The Sikhs and the Independence Movement
Gurdwara Reform and Protest Politics
The basic character of the Chief Khalsa Diwan as a loyalist consultative body and a Sikh coalition organization prevented it from representing the religious-political radicals of its own community when they came into open opposition to the British Raj. A telling case was the protest carried out intermittently over the period from 1913 to 1920 against the Government of India because of its alterations to the Rikabganj Gurdwara to make way for the capital when it was shifted to New Delhi. In May 1913 government engineers pulled down some 400 feet of a hexagonal stone wall enclosing the site of the gurdwara in order to clear a right of way for a straight approach road to the Viceregal Palace. Their plan was to replace the old wall with an iron railing around the residual rectangular parcel and to convert the inner area into a garden in order to make the site appear more consonant with the scheme for the government buildings. By winter, opposition to government interference with the gurdwara site was growing powerful in the Punjab under the backing of Harchand Singh of Lyallpur, a canal colony rais and proprietor of the Khalsa Akhbar newspaper, and of Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha. While the protest very shortly had to disappear from view due to the outbreak of the first World War in 1914, it reappeared with equal intensity after the War. In September 1920, a letter from Sardul Singh Caveeshar (1886-1963) published in the Akali of Lahore demanded that the Delhi government rebuild the old wall. Should it fail to take action within two months, he called for a contingent of volunteers willing to suffer martyrdom (a shahidi jatha) composed of a hundred men to proceed to New Delhi to do the work, against whatever opposition it might encounter.
The Sikh volunteers who were readily enlisted by Sardul Singh never departed the Punjab because the Delhi government, unknown to them, already had devised a plan to free itself from the dispute. At a meeting with representatives of the Khalsa Diwan of Delhi in March 1920, the government agreed to approve the construction of a wall that would stand outside the limits of the older one, to transfer management of Gurdwara Rikabganj to the Delhi Khalsa Diwan, and to invite a deputation from the Chief Khalsa Diwan to study and approve the site plan. At the time, however, the Chief Khalsa Diwan was losing its role as a representative body of Sikh opinion and its effectiveness as a moderate counterweight to radical Sikh political activism. A contributing factor was the disaffection it attracted by its cooperation with government against the popular Rikabganj protest at its initial peak in 1914. But the larger context was that Indian public life was changing in response to the trials of the World War and postwar readjustment, and in relation to a fresh wave of communal and nationalist protest politics and to unrealized expectations engendered by the Montford reforms. Yet the Chief Khalsa Diwan could not relinquish its moderate orientation in order retain its preeminent position in Sikh society through the early part of the interwar period. “While the Diwan contributed greatly to educating, unifying, and preparing Sikhs for new political roles,” noted N. G. Barrier, “ironically, its leaders were not equipped to lead the community into battle. Instead, the radical Akalis reaped the benefits of widespread Sikh unrest.” During the next half-decade successive calls to direct action in the cause of Gurdwara Reform took the politics of protest into new directions which created a revolution within the religious and political institutions of the Sikh community. As a continuing consequence, “it is primarily through political action that the Panth of today seeks to maintain its cohesion.”
Although gurdwara reform was a long-familiar cause, under postwar conditions in the early 1920’s it gained unprecedented mobilizing power. In the unsettled summer of 1920, many Khalsa Sikh men were adjusting to the dislocation of being recently demobilized from military service. Some were seen roaming the central Punjab plains, inexplicably garbed as seventeenth-century Akalis — wearing deep-blue or black turbans and armed with long swords (kirpans), battle-axes (safa-jangs), and staffs (lathis) –and this was of course reported to the government by puzzled informants. The reports noted that these new Akalis responded in numbers at diwans of the Sikh League, and at fairs, to the final calls issued by Teja Singh Samundri and others to service in the Rikabganj Gurdwara campaign. And when the resolution of the Rikabganj case was made public, they were recruited for other campaigns. Soon small bands (jathas) of this new Akali “army” (dal) were moving rapidly across the plains toward one or another Sikh shrine, some of which they occupied and “reformed.” In October, after litigation failed, the mahant of Babe-de-Ber in Sialkot was forcibly ejected and a local committee assumed management of the gurdwara. Since the provincial government was preoccupied with the Montford reforms and reluctant to intervene, this predominantly non-violent version of direct-action protest carried off in a military style was proving effective for Khalsa activists.
The official Reforms Advisory Committee was having its own problems, including the problem of settling on a suitable definition of ‘Sikh’ for the provincial elections under the provisions of the 1919 Act. The Manager of the Golden Temple, Arur Singh, was consulted; and he advised against stipulating a definition and in favor of compiling the electoral rolls by accepting the individual declaration of each elector. The advice was not popular with the Tat Khalsa which was already disgruntled about the percentage of legislative council seats granted Sikhs under provisions of the Act. At a diwan held during the summer at Jallianwala Bagh, radicals threatened to take out a mock funeral procession if the Manager did not step down before the end of August. The matter was left to simmer until early October when it came to crisis. The Temple administration attempted to bar low- caste converts from entering the precincts in the company of a procession of members of the Khalsa biradari which was holding its annual meeting in Amritsar. The Khalsa brotherhood prevailed, discrediting the administration; and shortly afterward the government named a new Manager and a temporary advisory committee — then, in November, a provisional advisory committee composed of 36 moderate Khalsa Sikhs — to supervise management of the Golden Temple. Not satisfied, Khalsa activists countered by setting a meeting of the Panth (a sarbat khalsa) to name a permanent managing committee, and circulated announcements to Sikh military regiments, schools, religious organizations, and Singh Sabhas. A large gathering assembled before the Akal Takht at the Golden Temple on 16th November and endorsed selection of a committee of 175 members which was to give attention to gurdwara reform in general as well as to establish a sub-committee for management of the Golden Temple. There were some conciliatory elements in the process. Sunder Singh Majithia was elected president, other leadership positions were filled by Chief Khalsa Diwan moderates, and appointees from the official provisional committee were to be included on the Golden Temple sub-committee. But the next month a caucus of militant members took control, renamed the larger body the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (most often cited as the SGPC), and instituted the Shiromani Akali Dal. The provincial government did not intervene. New sides of the Sikh shrines question continued to present themselves faster than the Punjab government was able to assess and respond to them. At the same time, in the countryside, Akali jathas continued to enlist recruits, occupy gurdwaras, and eject mahants.
At one of the most important Sikh traditional sites, Nankana Sahib in the Sheikpura District, the mahant had been attracting criticism for some years. Narain Das was reputed to be an immoral character who engaged in scandalous behavior, and he was charged with misuse of funds. He also had the responsibility of managing a gurdwara complex which had an annual land-revenue income of a half-million rupees and which commemorated the birthplace of Guru Nanak. His position was so important that he was elected to preside over the Udasi Mahamandal which was established to represent mahant interests as a kind of counterpart to the SGPC, and which set up the Sant Sewak newspaper in Lahore as part of an effort to balance the influence of the Akali press. Before the end of 1920 the Mahamandal also began a series of appeals to the divisional and provincial governments to intervene for their protection, but the executives instead directed them to the courts as the place where they could attempt to regain their rights once they had been infringed or lost. Narain Das, therefore, took it upon himself to defend his claim to the control the gurdwaras at Nankana Sahib in his own way. He arranged to have the perimeter walled and fortified, arms and ammunition stockpiled, and a mercenary force engaged.
Word about the mahant’s preparations spread, and in the new year there were repeated verbal skirmishes, in the press and at public meetings, about the place. The Akali leadership sought to focus attention on the situation, and to prevent a premature clash, by announcing a great gathering at Nanakana Sahib which was to begin on 4th March. In mid-February Sardul Singh Caveeshar, Teja Singh Samundri, Master Tara Singh, and others were sent out to the site in order to head-off any early arrivals. However, early on the morning of 20th February 1921, an Akali jatha led by Bhai Lachhman Singh proceeded to visit the Janamasthan Gurdwara which commemorated Guru Nanak’s birth. Once inside the walled compound, the gates were closed and while they were locked inside all 130 men were massacred without warning, some hacked to pieces, and their bodies were doused with kerosene and burned. In the wake of this terrible tragedy, the provincial government gave over management of the Nankana Sahib gurdwaras to a representative committee of the SGPC. It also instructed its district magistrates to assert temporary jurisdiction over any gurdwara where conflict about management was likely to lead to violence, while the SGPC very soon issued a demand to the right to manage all Sikh shrines or gurdwaras and their property. Public recoil, meanwhile, to the Nankana Sahib atrocities “threw the great majority of Sikhs wholeheartedly into the Akali movement.”
Public recoil also resulted in reprisals against Narain Das, his associates, and other mahants. The courts sentenced him to death in October 1921; and when the Government of India reviewed his case on appeal, members of the Viceroy’s council directed strong criticism at the Punjab Government for its policy of minimal intervention in activities arising from the Gurdwara Reform movement. The criticism for a time prompted a new policy of police repression of Akali groups, but it proved ineffective. From 1921 onward, the Akali movement under the coordination of the SGPC took on something of the character of an alternative government. At the November 1921 Nanakana fair, there were 50,000 Sikhs, 20,000 of them professed Akalis, and perhaps 15,000 of them members of recognized jathas. Enlistment was up, and at diwans in rural areas members of the Akali fauj stood guard with drawn swords. In the summer of 1921 SGPC elections all Amrit-dhari Khalsa Sikhs were enfranchised to vote, and the new committee began to build a hierarchical organizational structure with local and district committees. Along with monthly membership subscriptions, it had access to funds from the income of the Golden Temple and the Tarn Taran and Nankana Sahib gurdwaras. The movement was now strong enough in numbers and in finances to sustain major civil disobedience campaigns with thousands of faithful followers courting arrest, as at Guru-ka-Bagh in the Amritsar District in 1922 and at Jaito in the Princely State of Nabha in 1923.
Return to Constitutional Politics
The SGPC was also free from the internal division faced by the Indian National Congress, which split between “no-changers” who favored continued non-cooperation and “pro-changers” who advocated a return to participation in constitutional government, after the Congress-Khilafat Non-Cooperation Movement was halted by Mahatma Gandhi in 1922 because of the violence at Chauri Chaura. For the 1923 election to the Punjab Legislative Council and the Indian Legislative Assembly, the SGPC nominated a full slate of candidates to stand for office. The candidates were required to be Amrit-dhari Sikhs who would undertake to abide by the mandate of the SGPC in all matters to come before the assembly or council during their term. In the election, there was greatly increased participation by Sikh voters, and the SGPC gained a major victory in which it got exclusive control of the Sikh representation in the Punjab council. Clearly the circumstances indicated that the British needed to come up with fresh approaches in order to deal with the complex pattern of Sikh politics.
In May 1924, W. Malcolm Hailey was posted to Lahore as the Governor of the Punjab, and from the start he sought to change the climate of social and political life in the province by three main strategies. First, the government would resist the use of illegal force to gain control of gurdwaras or their property, and it would discourage anti-government agitation by confiscating pensions and by refusing government employment to those engaged in criminal activity. Second, it would not engage in direct repression of the Akali jathas but would instead support the formation of anti-Akali associations of Sikhs, typically designated sudhar committees. And, third, it would seek a legislative remedy to regularize the conditions created by the extraordinary success of the Gurdwara Reform movement.
In his November 1924 address to the Punjab Legislative Council, the Governor expressed the willingness of the provincial government to discuss terms of gurdwara-management legislation with SGPC representatives. Several earlier attempts to produce a legislative solution had failed. In 1921 there was not sufficient support for an Act, and in 1922 the Bill that was pushed through the council became a dead letter by the time it was enacted. What Hailey sought was a Bill that would in fact resolve the problem of control and management of Sikh shrines and gurdwaras throughout the Punjab, but for a time he held out the hope that effective legislation could be drawn which would place all or most of the power in the hands of local bodies instead of in a central committee of management like the SGPC. “Personally,” he wrote, “I should like to see the local committees strong, and the Central Body merely charged with general functions, instead of direct control. I think we ought to fight for this as far as possible,” he urged, in private correspondence with the Lahore Commissioner.
However, in the process of working through the negotiations to what was in fact possible, the Sikh Gurdwaras Act (Punjab Act No. VIII of 1925, which received the assent of the Governor-General on 28 July) was a compromise measure. While, for government, it gained a settlement of the intractable and costly campaign for gurdwara reform; for the SGPC, it gained statutory standing for what was for the most part a familiar and congenial organizational structure. The Act established a central board of management composed of 121 members to be selected by an electorate comprised of voters whose exclusive religious allegiance was Sikh. Elected members of the committee likewise were to be exclusively Sikh and not patit or apostate, as determined by a judicial tribunal established by government from among Khalsa Sikhs. The authority of the central committee was partly balanced by the powers reserved to local committees; and explicit rules were set out for the use of gurdwara income and the auditing of gurdwara management accounts. Yet, in general, for the Amrit-dharis or Khalsa Sikhs the time had come when their status as members of a separate religious tradition with its own identity and its own separately managed institutions had attained the full recognition which had been anticipated but not fulfilled in the 1909 Anand Marriage Act.
The Governor referred the draft Bill to New Delhi at an early stage because of special concern that the Act be acceptable to the courts and to the Government of India due to its sweeping implications since it legitimated a wholesale, and previously illegal, transfer of property by writing it into positive law. It also was expected to make moot the legally defensible claims still being put forward by the mahants. Under terms of the Bill, 300 institutions, either gurdwaras connected with events in the lives of the Gurus or other Sikh shrines in the Punjab, were scheduled and were to be transferred to a statutory management committee. (After the Act was put into effect several hundred more were transferred by notification and endorsement by a tribunal.) The government had been caught in the middle of the tug of war between the Khalsa Sikhs and the Udasis. “I myself can only square my conscience in this matter,” the Governor recorded in confidence after receiving an Udasi delegation, “by the reflexion that we have probably taken the only course practically and politically possible; we may admit the injury done to this class, but as a matter of hard fact, we cannot really remedy it.” Hailey fit the model of the practical administrator schooled in the art of the possible. His estimate of the existing situation was that “95% of the Sikhs are now Amritdharis, i.e., full followers of Guru Gobind Singh, and that being so, I do not see that the state could reasonably be expected to support the Udassis in the claim that they should continue to manage the gurdwaras.” And when the Gurdwara Bill was enacted, in the short term it produced the intended effect of ending the Sikh preoccupation with Gurdwara Reform. “I am not greatly concerned any longer,” the Governor could report by the end of 1925, “with the Sikh situation.”
What Sardul Singh Caveeshar called “the Third Sikh War” had ended in a Khalsa victory, and the Sikh army only appeared to disband. It was transformed into a political power — the Shiromani Akali Dal — supported by a religious one — the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee. Sikh communal distinctiveness had taken on the force of law, and it remained for the Akali Dal to defend it. The general aim of the Akali party, according to historian Rajiv Kapur, “became the pursuit of greater political leverage for the Sikhs as a community. This political objective has remained essentially the same today.”
But during the remainder of the Indian independence movement and beyond, some Sikhs have supported other parties and other strategies in addition to, or instead of, the Akali Dal. With the stage of constitutional advance that was elaborated in the Government of India Act of 1935 and enabling legislation, in the 1937 election Sikhs split their votes. Landed interests went with the Khalsa National Party formed by the Chief Khalsa Diwan and led by the indomitable Sunder Singh Majithia and Jogendra Singh. The Congress formed a separate Congress Sikh Party in the Punjab and shared electoral strategy with the Akali Dal in the hope of entering the legislature to work the Swarajist “wrecking from within” policy. When the ministry was formed, the Khalsa Nationalists joined with the Unionists, who had secured 96 out of 175 seats in the Punjab Legislative Assembly, to form a coalition government, much to the disdain of the Dal. Yet this kind of factionalism in Sikh politics has continued to be the rule. From 1940 to 1947, when it was most crucial for Sikhs to speak with one political voice, they did not do so. Although they returned to constitutional politics, Khalsa religious unity could not much longer keep Sikhs on a single political platform. Religious revitalization did not “translate into a common programme of political activity. It is the rival warlords of the 18th century rather than the single authority of Maharajah Ranjit Singh,” according to Christopher Shackle’s analysis, “that provide the model for the last sixty years of Sikh politics.”