Singh Sabha Movement
Important Sikh Reform Movement – 1873 onwards
A reform movement among the Sikhs which assuming a critical turn in the seventies of the nineteenth century, became a vitally rejuvenating force at a time when Sikhism was fast losing its distinctive identity. Following closely upon the two successive movements, Nirankari and Namdhari, it was an expression of impulse of the Sikh community to rid itself of the base adulterations and accretions which had been draining away its energy, and to rediscover the sources of its original inspiration. It was, however, quite different from its precursors in source, content and outcome. The Nirankari and Namdhari movements were inspired by individual holy men who, unhappy at the dilution of Sikh doctrine and practice, desired to set right some of the aberrations purely religious in nature, and who ended up in founding their separate sects.
The Singh Sabhas, on the other hand, arose out. of a common awareness of the danger to the very existence of the Sikhs as a separate religious community. It was led by men deeply religious but with no claims to divine knowledge and no ambitions for exalted priesthood. In contrast with the earlier, exclusively sectarian cults, the Singh Sabha movement possessed a mass appeal and base. It influenced the entire community and reorientated its outlook and spirit. The stimulus it provided has shaped the Sikhs’ attitude and aspiration over the past more than one hundred years.
Like other Indian reform movements of the nineteenth century, the Singh Sabha was the result of the Sikh intelligentsia’s contact with western education and institutions. The transfer of political power to the British in 1849 led to the transformation of the world in which the Sikhs and other Punjabis had lived. The British differed from past rulers in that their presence affected major changes in Punjabi society and culture. The most obvious innovations arose from the administrative structures and the political orientation underlying them. Within two decades, the colonial power introduced a new bureaucratic system complete with western style executive and judicial branches necessitating emphasis on western education and attainment of skills required for new occupations such as law, administration and education. Considering the Sikhs as an important element in their colonial strategy and the centrality of religion in the Sikh society, the ruler took particular care to control the central Sikh institutions notably those at Amritsar and Tarn Taran. British officers headed management. committees, appointed key officials, and in general provided grants and facilities to insure continued Sikh sympathy for the raj.
At the same time, however, the government also patronized and assisted the rapid spread of Christian missionary activities, thus introducing yet another element in the mosaic of Punjab’s religious patterns. The challenge of western science, Christian ethics and humanitarianism had provided self-examination and reinterpretation of religious belief and practice. The result was the rise of numerous reform movements which even with their professed approach to liberalism and universal humanism remained essentially communal competing for conversions to their respective creeds. In the Punjab the Hindu Brahmo Samaj, Dev Samaj and Arya Samaj, and the Muslim Aligarh movement of Sayyid Ahmad and Ahmadiyah movement of Qadian were quite active. For the Sikhs, strangely somnolent since the forfeiture of political authority, besides the awareness of rapid depletion in their numbers and of general laxity in religious observance among themselves, two other motivating factors were at work : a reaction to what. was happening in the neighbourly religious traditions and the defensiveness generated by Christian proselytization and the odhim theologicum started by Hindu critics especially the Arya Samajists.
The Christian missionary activity commenced in the Punjab along with the advent of the British rule. Even while Ranjit Singh ruled in Lahore, an American Presbyterian Mission had been set up at Ludhiana close to the Sikh frontier. With the abrogation of Sikh rule in 1849, the Ludhiana Mission extended its work to Lahore. Amritsar, the headquarters of the Sikh faith, became another major seat of Church enterprise with branches at Tarn Taran, Ajnala and Jandiala. The United Presbyterian Mission was active in Sialkot. Other organizations, notably the Cambridge Mission, the Baptist Mission and the Church of Scotland, entered the field and were amply rewarded with converts, mostly from the lowest stratum of society. The rate of conversion was not alarmingly high. Yet. there were instances which aroused community’s concern.
In 1853, Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Sikh sovereign, who had come under British tutelage at the tender age of eight, accepted the Christian faith-a conversion hailed as the first instance of the accession of an Indian prince to the cummunion of the Church. The Sikh ruler of Kapurthala invited the Ludhiana Mission to set up a station in his capital, and provided funds for its maintenance. A few years later the Kapurthala ruler’s nephew, Kanvar Harnam Singh, converted a Christian. The Ludhiana Mission noted in its annual report for 1862 : Until the Rajah of Kapurthala invited missionaries to his capital no instance had occurred in India in which the progress of the Gospel had been fostered by a ruler. Besides conversions to Christianity, there were reversions from Sikhism back to Sanatanist Hinduism at such a large scale that the fact was noted in the government’s annual report for 1851-52:
The Sikh faith and acclesiastical polity is rapidly going where the Sikh political ascendancy has already gone. Of the two elements of the old Khalsa, namely, the followers of Nanuck, the first prophet, and the followers of Guru Govind Singh, the second great religious leader, the former will hold their ground, and the latter will lose it. The Sikhs of Nanuck, a comparatively small body of peaceful habits and old family, will perhaps cling to the faith of their elders; but the Sikhs of Govind who are of more recent origin, who are more specially styled the Singhs or Lions, and who embraced the faith as being the religion of warfare and conquest, no longer regard the Khalsa now that the prestige has departed from it.
These men joined in thousands, and they now desert in equal numbers. They rejoin the ranks of Hinduism whence they originally came, and they bring up their children as Hindus. The sacred tank at Amritsar is less thronged than formerly, and the attendance at the annual festivals is diminishing yearly. The initiatory ceremony for adult persons is now rarely perfomed.
And again in the report for 1855-56:
This circumstance strongly corroborates what is commonly believed, namely that the Sikh tribe is losing its numbers rapidly. Modern Sikhism was little more than a political association (formed exclusively from among Hindus), which men would join or quit according to the circumstances of the day. A person is not born Sikh, as he might be born a Muhammadan or born a Hindu ; but he must be specially initiated into Sikhism. Now that the Sikh commonwealth is broken up, people cease to be initiated into Sikhism and revert to Hinduism. Such is the undoubted explanation of a statistical fact, which might otherwise appear to be hardly credible.
The resulting cultural upheaval affected the Sikhs from 1860 onward. Despite their early education in gurdwara schools or through instruction by gianis (Sikhs learned in religious lore) or local teachers, an emerging Sikh intelligentsia began to study western subjects and joined in associations that discussed religious and social issues. In Lahore, for example, several Sikhs were members of Dr. G.W. Leitner’s orientalist Anjuman-i-Punjab, set up in 1865, where they became skilled at literary criticism and debate over historical issues. Debates were held on whether Urdu or Hindi was the more appropriate language to replace Persian as official language. Punjabi in Gurmukhi script was ignored even by the Punjab Education Department as a mere dialect without a written literature. The Oriental College established at Lahore in 1864 to encourage oriental studies had courses in Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian but not in Punjabi. Some Sikh members of Anjuman-i-Punjab like Raja Harbans Singh and Rai Mul Singh pleaded the cause of Punjabi but without success until Sardar Attar Singh of Bhadaur presented a list of 389 books written on different subjects in Gurmukhi script and collected in his personal library. Dr. Leitner was convinced and he not only introduced Punjabi as a subject in the Oriental College but also got it introduced in the Punjab University of which He was the first Registrar ; but that was later in 1877.
What really shook the Sikhs out of their slumber were two incidents that occurred one after the other in early 1873. In February 1873, four Sikh pupils of the Amritsar Mission School- Aya Singh, Atar Singh, Sadhu Singh and Santokh Singh — proclaimed their intention to renounce their faith and become Christians. This shocked Sikh feelings. The boys had hardly been persuaded by their parents and other wise men not to carry out their intention when another provocation followed. One Pandit Shardha Ram of Phillaur, who had been engaged by the British to write a history of the Sikhs, came to Amritsar and began a series of religious discourses in Guru Bagh in the Darbar Sahib complex. During his narration of Guru Nanak’s life story he garbled certain facts and spoke disrespectfully of the Sikh Gurus and their teachings. Some Sikh young men in the audience objected and challenged the speaker to a debate. The Pandit quietly disappeared from Amritsar but not without leaving some leading Sikhs thinking.
Sardar Thakur Singh Sandhanvalia (1837-87), Baba Khem Singh Bedi (1832-1905), Kanvar Bikrama Singh (1835-87) of Kapurthala and Giani Gian Singh (1824-84) of Amritsar convened a meeting in Guru Bagh, Amritsar, on 30 July 1873. It was decided to form an association which should adopt measures to defend the Sikh faith against the onslaught of Christian missionaries and others. The name proposed for this body was Sri Guru Singh Sabha. Its first formal meeting took place in front of the Akal Takht on 1 October 1973. It was attended by priests of different gurdwaras, gianis, representatives of Udasi and Nirmala sects and members of other classes of the Sikh society. Sardar Thakur Singh Sandhanvalia was appointed its chairman, Giani Gian Singh secretary, Sardar Amar Singh assistant secretary and Bhai Dharam Singh of Bunga Majithia as treasurer.
In 1877, Punjabi was introduced in the Oriental College. Bhai Harsa Singh, a granthi of Darbar Sahib, Tarn Taran, was the first teacher and Bhai Gurmukh Singh, who was later to be one of the central figures of the Singh Sabha movement, one of the first. batch of students. Bhai Gurmukh Singh, after completion of his own course, was appointed to teach Punjabi and mathematics in the Punjab University College. He got some leading Sikh citizens of Lahore, such as Diwan Buta Singh and Sardar Mehar Singh Chawla, interested in the Singh Sabha work. As a result Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Lahore, was set up on 2 November 1879. It started holding weekly meetings. Diwan Buta Singh as president, Bhai (also known as Professor) Gurmukh Singh as secretary and Bhai Harsa Singh, Ram Singh and Karam Singh as members formed its working committee. The movement picked up momentum and Singh Sabhas appeared at many places not only in the Punjab but also in several other parts of India and abroad from London in the west to Shanghai (China) in the East.
Singh Sabha General (renamed Khalsa Diwan soon after) was set up on 11 April 1880, as a coordinating body at Amritsar. Raja Bikram Singh of Faridkot and the Lieut-Governor of Punjab were its patrons, Baba Khem Singh Bedi president, Sardar Man Singh, sarbarah or manager of Darbar Sahib, vice-president, Bhai Gurmukh Singh of Lahore chief secretary and Bhai Ganesha Singh secretary. The Diwan opened Khalsa schools for general education and floated papers and periodicals to propagate Singh Sabha ideology as well as its religious activities. But ideological differences soon arose between the president and the chief secretary. The former, supported by the priestly class, considered Sikhs as a part of the Hindu community and did not favour a total break with old established social customs and practices. Himself being a direct descendant of Guru Nanak, he claimed special position of reverence for himself as well as for all members of clans to which the Gurus had belonged. Bhai Gurmukh Singh, on the other hand, was a progressive reformist believing Sikhism to be a separate sovereign religion having equality of all believers without distinction of caste or status as its basic social creed. The result was the setting up of a separate Khalsa Diwan, Lahore, on 10-11 April 1886 under the presidentship of Sardar Attar Singh Bhadaur with Professor Gurmukh Singh as secretary. The Amritsar Khalsa Diwan re-organized itself as a bicameral body consisting of Mahan Khand comprising the aristocracy, and Saman Khand representing the commonalty of believers and the priestly class. Some smaller organizations were also active for achieving the aims of the movement. Gurmat Granth Pracharak Sabha, Amritsar, established on 8 April 1885 was engaged in research and publication of books on ideological and historical topics. Khalsa Tract Society came into existence through the efforts of Bhai Vr Singh in 1894. Shuddhi Sabha for conversions and reconversions into Sikhism was founded in April 1893 by Dr. Jai Singh., Among the local Singh Sabhas, the one at Bhasaur was the most active under its leading light, Baba Teja Singh. Among individual scholars; Giani Gian Singh, the historian, and Pandit Tara Singh Narotam were the most prominent.
Both the Diwans, despite mutual bickerings and even litigation, worked for the same aims with the same programmes, but the Khalsa Diwan Lahore soon stole a march over its rival in popularity by virtue of its progressivism and the total dedication and hard work of Bhai Gurmukh Singh who had enlisted the help of two other colleagues, equally dedicated and industrious. They were Giani Ditt Singh and Bhai Jawahir Singh Kapur. The former as editor of and chief contributor to the Diwan’s weekly newspaper, the Khalsa Akhbar, made it a forceful medium for the propagation of the Diwans ideology. Giving his judgement in a defamation case against Giani Ditt Singh, the district judge of Lahore, R.L. Harris, observed in February 1888 that
(a) The Lahore faction had about 30 Singh Sabhas attached to it, while the Amritsar faction had about six or seven Singh Sabhas including Rawalpindi, Ferozepore and Faridkot.
(b) The Lahore party comprised enlightened educated men who are freeing themselves from the thralldom of priesthood by seeking to purge their religion of all the grossness that has clung to it by the devices of the priestly class . represented by the Bedi Guru or Sodhi class . their
opponents are naturally the priestly class who would like, if possible, to maintain their sway over the conscience of men, though it might be at the expense of the true spiritual and religious growth ; and so we find Bedi Khem Singh, as the head of the priestly class, in league with Raja of Faridkot, opposing and trying to stifle the spirit of reformation.
Sikhism And Hinduism
The most hotly contested argument within the Singh Sabha movement was whether Sikhs were Hindus. The Sanatanists, or the conservatives of the Amritsar Diwan, saw Sikhism as an offshoot of a broadly defined Hinduism. Examples from the Adi Granth and accompanying literature were used to prove that the Gurus had no intention of separating Sikhs from their Hindu roots, and had in fact revered Hindu gods and scriptures. In this the conservatives were enthusiastically supported by the Arya Samajists. On the other side, the Tat Khalsa or the progressive Khalsa Diwan Lahore made Ham Hinda Nahiti (we are not Hindus) their battle cry. They too used quotes from the Scripture and historical analysis to combat what was seen as the most dangerous threat to Sikh survival. The tract warfare over the issue was heated and prolonged. Scores of tracts and booklets on the subject appeared, the most reasoned and convincing of which was Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha’s, Ham Hindu Nahin, first published in 1898,
Another bone of contention between the two Diwans was of relatively less importance. Both had been convassing government’s support for the opening of a Khalsa College. Khalsa Diwan Amritsar had mooted the suggestion as early as 1883 but inter-Diwan disputes hindered progress. Ultimately when Khalsa Diwan Lahore succeeded in enlisting the support of the government as well as of the Sikh aristocracy, and an establishment committee was set up in 1890 under the chairmanship of the Director, Public Instruction, Punjab, Colonel W.R.M. Holroyd, succeeded the following year by Dr W.H. Rattigan, with Sardar Attar Singh Bhadaur as vice-chairman and W. Bell of the Government College, Lahore, as secretary, there was wrangling over the location of the college. At last the protagonists of Amritsar won the day and the foundation of the college was laid by the Lieut-Governor of the Punjab on 5 March 1892.
Mutual recriminations indulged in by the two Diwans had led neutrally inclined elements to voice the need for uniting the different sections under a central organization. The idea met with reverberating support at a large gathering of Sikhs in Malvai Bunga at. Amritsar on 12 April 1900. The conference unanimously voted for the establishment of a new Khalsa Diwan, supreme in the affairs of the community, and formed a committee to draw up the constitution of such a unitary body. This was also necessitated by the fact that death had denuded the old Diwans by snatching many of their leading lights within a short period at the turn of the century. Sardar Thakur Singh Sandhanvalia and Kanvar Bikrama Singh had already died in 1887. Now came, in quick succession, the deaths of Sardar Attar Singh of Bhadaur and Dr. Jai Singh (June 1896), Raja Bikram Singh of Faridkot (August 1898), Professor Gurmukh Singh (September 1898) and Giani Ditt Singh (September 1901). The responsibility of leading the Singh Sabha movement was therefore taken over by the new organization, the Chief Khalsa Diwan, formally established at Amritsar on 30 October 1902. Bhai Arjan Singh of Bagarian was elected its first president, Sardar Sundar Singh Majithia secretary and Sodhi Sujan Singh additional secretary. Membership was open to all amritdhari Sikhs, i.e. those who had received the rites of the Khalsa initiation, and who could read and write Gurmukhi Members were also expected to contribute dasvandh or one tenth of their annual income for the common needs of the community. The Chief Khalsa Diwan adopted all the aims and programmes of the old Khalsa Diwan, viz. insistence on separate identity of the Khalsa Panth, spreading the teaching of the Gurus as well as general education on modern lines, disseminations of information on traditional and on current issues and safeguarding the political rights of the Sikhs by maintaining good relations with the government and Sikh rulers. It carried out its mission with the help and cooperation of the local Singh Sabhas most of whom sought affiliation with the new Diwan, and of eminent individuals such as Bhai Vir Singh, Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid, Bhai Takht Singh, Babu Teja Singh, Bhai Kahn Singh and Bhai Jodh Singh. Its earliest success came in the conversion of 35 persons including a Muslim family of six in a largely attended divan (religious assembly) held through the efforts of Babu Teja Singh, at Bakapur, village near Phillaur in Jalandhar district, on 13-14 June 1903. Next came the passing of the Anand Marriage Act, 1909, which gave legal validity to the exclusively Sikh ceremony of marriage. The Bill was piloted in the Imperial Legislative Council successively by Tikka, heir apparent, Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, and Sardar Sundar Singh Majithia. Another milestone in the social history of the Sikhs was the establishment of the Sikh Educational Conference held annually since its inception in 1908 to the present day under the Educational Committee of the Chief Khalsa Diwan. Some of the other achievements of the Diwan were the removal of idols from the compound of the Darbar Sahib, Amritsar (1905), and the preparation of a common code of conduct for the Sikhs laying down in detail the way the Sikhs should perform their religious-ceremonies (1916).
For over a decade, the Chief Khalsa Diwan consolidated its position and had remarkable success at fostering Sikh identity and strengthening Sikh institutions. From 1914 onward, however, the organization began to lose its hold on and popularity with the Sikh masses. Loyalty to the government in order to seek favours for the community was one of the bases of the strategy of the Diwan, as had been the case with the old Khalsa Diwans of Lahore and Amritsar, but the climate in the country had started changing since the advent of the twentieth century so that the pro-government policy of the Chief Khalsa Diwan became increasingly suspect in view of its soft stance during the peasant unrest of 1906-07 and the Rikabganj agitation in 1914, open denunciation of the Ghadar activists (1915-16), and over-enthusiasm for Sikh recruitment bordering on virtual conscription during the Great War (1914-18).
Moreover, although the Singh Sabha movement had done a tremendous lot to revitalize the religious spirit of the Sikhs, it had done precious little to cleanse the rot that had set in the Sikh religious places. While the masses, now better aware of their true religious past, were becoming more and more impatient. of the management of gurdwaras under a corrupt and degenerate priesthood secure under legal protection, the Chief Khalsa Diwan continued to pursue the path of helpless inactivity for fear of British displeasure. A single instance will illustrate the point. Khalsa Diwan Majha, one of the several regional organizations for management reform in religious places had been established in 1904. The Chief Khalsa Diwan, pleading Panthic unity, asked it to affiliate with the central body. It obeyed ; but watching impatiently over the years the indifference of the central leadership, it revived itself as an independent body in March 1919. A few days later, on 13 April 1919, occurred the Jallianvala Bagh massacre which radically changed the political as well as religious scenario in which the Chief Khalsa Diwan became practically irrelevant, and the central stage was occupied by the Gurdwara Reform movement. The Chief Khalsa Diwan. is, however, still active, especially in the educational field, and enjoys the affiliation of a large number of local Singh Sabhas.
The main motivation of the Singh Sabha movement was search for Sikh identity and self assertion. The entire period can be interpreted
and understood in terms of this central concern. Under this Singh Sabha impulse, new powers of regeneration came into effect and Sikhism was reclaimed from a state of utter ossification and inertia. Its moral force and dynamic vitality were rediscovered. The Sikh mind was stirred by a process of liberation and it began to look upon its history and tradition with a clear, self-discerning eye. What had become effete and decrepit and what was reckoned to be against the Gurus’ teachings was rejected. The purity of Sikh precept and practice was sought to be restored. Rites and customs considered consistent with Sikh doctrine and tradition were established. For some, legal sanction was secured through government legislation. This period of fecundation of the spirit and of modern development also witnessed the emergence of new cultural and political aspirations. Literary and educational processes were renovated. Through a strong political platform, the Sikhs sought to secure recognition for themselves.
The most important aspects of the Singh Sabha movement were educational and literary. By 1900, orphanages, a system of Sikh schools, institutions for training preachers and granthis, and other self-strengthening efforts gained broad support from Sikhs in the Punjab and, especially, migrant communities abroad. In northwest. Punjab Baba Khem Singh Ledi took a prominent part in building Khalsa schools. Sikh schools were also built in Amritsar, Lahore, Firozpur and in some villages such as Kairon, Gharjakh, Chahar Chakk, and Bhasaur. One of the best known institutions was the Sikh Kanya Malta Vidyalaya of Firozpur founded by Bhai Takht Singh. The teaching of Gurmukhi and Sikh scriptures was compulsory in these Khalsa schools.
The impetus given to education in its turn stimulated the publication of books, magazines, tracts; and newspapers. The earliest venture in Punjabi journalism was the Lahore Khalsa Diwan’s Punjabi weekly Khalsa Akhbar. In 1899, the Khalsa Samachar was founded and soon became the leading theological journal of the community. Its circulation increased under the editorship of Bhai Vir Singh, who rose to prominence as a novelist, poet. and commentator of scriptural writings. The Khalsa Advocate (English) later became the spokesman of the Chief Khalsa Diwan.
A large number of books on Sikhism, both in Gurmukhi and English, were published. Of the Gurmukhi, Giani Gian Singh’s Panth Prakash and Tadrikh Guru Khalsa and Kahn Singh’s voluminous encyclopaedia of Sikh literature (Gurushabad Ratanakar Mahan Kosh) were of lasting significance. Max Arthur Macauliffe’s monumental work on the life and teachings of the Sikh Gurus and the Faridkot Tika, an exegesis of the entire Guru Granth Sahib, were also published during this time.
The Singh Sabha movement checked the relapse of the Sikhs into Hinduism. Large number of Hindus of northern and western Punjab and Sindh became sahajdhari Sikhs and the sahajdharis were encouraged to become the Khalsa.