The Sikhs and the Independence Movement
Singh Sabhas and Sikh Revitalization
By the time India gained independence, what the terms ‘Sikh’ and ‘Sikhism’ came to signify had undergone a shift from the wide range of meanings they had carried in the middle of the nineteenth century. This linguistic change was correlated with two other processes — a radical revision in communal self-understanding and an equally radical reorganization of the pattern of control of Sikh religious institutions in the Punjab. The present-day result of this meaning-shift is typified in an authoritative, post- independence statement that defines who is — in the religious sense — a Sikh. According to the code of conduct in the Sikh Rahit Maryada, a Sikh is “any person who believes in God (Akal Purakh); in the ten Gurus (Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh); in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, other writings of the ten Gurus, and their teachings; in the Khalsa initiation ceremony instituted by the tenth Guru; and who does not believe in any other system of religious doctrine.”
The Sikh Rahit Maryada is a normative document, a kind that prescribes what is to be the case. Its function is to establish a standard (i.e., an ideal norm) on the basis of an acknowledged source of authority and by means of stipulative definition, not to report an empirical state of affairs on the basis of induction from a collection of data and by means of quantitative operations (i.e., a statistical norm). Because of this, the Rahit does not function as a straightforward guide to social and historical circumstances — although it both reflects and impinges upon them. Its definition of a Sikh, for example, makes initiation (amrit-samskar) by the ritual form believed to have been originated by Guru Gobind Singh when he founded the Khalsa Panth during the Baisakhi festival at Anandpur in 1699 a sine qua non for Sikh religious identity. It excludes from the meaning of ‘Sikh’ as a religious category anyone who has not undertaken, does not undertake, or does not believe in and intend to undertake initiation into the Khalsa. It includes only the Amrit-dhari or Singh as the true Sikh, and only the Khalsa as the true Sikh religious community. By its standard, ‘non-Khalsa Sikh’ becomes a contradiction in terms; and ‘Sahaj-dhari Sikh’ derives whatever meaning it can have from the expectation of eventual incorporation into the Panth of the Guru, which is exclusively the Khalsa Panth.
The Rahit Maryada does not grant ‘Sikh’ status to an extended community of individuals and groups that by other and more inclusive norms could be, and certainly might wish to be, designated ‘Sikh’. Yet its normative pattern invites careful consideration because it exemplifies, in fact it codifies, the shift which took place over the century leading to independence toward a more narrow meaning of ‘Sikh’ and ‘Sikhism’ within a frame of reference that was constituted by the Singhs and bounded by the Khalsa. Prior to this shift, in the middle nineteenth century the terms ‘Sikh’ and ‘Sikhism’ circulated with considerable variation in what they were intended and were accepted to mean; and no social institution seemed capable of effecting and enforcing the specification of a more restricted meaning. Then, the establishment of the Singh Sabhas and of institutions allied with them, from the last quarter of the nineteenth century onward, contributed to a situation so changed that we might well suppose that the authority now accorded to the Sikh Rahit Maryada, and to the specific definition of ‘Sikh’ that it prescribes, are a latter-day measure of their success. More generally, the achievement of the leaders of the Singh Sabhas was in providing creative responses to an interrelated set of nineteenth-century concerns, such as a perceived decline in Sikh numbers and distinctiveness, a fear of incorporation of Sikhs into Hinduism or into the missionary faiths of Islam and Christianity, and a then-pervasive and perplexing question ‘what is it to be a Sikh’? Even so, there were notable variations among the responses proposed by the most influential leaders within the movement.
The first Singh Sabha was founded in 1873 in Amritsar. A second, which became far more influential, was founded in 1879 in Lahore. The leaders of the Lahore Sabha, along with those in scores of local voluntary associations set up on this same pattern, over time adopted, adapted, or devised new methods for establishing and asserting a separate Sikh, and increasingly a Singh, identity. By 1900 there were about a hundred of these associations, enrolling members who were scattered throughout the Punjab. In 1902 the Chief Khalsa Diwan was established, in part for the purpose of coordinating and providing unity to their efforts, and it continued to play a central role in Sikh society and politics through the end of the first World War.
The Amritsar Sabha, under the patronage of the Maharaja of Faridkot and Baba Khem Singh Bedi, a prominent descendent of Guru Nanak, took the approach that Sikhism was a reformist branch of Hinduism, that the Sikh community was inclusive of Sahaj-dharis in general and Udasis in particular, and that an elite composed of the landed gentry, the titled, and the traditional religious functionaries could best provide community leadership. Its main avowed purposes were to arouse love of religion among Sikhs, propagate the Sikh religion, and print books and publish periodicals in order to further Punjabi language and Sikh education. A majority of its members were drawn from the upper classes, it became financially strong due to the substantial support granted by aristocrats, and it remained a center of reformist “Sanatana” Sikhism.
The Lahore Sabha, by contrast, was more democratic, more radical in its quest to revive “true Sikhism” by rediscovering and restoring to contemporary practice the essential teachings of the Gurus, and more supportive of “Tat Khalsa” Sikh separatism. Among its early leaders, perhaps the most important and most interesting was Bhai Ditt Singh (1853-1901), a lower caste Mazhabi by birth, a brilliant publicist, and a former convert to the Hindu revivalist Arya Samaj movement. The Arya Samaj, founded in Rajkot in 1875 and established in Lahore in 1877, became an irritant and an added stimulus to the Sikh resurgence. It provided general models of religious activism such as polemical debates, publications, and educational institutions; it directly provoked Sikhs by questioning their allegiance to the Gurus; and it entered into competition with the Singh Sabhas in matters such as conversion and low-caste uplift in its purification-initiation shuddhi program. The Lahore Singh Sabha was highly responsive to the challenge. In some forty published works, Bhai Ditt Singh both defended Sikhism from outside interference from other religious groups, such as the Aryas, and criticized the traditional leaders of his own community who sought special treatment for the high- born while denying access to worship at Sikh historical places and in gurdwaras to those of low-caste birth.
The Basaur Singh Sabha, led by Babu Teja Singh Overseer (1867-1933), tended to be even more radical and militant than the Lahore Sabha. From an early date it supported education and amrit-samskar for all Sikhs, including women. And later, through the Panch Khalsa Diwan, it proposed equal treatment and intermixing of Sikh men and women, while it openly opposed interdining and marriage of Sikhs with Hindus. Babu Teja Singh was particularly keen to remove from life-cycle rituals and revealed Sikh scripture what he regarded to be Hindu accretions or later additions to the “true Sikhism” of the Gurus. This pursuit embroiled him in extraordinarily intense controversy with other Sikhs, and at one time it brought down on him particularly severe criticism when he sought to circulate what seemed to them to be an abridged version of the Guru Granth Sahib.
By the beginning of the twentieth century the Sikh revitalization movement in the Punjab had grown to the point where informal contacts among major leaders was an insufficient basis for an adequate program of cooperative endeavor in the community interest. Earlier conflicts between reformist and radical factions had made ongoing institutionalized coordination of Singh Sabha activities impossible, but by the turn of the century it seemed not only possible but also necessary. Despite continuing disagreements and occasional outbreaks of open confrontation, an ironic example of which was the controversy over a suitable memorial to Ditt Singh after his death in 1901, at about the same time a meeting was convened in Amritsar to organize what became the Chief Khalsa Diwan. Drawing its leadership and members from among the urban professionals as well as the landed gentry, its initial and long-term secretary was Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia (1872-1941). At its official inauguration in 1902, some 29 Singh Sabhas were affiliated with it, and by 1920 there were more than a hundred. Affiliated associations sent delegates to its monthly meetings and an annual conference. Under the direction of its executive committee, the Diwan raised funds, administered cooperative institutions such as the Khalsa Tract Society and the Central Khalsa Orphanage, provided singers and speakers for local religious gatherings, and sought, mobilized, and recorded Sikh opinion on correct theology and ritual procedure.
Since the 1880’s there had been active discussion stimulated by the Singh Sabhas, and involving not only the militants and the radicals, about correct ritual practices. By 1909 nearly a score new manuals of ritual procedure for Sikhs had been published in the Punjab, and the periodical press regularly gave notice of instances of the conduct of rituals that their sponsors intended to serve the cause of restoring Sikh religious life to the pattern originally intended by the Gurus. All this activity and concern came into sharp focus when Sikh prince H. H. Tikka Ripudaman Singh of Nabha introduced an Anand Marriage Bill into the Imperial Legislative Council in October 1908. Introduced in order to legalize and regularize a distinctively Sikh ceremony separate from Hindu practices — indeed, to codify a Sikh ritual under law for the first time — the Bill incited a major controversy which extended over the course of a year. More than three hundred mass meetings were held in direct support of the Bill or in support of revisions to it, the most popular for the purpose of including Sahaj-dharis under its provisions; and nearly 700,000 Sikhs signed petitions for its enactment. A likely impediment to legislative resolution caused by the expiration of Tikka Ripudaman’s term of office was overcome when the Government of India nominated Sunder Singh Majithia to succeed him, and the Bill was enacted at last in October 1909.
Similar disputes over questions of theology and religious practice had brought the supporters of the Singh Sabha movement into difficult encounters with religious and political authorities again and again since the later nineteenth century. Sikh gurdwaras and their managers inevitably were implicated in this process because the setting for so many Sikh religious practices is in a community place of worship. Since the eighteenth century, gurdwaras had tended to be under the supervision of members of the Udasi order who were hard to distinguish from their counterparts in Hindu monastic orders. Moreover, the British colonial rulers, and their officers at all levels, became integrally involved in questions of gurdwara management because British land settlement, revenue, and religious endowments regulations proceeded from assumptions that invested the hereditary managers of gurdwaras (mahants), whether in small shrines or in major traditional centers of worship, with rights tantamount to those of ownership of private property. Increased prosperity in the Punjab by the end of the nineteenth century, much of it derived from improved agriculture due to extension of irrigation, greatly enlarged the income available to mahants from land endowments and put more at stake in the conflict over correct management of the gurdwaras.
A few major religious centers were special cases in which there was direct British intervention. Since the 1860’s, for example, the Manager of the Golden Temple was in effect the appointee of the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar. When the Manager was asked by government to render an “authoritative” opinion on matters relating to the Sikhs, the self-serving circularity of the situation was all too clear. Yet the local government could respond positively to Sikh revivalism, too. The Chief Khalsa Diwan, almost from its founding, engaged repeatedly in petitioning for changes in the regulation of activities at the Golden Temple. The government cooperated, and served Sikh separatist interests, in 1905 when it ordered the removal of Hindu images from the Temple precincts. And with the removal of the images, the services of Hindu pujaris were discontinued, too. Even so, the British did not entirely relinquish their claim to control over the Golden Temple until another two decades had passed, when the 1925 Gurdwaras Act fully legalized the transfer of its management to the Sikh community. In the meantime, their positive responses to neo-Sikh claims were limited, and in 1909 the Amritsar District Commissioner prohibited Singh Sabha members from serving as granthis or as managers at the Golden Temple.