A Century of the SGPC and Akali Dal

Author: Jugdep S. Chima

Institution: Hiram College

The year 2020 marked the centennial anniversary of the creation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandhak Committee (SGPC) and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)—two of the most important religious/political institutions of the Sikh community in Punjab, India.  This special themed issue of Sikh Formations commemorates this important anniversary with contributions from select academic experts in Sikh religion, history, and politics. The SGPC is the elected body which manages historical Sikh shrines in most of north India including Punjab and has been described as the “mini-parliament” of the Sikhs.  The SAD is the main Sikh political party in India, especially Punjab.  The articles in this special themed issue critically analyze the legacies, dynamics, and significance of both the SGPC and SAD through multidisciplinary academic lens.

Guru Ka Bagh Morcha, 1919. Credit: TribuneIndia

The importance of both the SGPC and SAD within the Sikh community cannot be overstated.  They were created in 1920 as a part of the larger Gurdwara Reform Movement—the SGPC to administer historic Sikh shrines and the SAD to represent Sikh political interests in politics.  Most importantly, both the SGPC and SAD firmly institutionalized the Khalsa identity as being the core of Sikh ethnic/religious identity within the community since 1920.  Both were also at the center of the “Punjab conflict” during the 1980s and 1990s.

The SGPC has become the primary venue in which various Sikh (i.e., Akali) groups vie for the mantle of community leadership in Punjab by trying to gain a majority in its 175-person mostly elected general house.  The majority Akali faction defines both the contours of Sikh ethnic/religious identity and the Sikhs’ prevailing political relationship with the Indian central state.  The Akali faction controlling the SGPC also selects the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, arguably the supreme seat of temporal and religious authority for the Sikhs.  As such, the SGPC and SAD form the interrelated nexus of Sikh religious and political life. Yet both institutions face significant cross-pressures in representing Sikh interests.  The definition of who constitutes a “Sikh” has been a constant source of debate for the SGPC and wider Sikh community.  The SAD, and its various competing factions, face the dilemma of how to strategically present its political image—that is, as Sikh ethnic political party or a regional political party representing an inclusive Punjabi identity.  These challenges are complicated by having to compete with other political parties in Punjab’s democratic political system in which caste and class are also salient identities.  Both the SGPC and SAD also face new challenges to their religious/political authority, as the Sikhs increasingly become an international diasporic community.  In the contemporary period, the SAD appears to be marginalized in community mobilization, as evidenced by the recent farmers’ agitation of mostly Punjabi Sikhs led by farmers organizations not the traditional Sikh political party.  Thus, while the SGPC is permanent institution, the political fortunes of the SAD shift depending on time and context.  This special themed issue of Sikh Formations critically commemorates the importance of the SGPC and SAD at their centennial with ten academically rigorous articles.

Jaito Morcha, 1924