Kamaldeep Singh Brar
The Akal Takth
There’s no fixed term for the Jathedar (custodian) of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat in Sikhism. That means an Akal Takht Jathedar can continue to occupy the seat all his life. Yet, no Akal Takht Jathedar in recent memory has lasted the crown of thorns for more than a few years, nor has anyone escaped the tar of controversy by the time they disembarked from it. In the case of most, the cause of their relinquishing the authority has been a direct clash with the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the authority that appoints the Jathedar.
One of the first instances that brought the spotlight on the role of Jathedars was Operation Blue Star of 1984. As the Army made its way into the Golden Temple, Sikh anger was also directed at the contemporary Sikh religious and political leadership.
In the latest instance, the Amritpal Singh episode has dragged the current Jathedar into the row, as the self-declared preacher chased by the Punjab Police has reached out asking Jathedar Harpreet Singh to intervene.
Kirpal Singh was the Akal Takht Jathedar during Operation Blue Star in June 1984. He was seen as unpopular among Sikh militants and survived an attack on his life by militants. He also earned the ire of the Sikhs by denying any considerable damage to the Akal Takht Sahib after the Army action, before the shrine was again opened to the public. Later, he came close to the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) government headed by Surjit Singh Barnala, which didn’t go down well with SGPC head Gurcharan Singh Tohra. The SGPC removed Kirpal Singh as Jathedar on December 24, 1986.
In between, a Sarbat Khalsa (a deliberative assembly of the Sikhs) was called on January 26, 1986, by Sikh militants, in which Jasbir Singh Rode, a nephew of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, was appointed a “parallel” Akal Takht Jathedar, with Gurdev Singh Kaunke already appointed acting Jathedar. Rode was at the time in jail under the NSA. That still left Kirpal Singh as the official Jathedar, till he was dismissed and Sikh militants and the SGPC agreed on Darshan Singh Raggi as the acting Akal Takht Jathedar.
Upon appointment as the acting Jathedar, Raggi tried to bring all SAD factions on one platform. However, Barnala was against this move, and Raggi excommunicated him on February 14, 1987. In response, Barnala called a gathering at village Longowal in Sangrur on February 20, 1987, which was seen as a challenge to the Akal Takht Jathedar’s decision.
In May 1987, the Barnala government was sacked by the Centre. Barnala himself could never recover from his excommunication and slowly faded from mainstream Sikh politics. He later appeared before the Akal Takht on December 5, 1988, seeking atonement.
Raggi also became unpopular among Sikh militants after he called a convention on August 4, 1987. Some militant groups alleged that at the convention, he had confused Sikh youth regarding the aim of ‘Khalistan’. Later, Raggi resigned on November 17, 1987. Many years later, in a turn of events, he was himself excommunicated in 2010.
Inner Precincts of Akal Takth Sahib
The Union government surprised many by releasing Jasbir Singh Rode on March 4, 1988, who had been appointed Akal Takht Jathedar at the Sarbat Khalsa of 1986. Rode took charge as Akal Takht Jathedar on the same day he was released. At one point, he tried to mediate between the Union government and Sikh militants. Despite being a close relative of Bhindranwale, Rode failed to win the confidence of militants.
The SGPC asked Rode to resign on May 28, 1988, soon after Operation Black Thunder, in which the police entered Harmandir Sahib to arrest militants hiding inside. In no time, Rode lost his popularity as he was accused by Sikh militants of aligning with Union government agencies.
The SGPC then appointed Ranjit Singh, convicted in the murder of Nirankari head Gurbachan Singh, as Akal Takht Jathedar while he was still in jail since 1984. Again, Manjit Singh was appointed acting Akal Takht Jathedar. Manjit Singh too made several attempts to bring all SAD factions together, and once, even managed to bring most of the big Akali leaders together, including Captain Amarinder Singh, Simranjit Singh Mann and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, but failed to get Parkash Singh Badal to follow Akal Takht directions in uniting all SAD factions. In fact, he faced stiff resistance from the Badal faction of the SAD throughout his tenure.
Efforts by Akali leaders to get Ranjit Singh, another convict in the murder of Nirankari head Gurbachan Singh, released from jail, succeeded in 1996. His release ensured the departure of Manjit Singh as acting Jathedar. Ranjit Singh, who took charge on December 31, 1996, was popular in his initial days, but he too soon sparked controversies and came into conflict with then CM Parkash Singh Badal, as the latter saw Ranjit Singh as Tohra’s man. Ranjit Singh was accused of saving Tohra from the allegations that the latter had attended a congregation of the Nirankari sect, which had been excommunicated. Caught in the intra-party crossfire between Badal and Tohra, Ranjit Singh was removed from the post as soon as Badal had outplayed Tohra within the SAD (B).
The next Jathedar, Puran Singh, proved to be more controversial than Ranjit Singh, after he came into conflict with SGPC president Bibi Jagir Kaur over the issue of the Nanakshahi calendar and the Sikh code of conduct. He excommunicated Bibi Jagir Kaur, who took revenge by using her hold on the SGPC to remove Puran Singh from office.
Puran’s replacement, Joginder Singh Vadanti, immediately declared every decision and diktat issued by his predecessor null and void. He was the first to give a call to make rules and regulations for the appointment of the Akal Takht Jathedar, which the SGPC is yet to formalise. He was also the first Jathedar to issue directions against the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, an RSS affiliate. Vadanti spent eight years in office but was not immune to controversies. He also issued important diktats against the Dera Sacha Sauda in 2007, excommunicating the Dera Chief. However, Vadanti developed differences with the SGPC and the SAD leadership. He was unwilling to toe the SAD (B) line especially after the party came to power in 2007. After his resignation on August 5, 2008, Vadanti claimed he had been forced to resign.
Vadanti’s replacement, Gurbachan Singh, was arguably the weakest Jathedar in recent times. The low-profile Jathedar lived under the allegation that he worked under the SAD (B)’s influence, and became highly unpopular among Sikhs in 2015 after he issued a pardon to the Dera Sacha Sauda. Although he revoked the pardon later, it didn’t repair his image. His unpopularity was also a reason behind the success of the Sarbat Khalsa called by anti-SAD (B) Sikh bodies in 2015, which had even gone on to appoint parallel Jathedars Jagtar Singh Hawara and Dhian Singh Mand. Finally, the SAD (B)-controlled SGPC quietly asked Gurbachan to resign in October 2018, and appointed Giani Harpreet Singh as the new Jathedar. Interestingly, Gurbachan’s departure also led to a fall in the popularity of the Sarbat Khalsa-appointed Jathedars.
Giani Harpreet Singh was appointed the acting Akal Takht Jathedar when the SGPC was facing a crisis of credibility. Though he managed to win over the anti-SAD (B) sections with his friendly approach, he still carries the baggage of his appointing authority, the SGPC, with which, incidentally, his relations have also soured.
(First published – https://indianexpress.com/article/political-pulse/punjab-akal-takht-jathedar-chair-terms-8549892/)