Jathedar Akal Takht — In Historical Perspective
by Sangat Singh
The recent unseemly controversy involving the Jathedar, Akal Takht, and contradictory pulls and pushes to which the office of Jathedar Akal Takht has been subjected, making it the fulcrum of the conflict leading to the ouster of Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra from the Presidentship of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, has helped to bring into sharp focus various issues relating to the powers of the Jathedar, or Head Priest of Akal Takht. In view of assertions, direct and indirect, by Jathedar Akal Takht in person, and by some persons from the pulpit of Akal Takht in the post-1984 era, specifically from January 1986, when gun-wielding youth seized Akal Takht and started the era of playing havoc with the Sikh institutions, there is a need to look into the powers such elements have since claimed.
Briefly, is the jathedar, or the group that effects a coup and seizes Akal Takht, a sovereign power, or supreme, as they claimed him to be? In short, can the jathedar act as a dictator, i.e., a centre of absolute power, imposing his will on the Khalsa Panth? Or by deduction, can the jathedar claim himself to be a deputy or the Khalifa of Guru Nanak or Guru Gobind Singh in the present context? Is he infallible? Also germane to the issue is the last testament of Guru Gobind Singh, abolishing personal Guruship and transferring it to the (Guru) Granth and the (Guru) Panth. There are various other issues relating to qualifications, aptitude, and temperament of the jathedar, especially in the context of the Sikh diaspora, and the widespread apostasy that the Panth is facing, and the concerted attack at the hands of Brahminical forces underpinned by the state, on the one hand, and Christian missionaries, especially the McLeodian school of thought, operating from various centres of learning in the West, under the pretence of academic freedom.
This is not the first time that such a situation has arisen. The capture of Akal Takht, or rather the Harmandar Sahib complex by the Minas, the dissident sect, for over six decades in the 17th century, and later the government control over Harmandar Sahib which started in 1825 under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and lasted till 1920 under the British, can be identified as two such periods. The third such era started in January 1986 when the gun wielding ‘militants’, with the complicity of the government of India, seized Akal Takht — the Golden Temple Complex — and started imposing their will on the Sikh Panth. Seen from that aspect, can the present struggle involving Bhai Ranjit Singh be seen as a culmination of the era, marking the liberation of the Panth from obnoxious and hostile forces? Despite the fact that the voice of the forces that have emerged on top in this struggle is mute or weak, and they are not evocative as to their ideology and motivation, there are signs that the developments have the propensity to take a positive course and direction that will benefit the Panth. It at least marks a change, or is a departure from an era since the 1960s, which would pave the way for a positive development.
Though the concept of an admixture of raj and jog was extant in the times of Guru Nanak, it was reserved for Guru Hargobind to formally construct Akal Takht or Akal Bunga in 1608, as a centre of empirical power. Guru Hargobind specifically said that when he was in Harmandar, he was a saint, and he was a king when he was in Akal Takht. It must be understood that a mound of earth existed at the site since the times of digging the Amritsar sarovar, and was earlier used by him as the site for his coronation as sixth Guru after the martyrdom of Guru Arjan. Bhai Gurdas was appointed as its first mukh sevadar or chief priest. Bhai Gurdas and Baba Budha, who was chief priest of Harmandar, together kept the Sikhs in harness during the seven year long period of incarceration of Guru Hargobind in Gwalior fort.
It is not the scope of the present paper to dwell on the circumstances under which Guru Hargobind in 1634, was forced to change his headquarters to Kiratpur Sahib and the Harmandar complex along with Akal Takht fell to the control and management of dissident Minas. At the time, when the eighth Sikh Guru breathed his last in 1664 without openly naming his successor, Harji, who too claimed for himself to be the eighth Guru, was in control. From all available sources, he was a man of high calibre, very competent, with a high degree of scholarship. But he could not visualise, nor did his advisers devise this theory for him, that Akal Takht was a source of supreme authority. With that, he could have prevented Baba Tegh Bahadur becoming the ninth Sikh Guru. The Akal Takht played no role at that crucial time.
Similar was the situation when the five Sikhs at Chamkaur ordered Guru Gobind Singh to make his escape for the good of the Panth. And, last but not least, Guru Gobind Singh, at the last moment of his life abolished personal Guruship, and transferred it to (Guru) Granth and the (cumulative) Panth, without bringing in the Akal Takht or any other shrine. We must keep in mind that the seventh, eighth, and tenth Sikh Guru never visited Amritsar, while the ninth Sikh Guru, who sought to do so, was prevented from entering the precincts of Harmandar Sahib. Also, the concept of miri and piri, or supremacy in spiritual and empirical matters, lay with the person of the Guru, and not with any seat or place consecrated by any of them. Logically speaking, keeping in view that the concept of raj-jog, miri-piri, or sant-sipahi emanated from Guru Nanak, the headquarters could lay at Nankana Sahib or better still at Kartarpur, on the river Ravi, where Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life. But since Guru Nanak himself had wanted his successor to move to Khadoor Sahib, and separated the person of the Guru from any particular place, no sanctity was attached to places associated with the Sikh Gurus. Pilgrimages to places associated with the Sikh Gurus did not start till after the lifetime of the ten Gurus.
It was the need to ingrain the concept of Granth and Panth in the Sikh psyche that made Bhai Mani Singh (who took over as head granthi of the Harmandar complex, including the Akal Takht, in the post-Guru Gobind Singh period) to lay emphasis on Harmandar and Akal Takht to be the fulcrum of Sikh assertion. It was he who in those dark days of persecution translated the concept of Guru Khalsa or Sarbat Khalsa, the whole community, as the corporate Guru. This led to the concept of gurmatta or Guru’s decision taken by the community under the aegis or primacy of Akal Takht.
It must be kept in view that the idea of Panthic unity, i.e. unity of all or various, diverse, forces in the Khalsa was chimerical, unreal, and unachievable. For instance, the twelfth Sikh misl, Phulkian, which itself was a conglomerate of diverse parts, never formed part of Dal Khalsa, which consisted only of 11 misls. And, at the meeting of the Panth Khalsa or Sarbat Khalsa, only the leaders of the 11 misls spoke. Their followers or collaborators sat behind them and could speak only through their leaders. The decisions were taken by consensus of the leaders of Dal Khalsa, or the heads of the 11 misls, and registered with the Akalis, who manned Akal Takht or Akal Bunga, for their implementation. These Akalis on their own were not instrumental in taking any decisions. Similarly, the misls registered their gains in extending rakhi or protection to villages / areas with Akal Takht.
These registrations constituted the area of occupation of the various misls. The last Sarbat Khalsa or meeting of the whole Panth, was held in 1764 when they decided to capture Lahore and establish Sikh rule. No Sarbat Khalsa was held after 1764, which marked the failure of the Akalis manning the Akal Takht, since the misls were soon on a cantankerous route.
I shall soon revert to the character of the so-called Sarbat Khalsa organised in the post-January 1986 period.
Next we hear the story of Akali Phula Singh, head priest Akal Takht, around 1800, when he sarcastically asked Maharaja Ranjit Singh for riding to the main gate of Harmandar on an elephant, “O kania, tainoo jhota kis ditta ae” (trans. “O one-eyed man, who gave you this he-buffalo?”) Ranjit Singh was at first defiant but found himself being boycotted by friends and laity. He considered it polite to bow before Akali Phula Singh, who now hauled him up for his affair with Moran, a Muslim nautch girl.
Phula Singh was judging Ranjit Singh as a Sikh, and not as a Maharaja. Ranjit Singh submitted to the punishment of receiving stripes, but after he was tied to the tamarind tree and had bared his back, it was decided not to flog him. But what happened then? Akali Phula Singh left Amritsar and retired to Anandpur Sahib, while Maharaja Ranjit Singh did not discard Moran, or change his style of living.
It is not within the scope of this paper to go into the last phase of Akali Phula Singh’s life and recount his exploits on the North West Frontier. Suffice it to say that after Akali Phula Singh’s death at Nowshera, Ranjit Singh took the management of the Harmandar complex under his command in 1825, upsetting Sikh ethos and values.
Now we may refer to two outlandish acts performed in the name of Akal Takht and other gurdwaras. The first was a hukamnama issued on 14 March, 1887 by “Singh Sahibs, Audhedars, Granthis, and Pujaris of Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, and also Bhai Narain Singh, Granthi, Gurdwara Tarn Taran”, a conglomerate of 29 Panthic dignitaries, against Professor Gurmukh Singh, the spirit behind the Singh Sabha movement for his falling foul of Baba Khem Singh Bedi, who was trying to assert his position as 15th Sikh Guru (for being the descendent of Guru Nanak). Even this hukamnama was not considered sufficient to oust him (Prof. Gurmukh Singh) from the Panth. Similar hukamnamas were issued from the four other Takhts at Anandpur Sahib, Damdama Sahib, Hazur Sahib, and Patna Sahib.
Two things stand out. One, a hukamnama from Akal Takht alone was not considered sufficient; and two, the concept of five Sikhs constituting a panel to inflict tankhah or punishment was absent. The hukamnama was specifically withdrawn by the World Sikh Convention in 1995.
The second incident I would like to refer to was the conferring of a siropa, or robe of honour, on General Dyer and Capt. Briggs at Akal Takht in 1919, after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and admitting both of them within the fold, or brotherhood, of the Khalsa, without their keeping keshas, or giving up smoking. This caused a furore and fed the flames of the Gurdwara Reform Movement.
With the beginning of the Gurdwara Reform Movement in 1920, Jathedar Teja Singh Bhuchar was the first to take over as Head Priest of Akal Takht. He was jathedar of a jatha; the headship of Akal Takht did not confer upon him the title of jathedar. After the enactment of the 1925 Gurdwaras Act, the title of the head priest is mukh sewadar. It is another matter that by courtesy the head is called jathedar. So is the position of head priests of Anandpur Sahib and Damdama Sahib. The head priests of Patna Sahib and Hazoor Sahib never had such pretensions. They continue, till date, to be called head priests, without the honorific title of jathedar, which remains ephemeral.
In the 1920s, Baba Kharak Singh, who was President of the SGPC, likened his position to that of the President of America, France, or Germany. In the 1980s, it was Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra, President of the SGPC since 1973, who likened his position to that of the Pope. The point is, that during six decades after the 1925 Gurdwaras Act came into effect, no one in his senses claimed any superior position for the head priest or so-called jathedar of Akal Takht as a supreme or paramount power.
In the SGPC hierarchy, till the 1960s, the position of Secretary of SGPC, a paid employee, was supposed to be higher than that of head priest or jathedar, who, for instance, was made to wait outside the office of the Secretary to receive his salary. It was only in the 1960s, with the appearance of senior Akali leaders before the Jathedar Akal Takht, for their acts of omission and commission, that there was elevation in the status of Akal Takht Jathedar, and the SGPC caused his salary to be delivered to him in his office. Harjinder Singh Dilgeer in his well-researched work on Akal Takht has delineated the character and aptitude of some of the head priests of Akal Takht. None of whom could, or did issue a hukamnama without extensive prior consultations with a cross section of Panthic set-ups.
This brings us to the most tumultuous era, when Sikhism came under direct attack of genocidal proportions. Operation Blue Star and the November 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, following the killing of Indira Gandhi at the hands of her two security guards was followed by persecution of genocidal dimensions and persistent attempts to subvert Sikhism, Sikh doctrines, and Sikh institutions.
This caused some new concepts to be introduced in Sikhism, and the revival of some old ones, with malice aforethought, to play havoc with the Sikh socio-religious set-up. This had a three fold impact in, one, playing havoc with the institution of Akal Takht and the gurdwara set-up; two, introduction of militancy in Sikh polity to upset the equilibrium established during the Gurdwara Reform Movement; and, three, revival of the concept of Sarbat Khalsa, this time by lumpen elements with guns in their hands and full backing of the central government or Delhi Darbar operating through the third Agency, at their back.
It is not within the scope of the present paper to dilate on all these aspects. Some salient features are highlighted here :
– Baba Joginder Singh’s dissolution of various Akali Dals in May 1985 and formation of an ad hoc Akali Dal from the Golden Temple Complex.
– The seizure of Akal Takht, hoisting of the Khalistan flag, and dismissal of Akal Takht and Golden Temple head priests, and a host of other steps by toughs of Damdami Taksal, and students of the AISSF, serving as cat’s paw, on 26 January, 1986.
– The declaration of Khalistan on 29 April, 1986 by the so-called Panthic Panj Membri Committee in the Golden Temple complex at the instance of Union Minister Buta Singh, who soon after was rewarded with the Union Home Ministry.
– So-called Sarbat Khalsa at Akal Takht on 26 January, 1987 and the appointment of Prof. Darshan Singh Ragi as Acting Jathedar, Akal Takht, and replacement of a host of other jathedars and head priests / granthis at Amritsar, Anandpur Sahib, and Damdama Sahib.
– Prof. Darshan Singh’s dissolution of all factions of Akali Dal including the ruling Akali Dal (Longowal) and Ragi’s attempt to emerge as fulcrum of political power, introducing new dimensions to the powers of the Akal Takht.
– So-called Sarbat Khalsa of 21st October, 1987, a nonstarter, and its alignment with the intelligence set-up.
– Appointment and character of Jasbir Singh Rode as Jathedar Akal Takht in March 1988 and his replacement two months later by Harcharan Singh Dilli.
– Inspector General (Border) Chaman Lal’s outburst about the Government’s hand in promoting terrorism in Punjab and it having a finger in every militant pie.
– Interaction between Tohra and Bhai Ranjit Singh in Tihar Jail, and appointment of Bhai Ranjit Singh as Jathedar of Akal Takht, while still in Jail in 1990, and the naming of Prof. Manjit Singh as Acting Jathedar, Akal Takht, meanwhile.
– Prof. Manjit Singh’s efforts, under Tohra’s auspices, to bring about euphemistic ‘Panthic Unity’ by dissolution of various Akali Dals in April 1994, adoption of Amritsar Declaration and establishment of Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), and Badal’s deft moves to save his Akali Dal from these moves.
All these actions were, firstly, arbitrary, high-handed and malicious in character, and, secondly, were performed at the instance of a hostile central authority, out to undermine Sikhism and Sikh institutions.
As stated earlier, a threefold thrust was to undermine and subvert the institution of Akal Takht and other religious offices, and the primacy of the SGPC and of Akali Dal in Sikh affairs. Thinking men should ponder over where the Jathedar Akal Takht stood in these murky goings on for over a decade.
Now, we come to the concept of the supremacy of the Jathedar Akal Takht. How did he become supreme? Where did this concept originate?
We have seen how the office of Jathedar Akal Takht was tossed at the point of a gun since 1986 by unscrupulous elements, in acts of questionable validity and doubtful integrity.
Event: Centenary celebrations of World Congress of Religions, at Chicago, an assemblage of Bishops, Cardinals, religious leaders, academicians, and a mixture of people from all over the world. In a show of one-upmanship, the Sikh delegation chose to equate Prof. Manjit Singh, Acting Jathedar Akal Takht, present there, as the Sikh equivalent of the Pope, to give him and Sikhism a place of primacy in the gathering. The people who did so were conscious of the mischief they were doing and its likely repercussions back home. Prof. Manjit Singh was specifically told that his elevation, if it can be called that, was for external consumption, and he should not take airs, of which he straightaway showed signs.
A person from Chicago, who later played a prominent role at the World Sikh Convention in September 1995, specifically told me that he sought to disabuse Prof. Manjit Singh, telling him that in Sikhism there was no place for clergy, and that he could pray to God, Almighty, directly, without intervention of Prof. Manjit Singh or any one else. But this had little impact on Prof. Manjit Singh whose self was puffed up in vainglory. Prof. Manjit Singh was the wrong person, at the wrong stage of life, and in the wrong frame of mind.
Basically being a careerist, if not a time server (for that we need not blame him in view of his age), he saw immense possibilities in projecting the concept of supremacy of Akal Takht. This was reflected at first in his efforts to dissolve various Akali Dals and the formation of Shiromani Akali Dal, Amritsar, with the Amritsar declaration in April 1994, and later the World Sikh Convention in September 1995 at Amritsar, when all sorts of persons of dubious character got positions of primacy in Sikh affairs. His insatiable cravings for funds and visits abroad to that end, and the failure to take corrective steps at the beginning of the Sikh youth’s lapsing towards apostasy (he broached the idea of calling K P S Gill to Akal Takht in 1994 but his courage failed him) were commented upon by Sikh journals like the Sant-Sipahi, Amritsar, and the Spokesman, Chandigarh.
We come to the last phase of the ongoing drama, the induction of Bhai Ranjit Singh as Akal Takht Jathedar, and the struggle leading to the ouster of Jathedar Tohra from the SGPC Presidentship.
The only qualification that Bhai Ranjit Singh had to become the Jathedar of Akal Takht, was his involvement in the Sant Nirankari Chief Gurbachan Singh’s killing. He spoke the truth in Court when he denied his involvement in the actual shooting. Earlier, when he had contacted Sant Bhindranwale, asking for the reward announced by him for the killing of Baba Gurbachan Singh, Bhindranwale told him that a bullet would go into his head for telling a lie at the Harmandar Sahib Complex. Frightened, he handed himself over to Giani Zail Singh, a Ramgarhia brother, who managed to send him to Tihar Jail to save him from Bhindranwale’s ire. Besides, crime and reward or achievement, do not go hand in hand. Look at the history of persons who won the Victoria Cross for heights of bravery. No one was made a King’s Commissioned Officer, much less a chief for showing extraordinary feats of bravery. Here was a man who at best had shot a bête noir, and look how he was awarded with the highest religious seat.
First Jathedar Ranjit Singh had said that he would not interfere in the political processes of the Akali Dal, but he ended up trying to pull Tohra’s chestnuts out of the fire. Because of this, he asked the majority of members of the SGPC whether they were asking him to review his hukamnama of 31st December at the instance of extraneous elements or on their own. Finally, his refusal to accept the verdict of the SGPC executive, only goes to show that he was the wrong person to be appointed to Akal Takht. And the same applies to his predecessor Prof. Manjit Singh, Acting Jathedar Akal Takht.
This brings us to the concluding part. What should be the qualifications for a Jathedar Akal Takht.
The write-up on the subject by Giani Kewal Singh, Jathedar Damdama Sahib, published in the Spokesman quite recently, has raised certain pertinent issues. These need detailed examination.
I will confine myself to a couple of points. One, Nawab Kapur Singh in the first half of the 18th century had entrusted the work of dharm parchar to Buddha Dal, i.e. persons over 40 years of age. In the present context that would mean a person of over 60 years of age. No jathedar should be less than that age, and Jathedar Akal Takht should preferably be over 65 years of age, i.e. a person who is past the stage of settling his children, constructing a house for family living, or the need to garner wealth for these and other ends. Secondly, the Jathedarship of Akal Takht need not be confined to persons already in the religious set-up. It could well go to persons who have successfully passed their worldly life, and have sufficient attainments in the religious field to impart a fresh approach, a fresh outlook to the office of Jathedar Akal Takht. This can very well be a term appointment.
This decade has already seen a failure of the institution of Akal Takht. When there was a wholesale move towards apostasy, the Acting Jathedar Akal Takht was found wanting, and was making foreign jaunts to collect funds for personal ends instead. Again, during the last couple of years, when over 200 Sikh farmers committed suicide because of economic hardship, introducing a new phenomenon in Sikhism, no jathedar of any Takht, head granthi or even a small time granthi at any of the Sikh shrines, paid a visit to them to ascertain the causes of that destructive trend, which reflected alienation from the Sikh faith. Even worse, jathedars in Punjab refused to listen to the voice of their conscience, and apply correctives to themselves.
No tears need be shed at the ouster of Bhai Ranjit Singh.
Let us hope that the new set-up in the SGPC will pay due attention to the issues at stake and give right directions to the office and person of Jathedar of Akal Takht and other Takhts too.