SIṄGH SABHĀ MOVEMENT, a reform movement among the Sikhs which assuming a critical turn in the seventies of the nineteenth century, became a vitally rejuvenating force at a time when Sikhism was fast losing its distinctive identity. Following closely upon the two successive movements, Niraṅkārī and Nāmdhārī, it was an expression of impulse of the Sikh community to rid itself of the base adulterations and accretions which had been draining away its energy, and to rediscover the sources of its original inspiration. It was, however, quite different from its precursors in source, content and outcome. The Niraṅkārī and Nāmdhārī movements were inspired by individual holy men who, unhappy at the dilution of Sikh doctrine and practice, desired to set right some of the aberrations purely religious in nature, and who ended up in founding their separate sects. The Siṅgh Sabhās, on the other hand, arose out of a common awareness of the danger to the very existence of the Sikhs as a separate religious community. It was led by men deeply religious but with no claims to divine knowledge and no ambitions for exalted priesthood. In contrast with the earlier, exclusively sectarian cults, the Siṅgh Sabhā movement possessed a mass appeal and base. It influenced the entire community and reorientated its outlook and spirit. The stimulus it provided has shaped the Sikhs' attitude and aspiration over the past more than one hundred years.
Like other Indian reform movements of the nineteenth-century, the Siṅgh Sabhā was the result of the Sikh intelligentsia's contact with western education and institutions. The transfer of political power to the British in 1849 led to the transformation of the world in which the Sikhs and other Punjabis had lived. The British differed from past rulers in that their presence affected major changes in Punjabi society and culture. The most obvious innovations arose from the administrative structures and the political orientation underlying them. Within two decades, the colonial power introduced a new bureaucratic system complete with western style executive and judicial branches necessitating emphasis on western education and attainment of skills required for new occupations such as law, administration and education. Considering the Sikhs as an important element in their colonial strategy and the centrality of religion in the Sikh society, the ruler took particular care to control the central Sikh institutions notably those at Amritsar and Tarn Tāran. British officers headed management committees, appointed key officials, and in general provided grants and facilities to insure continued Sikh sympathy for the rāj. At the same time, however, the government also patronized and assisted the rapid spread of Christian missionary activities, thus introducing yet another element in the mosaic of Punjab's religious patterns. The challenge of western science, Christian ethics and humanitarianism had provided self-examination and reinterpretation of religious belief and praxis. The result was the rise of numerous reform movements which even with their professed approach to liberalism and universal humanism remained essentially communal competing for conversions to their respective creeds. In the Punjab the Hindu Brahmo Samāj, Dev Samāj and Ārya Samāj, and the Muslim 'Alīgaṛh movement of Sayyid Ahmad and Ahmadīyah movement of Qādīāṅ were quite active. For the Sikhs, strangely somnolent since the forfeiture of political authority, besides the awareness of rapid depletion in their numbers and of general laxity in religious observance among themselves, two other motivating factors were at work : a reaction to what was happening in the neighbourly religious traditions and the defensiveness generated by Christian proselytization and the odium theologicum started by Hindu critics especially the Ārya Samājists.
The Christian missionary activity commenced in the Punjab along with the advent of the British rule. Even while Raṇjīt Siṅgh ruled in Lahore, an American Presbyterian Mission had been set up at Ludhiāṇā close to the Sikh frontier. With the abrogation of Sikh rule in 1849, the Ludhiāṇā Mission extended its work to Lahore. Amritsar, the headquarters of the Sikh faith, became another major seat of Church enterprise with branches at Tarn Tāran, Ajnālā and Jaṇḍiālā. The United Presbyterian Mission was active in Siālkoṭ. Other organizations, notably the Cambridge Mission, the Baptist Mission and the Church of Scotland, entered the field and were amply rewarded with converts, mostly from the lowest stratum of society. The rate of conversion was not alarmingly high. Yet there were instances which aroused community's concern. In 1853, Mahārājā Duleep Siṅgh, the last Sikh sovereign, who had come under British tutelage at the tender age of eight, accepted the Christian faith ---a conversion hailed as "the first instance of the accession of an Indian prince to the cummunion of the Church." The Sikh ruler of Kapūrthalā invited the Ludhiāṇā Mission to set up a station in his capital, and provided funds for its maintenance. A few years later the Kapūrthalā ruler's nephew, Kaṅvar Harnām Siṅgh, converted a Christian. The Ludhiāṇā Mission noted in its annual report for 1862 : "Until the Rajah of Kapūrthalā invited missionaries to his capital no instance had occurred in India in which the progress of the Gospel had been fostered by a ruler."
Besides conversions to Christianity there were reversions from Sikhism back to Sanātanist Hinduism at such a large scale that the fact was noted in the government's annual report for1851-52 :
The Sikh faith and acclesiastical polity is rapidly going where the Sikh political ascendancy has already gone. Of the two elements of the old Khalsa, namely, the followers of Nanuck, the first prophet, and the followers of Guru Govind Singh, the second great religious leader, the former will hold their ground, and the latter will lose it. The Sikhs of Nanuck, a comparatively small body of peaceful habits and old family, will perhaps cling to the faith of their elders; but the Sikhs of Govind who are of more recent origin, who are more specially styled the Singhs or "Lions", and who embraced the faith as being the religion of warfare and conquest, no longer regard the Khalsa now that the prestige has departed from it.
These men joined in thousands, and they now desert in equal numbers. They rejoin the ranks of Hinduism whence they originally came, and they bring up their children as Hindus. The sacred tank at Amritsar is less thronged than formerly, and the attendance at the annual festivals is diminishing yearly. The initiatory ceremony for adult persons is now rarely perfomed.
And again in the report for 1855-56 :
This circumstance strongly corroborates what is commonly believed, namely that the Sikh tribe is losing its numbers rapidly. Modern Sikhism was little more than a political association (formed exclusively from among Hindus), which men would join or quit according to the circumstances of the day. A person is not born Sikh, as he might be born a Muhammadan or born a Hindu; but he must be specially initiated into Sikhism. Now that the Sikh commonwealth is broken up, people cease to be initiated into Sikhism and revert to Hinduism. Such is the undoubted explanation of a statistical fact, which might otherwise appear to be hardly credible.
The resulting cultural upheaval affected the Sikhs from 1860 onward. Despite their early education in gurdwārā schools or through instruction by giānīs (Sikhs learned in religious lore) or local teachers, an emerging Sikh intelligentsia began to study western subjects and joined in associations that discussed religious and social issues. In Lahore, for example, several Sikhs were members of Dr. G.W. Leitner's orientalist Añjuman-i-Punjab, set up in 1865, where they became skilled at literary criticism and debate over historical issues. Debates were held on whether Urdu or Hindi was the more appropriate language to replace Persian as official language. Punjabi in Gurmukhī script was ignored even by the Punjab Education Department as a mere dialect without a written literature. The Oriental College established at Lahore in 1864 to encourage oriental studies had courses in Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian but not in Punjabi. Some Sikh members of Añjuman-i-Punjab like Rājā Harbaṅs Siṅgh and Rāi Mūl Siṅgh pleaded the cause of Punjabi but without success until Sardār Attar Siṅgh of Bhadauṛ presented a list of 389 books written on different subjects in Gurmukhī script and collected in his personal Library. Dr. Leitner was convinced and he not only introduced Punjabi as a subject in the Oriental College but also got it introduced in the Pañjāb University of which he was the first Registrar; but that was later in 1877.
What really shook the Sikhs out of their slumber were two incidents that occurred one after the other in early 1873. In February 1873, four Sikh pupils of the Amritsar Mission School--- Āyā Siṅgh, Atar Siṅgh, Sādhū Siṅgh and Santokh Siṅgh--proclaimed their intention to renounce their faith and become Christians. This shocked Sikh feelings. The boys had hardly been persuaded by their parents and other wise men not to carry out their intention when another provocation followed. One Paṇḍit Shardhā Rām of Phillaur, who had been engaged by the British to write a history of the Sikhs, came to Amritsar and began a series of religious discourses in Gurū Bāgh in the Darbār Sāhib complex. During his narration of Gurū Nānak’s life story he garbled certain facts and spoke disrespectfully of the Sikh Gurūs and their teachings. Some Sikh young men in the audience objected and challenged the speaker to a debate. The Paṇḍit quietly disappeared from Amritsar but not without leaving some leading Sikhs thinking. Sardār Ṭhākur Siṅgh Śandhāṅvālīā (1837-87), Bābā Khem Siṅgh Bedī (1832-1905), Kaṅvar Bikramā Siṅgh (1835-87) of Kapūrthalā and Giānī Giān Siṅgh (1824-84) of Amritsar convened a meeting in Gurū Bāgh, Amritsar, on 30 July 1873. It was decided to form an association which should adopt measures to defend the Sikh faith against the onslaught of Christian missionaries and others. The name proposed for this body was Srī Gurū Siṅgh Sabhā. Its first formal meeting took place in front of the Akāl Takht on 1 October 1973. It was attended by priests of different gurdwārās, giānīs, representatives of Udāsī and Nirmalā sects and members of other classes of the Sikh society. Sardār Ṭhākur Siṅgh Śandhāṅvālīā was appointed its chairman, Giānī Giān Siṅgh secretary, Sardār Amar Siṅgh assistant secretary and Bhāī Dharam Siṅgh of Buṅgā Majīṭhīāṅ treasurer. The main objects of the Siṅgh Sabhā were (i) to propagate the true Sikh religion and restore Sikhism to its pristine glory; (ii) to edit, publish and circulate historical and religious books ; (iii) to propagate current knowledge using Punjabi as the medium and to start magazines and newspapers in Punjabi; (iv) to reform and bring back into the Sikh fold the apostates; and (v) to interest the high-placed Englishmen in and ensure their association with the education programme of the Sabhā. It was the Siṅgh Sabhā's policy to avoid criticism of other religions and discussion of political matters.
In 1877, Punjabi was introduced in the Oriental College. Bhāī Harsā Siṅgh, a granthī of Darbār Sāhib, Tarn Tāran, was the first teacher and Bhāī Gurmukh Siṅgh, who was later to be one of the central figures of the Siṅgh Sabhā movement, one of the first batch of students. Bhāī Gurmukh Siṅgh after completion of his own course, was appointed to teach Punjabi and Mathematics in the Pañjāb University College. He got some leading Sikh citizens of Lahore, such as Dīwān Būṭā Siṅgh and Sardār Mehar Siṅgh Chāwlā, interested in the Siṅgh Sabhā work. As a result Srī Gurū Siṅgh Sabhā, Lahore, was set up on 2 November 1879. It started holding weekly meetings. Dīwān Būṭā Siṅgh as president, Bhāī (also known as Professor) Gurmukh Siṅgh as secretary and Bhāī Harsā Siṅgh, Rām Siṅgh and Karam Siṅgh as members formed its working committee. The movement picked up momentum and Siṅgh Sabhās appeared at many places not only in the Punjab but also in several other parts of India and abroad from London in the west to Shanghai (China) in the East.
Siṅgh Sabhā General (renamed Khālsā Dīwān soon after) was set up on 11 April 1880, as a coordinating body at Amritsar. Rājā Bikram Siṅgh of Farīdkoṭ and the Lieut-Governor of Punjab were its patrons, Bābā Khem Siṅgh Bedī president, Sardār Mān Siṅgh sarbarāh or manager of Darbār Sāhib, vice-president, Bhāī Gurmukh Siṅgh of Lahore chief secretary and Bhāī Ganeshā Siṅgh secretary. The Dīwān opened Khālsā schools for general education and floated papers and periodicals to propagate Siṅgh Sabhā ideology as well as its religious activities. But ideological differences soon arose between the president and the chief secretary. The former, supported by the priestly class, considered Sikhs as a part of the Hindu community and did not favour a total break with old established social customs and practices. Himself being a direct descendant of Gurū Nānak, he claimed special position of reverence for himself as well as for all members of clans to which the Gurūs had belonged. Bhāī Gurmukh Siṅgh, on the other hand, was a progressive reformist believing Sikhism to be a separate sovereign religion having equality of all believers without distinction of caste or status as its basic social creed. The result was the setting up of a separate Khālsā Dīwān, Lahore, on 10-11 April 1886 under the presidentship of Sardār Attar Siṅgh Bhadauṛ with Professor Gurmukh Siṅgh as secretary. The Amritsar Khālsā Dīwān re-organized itself as a bicameral body consisting of Mahān Khaṇḍ comprising the aristocracy, and Samān Khaṇḍ representing the commonalty of believers and the priestly class. Some smaller organizations were also active for achieving the aims of the movement. Gurmat Granth Prachārak Sabhā, Amritsar, established on 8 April 1885 was engaged in research and publication of books on ideological and historical topics. Khālsā Tract Society came into existence through the efforts of Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh in 1894. Shuddhī Sabhā for conversions and reconversions into Sikhism was founded in April 1893 by Dr. Jai Siṅgh. Among the local Siṅgh Sabhās, the one at Bhasauṛ was the most active under its leading light, Bābū Tejā Siṅgh. Among individual scholars, Giānī Giān Siṅgh, the historian, and Paṇḍit Tārā Siṅgh Narotam were the most prominent.
Both the Dīwāns, despite mutual bickerings and even litigation, worked for the same aims with the same programmes, but the Khālsā Dīwān Lahore soon stole a march over its rival in popularity by virtue of its progressivism and the total dedication and hard work of Bhāī Gurmukh Siṅgh who had enlisted the help of two other colleagues, equally dedicated and industrious. They were Giānī Ditt Siṅgh and Bhāī Jawāhir Siṅgh Kapūr. The former as editor of and chief contributor to the Dīwān's weekly newspaper, the Khālsā Akhbār, made it a forceful medium for the propagation of the Dīwān's ideology. Giving his judgement in a defamation case against Giānī Ditt Siṅgh the district judge of Lahore, R.L. Harris, observed in February 1888 that
(a) The Lahore faction had about 30 Siṅgh Sabhās attached to it, while the Amritsar faction had about six or seven Siṅgh Sabhas including Rawalpindī, Ferozepore and Faridkot
(b) The Lahore party comprised enlightened educated men who are freeing themselves from the thraldom of priesthood by seeking to purge their religion of all the grossness that has clung to it by the devices of the priestly class... represented by the Bedi Guru or Sodhi class... their opponents are naturally the priestly class who would like, if possible, to maintain their sway over the conscience of men, though it might be at the expense of the true spiritual and religious growth; and so we find Bedi Khem Siṅgh, as the head of the priestly class, in league with Raja of Faridkot, opposing and trying to stifle the spirit of reformation.
The most hotly contested argument within the Siṅgh Sabhā movement was whether Sikhs were Hindus. The Sanātanists, or the conservatives of the Amritsar Dīwān, saw Sikhism as an offshoot of a broadly defined Hinduism. Examples from the Ādi Granth and accompanying literature were used to "prove" that the Gurūs had no intention of separating Sikhs from their Hindu roots, and had in fact revered Hindu gods and scriptures. In this the conservatives were enthusiastically supported by the Ārya Samājīsts. On the other side, the Tat Khālsā or the progressive Khālsā Dīwān Lahore made "Ham Hindū Nahīṅ"(we are not Hindus) their battle cry. They too used quotes from the Scripture and historical analysis to combat what was seen as the most dangerous threat to Sikh survival. The tract warfare over the issue was heated and prolonged. Scores of tracts and booklets on the subject appeared, the most reasoned and convincing of which was Bhāī Kāhn Siṅgh Nābhā's, Ham Hindū Nahīṅ, first published in 1898.
Another bone of contention between the two Dīwāns was of relatively less importance. Both had been convassing government's support for the opening of a Khālsā College. Khālsā Dīwān Amritsar had mooted the suggestion as early as 1883 but inter-Dīwān disputes hindered progress. Ultimately when Khālsā Dīvān Lahore succeeded in enlisting the support of the government as well as of the Sikh aristocracy, and an establishment committee was set up in 1890 under the chairmanship of the Director, Public Instruction, Punjab, Colonel W.R.M. Holroyd, succeeded the following year by Dr W.H. Rattigan, with Sardār Attar Siṅgh Bhadauṛ as vice-chairman and W. Bell of the Government College, Lahore, as secretary, there was wrangling over the location of the college. At last the protagonists of Amritsar won the day and the foundation of the college was laid by the Lieut-Governor of the Punjab on 5 March 1892.
Mutual recriminations indulged in by the two Dīwāns had led neutrally inclined elements to voice the need for uniting the different sections under a central organization. The idea met with reverberating support at a large gathering of Sikhs in Malvaī Buṅgā at Amritsar on 12 April 1900. The conference unanimously voted for the establishment of a new Khālsā Dīwān, supreme in the affairs of the community, and formed a committee to draw up the constitution of such a unitary body. This was also necessitated by the fact that death had denuded the old Dīwāns by snatching many of their leading lights within a short period at the turn of the century. Sardār ṭhākur Siṅgh Śandhāṅvālīā and Kaṅvar Bikramā Siṅgh had already died in 1887. Now came, in quick succession, the deaths of Sardār Attar Siṅgh of Bhadauṛ and Dr. Jai Siṅgh (June 1896), Rājā Bikram Siṅgh of Farīdkoṭ (August 1898), Professor Gurmukh Siṅgh (September 1898) and Giānī Ditt Siṅgh (September 1901). The responsibility of leading the Siṅgh Sabhā movement was therefore taken over by the new organization, the Chief Khālsā Dīwān, formally established at Amritsar on 30 October 1902. Bhāī Arjan Siṅgh of Bāgaṛīān was elected its first president, Sardār Sundar Siṅgh Majīṭhīā secretary and Soḍhī Sujān Siṅgh additional secretary. Membership was open to all amritdhārī Sikhs, i.e. those who had received the rites of the Khālsā initiation, and who could read and write Gurmukhī. Members were also expected to contribute dasvandh or one tenth of their annual income for the common needs of the community. The Chief Khālsā Dīwān adopted all the aims and programmes of the old Khālsā Dīwān, viz. insistence on separate identity of the Khālsā Panth, spreading the teaching of the Gurūs as well as general education on modern lines, disseminations of information on traditional and on current issues and safeguarding the political rights of the Sikhs by maintaining good relations with the government and Sikh rulers. It carried out its mission with the help and cooperation of the local Siṅgh Sabhās most of whom sought affiliation with the new Dīwān, and of eminent individuals such as Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh, Bhāī Mohan Siṅgh Vaid, Bhāī Takht Siṅgh, Bābū Tejā Siṅgh, Bhāī Kāhn Siṅgh and Bhāī Jodh Siṅgh. Its earliest success came in the conversion of 35 persons including a Muslim family of six in a largely attended dīvān (religious assembly) held through the efforts of Bābū Tejā Siṅgh, at Bakāpur, village near Phillaur in Jalandhar district, on 13-14 June 1903. Next came the passing of the Anand Marriage Act, 1909, which gave legal validity to the exclusively Sikh ceremony of marriage. The Bill was piloted in the Imperial Legislative Council successively by Ṭikkā, heir apparent, Ripudaman Siṅgh of Nābhā, and Sardār Sundar Siṅgh Majīṭhīā. Another milestone in the social history of the Sikhs was the establishment of the Sikh Educational Conference held annually since its inception in 1908 to the present day under the Educational Committee of the Chief Khālsā Dīwān. Some of the other achievements of the Dīwān were the removal of idols from the compound of the Darbār Sāhib, Amritsar (1905), and the preparation of a common code of conduct for the Sikhs laying down in detail the way the Sikhs should perform their religious ceremonies (1916).
For over a decade, the Chief Khālsā Dīwān consolidated its position and had remarkable success at fostering Sikh identity and strengthening Sikh institutions. From 1914 onward, however, the organization began to lose its hold on and popularity with the Sikh masses. Loyalty to the government in order to seek favours for the community was one of the bases of the strategy of the Dīwān as had been the case with the old Khālsā Dīwāns of Lahore and Amritsar, but the climate in the country had started changing since the advent of the twentieth century so that the pro-government policy of the Chief Khālsā Dīwān became increasingly suspect in view of its soft stance during the peasant unrest of 1906-07 and the Rikābgañj agitation in 1914, open denunciation of the Ghadar activists (1915-16), and over-enthusiasm for Sikh recruitment bordering on virtual conscription during the Great War (1914-18).
Moreover, although the Siṅgh Sabhā movement had done a tremendous lot to revitalize the religious spirit of the Sikhs, it had done precious little to cleanse the rot that had set in the Sikh religious places. While the masses, now better aware of their true religious past, were becoming more and more impatient of the management of gurdwārās under a corrupt and degenerate priesthood secure under legal protection, the Chief Khālsā Dīwān continued to pursue the path of helpless inactivity for fear of British displeasure. A single instance will illustrate the point. Khālsā Dīwān Mājhā, one of the several regional organizations for management reform in religious places had been established in 1904. The Chief Khālsā Dīwān, pleading Panthic unity, asked it to affiliate with the central body. It obeyed; but watching impatiently over the years the indifference of the central leadership, it revived itself as an independent body in March 1919. A few days later, on 13 April 1919, occurred the Jalliāṅvālā Bagh massacre which radically changed the political as well as religious scenario in which the Chief Khālsā Dīwān became practically irrelevant, and the central stage was occupied by the Gurdwārā Reform movement. The Chief Khālsā Dīwān is, however, still active, especially in the educational field, and enjoys the affiliation of a large number of local Siṅgh Sabhās.
The main motivation of the Siṅgh Sabhā movement was search for Sikh identity and self-assertion. The entire period can be interpreted and understood in terms of this central concern. Under this Siṅgh Sabhā impulse, new powers of regeneration came into effect and Sikhism was reclaimed from a state of utter ossification and inertia. Its moral force and dynamic vitality were rediscovered. The Sikh mind was stirred by a process of liberation and it began to look upon its history and tradition with a clear, self-discerning eye. What had become effete and decrepit and what was reckoned to be against the Gurūs' teachings was rejected. The purity of Sikh precept and practice was sought to be restored. Rites and customs considered consistent with Sikh doctrine and tradition were established. For some, legal sanction was secured through government legislation. This period of fecundation of the spirit and of modern development also witnessed the emergence of new cultural and political aspirations. Literary and educational processes were renovated. Through a strong political platform, the Sikhs sought to secure recognition for themselves.
The most important aspects of the Siṅgh Sabhā movement were educational and literary. By 1900, orphanages, a system of Sikh schools, institutions for training preachers and granthīs, and other self-strengthening efforts gained broad support from Sikhs in the Punjab and, especially, migrant communities abroad. In northwest Punjab Bābā Khem Siṅgh Bedī took a prominent part in building Khālsā schools. Sikh schools were also built in Amritsar, Lahore, Fīrozpur and in some villages such as Kairoṅ, Gharjākh, Chūhaṛ Chakk, and Bhasauṛ. One of the best known institutions was the Sikh Kanyā Māhā Vidyālaya of Fīrozpur founded by Bhāī Takht Siṅgh. The teaching of Gurmukhī and Sikh scriptures was compulsory in these Khālsā schools.
The impetus given to education in its turn stimulated the publication of books, magazines, tracts ; and newspapers. The earliest venture in Punjabi journalism was the Lahore Khālsā Dīwān's Punjabi weekly Khālsā Akhbār. In 1899, the Khālsā Samāchār was founded and soon became the leading theological journal of the community. Its circulation increased under the editorship of Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh, who rose to prominence as a novelist, poet and commentator of scriptural writings. The Khālsā Advocate (English) later became the Spokesman of the Chief Khālsā Dīwān.
A large number of books on Sikhism, both in Gurmukhī and English, were published. Of the Gurmukhī, Giānī Giān Siṅgh's Panth Prakāsh and Twārīkh Gurū Khālsā and Kāhn Siṅgh's voluminous encyclopaedia of Sikh literature (Gurushabad Ratanākar Mahān Kosh) were of lasting significance. Max Arthur Macauliffe's monumental work on the life and teachings of the Sikh Gurūs and the Farīdkoṭ ṭīkā, an exegesis of the entire Gurū Granth Sāhib, were also published during this time.
The Siṅgh Sabhā movement checked the relapse of the Sikhs into Hinduism. Large number of Hindus of northern and western Punjab and Sindh became sahajdhārī Sikhs and the sahajdhārīs were encouraged to become the Khālsā.
N. G. Barrier