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Tension between Punjab, Haryana govts continue to simmer

July 28, 2014 17:37 IST

Confrontation between the Sikh bodies of Punjab and Haryana has become more political than religious, says contributor Upasna Pandey

An uneasy calm prevails in Punjab and Haryana.

Intervention by the Akal Takht, supreme religious body of the Sikhs, has prevented a direct confrontation between the Sikh bodies of Punjab and Haryana but peace is fragile. Tensions between the governments of Punjab and Haryana continue to simmer.

Akal Takht has restored the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee's authority to manage gurdwaras in Haryana, the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, a 41-member ad hoc committee, and waits for the “issue to be resolved.”

With Haryana going to polls in a few months and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) too looking to consolidate after their poor showing in the last Lok Sabha elections, the issue now looks more political than religious. The SGPC says it is legally mandated to run Sikh shrines and other socio welfare institutions across the country while the Sikhs of Haryana are seeking greater autonomy to manage their gurdwaras.

The two warring parties, “big brother” SGPC and newly created Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee may abide by the Akal Takht’s diktat issued to maintain status quo, but the rumblings are bound to surface soon because of the charged political atmosphere.

It is a potent combination of political interest, money power and religious sentiment fueled with chronic deficit of trust that makes this long pending demand for a separate authority to manage Gurdwaras in Haryana a highly volatile issue.

“We are like the younger brother who has been separated from the family, when the division of Haryana and Punjab happened in 1966. We have been denied our rightful control over managing our gurdwaras for a long time by SGPC,” says Sevadar Balbir Singh, of Nanaksar Langar Mata Sahib Road, GT Karnal Road.

He explains that the resentment is brewing over a decade and the issues are myriad. “We don’t control the funds that are raised by Haryana gurdwaras, our children are not given jobs in the SGPC, Punjab based Sikhs get priority,” adds Balbir Singh.

“We will of course abide by the diktat of the Akal Takht but there is no reason why we should drop our demand, which is our right. Our grandparents came from Pakistan, fought the Britishers and set up gurdwaras in India, we are not giving up so early,” he says.

There are others who rue the mismanagement and neglect by SGPC. Gurdyal Singh, a sevadar at Dhantori Sad Sanganth Gurdwara on GT Karnal Road says, “Our children get jobs as clerks, chaprasi, chowkidar and sevadars while the Sikhs from Punjab get all the management roles such as general manager, pradhan, and accountants in SGPC. This is unfair and we have a right to ask what is due to us.”

There is clearly a lot at stake for the political parties, both in Haryana and Punjab. Punjab chief minister and SAD (B) leader, Prakash Singh Badal, is known to exercises a strong influence on SGPC as well as the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee. He is strongly opposed to the setting up of HSGMC.

SAD-BJP had managed to win 6 of the 13 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and only managed 35 per cent of the votes despite a clear national wave against the Congress. Though the next round of elections are three years away, this issue might help the SAD-BJP in getting back some of the lost political ground.

Many point out that the Haryana Congress-led government, which has facilitated the long pending creation of HSGMC, a part of the Congress election manifesto for long, is likely to reap the gains in the upcoming state election. Haryana districts bordering Punjab have a strong Sikh population and the Congress is certainly hoping they would be able to consolidate Sikh support.

Punjab Congress leaders, however, are quick to point out that HSGMC is not a religious issue but a diversionary tactic used by the Badal government. “All Sikhs wanted the Akal Takht to intervene, which it has done at the right time. There is now little trust left in the SGPC and the SAD (B), which has been opposing the setting up of HSGMC, has not found much support on the ground. It will find it tough to resist on this demand of Haryana Sikhs for long,” says Pratap Singh Bajwa, the Punjab Congress chief.

Bajwa insists that “Sikhs in both the states as well as those overseas do not support Prakash Singh Badal.”

The Akalis, on the other hand, point to the Haryana Congress government's move to divide the Sikh community.

Dr Daljeet Singh Cheema, Punjab education minister, says “This is a Congress conspiracy to divide the Sikh votebank but Akal Takht will be the final deciding authority on this issue. Sikhs are also looking at the Central government to intervene and resolve this issue in a fair manner. We do not acknowledge the unconstitutional body which has been set up by the Haryana government.”

SGPC president, Avtar Singh Makkar speaks of the supremacy of the SGPC as he traces back the history of the SGPC. It is the nodal body that has been responsible for the management of all Sikh shrines, running socio-educational welfare institutes as well as overall well being of the community, he say.

“We have been managing all activities for the well-being of Sikhs across undivided Punjab, which included Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh since the creation of SGPC under a 1925 Act. We also managed the gurdwaras in Pakistan for over 20 years post independence. So the question of Haryana marching out alone does not arise,” says Makkar.

He points to a group of disgruntled and ambitious individuals who may be behind the call for a separate management committee in Haryana, as they have been sidelined in the SGPC, now wanting to break away for good.

“Since 2004 when Congress listed the setting up of HSGMC as part of the election manifesto, it has done little to make it happen. But now when the elections are round the corner, it is trying to rake up the issue all over again,” says Makkar.

Talking about the overall gurdwara earnings, Makkar explains, “The total budget of SGPC for all over India is around 900 crore, out of which the total budget for Haryana is around Rs 34 crore, which includes earnings of 17 gurdwaras under section 87 (with earnings less than Rs 20 lakh per year) and 8 gurdwaras under section 85 (with earnings over Rs 20 lakh per year).”

“Those governed under section 87 have four local gurdwara members and one is co-opted from SGPC, while those governed under section 85 are run directly by SGPC.” He dismisses the claims that the earnings of Haryana gurdwaras are much higher running up to Rs 200-300 crore. 

Makkar explains that Congress has been successful in stirring the hornet’s nest right at the brink of the upcoming election but it has done little for the welfare of the Sikh community in the state.

“The SGPC wanted to set up a Medical College and Hospital on GT Karnal road worth Rs 150 crore but the Congress government has not issued an NOC for this since 2006, as they object to Punjab CM Badal being on the trust of this institute,” Makkar adds.

With the Akal Takht playing peacemaker, Makkar is confident that the issue will not give an electoral edge to the Congress. “Sikhs across the world will abide by the Akal Takht diktat, even if they would not approve of any other body.”

The National Democratic Alliance led central government has a role to play too. With the SGPC enjoying absolute support from the Akalis, it is also for the BJP to be mindful of the fact that they too have a stake in the Haryana polls. Siding completely with the Akalis can also impact their own chances in northern Haryana, if the issue generates strong political response.

The election season is well and truly underway in Haryana and though the Akal Takht's intervention has cooled down tempers as of now, this issue is likely to dominate the political discourse in the ensuing vidhan sabha elections.

Image: SGPC President Avtar Singh 

Upasna Pandey in New Delhi