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Tuesday, March 16, 1999 Published at 21:33 GMT

World: South Asia

Woman voted Sikh leader

Women rarely hold senior positions within the Sikh community

The first woman president of an influential religious body has been elected by Sikh authorities in the north Indian state of Punjab.

The selection of Jagir Kaur, a junior minister in the state government, as head of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee follows a no-confidence vote in her predecessor, Gurcharan Singh Tohra.

Her appointment is unprecedented in the history of modern Sikhism, which has roughly 30 million adherents in India and worldwide.

Although Sikh religious texts support the concept of sexual equality, women have seldom held influential positions.

Divided community

The unusual circumstances of Jagir Kaur's appointment to the committee - which is in charge of all historic Sikh shrines - reflects the turbulent nature of the power struggle between her predecessor and the chief minister of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal.

Over the last four months, the two men have been feuding ahead of celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of modern Sikhism next month.

Their argument looks set to divide the Sikh community not just in Punjab but throughout the world.

Correspondents say the divisions could not come at a worse time. Next month's anniversary is likely to attract considerable media interest in the religion in India as well as among the large expatriate Sikh community in Europe, the United States and Canada.


Up to a million Sikhs are expected to take part in the celebrations in the town of Anandpur Sahib.

[ image: Anniversary celebrations are already underway]
Anniversary celebrations are already underway
Mr Tohra's departure is also likely to lead to divisions within the main political party in the state, the Shiromani Akali Dal.

Both Mr Tohra and Mr Badal are key members of the party, both have considerable support and both want to be at the forefront of the anniversary celebrations.

Political commentators say that while Mr Tohra's departure represents a significant development in the complicated politics of the Punjab, it does not mean that he will cease to be a thorn in Mr Badal's flesh.

He has said that he wants to organise separate celebrations in April and has publicly denounced the chief minister for playing what he described as a malicious role in his dismissal.

Mr Tohra and his supporters boycotted Tuesday's no-confidence meeting, paving the way for the election of Jagir Kaur.

Fourteen other people were also voted off the committee, which is now firmly in the hands of Mr Badal's supporters.

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