Reforming Temple Administration in India Part II - Learning from the Management of Sikh Gurdwaras

Gurdwara Sisganj Sahib in Delhi (Courtesy: Wikipedia)
In the first part, we had a brief glimpse of the history of the Akali movement to wrest gurdwaras in Punjab out of government control. In this part, we shall have a look at the administrative models arising from the movement, which have seen several amendments over time, but have remain pretty much the same in principle and spirit since 1925. We shall elaborate particularly on two aspects of gurdwara management and administration set up, namely the constitution of the Boards as well as the management of the properties and finances of the gurdwaras. We shall also examine the criticisms obviated by such models, and explore the key takeaways for Hindu religious institutions in order to propose alternatives to the current governance model that we see with temples.

The Administrative Models of Gurdwaras in India - Observed Differences

There are gurdwaras across all parts of India, and that has meant that the way many of them run may be different. There are two basic models of public control that one can see across the country today. For the sake of convenience, I shall categorize the three as:

1. The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) Model - one sees the model operating across the entire north-west region in some form or the other. While SGPC itself directly controls gurdwaras of Punjab and Himachal, Delhi has a separate State Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) that is modelled along the same lines. Such an exercise was also attempted in Haryana, though the bill did not stand scrutiny of the judiciary for lack of robustness. The key laws for consideration that are extant and operational today are:

a) The Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925; and

b) The Delhi Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1971

2. The Nanded-Patna Model: This model can be seen for the gurdwaras in Patna in Bihar and Nanded in Maharashtra, two extremely important and holy cities beyond North-west India for Sikhs due to their association with the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh ji. The administration of all the key gurdwaras in the cities and important districts is entirely followed as per this model. The key statute of interest here is the Nanded Sikh Gurdwara Sachkhand Shri Hazur Apchalnagar Sahib Act, 1956. This act is pretty much observed to be paralleled by the Bihar government’s action in the same year for the administration of Patna Saheb.

The two models are different from each other in several aspects. The selection of the overarching Board that oversees the administration and management of gurdwaras is distinctly different between the two administration models. In the SGPC model, there is a body that has several nominees from across the board that also includes a Committee that is chosen through direct elections by the community for a period of five years. The process followed is entirely on the lines of universal suffrage, and constituencies are marked out so as to ensure adequate administration. The elections are also monitored and supervised by a state level Gurdwara Election Commission. For instance, the SGPC in Punjab has the following break up:
  • 170 elected members, directly elected by the voters in universal suffrage manner by those identified as Sikhs under the 1925 Act and its various amendments. 25 of these seats are reserved for Mazhabdhari Sikhs to ensure adequate representation;
  • Head ministers of the five Takhats located at the following locations - Harmandir Sahib (Amritsar), Keshgarh Sahib (Anandpur Sahib), Patna Sahib (Patna), Hazur Sahib (Nanded) and Damdama Sahib (Talwandi Sabo); and
  • 25 Indian citizens, including 12 from the Patiala and East Punjab states, 9 non-PEPSU regions, and 4 nominees from the Punjab state government.

The Delhi Act suggests a similar model, with 46 elected members elected via universal suffrage by identified voters, and 9 nominees, which are broken down as follows:
  • 2 members nominated by the Singh Sabhas of Delhi
  • 4 members nominated by the Takhats of Amritsar, Anandpur Sahib, Patna and Nanded
  • 1 SGPC member from Amritsar; and
  • 2 nominated members of the Sikh community in Delhi.
In contrast, the Nanded Sikh Gurdwara Sachkhand Shri Hazur Apchalnagar Sahib Board (hereafter the Nanded Board) is a body incorporated entirely by the state government of Maharashtra in the following manner:
  • 2 government nominees;
  • 3 government nominees, all Sikhs, from within the state population - in practice, these tend to be usually people who may get elected as members of the state legislature;
  • 1 nominee from the state of Telangana cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad;
  • 1 nominee from the SGPC in Amritsar;
  • 2 Sikh members of Parliament elected from such areas;
  • 1 member nominated by the Chief Khalsa Diwan of Amritsar; and
  • 4 members nominated by the Suchkhand Hazur Khalsa Diwan, Nanded.
In Patna Sahib too, we see a pattern similar to Nanded, with the following break up of the Management Committee:
  • 3 members nominated by the District Judge, Patna;
  • 1 nominee of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee ,Amritsar;
  • 1 nominee of the Chief Khalsa Diwan, Amritsar;
  • 1 nominee of the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Board;
  • 1 nominee of the Sikh Pratinidhi Board, Uttar Pradesh;
  • 1 nominee of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Calcutta;
  • 1 nominee of the Sanatani Sikh Sabha, Patna City;
  • 1 elected member from North Bihar Singh Sabhas;
  • 1 elected member from South Bihar Singh Sabhas;
  • 3 elected member from the Sikhs of Patna District; and
  • 1 co-opted member of the community nominated by the other 14 members.
One critical aspect of difference to be observed here is in the management of individual gurdwaras and the accountability mechanism. Individual gurdwaras are managed under the SGPC model through the elected member of the management committee. This elected member heads the gurdwara level management committee at his constituency level, aided by three members that are nominated by the Board of the state to aid and assist this person. The SGPC of Punjab is directly responsible for managing all the major gurdwaras within the Takhat cities of Punjab, while SGPC members work on the other gurdwaras. In contrast, the Patna and Nanded bodies control all the gurdwaras within the city precincts, with no scope of delegation of management affairs and responsibilities.

One more distinct point of difference observed between the two models lies in the accommodation of the hereditary gurdwara managers - while the SGPC model paid special attention to such people and focused on giving suitable compensation wherever it was deemed necessary, the Nanded Board has no such judicial body associated with it. In the case of Patna Sahib, the District Magistrate of Patna can intervene if necessary, but the process then enters the district courts. Also, the 1925 Act provides for the creation of trusts for such gurdwaras where the income distribution between identified beneficiaries including hereditary owners and the local gurdwara management committee (explained later) can be legalized, subject to the conduct of the hereditary owners.

In addition to the constitution of the board, an important point of difference lies in the existence of dispute redressal mechanisms amongst the two models. While the SGPC model has a Judicial Commission appointed alongside the Board and Committee to adjudicate on all matters associated with gurdwara management. The Judicial Commissions, as they are designated in the SGPC model, are particular in the sense that only Sikh members are allowed to sit on the board, and any majority or unanimous judgement cannot be undertaken without the presence of the legal luminary who is supposed to preside as its chair, usually a Retired judge of higher judiciary or an esteemed lawyer from within the Sikh community. In case of dissatisfaction with their judgement, the aggrieved party can take up to the High Court of the state in question. On the other hand, the Nanded and Patna models do not have provisions for redressing disputes; such matters have to be taken up directly with the judiciary. However, unlike the Nanded model’s absence of internal actions, the executive identified and appointed in either case can be removed through a no-confidence motion if necessary in the SGPC model

Management of Finances and Accountability Mechanisms

Within the SGPC Model as well as the Nanded Model, there is considerable focus on the way finances of the gurdwaras are to be run. All gurdwaras have to account for their properties, incomes, finances as well as donations they get in a thorough manner. These management committees report to an overarching Management Committee that directly reports to the Board. The scope of actions includes maintaining diaries and account books in order, which shall have to be presented before the board at the end of every year when the Board meets, or whenever asked by the Board to present the same. In both the models, there is a lot of attention paid to the flow of the money. There is clarity in the fact that the incomes of the gurdwara have to be first spend on the gurdwara itself to ensure its maintenance and upkeep. This also includes paying the salaries of the various staff members and the various other figures associated with the gurdwara. Surpluses till the point of identification of activities for spending have to be maintained by the Committee, to which they have been credited, in specific ways - either in bank accounts, or in government securities, national saving certificates or in the form of immovable properties owned by the gurdwara. Also, all offering to the gurdwara belong to the gurdwara, and the entire electoral and management process right up to the Central Board level is funded by the institutions themselves.

In the Punjab Act of 1925, only if there is a surplus is the money after that is the money allowed to be spent on philanthrophic activities. The same can be seen in the 1971 Delhi Act as well with some minor differences. For instance, the Delhi Act very clearly identifies all the activities for which the gurdwara monies have to be spent, which are:

(i) to arrange for the proper performance of the religious rites and ceremonies in the Gurdwaras,

(ii) to provide facilities for worship by the devotees at the Gurdwaras,

(iii) to ensure safe custody of its funds, movable and immovable properties, deposits, offerings in cash or kind

(iv) to do all such things as may be incidental and conducive to the efficient management of the affairs of Gurdwaras, educational and other institutions under the Committee and their properties or to the convenience of devotees,

(v) to provide suitable accommodation and facilities for pilgrims,

(vi) to maintain free langars,

(vii) to manage the historic and other Gurdwaras, educational and other institutions and their properties in such a way as to make them inspiring centres of the Sikh tradition, culture and religion,

(viii) to ensure maintenance of order, discipline and proper hygienic conditions in Gurdwaras, educational and other institutions under its management,

(xiii) to give stipends to needy and deserving students,

(xiv) to render help in the case of the uplift of the Sikh community and propagation of Sikh religion,

(xv) to perform such other functions and to do such religious or charitable acts, as may be prescribed by regulations for carrying out the purposes of this Act.

The identification of the areas on which gurdwara money shall be spent has to be presented in advance every year. Most such proposals have to obtain a majority of 3/4th members present and voting so that they can be carried out at the local level. Any matter of impropriety where detected can be dealt with immediately by the Board, which can be convened on an emergency basis through appropriate actions like suspension, dismissal and immediate appropriation of gurdwara assets to prevent further loss. The key difference between the two models can be seen here, since the presence of the elected members can help ensure that the community’s views on asset management as well as accountability can be considered and voted upon. In contrast, the same cannot be said entirely for the management committees of Patna and Nanded, though they have several nominated and elected members from all corners of the Sikh community.

Major Drawbacks of the SGPC Model and Other Lessons for the Hindu Community

While several drawbacks of the Nanded-Patna model have been brought up with respect to the SGPC model’s advantages, there still are several flaws that have been observed with the SGPC model. In recent times, the SGPC in Punjab has been subject to significant criticism on two major counts - lack of respect for liturgical diversity within gurdwaras; and the politicization of the SGPC elections. There was a lot of diversity in individual gurdwaras across India in liturgical practices, that also reflected the impact of the local traditions. There has been ongoing standardization with the Sikh community’s Takhats coming together and working to achieve common objectives. However, some of this may also be considered to be ongoing evolution of faith that has been seen with older traditions. However, this is a particular problem that will confront the Hindu community and any version that may be considered for adoption and presentation will have to ensure, given the immense diversity and locality of traditions right down to archana and sthalapurana.

Another criticism that is evident has been the politicization of the management committees. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and its various breakaway factions and opponents have been wrestling to control the gurdwaras, with a particular focus on utilizing the significant chadava or offerings, and the incomes of the gurdwaras. Donations are allowed under the set of activities, and the problem stems with the lack of clarity as well as the legal loopholes given in the political parties for donations. The Delhi Act of 1971 particularly prohibits gurdwaras from making donations to political organizations, while Haryana’s botched efforts to establish its own State Gurdwara Management Committee were driven in part by the then Congress government to stymie the flow of funding to SAD in Punjab. There have even been ugly incidents of fights breaking out during the meetings of committees between various political factions, effectively desecrating holy places with their unholy actions. Another angle to this political tension is the overwhelming caste based control of the SGPC and the often complained about marginalization of the Mazhabdhari Sikhs, many of whom cannot even dare to raise questions about state of affairs for fear of casteist retribution, particularly in Punjab.
Two key takeaways that the Hindu community could very well benefit from in this exercise of learning are the setting up of tribunals exclusively belonging to the Hindu traditions as well as the defining of the scope of activities that temple money can be spent on in a concrete manner. Focused judicial tribunals can be critical, as most of the times there are no legal avenues except the higher judiciary that are available to the community if they wish to seek redress. Such cases take years to deliver justice, and often are subject to personal biases of judges as well. A community based tribunal representing all sections of Hindu society can be constituted, comprising of eminent legal eagles, who can hear the cases and adjudicate, and the higher judiciary be approached only after that. Additionally, amendments can be sought immediately in all temple control statutes across the country to precisely define that scope of expenditure of the temple revenues and assets, with primacy being given to the rituals, maintenance and upkeep followed by charitable functions excluding political funding, and governments should be given only the tax money as perhaps a necessary evil. Where existing, such defined ceilings need to be immediately revised. People must also be able to ask for the removal of errant executives wherever possible without going through legal hoops to remedy the wrongs going on with respect to temple asset management.

A major point that we often overlook is that in the current legal framework of India, our religious institutions will need some measure of legal recognition, even if different from the current nature. The SGPC model clearly identifies what a Sikh gurdwara is, which enables the necessary legal actions that can then be enabled through suitable legislations. It also helps during matters of legal recourse with the higher judiciary should the judicial commission fail to satisfy the aggrieved. Moreover, legal recognition is necessary to demand and provide the necessary safety measures against property theft, encroachment, and appropriation. A classic example of the problems faced by lack of recognition of temple properties can be seen in Jammu and Kashmir, where the Temples and Shrines Bill has been hanging fire for decades now despite private assurances across all party lines. This lack of legal recognition has allowed encroachers and nefarious elements to particularly target the abandoned temples in the Kashmir Valley which were abandoned by the Pandits during the 1990 exodus, and in many cases the state judiciary does not have any grounding on which it can then issue the necessary remedial measures.

Hindus must also lobby for the changing of the administrative boards of all temples. Temples should be governed only by practising Hindus, who can be appointed if necessary by the government if necessary, comprising of nominees from the various sansthas, mathas and reform movements. The process should however be forced to move towards the inclusion of directly elected members into the overall governing board, who are not members of legislature; instead, they have been elected in a parallel election which may be simultaneously held with state assembly elections. The aim should be that the government nominees are always in a minority, and that the rainbow spread of the Hindu community representing the various jatis who are dependent on the temples for both their livelihoods as well as spiritual nourishment can be included. For instance, members of the traditional flower picking communities and artisan communities can be given special representation and/or reserved seats in a universal suffrage system. To this extent, the Election Commission of the state can be asked to supervise the appointment and administration of a special division within themselves, say a Dharmasthala Election Commission, which focuses solely on this process.


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