The Sikhs and the Independence Movement
Electoral Politics and the Communal Award
An impasse in the negotiation process over the method of electoral representation in the provinces of British India, and in the Punjab and Bengal in particular, prevented agreement about any framework for responsible government by Indians, either in the provinces or at the center. Therefore, in his statement at the close of the second Round Table Conference on 1 December 1931, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald warned that unless the spokesmen for the several Indian communities and interests could reach agreement among themselves, “His Majesty’s Government would be compelled to apply a provisional scheme” which he acknowledged “will not be a satisfactory way of dealing with this problem” but which he claimed would be preferable to the impasse. The warning was made effective some nine months later, after a final attempt to open the way to a negotiated settlement through a consultative committee but before the start of the third Round Table Conference, in the Communal Award. The Award was an arbitral settlement of the conflicting claims to the composition and method of election to the provincial legislatures. This included the method of representing the religious communities, the relative strength to be accorded to each in relation to the others in every province, the method and relative strength of representation of non-communal special interests, and the size of the provincial legislative bodies. Corresponding provisions for the center were not taken up by the Award since they would depend on the outcome of discussions with the Princes concerning whether the Indian States would join a federation and, if so, what percentages of seats should be assigned to the States and to the provinces of British India respectively. The Secretary of State for India presented the terms of the Award to Parliament as command paper 4147, and they were published on the 16th of August 1932 under the title “Communal Decision.”
The provisions set forth in the Award, and which led to its designation as “communal,” merely carried forward, developed, and enumerated the electoral categories which had been in effect in Indian politics since the early stages of political representation near the end of the nineteenth century. Under terms of the Award there were the following communal constituencies: general (i.e., Hindu and other residual communal groups), Muslim, Sikh, Indian Christian, Anglo-Indian, European, depressed classes (with electors voting also in the general constituency), and tribal or backward areas. Special seats were designated for women within the various communal categories to assure that there would be female representation in the provincial legislatures. The Award also preserved non-communal special constituencies — labor, commerce, landholders, and universities. Determination of the size of the electorate and the geographical extent of the communal constituencies was not complete at the time the Award was announced, and so the government included a clause to allow for slight variations in the final numbers of seats, except for the Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab. The electoral arrangements established by the Award were to be subject to revision, with the assent of the communities affected, after a period of ten years.
In formulating the Award, the British analyzed the probable overall communal composition from all constituencies in each legislature. In the Punjab the special-constituency electorates were expected to return 5 Hindus, 4 Muslims, and 1 Sikh, thereby increasing the total number of seats held by Hindus to 48, those held by Sikhs to 33, and those held by Muslims to 90. Of 175 total seats in the Punjab legislature, Indian Christians would hold 2 and Anglo-Indians and Europeans 1 each. When compared with the figures for the population of the province, the anticipated composition of the Punjab legislature by community was expected to be as follows: Hindus (23.2% of the population) would hold 27.4% of the legislative seats, Muslims (56.5%) would hold 51.4% of the seats, and Sikhs (13%) would hold 18.9% of the seats.
The Sikhs expressed dismay that the Award granted Muslims stronger representation in the Punjab legislature than had been recommended by the Simon Commission and disappointment that it failed to take into account the 1.9% Sikh population increase documented by the 1931 census. Eight prominent Sikh leaders released a statement to the press on 17 August in which they criticized the Award as an abrogation of promises made to their community. They called for a unified Sikh response in peaceful opposition to its terms, and they urged that preparations be made for a possible Sikh secession from the Punjab’s northern districts.
This initial response by Sikhs to the terms of the Communal Award was consistent with the position that long had been taken by leaders of the community. The earliest formal Sikh claim to representation in excess of the population ratio of the community was made in 1916 by Sunder Singh Majithia in a private letter to the Chief Secretary to the Punjab Lieutenant Governor. He foresaw that the British were likely to accept bilateral agreements between Hindus and Muslims concerning communal representation, such as the 1916 Lucknow Pact which gave Muslims 50% of the elected seats in the Punjab. Anticipating potentially disastrous results for his own community, he warned that new reforms schemes were likely to fail to work if they did not recognize rightful Sikh claims to effective political representation. He cited as a model for the protection of Sikh interests the safeguards granted to Muslims under the Morley-Minto reforms and declared that, consistent with their position and importance, the just share for the Sikh community would be 33.3% of all seats and appointments in the Punjab government and an adequate, fixed representation in the councils of the Viceroy and the Secretary of State for India. A further factor relevant to the claim put forth by the Sardar was that while by the 1911 census Sikhs were but 11.1% of the Punjab population, they comprised 24.1% of the electorate.
While the British did create separate communal electorates in the Punjab for Sikhs under the Montford reforms, the percentage of communal seats allocated to them was only 17.9% whereas the Lucknow Pact formula gave Muslims 47.8% of the communal seats — half of all elective seats in the legislature. Appointment of the Simon Commission and the prospect of further reforms prompted Sikhs to organize mass meetings and demonstrations to press their claims for increased representation. They called for the abolition of communal electorates in favor of a system of reserved seats as a better means to protect the interests of minorities. However, if communal electorates were perpetuated, they claimed that weighted representation for Sikhs in the Punjab in excess of the community’s numerical strength would be justified by several factors, e.g., comparisons with minority weightages in other provinces granted to Muslims, Anglo-Indians, and Europeans; contributions to military service; proportion of Punjab revenue paid; and the historical role of Sikh power in the Punjab.
Sikh Politics and the Seventeen Points
In March 1931, following the failure of the second Round Table Conference but well before announcement of the Communal Award, the Central Sikh League adopted a resolution entitled “The Sikhs and the Future Constitution of India” which presented seventeen points of Sikh concern relating to constitutional reforms. These seventeen points became the organizing focus for negotiations with other communities and with the government. They expressed opposition to a Muslim statutory majority in the Punjab whether through separate communal electorates or the reservation of seats, demanded representation of 30% for the Sikh community in the Punjab legislature and administration, and required representation at the level of 33.3% in the cabinet and Public Service Commission. Failing agreement on these terms, they proposed to adjust the boundaries of the Punjab in order to transfer predominantly Muslim areas to the North-West Frontier. As a last resort, they resolved that the Punjab should be administered by the central government until an agreement consistent with the seventeen points could be reached. Additional demands included provisions to be made for Sikh participation in the army, services, and central government; for Sikh representation in other provinces of British India; and for the support and use of Gurmukhi script.
During the summer of 1932 the community mobilized for protest against what they called an impending “communal raj.” An All-Parties Sikh Conference on 24 July appointed and empowered a seventeen member Council of Action to adopt measures autonomously and to oppose the working of any constitution which would fail to give Sikhs full protection or which would not provide for an effective balance of power — on the terms of the seventeen points — for each of the principal communities in the Punjab. At the conference, political protest was linked to religious values. Members of the Council of Action signed in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib a vow that they would make “every possible sacrifice” in the fight against any form of communal majority. Sikh Rights Day was set for 31 July as a day of protest, to be preceded by Akhand Path — the observance of a complete cycle of reading aloud from the entire Guru Granth Sahib. Rights Day was also the occasion for enlisting volunteers in a newly formed Akali Shahidi Dal. Widespread support for these principles from within the community and intransigence outside it prevented conventional negotiations from gaining success. In early August Sir Jogendra Singh convened sessions at Simla with Muslim leaders, but an opposition to compromise voiced by non-participating Council of Action spokesmen and persistent rumors that Muslims would be granted a clear majority by the Communal Award doomed these discussions.
After the Award was published, proving the rumors true, diverse strategies were proposed by Sikh leaders to protest its terms. While some called for total non-cooperation with the government and others appealed to Muslims to work toward a compromise which would recognize the Sikh claims, most advocated symbolic forms of protest and selective non-cooperation. The Sikh Council of Action planned the formation of a broadly representative organization to be called the Guru Khalsa Darbar and announced 17 September as Panthic Day when all men should wear dark turbans and contribute to the Sikh Defence Fund. On 25 September delegates from Sikh organizations throughout India convened as the All-Sikh Conference before the Akal Takht in Amritsar. They resolved to establish a Khalsa Darbar composed of 250 members, of which 200 were to be elected popularly, and they also resolved that all Sikh office holders should prepare formal resignations and forward them to the new organization so that full non-cooperation could be instituted if and when it were deemed necessary. Meanwhile, Sikh members of the Punjab Legislative Council had joined with Hindu members to vote for adjournment on 5 September, the first day of the assembly. They were denied a vote on procedural grounds, but the Sikh members eventually led a walk-out on 7 November. However, none of these measures nor any others succeeded in persuading the British to withdraw the Award or to recast the terms affecting Sikh political representation. It was left to the Poona Pact, an agreement among Hindus regarding the terms of depressed classes representation, to raise new hopes that the various communities together might devise their own settlement to replace the Communal Award.