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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 35

Sikhs in the Freedom Struggle

Tuesday 19 August 2008, by K S Duggal


The last to lay arms and foremost to raise them against the British, the Sikhs of Punjab may not figure prominently in the galaxy of freedom fighters led by Mahatma Gandhi barring Shaheed Bhagat Singh, who, too, was consistently disowned by Bapu, but the contribution of the Sikh people to the freedom struggle is no mean.

It is believed in all quarters that but for the intrigues in the post-Ranjit Singh’s Sikh hierarchy and the malicious strategy of the White man, the Sikhs could not have been defeated in 1849 the way they were. Despite this undeserved ignominy, there were ever so many incidents of defiance of the foreign rule by the Sikh soldiers and political activists. However, an organised peaceful crusade was launched by Baba Ram Singh Nandhari (he is addressed as Satguru Ram Singh by his followers) in 1869. It was essentially a socio-religious movement which became “a dynamic political force” in due course. They protested against cow slaughter, advocated widow re-marriage, would have nothing to do with the British educational institutions, even the mail and tap water. They wore spotless khadi and were devoted to meditation with woollen rosary.

Amritsar being the holy city, cow-slaughter was forbidden in it. But later not only was it permitted, the ban lifted, an abattoir was established next to the Golden Temple. This infuriated the Nandharis who butchered many a butcher in the town. At this the British without due enquiry had 65 Nandharis tied with the barrels of cannons and blown to bits. Baba Ram Singh had no hand in it, but the British availed of this opportunity and deported him to Rangoon on January 18, 1872. The technique of non-co-operation adopted by Mahatma Gandhi is preceded by the Nandhari crusade by boycotting British institutions and trying to be self-sufficient with the native ways and means.

Again the Gurdwara Movement of the Sikhs (1921-24) was the beginning of the national struggle for freedom. This has been accepted by more than one Indian national political leader.

Pandit Moti Lal Nehru:

I salute the Akalis who have started the struggle for freedom and are fighting for it.

Pandi Madan Mohan Malaviya:

Guru Ka Bagh Morcha has given birth to the freedom movement which must lead us to Swaraj.

Lala Lajpat Rai:

Freedom is our birthright. The Akalis are the legitimate sons of Mother India who are fighting for her.

Dadabhai Naoroji:

The Sikh brothers have shown us the way to freedom; no one can keep us slaves any more.

Master Tara Singh:

I would not mind if you, instead of standing with the Congress, boycott it and stand in front of it in the fight for India’s freedom. But if you boycott the Congress and stand in the back lane, it will be a shame for our community.

According to the eminent historian, Dr Ganda Singh, 500 Sikhs were killed in the Gurdwara Movement and 30,000 courted arrest, the fines paid amounted to Rs 10,00,000.

It was Master Tara Singh’s intervention, when he pulled down the Muslim League flag atop the Punjab Assembly at Lahore and tore it which saved half of the Punjab for India; otherwise the entire Punjab would have gone to Pakistan with River Yamuna as the dividing line between India and Pakistan.

The total contribution of Sikhs in India’s struggle for freedom is revealing:

Out of 121 patriots hanged 93 were Sikhs. Of the 2626 awarded life-imprisonment 2147 were Sikhs. Of the 1300 martyred in Jallianwala Bagh 799 were Sikhs.

Considering that the Sikhs were hardly 1.5 per cent of the total population of India at the time, their sacrifices amounted to 90 per cent. No wonder that Sardar Baldev Singh, a representative of the Akalis, was invited to greet the country on the national network along with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah when freedom came.
And then started the slow but sure process of ignoring the Sikh people, forgetting their valiant contribution in bringing about the freedom. They are just one of the minority communities today.

THE next landmark in the Sikh struggle for freedom was the agitation launched against the Punjab Colonisation Act, 1907, under which the government sought to enhance land revenue and water charges in the canal irrigated areas. There was widespread agrarian unrest with bloodshed in all important towns like Lahore and Rawalpindi. It was during this agitation that one Banke Dyal wrote the famous song—Pagdi sambhal jatta, pagdi sambhal oye! (Mind your turban, O tiller of the land, mind your turban!) It became a popular patriotic song with the freedom fighters and continues to be sung even today. Sardar Ajit Singh and Lala Lajpat Rai were prominent among the leaders of this movement. They were expelled from the country and imprisoned in Mandalay in Burma. After their release Ajit Singh went to Canada and joined the Ghadar Party of which he became and outstanding leader in due course.

The Ghadar Party was started by Sohan Singh Bhakna under the inspiration of Lala Hardyal. They pledged to end British rule in India through an armed revolution and set up a Republic of India guaranteeing liberty and equality to all its citizens. They set up their headquarters in San Francisco. They had their own weekly journal called Ghadar. With a view to retaining the secular character of their organisation, they made it a point not to discuss religion in their meetings; it was considered strictly a personal affair. They would also not observe any restrictions in the matter of diet. Soon they were to be joined by Kartar Singh ‘Sarabha’, Dr Mathura Singh and Jawand Singh who were later hanged in India. The party established its branches in a number of towns in America and Canada and also in Shanghai, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand and Panama. They also gave a select band of its members training in arms.

The activities of the Ghadar Party received a great fillip by what has come to be known as the Kamagata Maru episode. It inspired the Ghadarites and steeled their hearts against the Ferringhi. They were determined to throw away the foreign yoke and prepared themselves to make any sacrifice for this cause.

The Kamagata Maru was the name of a Japanese ship engaged by Baba Gurdit Singh for transporting Indian emigrants to Canada. There being widespread unemployment at home, more and more enterprising Punjabis sought to go abroad. Canada being a member of the Commonwealth, Indians were entitled to have free access to the country. However, at the instance of the British Government, Canada passed an Act preventing entry of the Asians. This was primarily directed against the Indians since they continued to allow Chinese and Japanese to immigrate in large numbers. The Sikhs would not have it. Accordingly, the Kamagata Maru with 376 passengers on board arrived at Vancouver on May 22, 1914. They were not permitted to land on the Canadian soil. The ship was stranded in the high seas. The passengers had no medicines. They even fell short of water. But the Canadian authorities would not relent. There was a skirmish with the local police when, it is alleged, fire was exchanged. The Government of Canada was not willing even to allow them provisions for the return journey. The Kamagata Maru sailed back after two months. The returning passengers were provided arms enroute at Yokohama and the leadership of Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna and Baba Gurdit Singh turned each one of the passengers into a hard core revolutionary. World War I having broken out in the meanwhile, the Kamagata Maru had a hostile reception when it touched Kolkata (Calcutta). There was a train waiting to carry the passengers to the Punjab. This was not acceptable to the self-respecting Punjabis, who wished to stay back at least in Kolkata and earn something, so that they didn’t have to go back home empty-handed. There was a confrontation in which eighteen passengers were slaughtered. However, twentyeight of them, including Baba Gurdit Singh, managed to escape. Baba Gurdit Singh remained underground for seven years until he surrendered himself to the police at Nankana Saheb, the birthplace of Guru Nanak.

The Ghadar Party continued to inject revolutionaries into Indian politics. It is said, out of 8000 returnees during 1914-18, the Government of India interned 5000 and restricted the movements of another 2500. The party had its sympathisers in the defence forces though due to lack of discipline and leadership it could not take any precipitate action. Nevertheless, the government was on their track.

The suspects were arrested. Among the 194 men taken into custody 180 were Punjabis. Most of them were Sikhs. They were charged with treason. As many as twelve were hanged. Some of the were imprisoned for life. Others were transported. And the rest were given various terms of imprisonment.

Considering that the Indian National Congress session at Madras in 1914 had its main hall decorated with the portrait of the British King and the Governor of the province was invited to grace the occasion with his presence, it was no mean achievement of the Ghadar Party to do all that it did. Its most significant contribution is that it made the Britishers realise that they could no longer take India for granted. They must negotiate with the Indian people and hand over power to them, maybe gradually.

THE Great October Revolution of 1917 which overthrew the Czarist regime and brought the people to power in the USSR also had its salutary effect on the arrogant White rulers on whose empire, it was said, the sun never set.

The War was over but Punjab was in ferment. The forces being demobilised had 80,000 Sikh soldiers. Mahatma Gandhi had in the meanwhile assumed charge of the national leadership. A great believer in the good faith of the White man, he was dismayed to find that the British Government had no desire to part with power. He, therefore, gave a call for satyagraha.

On April 13, 1919, the holy Baisakhi day, consecrated by Guru Gobind Singh with the baptism of the Sikhs, large crowds assembled at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. They included men, women and children. Brigadier General Edward Harry Dyer who had arrived in the town two days earlier with his force came to the scene, blocked the only exit and started firing on the unarmed innocent people with machine-guns ‘till his ammunition was exhausted’. The record says that 309 people were shot dead on the spot and many times that number were wounded. The Sikhs were again the largest in number to suffer casualties.

The people of Punjab went wild with anger. They set post offices and other government buildings on fire, massacred the White men who came their way, removed fish plates from the railway lines, cut telephone and telegraph wires. The entire Punjab was aflame. The government declared martial law and retaliatory measures were in evidence all over the province.

Punjab became the vortex of the political struggle. The Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, relinquished his knighthood as a protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The Indian National Congress held its annual session at Amritsar in December the same year. It was attended among others by Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Jawaharlal Nehru, C. F. Andrews, C. R. Das, Dr M. A. Ansari, the Ali Brothers and Hakim Ajmal Khan. Among the eminent Punjabi leaders who participated in it were Baba Kharak Singh, Lala Lajpat Rai and Sardar Sardul Singh ‘Caveeshar’.

The Sikhs now came to look upon Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as their national leaders and started seeking inspiration from them. They were in the vanguard of the movement. The Sikh League held a meeting presided over by Sardar Kharak Singh in 1920. It was attended by Mahatma Gandhi.

It was about this time that the Sikhs launched what came to be known as the Akali Movement. Essentially aimed at taking charge of the Sikh shrines from the mahants—the hereditary custodians—and bringing about reforms in the rituals and elaborate ceremonials, the movement went a long way in politicising the Sikh masses and inculcating in them passion for independence.

The Gurudwara Reform Movement was a gruelling struggle. The vested interests would not like to part with the charge of the Sikh shrines, some of which had considerable landed property attached to them, apart from the income from the offerings which was no less substantial. The Sikhs had to launch morcha (agitation) after morcha. At times the fight was headlong with the government, while at others the government appeared to protect the hereditary custodians who were its protégés. In Delhi the government had demolished a wall of the historical Gurudwara Rakab Ganj where the Ninth Sikh Guru had been cremated. The Sikhs went wild. An agitation was launched. A shahidi jatha comprising Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus, who were prepared to be martyred, left for Delhi under Sardul Singh ‘Caveeshar’. The government came to its senses and restored the wall of the holy shrine.

After the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, the hereditary custodians of the Golden Temple invited Sir Michael O’Dwyer and honoured him with a saropa. How could the community allow the charge of the Gurudwara to remain in the hands of such inveterate toadies? Accordingly another agitation was launched to take over the Golden Temple.

Mahant Narain Das of Nankana Saheb, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, was a debauch and a drunkard. He was pampered by the Britishers no less. A jatha of over 130 Sikhs who were visiting the Gurudwara were attacked with swords and spears by the goondas of the Mahant and massacred. Their dead bodies were sprinkled with kerosene and burnt on the premises. The leader of the jatha, Sardar Lachhman Singh, was tied to the trunk of a tree and lynched.

The tragic happening sent a wave of horror throughout the country. Mahatma Gandhi and the Ali Brothers visited Nankana Saheb. The government was alarmed. The charge of the Gurudwara was promptly handed over to a committee of the Sikhs.

The government, however, decided to appoint its own custodian for the Golden Temple. This was not acceptable to the Sikhs and the agitation continued. The agitators were sentenced to frightfully long terms of imprisonment. But there was no sign of the agitation abating anywhere. The Sikhs continued to protest and court arrests in hundreds and thousands.

At last the government was brought to its knees and the keys of the Golden temple were handed over to the Sikhs by the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar at a huge congregation held in the town. This was described by Mahatma Gandhi ‘as the first victory in a decisive battle for independence’.

BUT what brought unique glory to the Sikhs was the Guru Ka Bagh (The Guru’s Garden) which was no more than a barren tract with a wild growth of Kikar trees had been handed over to the Sikhs along with other shrines. However, Mahant Sunder Das changed his mind and would not allow the Sikhs to enter the premises. The Sikhs used to fell trees in the arid tract for fuel for the community kitchen. The Mahant sought police assistance and the Sikhs entering the so-called Bagh were arrested for trespass. The first arrest took place on August 8, 1922. This was followed by a chain of Sikh jathas visiting Guru Ka Bagh one after another and offering satyagraha. The jathas came from all over the Punjab. There was an endless stream of them. It was decided to be a non-violent agitation. The Sikhs would go unarmed; singing hymns, with hands folded and tried to enter the land which belonged to their Guru. The police, who were tired of arresting them, adopted new tactics under a British Superintendent of Police, named S.G.N. Beaty. They would beat the Sikhs mercilessly, pulling them by their hair, making indiscriminate lathi charges, breaking their bones and inflicting grievous wounds on them. With the name of God on their lips, the satyagrahis would fall down unconscious but they would neither defend themselves nor retaliate. Many died, a large number of them had to be hospitalised but there was no stopping the stream of jathas. Though propagated by Mahtma Gandhi, the Sikhs have non-violence in their blood. Two of their Gurus— Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur—had given their lives as non-violent crusaders. The way the Sikhs conducted this satyagraha, and the barbarities perpetrated on them, roused the anger of the entire nation. The Punjab was a flaming cauldron. Every district tried to outdo the other. A jatha came from far-off Dhan Pothoar with Giani Gurmukh Singh ‘Musafir’ (who became the Chief Minister of Punjab in independent India) as one of the volunteers. A lot of literature came to be produced about the unprecedented persecution and valour of the non-violent satyagrahis.

It surprised Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, the most. He was amazed to find vindication of his technique of political warfare coming from the most unexpected quarters, the brave people of Punjab. Several national leaders, both Hindus and Muslims, came to Punjab to see with their own eyes the way the satyagraha was being conducted.
Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, a staunch Hindu who was at one time President of the Indian National Congress, witnessed the manner in which the disciplined soldiers of the Sikh community suffered barbarities for the cause dear to their heart and was moved to say:

I cannot resist asking every Hindu home to have at least one male child initiated into the fold of the Khalsa. What I see here before my eyes is nothing short of a miracle in our whole history.

C.F. Andrews, a Christian missionary and
an associate of Mahatma Gandhi, also visited Punjab during the satyagraha. This is what he reported:

There were four Akali Sikhs with black turbans facing a band of about a dozen policemen, including two English officers. Their hands were placed together in prayer. Then an Englishman without provocation lunged forward the head of his lathi, bound with brass, and struck the Sikh at the collarbone with great force. He fell to the ground, rolled over and slowly got up once more to face the same punishment till he was laid prostrate by repeated blows. Others were knocked out more quickly. It was brutal in the extreme. I saw with my own eyes one of those policemen kick in the stomach a Sikh who stood helplessly before him. I wanted to cry and rush forward. But then I saw a police sepoy stamping with his foot an Akali Sikh hurled to the ground and lying prostrate … The brutality and the inhumanity of the whole scene was indescribably increased by the fact that the men who were hit were praying to God and had taken a vow (at the Golden Temple) to remain silent and peaceful in word and deed. I saw no act or look of defiance. It was a true martyrdom, a true act of faith. It reminded me of the shadow of the cross.

There were ever so many similar morchas. Guru Ka Bagh was followed by what has come to be known as the Jaito Morcha. Jawaharlal Nehru also joined hands with the agitating Sikhs here and courted arrest along with a number of prominent national leaders. Nehru made the following observation on the occasion on September 25, 1923:

I rejoice that I am being tried for a cause which the Sikhs have made their own. I was in jail when Guru Ka Bagh struggle was gallantly fought and won by the Sikhs. I marvelled at the courage and sacrifice of the Akalis and wished that I could be given an opportunity of showing my deep admiration of them by some form of service. That opportunity has now been given to me and I earnestly hope that I shall prove worthy of their high tradition and fine courage. Sat Sri Akal.

The Sikhs of Punjab never allowed the White rulers any respite. They kept them engaged with one morcha after another. And these agitations produced a galaxy of eminent freedom fighters who earned a great name in the national struggle for India’s Independence. Some of them are: Baba Kharak Singh, Master Tara Singh, Sardar Pratap Singh Kairon, Giani Gurmukh Singh ‘Musafir’, Sohan Singh ‘Josh’, Sardar Sardul Singh ‘Caveeshar’, Giani Zail Singh, Sardar Hukam Singh, Sardar Gurdial Singh Dhillon and Darshan Singh Pheruman.

While the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee set up to take charge and look after the Sikh Gurudwara accepted the cult of non-violence, at the same time there were certain elements amongst the Sikhs who organised themselves as underground terrorists. Among them the Babar Akalis were perhaps the most virulent. Their members were drawn from the Ghadar Party and soldiers on leave. They issued a cyclostyled bulletin called Babbar Akali Doaba. They became a terror for the administration in Jullundur Doab for a while. They were led by Havildar Major Kishan Singh Bedang and Master Mota Singh. But sooner than later they were rounded up, six of them including Kishan Singh Bedang were condemned to death and the rest were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.

The Sikhs make fine soldiers. They are as loyal as they are valiant. They got themselves enlisted in large numbers both at the time of World War I and World War II. But after the Wars were over when they found that the Britishers had no desire to part with power, they fought them tooth and nail. They were scandalised to find that the Britishers would deny them the freedom for which he made them fight in far-off lands. They fought the war of India’s independence shoulder to shoulder with the rest of their countrymen, whether they were Hindus or Muslims, Biharis or Bengalis. n

The author, a distinguished writer, is a former Member of the Rajya Sabha; he is also the President of the Punjabi Writers Meet.

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