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Unseemly controversy over control of Sikh shrines 

An unseemly controversy rages over the control of Sikh shrines in Punjab at the time of election of the president of the committee managing these shrines.

The body managing these shrines called gurudwaras (Guruís places) is Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC). It manages nearly $40 million in annual income from the offering of devotees. This gives a tremendous political clout to people on the committee, and the president of the committee has influence and respect that is equal to the chief ministerís, if not more.

It is said that whoever controls the SGPC controls Punjab politics. Another major power structure in Punjab politics is the Sikh-religion based political party called Akali Dal. This time a controversy was created as the Akali Dal tried to have its own men on the committee and as president, while another major player, the secular Congress Party, unofficially backed the rival Sikh leader for the position of SGPC president.

Ultimately, the Akali Dal candidate Kirpal Singh Badungar won the presidential poll on November 13, after a lot of acrimony. The Congress-backed candidate who was also a strong supporter of the erstwhile SGPC president Gurcharan Singh Tohra, lost the election. Tohra, an influential player in Punjab political arena, had been president for 24 consecutive terms. The Hindu right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leading the coalition at the Centre was backing Akali Dal, its coalition partner. The head of Shiromani Akali Dal party Prakash Singh Badal, who till recently was the chief minister of Punjab, alleged that the present chief minister Captain Amrinder Singh had "desecrated" the holiest shrine of Sikhs, the Golden Temple, by allowing policemen.

This could have been a serious problem for the chief minister had the media not exposed it as the lie that it was. To top it, the media presented still pictures and video clips from the former chief ministerís time showing policemen freely roaming around in the shrine complex. They also unearthed copies of official orders issued during the former chief ministerís time to deploy inside the complex and even at the sanctum sanctorum.

The founder of Sikh religion, Guru Nanak (1469-1530), was a noble man ó a high caste Hindu influenced by the Islamic ideas of uncompromising monotheism and equality of all human beings. The religion he founded ó Sikhism ó drew from both his Hindu background as well as from Islam, more from the latter in many ways.

For nearly two centuries, the new religion grew fast in its homeland of Punjab (now divided between India and Pakistan), and many Muslims were also drawn to Guru Nanak, taking him as the preacher of a new sect of Islam. Even the poet of Islam, Mohammad Iqbal, nearly four centuries after the Guruís death eulogised him as "the one who sang the song of unity of God in our land."

Propelled by a buoyant faith, Sikhs united and prospered in the centuries following the first Guru of the faith. (He was followed by nine others over the centuries.) They went on to build an impressive kingdom and an extremely prosperous state.

They also built a large number of Sikh shrines called gurudwaras (Guruís place) all over Punjab, the priests and managers of which grew extremely prosperous and influential over a period of time on the massive earnings from devoteesí offerings to the shrines. SGPC was formed in 1925 to streamline their management.

The community which constitutes less than two percent of Indiaís population (and just over 51 percent in their homeland of Indian Punjab), over the decades since Indiaís partition in 1947 grew in prosperity and political clout in far greater proportion than its numbers suggest.

Elections to the SGPC are always colourful and acrimonious because of the high stakes involved.

Į MG Correspondent

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