There is a lot of noise in Punjab right now about the state government’s announcement regarding the broadcast of Darbar Sahib’s daily kirtan.
The Chief Minister, Bhagwant Mann, amid much opposition from the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), has promised to bring an amendment in the The Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, .
Of course, the fact that Bhagwant Mann made this announcement was not lost on anyone, given his continued ongoing tussle with the SGPC over the past few months, be it about Guru Golak or capture of gurdwaras. And there are a variety of questions arising around the possible fallouts of such an announcement.
The first set of questions relate to the legality of the move.
It was earlier speculated that the government would bring in a resolution in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha in a repeat of a similar move done by the previous Amarinder Singh-led Congress government.
Such resolutions are non-binding in nature, and SGPC would not be under any compulsion. However, after today’s press conference, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are concrete legal steps being pursued.
In his press announcement, Bhagwant Mann claimed that the Punjab state government has the right to legislate on this inter-state body’s matters (gurdwaras under Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh are still controlled by SGPC), given the 'concurrent list nature' of the issue.
One interesting aspect to this however has been the divergence in readings of the Supreme Court order on Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (HSGMC) case that came out last year.
to claim power of the state government to legislate on the matters of SGPC.
However, senior advocate and former Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) member that Punjab Vidhan Sabha doesn’t have power to amend the Act, and can only pass a resolution to ask the Centre to amend the Act.
What H S Phoolka did note, however, is that the HSGMC gave the Punjab Vidhan Sabha full power to pass its own Gurdwara Act as per SC judgement. He also suggested that the new Act should ban political parties from contesting SGPC elections.
Of course, there is also a view by some analysts that all this hype is unnecessary, and a simple amendment of the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act 1995 would suffice in this matter.
The political implications however are far-reaching.
Bhagwant Mann has directly attacked the Badal family-controlled Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) (SAD-B) and the SGPC with this move. In recent times, we have been seeing much hype over the control of SAD(B) on SGPC.
One of the issues where the SGPC has been trying to assert itself has been the broadcast of Darbar Sahib’s gurbani kirtan. Despite its emotive value, the transmission of kirtan has been the exclusive purview of PTC Punjabi, a channel directly controlled by the Badal family.
The arrangement behind this remains unclear to this day, with neither party openly talking about it. In recent times, elements within the SGPC talked of setting up its own channel and dissociating with PTC Punjabi.
The unceremonious resignation of recent Akal Takht Jathedar Harjinder Singh Dhami was an attempt to shut any dithering within the SGPC.
Rest assured though, this matter cannot be challenged in court as it may backfire on the SGPC and Akali Dal once the judiciary asks them to put in public the nature of their arrangement.
In all of this, the stance taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central government would be one to watch out for. The issue of free kirtan broadcast has widespread support amongst Sikhs globally.
However, Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925 or Cable TV Regulation Act has meant that it has the power to take a decision on the question, subject to interpretations.
As it seeks to increase its footprint in Punjab, the BJP would want to take advantage. However, given talks of realignment of BJP and SAD(B), any decision contrary to this stand of the Mann government would be seen as BJP’s first step towards revival of the alliance in Punjab, something undesirable to a large section of the party’s state cadre.
The BJP’s dalliances with elements of the Panthic framework in recent times has certainly not been lost on any observer within the state.
Further, the rise of the BJP as a pole within the state has been noted by top political analysts in the state, with the party doing far better than expected in the Jalandhar bypoll.
A section would still hold that Bhagwant Mann may play it up as a masterstroke and take credit in case the BJP aligns on the issue. Will it choose to bite the bullet? That is something to watch out for in the immediate aftermath.
The biggest loser in the process however is the SAD(B) and Sukhbir Singh Badal. With the Akali hold on various business interests in the state, the gurbani kirtan broadcast issue is yet another sign of their long-standing hegemony coming under attack.
It would be interesting to note if something is done about the hold on bus services in the state, an issue that has been a big plank for AAP in the run up to 2022 Vidhan Sabha elections.
Jhundan committee recommendations continue to be an albatross around the neck of Sukhbir Badal, and the Jathedar fiasco has only made him more unpopular within the Panth and the state.
The political sands of Punjab’s politics are shifting rather swiftly. The state may witness protests against this move as well, egged on as a Panthic issue by the Badals.
Is Bhagwant Mann and his government ready for a limited but forceful blowback on the streets? We'll have to watch while we wait.
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