GURMATĀ, a matā, i.e. counsel or resolution adopted by the Sikhs at an assembly of theirs held in the name of the Gurū concerning any religious, social or political issue. The convention grew in the turbulent eighteenth century to determine the consensus of the community on matters affecting its solidarity and survival. In those uncertain days, Sikhs assembled at the Akāl Takht at Amritsar on Baisākhī and Dīvālī days and took counsel together, in the presence of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, to plan a course of action in face of an immanent danger or in pursuit of a common objective. The final decision emerging from the deliberations was the gurmatā. It represented the general will of the Khālsā and it carried the sanction of the Gurū, the assembly having acted by the authority of the Gurū Granth Sāhib.
The genesis of the gurmatā is traceable to the teachings of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh and the earliest instances in fact go back to his own time. While inaugurating the Khālsā in 1699, the Gurū said that all members of the Panth, the Sikh commonwealth, were equal, he (the Gurū) being one of them; all previous divisions of caste and status had been obliterated. Before he passed away in 1708, he declared that wherever Sikhs were gathered in the presence of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, there was the Gurū himself present and that the counsel thus taken represented the combined will of the Khālsā.
There are at least two instances occurring in the lifetime of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh when he let the 'general will' of the Khālsā prevail, perhaps against his own judgement. One such instance was the evacuation of Anandpur (1705). Sorely pressed for want of food and ammunition, the besieged Sikhs decided to accept the promises of safe conduct given by the besieging force in return for withdrawal from the Fort. The Gurū was not convinced of the genuineness of the besiegers' word, yet he yielded to the will of the Khālsā expressed in council in his own presence. In the battle of Chamkaur, following the evacuation of Anandpur, most of the Sikhs in train as well as two of the Gurū's sons fell fighting against the pursuing host. The few surviving Sikhs suggested to the Gurū to leave the fortress, to which he was not agreeable. They then expressed their joint will in the name of the Khālsā calling upon the Gurū to escape. This was a gurmatā in its nascent form. The Gurū had no option but to 'obey'.
Gurmatā had emerged as a well-established democratic institution towards the middle of the eighteenth century. European travellers such as George Forster (A Journey from Bengal to England and John Malcolm (Sketch of the Sikhs), both of whom visited the Punjab, the former in 1783 and the latter in 1805, have left vivid accounts of the functioning of the gurmatā. According to these accounts, Sikhs gathered twice a year, on the occasions of Baisākhī and Dīvālī, at Akāl Takht to take stock of the political situation, to devise ways and means to meet the common danger, to choose men to lead them in battle, and so on. The procedure was democratic. All those who attended these assemblies of the Sarbatt Khālsā, the entire Sikh people, had an equal say in the deliberations. "All private animosities ceased" and everyone present "sacrificed his personal feeling at the shrine of general good." Everyone was actuated by "principles of pure patriotism" and considered nothing but "the interest of the religion and the commonwealth" to which he belonged. After the gurmatā was passed, everyone, irrespective of whether he had spoken for or against it when it was debated considered it his religious duty to abide by it. The assembly met in the presence of Gurū Granth Sāhib and the Dasam Granth. Inaugural ardāsā (supplication) was said by one of those present seeking the Gurū's blessing, sacramental kaṛāhprasād was distributed and proposals were put forth for discussion. Ardāsā, continues John Malcolm, was again recited and all those present vowed, with the Gurū Granth Sāhib betwixt them, to lay aside all internal disputes and discords. "This moment of religious fervour and ardent patriotism" was utilized to reconcile all animosities. Proposals were then considered and an agreed gurmatā evolved, the whole assembly raising shouts of sat srī akāl together in token of acceptance.
To cite some of the historic gurmatās, Sikhs resolved by mutual counsel at a general assembly at Amritsar in 1726 to avenge the slaying of Tārā Siṅgh of Vāṅ and his companions and rise to obstruct the functioning of the government. They attacked treasuries and arsenals and chastised the officials who had been spying on them. When in 1733 an offer of a jāgīr and title of Nawāb was received from the Mughal governor of Lahore, Sikhs by one voice chose Kāpūr Siṅgh for the honour. Though there was no formal gurmatā adopted, the consensus was arrived at in a dīvān in keeping with the same spirit and procedure. A Sikh conclave took place at Amritsar on Dīvālī (14 October) of 1745 to take stock of the situation following the death of the governor of Lahore, Zakarīyā Khān, who had launched large-scale persecution, and adopted a gurmatā extending sanction to the 25 Sikh groups which had emerged and permitting them to carry out raids on Mughal strongholds. The assembly held on the Baisākhī day (30 March) of 1747 resolved by a gurmatā passed to erect at Amritsar a fort which came to be known as Rām Rauṇī.
By a gurmatā passed in 1748 (Baisākhī, 29 March), Sikhs decided to establish the Dal Khālsā, choosing Jassā Siṅgh Āhlūvālīā as the leader and reducing the number of recognized jathās to 11 (the number having gone up to 65 by then) and providing for a record being kept at the Akāl Takht of the possessions of each group in a separate file (misl). A gurmatā in 1753 formally endorsed the system of Rākhī introduced by the ruling Sikh clans. In 1765, a gurmatā was passed proclaiming the supremacy of the Sarbatt Khālsā over individual leaders. Through another gurmatā the same year, a coin was struck with the inscription, Deg o tegh o fateh o nusrat be diraṅg, yāft az Nānak Gurū Gobind Siṅgh (prosperity, power and unfailing victory received from Nānak and Gurū Gobind Siṅgh), and on the reverse, "Struck at Lahore, the seat of government, in the auspicious samvat 1822 (AD 1765)."
To challenge Ahmad Shāh Durrānī returning from Sirhind to Lahore at the time of his seventh invasion of India (1764-65), the Sikhs made a gurmatā . "All the Sikhs, " records Ratan Siṅgh Bhaṅgū, Prachīn Panth Prakāsh, "assembled in a dīvān. Sitting in one place, they adopted a gurmatā that they must now confront the Shāh and match arms with him. Every second day, they say, he comes and harasses us. Without fighting him now, we shall obtain no peace. He who survives will be spared this daily suffering; he who dies attains realms divine."
Conquests up to 1767 were made by the misls in the name of the Khālsā, but, with personal ambition and aggrandizement gaining the upper hand over the years, the sense of a corporate Sikh commonwealth gradually wore away. In the days of Sikh rule, the institution of gurmatā fell into desuetude. The last semblance of a gurmatā was an assembly of Sikh sardārs called by Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh in 1805 to discuss the situation arising from the entry into Sikh dominions of the fugitive Marāṭhā chief, Jasvant Rāo Holkar, followed by British troops under Lord Lake. The word gurmatā was resurrected after the lapse of Sikh sovereignty, especially with the rise of the Siṅgh Sabhā movement in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Gurmatā then referred to any decision on a matter of religious or social import arrived at by common consent at a Sikh assembly in the presence of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. The Akālī movement brought within its orbit political issues as well. The word gurmatā is now in everyday use for a resolution adopted at a Sikh religious dīvān or political conference.
K. S. Thāpar