Parliament passes gurdwara amendment bill after heated debate in Lok Sabha
New Delhi: Parliament today passed a bill amending the gurdwara act, paving the way to bar Sehajdhari or unbaptised Sikhs from voting in elections to the community's religious bodies, including the powerful SGPC, with the Lok Sabha's nod to the measure after a heated debate.
"SGPC office-bearers and members have been demanding that those who are not Sikhs should not be given the voting rights (in elections to elect members of the board and committees constituted under the 1925 act). The SPGC general assembly in 2001 passed a resolution on the issue," Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in the Lok Sabha after the debate involving Akali Dal, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party members.
The Sikh Gurdwara (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was approved unanimously after Congress members, mostly from Punjab, did not press for amendments. It had been passed by the Rajya Sabha on March 16.
In Monday's debate, Congress and AAP members alleged the law's passage will further increase the control of the Akali leadership on the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee, called the "mini-parliament" of the Sikhs.
Terming it partisan, Congress' Ravneet Singh Bittu said the "Sikh Gurdwaras Act should now be renamed as the Badal Gurdwara Act".
In response, Akali members told the Congress not to play politics on a sensitive matter.
Responding to members' concerns, Rajnath Singh said the bill was necessitated following a Punjab and Haryana High Court directive and requested the members to pass the bill unanimously, like the Rajya Sabha.
During the discussion, acrimonious scenes were repeatedly witnessed as Akali members, led by Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, exchanged heated words with Congress and AAP members.
"This is a bill about the Sikhs," she said, adding: "It is for the Sikhs to decide who should vote for their gurdwaras and who should not. If anybody has an objection, I do not think non-Sikhs are in a position that they should decide who is a Sikh and who is not."
She was repeatedly countered by Congress members, including Jalandhar MP Santokh Singh Chaudhary, who said the Akali leadership had maintained a "monopolistic" control over the SGPC, and the bill will deprive over 70 lakh people, who also believe in Sikhism, from participating in its management.
He was supported by AAP's Bhagwant Mann, member from Sangrur, who argued with Harsimrat Badal more than once, saying he vehemently opposed the bill which will only tighten Akali Dal's as also the Badal family's control over the Sikh body.
"Inhone theka le rakha hai dharam ka, gurdware ka (They have usurped the right to speak on Sikh religious matters)," said Mann, who also clashed with Akali Dal's Prem Singh Chandumajra.
At one point, Biju Janata Dal's Tathagatha Satpathy stood up in support of the bill but hastened to add that any attempt being made to create exclusivity and divisions among communities was unwarranted.
Terming Harsimrat Badal a valiant debater, he said: "I am surrendering before her", leading to the house erupting in laughter, while Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Rajiv Pratap Rudy did his best more than once to cool tempers.
The amendment comes after a government notification on October 8, 2003, seeking to bar Sehajdhari Sikhs from voting in SGPC and gurdwara management committee elections as allowed to them in a 1944 exception, was quashed on December 201, 2011 by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which said that only parliament is competent to decide on the act's amendment.
Following Sikhism but without being 'Amritdharis' or baptised or refraining from cutting their hair and trimming their beards, Sehajdhari Sikhs are those born in Sikh, Hindu or families professing other religions, but follow the Guru Granth Sahib's teachings, can perform ceremonies according to Sikh rites, do not consume tobacco or halal meat, and have not been excommunicated for religious transgressions.