Akali Dal, Shiromani
The premier political party of the modern period of Sikhism. 1920
The premier political party of the modern period of Sikhism seeking to protect the political rights of the Sikhs, to represent them in the public bodies and legislative councils being set up by the British in India and to preserve and advance their religious heritage, came into existence during the Gurdwara reform movement, also known as the Akali movement, of the early 1920’s. Need for reform in the conditions prevalent in their places of worship had been brought home to Sikhs by the Singh Sabha upsurge in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It had been increasingly felt that the purity of Sikh precept and practice could not be recovered unless there was a change in the structure of gurdwara management which had been in the hands of clergy who had come into control of the Sikh holy places since the times Sikhs had been driven by Mughal repression to seek safety in remote hills and deserts. A kind of professional coenobitism, contrary to the character of Sikhism, had since developed. Most of the clergy had reverted to Brahmanical ritualism rejected by the Gurus, and had become neglectful of their religious office. They had converted ecclesiastical assets into private properties, and their lives were not free from the taint of licentiousness and luxury. Even before the beginning of the Gurdwara reform movement, sporadic voices had been raised against this retrogression and maladministration of these places of worship. Organized platforms to pursue reform had developed in the form of regional Khalsa diwans. For example, a Khalsa Diwan had been set up in the Majha area in 1904, though it was soon afterwards merged with the Chief Khalsa Diwan; successor to the Lahore and Amritsar diwans of the earlier phase of the Singh Sabha movement. But the Gurdwara reform meant a confrontation with the mahants or the installed clergy who had the support of the government, and the Chief Khalsa Diwan avoided, as a matter of policy, to antagonize the government. The Majha Diwan was therefore revived in 1918 as Central Majha Khalsa Diwan.
It was becoming clear that the reformers would settle for nothing less than a complete restructuring, of the management of the gurdwaras and ousting of the mahants through negotiations, legal action, or failing both, forcible eviction. All the different strategies were pressed into service at Gurdwari Babe di Ber at Sialkot with dramatic success. Sri Akal Takht or Takht Akal Bunga was vacated by the clergy under fear of force and or losing caste by association with the "low-caste."
With the establishment in November 1920 of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (q.v.), the need arose for developing a system to co-ordinate the work of regional jathas, structured groups or bands of men and women. There were at least ten such jathas espousing gurdwara reform in different regions of the Punjab. According to a contemporary press report, Master Mota Singh was the first to suggest the formation of a Gurdwara Sevak Dal of 500 Sikh volunteers, including 100 paid full-timers, all ready for action at the call of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. At about the same time, Jathedir Kartir Singh Jhabbar, who had liberated Gurdwara Panji Sahib, Hasan Abdal, on 18 November 1920, had suggested in a report from there that a jatha of 200 Singhs be got up to be despatched wherever action was. These proposals were discussed at a meeting of leading activists in front of the Akal Takht on 14 December 1920. It was decided to form a central dal, corps or contingent, of which Sarmukh Singh Jhabal was designated the first jathedar (president). This date (14 December 1920) is generally accepted to be the date of the formation of the Shiromani Akali Dal, although the title shiromani was added only through a resolution passed by the Dal on 29 March 1922. A confidential memorandum (22 February 1922) of the Punjab police dealing with the activities of the Akill Dal and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee during 1920-22 does not contain this appellation for the Dal, but refers to it as the "Central Akali Dal" to stress its linking role for the various confederated jathas. According to this, report, "the present strength of the Akili Dal, including the figures for the Native States, is at least 25,000 and may be greatly in excess of that estimate." In some contemporary government documents, the Dal is also referred to as Akali Fauj (army) which "functioned on military lines, marched in fours, wore badges, carried flags and organised camps."
The Shiromani Akali Dal was meant to function under the overall control of the Shiromani Gurdwiri Parbandhak Committee making available to it volunteers when required. But initially the jathas tended to operate independently. Yet there was significant closeness between the two and, at times, overlapping of leadership and action. Amar Singh Jhabal, prominent in the Akali hierarchy, continued to be the head of the Guru Ram Das Jatha, and Teja Singh Bhuchchar, the first Jathedar of Sri Akal Takht, continued to head his Gargajj Akali Dal and was at the same time one of the 5-member presidium of the Shiromani Panth Milauni Jatha of the Central Majha Khalsa Diwan. As the Akali movement gathered momentum; unleashing a political storm in the Punjab with successive morchas or agitations such as those erupting over the issue of the keys of the Golden Temple treasury, and Guru ka Bagh, Jaito and at Bhai Pheru resulted in the complete integration of the regional jathas into the Shiromani Akali Dal. This also brought added power and prestige to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, bequeathing to it fuller control over the Dal, although the latter did maintain its separate identity, the two working on more or less similar lines for the achievement of a common goal. The apex leadership of both organizations was a common homogeneous group. The membership base of the Shiromani Akali Dal lay primarily in the rural Punjab. Akali leaders preached the need and importance of gurdwara reform in the villages or at gatherings held on religious festivals, and exhorted Sikhs to receive the rites of Khalsa baptism and join the ranks of the Akali Dal to liberate their religious shrines from the control of an effete and corrupt clergy. Volunteers of a locality formed local Akali jathas which were consolidated into district Akali jathas affiliated to the Shiromani Akali Dal at the summit. The composition of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee before the passing of the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, was also `analogous, and headquarters of both orga nizations were located in the Golden Temple complex at Amritsar. Both the bodies were together declared unlawful by a government order issued on 12 October 1923, and the ban on both was simultaneously lifted on 13 September 1926.
The Akali movement ended with the enactment of the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, and the lifting of the ban on the two Sikh organizations. The right of the Sikhs to possess and manage their gurdwaras and properties attached to them had been recognized. This right was to be exercised through a central board, subsequently redesignated the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, a statutory body formed through an electoral process based do universal adultfranchise of the Sikh Panth. The Shiromani Akali Dal thereafter became an independent political party which instead of functioning under the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee sought to control it through the electoral process. Differences among the Akali leaders had already cropped up on the question of implementing the Gurdwaras Act. The Government had stipulated that only those detenues would be released from jail who gave an undertaking in writing that they accepted and were ready to implement the Act. While one group headed by Sardar Bahadur Mehtab Singh obtained their release by giving the required undertaking, the other group refused to accept the offer of a conditional release. The first election to the Central Board (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) held on 18 June 1926 was fought mainly between the Mehtab Singh group and the faction led by those who had declined to accept the condition laid down by government and were still behind the bars. The result went clearly in favour of the latter, who rightfully claimed to be the Shiromani Akali Dal. This faction won 85 seats against 26 by the Sardar Bahadur group, 5 by the government sponsored Sudhar Committee and 4 by independents. Since then the Shiromani Akali Dal’s control over the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee has been complete and continuous.
Thus gaining supremacy in Sikh affairs, the Shiromani Akali Dal extended the scope of its activity to the national arena. It fully supported the Indian National Congress during the Bardoli satyagraha (agitation) and the campaign for the boycott of the Simon Commission in 1928. But the report of the Motilal Nehru Committee, a joint body representing the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League and the Sikhs to draft a constitution for free India, came as a sore disappointment to the Sikhs because it had defaulted in proposing any measures to protect their minority rights. Towards the end of December 1929, the Shiromani Akali Dal and its sister organization, the Central Sikh League, convened an Akali conference at Lahore to coincide with the 44th annual session of the Congress Party. Presiding over the conference, Baba Kharak Singh reiterated Sikhs’ determination. not to let any single community establish its political hegemony in the Punjab. The Akali Conference, and even more dramatically the huge Sikh procession which preceded it, made a tremendous impact. The Congress not only rejected the Nehru Report but also assured the Sikhs that no political arrangement which did not give them full satisfaction would be accepted by the party.
The Shiromani Akali Dal, since its victory at the first Gurdwara elections in 1926 had functioned as a well-knit party under the leadership of Baba Kharak Singh and Master Tara Singh, but rifts began to show up in the wake of the next elections which took place in 1930. Baba Kharak Singh not only resigned the presidentship of the Shiromani Akali Dal but also quit the party to form a rival body, the Central Akali Dal. Master Tara Singh secured the presidentship of the Dal and remained at the helm of Sikh politics for the next three decades. The question of constitutional reforms under discussion at the time prompted the two groups to sink their differences, and act by mutual counsel. Their agreed standpoint in respect of the Round Table Conferences and the Communal Award was based on a charter of 17 demands adopted at the annual session of the Central Sikh League held on 8 April 1931 under the presidentship of Master Tara Singh. In this charter, the Sikhs expressed their opposition to communal representation and favoured joint electorates, adding the rider that if it was finally decided to resort to reservation of seats on communal basis they would demand a 30 per cent share of the assembly seats in the Punjab and five per cent in the Central legislature. Other demands included a one-third share in provincial services and the public service commission; maintenance of the then existing Sikh percentage in the army; Sikh representation in the Central cabinet and the central public service commission; recognition of Punjabi as the official language in-Punjab; and protection of Sikh minorities outside the Punjab on a par with, protection provided for other minorities. At the national level, the Sikhs wanted the government to be secular; and the Centre to have residuary powers including powers needed for the protection of minorities.
The dissident group of Baba Kharak Singh,, the Central Akali Dal, could never supplant the Shiromani Akali Dal as a representative of the Sikh mainstream, and became extinct after Independence (1947). Even. before 1947, it was the Shiromani Akali Dal which had campaigned for Sikh rights and dignity at Daska (1931), Kot Bhai Than Singh (1935-3’7) and Shahid Ganj, Lahore (1935-40).
The Shiromani Akali Dal fought the first elections, under the Government of India Act, 1935, and on the basis of Communal Award, held in Punjab on 4 January 1937, in collaboration with the Indian National Congress. Out of the 29 Sikh seats, the Akali Dal carried 10 seats (out of 14 contested) and the Congress won five. Opposing them was the Khalsa National Party aligned with the Chief Khalsa Diwan and the Unionist Party. While the Unionist Party with 96 out of a total of 175 seats formed the ministry, the Akalis joined hands with the Congress to form the Opposition. With the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, a rift occurred between the Congress and the Akalis. While the former boycotted the assemblies, the Akalis, although they were at one with the Congress in their demand for the declaration of war aims and the way these aims were to be applied to India, pressed the Government for the protection of their minority interests. Their representative, Baldev Singh, joined the Unionist ministry in the Punjab as a result of a pact made with the premier, Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan. Although known in history as the Sikandar-Baldev Singh Pact signed on 15 June 1942, it essentially marked rapproachement between the Unionist leader and the Shiromani Akali Dal which had spearheaded a very active campaign againsthis government in the Punjab.
The Pakistan Resolution passed by Indian Muslim League at Lahore in 1940, demanding a separate country comprising Muslim majority provinces, posed a serious threat to the Sikhs. In Pakistan as envisaged by the Muslim League, Sikhs would be reduced to a permanent minority, hence. to a subordinate position. The Shiromani Akali Dal opposed tooth and nail any scheme for the partition of the country. It successively rejected the Cripps’ proposal (1942), RajaFormula (1944) and the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946). But the existing demographic realities were against the Sikhs. Nowhere in the Punjab did they have a sizeable tract with a Sikh majority of population. To counter the League demand for Pakistan, .the Shiromani Akali Dal put forward the Azad Punjab scheme proposing the carving out of the Punjab of a new province, roughly between Delhi and the River Chenab, where none of the three communities–Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs-would command an absolute majority. But the proposal did not gather sufficient support. Even the Central Akali Dal led by Baba Kharak Singh, set itself up against it. The Shiromani Akali Dal, under the prevailing circumstances cast its lot with the Indian National Congress trusting to it the protection of Sikhs’ minority rights. In a public statement made on 4 April 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru said, "redistribution of provincial boundaries was essential and inevitable. I stand for semi-autonomous units as well…. I should like them [the Sikhs] to have a semi-autonomous unit within the province so that they may experience the glow of freedom." The working committee of the Shiromani Akali Dal adopted on 17 March 1948 a resolution advising its representatives in the provincial assemblies as well as at the Centre formally to join the Congress party. Minority grievances, however, kept accumulating. Sikh members of the East Punjab Assembly, including a. minister in the Congress government, complained of increasing communal tension and discrimination against their community in recruitment to governement services. The major irritant was the language question. After Independence, the Sikhs expected Punjabi, mother tongue of all Punjabis, to replace Urdu as the official language and medium of education in schools. Even a resolution of the Central Government published in the Gazette of India dated 14 August 1948 declaring that "the principle that a child should be instructed in the early stage of his education through the medium of his mother tongue has been accepted by the government" did not induce the Congress government of East Punjab to declare Punjabi as the medium of instruction. On the contrary, the majority Hindu community went so far as to disclaim Punjabi as their mother tongue. At the Centre too the Constituent Assembly rescinded its own resolution of August 1947 and declared on 26 May 1949 that "statutory reservation of seats for religious minorities should be abolished." The leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal finally veered round to the view that, in the absence of constitutional guarantees to safeguard rights of the minorities, the only way out for the Sikhs was to. strive for an area where they would be numerous enough to protect and develop their language and culture. They therefore decided to press for the formation of a linguistic state coterminous with Punjabi language. Master Tara Singh reactivated the Shiromani Akali Dal and launched the campaign which came to be known as the Punjabi Subs movement. In a signed article published in the Punjabi monthly Sant Sipahi, December 1949, he said that "whatever the name that might be given it, the Sikhs wanted an area where they were free from the domination of the majority community-an area within the Indian constitution but having internal autonomy as did Kashmir."
Two successive half–way measures, Sachar Formula and the Regional Formula, devised by Congress and Sikh leaders by mutual counsel, failed to resolve the linguistic and political issue. The Akali leader, Master Tars Singh, once again gave the call for a Punjabi Suba in October 1958. The Sikh masses responded enthusiastically. The government once again initiated negotiations which culminated in what is known as the Nehru-Tars Singh Pact of April 1959. The truce did not last long. Call for a fresh morcha issued from the Shiromani Akali Dal, on 22 May 1960. The campaign meandering through many a vicissitude continued until the emergence on 1 November 1966 of a Punjabi-speaking state. But before this consummation was reached, the Shiromani Akali Dal had been riven into two, one section led by Master Tina Singh and the other by his lately arisen, but infinitely stronger rival, Sant Fateh Singh, Shadow of this division and of certain unresolved issues such as the non-transfer to it of the state capital, Chandigarh, certain Punjabi-speaking areas still remaining outside of it and maldistribution of water resources, continued to bedevil electoral politics in the new Punjab. In the first election to the state legislature in the new Punjab (1967),"the Shiromani Akali Dal carried 26 seats in a house of 104, and its leader, Gurnam Singh, a retired judge of the Punjab High Court, formed on 28 March 1967 a ministry with the support of some other small groups, including Jana Sangh, Communists and independents. But the ministry fell soon afterwards owing to internal dissensions. On 26 May 1967, two Akahs, Harcharan Singh Hudiara and Lachhman Singh Gill sided with the Congress during voting on a no-confidence motion against the ministry. The ministry survived the motion but Hudiara on the same day announced the formation of a separate Akali Dal. On 22 November, Lachhman Singh Gill with 19 other M.L.A.s openly rebelled against the Shiromani Akah Dal legislative party, reducing the joint front led by Gurnam Singh into a minority. Lachhman Singh Gill then formed, with the support of Congress party, a new ministry which fell on 21 August 1968 when the Congress group withdrew its support. The crisis led to the dissolution of the state legislature and the state was placed under President’s, i.e. Central Government, rule necessitating a mid term poll. The two factions of the Shiromani Akali Dal became one again and registered a resounding victory at the hustings, emerging as the largest single party with 43 seats against Congress 38, Jana Sangh 8, Communists 5, and others 11. Gurnam Singh again formed a ministry in coalition with the Jana Sangh, the Communists supporting from outside. This ministry was brought dawn on 25 March 1970 by internal party dissent. A young Akali leader, Parkash Singh BAdal, then formed the government (27 March 1970) supplanting Gurnam Singh as Chief Minister. This Akali government too had a short tenure. In the fresh Punjab Assembly elections which took place in March 1972, the Shiromani Akali Dal could muster a bare 24 seats out of a total of 117, making way for the Congress party to form its government. This led to self-retrospection on the part of the Shiromani Akali Dal. The Working Committee,of the Dal at its meeting held at Anandpur Sahib, in the Sivalik hills on 16-17 October 1973 adopted a statement of aims and objectives. This statement, known as the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (q.v.),, has, since then, been the cornerstone of Akali politics and strategy.
The Shiromani Akali Dal enjoyed another brief spell of power in the Punjab when at the elections in the wake of Rajiv Laungoval accord, settlement between Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, and Sant Harchand Singh Laungoval, the Akali leader, signed on 25 July 1985, it won an overwhelming majority of seats in the state legislature and formed its government led by Surjit Singh Barnala. Owing however to internal party pressures and the non-implementation by the Government of India of the Rajiv-Laungoval accord, this ministry also proved brittle. In the crisis which overtook the state after its dismissal by the Government of India, the Shiromani Akali Dal gradually became split into several factionsAkali Dal (Bidal) led by a former chief minister of the Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal, Akali Dal (Laungoval) led by Surjit Singh Barnala, also a former chief minister of the Punjab, and Akali Dal (Mann), led by a new entrant into politics, Simranjit Singh Mann, formerly, a high-ranking member of the Indian Police Service.