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Historical Sikh Events: Singh Sabha Movement

After the Nirankari and Namdhari movements of 19th Century. Fresh century was about to be started with a new movement called Singh Sabha. Nirankari and Namdhari movements had failed to stir Sikh people because of their restricted scope and schismatic character they acquired. To quote Sardar Harbans Singh in The heritage of the Sikhs "The Singh Sabha which followed them had a much deeper impact. It influenced the entire Sikh Community and reoriented its outlook and spirit. Since the days of the Gurus nothing so vital had transpired to fertilize the consciousness of the Sikhs. The Singh Sabha by leavening the intellectual and cultural processes brought a new dimension to the inner life of the community and enlarged its heritage. Starting in the seventies of the last century, it marked a turning-point in Sikh history . It touched Sikhism to its very roots, and made it a living force once again. The stimulus it provided has shaped the Sikhs’ attitude and aspiration over the past one hundred years."

The reason behind the success of the Singh sabha was the motivation to search for Sikh identity and Self-assertion that we are not just another sect of Hinduism. Earlier, Hindu philosophers had declared Sikhs as "another sect of Hinduism". 2500 years ago, same thing was done to Budhism, when Budha was made "another reincarnation of Vishnu" by Brahmins, thus ending Budhism in India. Singh Sabha recognized this and started their campaign of awakenings for rural Khalsa, which was under the direct threat of Christian Missionaries, Muslim Maulalivis and Arya Samajis. Khalsa’s moral force and dynamic vitality was rediscovered and Singh Sabha started to look upon its history and tradition with clear and self-discerning eye.

Everything that was against Gurus teaching was rejected. Rites and customs considered consistent with Sikh doctrine and tradition were established. For some, legal sanction was secured through government legislation. With this came the reorganization of Sikh Shrines. Later in 1920’s Sikh Historic Shrines like Nankana Sahib, Punja Sahib, Golden Temple, TarnTaran Sahib, etc were freed from the hold of hereditary Mahants. These mahants were practicing rites and ritual inconsistent with Sikhism, Including not letting people of "lower caste" into Gurdwaras, publicly smoking, Idol worshipping of various Gods and Goddesses, and holding Shraddhs and other rituals not followed by the Sikh Gurus

This period also witnessed the modern development and emergence of new cultural and political aspirations. Higher level of literacy were achieved by Sikhs. Famous Khalsa college at Amritsar and hundreds of Khalsa Schools were opened through out punjab. Many Sikhs ventured outside India at this period and settled at Malaysia, Canada, U.K, Africa and USA. In Punjab, the Sikhs sought to secure recognition for themselves:

"An English newspaper writes that the Christian faith is making
rapid progress and makes the prophecy that within the next
twenty-five years, one-third of the Majha area will be Christian.
The Malwa will follow suit. Just as we do not see any Buddhists
in the country except in images, in the same fashion the Sikhs,
who are now, here and there, visible in turbans and their
other religious forms like wrist bangles and swords, will be
seen only in pictures in museums. Their own sons and grandsons
turning Christians and clad in coats and trousers and sporting
toadstool-like caps will go to see them in the museums and
say in their pidgin Punjabi: Look, that is the picture of a
Sikh-the tribe that inhabited this country once upon a time.’
Efforts of those who wish to resist the onslaught of Christianity
are feeble and will prove abortive like a leper without hands and
feet trying to save a boy falling off a rooftop.

This was a note which appeared in a Sikh newspaper, the Khalsa
Akhbar (Punjabi) of Lahore, May 25,1894, from the pen of its
editor, Giani Ditt Singh (1853-1901).

Reporting the observance of the first anniversary of the Lahore Singh Sabha in its issue for April 22, 1905, the Khalsa Advocate (English) referred to the occupant of a banga in the precincts of the Tarn Taran Gurdwara who had embraced Christianity and hung a cross on one of its walls to convert it into a Christian chapel.

The Khalsa Akhbar, July 13, 1894, carried this letter in its correspondence columns:

"In the village of Natta, Nabha state, a Sikh married off his
daughter according to Sikh custom Most of the population in
the village, including Brahmanical Hindus and some Sikhs,
became hostile. They did not let the marriage party stay
in the dharamsala. The host, firm in his faith, had to put up
the wedding guests in his own house.

A student by the name of Bir Singh contributed a letter to the Khalsa Akhbar, February 12, 1897, saying:

"Near the Dukhbhanjani beri tree Lin the Golden Temple
precincts] there is a room on the front wall of which is
painted a picture. The picture depicts a goddess and Guru
Gobind Singh. The goddess stands on golden sandals and she
has many hands-ten or, perhaps, twenty. One of the hands is
stretched out and in this she holds a khanda. Guru Gobind
Singh stands barefoot in front of it with his hands folded."

A letter in the Khalsa Akhbar, October 8, 1897, reported:

"On Tuesday, Bhadon 31, the pujaris of the Tarn Taran
Gurdwara held the shradha ceremony in honour of Guru Arjan.
Those feasted were from outside the faith and they smoked."

A correspondent’ s letter in the Khalsa Samachar of Amritsar, edited by Bhai Vir Singh, June 25, 1902, said:

"Around the village of Singhpur, Christians and
Muhammadans are becoming very influential. The former
have two churches here and the latter two mosques.
In this area there is no dharamsala and the rural Khalsa
is rather neglectful of its religious duty."

These newspaper quotations were taken from Herigate of the Sikhs, by Sardar Harbans Singh ji.

These quotations reveal the identity crisis that Sikhism faced at the dawn of new century.
An editorial in the Khalsa Advocate (English), December 15, 1904, summed up the situation which existed before the emergence of the Singh Sabha thus:

". . . false gurus grew up in great abundance whose
only business was to fleece their flock and pamper their
own self-aggrandizement. Properly speaking, there was no
Sikhism. Belief in the Gurus was gone. The idea of brotherhood
in the Panth was discarded. The title of ‘Bhai’ so much
honoured by Sikhs of old, fell into disuse and contempt.
Sikhs grovelled in superstition and idolatry. It [Sikhism]
had thus lost all that was good and life-giving in the faith."

Singh Sabha movement not only reform the Sikh institutions of the rituals and rites like casteism but also made sure that in future, these rituals would not creep back in. Before Singh Sabha, situation was so bad that even Giani Ditt Singh, a very much honored literary giant of Singh Sabha movement had to withdraw from gurdwara when Karah Prashad was to be served, reason being that he was from "low caste", and many priests as well well educated devotees were followers of this anti-Sikhism casteism ritual.

As Sardar Harbans Singh ji say " The decline had started in the very heyday of Sikh power. In the courtly splendor of the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Sikh practice had been utterly subverted. The faith was weakened by the influx of large numbers of those who had adopted the Sikh form to gain material advantage, but whose allegiance to its principles and traditions was only tentative. In the words of a character in one of Sir Jogendra Singh’s English novels, Rasili: "We failed because we did not obey the Guru. People established kingdoms and principalities and neglected their poor brethren. The result is what you see-the Khalsa has fallen." But the protagonist is aware of the massive reformation that was taking place. He says, "Sikhism is now casting off external influences and returning to the solid rock of its own pure faith and divine teachings." In a general way, the Singh Sabha was an expression of the impulse of the Sikh community to rid itself of the base adulterations and accretions which were draining away its energy and to rediscover the sources of its original inspiration. Unlike other Indian reform movements of the period which were the creation of the elite, the Singh Sabha was a mass upsurge. Besides the awareness that Sikhism as commonly practiced was a corruption of what it originally was, two other motivating factors were at work: a reaction to what was happening in the neighborly religious traditions and defensiveness generated by Christian missionaries activities."

The Christian missionary activity had started in the Punjab with the influx of the English. Even while Ranjit Singh, the Sikh sovereign, reigned in Lahore, an American Presbyterian mission had been set up at Ludhiana, the north-western British outpost near the Sikh frontier. The factors for the choice of this area as "the best field of labour" were its "numerous and hardy populationa better climate than the lower provinces anda ready access to the lower ranges of the Himalaya mountains in case of the failure of health." Another reason was the Sikh population "to whom our attention at first was specially directed," as says John C. Lowrie in his book Travels in North India. With the end of Sikh rule in 1849, the Ludhiana Mission extended its work to Lahore. Two of its members, C.W. Forman and John Newton, were set apart for this duty and sent to the Punjab capital immediately. English and vernacular schools as well as welfare institutions like hospitals and orphanages followed. C.W. Forman turned out regularly for bazaar preaching.

John Lawrence, who was one of the triumvirate which ruled the Punjab after it was annexed to Britain, was a zealous patron of Christian proselytization. He contributed towards the Mission funds a sum of Rs. 500 annually out of his own pocket. OtherEnglish of fixers followed his example. It was his ambition to see the conquest of the Sikh dominions followed by large-scale conversions to Christianity.

Amritsar, headquarters of the Sikh faith, became another important seat of Church enterprise. In 1852, T.H. Fitzpatrick and Robert Clark, the first missionaries of the Church of England appointed to the Punjab, arrived in station. In the valedictory instruction given them, they had been told: "Though the Brahman religion still sways the minds of a large portion of the population of the Punjab, and the Mohammedan of another, the dominant religion and power for the last century has been the Sikh religion, a species of pure theism, formed in the first instance by a dissenting sect from Hinduism. A few helpful instances lead us to believe that the Sikhs may prove more accessible to scriptural truth than the Hindus and Mohammedans"

The English missionaries were joined by Daud Singh recorded to be the first Sikh ever to have embraced Christianity. He had been baptized in Kanpur by the Rev. W.H. Perkins, and was transferred to Amritsar as pastor in 1852. The Mission houses were built in the city by the Deputy Commissioner. Construction of the station church was started. In the wake of the Mission came a vernacular school, a high school, a school for girls and midwifery hospital. The evangelizing work was rewarded with the conversion of men like Shamaun, i.e. Simeon, a Sikh granthi (reader of the Holy Book or priest), formerly Kesar Singh of Sultanwind, Imad-ud-Din, a Muslim maulavi and Rulia Ram, a Hindu Khatri from Amritsar, who had attended the Mission School and passed the Calcutta entrance examination. Sub-stations of the Mission were opened in important towns of the Sikh tract of Majha such as Tarn Taran, Ajnala and Jandiala.

Singh Sabha movement was helped by the missionaries activities of Mohammadens and Christians. It grew out of nowhere to become a founding father of current SGPC and Akali party. Singh Sabha Movement brought back the old ways of Khalsa and restored the pride and dignity of common urban and rural Sikhs.

Excerpts taken from these books.
Heritage of the Sikhs by Harbans Singh ji.
Published by Punjabi university, Patiala



The objective of Gurudwara reform movement was to purify their places of religion from the evil practices and to liberate them from the vested interest of the Mahants and government appointed managers. The movement became political, once the Government started to support the vested interest in the Sikh Shrines and the nationalist forces lending active sympathy and support to the Akalis in their struggle against the foreign Government. This, thus broadened, the scope of the movement. Two pronged struggle was directed against the Mahants and other vested interests in the Sikh shrines on the one hand and against British imperialism in the Punjab on the other. Akali Jathas were formed all over the State to free the Gurudwaras which had fallen under the hands of the disrupted Mahants who refused to abdicate them.

The Akali Jathas increased in numbers and successfully took over the management of a large number of Gurudwaras. Attention was now devoted to Harmandir Sahib, the Center of Sikh activities. While the Sikhs were anxious to have the Gurudwara vacated of the vested interest, government did its best to forestall any move on this, as they wanted their own stooges in these places. Government used the priests of the Akal Takht who were made to issue Hukamnamas against the Ghadrite heroes describing them as Thugs and calling upon the Sikh masses not to give them shelter. Later after the tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh when the whole country was busy condemning the brutal inhuman action of General Dyer, Arun Singh, the Government appointed Manager of the Golden Temple honored him with Saropa. The agitation over the Golden Temple continued with almost cold response from the Government. The taking over of the Golden Temple became easy when the priest of Akal Takht made an exist over the entry of the newly baptized low cast members of the Khalsa Birdari into the premises of the Golden Temple.

The Sikh struggle for taking over the Gurudwaras was attended by some tragedies. The most ghastly one occurred on 20th February 1921, when the Mahant of Nankana Sahib Gurudwara got the Akalis, gone under the leadership of Lachhman Singh massacred in a brutal manner. Over 160 Akali reformers were done to death. For the murder of the innocent people three were sentenced to death and two including the Mahant were imprisoned for life. It was alleged that the commissioner of Lahore had supported the Mahant secretly with whose permission he had purchased arms. Gandhiji’s visit to Nankana Sahib following this tragedy and the Hunter Committee report created further complications. The government instead of regretting the death of so many people adopted a hard line. The government’s objective being to suppress or else weaken the Akali agitation.

After taking over the management of the Golden Temple and the Akal Takht, a provisional committee was formed to look after the affairs of the temple. Sardar Sunder Singh Ramgarhia was asked to hand over the keys to the President of SGPC. But before this could be done, the Deputy Commissioner sent an Extra Assistant Lala Amarnath to take over the keys. Consequently, an intense agitation both in the press and the platform ensued. Government ordered the arrest of Dhan Singh and Jaswant Singh, while they were addressing the Diwan (religious gathering) at Ajnala. On hearing the news of their arrest, 50 of the SGPC members reached Ajnala to continue the proceeding. The Assembly was declared illegal and SGPC members were arrested. These measures did not enable the government to check the movement SGPC gave a call to the Sikhs to hold Diwans everywhere.

The government realized its folly and began to negotiate with the moderate Akalis. Prisoners were released. The Akalis however, refused to go to Deputy Commissioner to collect the keys; a government officer was sent to hand over the keys to Baba Kharak Singh, President, SGPC at a specially arranged Diwan in the Golden Temple. The defeat of the Government was seen as the decisive victory of the forces of nationalism in the country. Gandhiji sent the following telegram to Baba Kharak Singh, President of the SGPC.

"First battle of India’s Freedom Won. Congratulations."

The Akali Movement brought the Sikhs in the National Movement. Boycott of Councils, Courts, Schools, and Foreign Cloth and above all the boycott of the visit of the Prince of Wales to India in December 1927 and the Hindu-Muslim unity shook the Government. This resulted in the stamping of repressive measures by the official machinery. Twenty-five thousand persons were imprisoned. By the end of 1921, various movements throughout India and the Non-cooperation Movement of the Congress threatened the very existence of the British Empire. The tragedy at Chauri Chaura were 22 policemen were burnt alive in a police station, greatly shocked Mahatma Gandhi who then withdrew the movement to avoid further violence. Gandhiji was arrested and later sent to long term imprisonment. The Government had hoped that with Gandhiji in Jail, the Akali movement might become weak.

It took this opportunity to hastily pass the Gurudwara Reform act. The Akalis not only rejected it but started on other struggle know as Guru Ka Bagh Morcha. Sunder Dass the Mahant of the Gurudwara Guru Ka Bagh objected to the cutting of the wood for the Langar (meal) in the Gurudwara. On 9th August, 1922 five Sikhs were arrested on the charge of trespass and sentenced to six months of rigorous imprisonment.

The Akalis protested against the high handedness of the Government and started to send Jathas of 100 Akalis daily, to assert their right to cut wood for use in the free kitchen, from the land attached to the Gurudwara. The government closed all roads leading to Gurudwara Guru Ka Bagh. In spite of these measures, Akalis continued to pour in at Guru Ka Bagh. They were severely beaten till they became unconscious. This continued for nineteen days and for nineteen days the Akalis were treated in the same manner. The Indian National Congress of 1923-24 passed a resolution, ‘This Congress declares that the attack made by the Government on the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee and the Akali Dal is a direct challenge to the rights of free associations for non-violent activities and being convinced that the blow is aimed at all movements of freedom, resolves to stand by the Sikhs and calls upon all Hindus, Musalmans, Christians, Parsis and all people of India to render possible assistance with men and money.’

The Guru Ka Bagh Morcha ended when the Lt. Governor of Punjab after visiting the Gurudwara ordered the police to stop beating the Satyagrahi Akalis. Later a Hindu Philanthropist Sir Ganga Ram, purchased the land and handed it over to the Akalis.

Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha was a Nationalist at heart. He supported the cause of the freedom fighters and openly supported the Akalis in their struggle for Gurudwara reforms. He also voted against the Press Bill in the Legislative Assembly of which he was a member. The British wanted to dethrone him. So on a complaint of the Maharaja of Patiala, the boundary dispute between the Patiala and Nabha states was referred to the British Court of inquiry. The decision went against the Nabha State as was expected.

In a dramatic action, the Government deported Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha. This came as a rude shock to the Sikhs. They organized a protest march and offered special prayers. The SGPC passed a resolution demanding the restoration of the Maharaja and asked the Sikhs to observe 9th September, 1923 as Nabha day. The Government felt threatened and in its bid to curb the activities, may arrests took place. The Sikhs of Nabha State organized Akhand Paths on the occasion. One such Akhand Path was held at Gurudwara Gangsar in village Jaitu. The police entered the shrine, interrupted the recitation of the Holy Granth and arrested some Akalis. The Government declared SGPC and Shiromani Akali Dal as unlawful bodies. Prominent Akali leaders like Master Tara Singh were arrested on the charge of waging war against the King and were taken to Lahore for trial. Inspite of all this the Jathas continued to march towards Jaitu. They were severely beaten and many of them were arrested. On February 21, 1923 a Jatha of 500 was fired upon which resulted in considerable loss of life. There were around 300 causalities.

The Indian National Congress declared its full support to the Akali Morcha at Jaitu. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Principal Gidwani and Mr. Santanam were arrested on their way to Jaito. They were taken to the jail after being paraded on the streets of Jaito chained and in handcuffs. In his statement before the court, Nehru had explained his position thus," I do feel that the restrictions imposed by the present administration in Nabha on our undoubted rights are indefensible and raise a wider issue. On that issue my duty is clear. If that results in a conviction and sentence I shall gladly welcome it."

The trial lasted for several days. Nehru was sentenced to two years imprisonment besides another six months term for defying the ban on his entry. Later the orders were withdrawn.

The Government negotiated with some moderate Akalis and a way was found to have Gurudwara Act, 1925 passed to the satisfaction of all concerned. Peace was restored and the prisoners were then released.

During these years Babbar Akalis, a militant group also started their terrorist activities under the leadership of Kishan Singh and Master Tara Singh. Most of these terrorists were drawn from the Ghadar party and soldiers on leave. The activities of the Babbar Akalis were intense though of short duration. Soon they were rounded up. 62 of them were put on trial. Six men including Kishan Singh were condemned, 23 were acquitted and the rest were sent to Jails.

Singh Sabha Movement


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