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Assuaging the Sikhs: Government Responses to the Akali Movement, 1920–1925

  • Tai Yong Tan (a1)

In 1920, Sikhs in the Punjab started a campaign aimed at freeing their principal gurdwaras (temples) from the control of their hereditary incumbents. The campaign quickly gathered momentum, and, within a few months, it developed into a non-violent anti-government movement. Unlike the rather shortlived 1919 Disturbances and the Non-Cooperation-Khilafat movement in the Punjab, the Sikh agitation, which came to be known as the Akali movement, did not cease until 1925 and caused considerable concern to the Punjab authorities, as well as the Government of India. The Akali movement was not limited, as in past cases of anti-British agitation involving the Sikhs, to small groups of disaffected Sikhs, returned emigrants, or Congress sympathizers; at its height in 1922, the unrest encompassed the bulk of central Punjab's Jat Sikh peasantry, one of the most militarized sections of Punjabi society. The Sikh community's martial traditions, fostered by their religious doctrines and culture, had been kept alive during British rule by the recruitment policies of the Indian Army, where, in 1920, one in every fourteen adult male Sikhs in the Punjab was in service. This meant that the abiding allegiance of the Sikh community to the Raj was a matter of considerable importance, and their estrangement, especially that of the Jat Sikh peasantry, would adversely affect the Sikh regiments of the Indian Army. It also meant that if the community as a whole was provoked into open rebellion, British hold on the Punjab could well nigh prove untenable.

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1 See Census of India, 1921, vol. 15–16, Report of the Punjab, and Annual Returns of Caste Composition of the Indian Army, 19201921, Indian Office Records, London [IOR]: L/MIL/14/230.

2 ‘The Akali Dal and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, 1921–1922’, a secret memorandum by V. W. Smith, superintendent of Police (Political), Criminal Intelligence Department, Punjab Govt., Gol, Home (Pol), File no. 459/11 of 1922, National Archives of India, New Delhi [NAI] (Hereafter, referred to as ‘Akali Dal and SGPC’)..

3 See Singh Mohinder, The Akali Movement (Delhi, 1978);Kapur Rajiv, Sikh Separatism: The Politics of Faith (London, 1986); and Fox's Richard, Lions of the Punjab: Culture in the Making (New Delhi, 1987).

4 See especially Fox, Lions of the Punjab, pp. 92–5.

5 See for example Low D. A., ‘The Government of India and the First Non-Cooperation Movement—1920–1922’ in Journal of Asian Studies (JAS) 25, 2 (1966), pp. 241–59. See also Barrier N. G., ‘The Punjab Disturbances of 1907’, in Modern Asian Studies 1, 4 (1967), pp. 353–83.

6 See for example Maynard John, ‘The Sikh Problem in the Punjab, 1920–23’, in The Contemporary Review, 09 1923, vol. CXXIV, July-December 1923, pp. 292303.

7 For a summary and discussion of doctrinal and religious debates surrounding the definition of the Sikh identity, see Mcleod W. H., Who is a Sikh? The Problem of Sikh Identity (Oxford, 1989).

8 The five symbols that all Khalsa Sikhs were enjoined to wear were: kes (uncut hair), kanga (a comb), kara (a steel bangle), kirpan (a sword), and kachcha (a type of breeches).

9 Kapur , Sikh Separatism, p. 7.

10 Major R. Leech, ‘Notes on the religion of the Sikhs and other sects inhabiting the Punjab’, 12 1845, quoted in ibid.

11 Baird J. G. A. (ed.), Private Letters of the Marquess of Dalhousie (Edinburgh, 1911), p. 69.

12 Quoted in Census of India, 1881, Report on the Census of the Punjab, by Ibbetson Denzil (Calcutta, 1883), vol. 1, p. 140.

13 Quoted in Singh Khushwant, History of the Sikhs, vol. 2, pp. 112–13.

14 Petrie D., Developments in Sikh Politics (1900–1911): A Report (Chief Khalsa Dewan, n.d.), p. 10.

15 The origins and activities of the Singh Sabhas, including the politicking that took place are fully recounted in ibid.

16 For a narrative of the activities of the Arya Samaj in the Punjab, see Jones Kenneth, ‘Communalism in the Punjab: The Arya Samaj's ContributionJAS 28, 1 (1968), pp. 3954.

17 King C. M., offg. Chief Secretary to the Government, Punjab, to the Secretary to the Gol, dated Lahore, 26 03 1921. IOR: L/P&J/6/1734, fos 343–8.

18 Similarly, under pressure from Sikh students, evidently affected by the unrest in 1919, the government decided to withdraw official control over the Khalsa College at Lahore in 1920. See ‘Note on Sikh Question’ by H. D. Craik, oflg. Chief Secretary to the Punjab government, in GoP, Home proceedings, 05 1922, IOR: P/11277.

19 Smith V. W., ‘Akali Dal and SGPC’ (see fn. 2).

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 King C. M. to the Sec, Gol, Home Dept, 26 03 1921.

23 Maynard , ‘The Sikh problem in the Punjab, 1920–1923’, p. 300.

24 Craik H. D., ‘Review of action taken by the Punjab government to check the lawless activities of Akali associations in the Punjab’, 6 05 1922, GoP, Home proceedings, June 1922, IOR: P/H277.

25 King C. M., to Sec, Gol, Home Dept, 26 03 1921.

26 Smith , ‘Akali Dal and SGPC’.

27 Khilafat propaganda had called upon Muslim soldiers to quit military service as their continued association with the army was deemed to be un-Islamic and religiously unlawful. The Central Khilafat Committee had also made plans for the employment of paid preachers to be employed in the recruiting districts of the Punjab to spread the khilafat movement and to ‘undermine the loyalty of the army by getting at the soldiers when they were home on leave’. Weekly Report, 8 07 1921, Punjab, IOR: L/P&J/6/1726.

28 Smith , ‘Akali Dal and SGPC’.

29 Ibid.

30 Ever since the Ghadr episode, returned Sikh emigrants were viewed with much distrust by the Punjab government, see Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Report of a Tour carried out by Commandant, Jullunder Brigade in the Malwa region of the Punjab. Home (Pol), 1924, File no.i/VI.

33 ‘Resolution issued by Punjab government in regard to present Sikh religious movement in the province’ 04 1921, in IOR: L/P&J/6/1734, pt III, fos 325–30;Maynard , ‘The Sikh Problem in the Punjab, 1920–23’, p. 300.

34 Connolly V., Home Secretary to Punjab govt, to all district magistrates in the Punjab, 6 09 1921, in Majithia's papers, File no. 47 Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

35 The whole account of the Nankana massacre and the events leading up to it is contained in a report of 26 03 1921 by C. M. King, who was commissioner of Lahore at the time of the massacre, and later offg. Chief Secretary to the Punjab government to Secretary, Gol, Home Dept.

36 King C. M. to Sec. Gol, Home Dept, 26 03 1921.

37 Ibid.

38 Note by Kaye C., 2 09 1921, Gol, Home (Pol) ‘A’ Proceedings, no. 282–315 of May 1921, NAI.

39 Quoted in Kapur Rajiv, Sikh Separatism, p. 111.

40 Smith , ‘Akali Dal and SGPC’.

41 The provisions and clauses in the Bill are found in the Sikh Gurdwaras and Shrines Act of 1921, Gol, Public and Judicial, File 1220 of 1921. IOR:L/P&J/6/1734, pt III, fos 308–22.

42 At least two-thirds of the Board should be non-official Sikhs, although the term Sikh as applied in the bill was not defined. See Sikh Gurdwaras and Shrines Act of 1921.

43 Joseph E., Sec, Transferred Dept, GoP to Sec. Gol, Home Dept, 24 03 1921, in Gol, Home (Pol) pros 276–81, May 1921, NAI.

44 The Tribune, 26 03 1921.

45 The Tribune, 6 04 1921.

46 Kapur , Sikh Separatism, p. 119.

47 Ibid., p. 118.

48 Craik , ‘Review of the Action taken by the Punjab government to check the lawless activities of some of the Akali associations in the Punjab’, 6 05 1922.

49 Craik , ‘Note on the Sikh Question’, 05 1922.

50 Hailey to O'Dwyer, 6 08 1925, Hailey papers, IOR: MSS.EUR.E.220/7B.

51 Kapur , Sikh Separatism, p. 123.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid.

54 Singh Mohinder, The Akali Movement, p. 93.

55 Smith , ‘Akali Dal and SGPC’.

56 Lieutenent-General Shea J. S. M., offg. Chief of General Staff, ‘The Military Aspect of the Present Situation in the Punjab’, Army Headquarters, 24 02 1922, Gol, Home (Pol), pro. 459/II, 1922, NAI.

57 Ibid.

58 Ibid.

59 ‘Note on the present Akali situation with suggestions for future policy’, by Sir Reginald Arthur Mant, Revenue and Finance Sec, Viceroy's Council, 30 10 1923, Hailey Papers, IOR: MSS.EUR.E.220/6A.

60 Shea Lieut-Gen j. S. M, ‘The Military Aspect of the Present Situation in the Punjab’, 24 02 1922.

61 Punjab Fortnightly Report, (hereafter FR), 15 01 1922, Gol, Home (Pol), pro. 18 of January 1922, NAI.

62 FR, 15 01 1922.

63 ‘Note on the Present Akali Situation…,’ R. A. Mant, 30 10 1923 in Hailey Papers, IOR:MSS.EUR.E.220/6A.

64 Kapur , Sikh Separatism, p. 139.

65 FR, 28 02 1922.

66 Shea Lieut-Gen J.S.M., ‘The Military Aspect of the Present Situation in the Punjab’, 24 02 1922.

67 Report by Lieutenant Colonel R.H. Anderson, 45 Sikh Regiment, 6 02 1922, in Gol, Home (Pol), pro.459/11 of 1922, NAI.

68 FR, 15 01 1922.

69 The units affected were 13th-16th Cavalry, 14th Sikhs, 19th Punjabis, and 9th Bhopal Infantry. See ‘Brief Note on Trouble in four Indian Units during February 1922’ in Gol, Home (Pol), pro.459/11 of 1922, NAI.

70 Report by Sant Singh, Criminal Intelligence Bureau, 7 03 1922 in Gol, Home (Pol), pro.459/11 of 1922, NAI.

71 Memo from W. F. Bainbridge, Colonel-Commandant, Jullunder Brigade Area, to Headquarters, Lahore District, Lahore Cantonment, 8 02, 1922 in Gol, Home (Pol), pro.459/11 of 1922, NAI.

72 Recruiting Officer, Jullunder, to the Chief of the General Staff, Simla, 3 03 1922, in Gol, Home (Pol), pro.459/11 of 1922, NAI.

73 Report from Officer Commanding of 23 Sikh Pioneers, 2 02 1922, in Gol, Army Department Note of 1922, Home (Pol), File 415.

74 FR, 31 01 1922.

75 ‘Sikh and the Government’, pamphlet published by Punjab government, 27 11 1922, in Salmon Papers, no. 44, File no. 4, Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge [SAS].

76 Civil and Military Gazette, 9 11 1922, (Lahore 1922), in Salmon Papers, no. 50A, file no. 4, SAS.

77 Craik H. D., ‘Review of action taken by the Punjab government to check the lawless activities of the Akalis’, 6 05 1922, GoP, Home Proceedings. IOR:P/11277.

78 Report from the Recruiting Officer, Jullunder, to the Chief of the General Staff, Simla, Jullunder, 3 03 1922 in Gol, Home (Pol), pro. 459/II of 1922, NAI.

79 Smith , ‘Akali Dal and SGPC’.

80 Note by S. P. O'Donnel, 18 02 1922, Gol, Home (Pol), pro. 459/II of 1922, NAI.

81 Notes by C. A. Innes, 20 02 1922, in Note by O'Donnel, 18 February 1922.

82 Shea Lieut-Gen J. S. M., ‘The Military Aspect of the Present Situation in the Punjab’, 24 02 1922.

83 FR,15 01 1922.

84 Punjab govt Press communique,10 03 1922, Gol, Home (Pol) pro. 459/II of 1922, NAI.

85 ‘Operations against the Akalis’, S.P. O'Donnel to Sir William Duke, Under Sec of State, India, 20 04 1922. IOR:L/P&J/6/1734, pt II, fos 223–9.

86 Ibid., fo. 225

87 ‘Instructions bearing of present political situation in the Punjab’, from Chief Sec, GoP to all Deputy Commissioners of Sikh districts,16 02 1922. IOR: L/P&J/6/1734, pt.II, fos 235–8.

88 Ibid.; see also Craik , ‘Review of action taken against the Akalis…’, 6 05 1922.

89 Statement by the Punjab government regarding the Guru Ka Bagh, Gol, Home (Political) proceedings, no 914 of 1922, NAI.

90 ‘Sikhs and Government’, p. 5.

91 FR, 15 09 1922.

92 Smith ‘Akali Dal and SGPC’.

93 FR, 15 09 1922.

94 In a village in Ferozepur tehsil, four Indian officers received invitations to the Royal visit and were determined to be present but failed to do so because, according to an informant, the Akali influence was too strong for them and they were in some ways prevented. Gwynne to O'Donnel, 20 09 1922, Gol Home (Pol) pro. 914 of 1922, NAI.

95 Ibid.

96 ‘Report of Tour of Jullunder District’, in Gol, Home (Pol) pro. 15/II 1924, NAI.

97 See Andrews C. F.’ eye-witness account at Guru Ka Bagh in Ruchi Ram Sahni, (edited by Singh Ganda), Struggle for Reforms in the Sikh Shrines (Sikh Ithas Research Board, SGPC, Amritsar, n.d.), pp. 176–83.

98 ‘Note on the present Akali situation…’, A. R. Mant, 30 10 1923, in Hailey private papers, IOR: MSS.EUR.E.Q20/6A.

99 FR, 31 10 1922.

100 See ‘A Bill to provide for the Administration and Management of certain Sikh gurdwaras and shrines, and for an enquiry in the matters connected therewith’, Punjab Gazette, 17 11 1922.

101 Kapur, Sikh Separatism, pp. 158–60.

102 Note by C.M.G. Ogilvie, 4 November 1922, GoI, Home (Pol), pro.914 1922, NAI.

103 Note by W. M. Hailey, 15 11 1922, in ibid.

104 S. P. O'Donnel to H. D. Craik, 20 November 1922, in ibid.

105 FR, 30 Nov. 1922.

106 For a fuller account of the events that led to the abdication of the ruler of the Nabha, see Mohinder Singh, The Akali Movement, p. 180.

107 FR, 15 Dec. 1923; Yadav Kripal C., Elections in the Punjab, 1920–1947 (New Delhi, 1987), pp. 56–7.

108 Quoted in the memorandum on the Akali situation by Malcolm Hailey, 20 June 1924, MSS.EUR.E.220/6A.

109 Based on Singh Ganda (ed.), Some Confidential Papers of the Akali Movement (Amritsar, 1965), pp. 6971; The Birdwood Committee, GOI, Home (Pol), no. 297 of 1924, NAI.

110 Memorandum by Hailey W. M. on the Akali situation, 20 June 1924, Hailey papers, IOR: MSS. EUR. E. 220/6A.

111 Memo by Hailey Malcolm on the Akali situation, 20 June 1924.

112 See the correspondence between Hailey and Vincent in Hailey's collections, IOR: MSS. EUR. E. 220/5D.

113 For instance, he strongly advocated the formation of the Board of Commission in the Punjab as provided by the 1922 Bill, as a means of removing disputes over gurdwara management, which had been the basis of continued Sikh agitation in the Punjab.

114 Memo by Hailey Malcolm on the Akali situation, 20 June 1924.

115 Hailey to Birdwood, 20 June 1924, Hailey papers, IOR: MSS. EUR. E. 220/6A.

116 Craik H. D., chief secretary to Punjab government, to Major Ogilvie, deputy secretary to the GoI, Foreign and Political Dept, 27 June 1924 in Hailey papers, IOR: MSS.EUR.E.220/6A.

117 Ibid.

118 Memo by Hailey Malcolm on the Akali situation, 20 June 1924.

119 Craik H. D., Chief Sec, Punjab Govt to T. Sloan, Dy Sec to GoI, Home Dept, 5 July 1924, GoI, Home (Pol), File i/VI of 1924, NAI.

120 Hailey W. M. to G. de Montmorency, private secretary to the Viceroy, 8 July 1924, in Hailey papers, IOR: MSS. EUR.E.220/6A.

121 Lists showing grants of colony land to Sikhs for loyalty to government can be found in files 301/3/25/5A-B in the Board of Revenue Department, Lahore, Pakistan.

122 Mitra H. N. (ed.), Indian Annual Register (IAR), 1924, vol. II, (Delhi, reprint, 1988), pp. 199200

123 Hailey W. M. to Vincent, 7 November 1923, Hailey Papers, IOR: MSS.EUR.E.220/5D.

124 Hailey W. M. to Malcolm Seton, Clerk of Council, 17 July 1924, Hailey papers, IOR:MSS.EUR.E.220/6A.

125 F. R., 31 July and 31 August 1924;Hailey W. M. to Vincent W., 12 08 1924, Hailey papers, IOR:MSS.EUR.E.220/6B.

126 F. R., 15 August 1924; see also Hailey W. M. to G. de Montmorency, 8 July 1924, Hailey papers, IOR:MSS.EUR.E.220/6A.

127 Hailey W. M. to de Montmorency, 20 August 1924, Hailey papers, IOR: MSS.EUR.E.220/6B.

128 Hailey to de Montmorency, 5 August 1924, Hailey private papers, IOR: MSS.EUR.E.220/6B.

129 See Gudwaras Sikh and Bill Shrines of 1925 as reproduced in Punjab Gazette, 26 June 1925.

130 Hailey W. M. to Langley A., commissioner of Lahore, 25 November 1924, Hailey papers, IOR: MSS.EUR.E.220/6C.

131 All these conditions were insisted upon by Hailey during the drafting of the Bill. See Hailey to Muddiman, 25 November 1924, Hailey papers, IOR: MSS.EUR.E.220/6C.

132 For this story, see Tan T. Y., ‘Sikh Responses to the Demand for Pakistan, 1940–47’, unpublished MA thesis, National University of Singapore, 1989.

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