Great past

Print edition : January 12, 2007

The GOLDEN temple in Amritsar, the most important Sikh shrine. - AKHILESH KUMAR

The Shiromani Akali Dal has a history of non-violent resistance to oppression before and after Independence.

ON December 14, one of the oldest political parties from the country's north quietly observed the 86th anniversary of its creation. Less than a week earlier, on December 8, the party celebrated the 79th birthday of its present president, Prakash Singh Badal, by organising a congregation at Ajitwal village in Moga district of Punjab, which was described as the "largest gathering of Punjabis since Independence".

There is no major work that systematically chronicles the history of the Shiromani Akali Dal. The non-availability of a compiled account is explained by its secretary D.S. Cheema. He points out that the majority of the records were lying in the Sikh Reference Library at the Golden Temple complex. They were either destroyed or taken away by the security forces during "Operation Bluestar" in 1984.

The Akalis had emerged as a guerilla squad in about 1690 when the Sikh community faced continued persecution from Mughal rulers. However, as a political party, the Shiromani Akali Dal came into being on December 14, 1920, two days after the formation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which till date functions as a representative body managing the historic Sikh shrines in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Union Territory of Chandigarh.

Initially the Akali Dal functioned as a "task force" for the SGPC, mobilising and providing volunteers when required. The Gurdwara Act of 1925, while restricting the SGPC's function to a purely religious nature, introduced an electoral system. To fulfil the need for an organ to educate and organise the electorate politically, the Akali Dal was granted the status of a political party. The party was destined to play a major role in the Gurdwara Reform Movement of the 1920s and also in the freedom struggle.

Though the genesis of the Shiromani Akali Dal is traced to the Gurdwara Reform Movement, when Sikhs undertook long-drawn campaigns termed as "morchas" in the early 1920s for control of their shrines, it was the enthusiastic participation of the rural masses in an unprecedented, peaceful manner despite extreme repression that built up the image of the party at the national level. In the series of Akali agitations for control of and reform in gurdwara management, about 40,000 persons went to jail, 400 lost their lives, 2,000 suffered injuries and Rs.16 lakhs was paid by way of fines and forfeitures, while 700 Sikh government functionaries were deprived of their positions. In addition, a ban was imposed on the recruitment of Sikhs in the civil and military services.

At the turn of the 20th century, Sikh shrines continued to remain under the control of hereditary officials known as "mahants". While practices contrary to the Sikh religious structure had developed over the years, some disturbing factors became apparent after the fall of the Sikh kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Neglectful of their religious office, the mahants began to divert assets, especially land, attached to the shrines, for their own enrichment.

Following the decline of the Sikh kingdom, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, the Harmandar Sahib in Amritsar, better known as the Golden Temple, was placed under the control of the British Deputy Commissioner of the city, who managed the affairs through a Sikh appointee. These hereditary custodians invited Sir Michael O'Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab from 1912 to 1919 who supported General Reginald Dyer's actions, and honoured him with a `siropa' (robe of religious honour) in the shrine after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Contrary to the Sikh faith, idols were installed in the shrine's precincts and astrologers carried out their business there. Pilgrims from the lower classes were not allowed in before 9 a.m.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Singh Sabha Movement activists managed to create public opinion against the extravagant ceremonials in the shrines, which had supplanted the simple religious service. Audible voices of protest from influential individuals and organisations such as the Khalsa Diwan began to be noticed.

While the demand for a manager appointed by the Sikh chiefs began to gather support, on October 12, 1920, a meeting of lower-caste Sikhs, sponsored by teachers and students of the Khalsa College, was held in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. The next morning priests at the Harmandar Sahib refused to accept `Karah Parshad' (wheat flour pudding) they had brought as offering and to say the `Ardas' (prayers) on their behalf. A compromise was, however, reached but only after protests.

The protestors then marched towards the Akal Takht, and the priests there fled. The gathering in the courtyard then appointed a representative committee of 25 for its management. This, according to many scholars, marked the beginning of the movement in which the Akalis set afoot operations for retrieving their holy places from the control of mahants. The committee convened an assembly of Sikhs on November 15, 1920. Two days before the proposed conference, the Lieutenant-Governor set up a 36-member committee. However, the Sikhs held their scheduled meeting to form a 175-member committee, which also included 36 official nominees. It was designated as the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which held its first meeting at the Akal Takht on December 12, 1920. Sundar Singh Majithia, Harbans Singh of Attari and Bhai Jodh Singh were elected president, vice-president and secretary respectively. While Majithia resigned in 1921 to join the Ministry, the legendary Akali leader Baba Kharak Singh was elected in his place.

Bullet marks on a `minar' inside the Golden Temple complex after Operation Bluestar.-AMAN SHARMA/AP

The more radical elements organised a semi-military corps of volunteers known as the Akali Dal (Army of Immortals), with Sarmukh Singh Jhabbal as the first chief. It took upon itself the task of raising and training men for "action" to take over gurdwaras from mahants, many of whom began yielding possession of the properties to elected committees and also agreed to become paid granthis (scripture readers). The transition was not smooth where mahants were strongly entrenched or received government support.

At Tarn Taran, about 50 km from Amritsar, a batch of Akalis invited for negotiations were attacked, leaving two dead. At Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak Dev, the custodian, Narain Das, used a private army to attack an unarmed Akali `jatha' (group) on the morning of February 20, 1921. Different accounts record Akali casualties as between 150 and 200.

The Nankana `saka' (episode) was condemned by the then British Lt-Governor of the Punjab, Sir Edward Maclagan, while Mahatma Gandhi, accompanied by the Muslim leaders Shaukat Ali and Muhammad Ali courted arrest. The possession of the shrine was handed over to the SGPC and the mahant was arrested.

However, scholars believe that the first official `morcha' by the Akali Dal was launched to protest against the action of the then Punjab government, which on November 7, 1921, seized the keys of the Golden Temple's treasury. On the call of the SGPC, Akalis, donning black robes, started a programme of filling British jails, which continued for more than a year. On January 19, 1922, an official handed over the keys to Baba Kharak Singh, while Mahatma Gandhi telegraphed a message: "First decisive battle for India's freedom won." This Akali action was christened "Morcha Chabian da Guchha" (agitation for the bunch of keys).

A few months later the Akalis launched their historic "Guru ka Bagh Morcha" (agitation for control over the garden of the Guru). On August 9, 1922, the police arrested five Sikhs who had gone to gather firewood for a `langar' (community kitchen) from the land allotted to a shrine in Amritsar that commemorates a visit of Guru Arjan Dev. They were summarily tried and sentenced to six months' rigorous imprisonment. The Akalis organised batches, which courted arrest and faced prosecution. A couple of weeks later, adopting a harsher stance the police began mercilessly beating those who came to "Guru ka Bagh". The Sikhs appeared in larger numbers the next day to submit themselves to the beating until they fell unconscious.

A visiting committee appointed by the Indian National Congress lauded the Akalis for their complete non-violence. A Christian missionary, Rev. C. F. Andrews, who witnessed the Akali action on September 12, 1922, "was deeply moved by the noble Christ-like behaviour of the Akali passive resisters". It is recorded that at his instance, Sir Maclagan went to Amritsar to stop the beatings. The Akalis gained possession of "Guru ka Bagh" after 5,605 of them were arrested and 936 hospitalised.

Rev. Andrews reported to Mahatma Gandhi his experience during the Guru ka Bagh morcha: "There were four Akali Sikhs with black turbans facing a band of about a dozen policemen, including two English officers. Their hands were placed together in prayer. Then an Englishman without provocation lunged forward the head of his lathi, bound with brass, and struck the Sikh at the collar-bone with great force. He fell to the ground, rolled over and slowly got up once more to face the same punishment till he was laid prostrate by repeated blows. Others were knocked out more quickly. It was brutal in the extreme. I saw with my own eyes one of those policemen kick in the stomach a Sikh who stood helplessly before him. I wanted to cry and rush forward, but then I saw a police sepoy stamping with his foot an Akali Sikh hurled to the ground and lying prostrate..... The brutality and the inhumanity of the whole scene was indescribably increased by the fact that the men who were hit were praying to God and had taken a vow [at the Golden Temple] to remain silent and peaceful in word and deed. I saw no act or look of defiance. It was a true martyrdom, a true act of faith. It reminded me of the shadow of the cross."

Yet another morcha ensued in February 1924, when the police interrupted an `Akhand path' (continuous recital of the scriptures) at Jaito where the Akalis had gathered to express solidarity with the regent of the Nabha state, Maharaja Ripudaman Singh, who had been deposed by the British. The Maharaja fell out of favour with the colonial rulers for his strong protest against the Jallianwala massacre. Akali activists began arriving to assert their right to freedom of worship, and the situation took an ugly turn when a number of casualties were reported when one such jatha was fired upon by the police on February 21, 1924. Despite the SGPC and the Akali Dal being declared unlawful bodies, the agitation continued. Jawaharlal Nehru courted arrest there in support of the Akalis. His father Moti Lal Nehru visited Nabha to inquire about him.

In May 1924, after Sir Malcolm Hailey assumed charge as the Governor of the State, negotiations with imprisoned Akali leaders led to the enactment of the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925. When most of its demands were accepted, the Akali Dal ceased the agitation.

In post-Independence India, the Shiromani Akali Dal continued its major role in politics. Its Punjabi Suba Zindabad of 1955 and Punjabi Suba of 1960 led to the creation of the present State of Punjab in 1966 on the basis of the linguistic formula.

The Akalis went on to agitate for the inclusion of Chandigarh in Punjab in 1969 and the formation of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) in 1971, and later launched the "Dharam Yudh Morcha" in 1982 opposing the construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal and seeking a federal structure for the country. The 1982 agitation was lost in the subsequent violence relating to a decade of terrorism.

However, their struggle against the Emergency, from June 1975 to December 1976, has been acknowledged as the crowning glory of the Akali Dal in post-1947 India. Thousands of party workers, in a sustained morcha, courted arrest to protest against the draconian laws that infringed upon the freedom of expression and other civil liberties.

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