SIKH ARMY PAÑCHĀYATS, or regimental committees, were a singularly characteristic phenomenon of the post-Raṇjīt Siṅgh period of Sikh rule in the Punjab. Based on the Sikh principle of equality as well as of the supremacy of saṅgat or the sarbatt khālsā , they wielded great power during 1841-45. Like the rise of Soviets on the eve of the Russian revolution of 1917, pañchāyats in the Sikh army appeared spontaneously at a time of instability and declining administrative standards. The struggle of power between Māī or dowager, Chand Kaur and Prince Sher Siṅgh after the death of Mahārājā Khaṛak Siṅgh and his son, Nau Nihāl Siṅgh, ended in victory for the Prince, but at the expense of military discipline. Sher Siṅgh had won over the army with promises of monetary reward which he was not in a position to fulfil. Charging the government with bad faith, the soldiers whose pay had been in arrears for several months, went on the rampage in the city of Lahore, the trouble spreading also to the provinces. Unpopular senior officers and corrupt paymasters and regimental accountants were their special targets. Sher Siṅgh and his prime minister, Dhiān Siṅgh called a meeting of the soldiers' representatives called pañches to discuss their demands and end the mutiny which continued intermittently for about six months. The troops had tasted power while the court had been weakened through jealousy and intrigue among sardārs some of whom were also suspected of having links with the British. The soldiers, anxious to have their own voice heard in matters of state, introduced the familiar institution of pañchāyat. Each battalian, regiment and, in the case of artillery, ḍerā had its own elected pañchāyat or committee of elders. Together the pañchāyats formed a council which called itself Sarbatt Khālsā or the Khālsā. A contemporary witness of court events and diarist, Sohan LāI Sūrī, 'Umdat ut-Twārīkh, does not use the term pañchāyat, but refers to the representatives of the army variously as Siṅghs, Khālsā, pañches, officers of the palṭans or collectively as the Khālsā jī.
Army pañchāyats after their first fit of fury in 1841 remained dormant for the rest of the rule of Mahārājā Sher Siṅgh. They reappeared, however, with redoubled vigour immediately after the assassination, on a single fateful day (15 September 1843), of Mahārājā Sher Siṅgh, the heir apparent, Kaṅvar Partāp Siṅgh, and the prime minister, Rājā Dhiān Siṅgh. Rājā Hīrā Siṅgh, son of Dhiān Siṅgh, who emerged as a powerful person as the new Wazīr had to propitiate the pañchāyats with promises of a rise in pay and ad hoc rewards.
Broadly speaking, the pañchāyats performed a fourfold role : they, pressurized the government for more pay, helped to maintain discipline and morale in the ranks, assured sovereign authority in matters of state in the name of the people, the Sarbatt Khālsā, and they provided popular leadership to meet the British threat from across the southern borders. However sound in principle, the system could not have lasted for long. The pañchāyats lacked unity and tended towards contention and arbitrariness. With the defeat of the Sikhs in the first Anglo-Sikh war (1845-46), they lapsed. The British drastically reduced the strength of the Khālsā army and disbanded units wherein they suspected the slightest ill-discipline.