Gandhiji inspired Akalis in Punjab in their fight against control of shrines by hereditary custodians

Gandhiji’s weapons of truth and non-violence inspired various movements at home and abroad, including the Akalis in Punjab

Gandhiji inspired Akalis in Punjab in their fight against control of shrines by hereditary custodians

Dr Mohinder Singh

“I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills” said Gandhiji.

While it is true that India has a long tradition of non-violence and peaceful co-existence what is new about Gandhiji’s contribution is the fact that through his strict adherence to truth and non-violence during India’s struggle for independence he was able to demonstrate the efficacy of this age-old weapon.

The Mahatma succeeded not only in defeating the powerful British empire through sheer moral force of truth and non-violence but he also inspired various movements at home and abroad to use this weapon in their respective struggles.

I would like to discuss as to how Mahatma Gandhi was able to inspire the Akali movement in Panjab to adopt non-violent non-cooperation as a weapon in their fight for liberation of their historic shrines from the control of their hereditary custodians.

Akali volunteers’ strict adherence to non-violence even in the face of official repression so much impressed Gandhiji that in his writings and speeches he often quoted their example to other satyagrahis such as those of Mulshi Peta and Malegaon.

Before I discuss how Mahatma Gandhi got involved in the Akali agitation for gurdwara reform I would like to briefly mention how the movement began and became a powerful regional manifestation of the larger movement of non-cooperation as a result of timely guidance and inspiration provided by Gandhiji and his lieutenants in the Congress and the newly formed Central Sikh League.

Early Management of the Sikh Shrines

The Sikh shrines, popularly called Gurdwaras or Dharmsals were started by Guru Nanak, to serve as centres of social, religious and moral instructions and to provide food and shelter to the poor and needy. Along with the twin institutions of the sangat and pangat, the Sikh shrines became laboratories for both the practice and demonstration of the teachings of Guru Nanak.

In keeping with democratic traditions of the Sikh faith, the control of the gurdwaras was left in the charge of the sangat of the area. In the initial stages only dedicated men like Baba Buddha and Bhai Mani Singh were appointed as Granthis of historic Gurdwaras. During the period of the persecution of the Sikhs at the hands of the Mughal emperors and their governors in the Panjab, control of the gurdwaras passed on to the udasis, who looked after various gurdwaras but were not attached to any particular shrine or its wealth and moved from place to place. Later some of them, who established themselves in permanent control of a particular Gurdwara and the jagir attached to it and appointed their regular chelas, came to be known as the mahants.

Misuse of the Sikh Shrines

In the earlier stages, the mahants and their chelas led pious life and enjoyed popular esteem and reverence from the sangat of their areas. But this tradition of purity and austerity seems to have gradually weakened as a result of increase in their income derived from rich and revenue free jagirs attached to most of the historic Sikh shrines by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and other Sikh chiefs. It was due to their inter-dependence on British imperialism that the mahants of the Golden Temple, Amritsar issued a Hukamnama against the Ghadrite heroes, calling them thugs and asking the Sikhs not to extend any support to their cause.

Mahatma Gandhi visits Nankana

Mahatma Gandhi, who had then launched a larger movement of non-violence non-cooperation, was greatly impressed by the example of passive resistance of the Akali reformers.

He was overwhelmed by the courage displayed by them in the Nankana tragedy and visited Nankana Sahib on March 3, 1921 to express his sympathy with the Sikhs. In a specially arranged Shahidi Diwan, he made a brief speech in Hindustani in the course of which he said that, “the news of Nankana was so staggering that he would not believe it without confirmation”. While condemning the group of Mahant Narain Das, he described the martyrdom of Akali reformers as an “act of national bravery”.

The Mahatma felt that the peaceful Akali reformers had attained martyrdom not only to save their own faith but to save all religions from impurity. While Mahatma was convinced that peaceful sufferings and martyrdom of innocent reformers had provided great strength to the movement for gurdwara reform, he advised them not to interpret this as a victory for the Sikhs alone but “dedicate this martyrdom to Bharat mata”.

Fully aware of the possibility that the British government would try to isolate the Sikhs from their countrymen, the Mahatma warned them not to fall in the trap of the bureaucracy and “to unite with the rest of the India to end this satanic system of Government”.

Realising that even a small act of violence on the part of the Akali reformers could change the whole direction of the movement, Mahatma Gandhi further exhorted the reformers to keep their kirpans scrupulously sheathed and hatchets buried. “If you and I will prove worth of the martyrs we will learn the lesson of humanity and suffering from them; and you will dedicate all your matchless bravery to the service of the country and her redemption,” said Gandhiji.

Gandhiji’s message to the Sikhs

Later in the message to the Sikhs in Lahore, the Mahatma described how Mahant Narain Das of Nankana had fortified the gurdwara and hired professional criminals to attack the peaceful Akali reformers who visited the place in the early morning of February 20, 1921. This is what Mahatma Gandhi wrote in the Young India of March 16, 1921:

The temple presents the appearance of a fort. The walls of the rooms that surround the shrine are pierced to admit of shooting through them. The partition walls have connecting holes. The main door has massive steel plates evidently of recent make. The Granth Saheb bears bullet marks. The walls of the sanctuary and the pillars tell the same tale. The Akali party seem to have been treacherously admitted and the gates closed on them. Everything I saw and heard points to a second edition of Dyerism, more barbarous, more calculated and more fiendish than the Dyerism at Jallianwala. Man in Nankana, where once a snake is reported to have innocently spread its hood to shade the lamb-like Guru, turned Satan on that black Sunday.

While greatly appreciating the peaceful manner in which the Akali reformers conducted themselves in the face of provocation from the mahant and suffered martyrdom without raising a single finger, the Mahatma observed “The martyrs have shown courage and resignation of the highest order of which the Sikhs, India and the whole world have every reason to be proud.”

Akalis’ adherence to non-violence so impressed the Mahatma that for quite some time the Nankana tragedy figured in his speeches and writings. While addressing the satyagrahis of Mulshi Peta he said: “I wish to see the bravery of Lachhman Singh and Dalip Singh in Mulshi Peta. Without raising a little finger, these two warriors stood undaunted against the attack of Mahant Narain Das of Nankana Sahib and let themselves be killed.”

Similarly, the residents of Malegaon, who after being provoked by a sub-inspector of police, killed him, were reminded: “If these two brothers (Lachhman Singh and Dalip Singh) acted with great nobility at Nankana Sahib, the residents of Malegaon had displayed an equal degree of heinousness”.

Akalis formally adopt non-cooperation

The Mahatma exhorted the Akalis to offer non-cooperation in the matter of official enquiry into the Nankana Tragedy and consented to serve as Chair of the non-official Commission of Enquiry set up by the Central Sikh League and he further advised the Akalis to broaden the base of their struggle and reform the ‘big gurdwara’, i.e. India, by joining the larger movement of non-cooperation launched by him.

The Akalis accepted Mahatma Gandhi’s advice and formally joined the nationalist struggle by officially adopting non-cooperation in their formal meeting held on May 5, 1921.

Gandhi was able to convince his lieutenants in the Congress to support the Akali movement which to him offered a good opportunity to showcase the efficacy of his experiment of passive suffering. Under the new programme, Akali struggle against a foreign government became a synonym for reforming Sikh shrines. Akali agitation over the keys’ affair and later their struggle at Guru-ka-Bagh are two important manifestations of the non-violent nature of the Akali movement.

Non-violent agitation over the Keys’ Affair

The Golden Temple, the Akal Takhat and the adjoining Gurdwaras in Amritsar had passed into the control of the Akalis in October 1920. Sardar Sunder Singh Ramgarhia, the government-appointed manager of the Golden Temple, was also holding the office of Secretary of the new Committee of Management appointed by the S.G.P.C.

Realising the force of public opinion, he decided to fall in line with the party of reform. Through the S.G.P.C. and the Committee appointed by it they virtually controlled the affairs of the Golden Temple. The fact that the keys of the Toshakhana were still in the possession of a government appointed Manager convinced the reformers of continued official control over the gurdwaras.

At its meeting held on 20 October 1921, the Executive Committee of the S.G.P.C. asked Sardar Sunder Singh Ramgarhia to hand over the keys to Sardar Kharak Singh, the President of the S.G.P.C. Even before the resolution was made public, the news reached the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, who decided to forestall the manoeuvre by immediately sending an Extra Assistant Commissioner accompanied by a police party to Sardar Sunder Singh Ramgarhia to collect the key of the Toshakhana.

The Akali reaction was immediate. As soon as the news reached Amritsar, the S.G.P.C., which was in session at Akal Takhat, adjourned its meeting to Ajnala and continued proceedings of the Diwan. The authorities declared the assembly ‘illegal’ and immediately arrested all its members. However, the arrests, instead of checking the advance of the movement, gave it a fresh fillip.

The S.G.P.C., by a resolution, called upon the Sikhs to hold religious Diwans everywhere to explain the fact about the ‘Keys’ Affair’. The resolution further advised the Sikhs to observe hartal on the day of the arrival of the Prince of Wales on India shores and offer non-cooperation. Further, Sikh soldiers and pensioners were asked not to attend any of the functions in honour of the Prince. The boycott move of the Akali leadership seems to have frightened the authorities in the Panjab to such an extent that they decided to cancel the scheduled visit of the Prince to Amritsar.

Official action in arresting the Akali leaders and awarding them rigorous sentences and fines greatly added to the popularity of the movement. Reports of the C.I.D. officials that ‘the agitation was spreading fast to the rural areas of the Sikh districts of the Panjab, particularly Lahore and Amritsar combined with similar reports from the Military authorities of the serious effect on Sikh troops seem to have disturbed the government officials who started devising a method to get out of the difficult situation.

Along with the suppression of the popular movement, the government also tried to solve the complicated question of the keys. When it realised that no Sikh was prepared to accept the office of the Sarbrah at the hands of the Government, it thought of appointing a committee of a few moderate Sikhs. But in the face of mass and determined opposition from the Sikhs, even the moderates dared not accept the official offer. The S.G.P.C. passed a resolution on 6 December, 1921 that no Sikh should agree to any arrangement about the restoration of the keys unless and until the Sikhs arrested in connection with the Keys’ Affair are released unconditionally.

Mahatma Gandhi, who was watching the developments in Panjab with concern, felt happy that the Akali reformers were offering strict non-cooperation to the bureaucracy in the province and pro-British elements among the Sikh community were being replaced by nationalist elements. This is how the Mahatma describes the developments:

“Sikh courage reaches greater heights every day and along with their courage grew their endurance and their spirit of non-violence. The government is now willing to return to the Gurdwara Prabhandhak Committee the keys of the Golden Temple of Amritsar which they had earlier taken possession of. But the Committee has refused to accept them until the government agrees to release every Sikh leader who has been arrested. The government, therefore, is in a dilemma. If it releases the Sikhs, it will be ridiculed and the strength of the Sikhs will increase two-fold. If it does not release them, their strength will increase ten-fold. It must, therefore, decide whether it would be wiser for it, to allow the Sikhs’ strength to increase ten times or release the Sikh prisoners and be laughed at, taking consolation in the fact that the strength of the Sikhs will then only be doubled.”

A month later, Gandhi noted with satisfaction the secular dimension of the movement and in the same refrain he exuberated: “The Sikh awakening seems to be truly wonderful. Not only has the Akali party become a part of effective non-violence but it is evolving a fine code of honour. The Gurdwara Committee is now insisting on the release of Pandit Dina Nath, a non-Sikh who was arrested in connection with the keys’ affair.”

Adoption of the non-cooperation by the Akalis and their addition to the ranks of those already arrested in connection with the Khilafat agitation and non-cooperation in Panjab greatly worried the government. With a view to dissuading the Sikhs from joining the non-cooperators, the government thought of adopting a conciliatory attitude towards the Akalis and suddenly announced its final withdrawal from the management of the Golden Temple and to hand over the keys to the President of the S.G.P.C.

When, even after securing unconditional release of the Akali leadership they refused to collect the keys, a gazetted officer of the Panjab government was deputed to deliver the keys to Baba Kharak Singh, President of the S.G.P.C. in a Diwan specially arranged for the purpose.

First Victory of Non-Cooperation

Unconditional release of the Akalis and return of the keys was viewed by the nationalist leaders in the country as a decisive victory for the forces of nationalism. Mahatma Gandhi who seems to have found in the Akali victory an echo of the success of non-cooperation sent the following telegram to Baba Kharak Singh, President of the S.G.P.C.:


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