Let’s welcome all, always

Some gurdwaras abroad banning the entry of Indian diplomats must take a cue from the Golden Temple and SGPC that are poised to give a warm welcome to the Canadian PM, as they have been opening the doors to everybody

Roopinder Singh

CANADIAN Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be welcomed warmly at Darbar Sahib, Amritsar. He joins the growing list of Heads of State who have made the Golden Temple an important part of their itinerary while visiting India.

Gurdwaras have traditionally opened their doors to everyone, and hundreds of thousands of visitors walk into the portals of the Golden Temple every day. They come from all over the country, and from many parts of the world, to see, pay obeisance and pray. They all admire the architecture and what it signifies — the four open doorways, signifying that all are welcome — and partake of langar, which again is served to everyone.

Inclusion has been the focus of the Gurus’ teachings, and of the institutions that they built. Indeed, the first gathering places of their followers were the dharamshalas, where they would meet regularly, as ‘sangats’, to sing praise of the Lord and to discuss matters of common concern. These were places that served the sick and the needy and provided shelter to travellers. In short, they were spaces where dharma was practised.

From the 17th century, after the installation of Guru Granth Sahib at the Golden Temple, the word ‘gurdwaras’, abode of the Guru, started being used for what were dharamshalas. The institution of gurdwara has an inclusive core, which has, sometimes, been eroded. Mahants, who were considered the custodians of institutions, started regarding these as their hereditary property, and over a period of time, caste discrimination and other practices, inimical to Sikhism, crept in.

It was in response to these ill-practices that the Gurdwara Sudhar Lehar or Gurdwara Reform Movement gained impetus. Gurdwara Babe-di-Ber in Sialkot, associated with Guru Nanak Dev, was then administered by the widow of a mahant. In 1920, it became the first gurdwara whose administration was transferred to an elected committee, headed by Baba Kharak Singh. Other gurdwaras followed suit; sometimes the reformists were resisted violently. The massacre of protesters by Mahant Narain Das at Nankana Sahib solidified the support for the movement and after many confrontations, many negotiations and some violence; the control of historical gurdwaras was handed over to elected bodies of Sikhs. This is the genesis of the formation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in 1925.

Naturally, historical gurdwaras form only a part of the vast network of gurdwaras that exists in India and abroad. Such gurdwaras are independent bodies, but they are expected to take guidance from the SGPC in the conduct of various religious ceremonies. Sometimes, local matters are escalated to the SGPC and Akal Takht for resolution.

The Australian High Commissioner to New Delhi, Harinder Sidhu, is a Sikh of Indian origin. She had performed sewa at the langar of the Darbar Sahib last week. The Canadian Prime Minister and his entourage, that also has Sikh ministers, are the next VIPs at Harmandar Sahib. This time, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is on board, something that was conspicuously missing earlier when Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan visited Punjab.

However, at that time also, Sajjan was welcomed with open arms by the SGPC, even as the CM refused to meet him. The inclusive character of the most important gurdwara of the Sikhs, which extends to visitors sitting together for a common langar and some of them performing sewa, is a feature that has found admirers among those of other faiths, too, and, indeed, is often held as an exemplar. This is where the discordant note is sounded by organisations that seek to ban the entry of Indian diplomats in gurdwaras in foreign lands, including Canada and Australia. It is not a coincidence that some gurdwaras, whose names were announced in the original ban statement, subsequently distanced themselves from it. Gurdwaras are, and should be, open to all. Gurdwaras abroad should take their cue from the SGPC and keep their doors open even to those with whom the management committees have differences.

The moment one crosses Darshani Deori and enters the precincts of the Golden Temple, there is a sense of peace. The mellifluous notes of kirtan sung by Hazuri Raagis envelope every visitor, as the tumultuous temporal affairs recede into the background. This is the atmosphere one seeks in all gurdwaras: that of spirituality where everyone is welcome. Bans mark boundaries and feed discord. They have no place in a place of worship.

This article was published on the OpEd page of The Tribune on February 21, 2018

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