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A political squabble over religious economics

On August 6, the clearing outside the Chhevin Patshahi Gurdwara in Haryana’s Kurukshetra district turned into a battlefield of sorts. Supporters of the ad hoc Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (HSGMC), a newly-created body that is staking claim to the gurdwaras of Haryana, clashed with the police. They came armed with lathis and swords. The police were desperate to prevent their entry into the gurdwara because inside the historic shrine, the armed ‘task force’ of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) was determined to fight a bloody battle to fend off the bid to take over what SGPC has believed for years is its prerogative: the management – and finances – of all important Sikh shrines. Earlier in the day, HSGMC had succeeded in taking over control of two other important gurdwaras – in Kaithal and Yamunanagar – from SGPC.

Over the last month or so, ever since the Haryana assembly passed the legislation for the creation of HSGMC enabling the Haryana-based body’s takeover of the gurdwaras in the state, a frenzied struggle has been on. Truckloads of SGPC supporters have been sent into Haryana from Punjab to camp in the gurdwaras. (The SGPC headquarters is in Amritsar, the temporal seat of the Sikh faith. It is a mini-parliament of sorts for Sikh religious affairs.) Pitched against them, HSGMC supporters have used everything, from force to legalities, to try and win the battle. At play here is not just the struggle to control shrines but a more explosive combination of religion, politics and money.

Until recently, SGPC controlled 52 gurdwaras in Haryana, of which eight are of historical importance and earn crores every year, 17 have an annual income of up to Rs 20 lakh and the remaining earn less than Rs 20 lakh per year. On Thursday, however, the Supreme Court ordered a status quo, implying gurdwaras that have been taken over by HSGMC will remain with it for now and the rest will continue with SGPC. The historical gurdwaras fall under direct SGPC control with no local involvement.

There are 82 historical gurdwaras in all, mostly in Punjab. The remaining shrines are managed by local committees under SGPC’s supervision. Each gurdwara gives about 30 per cent of its annual income to SGPC – 10 per cent for dharm prachar (religious propagation), 10 per cent for education (SGPC runs around 95 aided and unaided schools and colleges) and another 10 per cent as dasvand (one-tenth contribution for the community). The remaining 70 per cent remains with each gurdwara to manage its affairs. Most of the money is spent on langar (community kitchen) and to pay employee salaries.

SGPC claims that in 2013-14, the gross income from all Haryana gurdwaras put together was Rs 32.04 crore – a tentative figure because the books are yet to be closed. It says that in the same year, the gurdwaras transferred Rs 6.77 crore to SGPC. The top body of the Sikhs maintains that in the five years from 2009-10 to 2013-14, Haryana gurdwaras gave a total of Rs 35.80 crore to SGPC, of which the committee spent Rs 31.27 crore on Haryana gurdwaras and SGPC-run institutes in the state. “Besides,” says an SGPC official, “SGPC is also funding projects worth Rs 150-170 crore in Haryana from its treasury.”

HSGMC members do not buy these claims. “Gurdwaras that are under complete SGPC control lack transparency,” says HSGMC President (adhoc) Jagdish Singh Jinda. “All key posts here, including accounts, are managed by SGPC.” Given that a sizeable amount of cash is involved, keeping track of the money is next to impossible. “The golak (donation box) too is opened by SGPC employees,” says Jinda who, like other HSGMC members, believes that Haryana gurdwaras gave Rs 180-200 crore to SGPC in the last five years – more than five times the sum claimed by SGPC.

Financial irregularity, he alleges, was the key reason for creating a separate gurdwara management body for Haryana. “Take the example of gurdwaras Neem Sahib at Kaithal and Manji Sahib at Pehowa (Kurukshetra) that have HSGMC supporters as employees,” he says. “Their average annual collection is now over Rs 65 lakh each. Until 2006, these gurdwaras, which are relatively smaller shrines, were controlled by SGPC supporters and showed annual donations of just Rs 4-5 lakh.” The Haryana government backs the claim. Minister Randeep Singh Surjewala, who drafted the HSGMC Bill, alleges, “There is serious siphoning off of golak money because Haryana gurdwaras are dominated by SGPC employees. God only knows how much money is pilfered.”

SGPC President Avtar Singh Makkar counters this allegation. “There is internal auditing of the finances of every gurdwara. The accounts then come to us. Our internal auditor prepares the overall balance sheet and the members work out the year’s budget.” For 2014-15, SGPC’s expenditure budget is Rs 905 crore – Rs 99 crore more than last year’s – on an income of about Rs 1,000 crore, leaving a surplus of almost Rs 100 crore. After the internal audit, a panel of auditors approved by the Punjab government goes through the account books, says Makkar. “Even so, transparency is missing and the scope for pilferage is huge when the local community is not involved,” says independent SGPC member Hardeep Singh. “Devotees should be involved when the golak is opened. In comparison to SGPC-controlled gurdwaras, the management of local gurdwaras is far more transparent.”

There has also been controversy around SGPC’s internal auditor S S Kohli, who was reinstated a day after the committee’s executive terminated his services. Several Panthic (Sikh religious) leaders have alleged that rules were flouted because the auditor is close to Punjab’s Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. The chartered accountant is paid Rs 7.66 lakh a month when, they claim, even the senior-most SGPC employee draws a monthly salary of less than Rs 60,000. Kohli’s firm looks after 82 gurdwaras, over 100 educational and other SGPC-run institutions, as well as the Sri Guru Ramdas Medical College and Sri Guru Granth Sahib Sikh University. It is alleged that he is also consulted on major SGPC projects.

Kohli refused to be quoted for this report. Shiromani Akali Dal leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who is Union minister of food processing, wife of Sukhbir Badal and daughter-in-law of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, fumes at these allegations. “The auditor has a team of 30 accountants looking after 182 institutions. If you calculate, that amounts to a fee of barely Rs 4,300 per institute.” Besides, she says, since his appointment, Kohli has managed to check SGPC expenses and save golak money.

The Akali Dal, particularly the Badal family, has always been closely involved with the affairs of SGPC. Parkash Singh Badal views himself as the tallest leader of the Sikhs and his politics has been intricately interlinked with the affairs of the most important Sikh religious body, SGPC. The Akalis actively contest the SGPC elections conducted by the Gurdwara Election Commission. In all, 170 members from 120 constituencies are elected and an additional 15 members are nominated from different states. “Haryana has 11 seats and all of them were won by Akalis,” says Harsimrat Badal. “So how can people like Jinda, who lost, claim to represent the Sikhs who didn’t even elect them?” she asks. “The Akalis,” says an SGPC member, “have two constitutions – one, where they call themselves a Panthic party and the other, where they present themselves as a secular party.”

“That is the concept of Miri Piri propagated by Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru. ‘Miri’ signifies ‘political power’ and ‘Piri’ is linked to ‘spiritual power’,” says Harsimrat Badal. “This means, govern and get into politics but rule with the path shown by dharma.” She terms the creation of HSGMC as illegal given that “SGPC has been designated an inter-state body”. Any decision to change that character has to be approved by two-thirds majority of the SGPC body or by an act of Parliament, she says.

The Akalis view the creation of HSGMC as a Congress ploy to influence Sikhs ahead of the assembly elections in the state three months from now. For decades, the Congress has tried to weaken the hold the Akalis have over Sikhs through SGPC. Indira Gandhi tried it. So did former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh. And now the Bhupinder Singh Hooda-led Congress government in Haryana is attempting it.

Surjewala insists on the legality of HSGMC. On November 1, 1966, joint Punjab was divided into three states: Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh as well as the Union Territory of Chandigarh. “Section 72 (1) & (3) of the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966 envisages the carving out of a separate law by successor states for various matters, including qua formation of a separate SGPC constituted though the Gurdwaras Act of 1925,” says Surjewala. He says by creating HSGMC, the successor state of Haryana has only fulfilled the long-standing demand of the Sikhs of the state for self-governance of these gurdwaras.

The political fight over money and religion is clearly far from over, though the Supreme Court has stepped in and restored order – for now.

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