Freedom Movement | History Corner | Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, Ministry of Culture, Government of India

Freedom Movement Detail

The Gurudwara Reform Movement (1920-25) including:-

By : The Gurudwara Reform Movement (1920-25) including:-

August 05, 2021

Gurudwara Reform Movement
Guru Sikh reformers met with the priests of Taran Taran Gurdwara

(a) Taran Taran Morcha

A mandate was issued from the Akal Takhat summoning an assembly of the Sikhs to meet on 15 November, 1920 to elect a representative body of the Panth, to govern and control the Golden Temple and to reform other shrines. But meanwhile the Government of the Punjab, with the assistance of the Maharaja of Patiala, had constituted a Committee with the motive of foiling the attempt of the Sikhs. Despite the alliance of the Mahants, the Government and hired detachments, to prevent the Akalis from convening their meeting, the Akalis were successful in organizing the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee to take up the administration of their gurdwaras.

The conflict between the Akalis and the Government ensued in January, 1921 in Tarn Taran. It was provoked by the Mahants. The Morcha of Tarn-Taran marked the beginning of Gurdwara Reform Movement. The Guru Sikh reformers met with the priests of Taran Taran Gurdwara on 25 January, 1921 to negotiate conditions for reforms. While negotiating the Guru Sikhs were attacked by the Mahants (priests). Seventeen Guru Sikhs were severely wounded and two Guru Sikhs- Hazara Singh and Hukam Singh were killed. Hazara Singh of village Aldinpur descendent of Sardar Bhagat Singh was the first martyr to the cause of Gurdwara reforms.

(b) Nankana Tragedy of February (1920)

Nankana Sahib, being the birth place of Guru Nanak has the most important position among the Sikh places of religious worship. It was controlled by Mahant Sadhu Ram and others. These Mahants gradually grown into wealthy feudal landlords. They deprived the poor peasantry of their rights. The Mahants misappropriated the Community’s income from the Gurdwaras and their land and flouted the traditions and customs of the Sikhs.

To bring these temples under the control of the Community, the Sikhs convened a conference at Amritsar in July 1920. A small Committee to administer the temples affairs was constituted in this conference. A mandate was issued from the Akal Takhat to summon an assembly of the Sikhs to meet on 15 November 1920 to elect a representative body of the panth to govern and control the Golden Temple and other shrines.

The local Sikhs tried to curb the evil practices adopted by the Mahants, but of no avail, as the Mahants had the backing of the local British officials. The Mahant used to spent lakhs of rupees out of the Gurdwara funds is offering rich presents to the local officials on whose goodwill and support depended their appointment and continuance in office.

This state of affairs in Nankana Sahib attracted the attention of the Sikh reformers. A resolution in a Dewan which was held at Dharowal during October 1920. In this gathering a resolution was passed calling upon Mahant Narain Das to improve his habits and purify the administration of the temple. On the contrary Mahant Narain Das began to recruit a strong force to resist the Akali Movement. Not only that with the blessing of Mr. C.M. King, the 10 Commissioner of Lahore division in consultation with Baba Kartar Singh Bedi and other Mahants, Narain Das arranged a meeting at Nankana which was attended by over sixty such types of Mahants. It was decided at the meeting not to recognize the authority of the newly formed Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and a parallel Committee was formed with Mahant Narain as its President and Mahant Basant Das as the Secretary.

On the pretext of self-defence and fortification of the shrine, Mahant Narain Das collected about 400 mercenaries, including notorious outlaws like Ranjha and Rehana, and armed them with swords, lathis, chhavies, takwas and other lethal weapons. Arms and ammunition and kerosene were kept in ready stock. A large number of pistol cartridges were also brought by him from a dealer in Lahore. A further reinforcement of 100 Pathans under the leadership of Ismail Bhatti was also kept ready to strike at a moment’s notice.

The local authorities had full knowledge of the said preparation by the Mahant and they had alerted their high ups. Inspite of these instances of the Mahants’ preparation and the local officials and residents informing the Deputy Commissioner about his designs, the authorities failed to make any police arrangements or to dissuade the Mahant from coming into armed conflict with the Akali reformers.

In the meantime, the SGPC was also considering ways and means to bring this important Gurdwara, like the Golden Temple, Akal Takhat and other Gurdwaras under Panthic Control. In a meeting held on 24 January 1921, a resolution was passed by the SGPC calling upon the whole panth to assemble in a Dewan at Nankana from 4 to 6 March 1921, and to impress upon the Mahant the need for reform. On 6 February 1921 another meeting of the SGPC was called in which a five-members Committee was appointed to make longer arrangements for the proposed Dewan.

The reported decision of the SGPC frightened the Mahant. Meanwhile he might also have heard the rumours about Jathedar Kartar Singh Jhabbar’s plan to forcibly seize on the Gurdwara in case the Mahant failed to mend his ways. As such he showed some signs of compromise and in a meeting with Kartar Singh Jhabbar he agreed to the appointment of a Committee of management on certain conditions. In between the Mahant seems to have changed his mind. Instead of meeting with the Akali leaders to discuss the issues he started making further preparations, including murder of topmost Akali leaders.

Keeping in view the murderous plans of the Mahant in view, the senior leaders of the Akali Dal deputed persons to persuade Jathedar Kartar Singh Jhabbar to abandon his plan for the forcible occupation of Nankana and to request Jathas not to proceed to Gurdwara Janam Asthan. After having informed Jathedar Jhabbar, Dalip Singh proceeded to Sunderkot to inform Bhai Lachhman Singh not to start for Nankana as planned. On finding that Bhai Lachhman Singh and his Jatha had already left the place, Dalip Singh then proceeded to the factory of Bhai Uttam Singh which was located about a mile away from Nankana.

Bhai Lachhman Singh had started for Nankana late in the evening of 19 February 1921 with a few companions. On the morning of 20 February 1921, the party reached a place half a mile away from Gurdwara Janam Asthan. Here they met a messenger of Bhai Dalip Singh and 11 received a message containing the S.G.P.C’s instructions not to proceed to Janam Asthan. Bhai Lachhman Singh agreed, but the other members of his Jatha persuaded him that there would be no harm, if they insisted the Gurdwara and after paying their homage, returned peacefully. Having been thus persuaded by his colleagues, Bhai Lachhman Singh proceeded to the Janam Asthan and arrived there at the head of his Jatha at about six in the morning. The members of the Jatha, who were unaware of these designs, sat down after bowing before the holy Granth and started singing hymns. Immediately 25 of the Mahants men went atop of the roof of the Verandah and started firing at the Akalis sitting below. The rest of the Mahant’s men and Sadhas began throwing bricks at the Sikhs, some of whom ran to take shelter in the side-rooms. Others who ran to the side of the sanctuary were shot dead there. About 25 members of the Jatha who remained inside the Gurdwara calmly suffered martyrdom. About 60 of the Akalis shut themselves is another sanctuary called Chaukhandi but the Mahant’s men broke open the doors and killed them there. Then the side rooms were searched and 25 Akalis found there, were put to death.

After wounding and killing all the members of Bhai Lachhman Singh’s party and other Jathas along with their sympathizers, the Mahant and his men collected and burnt most of the dead and wounded by pouring kerosene which had already been stored for the purpose.

The Police did not take any serious action and according to press reports, even after the arrival of the Deputy Commissioner the burning of the dead and the wounded continued for about an hour and a half.

Mahant Narain Das, with two of his henchmen and 26 Pathans, was arrested and sent to Lahore, but a large number of hooligans succeeded in escaping. The Gurdwara Janam Asthan was placed under military guard.

(c) The Golden Temple Ke Affairs (Morcha Chabian Saheb)

The Morcha Chabian campaign for the recovery of the keys of the Golden Temple treasury, marked a dramatic episode in the Sikh agitations in the early 1920s, to reform the management of their places of worship.

For instance, the Golden Temple at Amritsar had been managed by a government nominated sarbrdh (controller) since 1849. The Golden Temple came under Akali control in October 1920, but the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee nominated the old sarbrdh, Sundar Singh Ramgarhia, as a member of the new committee and appointed him to continue to administer the affairs of the Golden Temple. Even though the sarbrdh now functioned under the directions of the Committee, but, since he still retained possession of the keys of the Toshakhana (treasury) of the Golden Temple, some of the Akali reformers felt that Governmental control, however nominal, still remained.

In response to their complaints, on 20 October 1921, the SGPC resolved to ask Sundar Singh to hand over the keys to its president, but before they could implement the decision, news of the decision reached the deputy commissioner of Amritsar who forestalled the Akalis. On 7 12 November 1921, the extra assistant commissioner Amar Nath, raided the house of Sundar Singh Ramgarhia with a police party and took away the keys.

On 11 November, the Government attempted to replace Sundar Singh with their own appointee Captain Bahadur Singh, in effect overriding the choice of the SGPC. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee refused to recognize the new sarbrdh. On 12 November 1921 a protest meeting was convened in Bagh Akaliari at Amritsar which was addressed by Baba Kharak Singh and other Akali leaders. Akali meetings took place at Gujrariwala, Gujjar Khan and other places. Captain Bahadur Singh resigned, but the Government remained adamant. Dan Singh of Vachhoa and Jasbal, two prominent Akalis, were arrested at a divan at Ajnala on 26 November 1921.

Soon a large number of SGPC members reached Ajnala to continue the divan. The district authority declared the divan to be an “illegal assembly” and arrested all the prominent Akalis, including Baba Kharak Singh, Sardar Bahadur Mehtab Singh and Master Sundar Singh Lyallpuri. On 27 November the SGPC condemned the official action and called upon Sikhs to observe 4 December as a protest day. Sikhs were further asked not to join any function in honour of the Prince of Wales, who was expected to visit India in early 1922.

Failing to control the Sikh protests and foreseeing how it might affect Sikh soldiers and the peasantry, the government announced on 3 January 1922 its decision to return the keys to the Shiromani Committee on 7/5 January 1922, but the Committee refused to accept the keys until all the Sikhs arrested during the movement were released unconditionally.

The matter was raised in the Punjab Legislative Council on 11 January 1922, Sir John Maynard, the Home Member announced the release of all Sikhs under detention. However, the Akalis refused to go and fetch the keys from the Deputy Commissioner. A Government official was eventually sent to deliver the keys wrapped in a piece of red silk to Baba Kharak Singh, president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, at a divan on 19 January 1922 at the Akal Takht.

(d) Guru ka Bagh Morcha

In 1922 a fresh clash occurred between the Akalis and the Mahants at Guru Ka Bagh, a temple situated about ten miles north of Amritsar. On the complaint of Mahant Sunder Das that under the agreement with the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.) only the Gurdwara was surrendered and not the adjoining land from where the Sikhs were cutting wood for their community kitchen, when the police arrested a few Sikhs for this offence, the Akalis launched a morcha which continued for twenty days. Every day a Jatha of Akalis went to the disputed spot and was merclilessly beaten by the police. In August the police shot down a number of Sikhs. The Working Committee of the Congress, while condemning the ruthless policy of the police, appointed a Commission to investigate the events of Guru Ka Bagh. Calm and cool courage and marvellous self-restraint displayed by the Akalis fetched them hearty felicitations of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.

(e) Babar Akali Movement

The Babbar Akali Movement took place during the years 1921 to 1925. The majority of the Babbar Akalis were returned immigrants from Canada. Some of them had actively participated in the Gadhar Movement and were also known as Gadharites (Gadhari Babbeys).

The Babbar Akalis were Guru Sikhs, who were against the imperialist policies of the British Government. The Babbar Akalis were against the Gandhi formula of non-violence and non-cooperation. They were upset because of the tragedy of Nankana Sahib in which hundreds of innocent Sikhs were massacred. They rejected the peaceful struggle for reformation in the Sikh shrines and decided to lead their movement separately without the company and cooperation of the dominant Akali leadership.

The Babbar Akalis made their first appearance during the Sikh Educational Conference held at Hoshiarpur on 19th March, 1921. Later on, they organized their own meetings which were attended by renowned personalities like Master Mota Singh, Kishan Singh, Amar Singh, Tota Singh Peshawari, Gurbachan Singh and Bhuttan Singh and some of the returned emigrants from Canada. The Working Committee of the Babbar Akalis was elected in 1922 with Sardar Kishan Singh as Jathedar, Dalip Singh Gosal, as Secretary and Baba Santa Singh as Treasurer. To reinforce the propaganda machinery and to promote the cause of the movement, the Working Committee decided to publish a newspaper called Babbar Akali Doabad Akhbar, with Sardar Karam Singh Daulpur appointed as Editor. Their main objective was to “eliminate” certain officials and nonofficial condemned as enemies of the Khalsa Panth.

Babbar Akalis declared it necessary to teach a lesson by eliminating the toadies (stooges) and those who were responsible for the massacre of the Akalis at Nankana Sahib. It was generally felt that Mr.C.M. King, the Commissioner of Lahore, J.W. Bowring, the Superintendent of Police, Mahants Devi Dass and Basant Dass, Sunder Singh Majitha and Baba Kartar Singh Bedi were responsible for the Nanakana Sahib Massacre.

They appealed to the Hindu and Muslims through articles, leaflets. Babbar Akali Doabad Akhbar and the religious congregations to Join them in their war against foreigners for freedom. To fulfill their programme Bela Singh and Ganda Singh were sent to Lahore on 23rd May, 1921 to take care of Mr. J.W. Bowring. They were suspected by the police at Lahore Railway Station and arrested. During the interrogation the two let out the secrets, which resulted in the arrest of Amar Singh, Narain Singh, Tota Singh, Chatar Singh, Chanchal Singh, Thakur Singh, Shankur Singh and many more members of the group. Warrants for the arrest of Master Mota Singh, Bijla Singh and Kishan Singh were also issued, who had managed to dodge the police.

Babbar Akalis also aimed to paralyse the supporters of the British Government such as Zaildars, Sufedphoshes, Lambardars, Patwaries, police informers, and other toadies by terrorising them through various forms of punishments. According to the plans of the Babbars an attempt was made to take care of Arjan Singh Patwari of Haripur had allegedly helped in the arrest of Master Mota Singh. Somehow the attempt failed. Then, Zaildar Bishan Singh, a retired official of the Canal Department was shot dead on February 10th, 1923

The elimination of Zaildar Bishan Singh greatly alarmed the government authorities. Spies were sent to villages. The government announced rewards for the arrest of the Babbars. Lambardars were ordered to inform the government authorities in case they come across a Babbar or learnt about his whereabouts.

Through betrayal or through information supplied by informers the important leaders of the Babbar Akali Movement were arrested. The arrests of these leaders actuated the rest of the Babbars to set up their programme of eliminating those responsible for these arrests. Consequently, a series of continuous “eliminations” took place. On March 19th Labh Singh, an employee of the Police Training School, Philaur, was shot dead in the Hoshiarpur district. He had helped in the arrest of Jathedar Kishan Singh. The Babbars issued an open letter addressed to the Governor on March 22, 1923. They claimed the credit for the eliminations and threatened that other toadies would also face the same fate. Hazara Singh of Hoshiarpur district was killed on March 27, 1923.

The continuous “eliminations” created panic among the toadies and the Government authorities. Numbers of village officials and other loyalists to the Government started expressing fear for their lives and the desire to resign from their posts. The government took stiff measures to meet the Babbar Challenge and tried to restore peace and confidence among the loyalists. Special C.I.D. was deputed to assist the police. The police force at Jullundur was increased by adding another fifty men. Above all, a special enrollment of 150 was sanctioned, and an Indian infantry of 250 and a squadron of armoured cars was deputed to assist the police in making the arrests of the Babbars. Leaflets were scattered in the affected area in order to restore peace, and the Babbars were declared as an unlawful association under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 1908. The government offered handsome rewards of Jagirs and cash prizes if someone provided useful information leading to the arrest of any Babbars.

The British Parliament raised questions about the deteriorating condition of law and order in the Punjab. The government of the Punjab was criticized, and fears were expressed about the safety of the British officials in India. Upon pressure of the British Parliament, London, the government of the Punjab introduced more stringent measures against the Babbars. Hideout places of the Babars were raided, with similar raids carried out in the villages of Pandori Nijran, Kishanpur, Jassowal, Paragpur, Kot Fatuhi and Daulatpur. As a result, 186 arrests were made. By the middle of 1924 all the important Babbar’s were either killed or arrested. However, the Akali leaders and the Congress leaders like Mahatma Gandhi did not approve of the Babbar’s programme of violence.

“Though the Akali leadership disowned both the Babbars as also their methods and went even to the extent of passing formal resolutions against them. the Babbars contribution to the Akali Movement cannot be ignored. They increased the bargaining power of the Akali leadership by terrorizing the bureaucratic machinery and its supporters in the Punjab and thus compelling the Government to come to terms with them.

(f) Jaito Morcha

During the Akali movement in Punjab, Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha who was a sympathiser of the Akalis, observed the Martyrs Day to honour all those who laid down their lives at Nankana Sahib. This act of the Maharaja was resented by the British Government. On the pretext that he was not having good relations with the Patiala State, he was forced to abdicate. This compelled the Sikhs to launch an agitation which is known as Jaito Da Morcha.

The Akali reformers led Jathas to Jaito Gurdwara Gangsar, Nabha, from 1923-1925 against the British order prohibiting all prayer-assemblies in it. The Jatha aimed at resuming the Akhand Path (continuous reading of Guru Granth Sahib) at the Jaito Gurudwara and giving a call for the reinstallation of Ripudaman Singh −the Maharaja of Nabha −who had recently been deposed by the British for his nationalistic sympathies. Wilson Johnston (the Administrator of Nabha), ordered the troops to open fire. The British-led troops opened fire killing and wounding many. A large number of Jatha participants were arrested and imprisoned. The Indian National Congress deputed Jawaharlal Nehru, Principal N.K. Gidnain and K. Santhanam to make an on-the-spot study of the situation, but they were also arrested like the Akalis.

(g) Bhai Pheru Morcha;

Bhai Pheru Morcha was one among the series of campaigns in the Sikhs’ agitation in the 1920’s for the reformation of their holy places. Gurdwara Sangat Sahib, located in Mien ke Maur in Lahore district, dedicated to the memory of Bhai Pheru (1640-1706), a masand of parish leader in the time of Guru Har Rai who was honoured for his devotion by Guru Gobind Singh with the titles of Sachchi Dahri (true bearded) and Sangat Sahib, was an important shrine, with a huge land attached to it, and was being managed by Mahant Kishan Das. After the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee had taken over management of some of the major shrines and mahants of priests and started voluntarily handling over Gurdwaras under their control, Mahant Kishan Das, on 28 December 1922, transferred Gurdwara Bhai Pheru to the Committee. He later went back on the agreement he had signed and petitioned the Government to have the shrine and the lands restored to him.

On 7 December 1923 the police arrested the manager, Jagat Singh, and eleven other representatives of the S.G.P.C. The possession of the shrine and the estate was restored to the Mahant and his tenants. However, the decision of the Deputy Commissioner of Lahore on the Gurdwara lands went in favour of the S.G.P.C. and, as its representatives arrived to take charge of these, Mahant Kishan Das and his tenant Pala Ram, brother of Mahant Narain Das, of Sri Nankana Sahib, lodged a complaint with police that the Akalis were forcibly taking possession of his property. Police arrested a number of Akalis on 2 January 1924. The Government revised its earlier decision given in favour of the S.G.P.C. and passed fresh orders declaring Pala Ram to be temporarily in possession of the land. Akalis launched a morcha in protest. Jathas or batches of Akali volunteers started marching to Bhai Pheru from different parts of the district. On 5 January 1924, S.G.P.C. took the campaign in its own hands.

By 10 September 1925, more than 6000 people were arrested and jailed. An unsavoury incident, however, led the local organizer, Arjan Singh, to suspend the morcha on 20 September 1925. The Gurdwara and the lands attached to it came under the Committee’s control after the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925 was passed by the Punjab Legislative Council, and the court case too was decided in the Committee’s favour in June 1931.