Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra is well-known for his commitment to Sikh ideology and politics based on Sikh identity. Elected President of the SGPC for the first time in 1973, he remained in office almost till the end of the century. His tenure was the longest in the history of the SGPC. His contribution to the policies and programmes of the SGPC and his influence on Sikh politics were of great significance.
After the establishment of the Punjabi-speaking state in 1966, the SGPC had become an inter-state institution, and the responsibility for holding its five yearly elections was that of the Union Government. It is interesting to note that the SGPC elections were deliberately delayed for years, not due to any genuine difficulties of the government, or even its indifference, but its concern for the interests of the Congress Party. At last, the SGPC had to file a writ petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court to get a direction issued to the central government to hold the elections as early as possible. On the direction of the High Court the elections were held on 31 March 1979. The government, meanwhile, had amended the election rules in 1959 to give voting rights to the Sahajdharis. This amendment at that time was expected to strengthen the position of the Congress Ministry in the Punjab in relation to the SGPC. The number of voters increased by about a million. Nevertheless, the Shiromani Akali Dal won 133 out of 140 seats. Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra was elected unopposed.
It is important to note that the Akali Dal fought the elections on the slogan of autonomy of the states. It was based on the Anandpur Sahib Resolution as adopted during the All India Akali Conference held on 28-29 October 1978 at Ludhiana under the Presidentship of Jathedar Jagdev Singh Talwandi. The political resolution had been moved by Jathedar Tohra. It referred to the political stereotypes of the Congress regime: (a) that only a strong Centre could counter fissiparous tendencies, and (b) that a weak Centre encouraged secessionist trends which ultimately could lead to dismemberment of the Union of India. The bogey of danger to national unity and integrity of India was used to suppress the demand of autonomy. The unitary character of the Indian Constitution had created conditions for concentration of power at the top and the Congress rule in the country led to centralized political power. The centrifugal tendencies appeared mainly in reaction to the centralizing polity which aimed at uniformity in the name of unity, and conformity in the name of cohesion.
It was further stated in the Resolution that India was a country characterized by religious, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This diversity was reflected in the variety of nations, nationalities and minorities living in India, making it a multi-national society on the ground. In such a situation, national integration could be achieved only through a pluralistic society which alone could ensure unity in diversity, as against the unitarian policy of the Congress Government which aimed at uniformity and conformity.
Furthermore, the Sikh community (which is a nation, sui generis, and a national minority) and other nations, nationalities and minorities, including the tribal groups, can hope to keep their identity intact and inviolate only in a federal set-up, conducive to flowering of religious, cultural, and ethnic variety.
Another important aspect of the elections of 1979 was the influence exercised by all the three top most leaders of the Akalis: Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra as President of the SGPC, Jathedar Jagdev Singh Talwandi as President of the Shiromani Akali Dal, and S. Parkash Singh Badal as the Akali Chief Minister. This was a balance, more or less, between the three wings which represented the Sikhs. Jathedar Tohra made the statement on 3 April 1979 that the Akali leadership would implement the resolutions on which the victory of the Shiromani Akali Dal had put the stamp of approval.
The emergence and escalation of militancy from 1978 to 1992 proved to be the most traumatic experience for the Sikhs, especially the operation Blue-Star and the large scale massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. Even in the Punjab, innocent persons suffered at the hands of security forces. The base of the Akali Dal was spattered and the Akalis were divided into a number of groups. The very existence of the SGPC was threatened. The return of constitutional politics in 1992 created some space for the political activities of the Akalis. In November 1992, Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra was re-elected President of the SGPC. The SGPC paid tribute to a few militants as martyrs in the cause of Sikhism. Resolutions were passed also with regard to the Delhi massacres of 1984. Before the end of 1993, Jathedar Jagdev Singh Talwandi declared that the aim of the Akalis was to get the demands of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution conceded and implemented, and not Khalistan, as alleged by the Congress leaders and the press. S. Parkash Singh Badal too laid great stress on the Anandpur Sahib Resolution as the charter of Akali politics. Jathedar Tohra laid emphasis on Akali unity. Early in June 1995, the Badal-Tohra combine defeated the Congress candidate in the bye-election for the Gidderbaha constituency. Eventually, the majority of the Akalis opted for the leadership of S. Parkash Singh Badal and Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra.
Already, in February 1994, Jathedar Tohra had filed a writ petition in the High Court to direct the government to conduct the SGPC elections within a year. On a request from the government, the date was extended, and the elections were held in October 1996. The SGPC demanded a change in the definition of ‘Sikh’ to make the Keshdharis alone eligible for voting, as against the amendment made in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act in 1959. Jathedar Tohra rejected the similar recommendations of the Minority Commission, and argued that the Sikh Gurdwara Act could be amended only according to the agreement signed by Master Tara Singh and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in April 1958. In this agreement, amendment in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act was to be made by the Parliament and that too on the recommendation of the SGPC. He suggested that the definition of ‘Sikh’ already decided upon by the Parliament in the case of the Delhi Gurdwaras could be made applicable for the voters of the SGPC. He favoured the age of 18 for voting, instead of 21, and the age of 35 years for becoming a member of the SGPC.
It may also be mentioned that Jathedar Tohra was a member of the Akali Dal (Amritsar) as it was formed on the direction of the Akal Takht Jathedar. The Akali Dal (Badal) opposed Jathedar Tohra’s candidature in the Presidential election of SGPC held in November 1994. But the candidate of the Akali Dal (Badal) was defeated. Both Jathedar Tohra and Sardar Parkash Singh thought that it was in the larger interest of the Sikhs to form a unified plank. It was generally believed that a secret understanding between the two leaders was meant to ensure that Jathedar Tohra would become the President of the SGPC, and Sardar Parkash Singh would become the Chief Minister after the general elections of 1997.
The election manifesto of the Akali Dal (Badal) for the SGPC elections stated that the Party would establish World Sikh University to mark the tercentenary of the Khalsa in 1999. Jathedar Tohra made the statement that the SGPC elections would provide an international platform in the 21st century, giving impetus to a fresh awakening among the Sikhs. More significantly, the manifesto signed by the two leaders dwelt on the achievements of the SGPC under the stewardship of Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra for twenty years.
The manifesto emphasized the importance of the Gurdwara as an institution founded by Guru Nanak, embodying the Sikh ideal of equality and service. The predecessors of Jathedar Tohra, Baba Kharak Singh and Master Tara Singh, are mentioned as the earliest and the most important Presidents of the SGPC. The manifesto emphasized that the SGPC had no property of its own, and no authority to levy any taxes. It had to depend entirely on the contributions made by the Sikh Sangats. In other words, the achievements of the SGPC are the achievements of the Sikh Panth. The SGPC and the Akali Dal complemented each other.
The manifesto underlined the importance of the SGPC elections to be held on 13 October 1996. At this historic juncture the Sikhs had to take the pledge of dedication to the Panthic ideals all afresh. They should enter the 21st century, celebrating the tercentenary of the birth of the Khalsa. The manifesto ended with the reiteration that the Sikhs were standing at the crossroads, and their existence and destiny depended upon the results of the elections. The Sikhs had to decide whether they would depend on the false promises of their enemies, or establish their own power to mould their own destiny by strengthening the Sikh Panth. The dark night of oppression must come to an end, and the Sikhs should enter the new century in high spirits.
On the eve of the celebrations of the tercentenary of the birth of the Khalsa in 1999, the two top leaders of the Akalis parted company, and Jathedar Tohra resigned in March 1999. Bibi Jagir Kaur was elected President of the SGPC in 2000. The Akali Dal lost the Assembly elections in February 2002. Sardar Parkash Singh met Jathedar Tohra more than half way to patch up their differences. Their unity enabled the Akali Dal to win 11 seats out of 13 in the Parliamentary elections of May 2004. Jathedar Thohra suddenly passed away. This was a major setback for the Akalis. In the SGPC elections of 2004, the Akali Dal (Badal) won 134 out of the total 167 seats for which elections were held. The editor of The Tribune commented that Sardar Badal would be ‘the all-in-all supremo’ now. It was an extraordinary situation. Even when Jathedar Tohra was in the Akali Dal there were two centres of power, but now, according to the editor, Sardar Badal was ‘the solo super power’.
The emergence of the Chief Minister as undisputedly the supreme Akali leader is generally seen in terms of tussle for power among individuals, their aspirations, and their interests. However, there was a structural aspect to the situation. Before 1966 there were two loci of power: the SGPC as a statutory body and the Shiromani Akali Dal as a political party. After 1966, the ministerial wing was added when a coalition government was formed by an Akali Chief Minister in 1967. Sant Fateh Singh, President of the Shiromani Akali Dal, who had the support of the SGPC, was strong enough to make and unmake Chief Ministers. This early phase (1967-70) was covered by three Akali Chief Ministers: Justice Gurnam Singh, Lachhman Singh, and Sardar Parkash Singh Badal. When the SGPC elections were held in 1979, there was a precarious balance between the President of the SGPC, the President of Shiromani Akali Dal, and the Chief Minister, with the balance of power tilted in favour of the Chief Minister who had larger resources and power for patronage. Despite all the upheavals of the phase of militancy, Jathedar Tohra was able to maintain his position. When the Chief Minister became more powerful in the Akali Dal, the position of the SGPC President became relatively weak.
All the time, however, as President of the SGPC Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra was able to exercise considerable influence on Sikh politics for nearly three decades due to his ideological moorings, his personal integrity, and his deep commitment to Sikh values.
* A historian of international repute, Dr JS Grewal is an authority on Punjab history with specialization on Sikh history. He has served Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar as Vice Chancellor and has worked as Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.