BABAR AKĀLĪ MOVEMENT, a radical outgrowth of the Akālī movement for the reform of Sikh places of worship during the early 1920's. The latter, aiming to have the shrines released from the control of priests who had become lax and effete over the generations, was peaceful in its character and strategy. In the course of the prolonged campaign, Akālīs true to their vows patiently suffered physical injury and violence at the hands of the priests as well as of government authority. The incidents at Tarn Tāran (January 1921) and Nankāṇā Sāhib (February 1921) in which many Sikhs lost their lives led to the emergence of a group which rejected non-violence and adopted violence as a creed. The members of this secret group called themselves Babar Akālīs - babar meaning lion. Their targets were the British officers and their Indian informers. They were strongly attached to their Sikh faith and shared an intense patriotic fervour.

        At the time of the Sikh Educational Conference at Hoshiārpur from 19-21 March 1921, some radicals led by Master Motā Siṅgh and Kishan Siṅgh Gaṛgajj, a retired havildār major of the Indian army, held a secret meeting and made up a plan to avenge themselves upon those responsible for the killings at Nankāṇā Sāhib. Among those on their list were J. W. Bowring, the superintendent of police in the Intelligence department and C. M. King, the commissioner. However, those assigned to the task fell into the police net on 23 May 1921. Arrest warrants were issued against Master Motā Siṅgh and Kishan Siṅgh as well, but both of them went underground. In November 1921, Kishan Siṅgh formed a secret organization called Chakravartī Jathā and started working among the peasantry and soldiers inciting them against the foreign rulers. While Kishan Siṅgh and his band carried on their campaign in Jalandhar district with frequent incursions into the villages of Ambālā and Kapūrthalā state, Karam Siṅgh of Daulatpur organized a band of extremist Sikhs in Hoshiārpur on similar lines. In some of the villages in the district, dīvāns were convened daily by the sympathizers and helpers of the jathā of Karam Siṅgh, who was under warrants of arrest for delivering seditious speeches. Towards the end of August 1922, the two Chakravarti jathās resolved to merge together and rename their organization Babar Akālī Jathā. A committee was formed to work out a plan of action and collect arms and ammunition. Kishan Siṅgh was chosen jathedār or president, while Dalīp Siṅgh Daulatpur, Karam Siṅgh Jhīngaṇ and Ude Siṅgh Rāmgaṛh Jhuggīāṅ were nominated members. A cyclostyled news-sheet called the Babar Akālī Doābā had already been launched. Contacts were sought to be established especially with soldiers serving in the army and students. The party's programme of violence centred on the word sudhār (reformation) -a euphemism for liquidation of jholīchuks (lit. robe-bearers, i. e. stooges and lackeys of the British).

        The Babar Akālī Jathā had its own code. Persons with family encumbrances were advised not to join as full members, but to help only as sympathizers. The members were to recite regularly gurbāṇī , the Sikh prayers. They were not to indulge in personal vendetta against anyone. Likewise, they must not molest any woman nor lift any cash or goods other than those expressly permitted by the group. The total strength of the Jathā scarcely exceeded two hundred : the exact number was not known even to its members. The outer circle of the Jathā consisted of sympathizers who helped the active members with food and shelter. Some ran errands for the leaders carrying messages from one place to another, others arranged dīvāns in advance for itinerant speakers and distributed Babar Akālī leaflets. In order to evade the police and keep their activities secret, the Babar Akālī Jathā also evolved a secret code. The movement was very active from mid-1922 to the end of 1923. Several government officials and supporters were singled out and killed. Encounters with the police took place during which some rare feats of daring and self-sacrifice were performed by Babar Akālīs.

        The government acted with firmness and alacrity. In April 1923, the Babar Akālī Jathā was declared an unlawful association under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908. Units of cavalry and infantry were stationed at strategic points in the sensitive areas, with magistrates on duty with them. A joint force of military and special police was created to seize Babars sheltering themselves in the Śivālik hills. Every two weeks propaganda leaflets were dropped from aeroplanes with a view to strengthening the morale of the loyalist population. Punitive police-post tax was levied and disciplinary action was taken against civil and military pensioners harbouring or sympathizing with the Babar Akālīs. These measures helped in curbing the movement. The arrests and deaths in police encounters of its members depleted the Jathā's ranks. The movement virtually came to an end when Varyām Siṅgh Dhuggā was run down by the police in Lyallpur district in June 1924.

        The trial of the arrested Babar Akālīs had already begun inside Lahore Central Jail on 15 August 1923. Sixty-two persons were challaned originally and the names of 36 more were added in January 1924. Of them two died during investigations and five were acquitted by the investigating magistrates; the remaining 91 were committed to the sessions in April 1924. Mr J. K. M. Tapp, appointed Additional Sessions Judge to try conspiracy cases, opened the proceedings on 2 June 1924. He was assisted by four assessors. Dīwān Bahādur Piṇḍī Dās was special public prosecutor. The prosecution produced 447 witnesses, 734 documents and 228 other exhibits to prove its case. The judgement was delivered on 28 February 1925. Of the 91 accused, two had died in jail during trial, 34 were acquitted, six including Jathedār Kishan Siṅgh Gaṛgajj were awarded death penalty and the remaining 49 were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment. The government, not satisfied with the punishments awarded, filed a revision petition in the High Court. The High Court overruled the Sessions Court judgement on a few points, but let the death sentences remain unaltered. Babars so condemned were hanged on 27 February 1926. They were Kishan Siṅgh Gaṛgajj, Bābū Santā Siṅgh, Dalīp Siṅgh Dhāmīāṅ, Karam Siṅgh Mānko, Nand Siṅgh Ghuṛiāl and Dharam Siṅgh Hayātpur. The Babar Akālī Jathā ceased to exist, but it had left a permanent mark on the history of the Sikhs and of the nationalist movement in India. The Naujawān and Kirtī Kisān movements in the Punjab owned their militant policy and tactics to the Babar insurrection.


  1. Sahni, Ruchi Ram, Struggle for Reform in Sikh Shrines. Ed. Ganda Singh. Amritsar, n. d.
  2. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, vol. 2. Princeton, 1966
  3. Nijjar, B. S. , A History of the Babbar Akalis. Jalandhar, 1987
  4. Sundar Siṅgh, Babbar Akālī Lahir. Amritsar, 1970
  5. Nijjhar, Milkhā Siṅgh, Babar Akālī Lahir dā Itihās. Delhi, 1986

Gurcharan Siṅgh Zīrā