The SGPC takes aim at the RSS

On April 3, it also convened a meeting of the Sant Samaj, Nihang sects, Kar Sewa organisations and traditional Sikh bodies in Amritsar to seek an endorsement of the resolution.

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Opening fire: SGPC chief Bibi Jagir Kaur at the organisation’s annual budget meeting on March 30, in Amritsar

As the Sukhbir Badal-led Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) struggles to regain the trust of its core support base in the state, Punjab’s rural farmers and religious Sikhs, the so-called Panthic voters, after quitting the NDA alliance over the farm laws in September last year, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) has added fuel to the fire. On March 31, it passed a resolution condemning the BJP’s ideological parent, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) for attempting ‘to make India a Hindu Rashtra’. On April 3, it also convened a meeting of the Sant Samaj, Nihang sects, Kar Sewa organisations and traditional Sikh bodies in Amritsar to seek an endorsement of the resolution.

Critics say this is a purely political move. “There was no recent incident to trigger [such a] resolution,” insists Jagtar Sandhu, an author and commentator. Politics is certainly one factor, since September last year, when the SAD ended its alliance with the BJP, it has struggled to repair the damage it suffered from its initial support for the farm laws. With this resolution, the SAD hopes to win back the support of its Panthic voters.

There are two big tests before the assembly election in February next year, the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) election on April 25 and the SGPC polls in September. In these gurdwara committee elections, the SAD faces a confederation led by heavyweights such as Rajya Sabha MP Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, former Akal Takht Jathedar Ranjit Singh and former advocate H.S. Phoolka, among others. Sukhbir will also have his hands full dealing with the complex political alliances of Akali Dal leaders. For example, the DSGMC includes members of his own faction who have ties with the BJP, even DSGMC chief M.S. Sirsa draws a pension from the Delhi assembly as a former BJP legislator.

Top RSS leaders accuse the SGPC of raking up the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ issue to ‘cover up its own failures’. They point out that in February and March, the RSS conducted a campaign to collect donations for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya in 6,660 villages in Punjab. “We didn’t face a single incident of confrontation, though this was when the farm agitation was at its peak,” insists Rajneesh Arora, the RSS’s Punjab prant sah sanghchalak (province committee leader). The SGPC resolution nonetheless reveals the strained ties between the RSS and the broader Sikh community. The RSS’s Sikh affiliates, such as the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, have attempted to downplay the issue. “Sikh intellectuals and religious leaders are aware of the RSS’s stance on Sikhs and Sikhism,” says Gurcharan Singh Gill, president of the Sangat. “There is no difference in philosophy or ideology. This resolution was passed only for political reasons.” Alleging a campaign to drive a wedge between the RSS and the Sikhs, Arora says, “Some people are deliberately poisoning minds. There is no animosity between the Sikh community and the RSS.”

“The SAD is just playing to the gallery,” says Ranjit Singh. “For 23 years, it had an alliance with the BJP and hobnobbed with the RSS, and now it sees the devil in them. If the RSS wants to turn the country into a Hindu Rashtra, let it do so. The SGPC should explain how the RSS has harmed the Sikh community. Such resolutions [for the political gain of the Badal family] only demean institutions like the SGPC.” Sikh scholars such as former Rajya Sabha MP Tarlochan Singh go a step further. “The SGPC needs to realise that neither the RSS nor any of its affiliates have ever tried to convert Sikhs, but there are evangelist groups that are converting Dalit Sikhs (Mazhabis) to Christianity,” he says. “Sikhs are standing strong because of the Dalit community, but the SGPC has not been able to ensure education, healthcare and opportunities for them,” adds Ranjit Singh. “Evangelist groups are providing for them. It is these factors, not the RSS, that are leading to the exit of Sikhs from the fold.”

While Sukhbir Badal has refused to directly comment on the SGPC resolution, he is caught between the religious identity of the SAD and the more secular political structure created by his father, Parkash Singh Badal. Since 2008, when he took over the reins of the party, Sukhbir has continued to ride this apparent dichotomy, retaining the party’s religious character in some aspects while moving toward a more secular system in other symbolic ways, such as holding party conventions in hotels rather than in gurdwara halls. Nonetheless, showing a tactical hand on April 5, he conducted a rally at Bholath, in the state’s Kapurthala district, for SGPC chief Bibi Jagir Kaur, who is also the head of the SAD’s women’s wing, the Istri Akali Dal, endorsing her candidacy for the state assembly election next year.

The SGPC resolution has drawn fierce condemnation from the BJP, with Subhash Sharma, the party’s Punjab general secretary, accusing the Badal family of misusing its position. “First they misused gurdwara money to fuel the farm protests and now they are misusing the institution for political gains,” he alleges. Highlighting the former ties between the SAD and the BJP, he points out that Jagir Kaur was formerly a minister in the SAD-BJP government, and that in 2019, she was the NDA candidate from Khadur Sahib, campaigning in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

These charges aside, the SAD’s recent manoeuvres and the SGPC resolution reflect a certain political reality, that Panthic voters have for some time been drifting away from the SAD because of its support to the BJP on controversial moves such as the abrogation of Article 370, the downgrading of J&K into a Union Territory and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Many Sikh leaders have criticised Sukhbir Badal on these counts, accusing him of playing into the hands of the BJP and the RSS by backing these laws in Parliament. “The SGPC resolution clearly sends the message that the SAD has parted ways with the BJP, and is no longer looking for a political future with it,” says an SAD insider. Whether making a clean break with the BJP will be enough to win back the support of its Panthic voters is another matter.