The Sikhs and the Independence Movement
Indian Unity and Religious Community Issues
A manifestation of these new hopes was seen in November and December of 1932 when a small group of Hindu and Muslim political leaders convened a Unity Conference to which they invited delegates representing a broad spectrum of Indian religious communities, interest groups, and political organizations. The major purpose of the conference was to draft new agreements concerning Indian constitutional advance and political representation in provincial and central legislatures. The conveners of the conference hoped to demonstrate India’s readiness for immediate self-government by successfully resolving the competing communal demands for separate political representation and by producing an agreement to substitute for the terms of the Communal Award imposed by the British. While not underestimating the task, the conveners drew encouragement from events in the wake of the Award. Its terms had generated protest from several groups which claimed that their interests were not adequately or fairly represented. Also, Gandhi’s initiative in securing Hindu agreement by the Poona Pact on formulae for reservation of seats for depressed classes, in place of the separate electorates granted by the Award, had led the British to concede new terms accordingly.
Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Maulana Shaukat Ali, Dr. Sayed Mahmud, and Sheik Abdul Majid met informally in Bombay in early October to plan the conference to be held in Allahabad in November. The Muslim participants in these discussions decided to seek Muslim consensus concerning the scope of the negotiations in advance of the November conference by convening an All-Parties Muslim Conference in Lucknow on 15 and 16 October. Meanwhile, Pandit Malaviya toured Punjab to confer with Sikh and Hindu leaders and to invite their participation in preliminary discussions to be held in Delhi in advance of the conference. Some responses to these efforts to build a supportive framework for the November conference were not auspicious. Leaders of the All-India Muslim Conference and of the Central Mahomedan Association declined to attend any meetings directed toward the goal of modifying the terms of the Communal Award, and they criticized the Muslim participants. Spokesmen for the Sikh Independent League and the Sikh Political Conference warned against taking precipitate steps before full consultation with them and other interests could be concluded. And a number of prominent Sikh and Hindu leaders expressed skepticism about the potential utility of any unity meetings in light of the reluctance of those who would most benefit from the terms of the Award to be open to any new agreement.
The Unity Conference opened in Allahabad on 3 November with 121 elected and invited delegates. Classified by religious community, there were 63 Hindus, 39 Muslims, 11 Sikhs, and 8 Indian Christians in attendance. A unity committee was appointed on the first day to study and resolve critical issues while the full conference stood adjourned. Despite attrition suffered during its fortnight of deliberations, the committee on 17 November produced an agreement and invited its ratification by groups represented by the conference delegates. The agreement proposal included a basic provision that all of its conditions be considered for adoption without revision. Pandit Malaviya instructed conference delegates to work for ratification of the agreement by their respective constituencies and to reconvene by the middle of December in order to adopt it.
The draft agreement contained a number of significant features. It fixed weightages for Muslim representatives for a period of ten years at the level which had obtained prior to the Communal Award. It proposed specific formulas for communal representation in the provincial legislatures — in general these provided relatively greater representation than did the Award for minority groups by reducing representation for majority Hindus and Europeans. Importantly, it also included clauses framed specifically to protect religious practices in order to assure to minority groups their right to challenge legislative bills which might be injurious to the traditions of their community. These terms were expected to secure the support of minorities for the two major intended consequences of the agreement, replacement of separate communal electorates by a system of joint electorates with reservation of seats for the various communities and early establishment of a responsible central government.
The Sikh participants advocated support of the compromise agreement, satisfied that it served the intent of the major safeguards of the Sikh seventeen points in the following provisions dealing with Punjab: 1) at least one Sikh minister; 2) a procedure to appeal legislative or administrative action if it were considered discriminatory toward Sikhs, and mandatory resignation of the ministry if it should refuse to abide by a final judicial opinion on the matter; 3) the reservation of 20% of legislative seats for Sikhs; 4) Sikh representation on the Punjab Public Service Commission. It was also in accord with the Sikh seventeen points with regard to the central government, in guaranteeing a Sikh member on the non-partisan Public Service Commission and, for at least the succeeding ten years, a Sikh cabinet member. Given these safeguards, Sikh delegates accepted the reservation of 51% of Punjab legislative seats for Muslims, inclusive of those elected from special constituencies. However, Sikhs in the United Provinces and in Bengal appealed to their fellows to support their further claims for special minority representation in those provinces, and so the Sikh delegates prepared amendments which would deal with that situation to present to the conference in December.
A number of Muslim organizations, on the other hand, criticized the agreement as totally untenable. On 20 November the All-India Muslim League convened a joint conference of the Council of the League and the working committees of the All-India Muslim Conference and the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Hind (Kanpur) to consider the agreement. They passed a series of resolutions, including demands for specific percentage representation for Muslims in several provinces and a rejection of the joint electorate procedure, concluding with a condemnation of the overall agreement as one which placed Muslims in a position substantially worse than that offered by the Award. The opposition of these groups prompted a second All-Parties Muslim Conference in Lucknow on 15-16 December which reconsidered the entire unity agreement and drafted amendment proposals.
The working committee of the conference reconvened in December and abandoned its insistence that the integrity of the agreement be maintained without revision. To consider the various proposed amendments, it delegated a sub-committee composed of 6 Sikhs, 6 Muslims, 7 Hindus, 4 Christians, and a joint chairman to resolve the differences presented. The sub-committee completed its report, with the exception of a satisfactory formula for communal representation in Bengal, and submitted it to the whole conference on 24 December. The delegates approved the agreement in principle, but they did not officially adjourn the Unity Conference pending resolution of apparently minor disagreements concerning representation in Bengal and Assam.
No formula for Bengal representation which would be acceptable to all affected parties was forthcoming, and so a final version of the unity agreement could not be adopted. Proponents of the original conference made sporadic attempts during 1933 to bring the delegates together once again, but without success. Thus the conference appeared to fail on a single point, but the November and December Muslim conference resolutions raised more serious questions about the likelihood of any successful alternative to the Communal Award. And neither Europeans nor Anglo-Indians had been represented at the conference although they would have been subject to any agreement reached there had it subsequently replaced terms of the Award. Finally, the unity agreement linked electoral arrangements in the provinces with provisions for constitutional advance at the center, thereby exceeding the parameters of the Award and those allowed by the limits of the constitutional discussion at the time.
Consequences for Punjab Sikh Constitutional Politics
Sikh participation in the Unity Conference produced two major results for the community — the first external and the second internal. First, the Sikh community and its claims gained broader support. In 1928, Sikh leaders had been unable to find support from other nationalists and had walked out of the All-Parties Conference which subsequently endorsed the short-lived Nehru Agreement. In the early autumn of 1932, following upon the despair which came from finding that the Communal Award failed to embody provisions favorable to Punjab Sikhs, leaders of the community were courted by Pandit Malaviya and others who acknowledged that Sikh support would be vital to any alternative agreement. In opposition to the Award, Sikhs clearly formulated their position and then sent to the Unity Conference delegates who represented most of their major interest groups, including the Council of Action, the Sikh League, and the Khalsa Darbar. Among the Sikh delegates were S. Sunder Singh Majithia, Prof. Jodh Singh, Gyani Kartar Singh, S. Ujjal Singh, and S. Teja Singh. In the statement of agreement which they worked toward framing, the Sikhs gained recognition of many of their claims and exemplified their willingness to negotiate. They obtained safeguards for the Sikh minority while accepting provisions for Muslims to retain a majority of reserved seats in the Punjab legislature. Second, the events leading up to and including the conference helped to strengthen a sense of Sikh communal solidarity which extended well beyond the borders of the Punjab. The small Sikh minorities in Bengal, Sind, and the United Provinces, learning of the successful negotiations concluded by Punjab Sikh delegates at the conference, directly appealed to them to support their claims, too. Thus, participation in the unity negotiations and the development of inter-provincial Sikh solidarity, prompted by the failure to incorporate Sikh claims in the provisions of the Communal Award, strengthened Sikh political aspirations.
Yet the general failure to establish a framework for political representation — of a type which could alleviate the concern of the Sikh minority about the possible excesses they might suffer under a Punjab Muslim communal majority — further eroded the old pattern of Sikh cooperation with the British. Although the primary emphasis among the Sikhs down to the end of the first World War had been a loyalist politics, it was displaced by the protest politics which triumphed in the campaign for Gurdwara Reform. The old loyalist strategy, which had worked to protect Muslim interests, did not remain sufficiently rewarding for the Sikhs during the interwar years. Moreover, the crisis precipitated among Sikhs particularly by the terms of the Award, and more generally by the continuing impasse in communal political negotiations, contributed to the formation of shifting factions within the community on the basis of ideology, strategy, and style of leadership, and to the creation of new political organizations. Finally, the continued strength of Sikh concern over the possible consequences of the Muslim communal majority in the Punjab made more credible their contemporary proposals to partition the region in order to form a separate Sikh-majority canton, district, or province. These ideas were later, and repeatedly, revived in the demand for a Sikh separate state.
To appreciate the force of these ideas, however, and to gain a more complete view of the role of the Sikhs in the independence movement, we need to turn away temporarily from the constitutional politics which developed in response to the instruments of representative government put into place by the rulers of British India. We must make a fresh start with the Sikhs themselves by considering the revolutionary consequences of the Sikh resurgence which began in the later nineteenth century under the influence of the Singh Sabhas, was coordinated by the Chief Khalsa Diwan, and was intensified by the Akali campaign for Gurdwara Reform in the Punjab.