The confrontation began with a 21 May tweet from CM Mann, in which he questioned why the broadcasting rights of the Gurbani, a “symbol of commonality”, was given to only one channel. Mann suggested that multiple channels should be allowed to broadcast the Gurbani, and his government was willing to cover any necessary costs.
The channel that Mann targeted in this tweet was the Punjab Television Channel (PTC), which is owned by Sukhbir Singh Badal, a former deputy CM and the chief of the Shiromani Akali Dal.
PTC has an 11-year contract with the SGPC giving it exclusive rights to broadcast audio-visual feed of the Gurbani from the Golden Temple. For this privilege, PTC pays an annual fee to the SGPC. The contract, signed when the Akali Dal was in power in Punjab, ends this July.
The SGPC, an elected body responsible for managing historical gurdwaras in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and Chandigarh, is often called the “mini parliament” of the Sikhs and has traditionally had close ties with the Akali Dal.
Questions about PTC’s exclusive rights to relay the Gurbani have been often raised over the years by the Congress and AAP, as part of their criticism of the Akali Dal. The broad allegation has been that the Akali Dal exercises control over the functioning of the SGPC to further its own political interests.
Just days after Mann’s tweet, the SGPC announced its decision to invite open tenders from TV channels for live telecast rights to the Gurbani.
The announcement, however, failed to impress Mann who went ahead and called a special session of the Vidhan Sabha. On 20 June, the assembly passed a bill amending the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925, making it abiding on the SGPC to allow any radio, TV or social media channel to relay the Gurbani from the Golden Temple.
The SGPC immediately condemned the move as “anti-Sikh” and an attempt to dilute its authority. At a special general house meeting Monday, the SGPC also declared that it would start a morcha or protest against the Mann government if it did not revoke the amendment bill.
ThePrint gives an overview of the conflicting narratives at the core of this issue, the political undercurrents, and what is at stake for the various parties involved.
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‘Ending monopoly’ to politics— CM’s stand
Mann’s official position is that the amendment will end the monopoly of a single channel over the relay of the Gurbani. He has underscored that he is a Sikh himself and that the move does not amount to interference in religious affairs.
“Gurbani is the common spiritual heritage of all Sikhs and should be free to air available through multiple channels to Sikhs across the world,” the CM said in the assembly during the discussion on the bill to amend the Sikh Gurdwaras Act.
However, the political significance of this position has not escaped anyone familiar with Punjab politics.
It is widely understood that Mann is trying to appeal to a section of Sikhs who believe that the SGPC should function independently of the influence of any political party or leader.
The prevailing perception is that the Akali Dal uses the SGPC as well as the Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of the Sikhs, to influence the Sikh electorate and to maintain some sort of power even when they are out of government in the state.
Mann’s rhetoric has reflected this view. In the assembly discussion, for instance, he hit out at the Badals and also accused the SGPC of allowing “a particular political family” to control its functioning.
The CM further suggested that the Badals may have used the SGPC to benefit PTC financially. He pointed out that PTC’s viewership has significantly increased due to its broadcasting of the Gurbani, which in turn “brings in advertisement revenue”.
Responding to the SGPC’s general house meeting on Monday, Mann tweeted that SGPC president Harjinder Singh Dhami was behaving like the chief spokesperson of the Akali Dal.
Meanwhile, Dhami has maintained that there is nothing untoward or secretive about his or other members’ ties with the Akali Dal.
“We are all members of the SGPC today because we fought on the tickets given to us by the Akali dal so why should we not be open about our association with that party?” Dhami said, addressing the general house meeting of the SGPC Monday.
‘Religious interference’— SGPC’s position
The SGPC has alleged that the government is interfering in the religious affairs of the Sikhs.
During the general house meeting, Dhami held that relaying the Gurbani through multiple channels could compromise the sanctity of the exercise.
The SGPC contends that the relay of Gurbani must be conducted in a controlled environment to uphold maryada, or code of conduct.
It has also claimed that the Punjab government had no right to amend the Sikh Gurdwaras Act.
Dhami referred to a 1959 agreement between the then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and SGPC president Master Tara Singh, which stipulated that any amendment to the 1925 Act could only be made after a resolution is passed by two-thirds of the SGPC’s members.
“No change can be made to the act without the concurrence of the SGPC,” Dhami said.
Speaking to ThePrint, SGPC official Jaskaran Singh explained that the 1925 Act was passed by the provincial assembly and remained a state Act until 1966 when the reorganisation of states took place. After that, he claimed, decisions regarding the SGPC were taken by the central government in concurrence with the Sikh body.
“The Punjab Reorganisation Act of 1966 declared the SGPC as an ‘interstate state body’. All decisions regarding the SGPC were taken by the central government in concurrence with the SGPC. Every amendment to the 1925 Act from 1966 till 20 June this year, when the Punjab government brought in the Gurbani rights amendment, had been done only after the nod of the SGPC,” said Jaskaran Singh.
Anger from Akali Dal
When Mann announced his government’s decision to amend the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, Sukhbir Singh Badal took to Twitter to criticise it as an attempt to usurp the authority of the SGPC and the Sikh community over gurdwaras.
“This is the first step towards governments taking over the functioning of the Guru’s abode,” he said in the 18 June tweet, also slamming the CM’s “arrogance”.
“If the duty of relaying Gurbani with sacredness and the functioning of Gurdwaras is to be handed over to the government then why did the Akali Dal undertake countless sacrifices to free the Gurdwara of masands in the first place?”
Historically, masands were Sikh preachers who acted as intermediaries between the Gurus and the community, but over time came to be associated with misconduct in managing gurdwaras.
Badal said that this “attack” would not be tolerated and a suitable response would be given by the Sikh community to the CM.
Addressing a press conference Sunday, Akali leader Parambans Singh Bunty Romana referred to historical events pertaining to the SGPC.
He said that the 1959 Master Tara Singh-Nehru pact was a result of an attempt made by the then Congress chief minister Pratap Singh Kairon to amend the 1925 Act and nominate 35 members from the then PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union) area to the SGPC.
“The move was made with the clear purpose of having a Congress majority in the SGPC. But it was vociferously opposed by the SGPC,” he said.
Romana highlighted the significant efforts made by Tara Singh, including a massive protest, imprisonment, and the threat of a fast unto death, to protect the SGPC from political control, eventually leading to the pact with Nehru.
“It is sacrosanct for the independent functioning of the SGPC and to ensure that no government in the state can interfere in the religious affairs of the Sikhs,” he added.
Sikh Gurudwara (Amendment) Bill 2023 bought by @BhagwantMann govt is the 2nd time a govt has tried to amend Sikh Gurudwaras Act 1925 with the intention of interfering in the religious affairs of the Sikhs without the consent of @SGPCAmritsar .Congress govt tried it in 1959.
— Parambans Singh Romana (@ParambansRomana) June 24, 2023
During the conference, Romana also pointed fingers at the AAP-led Delhi government.
He said that the Delhi government should prioritise amending the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee Act to regulate the broadcast of Gurbani from the historic Bangla Sahib Gurdwara in the capital.
“The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee paid a particular channel to relay the Gurbani. This channel is also allowed to run advertisements and displays a QR code to gather funds on account of relaying the Gurbani,” he alleged.
“If Mann and the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi are so concerned about Gurbani reaching every Sikh household without a penny being paid, they should first set the Delhi house in order which is directly in their jurisdiction. For AAP and Mann, Gurbani is only an excuse— the main target is the SGPC,” he claimed.
Romana gave further examples of how the Gurbani was allegedly being broadcast or streamed in a questionable manner from other gurudwaras in the country.
For instance, he alleged that the channel relaying the Gurbani from Patna Sahib in Bihar is paid Rs 1 crore a year and also runs ticker advertisements when the hymns and scriptural recitations are being broadcast.
“Many social media handles which illegally run the Gurbani have dubious antecedents. Will the Mann government act against those handles?” he asked.
“A channel which was relaying Gurbani from Hemkund Sahib in Uttarakhand was charging the management Rs 50 lakh per annum. When the contract ended, it was given to the PTC which is now relaying the Gurbani free of cost,” said Romana.
‘PTC did not make a single penny from airing Gurbani’
Rabindra Narayan, head of the PTC Group, told ThePrint that viewers have never been charged any amount to watch any of its channels.
He also disputed the Chief Minister’s claim that PTC earns crores through advertisements before and after the relay of Gurbani.
“No advertisements are run for half an hour before and after the Gurbani is relayed. Bhagwant Maan claims Gurbani gives TRPs to PTC and PTC earns crores. But TRP ratings are based on the viewership of the programme running, which affects ad costs during, shortly before, and shortly after a popular show. But when no ads are allowed before or after the relay of Gurbani, how does PTC make money from Gurbani?” Narayan asked.
“When we came into the picture in 2007, the SGPC had gone through multiple agreements with at least half-a-dozen channels who had failed to deliver,” he added.
Narayan also claimed that while some channels are paid to relay the Gurbani from other historical gurudwaras, PTC operates differently and contributes to the SGPC.
“We are contributing annually to the education fund of the SGPC. Since 2008, we have paid almost Rs 19 crore to the SGPC. Apart from that, we run a weekly programme called Sikh Sargarmiyan to showcase the activities of the SGPC. It is free of cost to the SGPC even though we have spent over Rs 43 crore on producing and airing it,” Narayan said. “We have not made a single penny out of the airing of the Gurbani. We consider it our sacred duty and honour to be able to do it free of cost.”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
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