Sikh Agitation for Reform of Holy Places
At Guru-ka-Bagh, twenty kilometres from Amritsar, Sikhs’ capacity for suffering and resistance was put to further trial after freeing many Gurdwaras through peaceful resistance. Sundar Das, the mahant, had by mutual negotiations made over the shrine to the Shiromani Committee, taken the Sikh baptism and parted with his mistresses except one whom he honourably married. But he later repudiated part of the agreement, saying that, though he had surrendered the gurdwara to the Shiromani Committee, the piece of land known as Guru-ka-Bagh attached to it was still his property. He objected to Sikhs cutting down trees on that land for the langar. The police, willing to oblige him, arrested on August 9, 1922, five Sikhs on charges of trespass. These arrests were made not on Sundar Das’ complaint, but on a confidential report received by the police. The following day, the arrested Sikhs were hurriedly tried and sentenced to six months’ rigorous imprisonment.
Undeterred by this action of the government, Sikhs continued the old practice of hewing wood from Guru-ka-Bagh for the daily requirements of the community kitchen. The process of arrests and convictions proving of little avail, police tried a new technique to terrorize the reformers. Those who came to cut firewood from Guru-ka-Bagh were beaten up in a merciless manner until they lay senseless on the ground. They were dragged about by their hair and left contemptuously off when the police thought they had been served well enough. The Sikhs sutfered all this stoically and went in larger numbers day by day to submit themselves to the beating. From August 31, the number was raised to 100. Every day a batch of one hundred volunteers would start from the Akal Takht pledged to suffer their fate silently. The police would stop them on the way and smite them with heavy brass-bound sticks and rifle-butts. The belabouring continued until the batch lay prostrate to a man. The Sikhs displayed unique powers of self-control and resolution, and bore the bodily torment in a spirit of complete resignation. None of them winced or raised his hand.
The Rev. C.F. Andrews, who visited Amritsar, gave a graphic description of the passive resistance of the Akalis in the account he wrote.
One of the major campaigns in the Sikhs’ agitation in the early 1920’s for the reformation of their holy places. Guru ka Bagh in Ghukkevali village, about 20 km from Amritsar, has two historic gurdwaras close to each other, commemorating the visits respectively of Guru Arjan in 1585 and Guru Tegh Bahadur in 1664. The latter is laid out on the site of a bagh (garden) which gave the place its name. Like most other gurdwaras, the management of these two had passed into the hands of mahants or abbots belonging to the monastic order of Udasi Sikhs. The grant of jagirs to such sacred places in Sikh times and the offerings of the devotees had made the custodians wealthy and prone to luxury.
In 1921, one Sundar Das Udasi was the mahant of Guru ka Bagh. He was indifferent to his ecclesiastical duties and lived a dissolute life, squandering the-resources of the gurdwara. To save the shrine from being occupied by reformist Sikhs, he however signed a formal agreement with them on 31 January 1921, promising to make a new start and receive the rites of Khalsa initiation and to serve under an eleven member committee appointed by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. But seeing how the government was everywhere supporting the mahants, he repudiated part of the agreement and said that, though he had surrendered the gurdwara to the Shiromani Committee, the piece of land known as Guru ka Bagh attached to it was still his property.
He objected to Sikhs cutting down for the langar (gurdwara kitchen) firewood from that land. The police, willing to oblige him, arrested on 9 August 1922 five Sikhs on charges of trespass. The following day the arrested persons were hurriedly tried and sentenced to six months rigorous imprisonment. This sparked off the agitation, and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee decided to send every day a batch of five Sikhs to chop firewood from the grove of trees , on the land of Gurdwara Guru ka Bagh and court arrest if prevented from doing so. From 22 August, police began to arrest jathas on charges of theft, riot and criminal trespass. The arrests gave a fillip to the movement and more and more Sikhs came forward to join protest. On 25 August, Amavas day, the gathering was so large that S.G.M. Beatty, Additional Superintendent of Police, ordered the police to disperse it by a lathi-charge.
Government violence led the Shiromani Committee to increase the size of the jathas. On 26 August the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar issued warrants for the arrest of eight members of the executive of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. A council of action, headed by Teja Singh Samundri, now took over charge of the Akali morcha. The government banned the assembling of people at Guru ka Bagh, and police pickets were posted on roads and bridges to intercept volunteers coming into Amritsar. Yet jathas of black-turbaned Akalis chanting the sacred hymns reached the spot every day to be mercilessly beaten by police until they fell to the ground to a man. This happened from day to day. Political leaders, social workers and reporters came to witness what was described as an ideally non-violent protest. A.L. Verges, an American cinematographer, prepared a film of the proceedings under the caption, Exclusive Picture of India’s Martyrdom. English missionary and educationist C.F. Andrews (1871-1940) visited Guru ka Bagh and saw, as he put it,
hundreds of Christs being crucified. He sent to the Press a detailed report on what he witnessed on 12 September 1922:
It was a sight which I never wish to see again, a sight incredible to an Englishman. There were four Akali Sikhs with black turbans facing a band of about a dozen policemen, including two English officers. They were perfectly still and did not move further forward. Their hands were placed together in prayer and it was clear that they were praying. Then, without the slightest provocation on their part, an Englishman lunged forward the head of his lathi which was bound with brass. He lunged it forward in such a way that his fist which held the staff struck the Akali Sikh, who was praying, just at the collar bone with great force. It looked the most cowardly blow as I saw it struck.
The blow which I saw was sufficient to fell the Akali Sikh and send him to the ground. He rolled over and slowly got up once more, and faced the same punishment over again. Time after time one of the four who had gone forward was laid prostrate by repeated blows, now from the English officer and now from the police who were under his control. The others were knocked out more quickly. I saw with my own eyes one of these police kick in the stomach a Sikh who stood helplessly before him. For when one of the Akali Sikhs had been hurled to the ground and was lying prostrate, a police sepoy stamped with his foot upon him, using his full weight; the foot struck the prostrate man between the neck and the shoulder.
The vow they had made to God was kept. I saw no act, no look, of defiance. It was true martyrdom for them as they went forward, a true act of faith, a true deed of devotion to God.
They believe intensely that their right to cut wood in the garden of the Guru was an immemorial religious right, and this faith of theirs is surely to be counted for righteousness, whatever a defective and obsolete law may determine or fail to determine concerning legality.
Sir Edward Maclagan, Lt-Governor of the Punjab, visited Guru ka Bagh on 13 September 1922. Under his orders, the beating of the volunteers was stopped. Mass arrests, imprisonments, heavy fines and attachment of properties were resorted to. In the first week of October, the Governor-General Lord Reading held discussions with the Governor of the Punjab at Shimla to find a way out of the impasse. The good offices of a wealthy retired engineer, Sir Ganga Ram, were utilized to resolve the situation. Sir Ganga Ram acquired on lease, on 17 November 1922, 524 kanals and 12 marlas of the garden land from Mahant Sundar Das, and allowed the Akalis access to it. On 27 April 1923, Punjab Government issued orders for the release of the prisoners. Thus ended the morcha of Guru ka Bagh in which,. according to Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee records, 5,605 Sikhs went to jail.
Source:Encyclopaedia of Sikhism – Harbans Singh