Words like ‘sacrilege,’ ‘desecration,’ and ‘blasphemy’ fall short of capturing the totality of its meaning and Sikh understandings and emotions related to beadbi. In the past five years, there have been up to 400 cases of beadbi. Investigative agencies and governments of the Panjab and the government of India have failed to get justice. Since 2018, Panjab has recorded the highest “sacrilege” crimes cases in India as per the National Crimes Record Bureau.
One of the most well-known cases of beadbi involves Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, head of Dera Sacha Sauda, who was convicted of raping two women (2017) and murdering a journalist (2019). In 2007, he dressed like Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, and the Sikhs understood it as beadbi. Clashes between Sikhs and Dera followers occurred, and he was charged with sacrilege and excommunicated by the Akal Takht, the Panth’s authoritative political institution. However, just last week, he was furloughed from Feb 7-27 for a total of 21 days during Panjab’s elections, which are taking place on Feb 20. His role in the last series of beadbis remains unresolved — political parties openly welcomed him and catered to him to secure vote banks over which he holds substantial influence. In 2015, a Sarbat Khalsa, the Panth’s collective assembly, was called in response to the Guru Granth Sahib beadbi incidents and Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s orchestrated pardoning at the Akal Takht.
We know that the responses from government institutions are insufficient or nonexistent and that the response from the Akal Takht, in pardoning Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, is clear evidence that the Akal Takht is not independent. We know this despite the recent statements and gatherings from its current Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) appointed Jathedar, anointed by Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). In the context of what we know, can we make an effort to understand Sikh individual and collective responses to beadbi?
What is Beadbi?
Before we can begin to understand these responses, let us first establish what beadbi is. Adab in Persian means education, culture, good behavior, politeness, and proper demeanor; it is closely linked with ethics. Beadbi in Urdu and Panjabi has come to mean disrespect, irreverence, and indecency. In the Sikh world, ‘adab’ may be understood as the ideal reverence from the refinement of thought, word, and deed towards the Guru Granth Sahib. And the ways of implementing this ideal are specified by certain protocols.
The Guru Granth Sahib is not a book or anthology; that aspect of it is denoted only by the “granth.” Guru is the eternal Wisdom, and Sahib is the eternal Sovereign. In Sikh parlance, Guru lives amongst the Sikhs and is the source of everything. The pages of Guru Granth Sahib are called “angs,” literally limbs. Hence, the royal treatment in physical spaces of the living Guru! This is a departure from Indic and Semitic texts and requires different lenses to understand Sikhi's praxis of how Sikhs practice their reverence!
Due to this great reverence for the living Guru in the form of the Guru Granth Sahib, and the acknowledgment of the Guru Granth Sahib as holding eternal sovereignty, Sikhs practice private and public protocols and norms of reverence towards that Sovereign.
How is Beadbi invoked in Sikh texts?
‘Beadab’ or ‘beadbi’ are not found as words in the Guru Granth Sahib. Its first usage in Sikh texts appears in the writing of Bhai Nand Lal ‘Goya’ (1633-1713) in Zindagi Namah, where the focus is on individual reverence:
An irreverent one never found the way to the Truth;
An astray one did not find the way and the Truth.
The reverence is what shows the way to Khuda;
The irreverent one remains bereft of the grace of Rabb.
How can an irreverent one know the way to Khuda,
Who has been damned by the havoc of Khuda?
In Persian, Khuda means god, lord, or ruler. In Arabic, Rabb means sustainer, cherisher, or nourisher. In the Islamic context, both refer to Allah; in the Sikh context, they both refer to IkOankar, the One Force. Bhai Nand Lal focuses on individual reverence, which is concerned with one’s own relationship with the Sovereign and journey or growth in that relationship. Internally, Sikhs ought to be reflecting on their own reverence — this is where we start. Externally, the question becomes how we as individuals and as a collective act upon that reverence.
How do Sikhs collectively show reverence?
How do we treat the entity of the Guru Granth Sahib, knowing that we understand our relationship with the Guru Granth Sahib to be no different from our relationship to the Guru? Knowing that the Guru Granth Sahib is a living Guru, and any attack on it is an attack on the Guru, no different from one attacking the Guru-personality during the Guru period? In part, Sikhs show reverence for the Guru by refusing to accept any beadbi of the Guru. The collective Sikh psyche and emotions are rooted in protecting and defending the living Guru in the form of the Guru Granth Sahib. The focus then is on the mistreatment or disrespect of the Guru Granth Sahib in the form of burning, tearing, or throwing it. When these acts of beadbi are physical and external, the Sikh collective comes together. The Guru is of 30 million Sikhs, and among those 30 million, there are a variety of responses. Even with that variety, the Sikh collective response has been to understand what has become a widespread and systematic attack on the Guru — a political problem in need of a political and legal solution.
Responding to acts of beadbi is in and of itself a form of reverence. Collectively, in past cases, Sikhs have restrained themselves or individually responded. These responses are not motivated by vengeance, but rather an understanding of what we will do for the Guru Who we carry on our heads, Who we clothe in royal cloth, Who we sit behind with a fly whisk, Who we bow to, Who we give our heads to. Collectively, Sikhs have protested and called upon Sikh institutions and governmental institutions to figure out what is going on and understand the incitement of hatred toward Sikhs as a clear political act. It is worth noting again that governmental institutions and Sikh institutions have not brought justice for these acts. Even when we work with political parties across party lines, the central government still does not respond appropriately. It is also worth noting that in previous cases where Sikhs protested, protesters were killed by police, and police have not faced any consequences. Sikhs have collectively understood that the politics of Panjab and India at large and the politics of the political parties are bound up in this issue of beadbi.
Once we understand that the paradigm in Guru Granth Sahib is of IkOankar-Nam, 1Force-Identification that sees only 1Ness, we can begin to address beadbi at external levels. When there is no other in 1Ness, how do we locate sacrilege, blasphemy, and punishment?
How is Beadbi understood Panthically and Legally?
Sacrilege and blasphemy laws in India are based on old British laws from the 1860s, which originated in a Christian context. The maximum sentence for sacrilege is 3 years, according to Indian law. In 2015, Panjab’s Akali Dal government passed a law extending it to 20 years, or life imprisonment, in the context of the Guru Granth Sahib, but this law was not deemed secular. In 2018, Panjab’s Congress government amended and passed it to include any holy book. It is still awaiting the Indian government’s response.
Panthically, it is useful to understand the word “sodha,” or correction, as an armed response to beadbi. This response is not motivated by vengeance but by justice and accountability. In the case of various beadbis of the Guru Granth Sahib, it has been activated in individual responses, which have been accepted Panthically. These responses have been considered apt when Sikhs have collectively exhausted all other means, being unheard and constantly failed by our institutions and governmental institutions.
In Sikh parlance, “sodha” (correction) is awarded by a Sikh who is not able to accept the beadbi of the Guru anymore; this is how a Sikh delivers “punishment.” Conversely, “tankhah” (salary) is earned by a Sikh who intently accepts responsibility for committing beadbi; this is how an individual Sikh accepts “punishment.”
Historically, we have used mechanisms that have allowed thoughtful deliberation in these spaces, room for forgiveness, and measured responses. We have had one Sarbat Khalsa in the recent past (2015) in response to the very issue of beadbi. But even these mechanisms have been either actively undermined or simply ineffective in addressing the larger systematic attacks against the Guru and incitement of hatred against the Sikhs.
What are the Current Realities?
On 2 February 1986, in Nakodar, Jalandhar, five Guru Granth Sahibs were burned. Protests took place on 2 and 3 February, followed by a peaceful march on 4 February. That day, four Sikh protestors were killed by police officers. Justice Gurnam Singh Commission was set up to investigate, which finished their report on 31 Oct 1986. However, families of those four who were murdered by police only found out in August 2018 when another incident was under discussion 29 years later. Each successive government protected the responsible police officers. Records were expunged, and the full report is still not available.
The case that occurred 29 years later was on 14 Oct 2015, in Behbal Kalan. An act of sacrilege against the Guru Granth Sahib took place in nearby Bargari, Kotpaura, Faridkot. Protests took place, and police killed two Sikh protestors. The Justice Ranjit Singh Commission was established to investigate cases of beadbi related to the Guru Granth Sahib. The report was submitted in June of 2018, but it was never made public, and part two of the report is still not available. The Commission “noticed with concern” that the then government and ministry of home affairs did not take action to get justice for these acts of beadbi or to get justice for the Sikh protestors who were murdered by police. Even with these Commissions, nothing has happened — justice remains denied.
So the question then becomes: do Sikhs now wait for another incident to happen and only be acknowledged almost 40 years later as in the 1986 case? If our institutions and commissions and politicians and governments fail us time and again, what are we to do?
How do we Understand Individual and Collective Responses?
In our current realities, we have seen a gap between Panjab and India and between Panjab and the larger diaspora in understanding beadbi as a major concern for the Sikhs and a political problem in need of a political solution. In the diaspora, we have difficulty parsing out the facts of these cases, relying heavily on either biased news sources or Twitter feeds for information, where there exist narratives within narratives. Simply put, it is difficult to tell what is true and to get to the facts. Additionally, we have the urge to avoid nuance or understanding the larger context around these cases, as the diasporic lived reality is quite different from that of the lived realities of Sikhs in Panjab.
There is a long history of trauma, incitement of hatred against Sikhs, genocide and mass killings, disappearances at the hands of police, and constant harassment and terrorizing of Sikh communities in and outside of Panjab. Diasporic Sikhs might not understand the daily microaggressions or constant unease that Sikhs in the homeland face, the casual calls for genocide, the framing of Sikhs who speak up for their rights, or the rights of others as separatists, and the framing of separatists as terrorists. We might not understand the toll that all of this takes on the collective Sikh psyche in the homeland — the way this trauma compounds over decades and generations, and the frustration of being disregarded and ignored by governmental institutions and by your own institutions as well.
In recent news, two cases of beadbi have become the focus: one at the farmer’s protest in October of 2021 and one at Sri Harimandar Sahib, popularly Golden Temple, in December of 2021. What we can clearly say is that torture is never an option. It is not a response rooted in justice, but vengeance, which departs from Sikh ideals and Sikh praxis. And the scenario is complicated by the electoral politics of both India and Panjab, the willful undermining of Sikh principles and institutions, and the lack of Sikh collective deliberative mechanisms suitable for today’s era.
Can we begin to bridge our gap in understanding when it comes to the overwhelming majority of beadbi cases, of which at least 400 from the past 5 years have gone unaddressed? In the context of these more in-depth dwellings on beadbi and the lived realities and frustrations of Sikhs in the homeland who have had justice denied time and again, maybe we can begin to understand why the responses are what they are. Through that understanding, we can also work towards collective understandings and responses to these systematic political problems.
May the Wisdom-Guru grace us with internal reverence so we may address external irreverence justly!