Former Akal Takht Jathedar, Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti, passed away due to a heart attack in Amritsar on Saturday 15 May.
Condolences poured in from across the political spectrum. Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) chief Bibi Jagir Kaur – all offered their condolences.
Most of the leaders emphasised Vedanti's religious knowledge. For instance, Modi described Vedanti as "scholarly and humble" and Kaur stressed his "knowledge of the Gurbani".
No doubt, Vedanti was deeply respected for his knowledge, but that's not all that was to him. An extremely important aspect of Joginder Singh Vedanti was the assertion of his independence as the Jathedar of the Akal Takht.
Be it regarding Operation Blue Star, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or Dera Sacha Sauda. Vedanti did not bend to the pressures from the powers that be.
Vedanti witnessed the physical destruction of the Akal Takht, but as Jathedar, he worked towards protecting the institution from different threats.
These positions often put him at odds with political establishments and eventually might even have cost him his position.
A Witness to Operation Blue Star
Joginder Singh Vedanti was among the last people alive to have witnessed Operation Blue Star at the Harmandir Sahin complex in Amritsar in June 1984. He was fiercely critical of the operation. Vedanti accused the Indian Army of torturing innocent people stuck at Harmandir Sahib at the time of the operation and also accused it of destroying precious Sikh manuscripts.
"Sardar Singh, the sevadar of Baba Sham Singh dera, who used to bring a degh every day during the chowki at dawn, found it difficult to climb onto the trucks and was beaten so badly that he died by the time he reached the camp jail set up inside a school. Similarly, sevadar of Gathhri Ghar Bhai Kikar Singh, alias Kulwant Singh, whose legs were deformed, could not survive the torture from the army men either and died on 9 June at the army camp," he was quoted, as having recounted.
Compared RSS to Aurangzeb
Vedanti took over as the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of the Sikh community, in 2000. The NDA was in power – both at the Centre and in Punjab – at that time, with the Akali Dal being in alliance with the BJP.
However, Vedanti opposed Hindutva politics. In an interview with Outlook in 2001, Vedanti said that "the RSS is just like Aurangzeb" and it spread hatred in the name of religion.
Vedanti accused the RSS of spreading hatred and being a threat to the nation
Outlining his main opposition to the RSS, he said, "The RSS says Sikhs are Keshdhari Hindus and not separate from Hindus. We, on the other hand, claim that the Sikhs are a separate qaum. Our traditions are different from Hindus, our principles are different.”
It was around that time that the then RSS chief KS Sudarshan asserted that Sikhs are Hindus, a statement that had upset many Sikhs.
In 2004, the Akal Takht under Vedanti issued a Hukamnama declaring the RSS as an anti-Sikh organisation and instructing Sikhs against associating with it. The Hukamnama also told Sikhs not to be part of the RSS' Sikh wing, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat. This Hukamnama singed the RSS, which kept pressuring the BJP to break the alliance with the Akali Dal unless the Hukamnama was withdrawn.
But the Hukamnama remains in places even today, 13 years since Vedanti's resignation as the Jathedar.
Though the view of Sikh bodies and Panthic organisations have consistently been wary of the RSS, the Hukamnama gave sanctity to this and laid down the red lines for Sikhs' relationship with RSS.
Hukamnama Against Dera Sacha Sauda
Vedanti was also a firm critic of the dera culture in Punjab and parts of Haryana, in particular the Dera Sacha Sauda in Sirsa. According to Vedanti, the main problem with deras was that individuals were attributed with divinity and given more importance than the Guru Granth Sahib.
In the run-up to the 2007 elections, he issued a Hukamnama against the politically influential Dera Sacha Sauda, which may have riled the political class.
It is not clear whether it was his strident stand against RSS or opposition to Deras or his praise of the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh that led to his removal in 2008.
Though the SGPC had claimed that Vedanti resigned due to "health reasons", he had hinted that he was told to resign by an SGPC member, which in turn raised questions about pressure from the Akali Dal.
Vedanti Might Have Been Ahead of His Time
Though some may call it a cliche, it is true that Vedanti was ahead of his time and probably understood the challenges of the Sikh community better than many others.
Take the Dera Sacha Sauda case for instance.
In 2015, Vedanti’s successor Giani Gurbachan Singh granted a pardon to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim, which sparked widespread outrage in the Sikh community.
Ram Rahim, now convicted of rape and murder, had also been accused of sacrilege for dressing up as Guru Gobind Singh.
The backlash to the pardon was so strong that the Akal Takht had to withdraw the pardon. But the damage to the institution had already been done.
The sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib at Bargari allegedly by the Dera followers and the subsequent killing of two persons protesting the sacrilege at Behbal Kalan further angered the Sikh community. The wounds of those incidents remain unaddressed, with many of the guilty still roaming free.
In November 2015, Sikh activists held Sarbat Khalsa – a congregation of the Sikh community – and one of the main points leading to it was the Akal Takht's exoneration of the Dera chief. The congregation led to the appointment of a parallel Jathedar, showing how the Akal Takht's 'pardon' to Gurmeet Ram Rahim had created a schism within Sikhs.
These events were preventable had Akal Takht maintained its independence from political interference by the Akali Dal. The Dera fiasco – whose consequences are being seen even today – in many ways vindicated Vedanti’s tough position.
Giani Gurbachan Singh continued to face criticism, which eventually led to his removal in 2018.
The same went for Vedanti's approach towards the RSS. He understood the Hindutva threat to the Sikh community at a time when the Akali Dal had just cosied up to the BJP. The poisonous anti-Sikh propaganda by certain right-wingers during the farmers' protests is proof of how this threat has become much more serious.
The current acting Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh, has taken a strong stand against the RSS and has even called it anti-national. This is very much in line with Vedanti, who said that the Hindutva organisation represented a threat to the country.
Even the Akali Dal is slowly coming around to the same position and has ended the over two-decade alliance with the BJP.
The Hukamnama issued by Vedanti and his strong stand against communalism might have, to some extent, helped prevent appropriation of Sikh symbols by Hindutva forces.
But both the RSS and the Dera cases are just examples. Vedanti's lasting legacy was his assertion of the independence of the Akal Takht, despite the many constraints, under which he worked.