JATHĀ, from Sanskrit yūtha meaning a herd, flock, multitude, troop, band or host, signifies in the Sikh tradition a band of volunteers coming forth to carry out a specific task, be it armed combat or a peaceful and non-violent agitation. It is not clear when the term jathā first gained currency, but it was in common use by the first half of the eighteenth century. After the arrest and execution of Bandā Siṅgh Bahādur in 1716, the terror let loose by the Mughal government upon the Sikhs forced them to leave their homes and hearths and move about in small bands or jathās, each grouped around a jathedār or leader who came to occupy this position on account of his daring spirit and capacity to win the confidence of his comrades. For every able-bodied Sikh who had undergone the vows of the Khālsā, it became necessary to join one or the other jathā to fight against the oppressors. Besides skill in the use of arms, he had to be a good horseman, because in guerilla warfare, such as the Sikhs had to resort to against the superior might of the State, speed and mobility were of paramount importance. The weaponry, in the beginning, ranged from knobbed clubs, spears and battle axes to bow and arrows and matchlocks. A long sword and a dagger were of course carried by every member of the Khālsā. Some of them wore armour, but no helmets. During raids on enemy columns and baggage trains, the booty most valued was good horses and matchlocks so that most of the jathās were gradually equipped with firearms. Heavy artillery pieces were not favoured, as they impeded mobility and speed. However, as Ratan Siṅgh Bhaṅgū, Prāchīn Panth Prakāsh, says, they did carry lighter pieces such as zambūraks or camel swivels and long-range muskets, called jañjails. Usually, each jathā had to fend for itself; yet it was necessary to co-ordinate its activities with those of others and operate under an overall plan. The diverse jathās voluntarily accepted the control of Sarbatt Khālsā, the assembly of all the Sikh jathās at Amritsar on the occasions of Baisākhī and Dīvālī when plans of action were formulated in the form of gurmatās or resolutions adopted in the presence of Gurū Granth Sāhib.
The brief respite provided by a temporary detente with the government during 1733-35 enabled the Sikh jathās to assemble and stay in strength at Amritsar with immunity. Nawāb Kapūr Siṅgh, their chosen leader, knit the entire force into two dals, i.e. branches or sections -- the Buḍḍhā Dal (army of the old) and Taruṇā Dal (army of the young). Taruṇā Dal was further divided into five jathās each with its own flag. With the end of the detente and the renewal of State persecution with redoubled vigour, the Sikhs had again recourse to smaller and more numerous jathās. Need for co-ordination forced them again to regroup themselves on the Dīvālī of 1745 into 25 jathās, but the number multiplied again. 'Alī ud-Dīn Muftī, 'Ibrat Nāmah, mentions 65 jathās. They were finally reorganized on the Baisākhī of 1748 into 11 misls, under the overall command of Jassā Siṅgh Āhlūvālīā. The entire fighting force of the Sikhs was named Dal Khālsā Jī. The misls were large bodies of mounted warriors and might have been divided into subunits, but the terms jathā and jathedār gradually fell into disuse. The leaders of misls and the Dal Khālsā preferred to be called sardārs, a term borrowed from the Afghān invaders under Ahmad Shāh Durrānī. The establishment of monarchy under Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh put an end to all these older institutions -- jathā, misl, Dal Khālsā, Sarbatt Khālsā and gurmatā.
During the religious revival of the later nineteenth century, the Sikh reformers adopted the term Khālsā Dīwān for their central bodies and Siṅgh Sabhā for the local branches as well as for the entire movement. The term jathā was generally restricted to bands of preachers and choirs, a connotation still in vogue. It was during the Gurdwārā Reform movement of the early twentieth century that dal and jathā reappeared. The apex body of Sikh agitators for political action for the liberation of their shrines from the mahants, the effete priestly class, came to be named the Shiromaṇī Akālī Dal and its locally organized branches Akālī Jathās. During the subsequent morchās or peaceful agitations organized by the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee, a body that later got statutory recognition under the Sikh Gurdwārās Act, 1925, and by the Shiromaṇī Akālī Dal, which emerged as the major political party of the Sikhs, each band of volunteers going forward to press a demand or to defy an unjust fiat of the government, was called a jathā. This use of the term is still prevalent.