Rules, Rulers & the Ruled

We don’t need a dictator and should never have one, no matter how competent or revered. It would be contrary to the spirit of the Sarbat Khalsa and sangat that define the core values of Sikhi.


Since the dawn of time, human survival has always been in jeopardy. Risky during birth and early development, even as adults; desperately dependent on others. Hence the family and the community.

Humans thrive as families and communities. Such togetherness, essential to survival, demands community-wide rules of acceptable inter-personal conduct. Hence the necessity of Rules and Rulers. Without one the other doesn’t exist.

Obviously, behavior of even those that willingly sign onto a society cannot be meaningfully directed unless rules are clearly fair, honestly lived, and consistently enforced.

Strongmen can construct and dictate their own rules, and enforce them even at pain to those who protest. Wouldn’t the process be smoother and hell of a lot more successful if rules were fair to the participants? Hence the idea of representative participatory models of self-governance. Yet, endless examples exist where rulers discard all pretense of self-governance for the people.

From ancient Greece to the present, history speaks of people in every society who strongly disagreed on principles, policies and rules. Yet, after the fiercest debates, even wars, people in stable communities often subsume their differences and come together.  This is how to define a hopeful future.

This is the road that mankind seems to have trod over the millennia though not always rationally, consistently, or in a straight line.

History also tells us that some individuals (mostly men, but gender biases are on a slow and steady decline) who climb the ladder of power become egomaniacal and narcissistic.  And then the whole community, the nation, and its neighbors, suffer.

Two examples come to mind: United States, a nation with the world’s longest unbroken record of participatory democracy; it now appears at risk with Donald Trump at the helm. Or India with Indira Gandhi leading it in the 1970’s, who suspended the Constitution and all democratic norms in the world’s largest functioning democracy. Both are examples of democracy reduced to the self-explanatory chumocracy. Believe me these are not the only leaders who systematically undermined democratic principles and practices.

Remember that to Rule and to Govern are two very different ideas. Diminish the former but treasure the latter.

Every society mandates that at joining it we pledge loyalty to its code of conduct, but narcissistic leaders themselves are not loyal to the rules. Why do leaders genuflect to tyrannical pathways? Why do we acquiesce to such decadent behavior? Is it self-preservation or is it fear? Why suspend the rules for strong men/women?

Respect for good principled leaders is one thing, to let them debase and deny our judgment and duty for transitory ephemeral gains is quite another – like selling your soul to the devil for pieces of silver. The Guru Granth offers some choice words for such leaders: “Kings are tigers, their officials like dogs that awaken their subjects only to harass them” (Raaje seeh muqaddam kuttay,ਰਾਜੇ ਸੀਹ ਮੁਕਦਮ ਕੁਤੇ, p. 1288).

Is the human DNA so vulnerable, so easy to corrupt — programmed for evil?

Come to think of it, our gurduaras are meant to be sangat-driven. Remember that the Creator is discovered and experienced in sangat (Vitch sangat har prabh vasae jio, ਵਿਚਿ ਸੰਗਤਿ ਹਰਿ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਵਸੈ ਜੀਉ, Guru Granth p.94).  Sangat – collectivity, commune – the glue that connects a community has more strength, power and wisdom than any one individual, no matter how talented or respected.

Are gurduaras connected to their primary mission? Sikhi encourages, indeed mandates, participatory self-governance, not turning over our lives to two-bit autocrats. When a charismatic leader, once appointed, suspends all participatory electoral processes, rejects consultative mechanisms or decision-making powers of sangat, where then is the sangat’s relevancy? Look around; isn’t this how 9 out of 10 gurduaras function?

I remember that in the pre-1984 Punjab, Harchand Singh Longowal, the leader of the Sikh campaign, was powerfully anointed in the Sikh and Indian press as the “Dictator” of the Sikh Morcha (campaign/battle). To me, for a Sikh movement such a title for any man is a non-sequitur and a non-starter.

We don’t need a dictator and should never have one, no matter how competent or revered. It would be contrary to the spirit of the Sarbat Khalsa and sangat that define the core values of Sikhi. Remember that the Gurus were not dictatorial. Revisit the episode where, preceding the retreat from Anandpur, Guru Gobind Singh accepted the decision of his Sikhs even though it was apparently against his own personal opinion.

People need rules to live by — rules that benefit both the individual and the community. I look at the Sikh Code of Conduct (Rehat Maryada) in that spirit; even though it deserves re-interpretation and amending. Unfortunately, the jathedars (rulers?) with the authority to interpret and pass judgment lack the knowledge and vision, if not the dedication, about Sikh history and its teachings or the world we live in.

There is a world of difference between ruling and governing. Keep a critical eye on the rulers; live kindly — by the rules.


I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. Email:

* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


Sunshine & dirty laundry (Asia Samachar, 6 Aug 2018)

Are our Gurdwaras Dysfunctional? The Assessment. (Asia Samachar, 9 June 2016)


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