History does have a habit of repeating itself. And the slanging match between Punjab government and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) regarding the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak does take us back to 1999, when the one-upmanship game played during tercentenary of foundation of Khalsa ruined the celebrations.
The tercentenary celebrations were remembered more for the political slugfest, extending its shadow on important Sikh institutions, which has left behind an impression so strong that even time is unable to heal.
Now, the question that is creating a ripple in the Sikh community: Will the fighting reach the levels of bitterness of what was witnessed in 1999 or will sanity prevail?
At that time, appeals and pleas that political issues be thrashed out later were just trashed and people witnessed new levels of unbridled political interference in the SGPC affairs and the working of Akal Takht. Not surprisingly, against the backdrop of such developments, 1999 became a turning point in the erosion of the authority of Akal Takht.
"Ironically, the tercentenary of Khalsa foundation became the occasion for worst kind of political interference in Sikh institutions, especially in the working of Akal Takht and SGPC. The downslide triggered then is yet to be arrested. The current controversy and related happenings should be seen in continuation of what happened in 1999,” says author Gurbachan Singh, who witnessed happenings of 1999 from close quarters.
However, SAD secretary and spokesperson, Daljit Singh, argues, "It is a matter of record that Punjab government will prepare the stage for celebrations, but it was always conducted by SGPC and, in 1999 also SGPC conducted the stage even as Badal government had made all the arrangements.”
TRIGGER AT TERCENTENARY CELEBRATIONS OF 1999
It was a statement by then SGPC president, late Gurcharan Singh Tohra, in second week of December 1998 which triggered (or was used as a trigger for) the political slugfest. Tohra advised then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who was also president of SAD, to appoint a working president, as he was not getting enough time to attend to party activities. He cited SAD losing Adampur byelection and said party needed more time.
This statement from Tohra came when tension between him and Badal was already brewing — Tohra had earlier said days of unconditional support to BJP were over as BJP-led NDA government had ditched Akali Dal on a couple of very important issues. Badal had reportedly taken umbrage to this. After Tohra’s statement, all hell broke loose and a campaign was started against him and the much junior leaders were made to issue statements against the Akali stalwart. Ironically, years later the same set of leaders welcomed appointment of Sukhbir Singh Badal as acting president in March 2007, just after Badal senior formed his fourth government.
The political angst that is casting a huge shadow on the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak is nothing new to Sikhs. In 1999, too, the squabble between politicians ruined the Tercentenary celebrations of the foundation of Khalsa.
AKAL TAKHT INTERVENED, JATHEDAR SACKED
Now, Akali Dal leaders, including party president Sukhhbir are saying that Akal Takht is supreme and every word of the Takht jathedar is final for them. They are accusing Congress, especially chief minister (CM) Amarinder Singh, of attempting to erode the authority of Akal Takht. On his part, CM has already written a letter to Akal Takht jathedar offering to hold the function at Sultanpur Lodhi on November 12 under the patronage of Akal Takht and with the support of the SGPC. However, 20 years ago, Akal Takht jathedar was even removed when he intervened asking the warring sides to postpone their contentious issues till the tercentenary functions.
As fight between Badal and Tohra intensified, Badal while speaking at Fatehgarh Sahib in the last week of December, claimed that SGPC was a wing of SAD. As things appeared spiralling out of control, Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee (DSGMC), prominent Sikhs and Sikh organisations appealed to the Akal Takht to intervene following which then Akal Takht jathedar Bhai Ranjit Singh and four other high priests issued a directive on December 31, 1998, that both the groups of Akali Dal should not attack each other till April 14, 1999, and disciplinary committee of SAD should open Tohra’s answer to its show cause notice only on April 15, 1999 (when all the celebrations would have concluded).
Then SGPC secretary Kulwant Singh Randhawa, who sided with Badal camp and advised then CM and his camp on crucial issues during this fight, later disclosed the inside accounts of these happenings in his book, ‘June 84, Shiromanni Committee noon grehan’ (June 84 When SGPC Was Eclipsed).
He has made several allegations in his book about how CM and his key men were orchestrating the happenings in SGPC, how meetings took place at CM house and how 10 executive members of SGPC, who were Badal’s loyalists, would follow the script prepared at CM house.
He also alleged in his book that the new appointments in Sikh Gurdwara Judicial Commission and other important decisions regarding the issue as well as strategies for legal and political fights were discussed at CM’s house. Randhawa also discussed in his book how SGPC members reported at CM’s house after replacing the Akal Takht jathedar and how corrections were made in the record of the proceedings of SGPC executive.
ALL RIGHTS WERE GIVEN TO CHIEF MINISTER
Amid this bitterness, Badal called a meeting of SAD office bearers, MLAs and SGPC members at Anandpur Sahib on January 7, 1999, where rights to form sub-committees for the smooth organisation of the tercentenary celebrations were given to Badal. Later, when the 10-member SGPC executive passed a resolution on February 10, 1999, to remove Akal Takht jathedar Bhai Ranjit Singh from the post, they recorded this resolution, mentioning "on January 7 meeting SAD’s political affairs committee, working committee, MPs, MLAs, district presidents, SGPC members and office bearers had unanimously decided to give responsibility of planning and executing these tercentenary celebrations to SAD president Parkash Singh Badal and SGPC executive ratifies that decision and gives its approval.”
NEW JATHEDAR ANNOUNCED FROM CIRCUIT HOUSE
Randhawa’s book also details how Akali ministers, camping at circuit house in Amritsar, were handling the operations on ground for removal of the Akal Takht jathedar on February 10, 1999, by the SGPC executive, which held its meeting at Guru Nanak Niwas. They were also involved in the appointment of new jathedar as well as other high priests, according to the book.
The appointment of Giani Pooran Singh as new jathedar of Akal Takht was announced by SGPC executive members in the evening of February 10 while sitting at circuit house. For the first time in history, appointment of jathedar was announced by the SGPC from a sarkari place. Earlier, on January 10, Badal faction paraded 115 members of SGPC before media at the same circuit house.
"I recorded these for two reasons – that truth should come out and that community should learn lessons. However, little has changed and narrow political considerations continue to take precedence over everything else,” says Kulwant Singh Randhawa while speaking to TOI. "The accounts I have disclosed have never been challenged,” he says.
SGPC FAXES JATHEDAR FROM CM’S HOUSE
On January 17, 1999, a letter signed by 131 members of SGPC to Akal Takht jathedar was faxed from CM’s house and later when Takht jathedar on January 25 sought clarification from SGPC members about this letter he specifically mentioned that the letter was received from the fax number of CM’s house.
‘NOW, THEY ARE CRYING HOARSE?’
"It could not be more ironical that Sikh principles and traditions were dumped on the tercentenary of Khalsa foundation. Badal senior set new precedents of political interference in Akal Takht and SGPC and he controlled the celebrations in 1999. But now his party is crying hoarse when Punjab government is organising anniversary celebrations for Guru Nanakji,” says former Akal Takht jathedar Bhai Ranjit Singh. Singh, after he was removed from his post, held a parallel function at Anandpur Sahib, which got huge response.
*IP Singh is Assistant Editor at The Times of India, Jalandhar. This article first appeared in timesofindia.indiatimes.com and is being reproduced here courtesy TOI.
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