Jathedar of Akal Takht Sahib Harpreet Singh issued a 24-hour for the release of separatist leader Amritpal Singh’s detained supporters (Photo: SGPC Amritsar)
Chandigarh: The profound sanctity of Akal Takht Sahib, which came into recognition from the beginning of the 17th century could be fast eroding as successive Jathedars appear to have deviated from authentic Sikh philosophy and norms of the community. This acquired high visibility with the advent of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and, very recently, with the para-trooping of Amritpal Singh from Dubai into Punjab.
The supreme Sikh temporal seat, Akal Takht Sahib was at its peak during the tenure of its Jathedar, Akali Phula Singh who punished Maharaja Ranjit Singh for marrying a Muslim woman and offering a used canopy (palki) to Darbar Sahib.
Akali Phula Singh was a legendary warrior and also did a huge amount of seva! Akali Phula Singh joined Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army along with 3000 Nihang Sikhs, because of his many triumphs he was made the Jathedar of the Akal Takht! #legend pic.twitter.com/EOO6RdNwdB
— Sikhi Society (@SocietySikhi) March 11, 2018
Fast forward to today, and there are reasons to suspect that the present Akal Takht Jathedar Harpreet Singh has not been acting independently, belying the profundity of his temporal knowledge. He seems to have the trappings of a surrogate of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), led by the Badal family.
On March 12, 2022, Jathedar Harpreet Singh declared that the defeat of SAD was “deadly” for the Sikhs, meaning the Sikhs would live only if Badal-led Akali Dal survived.
Referring to phone calls received from Sikhs all over the world, he said in a video message to the community that “all are worried over the position of the Shiromani Akali Dal” and added: “It is a matter of pleasure that the Sikhs who do not agree with the current leadership of the SAD, are also worried. This is a positive thing. Since the demise of SAD is very deadly for them, the Sikhs are worried,” he said (HT dated March 13, 2022).
Keeping mum when ‘Waris Punjab De’ (WPD) president Amritpal, claiming as if he represents the entire Sikh community, took cudgels against the Christians, and Hindu migrants and challenged the state to propagate the creation of Khalistan, the Jathedar came out with tacit approval of the actions of this 30-year-old.
To everyone’s surprise, he issued an ultimatum to the Punjab government to release detainees in the “preventive” mopping-up operations and to also withdraw the stringent National Security Act (NSA) imposed to reign in followers of separatist Amritpal. The Jathedar used the word “innocent” for supporters of WPD — a raucous group which attacked Ajnala police station on February 23, 2023 and is also accused of vandalising churches.
In meeting of Sikh organisations at Akal Takhat Sahib Jathedar Gyani Harpreet Singh has given ultimatum of 24 hours to Punjab govt to withdraw NSA,to release arrested Sikh youngsters & to stop hate campaign agnst Sikhs in Media otherwise Khalsa Wahir will be launched as protest. pic.twitter.com/Todpj6YQVs
— Gurshamshir Singh (@gurshamshir) March 27, 2023
The Akal Takht Jathedar appointed on an ad-hoc basis by the Badal-controlled Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), approved Amritpal’s baptising drive and anti-drug campaign but did not utter a word on his other activities that spread disharmony, especially when on December 16, 2022, WPD men set Gurdwara furniture on fire in Jalandhar. This action of Amritpal vertically divided the community with the elected Gurdwara management reporting the matter to the local police.
Amritpal’s recent directorial video message asking Sikhs to hold a ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ on Baisakhi day to decide issues troubling the community and also telling the Jathedar of Akal Takht Giani Harpreet Singh to lead the congregation did not elicit any response from the Jathedar. “He needs to clarify, whether on directions of Amritpal, a ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ can be convened or if it amounts to usurping the authority of the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs,” says a university professor.
Rampant use of Akal Takht Jathedars appointed by the SAD-controlled SGPC for serving the electoral interests of Badals seems to have been the reason why radicals – first led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale – took over what is otherwise a “sign of royalty, sovereignty and respect”. The erstwhile “towering personality” of Sikh politics late Gurcharan Singh Tohra paid no heed – some believe deliberately – to the pleadings of the then Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Kirpal Singh to stop heavily armed Bhindranwale from turning Akal Takht Sahib into his residence, writes Ramesh Inder Singh (IAS retd) in his book, Turmoil in Punjab: Before and After Blue Star.
The prestige of Akal Takht also stood compromised in 2015 when Jathedar Gurbachan Singh pardoned – at the behest of ruling SAD – Baba Ram Raheem Singh of Dera Sacha Sauda who donned an attire similar to Guru Gobind Singh during the sect’s “induction ceremony” – akin to the first baptising ceremony done by the 10th Sikh Guru at Anandpur Sahib – at his Salabatpura ‘naam charcha kender’.
Another issue putting a question mark on the leadership qualities of Giani Harpreet Singh is his failure to sort out confusion among Sikhs over the use of chairs and tables while partaking in ‘Guru Ka Langar.’ Some 25 years ago an edict issued by the Akal Takht Jathedar Ranjit Singh – involved in the killing of Nirankari chief – banned the use of chairs and tables but this practice continues in India and even in some places abroad. “The educated sections of the Sikhs are evolving in their beliefs and practices even if it amounts to defying Akal Takht,” says Dr Iqbal Singh Dhillon who retired from Panjab University, Chandigarh.
Another edict passed in June 1978 directing Sikhs to boycott the Nirankari sect is reportedly not being obeyed by all the members of the community as societal imperatives continue to evolve with changing economic realities. This is because the successive Jathedars in recent times have tried to make the institution of Akal Takht “static”.
The failure of successive Jathedars to solve contradictions between the diasporic Sikhs and those living in India is yet another example of their uncharismatic personality and character. This brings into focus the very selection process adopted by the SGPC to appoint Jathedars of Akal Takht Sahib.
Dr Gurbeer Singh of the Department of Religious Studies, University of California, USA, writes an article titled as ‘The Institution of the Akal Takht: The Transformation of Authority in Sikh History’: “Akal Takht is not a static institution…but rather an institution that has behaved according to the expectations of the larger community… to retain authority and legitimacy in Sikh community.”
Further quoting from a book of researchers Berger and Luckmann, he writes, “institutions are outcomes of social customs.” In light of this premise, it can be safely concluded that the Sikh majority – including baptised and non-baptised (‘sehajdharis’) – elects its government in Punjab, the cradle of Sikhism, must be the dynamic guiding force for the postures adopted by the Jathedars of Akal Takht. But sadly, the present Jathedar seems to be getting swayed in favour of the aggressive and garrulous diasporic Sikh minority that is virtually at war with the soberer silent majority living in India.
Also Read: Sikh intellectuals slam Akal Takht Jathedar’s call for freeing detainees nabbed during Op Amritpal