I am a non-Sikh doctor with disability at University College of Medical Sciences and Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital in Delhi, and a disability rights activist. On my daughter’s birthday on 28 March 2018, I visited Golden Temple (Sri Darbar Sahib) to pay obeisance at Sri Harmandir Sahib in their Ardas.
I was quite impressed to see Amritsar Railway Station having lifts connecting the platforms on both sides of the station. Despite being the capital of India, none of the six railway stations in Delhi have this luxury.
However, my experience at the most respectable religious shrine for the Sikhs in the country was unsatisfactory. The holy place, which must have been accessible for all, is sadly inaccessible to devotees with disabilities.
A devotee with disability faces a tough time to reach the Golden Temple due to newly installed steel barricades (in at least five places on Heritage Street).
The SGPC sponsored battery-operated vehicles meant for the elderly and disabled, too, cannot be operated now. These barricades are only lowered for VVIPs.
The Tribune highlighted these issues in 2016 and Deputy Commissioner Basant Garg had said, “The points have been noted down. I will check these things.”
Unfortunately, nothing has been done since then.
I saw a fellow wheelchair-using girl being lifted by her parents as there was no space for a wheelchair to go through. This undignified treatment is unexpected when crores have been spent towards beautifying this street.
At the entrance of Golden Temple, one can see free availability of wheelchairs, but please also note the level of discrimination.
The first picture shows the change of smooth flooring to rugged uneven surface right at the wheelchair point. Isn’t this making a mockery of devotees with disabilities?
The second picture shows me being driven on the wheelchair on the jagged surface which shook all of my bones. There were no signages either to guide a wheelchair user. There were two steps at the entrance, defeating the purpose of accessibility. When I reached the main entrance, the sevadaar told me that the wheelchair was not allowed. After arguing for some time, another sevadaar suggested that I should enter from the rear entryway. But this back entrance was of no help either. There was a pool of water, over which my friend had to lift me.
I could finally now see the stairlift, but it wasn’t functional. What is the point of a stairlift, if one has to climb stairs to reach it?!
The volunteers offered to lift me again up these 8-9 steps. I refused, stating it will be dangerous for me as well as volunteers as the floor was wet. Rather than accepting my wish, I was forcibly lifted onto the wheelchair. Being a temple of enormous faith, I chose to remain quiet.
It has been said that unlike erecting the structure on the higher level (a tradition in Hindu temple architecture), Guru Arjan Sahib got it built on the lower level. And unlike Hindu temples that have only one gate for the entrance and exit, Guru Sahib made entrances and exits on four sides. The idea behind this new faith, Sikhism, was to make the Golden Temple accessible to every person without any distinction in caste, creed, sex or religion.
Unfortunately, the whole idea is defeated as out of the four entrances, none is marked accessible, safe and dignified for devotees with disabilities. It is an insult to humanity to physically lift someone with wheelchair. I fully appreciate that no human being should be seated above Guru Ji’s level but Guru Ji would understand that if someone is seated in their wheelchair, it's not because they are being disrespectful, it’s because they may have no choice. I don’t think any of the ten Gurus would turn away someone in a wheelchair. Here I would like to quote Bibi Kismat Kaur who wrote in Sikh Philosophy.net:
Mein kayi vaar sochaa, ki je apne 10 Gurus wichon koi ik vi ajj hunde, taan ki oh wheelchaired insaan nu milan ton inkaar kardinde? Nahin! Balke ohna ne aap bhajjke os insaan nu galley lagaa leina si. (I often wonder, if our 10 Gurus were alive, would they have refused to meet a person in a wheelchair? No! In fact, they would have welcomed them with open arms.)
In Canada, many gurughars have this lower place that is easy to go in with wheelchairs, why can’t we have the same at Amritsar? The takhat of Guru ji can be raised so that we disabled are not accused of coming in the holy shrine on a higher seat.
In 2015, Britain's largest gurdwara Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Wolverhampton was sued by worshippers for alleged discrimination against the elderly and disabled people. Rajinder Bassi, Chairman of the Sikh Forum Wolverhampton, said, “What is happening to disabled and older people is degrading. They are missing out on the spiritual aspect and want to be able to join others upstairs.”
Paramdeep Singh had to start a petition in 2003 to stop discriminatory practices against disabled persons at Gurdwaras in the West. Though a few Sikh volunteers were completely unaware of our needs, others were very kind and gentle. They voluntarily offered their assistance to lift someone who cannot walk and take them inside the shrine. I respect their willingness to help people with disabilities, but this should not come at the price of dignity.
Moreover, a gurdwara should be practising inclusion, not exclusion. Also, the message which is being conveyed by lifting people on wheelchairs among non-disabled people is that this practice is fine. This will spread this inhuman, undignified act as the norm against our fight towards a rights-based society and not a charity-based one.
I saw escalators being installed at the outskirts. Isn’t it shameful that the most marginalised, disabled devotees do not even have lifts or dignified acceptance into the holy shrine, but there are escalator facilities for the abled-bodied?
I wanted to see Shri Harminder Sahib in the morning but had to drop the idea as I shivered at the thought of being lifted again in the wheelchair.
A gurdwara is visited as a place of spirituality for people of all faiths. People from across the world come to pray here, especially the ones with diseases and impairments. Therefore, it should be made 100% disabled-friendly.
I have a few suggestions.
a) Make the 'Heritage Street' leading to the gurdwara fully accessible. The barricades must be removed, the uneven surface at Golden Temple entrance must be smoothened. There should be a complete access audit of Heritage Street and Shri Harminder Sahib by a team which must include a wheelchair user, a blind person and a deaf person.
b) This must include tactile paths for people with visual impairments and conversion of
all religious preachings in sign language for people with hearing impairments. Translation should be done for all kirtan/paath on a screen in the gurdwara.
c) There should be adequate signages for accessible paths. Ramps must be there at all places and all the volunteers must be thoroughly acquainted with the accessible paths and needs of people with disabilities.
d) As DC Amritsar ordered to educational institutions, he must instruct SGPC to include details of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 on the display board. The gurdwara must take lead in spreading the message of a rights-based approach rather than a charity-based one.
e) As SGPC also run SGRD educational institutes, medical and dental colleges these must submit compliance reports on disabled-friendly infrastructure. It was my petition in the Honourable Court of Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities which directed the Medical Council of India to pass directives to all medical institutions in the country to be disabled-friendly.
f) Section 21 of the RPwD Act mandates every establishment to notify equal opportunity policy detailing measures proposed to be taken by it in pursuance of the provisions. SGPC must be directed to upload its equal opportunity policy on its website.
g) Section 44(1) of the RPwD Act states that ‘no establishment shall be granted permission to build any structure if the building plan does not adhere to the rules formulated by the Central Government under section 40’. Accordingly, further construction at Shri Harminder Sahib must be stopped if they are not in accordance with accessibility standards for people with disabilities.
I hope the administration will act on my complaint so that there is respect for inherent dignity of people with disabilities, non-discrimination; full and effective participation and inclusion; accessibility; and equality.
Sat Sri Akal,
Dr Satendra Singh, My Report