SHIROMANI GURDWARA PARBANDHAK COMMITTEE, a statutory body comprising elected representatives of the Sikhs concerned primarily with the management of sacred Sikh shrines under its control within the territorial limits of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Union territory of Chandigarh. It originated with the Gurdwara Reform or Akali movement of the early 1920`s, which lasted until the 1925 when the Gurdwara bill was placed on the statute book. The administration of Darbar Sahib (the Golden Temple) complex had been, since the annexation of the Punjab to the British territory in 1849, controlled by the British government through a committee of Sikh aristocrats and a manager (sarbarah) appointed by the British deputy commissioner of Amritsar district.

The committee and the sarbarah, a retired risaldar major and honorary captain of the Indian army, Arur Singh, were anathematized among Sikhs for their association with the Jallianvala Bagh tragedy. On 12 October 1920, the Khalsa Baradari, an organization of Sikhs from backward classes, held a divan (religious assembly) in Jallianvala Bagh at which some teachers and students of the Khalsa College were also present. A large number of new entrants were initiated into die Khalsa Brotherhood by administering to them the rites of the Khalsa. As the ceremony concluded, the entire sarig”at went to the Golden Temple to offer karah prasad and urdns.

The clergy at first refused to accept the offerings from the so called untouchables/but later agreed when on a reference being made to the holy book, a Hymn which was read out instantaneously favoured the reformists` views. The sangat then went to the Akal Takht, honoured as the highest seat of religious authority for the Sikhs, to pay their homage. The priests on seeing the sangat coming fled leaving the holy Takht Sahib untenanted. The reformers occupied the Akal Bunga and appointed Teja Singh Bhuchchar as Jathedar of the Akal Takht, with 25 volunteers to guard and serve it. The deputy commissioner, on 13 October 1920, summoned the priests, the sarbarah, and some notable citizens for consultation.

The priests did not appear at the meeting, and the deputy commissioner appointed a fresh committee under the chairmanship of the sarbarah. The reformers on the other hand summoned, under the authority of the Akal Takht, a general assembly of the Sikhs to meet in front of the Akal Takht on 15 November 1920 to deliberate the question. The government held hasty consultations with the Maharaja of Patiala and, on 13 November, nominated a committee of 36 Sikh notables for the management of the Golden Temple and other gurdwaras including the Darbar Sahib at Tarn Taran.

The Sikh assembly held on 15 and 16 November elected a committee of 175 members representing all the districts, Sikh states of the Punjab, other Indian provinces, and Sikh organizations in Burma, Malaya, China and North America. It also included the 36 government nominees in the committee which it named the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, SGPC for short. The inaugural meeting of the SGPC was held at the Akal Takht on 12 December 1920. It appointed a subcommittee to draft the Committee`s constitution. It elected Sardar Sundar Singh Majithia as president, Harbans Singh, of Atari, as vice-president and Sundar Singh Ramgarhia as secretary.

The Majithia Sardar resigned early in 1921 to join the ministry set up under the Government of India Act, 1919, and Baba Kharak Singh was elected in his place president of the SGPC. The Committee was registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, on 30 April 1921. Under its constitution, 80 per cent of the 175member Committee were to be elected from different constituencies in the Punjab and outside including the princely states and the remaining seats were to be nominated by the elected members. There were to be a president, a vice-president, a secretary, an executive committee of 35 members of whom 19 could form a quorum and a 7member working committee.

In addition, local committees with paid secretaries were to be formed for the management of important shrines or groups of shrines. Conditions of membership of the SGPC included conformity to the teachings of the Gurus, adherence to the injunction regarding five K`s, and a subscription of Re. 1.25 per month. The prime functions of the Committee were to manage all gurdwaras under its control, cleanse them of unSikh and undesirable practices, to regularize expenditure and to utilize all income appropriately for purposes such as propagation of religion and education, upkeep and improvement of buildings and the running of Guru ka Langar (free community kitchens). New elections under the constitution were held in July 1921.

Baba Kharak Singh was elected president. Captain Ram Singh vice-president and Sardar Bahadur.Mehtab Singh secretary. Meanwhile, more gurdwaras were brought under the Committee`s control, usually through negotiation and persuasion but also sometimes by coercion or use offeree. The mahants often resisted strongly with resort, at times, to violence. The first such incident took place at Tarn Taran where a group of Akali negotiators was attacked by the priests with lethal weapons causing death of two Akalis and injuries to many others.

A far more serious tragedy took place on 20 February 1921 at Nankana Sahib where about 200 Sikh volunteers were killed by hired assassins of Mahant Narain Das, the custodian of Gurdwara Jan am Asthan. There was clear evidence that the ma.ha.nts had the support of the government. This fact led to the purely religious movement into the political struggle involving direct clash between the reformists and the government. Two days after the inaugural session of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee on 12 December 1920, the Shiromani Akali Dal as the political wing of the SGPC came into existence. It carried out, under the overall guidance and control of the parent body, a series of morchas (1922), Bhai Pheru and Jaito morchas (1923-24).

The SGPC in this struggle maintained a policy of nonviolence and peaceful, passive resistance whereas the government tried all means of suppression arrests, merciless beating, detention, summary trials, imprisonment and even firing on a peaceful unarmed band of volunteers at Jaito .on 21 February 1924. Both the SGPC and the Akali Dal were declared unlawful bodies on 12 October 1923 and all their top leaders and hundreds of activists were put behind the bars. The agitation however continued. Ultimately the government relented and recognized the exclusive right of the Sikhs to manage their own religious shrines.

Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, passed by the provincial legislative assembly on 9 July 1925 and implemented with effect from 1 November 1925 created a “Board”, renamed Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee soon after (although the word Board still exists in the statute book) to provide for the better administration of certain Sikh Gurdwaras and for inquiries into matters and settlement of disputes connected therewith. This covered gurdwaras, listed in Schedules I and II annexed to the Act, located within the then province of Punjab.

Later after the merger of the Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) with the Punjab in 1956, gurdwaras falling therein were also included in the respective schedules vide the amending Act I of 1959, while gurdwaras lying in parts separated under the Reorganization Act of 1966 continued to remain under SGPC`sjurisdiction. The Committee`s control over gurdwaras in Pakistan of course lapsed on 15 August 1947. The “Board”, i.e. the SGPC, originally comprised 132 elected members from the Punjab besides head ministers of Sri Darbar Sahib and of the Takhts, at Amritsar, Patna, Anandpur Sahib and Nanded, and 25 coopted members from Sikh residents in the rest of India.

Consequent to amendments made from time to time, the present composition of the Board is 140 elected members, five head ministers and 15 coopted members. Twenty seats are reserved for scheduled caste Sikhs. The tenure of the Board, originally 3 years, is now 5 years or until the composition of a new Board. The tenure of the executive, however, is only one year. Delimitation of constituencies and the conduct of quinquennial elections is the responsibility of the state government. Every Sikh, male or female, who is more than 21 years of age has the right to be registered as a voter provided he does not trim or shave his beard or hair (Sahajdhari Sikhs exempted).

The first meeting of a newly elecied committee must be held not later than one month after the government notification regarding its constitution, and thereafter a general meeting must be held at least once in a year. The quorum will consist of 31 members. The executive to be elected in general meeting every year consists of the president, two vice-presidents (one senior and one junior) and a general secretary (all these to be known as office bearers), and between 5 and 11 members.

The executive exercises, on behalf of the committee, all powers conferred on the latter which are not expressly reserved in the Act for the general meeting. All decisions in the executive as well as in the general meeting will be decided by majority vote, the president possessing a casting vote in the case of equality of votes for and against, provided that the head; ministers are not entitled to vote during the election of the office bearers and members of the executive committee.

To adjudicate on any disputes regarding recognition of any shrines as being a Sikh gurdwara under the Act or on complaints with respect to the SGPC or its committees or against any of its office holder or member past or present, a Judicial Commission consisting of three members is contituted under the Act. Its members must be Sikh lawyers or exjudges of not fewer than 10 years standing. Appointments to it are made by the government provided that two of them must be selected out of a panel of seven names submitted by the SGPC.

The expenses of the Commission are shared by SGPC and the government in the ratio of two to one. The Commission is not a court in the legal sense but ajudicial body which substantially controls the functioning and operation of gurdwara management. Cases before it are regarded as complaints and not as suits. It is permanently situated in a building owned by the SGPC, close to district courts in Amritsar. Although constituted as a purely religious body for the management of gurdwaras, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee with its vast resources (its annual budget now is around a thousand million rupees) performs multifarious functions.

Besides propagation of religion including running of free kitchens, it runs a large number of schools and colleges, manages agricultural farms on gurdwara lands, encourages research, printing and publication of works on Sikh religion and history, and helps victims of political repression as well as of natural calamities. It arranges visits of Sikh pilgrims to gurdwaras left in Pakistan and maintains liaison with Sikh organizations in other Indian states and abroad. It takes up with the government matters of Sikh interests or grievances. In this it collaborates with the Shiromani Akali Dal, a political party representing the Sikh masses.

The position of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee visavis the Shiromani Akali Dal underwent a change soon after the passing of the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925. Originally the Dal functioned under the control of the Committee, designed as it was to coordinate the activities of local and regional units of Akali workers which already existed at the birth of the SGPC, and to mobilize and provide volunteers to the Committee as, when and where required.

A confidential report of the C.I.D. (Criminal Investigation Department), Punjab, dated 22 February 1922, refers to the Dal as “Central” Akali Dal which appellation indicates its coordinating role in a federal setup.. The Gurdwara Act, while restricting the committee`s field of action to purely religious, introduced an electoral system which needed an organ for politically educating and organizing the electrorate, which was supposed to be the real sanction behind the representative character of the committee.

This role naturally fell to the Shiromani Akali Dal. As long as the apex leadership was common to both organizations, there was no difficulty for the two to coexist. But as differences arose (and they cropped up as soon as the Act was passed), political activity in the Dal quickened. The very first election under the Act, held on 18 June 1926, was fought between a moderate group led by Sardar Bahadur Mehtab Singh, who had obtained their release by giving the undertaking of acceptance of the Act as demanded by the government, and others led by those who refused a conditional release and were still in jail.

The result gave a landslide victory to the latter, who rightfully claimed to be the Shiromani Akali Dal. Thereafter it was the Dal which by virtue of its political strength controlled the SGPC. The latter provided the Dal with moral support and monopoly in the use of the pulpit on the plea that Sikhism recognizes no hiatus between religion and politics. 10. Pratap Singh, Giani, Gurdwara Sudhar arthat Akali Lahir. Amritsar, 1975

References :

1. Teja Singh, Gurdwara Reform and the Sikh Awakening. Jalandhar, 1922
2. Sahni, Ruchi Ram, Struggle for Reform in Sikh Shrines. Amritsar, n.d
3. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. Delhi 1983
4. Kashmir Singh, Law of Religious Institutions-Sikh Gurdwaras. Amritsar, 1989
5. Ganda Singh, “The Akali Dal and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee,” Panjab Past and Present. Patiala, October 1967
6. ed., Some Confidential Papers of the Akali Movement. Amritsar, 1965
7. Mohinder Singh, The Akali Movement. Delhi, 1978
8. Josh, S.S., Akali Morchian da Itihas. Delhi, 1972
9. Ashok, Shamsher Singh, ShromanI Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee da Panjah Sala Itihas. Patiala, 1982