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Babar Akali Movement 1920

Militant Anti-British Movement in the 1920’s

A radical outgrowth of the Akali movement for the reform of Sikh places of worship during the early 1920’s. The latter, aiming to have the shrines released from the control of priests who had become lax and effete over the generations, was peaceful in its character and strategy. In the course of the prolonged campaign, Akalis true to their vows patiently suffered physical injury and violence at the hands of the priests as well as of government authority.

The incidents at Tarn Taran January 1921) and Nankana Sahib (February 1921) in which many Sikhs lost their lives led to the emergence of a group which rejected non-violence and adopted violence as a creed. The members of this secret group called themselves Babar Akalis-babar meaning lion. Their targets were the British officers and their Indian informers. They were strongly attached to their Sikh faith and shared an intense patriotic fervour.

At the time of the Sikh Educational Conference at Hoshiarpur from 19-21 March 1921, some radicals led by Master Mota Singh and Kishan Singh Gargajj, a retired havildar major of the Indian army, held a secret meeting and made up a plan to avenge themselves upon those responsible for the killings at Nankana Sahib. Among those on their list were J.W. Bowring, the superintendent of police in the Intelligence department and C.M. King, the commissioner. However, those assigned to the task fell into the police net on 23 May 1921. Arrest warrants were issued against Master Mota Singh and Kishan Singh as well, but both of them went underground.

In November 1921, Kishan Singh formed a secret organization called Chakravarti Jatha and started working among the peasantry and soldiers inciting them against the foreign rulers. While Kishan Singh and his band carried on their campaign in Jalandhar district with frequent incursions into the villages of Ambala and Kapurthala state, Karam Singh of Daulatpur organized a band of extremist Sikhs in Hoshiarpur on similar lines. In some of the villages in the district, divans were convened daily by the sympathizers and helpers of the jatha of Karam Singh, who was under warrants of arrest for delivering seditious speeches.

Towards the end of August 1922, the two Chakravarti jathas resolved to merge together and rename their organization Babar Akali Jatha. A committee was formed to work out a plan of action and collect arms and ammunition. Kishan Singh was chosen jathedar or president, while Dalip Singh Daulatpur, Karam Singh Jhingan and Ude Singh Ramgarh Jhuggian were nominated members. A cyclostyled news-sheet called the ‘Babar Akali Doaba’ had already been launched. Contacts were sought to be established especially with soldiers serving in the army and students.
The party’s programme of violence centred on the word sudhar (reformation) – a euphemism for liquidation of jholichuks (lit. robe-bearers, i.e. stooges and lackeys of the British).

The Babar Akali Jatha had its own code. Persons with family encumbrances were advised not to join as full members, but to help only as sympathizers. The members were to recite regularly gurbani, the Sikh prayers. They were not to indulge in personal vendetta against anyone. Likewise, they must not molest any woman nor lift any cash or goods other than those expressly permitted by the group.

The total strength of the Jatha scarcely exceeded two hundred: the exact number was not known even to its members. The outer circle of the Jatha consisted of sympathizers who helped the active members with food and shelter. Some ran errands for the leaders carrying messages from one place to another, others arranged divans in advance for itinerant speakers and distributed Babar Akali leaflets. In order to evade the police and keep their activities secret, the Babar Akali Jatha also evolved a secret code.

The movement was very active from mid-1922 to the end of 1923. Several government officials and supporters were singled out and killed. Encounters with the police took place during which some rare feats of daring and self-sacrifice were performed by Babar Akalis.

The government acted with firmness and alacrity. In April 1923, the Babar Akali Jatha was declared an unlawful association under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908. Units of cavalry and infantry were stationed at strategic points in the sensitive areas, with magistrates on duty with them. A joint force of military and special police was created to seize Babars sheltering themselves in the Sivalik hills. Every two weeks propaganda leaflets were dropped from aeroplanes with a view to strengthening the morale of the loyalist population.

Punitive police-post tax was levied and disciplinary action was taken against civil and military pensioners harbouring or sympathizing with the Babar Akalis. These measures helped in curbing the movement. The arrests and deaths in police encounters of its members depleted the Jatha’s ranks.

The movement virtually came to an end when Varyam Singh Dhugga was run down by the police in Lyallpur district in June 1924.

The trial of the arrested Babar Akalis had already begun inside Lahore Central Jail on 15 August 1923. Sixty-two persons were challenged originally and the names of 36 more were added in January 1924. Of them two died during investigations and five were acquitted by the investigating magistrates; the remaining 91 were committed to the sessions in April 1924. Mr J.K.M. Tapp, appointed Additional Sessions Judge to try conspiracy cases, opened the proceedings on 2 June 1924. He was assisted by four assessors. Diwan Bahadur Pindi Das was special public prosecutor. The prosecution produced 447 witnesses, 734 documents and 228 other exhibits to prove its case. The judgement was delivered on 28 February 1925. Of the 91 accused, two had died in jail during trial, 34 were acquitted, six including Jathedar Kishan Singh Gargajj were awarded death penalty and the remaining 49 were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment.

The government, not satisfied with the punishments awarded, filed a revision petition in the High Court. The High Court overruled the Sessions Court judgement on a few points, but let the death sentences remain unaltered. Babars so condemned were hanged on 27 February 1926. They were Kishan Singh Gargajj, Babu Santa Singh, Dalip Singh Dhamian, Karam Singh Manko, Nand Singh Ghurial and Dharam Singh Hayatpur. The Babar Akali Jatha ceased to exist, but it had left a permanent mark on the history of the Sikhs and of the nationalist movement in India. The Naujawan and Kirti Kisan movements in the Punjab owned their militant policy and tactics to the Babar insurrection.

Source:Encyclopaedia of Sikhism – Harbans Singh


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