Gurdwara Reform Movement
variously known as Gurdwara Reform Movement or Gurdwara Agitation is how Sikhs’ long-drawn campaign in the early twenties of the twentieth century for the liberation of their gurdwaras or holy shrines is described. The campaign which elicited enthusiastic support, especially, from the rural masses, took the form of a peaceful agitation-marches, divans or religious gatherings, and demonstrations for Sikhs to assert their right to manage their places of worship. This led to a series of critical episodes in which their powers of suffering were severely tested by government suppression. In. the event, Akalis, as the protesters were known, succeeded in their object and the control of the gurdwaras was vested through legislation in a representative committee of the Sikhs. The State, under Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), had forborne from interfering with the management of Sikh shrines. It endowed the more prominent
among them with land grants and other gifts but let the control remain in the hands of sectaries such as Udasis, or hereditary officiants, who had assumed charge of them generally since the days when Sikhs under pressure of Mughal persecution had been forced to seek safety in remote hills and deserts. A kind of professional coenobitism, contrary to Sikh religious structure, had developed over the generations. Some of its sinister aspects became apparent soon after the fall of the Sikh kingdom. Most of the clergy had become neglectful of their religious office. They had diverted ecclesiastical assets, including lands, to their own enrichment, and their lives were not free from the taint of licentiousness and luxury. The simple form of Sikh service had been supplanted in the shrines by extravagant ceremonial. This was repugnant to Sikhs freshly affranchised by the preaching’s of the Singh Sabha. The puritan reaction through which they had passed led them to revolt against the retrogression and mal administration of their holy places.
Their central shrine, the Golden Temple at, Amritsar, was controlled by the British Deputy Commissioner through a Sikh manager whom he appointed. There were idols installed within the temple precincts. Pandits and astrologers sat on the premises plying their trade unchecked. Pilgrims from the lower classes were not allowed inside the Harimandar before 9 o’clock in the morning. This was a travesty of Sikhism which permitted neither caste nor image worship. Vaguely, the feeling had been prevalent among the Sikhs since almost the advent of the British that the administration of the Harimandar at Amritsar was far from satisfactory. The religious ritual practised ran counter in many details to the teachings of the Gurus. One audible voice of protest was that of Thakur Singh Sandhanvalia, who was a member of the Sri Darbar Sahib Committee in the seventies of the last century. The Khalsa Diwan, Lahore, at its session (6-8 April 1907), proposed that the manager of the Golden Temple appointed by the government be removed and a committee of Sikh chiefs appointed in his place. Likewise, the Khalsa Diwan, Majha, meeting at Tarn Taran on 10 April 1907; had recorded its concern about the management of the shrine.On 12 October 1920, a meeting of Sikh lower castes, sponsored by teachers and students of the Khalsa College was held in Jallianvala Bagh At Amritsar. The, following morning some of them were taken to Harimandar, but the priests refused to accept karahprasad they had brought as offering and to say the ardas on their behalf. Their supporters protested. A compromise was at last reached and it was decided that the Guru’s word be sought. The Guru Granth Sahib was, as is the custom, opened at random and the first verse on the page to be read was:
nirgunia no ape bakhsi lai bhai satigur ki seva lai
He receives into grace (even) those without merit, And puts them in the path of holy service. (SGGS, 638)
The Guru’s verdict was clearly in favour of those whom the pujaris or temple functionaries had refused to accept as full members of the community. This was a triumph for reformist Sikhs. The karah prasad of the Mazhabi (religious, devout) Sikhs, reformers’ description of low-caste Sikhs, was accepted. The devotees then marched towards Takht Akal Bunga in front of the Harimandar. The priests deserted the Takht and the visiting pilgrims appointed a representative committee of twenty-five for its management. This was the beginning of the movement for the liberation of the gurdwaras. The Akalis set afoot operations for retrieving their holy places from the control of the mahants or clergy-cum-hereditary custodians. With a view to establishing a central committee of administration,. a representative assembly of Sikhs from-all walks of life was called by the new jathedar, provost or chief, of Takht Akal Bunga on 15 November 1920. Two days before the proposed conference, the government set up its own committee consisting of thirty-six Sikhs to manage the Golden Temple. This committee was nominated by the Lt-Governor of the Punjab at the instance of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, who had been approached by Bhai Jodh Singh and a few of his faculty colleagues at Khalsa College, Amritsar, to intervene between the government and the Sikhs. The Sikhs held their scheduled meeting on 15 November and formed a committee of 175, including the thirty-six official nominees, designating it Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
The first session of the Committee was held at the Akal Takht on 12 December 1920. Sundar Singh Majithia, Harbans Singh of Atari and Bhai Jodh Singh were elected president, vice-president and secretary, respectively. The more radical elements organized a semi-military corps of volunteers known as the Akali Dal (Army of Immortals). The Akali Dal was to raise and train men for ‘action’ to take over gurdwaras from the recalcitrant mahants. This also signaled the appearance of a Gurmukhi newspaper, also called Akali.The formation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and the Shiromani Akali Dal speeded up the movement for the reformation of Sikh religious institutions and endowments. Under pressure of Sikh opinion, backed frequently by demonstration of strength, the mahants began yielding possession of gurdwara properties to elected committees and agreed to become paid granthis, custodians of the scripture or scripture-readers. Several gurdwaras had thus come under the reformists’ control even before the Shiromani Committee and the Akali Dal had been established. However, the transition was not so smooth where the priests were strongly entrenched or where the government actively helped them to resist mass pressure. At Tarn Taran, near Amritsar, a batch of gurdwara functionaries attacked an unwary delegation of reformers who had been invited to the shrine for negotiations. One of them, Hazara Singh of Aladinpur, a descendant of Baghel Singh, one of the misl chiefs, fell a victim to priestly violence on 20 January 1921. He died the following day and became the first martyr in the cause of gurdwara reform. Another Akali, Hukam Singh of Vasau Kot, succumbed to his injuries on 4 February 1921.
Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, was the scene of violence on a much larger scale. The custodian., Narain Das, the wealthiest of mahants had a most unsavoury reputation, and his stewardship of the Nankana Sahib shrines had started many a scandal. On the morning of 20 February 1921, as a jatha or band of 150 Akalis came to the Gurdwara, the private army of Narain Das fell upon them, raining bullets all around. The jatha leader, Bhai Lachhman Singh, of Dadroval, was struck down sitting in attendance of the Guru Granth Sahib. Bhai Dalip Singh, a much-respected Sikh leader who was well known to the mahant and who came to intercede with him to stop the carnage, was killed with a shot from his pistol. Many of the jatha fell in the indiscriminate firing by the mahants men. The news of the massacre caused widespread gloom. Among those who came to Nankana to express their sense of shock were Sir Edward Maclagan, the British Lt-Governor of the Punjab. Mahatma Gandhi came accompanied by Muslim leaders, Shaukat Ali and Muhammad Ali. Narain Das and some of his accomplices were arrested and the possession of the shrine was made over by government to a committee of seven Sikhs headed by Harbans Singh of Atari, vice-president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
Another crisis arose as he Punjab Government seized ‘on 7 November 1921 the keys of the Golden Temple treasury. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee lodged a strong protest and called upon the Sikhs the world over to convene meetings to condemn the government action. Further means of recording resentment included a decision for Sikhs to observe a hartal, i.e. to strike work, on the day the Prince of Wales, who was coming out on a tour, landed on Indian shores. They were also forbidden to participate in any function connected with the Prince’s visit. To fill the British jails, volunteers, draped in black and singing hymns from Scripture, marched forth in batches. Ex-servicemen threw up their pensions and joined Akali ranks. Under pressure of the growing agitation, the government gave way, and on 19 January 1922 a court official surrendered the bunch of keys, wrapped in a piece of red cloth, to Kharak Singh, president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. Mahatma Gandhi sent a wire saying, First decisive battle for India’s freedom won.Guru ka Bagh (Garden of the Guru), 20 km north of Amritsar, a small shrine commemorating Guru Arjan’s visit, witnessed a morcha most typical of the series in the Akali movement. On 9 August 1922, the police arrested on charges of trespass five Sikhs who had gone to gather firewood from the Gurdwara’s land for Guru ka Langar, the community kitchen. The. following day the arrested Sikhs were summarily tried and sentenced to six months rigorous imprisonment. Undeterred, the Sikhs continued coming in batches every day to hew wood from the site and courting arrest and prosecution. After 30 August, police adopted a sterner policy to terrorize the volunteers. Those who came to cut firewood from Guru ka Bagh were beaten up in a merciless manner until they to a man lay senseless on the ground. The Sikhs suffered all this stoically and went day by day in larger numbers to submit themselves to the beating. A committee appointed by the Indian National Congress to visit Amritsar, lauded the Akalis and censured the police for atrocities committed by it. Rev C. F. Andrews, a Christian missionary, came on 12 September 1922, and was deeply moved by the noble Christ-like behaviour of the Akali passive resisters. At his instance, Sir Edward Maclagan, the Lt-Governor of the Punjab, arrived at Guru ka Bagh (I3 September) and ordered the beatings to be stopped. Four days later the police retired from the scene. By then 5,605 Akalis had been arrested, with 936 hospitalised. The Akalis got possession of Gurdwara Guru ka Bagh along with the disputed land.Guru ka Bagh excited religious fervour to a degree unapproached during the 70 years of British rule. The judicial trials of the volunteers were followed with close interest and, when those convicted were being removed to jails to serve their sentences, mammoth crowds greeted them en route. On 30 October 1922, many men and women laid themselves on the rail track at Panja Sahib in an attempt to stop a train to offer refreshments to Akali prisoners being escorted to Naushehra jail. Two Sikhs, Partap Singh and Karam Singh, were crushed to death before the engine driver could pull up. Not all Sikhs accepted the cult of nonviolence to which the Shiromani Committee had committed itself. The Nankana massacre and the behaviour of the police at Guru ka Bagh induced some to organize an underground terrorist movement. These terrorists, who called themselves Babar (Lion) Akalis, were largely drawn from the Ghadr party and army soldiers on leave. Babar violence was, however, of short duration. By the summer of 1923, most of the Babars had been apprehended. The trial conducted in camera began inside Lahore Central Jail on 15 August 1923 and was presided over by an English judge. Of the 91 accused, two died in jail during trial, 34 were acquitted, six including Jathedar Kishan Singh Gargajj, were awarded death penalty, while the remaining 49 were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment.
Another Akali morcha was precipitated by police interrupting an akhand path, i.e. continuous recital of the Guru Granth Sahib, at Gurdwara Gangsar at Jaito, in the Princely state of Nabha, to demonstrate Sikhs’ solidarity with the cause of Maharaja Ripudaman Singh, the ruler of the state, who had been deposed, by the British. Batches of passive resisters began arriving every day at Jaito to assert their right to freedom of worship. The Shiromani Committee and the Akali Dal were declared illegal bodies by government and more prominent of the leaders were arrested. They were charged with conspiracy to wage war against the King and taken to Lahore Fort for trial. The agitation continued and the size of the jathas going to Jaito was in fact increased from 25 each to a hundred, and then from one hundred to five hundred. One such jatha was fired upon on 21 February 1924 by the state police resulting in a number of casualties.
With the arrival in May 1924 of Sir Malcolm Hailey as Governor of the Punjab, the government began to relent. Negotiations were opened with the Akali leaders imprisoned in Lahore Fort. A bill accommodating their demands was moved in the Punjab Legislative Council and passed into law in 1925, under the title the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925. As this legislation was put on the statute book, almost all historical shrines, numbering 241 as listed in Schedule I of the Act, were declared as Sikh gurdwaras and they were to be under the administrative control of the Central Board, later renamed the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. Procedure was also laid down in section 7 of the Act for the transfer of any other gurdwara not listed in Schedules I and II to the administrative control of the Central Board. With the passage of this Act, the Akali agitation ceased.In the Akali agitation for gurdwara reform,’nearly forty thousand went to jail. Four hundred lost their lives while two thousand suffered injuries: Sums to the tune of sixteen lakhs of rupees were paid by way of fines and forfeitures and about seven hundred Sikh government functionaries in the villages were deprived of their positions. In addition to this, a ban was placed on civil and military recruitment of Sikhs which, however, was subsequently withdrawn.
:Encyclopaedia of Sikhism – Harbans Singh