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Sovreignty Of The Akal Takht


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Sovreignty of the Akal Takht (from Sikh Archives blog)


The history of Sri Akal Takht is well known for its controversial ambiguities rather than for clarity and continuity. It has been venerated differentially in history and its status is interpreted and treated differently by different academics, people, organisations and powers.

This paper leans towards recognising Sri Akal Takht as the sovereign institution of the Guru Panth thus establishing the independence of Sikhi as a religious philosophy and the Sikhs as a people. It treats historical evidence more critically than has been usual to justify the central assertion. It justifies the need for such recognition in International relations and develops its role on concepts within the Sikh philosophy. It further briefly looks at the possible problems and the functional aspects.

The Akal Takht

According to Sikh historical sources, Guru Hargobind Sahib established the Akal Takht in 1606 as a sovereign institution. Literally interpreted, the words Akal Takht mean the ‘throne of the eternal’. The first edict given to Sikhs from here was to bring horses and arms. Symbolically, the Takht had an army under Guru Hargobind Sahib that engaged in defensive battles.

Although the Guru did not always stay or seat himself at the Akaal Takht and neither did the Gurus who followed, the issue is irrelevant as the Gurus themselves were sovereign.

The Takht is seldom mentioned as a sovereign institution until the Misl period when the Sarbat Khalsa met there twice a year to take decisions reached by consensus. It was a form of confederal republic, with the Akal Takht as an epicentre.

Maharajah Ranjit Singh observed the Takht’s sovereignty symbolically rather than in reality and in fact undermined the Sarbat Khalsa by discontinuing it. He, like the British after him, clearly saw the republican form of Sikh polity as a threat to a hereditary Monarchical system.

The British period brought an end to any independent authority that the Akal Takht had and replaced it by a form of control through the District Commissioner (DC), while letting the Sikhs manage the institution.

The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee (SGPC), which wrestled control in the 1920′s, brought it back into democratic control of the Sikhs but the DC still had some power of veto. The SGPC in turn appoints the Jathedar, that is the custodian of the Sri Akaal Takht Sahib, as an employee, thus unwittingly eroding the authority of Sarbat Khalsa and the sovereignty of the Akaal Takht. This arrangement has been maintained by law in India.

However, when the Darbar Sahib was attacked in 1984, the news of the destruction of Sri Akal Takht had an immediate impact upon Sikhs around the world. Despite a lack of any formal arrangement of sovereignty, the Sikhs consider the Takht as a sovereign institution and interpreted the attack as an assault on its sovereignty. This gave rise to a movement for an independent Sikh state.

A convincing case for the restoration of this sovereignty through the evidence of history can, however, be made if history is treated more critically. It is evident that, whenever circumstances allowed or the Sikhs understood implications, the Akaal Takht was treated as a sovereign institution.

Leaving aside historical justification, Sikhi provides for the Sikhs to resolve to creative rationales when necessary. Guru Gobind Singh ji vested sovereignty in the Guru Panth and the Guru Granth. The Guru Panth acts through the institution of Sarbat Khalsa as a body where decisions are reached by consensus rather than democratic majority. This also differentiates the traditional form from the current SGPC system, which has emulated the Westminster model.

The notion of Sarbat Khalsa and the Panj Piaré is a unique institution both in the history of peoples and religions. As a non-dualist religion, Sikhi does not divide the spiritual from the physical world and promotes the concept that the eternal is present through the entirety of existence that we can comprehend and cannot comprehend.

In keeping with this proposition the faith maintains that, while individuals may be corrupt, in the collective of the community goodness and the spirit of the eternal prevail over individual interests. Therefore, the community of Khalsa as a collective is divine and sovereign, above that of any individual King or temporal authority. This is the basis of Sikh republican political ideology or the supremacy of the Panth over any individual or earthly power. The combination of this spiritual and temporal unity and the sovereignty of Guru Granth and Guru Panth is expressed uniquely through the Akaal Takht Sahib.

The sovereignty of the Khalsa is based on the proposal that within the Khalsa is vested the wisdom of the Guru Granth thus Guru Panth. The Guru Granth is inviolable and its teachings cannot be altered. However, as living Guru Panth, the Khalsa is not enslaved by historical precedent or limited by the exactitudes of the lives and actions of the Gurus. The Khalsa is a dynamic and evolving body with the power to make its own decisions.

The Gurus established principles, concepts and discipline. It is left to the Khalsa to work from those principles and make collective decisions in their applications. From this the Khalsa derives the power of action that makes historical evidence and precedent irrelevant as long as the action is based on principles established by the Gurus and elaborated in the Guru Granth Sahib. The Khalsa, however, venerates the institutional structures that the Gurus established and takes those as its reference.

According to this author, the issue is not whether substantive historical evidence exists to justify the observance of Sri Akaal Takht Sahib as a sovereign institution but whether such establishment and decision contradicts the principles established by the Gurus.

The most important aspect in the issue of Sri Akal Takht is that of the Sarbat Khalsa. This is the collective republican concept of Khalsa democratic participation and collective consensus. It is then expressed through a collective leadership of Panj Piaré, thus again negating the idea of a supreme leader or a Monarch.

It can be said that the Misls were gradually moving towards an eventual and workable practice of collective republicanism. This was broken by Maharajah Ranjit Singh whose period and reign can be seen to fall back on classical concepts of governance tempered with Sikh concepts of collective and pluralistic rule. Rather than delve on the merits or lack of them in his rule, Maharajah Ranjit Singh can be considered to be a victim of his time when monarchies were the only existing model of governance. It can be argued that he lacked the intellect to explore new possibilities based on Sikh political theory and may have seen the sovereign Panth as a threat rather than a new innovation in South Asian polity.

The Sarbat Khalsa, however, is a complex idea. This author’s view is that, as in many other fields, the Gurus established principles and working models. The applications are dependent on the needs and practicalities of the period.

Today, a Panth spread across five continents needs new dynamics and the practicalities are dependent on a number of factors – for instance the size of the community, the distance the community is spread over, the practices that are in existence and many other factors. Thus, for the period immediately after Guru Gobind Singh ji and the Misls, the Sarbat Khalsa, as it functioned, was a workable model for the small community of Sikhs. Today, a different model is needed maintaining basic principles but able to cope with new realities.

For instance, one such model would require regional assemblies, sub regional forums and even district forums that would work through a system of consensus.

The introduction of Sarbat Khalsa in this paper requires its own principles to be defined. However, as this is not the purpose of this paper, they will be stated in summary and not be exhaustive.

The Sarbat Khalsa

The Sarbat Khalsa has to work on the principle that it is meeting in a spirit of independence – for instance from the laws of a State, the political pressures of a regime, the corruption of business interests or ambitions for political office. The Khalsa does not recognise the absolute sovereignty of any temporal body but only the absolute sovereignty of the eternal as comprehended through the Guru Granth Sahib.

Secondly, the Sarbat Khalsa has to be one of achievable consensus rather than Westminster majority style democracy.

Thirdly, the Sarbat Khalsa has to enable every member of the Khalsa Panth to be a participant directly or indirectly. The eligibility of participants has to be debated. However, it is suggested that the Sarbat Khalsa would be incomplete as a body if it did not represent the interests of the entire Sikh community in some form.

Fourthly, the Sarbat Khalsa has to realise its own limits and capacities. For instance it cannot debate on altering the Guru Granth Sahib but it can decide on methods of engagement with the rest of the world based on the principles of Guru Granth Sahib.

Fifth, the Sarbat Khalsa has to enable its decisions to be made applicable through a collective and functional leadership such as the Panj Piaré and represented through a spokesperson such as the Jathedar.

Sixth, the decisions have to be accessible and their clarification in different circumstances be possible.

These are broader principles that come to mind but more can be elaborated and suggested by other authors. Working from the above principles, the inference that is arrived at is that the Sarbat Khalsa can only meet in a sovereign territory of its own where it expresses its sovereignty through an institution that can function freely without interference from other bodies. In today’s world where every inch of land is under the jurisdiction of some state or other, the Sarbat Khalsa can engage realistically in the world by enacting its own sovereign institution to relate with the rest of the world. The Sarbat Khalsa can meet in Europe or in India but its announcements have to come from an institution that exists in its own right and is not constrained by the limitations of any other sovereign power.

This author considers that sovereignty to be historically vested in the Akaal Takht Sahib. Thus the sovereignty of Guru Granth and Guru Panth functioning through the Sarbat Khalsa is symbolically expressed through the institution of Sri Akaal Takht Sahib whose sovereignty is the sovereignty of Guru Granth in function.

Role of the Jathedar

The role of the Jathedar is another complex subject that stretches the limits of this paper. In brief, there is contradictory evidence as to the exact name of the custodian of the Akaal Takht in history – whether it is Jathedar or Granthi. However, the author reverts back to the scope of the Sarbat Khalsa, which can disregard history and call the custodian by any title as long as the role is based on the same principle.

The role of the Jathedar is one of spokesperson and mediator. The Jathedar does not have divine authority as corresponding positions do in some other religious traditions. The Jathedar does not have the authority to give orders that deviate from practice or have not been sanctioned by the Sarbat Khalsa. Moreover, there is an argument to suggest that the Jathedar should not be a lifetime appointment position but changed periodically

There is also the question of whether sovereignty is necessary if a Sikh state were to emerge.

The experience of the Sikhs during the reign of Maharajah Ranjit Singh and the status of the Akaal Takht in post independence Indian Punjab under various Sikh governments is argument enough that its sovereignty cannot be entrusted to Sikh governments either. The State has both Sikhs and non-Sikhs and has to function in their interest while the Sarbat Khalsa is a Sikh institution.

In summary, there is enough historical evidence to justify the establishment of the sovereignty of Akaal Takht in international relations. Even if historical continuity is contested, the Sarbat Khalsa has the power to decide upon this course. The Akal Takht is a symbol of the sovereignty of Guru Granth and Guru Panth acting through the Sarbat Khalsa and expressed through the institution of the Akaal Takht.




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