Sikhs Campaign for Right to Carry a Sword
Campaign started by the Sikhs to assert their right to keep and carry Kirpan, i.e. sword, religiously obligatory for them, which was denied to them under the Indian Arms Act (XI) of 1878. Under this Act, no person could go armed or carry arms, except under special exemption or by virtue of a licence. Whatever could be used as an instrument of attack or defence fell under the term Arms. Thus the term included firearms, bayonets, swords, daggerheads and bows and arrows. Under the Act, a kirpan could be bracketed with a sword.
Early in the 20th century various Sikh religious bodies, particularly the Chief Khalsa Diwan, made representations to the government demanding freedom for the Sikhs to keep kirpan as enjoined by their religion. At the time of World War I, the British government, fearing that the ban on the keeping of kirpan would affect the recruitment of Sikhs to the Indian army, thought it advisable to relax the enforcement of the provision. Thus between 1914 and 1918 by separate notifications issued by the Home government, the Sikhs were given the freedom of possessing or carrying a kirpan all over British India. However, the terms of these notifications were vague; the size and shape of the kirpan having remained undefined; prosecution of Sikhs for wearing, carrying and manufacturing the kirpan continued.
During the Gurdwara Reform movement (1920-25) the kirpan question became a major political issue. As the agitation started by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and Shiromani Akali Dal gained momentum, the British Indian government shelved the two notifications. Sikhs possessing kirpan began to be prosecuted and imprisoned, and many of the Sikh soldiers in the armed forces were court-martialled for keeping kirpan and dismissed from service.
The Akali Dal’s Kirpan agitation remained in full swing during the years 1921-22 when black turbans and kirpans became the symbols of the Sikh defiance. The Punjab government resorted to several measures: any Sikh carrying a kirpan could be arrested without warrant. As an act of defiance, the Akalis began carrying full-sized kirpans. Thousands of Sikhs were sent to jail for contravening the Indian Arms Act. The kirpan factories at Bhera and Sialkot were raided in 1921, all kirpans exceeding 9 inches in length were seized, and the owners of the factories put under arrest. Excesses were committed by police upon non-violent kirpan-carrying Sikhs who bore these with stoic resignation and unfaltering faith; by he Sikh religious organizations they were honoured with the title of Kirpan Bahadur, Hero of the Kirpan. A weekly newspaper, the Kirpan Bahadur, edited by Seva Singh, was launched in 1922 from Amritsar to support the agitation.
In 1922, the Punjab Governor opened negotiations with the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. A compromise was arrived at according to which an announcement was made on behalf of the Punjab government that the Sikhs would not be prosecuted for wearing, keeping and carrying the kirpan. In March 1922, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee issued instructions to the Sikhs that they must carry kirpan which was one of their religious emblems but it may be unsheathed and drawn out only for prayers (ardas), initiatory ceremonies (amrit prachar), and by the Five Beloved (Panj Piare) leading a religious march. As a sacred symbol of the faith, it should not be unsheathed and brandished except on these occasions. In this manner ended the Kirpan Morcha, a confrontation between the Sikhs and the British Indian government for the restoration to the Sikhs of their right to keep and carry kirpan.