The Saga of Burning Chairs

A group of heavily armed Sikhs entered the gurdwara, ripped out the chairs, tore the cushions with a vengeance, and took the furniture outside. Karminder Singh Dhillon dissects the issue of chairs that gurdwaras have put in place for elderly and disabled members of the sangat who are unable to sit cross legged on the floor.

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By Karminder Singh | Opinion |

While the rest of the world is looking for more ways to accord love, respect and dignity to the elderly, disabled and feeble members of society, some Sikhs have decided to violently destruct, destroy, rip out, and then burn chairs and benches that Gurdwaras have put in place for members of the sangat who are unable to sit cross legged on the floor.

Two accounts of such ruckus have come to light [in Punjab] within the month. The first event was at Gurdwara Biharipur Kapurthala on December 9 and the second event was at Gurdwara Singh Sabha Model Town, Jalandhar three days later. In both Gurdwaras, a group of heavily armed Sikhs ripped out the chairs, tore the cushions with a vengeance, and took the furniture outside. They poured fuel on the pile of broken furniture and set it on fire. In one of the Gurdwaras, such ruckus was created within an ongoing diwan.

The group was led by Amritpal Singh, chief of the political party named Waris Punjab De (The Heirs of Punjab). Amritpal Singh has said that his primary objective is to bring back – into the Sikhi fold – Sikhs who have left Sikhism for other religions.   

He has assembled a convoy named the Khalsa Vaheer (March of the Khalsa) and has embarked on a mission to make his presence felt in the villages across Punjab. He does so by moving around with his group of heavily armed people. It is during such moving around that the ruckus of destructing, destroying, and then burning chairs and benches that they had violently ripped out from within the two Gurdwaras took place.   

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Amritpal and persons from his convoy have provided a host of justifications for such conduct.  His justifications are in need of scrutiny.

The first justification is based on the stipulation of the Sikh Rehat Maryada. The relevant rule is as follows: (ਝ) ਕਿਸੇ ਮਨੁੱਖ ਦਾ ਸਤਿਗੁਰਾਂ ਦੇ  ਪਰਕਾਸ਼ ਸਮੇਂ ਜਾਂ ਸੰਗਤ ਵਿਚ ਗਦੇਲਾ, ਆਸਣ, ਕੁਰਸੀ, ਚੌਕੀ, ਮੰਜਾ ਆਦਿ ਲਾ ਕੇ ਬੈਠਣਾ ਜਾਂ ਕਿਸੇ ਹੋਰ ਵਿਤਕਰੇ ਨਾਲ ਬੈਠਣਾ ਮਨਮਤ ਹੈ। ਸ਼ਫਾ ੧੪. Translation: It is wrong for any person, in the presence of the Satguru, within the sangat, to sit on a cushion, distinctive seat, chair, stool, bed or to sit with any other form of discrimination.

The key word, the operative word here is Vitkra – discrimination. The question is this – is making it possible for elderly Sikhs, disabled Sikhs, Sikhs with health issues such as knee pain etc – is making it possible for such Sikhs amongst us to attend and participate in the Gurdwara an act of discrimination?

In the name of common decency, preferred seating is provided for pregnant women and the disabled in public transport systems worldwide. And no one treats that as an act of discrimination over the regular fare paying healthy passengers.  In fact, in the name of decency – many able persons actually stand up to give their seats to such “disabled” persons out of sheer courtesy and human kindness. And here we are, as Sikhs, screaming Sarbat da Bhala on top of our voices, but unable to practise human decency at its base level. Is the practice of kindness towards our own elderly and disabled out of the parameters of Sarbat da Bhala?

The second justification by Amritpal and persons from his convoy is based on the notion that sitting on chair, benches or sofas amounts to a challenge to authority of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS).   

A challenge to the authority of the SGGS is committed by a single person who intends to usurp the legitimate position of the Guru. Such, for instance, was attempted by Khem Singh Bedi, who claimed to be a direct descendant of Guru Nanak and who insisted on being seated in front, next to the SGGS and at the same level as SGGS on a cushion complete with a backrest. Such is also done by countless sadhs and sants in deras who sit on higher pedestals where the sangat bows to their feet in the presence of the SGGS.  

What we have are common members of the sangat who are allocated common benches attached to the side walls or at the back of darbar halls and who seat themselves there due to health disabilities. How could this motley group of unrelated persons be declared as “Challenging the Authority and Sanctity of SGGS?”  

The third reasoning of Amritpal Singh and his Vaheer was that these elderly folks were   being seated “higher” than the SGGS and higher than the other sangat when the only higher entity should be the SGGS.

When Guru Arjun Ji constructed the Darbar Sahib Amritsar he built a gallery on the 1st Floor overlooking the Darbar where SGGS is installed at the floor level. i.e. at the same level as all the seated sangat and kirtanias. This gallery actually has people seated, people walking, people standing and looking in the down direction at the SGGS and the sangat seated below.  There are other gurdwaras with similar designs.  This is a pix of Gurdwara Sis Ganj in Delhi. It too has a gallery at the first floor overlooking the Darbar where SGGS is installed at the floor level. Are not all those on the gallery actually higher than the SGGS and sangat below? If Guru Arjun ji had no objections to Sikhs sitting one gallery above, what is the objection of Sikhs sitting one bench above?

The fourth justification – in the words of one member of the Vaheer is as follows: If an elderly or disabled person can come to a gurdwara he should be able to stand. Meaning the disabled and elderly do not have to sit.  This same member further says:  If the Guru is on the floor – we should dig a hole and sit in it.  

So what can the Sikhs world do now? The SGPC and Akaal Takht have to speak up. The authorities in Punjab have to apply the law on the lawless acts of these people or risk more violence. Parcharaks, ragis, granthis etc will have to speak up and assure their sangats that there is no violation of maryada, no issue of disrespect, that they can sit on chairs and benches because none of them are challenging the authority of the Guru in any such way.

Gurdwara committees and sangats need to come together to stop these talibani behaviour. Lodge police reports. Sue the political party for damage of property. The highest disrespect to the sangat is to storm a gurdwara belonging to the sangat, destroy property that belonged to the sangat and to deprive the sangat of their basic needs. And to do this while the sangat is listening to katha in the darbar is the highest disrespect to the Guru. This is what we call disrespect under the pretext of respect.

In 2017, five disabled Sikhs took on the management committee of the largest gurdwara in Wolverhampton UK for alleged discrimination when as disabled Sikhs, they were forced to sit behind screens in the darbar sahib. See report here.

One the five disabled claimants, Bhupinder Kaur Chohan said: “Fifty years ago Sikhs were fighting for the right to wear turbans in public in this country. Here we are in 2017 fighting for the right to attend the Gurdwara as disabled people without being hidden away and forced to sit like zoo animals behind partitions. We have just the same right to worship and pray as everyone else. We should not be made to feel inferior.”

The court ordered the gurdwara to remove all of the screens as well as signs which prohibited the use of chairs and wheelchairs.

It does not have to come to the point that the elderly and disabled have to go to court to make the point that disabled people are not second class citizens and deserve the same right to attend gurdwaras as everyone else. Gurbani, gurmat and sikhi already accords that right. The problem is not with Sikhi principles – but with people with agendas who want to twist it all to serve themselves. The problem is people whose model is the nuisance of talibani politics, lawlessness and hooliganism –and they wish to climb the ladder of politics through such ugly methods. There is a need to call out such people and to stand up for what is right.   

RELATED STORY:

Upstart youth leader Amritpal Singh removes and burns gurdwara benches (Asia Samachar, 18 Dec 2022)

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1 COMMENT

  1. I find it very distressing by burning and ruining
    The property of Sri Gurudwara Sahib . Elderly people
    And all the disabled people or suffering with hip replacement s should nt be allowed to go to Gurudwara because they can’t sit Cross legged . Sorry to say have these people got some elderly parents . I ask you this Vaheer should go and
    See only the most of the Sangat is made of Elderly people .
    One goes to Gurudwara by cab by wheelchair or with their children , they can’t stand for hours on end . It is definitely a gang of disrupting the Sangat and congregation . Think again . It’s just being silly . Think again . You have no right to do it .

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