New Delhi: Parliament on Monday passed a bill to amend a 91-year-old law to exclude Sahajdharis from voting in the elections to Sikh religious bodies, fulfilling a long-pending demand of the community ahead of assembly elections in Punjab next year.
The Sikh Gurdwaras (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was passed by the Lok Sabha more than a month after Rajya Sabha approved it. Replying to a debate on the bill, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the demand for not giving voting rights to Sahejdari Sikhs was made by Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee members and officer bearers.
"The SGPC office bearers and members have often demanded that those who are not Sikhs should not be given voting rights (in the election to select elect the members of the Board and the Committees constituted under the Act). The SPGC General Assembly of 2001 also passed a resolution regarding this.
"The High Court has said that a competent legislature needs to pass the bill. Even the Rajya Sabha has passed the bill unanimously," Singh said. The definition of Sehajdhari Sikh has no religious sanction as far as the fundamental tenets of the religion are concerned. This nomenclature was added to the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925 under certain circumstances prevailing then.
The Bill proposes to remove the exception given to Sahajdharis in 1944 to vote in elections to select members of the Board and the Committees constituted under the Act.
The Union Cabinet had recently approved a proposal of the Home Ministry to amend the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, with effect from October 8, 2003. The amendment was also carried out by a Home Ministry notification dated October 8, 2003.
However, the notification was quashed by the High Court of Punjab and Haryana on December 20, 2011, leaving it to the appropriate and competent legislature to decide as to whether or not to amend the Act to that effect.
Participating in the discussion, Ravneet Singh Bittoo (Cong) said in view of the amendments brought in the legislation, the "Sikh Gurudwaras Act should be renamed as Badal Gurudwara Act".
"You are trying to divide families through conspiracy.. You are doing wrong with 70 lakh Sikhs who had voting rights in SGPC for 60 years...You are dividing the already minority community of Punjab into sub-minority community," Singh said.
Bittoo said the Sikh population in the country was 1.75 crore and the amendment to the Sikh Gurudwaras Act will take away voting rights of 70 lakh Sikhs.
He said it will not be proper to amend the Act as there were several cases pending in Courts.
As the Congress member criticised the provisions of the Bill alleging that the hefty funds of the SGPC were being misused to organise election rallies of the Akali Dal government, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) members shot back, asking him "not to play politics."
Prem Singh Chandumajra (SAD) said there will be no divide within the community with the passage of the bill and alleged that those "trying to stop the amendment" to the Act as they were themselves involved in illegal activities in gurudwaras.
Supporting the Bill, BJP's Meenakshi Lekhi said those who did not follow the basic tenets of Sikhism cannot be a part to choose the management that controls Gurudwaras.
Maintaining that the SAD government in Punjab was using religion for political gains, Bhagwant Mann (AAP) said "their seats (in Punjab) are diminishing and so they are trying to misuse it".
Intervening in the discussion, Union Minister and SAD leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal said the bill dealt with an issue which does not affect any community other than the Sikhs.
"Non-Sikhs are not in a position to decide who can vote. It is the Sikh community which can decide. Do not play politics and make a mockery," she said, adding only two per cent of the national population were Sikhs who have sacrificed lives for freedom struggle.
Santokh Singh Chaudhary (Cong) charged the Akalis with encouraging separatism and terrorism. Assembly elections in Punjab are scheduled early next year.