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Panel to ponder women’s role in Golden Temple

Amritsar, April 15: A major row is brewing within the Sikh clergy over allowing women to perform seva inside the Golden Temple.

Faced with a revolt from community members, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, a body entrusted with the task of managing Sikh religious affairs, has been forced to form a panel to suggest remedies.

The five-member panel, including two gurdwara committee women members, will meet representatives of Sikh organisations on April 25 to discuss the issue.

The Sikh clergy is vehemently opposed to letting women perform seva in the sanctum sanctorum because, according to some among the clergy, they are “dirty” during menstrual cycles.

“The committee has been called to discuss the issue in Chandigarh. They will hold discussions with all sections and come to an agreement. This should not be seen as a controversy,” committee chief Kirpal Singh Badungar said.

Though he said “women can even now perform seva inside the temple”, a walk around the premises proved otherwise.

The row began earlier this year when a London-based criminal lawyer Mejinderpal Kaur and her friend Lakhbir Kaur were rudely told by volunteers they could not take part in the procession that carries the Granth to the Akal Takht each night and back the next morning. The Sikhs consider the ritual sacred.

The two women had enthusiastically tried to lend their shoulders to the palanquin carrying the holy book when they were pushed aside by the volunteers. They were told only men could perform seva.

They decided then to launch a campaign to assert their rights as promised by their religion. “I am a Sikh and had taken my equality for granted because my religion promised me just that,” Mejinderpal said.

The Sikh code of conduct does not discriminate between the genders, but women have been kept away from performing rituals and rites inside the temple.

Mejinderpal, expected to attend the April 25 discussions, has since been moving from place to place in the state with just a shoulderbag to educate Sikh women and give concrete shape to their rights as enshrined in the religion.

She is not seeking the dismissal of the volunteers who rebuked her, but the immediate restoration of Sikh women’s rights to participate in seva at the Golden Temple.

On February 9, 1996, the Akal Takht had issued an edict allowing Sikh women to volunteer their services. The edict said: “According to Sikh principles, men and women have been given equal status in the guru’s house. In all Sikh institutions, for the purpose of performing any religious rites, every human being is considered equal.”

“Keeping in view the Sikh principles, the undersigned five Singh Sahibs (head priests of five most important Sikh gurdwaras in the country) unanimously support that every human being has the right to do seva in the morning in the precincts of the Harmander Sahib (Golden Temple). The manager is directed that he should execute the following conditions strictly without any delay.”

One of the conditions laid down was that all those who would come to participate in the morning seva should be baptised Sikhs and above 30 years old.

Women were also asked to come with their heads completely covered with a blue cloth. All men and women were told to wear white dress with saffron-coloured waistbands while performing the seva.

Golden temple officials, however, said they could not trace a copy of the edict.

“You cannot have one set of rules here and another in the West. I have been a granthi (priest) in a London gurdwara,” Mejinderpal said.

Sikh women’s organisations have offered busloads of volunteers to converge on Chandigarh on April 25. “We will not tolerate this gender discrimination. We want our rights to be restored by a male-dominated society which cares little for rights,” a social activist said.

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