

The model of a Supreme Court of the Sikhs as proposed here comes with a prerequisite: appropriate juridical mechanisms for conflict resolution at the local and regional levels.

We have to decide, collectively as the Panth, whether the jathedars are merely custodians of the gurdwaras and bungas or whether the jathedars are to function with some moral and spiritual authority.

If the former, they can be hired and fired at will by the bureaucrats. If the latter, we must evolve a system so that good people, steeped in Sikh religion and of impeccable integrity and judicial temperament, will be found and placed in such positions of trust and authority.

It would be wise to remember that the Pope, when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals from the chair of St. Peter, is considered to be infallible by the faithful. There is no such ecclesiastical authority vested in any of our jathedars, and that is as it should be.

I also remind you that in history, there were multiple popes, each busy excommunicating the others, even killing each other. We need to avoid such traps. There is no need to excommunicate people from society so quickly, nor to summon them for explanation so readily. The religious fatwa should be issued rarely; only then will it be seriously respected.

This then brings us to a matter that cannot be so easily divorced from our current dilemma.

Our premier institution - the SGPC - is an elective body that exists because of laws enacted at the time that the British ruled India. Considering the circumstances then, the political realities and the fact that Sikhs had just wrested control of their historical gurdwaras, a government-sanctioned body was necessary. It has served us well, and sometimes not so well, over the past 70 years. Let us now rethink how we should govern ourselves hereon.

Can you think of any other religion in which the structure and rules of its premier body, indeed its parliament - and the SGPC is the Sikh nation's parliament - are debated, discussed and decided by nonbelievers in that religion? Imagine the Indian parliament debating the rules to govern all temples, churches or mosques in India. Imagine a debate in any multireligious nation's parliament or senate on the qualifications of a Hindu, Muslim or Christian before he is granted a voice in his own religion. Imagine a civil court entertaining such questions.

For elections to the SGPC, approval by the Indian parliament is required. Any modifications of the SGPC charter are discussed and ratified in the Indian Parliament and the Punjab Legislative Assembly. Non-Sikhs dominate in both. Would any other religion hand over its affairs to an assortment of non-believers in its faith?

When we Sikhs disagree, we run to the civil courts. In doing so, we are asking a non-Sikh judiciary to decide the fundamentals of our faith. Is that not an abrogation of our responsibilities as Sikhs? In other words, we are confessing that we cannot settle our differences ourselves, that we have not the sense, wisdom or the mechanism to do so, and we need a monkey in the middle.

Certainly in North America, even the smallest gurdwaras have in place an electoral system by which they anoint their sevadars. (There are only two exceptions to that rule, as far as I know.)

Is that the best way to self-governance? Are there any other workable models?

When the SGPC tries to cast its shadow and authority across the political borders of India and into Pakistan, Kenya, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Canada or the United States, would it not likely run into conflict with local laws?

Yet we must seek ways to knit our worldwide community of Sikhs into a cooperating confederation of semiautonomous bodies.

A fundamental premise to being a Sikh is to be assertive and take responsibility for Sikh affairs. We need to evolve an ecclesiastical system of justice that is rooted in our tradition. We need to develop an internal system of checks and balances for self-governance. That would be consistent with the authority vested in the Guru Panth.

Developing a theoretical model of a Sikh ecclesiastical judiciary is necessary first. We have legal luminaries and eminent jurists in India, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Singapore, Kenya - indeed all over the world - who are also deeply imbued with the love of Sikhism. Perhaps it is time for such a conclave to get to work.

This essay, like most of mine, is intentionally incomplete for it does not propose a single unified theory to guide us out of our impasse, since I fear that it would deliver us from one problem only to hand us another. Instead, I wrote this essay to stimulate debate and discussion.

These are matters that are too important to be left to professionals of any sort - whether politicians or the so-called keepers of our faith.

As far as religions go, we Sikhs are the new kids on the block. Five hundred years from the time of Guru Nanak, or 300 years if we count from the time of Guru Gobind Singh, is an imperceptibly small drop in the bucket of human history. What we often witness, therefore, are public displays of the growing pains of a young religion.

In this matter, religions and institutions are no different from individuals.

For comparison, one only has to look at the embarrassing shenanigans and contortions of an adolescent. What we have today are the growing pains that are common to all progressive individuals and their institutions. The problems that I have enumerated should energize us, not dishearten us.

If we can take a few, even hesitant steps toward the kind of agenda that I suggest, we will find meaning in the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa, which we have celebrated only recently.

I submit that it is in debate and discussion that we define our goals, sharpen our focus and hone our skills.

Let's even disagree ... but without becoming disagreeable.

[Reproduced from: The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim‘s Progress, by I.J. Singh, The Centennial Foundation, Canada, 2001.]

February 11, 2009


1947-2014 (Archived)
kds ji

This is very interesting and as the author stated a beginning to an important discussion. One example I would like to contribute with your patient forgiveness. When the Pope, as described in the article, speaks ex cathedra, those words become an article of the Roman faith. Anything said ex cathedra can never be changed, not even by another Pope later in history. And for that very reason, the Roman Popes have spoken ex cathedra very very rarely.

The idea of "growing pains" and that things can change over time was a lesson learned by this older religion. Once the Roman church believed that only the baptized would see God. This is no longer believed. The article is contributing so much wisdom -- Sikhs can have this discussion and retain precious core yet change at te same time. Other religions have done it.