Sikhism & Democracy

Sikhism & Democracy

Gurmukh Singh OBE

“Democracy” means rule by common people. In a democracy people are the source of all authority. Democracy is Government by the people and, according to one definition, aims to “promote a social condition of equality and respect for the individual [and minorities] within the community”.

There is little doubt that, conceptually, Sikhi would support all these aims of a true democracy – so far the fairest system evolved for the administration of institutions and states. However, Sikhi parts company with almost all systems when it comes to actually implementing a democratic regime in which the individual and minorities are protected and in which no one inflicts pain on another (the ideal of halemi raj in Gurbani ). The problem is that most systems deviate from the ideal. A democracy simply simply becomes rule by the majority or worse. This can happen for various reasons.

The essential checks and balances can fail through corruption, religious, social or caste based divisions, uneven economic playing field, lack of education or concentration of political power in the hands of a few e.g. through loyalty to dynastic rule. In some cases a democracy can become an oppressive and cruel regime in which the individual or minorities no longer feel safe. It is in those circumstances that a benevolent dictatorship is preferred to a democracy, which has been derailed. Pursuit of power becomes the sole aim of politicians even if that means intimidating or bribing the voters, or playing communal politics etc. Minority interests are ignored to please the majority community.

Sikhism starts with some underlying egalitarian postulates of democracy, but it is essentially a path of "dharam" which combines spiritual and temporal goals and sets longer term objectives for humanity. Sikh tradition, institutions and concepts such as sangat (Gur sangat kini Khalsa), pangat, sewa, gurmatta, sarab samti, would go much further to ensure a balance between the individual and minority rights on the one hand, and the wishes of the majority on the other.

Practice of seva bhavna (attitude of service) and humility are the essential qualities necessary to run Gurdwaras, Sikh institutions, and Sikh administrations.

Many democratic systems in the world today fall well short of creating environments in which individuals and minorities do feel secure. Sikhi ideals aim higher. While Sikhi can remain comfortable with fair and just democratic regimes or even benevolent monarchies like those of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, Sikhi schools must be run along Gurmatt lines and accord with Guru Panth approved Sikh Reht Maryada. (approved code of conduct).

To some extent the Sikh institutions based on Gurmatta and Dal Khalsa principles, which served the Panth so well in the 18th century, were weakened during the Sikh drive to extend kingdoms and empires in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. According to one historian, Dr J S Grewal, “The Sikh resurgents of the late 19 Century had to discover their inheritance all afresh.”

That is what we should continue to strive for at least in our gurdwaras today, which are the schools for practising Sikh ideals.

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