Sonia Dhami is trustee, Sikh Foundation; president, ArtandTolerance.com; and commissioner, Fine Arts, City of Cupertino, California. The views expressed are her own.
“FIRST BATTLE FOR INDIA’S FREEDOM WON (.) CONGRATULATIONS.”
These are the words of Mahatma Gandhi congratulating Baba Kharak Singh, president of the Sikh Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee (S.G.P.C) in January 1922, via telegraph. The Sikhs had successfully won control of the Golden Temple from the colonial government resulting in the handing over of the keys of the toshakhana (treasury) to the Sikhs This campaign is known as “Morcha Chabian”(campaign for the keys) a part of the larger Gurudwara Reform Movement (also known as the Akali movement) which demonstrated the power of peaceful resistance.
History can be a great teacher for us to learn from. It documents the victories and defeats of time. Today I watch the powerful but moving visuals of farmers, both women and men, sitting it out on Delhi’s borders, peacefully protesting the Farm Bill. I am reminded to recall our history when a century ago, equally determined citizens won a historically significant victory through peaceful protest and resistance.
The impact of the 1922 morcha’s success at Amritsar, prompted Gandhi to acknowledge this important victory as a first milestone towards winning freedom for the whole country. He was so impressed by the commitment and fortitude of the Sikhs, that he is known to have encouraged his followers to emulate their example at the time of the Dandi Salt Satyagraha in 1930, at Musli Peta and at Malegoan, part of the nationwide Civil Disobedience movement.
If Gandhi were to visit the Farmers protest sites today, he would see the same deep commitment to peaceful democratic protest to get their rights. The ethos of seva (service) and Chardi Kala (ever-rising spirit) that the community has demonstrated for centuries, is again reflected in the scores of free essential services and langars (free kitchens) been made available on the protest sites.
To get a better understanding of the causes and effects of the Gurudwara Reform Movement, let’s revisit early twentieth-century Indian history. At the time, in British India, the Sikh gurdwaras were controlled by the Udasi Mahants (priests) or managers appointed by the British Governors.
The Udasis (followers of Baba Sri Chand who do not follow the Khalsa tenets) came to control the Sikh shrines in the eighteenth century during the period of increased persecution by the Mughal authorities of the Khalsa (one who maintains the 5 external identifiers ordained by Guru Gobind Singh including keeping of unshorn hair).
The military prowess of the Khalsa would subsequently win political power resulting in the Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 19th century. Ranjit Singh, granted jagirs of huge tracts of land and villages to the historical shrines for their upkeep. The Mahants, who controlled these shrines, became increasingly powerful and ritualized. They considered the shrines as their personal ancestral properties.
In 1919, just before the horrific Jallianwala Bagh incident, the Sikh League was formed with the goals to free the gurudwaras from the mahants, and to lend support to the non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhi.
Groups of Sikh volunteers called Akalis (literally translated to the timeless ones) would peacefully march to the gurdwara’s and stoically bear police beatings and firings. In February 1921, 130 Akalis were killed, at the shrine of Nankana Sahib, which marks the birthplace of Guru Nanak. Gandhi along with his close associate C.F Andrews (Deenbandhu) visited the protesters. He encouraged them to continue their peaceful campaign and in March the shrine was eventually handed over to the Akalis.
News reports of various morchas (campaigns) at different gurudwaras where the protestors were lathi-charged were pouring in. The Sikhs stood their ground. One particular protest site was the “Guru-ka-bagh” shrine near Amritsar. In August 1922, the standoff developed between the colonial government supporting the mahant and the Akalis, who were arriving in increasing numbers and peacefully courting arrest.
Soon the authorities started using violent methods on the continuous waves of fifty to two hundred Akalis, who would take blows with passive resistance. C.F Andrews visited the site and was shocked at the brutality of the administration and described the Akali tactics as a “new lesson in moral warfare”.
Finally, the arrival of a jatha (group) of ex-soldiers on 25th Oct.1922, hastened the governments’ submission. Fearful of large-scale destabilization of the region, they reached a settlement on 17th November 1922. The shrine was handed over to the Akalis and over 5000 arrested volunteers were released.
The British Government considered the Akali movement to be a greater threat than Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. A 1921 memorandum signed by D. Petrie, the Assistant Director of CID, Punjab states.
“Gandhi’s propaganda makes its appeal mainly to the urban classes, which lack both the stamina and physical courage to oppose successfully even small bodies of police; the Akali campaign is essentially a rural movement, and its followers are men of fine physique with a national history of which the martial characteristics have been purposely kept alive both by Government and by the Sikhs themselves.”
Seeing the writing on the wall, the Sikh Gurdwara Bill was passed in 1925, which placed all the historical Sikh shrines in India under the control of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC).
Today, farmers from all over India have joined hands across sectarian divisions against the Farm Bill. Agriculture reforms are much needed but these should not be to the detriment of the farmers. They should be determined in consultation with the farmers, who probably have the least individual power but collectively employ 50% of all Indians. The reforms must benefit this group.
Artists are in the forefront of this struggle. Whether they are painters, photographers, journalists, authors, musicians, dancers, poets they are all doing their part by spreading these powerful visuals and stories of this struggle of India’s farmers to all corners of the world. Support from countries and people across the globe are pouring in as well. `
Today, it is both women and men who are demonstrating ownership of the land. They are actively advocating for it by leaving their homes and bearing the fierceness of a cold winter. They are stoically bearing the tear gas shells and cold water cannons of the police. The government must recognize their struggle and sacrifices as – of the people, by the people and for the people.
Sikhs pray for “Sarbat da Bhalla” (well being of all humanity) every time an ardas (prayer) is recited at home or at a gurudwara anywhere in the world. May it be so in this struggle as well.
Jaito Morcha Feb 1924
The brutality of the British Raj and the massacres of Amritsar and Nankana saw the establishment of formal Sikh resistance. The Ghadri Babay took the form of armed revolution, the Akalis, paradoxically considering their name, took a non violent approach + pic.twitter.com/eIi28pupSi
— moomjamma (@moomjamma) February 14, 2019
Reference: Credit for Archival pictures: https://twitter.com/moomjamma
Photo Courtesy: Himanshu Dua, Tikri Border 2020