The Sikh community considers the Granth Sahib its eleventh Guru. In the World Wars, Sikh troops have marched into battles behind the Guru Granth Sahib. In all ages, Sikhs have defended the Guru Granth Sahib with their life. In 2015 and later, incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib were the biggest upheaval in Punjab’s society.
Those sacrileges led to the Sikh community call for a Sarbat Khalsa – first in 30 years. By asking for life imprisonment to those guilty of sacrilege, the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal-Bhartiya Janata Party government proposed an amendment to Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code related to ‘hurting religious sentiments’.
However, even though the Central Bureau of Investigation investigated the cases of sacrilege, the Akali-BJP government could not arrest anyone. Later, the Akali-BJP government lost in the ensuing state elections in 2017.
The Congress won the elections with one of its chief planks being investigation, arrests and conclusion of the sacrilege cases. The new Congress government even conducted a day-long session of the Assembly to discuss the issue of sacrilege.
The Assembly expressed lack of faith in the Centre and CBI. The state challenged the Centre by declaring its own Special Investigation Team. All this goes on to show how important the Guru Granth Sahib is in the Sikh faith and politics.
Recently, the Punjab Human Rights Organisation revealed that just when Punjab was being carpet-bombed with incidents of sacrilege, around 328 Birs (recensions) of the sacred Guru Granth Sahib went missing from the custody of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) – the top Sikh Gurdwara management body.
The issue is deeper. The issue is about who has the rights to printing and distribution of the saroop of Guru Granth Sahib. Who is liable for their upkeep and storage and distribution? The Sikh Gurdwara Act 1925 – which led to the formation of SGPC – is silent about the right to print and distribute the saroop of Guru Granth Sahib.
Late in 19th century, when the process of lithographic printing gained popularity, two publishing houses started printing and producing the Guru Granth Sahib: Munshi Hira Nand, Yanta Yantaralya Vidya Prakashan, Lahore and M/s Chatar Singh Jiwan Singh, Amritsar.
In 2007, the Punjab government enacted a law to ban private publishing houses from printing, publishing and distributing ‘Birs‘ (recensions) of Guru Granth Sahib. M/s Chatar Singh Jiwan Singh, a publishing house established in 1880, announced that it was discontinuing the publication of the scripture.
That is when, only SGPC was authorised with the task. The reason for the law was that SGPC claimed the private firms did not observe the Rehat Maryada – code of conduct, around the Guru Granth Sahib. However, the real reason was the income that SGPC generated from the printing, publishing and distribution of the Guru Granth Sahib.
In 2015, the SGPC charged a California resident under Section 295 for ‘hurting religious sentiments’ by printing the Guru Granth Sahib in China for international markets. The respondent in turn challenged SGPC’s monopoly over the Granth Sahib claiming that any law enacted in Punjab is not binding outside Punjab. Until now, through the last few years, the case has had one hearing and 18 adjournments by four High Court benches.
The current crises of theft of saroops of Guru Granth Sahib came to light when Jathedar Akal Takht ordered an inquiry into the missing Birs. The panel scrutinized the ledgers of last few years. They found misappropriation of records and not 267 but 328 Birs missing. While the SGPC claimed a fire in the printing unit in 2016, they did not inform about the loss of these Birs in the fire at that time.
Upon the panel’s report, in the SGPC executive committee meeting on August 27, the SGPC fired the erring officials and accepted the resignation of the Chief Secretary which he claimed he had submitted on moral grounds. The SGPC executive also declared that criminal cases will be filed against them.
The services of the Charted Accountant firm S S Kohli and Associates – already under huge criticism for hugely inflated costs – were also terminated and it was announced that legal proceedings will be undertaken against the firm.
However, after very next executive committee meeting on September 5, SGPC President backtracked and announced that as SGPC is an independent body, it can very well look after its functions so no criminal proceedings against erring officials will be initiated. It is open to speculation whether legal proceeding against the CA firm will be carried out.
What is of interest is: why did SGPC do a U-turn? Obviously, someone pulled some levers, stopped the SGPC from going for an open investigation. After all, criminal proceedings could open a Pandoras box and many other instances of mismanagement could tumble out.
The SGPC President apologised to the Sikh community for hurting its sentiments and announced that it will make the panel inquiry report public. However, only a 10-page summary out of 1000 pages report was released.
After presiding over a meeting of SGPC executive committee, the SGPC President said, ‘The saroops are not missing. They were issued to the sangat (devotees) but the records were not maintained. Action has been taken against erring staffers.’
He announced that SGPC executive members will go to Akal Takht to apologise and seek forgiveness. He also suggested that erring officials should apologise on their own at the Akal Takht.
The SGPC’s U-turn on initiating criminal proceedings against erring officials engaged in misappropriation of ‘saroops’ has not gone down well with several Sikh organisations including the Punjab Human Rights Organisation. ‘The case involved criminal offences, so we will move the court,’ said a member of PHRO.
But the question is: if more than a decade back, the SGPC had blocked private publishers from producing the Birs of Guru Granth Sahib because they did not observe the Rehat Maryada, now by poorly managing the storage and distribution, and perhaps profiting from unaccounted sales of the Birs, isn’t the SGPC also responsible for not following the Rehat Maryada?
Moreover, if sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib at village Burj Jawahar Singh Wala needed police investigation, why not now? Why has the SGPC backtracked from its earlier decision of initiating criminal proceedings against those indicted by the Akal Takht-appointed probe panel? Whose skin does the SGPC want to save?
SGPC’s act of apologising at Sri Akal Takht for a criminal offence is nothing but an effort to pull wool over the eyes of the Sikh sangat.
If tearing of angs – pages of the Guru Granth Sahib was sacrilege, what will we call the theft of the saroops?
The Sikh community needs to pay heed to what its Gurdwara management body is doing, or in this case not doing. This is not an issue of mere theft. This is an issue of the central article of faith of the Sikh religion being abused.
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