Explained: Why  Punjab govt move for free Gurbani telecast sparked controversy
The Golden Temple has been broadcasting Gurbani in the morning and evening since 1998. File photo

Explained: Why Punjab govt move for free Gurbani telecast sparked controversy

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The Punjab government move to amend the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, to “ensure free telecast rights” of Gurbani (sacred hymn) from the Golden Temple on Monday has sparked a controversy.

Reacting to the move, the SGPC, which is known as mini-parliament of Sikhs, has asked the government not to interfere in religious matters. Addressing a press conference, SGPC chief Harjinder Singh Dhami slammed the chief minister for interfering in the Sikh affairs.

Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, however, claimed that the decision is in keeping with the feelings of the Sikhs across the globe. Mann said the Gurbani should be telecast free of cost rather than confining it to a single channel. He said the move would offer an opportunity to the “sangat” to listen to Gurbani while sitting at home even in foreign countries. He announced that they will table a resolution in the Vidhan Sabha on June 20 for an amendment in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925.

Also read: After no SC relief, SGPC presses Centre for Balwant Rajoana’s release

Why is the SGPC opposing Punjab government move?

The SGPC has termed the government decision as direct interference in the religious affairs of Sikhs. SGPC chief Harjinder Singh Dhami said: “Chief Minister Bhagwant Singh Mann should not try to confuse the religious matters of Sikhs… Don’t confuse the country for your political interests. Broadcasting of Gurbani is not a normal broadcast, its sanctity and ethics should not be neglected.” He contended that changes can only be made to the Sikh Gurdwara Act with the recommendations of the SGPC, an organisation elected by the Sikh community.

Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Badal flayed the proposed move and said it was the “first dangerous step towards snatching away right of ‘Gurbani parchar’ from ‘Sikh sangat’ and put the gurdwaras under the government control”. In a tweet in Punjabi, he said, “This decision has come as a reminiscent of excesses committed by the Mughals, the British and [slain PM] Indira Gandhi, but Khalsa Panth will give a befitting reply to it.” He further added, “The announcement made by Bhagwant Mann relating to telecast of Gurbani is not merely a direct attack on gurdwaras of Khalsa Panth, but on Sikh community also.”

What do other political parties in Punjab have to say on it?

Apart from the SAD, the other Opposition parties too, including the BJP and the Congress, are fiercely opposing this, contending that the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925 is a law made by Parliament, which the state government cannot change.

Senior Congress leader Sukhpal Khaira tweeted, “What a sad day for Sikhs as a government of @BhagwantMann consisting of no Amritdhari (baptized) Sikh and run from Delhi by leaders like @ArvindKejriwal who himself claims to be an ardent follower of RSS ideology will now decide the fate of a martial community of Sikhs and their religious affairs.”

Also read: SGPC objects to proposed introduction of ballistic helmets for Sikh troops

However, the Congress seems divided on the issue with former Congress minister Navjot Sindh Sidhu showering praise on the chief minister for his decision. He tweeted, “Sarb Sanjhi Gurbaani… means for one and all with no discrimination …this was a cherished desires of millions of Sikhs across the globe, including me… commendable effort @BhagwantMann …Kudos.” In his tweet, Sidhu also attached a news clipping dating back to 2017 where he had demanded that the live telecast rights of Gurbani should be given to all TV channels and not one particular channel. Sidhu was then the minister for local bodies, tourism and cultural affairs.

BJP leader Sunil Jakhar also cautioned Mann that gurdwaras are meant to pay obeisance, and not to pick a confrontation. “Though I feel that there should not be monopoly over telecast of Gurbani, it is highly condemnable the way you are interfering in Sikh religious affairs to settle political scores. I strongly oppose the move to amend the Sikh Gurdwara Act (which is not even in the domain of state’s right),” he said.

What is the political significance of the move?

Political observers feel that the move is likely to dilute the Shiromani Akali Dal’s Panthic aura as well as its hold on the SGPC affairs. Dominated by the Badal clan, the Akali Dal holds majority in the SGPC and has been managing the Sikh affairs for decades now.

The Golden Temple has been broadcasting Gurbani in the morning and evening since 1998. Broadcast rights of Gurbani have been with the PTC network, owned by the politically powerful Badal family, since 2007. SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal has been time and again accused of monopolising the Gurbani telecast, a charge he has refuted on several occasions.

Addressing a press conference last month, Sukhbir said Gurbani was being telecast on no-profit basis without any advertisements. He clarified that PTC doesn’t charge for the telecast but pays Rs 4-5 crore annually to the SGPC for schools and colleges run by the gurdwara body.

Also read: Sukhbir Badal-led Akali Dali’s control over SGPC weakens after Sangrur rout

PTC Network says it covers all the gatherings and programmes of the SGPC across the country and airs them all over the world through its channel. It also airs a separate programme on SGPC’s events every week. PTC Network claims that it spends spends Rs 10 crore to Rs 12 crore on coverage and telecasts. Incidentally, SGPC and the PTC Network’s contract for telecast of Gurbani expires in July 2023.

Now, the AAP government in Punjab says that broadcast rights shouldn’t be given based on a tender process, and any channel that wants to broadcast Gurbani should be free to do so. Interestingly, it is not the first time that the SAD’s rivals have tried to break its monopoly on telecast rights of Gurbani from the Golden Temple. Earlier too, SAD’s rivals like Navjot Sidhu too had advocated the need to allow all channels to beam live telecast of Gurbani from the holy shrine.

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