AKĀLĪ MOVEMENT, variously known as Gurdwārā Reform Movement or Gurdwārā Agitation is how Sikhs' long drawn campaign in the early twenties of the twentieth century for the liberation of their gurdwārās or holy shrines is described. The campaign which elicited enthusiastic support, especially, from the rural masses, took the form of a peaceful agitation-marches, dīvāns or religious gatherings, and demonstrations--for Sikhs to assert their right to manage their places of worship. This led to a series of critical episodes in which their powers of suffering were severely tested by government suppression. In the event, Akālīs, as the protesters were known, succeeded in their object and the control of the gurdwārās was vested through legislation in a representative committee of the Sikhs. The State, under Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh (1780-1839), had forborne from interfering with the management of Sikh shrines. It endowed the more prominent among them with land grants and other gifts but let the control remain in the hands of sectaries such as Udāsīs, or hereditary officiants, who had assumed charge of them generally since the days when Sikhs under pressure of Mughal persecution had been forced to seek safety in remote hills and deserts. A kind of professional coenobitism, contrary to Sikh religious structure, had developed over the generations. Some of its sinister aspects became apparent soon after the fall of the Sikh kingdom. Most of the clergy had become neglectful of their religious office. They had diverted ecclesiastical assests, including eleemosynary lands, to their own enrichment, and their lives were not free from the taint of licentiousness and luxury. The simple form of Sikh service had been supplanted in the shrines by extravagant ceremonial. This was repugnant to Sikhs freshly affranchised by the preachings of the Siṅgh Sabhā. The Puritan reaction through which they had passed led them to revolt against the retrogression and maladministration of their holy places.

        Their central shrine, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, was controlled by the British Deputy Commissioner through a Sikh manager whom he appointed. There were idols installed within the temple precincts. Paṇḍits and astrologers sat on the premises plying their trade unchecked. Pilgrims from the backward classes were not allowed inside the Harimandar before 9 o'clock in the morning. This was a travesty of Sikhism which permitted neither caste nor image worship. Vaguely, the feeling had been prevalent among the Sikhs since almost the advent of the British that the administration of the Harimandar at Amritsar was far from satisfactory. The religious ritual practised ran counter in many details to the teachings of the Gurūs. One audible voice of protest was that of Ṭhākur Siṅgh Sandhāṅvālīā, who was a member of the Srī Darbār Sāhib Committee in the seventies of the last century. The Khālsā Dīwān, Lahore, at its session (6-8 April 1907), proposed that the manager of the Golden Temple appointed by the government be removed and a committee of Sikh chiefs appointed in his place. Likewise, the Khālsā Dīwān, Mājhā, meeting at Tarn Tāran on 9-10 April 1907, had recorded its concern about the management of the shrine.

        On 12 October 1920, a meeting of Sikh backward castes, sponsored by teachers and students of the Khālsā College was held in Jalliāṅvālā Bāgh at Amritsar. The following morning some of them were taken to Harimandar, but the priests refused to accept kāṛāhprasād they had brought as offering and to say the ardās on their behalf. Their supporters protested. A compromise was at last reached and it was decided that the Gurū's word be sought. The Gurū Granth Sāhib was, as is the custom, opened at random and the first verse on the page to be read was:

        nirguṇia no āpe bakhsi lai bhāī satigur kī sevā lāi

        He receives into grace (even) those with-out merit,

        And puts them in the path of holy service.

                                                            (GG, 638)        

        The Gurū's verdict was clearly in favour of those whom the pujārīs or temple functionaries had refused to accept as full members of the community. This was a triumph for reformist Sikhs. The kaṛāhprasād of the Mazhabī (religious, devout) Sikhs, reformers' description of "low-caste" Sikhs, was accepted. The devotees then marched towards Takht Akāl Buṅgā in front of the Harimandar. The priests deserted the Takht and the visiting pilgrims appointed a representative committee of twenty-five for its management. This was the beginning of the movement for the liberation of the gurdwārās. The Akālīs set afoot operations for retrieving their holy places from the control of the mahants or clergy-cum-hereditary custodians. With a view to establishing a central committee of administration, a representative assembly of Sikhs from all walks of life was called by the new Jathedār, provost or chief, of Takht Akāl Buṅgā on 15 November 1920. Two days before the proposed conference, the government set up its own committee consisting of thirty-six Sikhs to manage the Golden Temple. This committee was nominated by the Lt-Governor of the Punjab at the instance of Mahārājā Bhūpinder Siṅgh of Paṭiālā, who had been approached by Bhāī Jodh Siṅgh and a few of his faculty colleagues at Khālsā College, Amritsar, to intervene between the government and the Sikhs. The Sikhs held their scheduled meeting on 15 November and formed a committee of 175, including the thirty-six official nominees, designating it Shiromaṇi Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee. The first session of the Committee was held at the Akāl Takht on 12 December 1920. Sundar Siṅgh Majīṭhīā, Harbaṅs Siṅgh of Aṭārī and Bhāī Jodh Siṅgh were elected president, vice-president and secretary, respectively. The more radical elements organized a semi-military corps of volunteers known as the Akālī Dal (Army of Immortals). The Akālī Dal was to raise and train men for 'action' to take over gurdwārā from the recalcitrant mahants. This also signalled the appearance of a Gurmukhī newspaper, also called Akālī.

        The formation of the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee and the Shiromaṇī Akālī Dal speeded up the movement for the reformation of Sikh religious institutions and endowments. Under pressure of Sikh opinion, backed frequently by demonstration of strength, the mahants began yielding possession of gurdwārā properties to elected committees and agreed to become paid granthīs, custodians of the scripture or scripture-readers. Several gurdwārās had thus come under the reformists' control even before the Shiromaṇī Committee and the Akālī Dal had been established. However, the transition was not so smooth where the priests were strongly entrenched or where the government actively helped them to resist mass pressure. At Tarn Tāran, near Amritsar, a batch of gurdwārā functionaries attacked an unwary delegation of reformers who had been invited to the shrine for negotiations. One of them, Hazārā Siṅgh of Alādīnpur, a descendant of Baghel Siṅgh, one of the misl chiefs, fell a victim to priestly violence on 20 January 1921. He died the following day and became the first martyr in the cause of gurdwārā reform. Another Akālī, Hukam Siṅgh of Vasāū Koṭ, succumbed to his injuries on 4 February 1921.

        Nankāṇā Sāhib, the birthplace of Gurū Nānak, was the scene of violence on a much larger scale. The custodian, Naraiṇ Dās, the wealthiest of mahants, had a most unsavoury reputation, and his stewardship of the Nankāṇā Sāhib shrines had started many a scandal. On the morning of 20 February 1921, as a jathā or band of 150 Akālīs came to the Gurdwārā, the private army of Naraiṇ Dās fell upon them, raining bullets all around. The jathā leader, Bhāī Lachhmaṇ Siṅgh, of Dhārovāl, was struck down sitting in attendance of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Bhāī Dalīp Siṅgh, a much respected Sikh leader who was well known to the mahant and who came to intercede with him to stop the carnage, was killed with a shot from his pistol. Many of the jathā fell in the indiscriminate firing by the mahant's men. The news of the massacre caused widespread gloom. Among those who came to Nankāṇā to express their sense of shock were Sir Edward Maclagan, the British Lt-Governor of the Punjab. Mahātmā Gāndhī came accompanied by Muslim leaders, Shaukat 'Alī and Muhammad 'Alī. Naraiṇ Dās and some of his accomplices were arrested and the possession of the shrine was made over by government to a committee of seven Sikhs headed by Harbaṅs Siṅgh of Aṭari, vice-president of the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee.

        Another crisis arose as the Punjab Government seized on 7 November 1921 the keys of the Golden Temple treasury. The Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee lodged a strong protest and called upon the Sikhs the world over to convene meetings to condemn the government action. Further means of recording resentment included a decision for Sikhs to observe a haṛṭal, i. e. to strike work, on the day the Prince of Wales, who was coming out on a tour, landed on Indian shores. They were also forbidden to participate in any function connected with the Prince's visit. To fill the British jails, volunteers, draped in black and singing hymns from Scripture, marched forth in batches. Ex-servicemen threw up their pensions and joined Akālī ranks. Under pressure of the growing agitation, the government gave way, and on 19 January 1922 a court official surrendered the bunch of keys, wrapped in a piece of red cloth, to Khaṛak Siṅgh, president of the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee. Mahātmā Gāndhī sent a wire saying, "First decisive battle for India's freedom won. "

        Gurū kā Bāgh (Garden of the Gurū), 20 km north of Amritsar, a small shrine commemorating Gurū Arjan's visit, witnessed a morchā most typical of the series in the Akālī movement. On 9 August 1922, the police arrested on charges of trespass five Sikhs who had gone to gather firewood from the Gurdwārā's land for Gurū kā Laṅgar, the community kitchen. The following day, the arrested Sikhs were summarily tried and sentenced to six months' rigorous imprisonment. Undeterred, the Sikhs continued coming in batches every day to hew wood from the site and courting arrest and prosecution. After 30 August, police adopted a sterner policy to terrorize the volunteers. Those who came to cut firewood from Gurū kā Bāgh were beaten up in a merciless manner until they to a man lay senseless on the ground. The Sikhs suffered all this stoically and went day by day in larger numbers to submit themselves to the beating. A committee appointed by the Indian National Congress to visit Amritsar, lauded the Akālīs and censured the police for atrocities committed by it. Rev C. F. Andrews, a Christian missionary, came on 12 September 1922, and was deeply moved by the noble "Christ like" behaviour of the Akālī passive resisters. At his instance, Sir Edward Maclagan, the Lt-Governor of the Punjab, arrived at Gurū kā Bagh (13 September) and ordered the beatings to be stopped. Four days later the police retired from the scene. By then 5, 605 Akālīs had been arrested, with 936 hospitalized. The Akālīs got possession of Gurdwārā Gurū kā Bāgh along with the disputed land.

        Gurū kā Bagh excited religious fervour to a degree unapproached during the 70 years of British rule. The judicial trials of the volunteers were followed with close interest and, when those convicted were being removed to jails to serve their sentences, mammoth crowds greeted them en route. On 30 October 1922, many men and women laid themselves on the rail track at Paňjā Sāhib in an attempt to stop a train to offer refreshments to Akālī prisoners being escorted to Naushehrā jail. Two Sikhs, Partāp Siṅgh and Karam Siṅgh, were crushed to death before the engine driver could pull up.

        Not all Sikhs accepted the cult of non-violence to which the Shiromaṇī Committee had committed itself. The Nankāṇā massacre and the behaviour of the police at Gurū kā Bāgh induced some to organize an underground terrorist movement. These terrortists, who called themselves Babar (Lion) Akālīs, were largely drawn from the Ghadr party and army soldiers on leave. Babar violence was, however, of short duration. By the summer of 1923, most of the Babars had been apprehended. The trial conducted in camera began inside Lahore Central jail on 15 August 1923 and was presided over by an English judge. Of the 91 accused, two died in Jail during trial, 34 were acquitted, six including Jathedār Kishan Siṅgh Gaṛgajj, were awarded death penalty, while the remaining 49 were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment.

        Another Akālī morchā was precipitated by police interrupting an akhaṇḍ pāth, i. e. continuous recital of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, at Gurdwārā Gaṅgsar at Jaito, in the Princely state of Nābhā, to demonstrate Sikhs' solidarity with the cause of Mahārājā Ripudaman Siṅgh, the ruler of the state, who had been deposed, by the British. Batches of passive resisters began arriving every day at Jaito to assert their right to freedom of worship. The Shiromaṇī Committee and the Akālī Dal were declared illegal bodies by government and more prominent of the leaders were arrested. They were charged with conspiracy to wage war against the King and taken to Lahore Fort for trial. The agitation continued and the size of the jathās going to Jaito was in fact increased from 25 each to a hundred, and then from one hundred to five hundred. One such jathā was fired upon on 21 February 1924 by the state police resulting in a number of casualties.

        With the arrival in May 1924 of Sir Malcolm Hailey as Governor of the Punjab, the government began to relent. Negotiations were opened with the Akālī leaders imprisoned in Lahore Fort. A bill accommodating their demands was moved in the Punjab Legislative Council and passed into law in 1925, under the title the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925. As this legislation was put on the statute book, almost all historical shrines, numbering 241 as listed in Schedule I of the Act, were declared as Sikh gurdwārāsand they were to be under the administrative control of the Central Board, later renamed the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee. Procedure was also laid down in section 7 of the Act for the transfer of any other gurdwārā not listed in Schedules I and II to the administrative control of the Central Board. With the passage of this Act, the Akālī agitation ceased.

        In the Akālī agitation for gurdwārā reform, nearly forty thousand went to jail. Four hundred lost their lives while two thousand suffered injuries. Sums to the tune of sixteen lakhs of rupees were paid by way of fines and forfeitures and about seven hundred Sikh government functionaries in the villages were deprived of their positions. In addition to this, a ban was placed on civil and military recruitment of Sikhs which, however, was subsequently withdrawn.


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  2. Mohinder Siṅgh, The Akali Movement. Delhi, 1978
  3. Teja Singh, Gurdwara Reform and the Sikh Awakening. Jalandhar, 1922
  4. Sahni, Ruchi Ram, Struggle for Reform in Sikh Shrines, Ed. Ganda Singh. Amritsar, n. d.
  5. Gulati, Kailash Chander, The Akalis: Past and Present. Delhi, 1974
  6. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1983
  7. Pratāp Siṅgh, Giānī, Gurdwārā Sudhār arthāt Akālī Lahir. Amritsar, 1975
  8. Dilgeer, Harjinder Siṅgh, Shiromaṇī Akālī Dal. Jalandhar, n. d.
  9. Josh, Sohan Siṅgh, Akālī Morchiāṅ dā Itihās. Delhi, 1972
  10. Jagjīt Siṅgh, Siṅgh Sabhā Lahir. Ludhiana, 1974
  11. Ashok, Shamsher Siṅgh, Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee dā Paňjāh Sālā Itihās. Amritsar, 1982

Sardār Siṅgh Bhāṭīā