Divide Et Impera: How the British Created Sikh Identity

Divide Et Impera: How the British Created Sikh Identity

The British conquest of Bharat owed a great deal to the British superiority in the art of warfare. However, they could not hope to hold such a big country by means of military might alone. After the 1857 Mutiny/Rebellion the East India Company (EIC) had set up a Commission to analyze the causes of the rebellion and suggest ways to perpetuate its rule. Lord Elphinstone, then Governor of Bombay, suggested to the Commission: “Divide et impera (Divide and Rule) was the old Roman motto, and it should be ours.” (1)

Residues of Islamic imperialism readily co-operated with the British after 1857 (3). Sir John Strachey (after whom the ‘Strachey Hall’ in Aligarh Muslim University is named) had stated in 1894: “The better classes of Mohammedans are a source of strength and not of weakness. They constitute a comparatively small but energetic minority of the population, whose political interests are identical with ours, and who, under no conceivable circumstances, would prefer Hindu dominion to our own.” (2)

(RS) The British had to contend with the majority Hindus, however. It became the main plank of their policy, therefore, to fragment Hindu society and pit groups against each other. At the same time, they tried to create pockets of solid support for their regime. One such pocket that was the focus of the British were the Sikhs. (3)

This essay draws heavily upon and quotes several passages (marked RS in the essay) from Ram Swarup’s insightful monograph – “Hindu-Sikh Relationship” — first published in 1985. It highlights some of the British policies from 1849 onwards (when the British took over the Punjab) till 1925 (when the Sikh Gurudwaras Act was passed in British India), which sought to separate the Sikh community from its parent Hindu society by converting it into a distinct religious minority like Muslims and Christians. This is not dissimilar to how evangelical and colonial interests worked in tandem with British Indological scholarship to fabricate the Dravidian identity and then propose that Dravidians were in India before the Aryans and were cheated by Brahmins, who were the cunning agents of Aryans. Dravidians therefore had to be liberated by Europeans. Now, of course, it is the time for Western forces – academic, activist, political, religious, and media – to divide India further by feeding Dalit disenchantment. That story, being manufactured at breakneck speed, is yet to be fully chronicled.

(RS) During the period of Mughal tyranny, Guru Govind Singh preached the gospel of the Khalsa, the pure or the elect. Those who joined his group passed through a ceremony known as pahul. To emphasize the martial nature of their new vocation, they were given the title of Singh or ‘lion’. Thus began a sect not based on birth and which drew its recruits from those who were not Khalsa by birth. It was wholly manned by Hindus. (3)

(RS) But fortunes change. In 1849, the British took over the Punjab. The old-style Khalsa was no longer possible and the recruitment to it almost ceased. The Punjab Administration Report of 1851-52 observes: ‘The sacred tank at Umritsur is less thronged than formerly, and the attendance at the annual festival is diminishing yearly. The initiatory ceremony for adult is now rarely performed’. Not only did the fresh recruitment stop, but also a new exodus began. The same report says that people leave the Khalsa and ‘join the ranks of Hinduism whence they originally came and bring up their children as Hindus’. (3)

(RS) The phenomenon continued unabated. The Administration Report of 1854 and 1855-56 finds that ‘now that the Sikh commonwealth is broken up, people cease to be initiated into Sikhism and revert to Hinduism’3. At about this time, a census was taken. It revealed that the Lahore division which included Manjha, the original home of the Sikhs, had only 200,000 Sikhs in a population of three million. This exodus may account at least partly for this small number. (3)

(RS) The development raised no question. To those who were involved, this was natural. A Sikh was a Hindu in a particular role. When under the changed circumstances, he could not play the role, he reverted to his original status. The British Government admitted that, ‘modern Sikhism was little more than a political association, formed exclusively from among Hindus, which men would join or quit according to the circumstances of the day’. (3)


(RS) Imperialism thrives on divisions and it sowed such divisions to ensure their continued power over the people. The British government invited E. Trumpp, a German Indologist, to look at Sikh scriptures and prove that their theology and cosmology were different from those of the Vedas and the Upanishads. But he found nothing in them to support this view. He found Nanak a ‘thorough Hindu, his religion ‘a pantheism, derived directly from Hindu sources’3. In fact, the influence of Islam on subsequent Sikhism was, according to him, negative. ‘It is not improbable that Islam had a great share in working silently these changes, which are directly opposed to the teachings of the gurus’, he says.” (3)

(RS) However, to please his clients, he said the external marks of the Sikhs separated them from the Hindus and once these were lost, they lapsed into Hinduism. Hence, Hinduism was a danger to Sikhism and the external marks must be preserved by the Sikhs at all costs. Precisely because there was a fundamental unity, the accidental difference had to be pushed to the utmost and made much of. (3)

From then onwards, ‘Sikhism in danger’ became the cry of many British scholar-administrators. Lepel Harry Griffen postulated that Hinduism had always been socially hostile to Sikhism and even socially the two had been antagonistic (3). The seminal role in propagating this thesis was played by Max Arthur Macauliffe. He entered the Indian Civil Service in 1862 and arrived in Punjab in 1864. Macauliffe’s studies of Sikhism first appeared in the ‘Calcutta Review’ in articles published between 1875 and 1881. After retiring from the Indian Civil Service in 1893, he wrote an English translation of the Guru Granth Sahib. He also wrote ‘The Sikh Religion: its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors’ (six volumes, Oxford University Press, 1909). Macauliffe is widely credited for introducing Sikhism to the English-speaking world.

The preface to Volume I of the ‘The Sikh Religion’ sheds some light on the colonial motivations of Macauliffe. He says that Guru Gobind Singh had prophesised that the English would come, and joined by the Khalsa, rule in the East and in the West. The combined armies of the English and the Sikh would be very powerful. Any Sikh who shows reluctance to fight His Majesty’s enemies, would be condemned by the Gurus. Macualiffe strongly advocated placing before the Sikh soldiery their Gurus’ prophecies and the text of their sacred writings, which foster their loyalty to His Majesty. (4)

Macauliffe expressed dismay that some of the Sikh States, in ignorance of the teachings of the Gurus, maintained temples and spiritual arenas in Haridwar and Rishikesh. In his view, the nearly one hundred thousand Sikhs who attended the Haridwar fair, possessed a very elementary knowledge of their religion and did not know that such action would be disapproved by all their Holy Gurus. (5)

In summing up the moral and political merits of the Sikh religion, Macauliffe lists out (amongst others) prohibition of idolatry and of pilgrimages to sacred rivers and tanks of Hindus. He is very critical of the movement to declare Sikhs Hindus and claims that this is direct opposition to the teachings of the Gurus. He recalls his recently meeting in Lahore young men claiming to be descendants of Gurus, who told him that they were Hindus and that they could not read the characters in which sacred books of the Sikhs were written. As per Macauliffe, such youths are ignorant of the Sikh religions and (more importantly) its prophecies in favour of the English. They end up calling the English, persons of impure desires (Malechhas). (6)

The most surprising conclusion of Macauliffe was that the British military had emerged as the main guardian of the Sikh religion, and that the military ignores ‘religious neutrality’. Sikh recruits were to be baptized according to rites prescribed by Guru Gobind Singh, so that they were protected from the contagion of idolatry. (7)

The influence of scholarship is silent, subtle, and long-range (3). It would not be an exaggeration to say that Macauliffe was perhaps the leading light among those who established the theological foundation for Sikh separatism. His work provided the basis for the work of subsequent Sikh intellectuals and formed the ideological underpinnings of later Sikh separatist politics.


(RS) But the British Government did not neglect the quicker administrative and political measures. The British had conquered Punjab with the help of Poorabiya (mostly Bengali) soldiers, many of them Brahmins, but they played a rebellious role in 1857. At the same time, the British were grateful for the assistance received from the Sikh princes. They disarmed the nation as a whole and created privileged enclaves of what they called ‘martial races’. The 1857 revolt blew up the old Bengal Army and brought into existence a Punjabized army. (3)

(RS) The enlistment of Sikhs increased steeply. In 1855, there were only 1,500 Sikh soldiers, mostly Mazhabi (who were also known as Ranghrettey, as termed by Guru Sahib). In 1910, there were 33,000 out of a total of 174,000, this time mostly Jats. The British insisted that only Keshdhari Sikhs could join the army — those who supported the five K’s (Kesh, Kangha, Kara, Kacha, Kirpan). Since it was mainly Jat Sikhs who sported the 5K’s then, they were the biggest beneficiaries. The recruits were sent to receive baptism according to the rites prescribed by Guru Gobind Singh. Each regiment had its own granthis. The greetings exchanged between British officers and Sikh soldiers were Waheguruji ka Khalsa! Waheguruji ki Fateh! ”. (3)

(RS) A secret CID memorandum, prepared by D Patrie, Assistant Director, Criminal Intelligence, Government of India (1911) says that ‘Sikhs in the Indian Army have been studiously nationalized’3. About ‘nationalization’, Patrie explains that it means that the Sikhs were ‘encouraged to regard themselves as a totally distinct and separate nation’3. Another British administrator put it well when he held that ‘preservation of Sikhism as a separate religion was largely due to the action of Sikh officers’. (3)

The soldiers were well paid, given agricultural land and pension. ‘Thus, there was a phenomenal increase in the Sikh population in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century’ (8).  During 1901-11, in Jullundur (now Jalandhar) district, Sikhs increased by 40 percent while Hindus declined by 25.5 percent. In Ludhiana district, the Sikh increase was by 25.5 percent, while Hindus decreased by 51 percent.(9)

The British started to enforce rigid occupational boundaries by creating ‘traditional agriculturalists,’ ‘martial races,’ and ‘trading castes’. In British census reports, Hindus, particularly Khatris (who had served in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s forces), were arbitrarily categorised as ‘trading castes’, as many of them were educated and engaged in trade. They were seldom accepted into military service. Khatris, who had also been landholders, acquired further acreage till the ‘Punjab Land Alienation Act, 1900’ forbade them to do so as a non-agricultural tribe. (8)

The Punjab Land Alienation Act 1900 was introduced by the British with the aim of limiting the transfer of land ownership in Punjab. It created an ‘agricultural tribes’ category, membership of which was almost compulsory to buy or sell land. The stated objective of the Act was to impose a check on the alienation of land from the agricultural class (including zamindars) to the non-agricultural class, including moneylenders. In practice, it enabled the British to retain their inflexible revenue policies and continue to blame peasant misfortunes on Hindu moneylenders. It also drove a wedge between ‘agriculturists’ (Jat zamindars, Muslim tribes) and ‘non-agriculturists’. Through this, British sought to make Muslims and Sikh Jats loyal subjects. (8)


The British also worked on a more political level(3). The first Singh Sabha was founded in 1873 in Amritsar as a response to the possibility of losing British patronage of Sikhs in general due to rebellious actions of groups like Namdhari Sikhs and to the threat posed by Christian missionary activity, which sought to convert more Sikhs to Christianity. The controversial conversion of the last Sikh ruler, Maharaja Dalip Singh, to Christianity in 1853, had caused a lot of concern (he reconverted to Sikhism in 1886). Some credit the formation of Singh Sabhas to the ‘Shuddhi’ movement of Arya Samaj which sought to bring back Sikhs to the Vedic fold. Arya Samaj though was founded in 1875, two years after the first Singh Sabha.

Another branch was formed in Lahore in 1879 with strong emphasis on the recovery of distinctive Sikh values. Two separate trends soon emerged, with what have been termed as the Sanatan Sikhs prominent in Amritsar and the Tat Khalsa dominant in Lahore. Lord Landsdowne (Viceroy of India, 1888-1894) said at an even in Patiala, ‘With this Singh Sabha movement, the Government of India is in hearty sympathy. We appreciate the many qualities of the Sikh nation’ (8). The British role in promoting a separate Sikh identity is quite clear.

Some Arya Samajists, in their over-enthusiasm, did publicly convert Sikhs into Arya Samajis and cut their hair. This culminated in an article published in 1888 titled ‘Sikhism Past and Present’, which was critical of some Sikh beliefs and made the case for Sikhs returning to the Vedic fold. Partly in response to this, Kahan Singh Nabha published his book titled ‘Hum Hindu Nahin Hain’, in 1898 (3). This note, first struck by the British and then picked up by collaborationists, found a place in subsequent Sikh writings and politics.

Another perspective vis-à-vis Arya Samaj, is offered by American anthropologist Richard G Fox in his book ‘Lions of the Punjab’.  Fox says that Arya Samaj was ‘proclaiming a Pan-Hindu set of beliefs, inclusive of Sikhs, that the British feared was subversive’. They feared that the two might come together against colonial rule and Arya Samaj, with its more radical program, might even altogether ‘take over’ the Singh Sabhas. This worry made them support the Singh Sabha’s separatist program in a big way. (9)

A superficial unity between Sanatan Sikhs dominant in Amritsar and Tat Khalsa prominent in Lahore was achieved in 1902 when Chief Khalsa Diwan was formed (3). While both wore the badge of loyalty to the British, Sanatan Sikhs regarded the Panth as a special form of Hinduism whilst the other believed that Sikhism was a separate religion (3).

W H Mcleod writes in the ‘Historical Dictionary of Sikhism’, ‘For the Sikhs of 18th century, the goddess Devi clearly had a fascination. The goddess Durga who appears in the Dasam Granth created a problem for the Tat Khalsa scholars who strongly affirmed monotheism. The question was settled by concluding that Bhagauti symbolises God as the Divine Sword’ (10). He also mentions that ‘Tat Khalsa progressively assumed complete dominance of Sikh affairs, introducing newly fashioned rituals, stressing Khalsa forms, and reinterpreting history’ (10).

(RS) A student, Bir Singh, in a letter to Khalsa Akhbar (Feb 12, 1897) tells us of a picture of Durga painted on the wall of a room near the Dukhabhanjani Beri in the Golden Temple precincts. ‘The Goddess stands on golden sandals and she has many hands- ten or perhaps twenty. One of the hands is stretched out and she holds a khanda. Guru Gobind Singh stands barefoot in front of it with his hands folded,’ he says. (3)

But in May 1905, the manager (sarbarah) of the Golden Temple, Sardar Arur Singh, issued orders prohibiting Brahmins from sitting in parikrama with the murtis for worship. Soon after, the murtis were removed from the temple. A memorandum signed by several thousand Hindus and Sikhs was submitted to the Lieutenant Governor.The memorandum stressed that Brahmins along with the idols were part of the temple since its formation. The removal of idols was against the wishes of the great majority of the Sikhs and had caused pain to the whole orthodox community. Very soon, Singh Sabhas organized meetings and passed resolutions in support of the manager’s action. This brought to surface many volatile issues concerning the identity of Sikhs. The press became a medium for debates between Arya Samajists, Brahma Samajists, Sikh reformers, and even common readers. (11)

Sikh separatist consciousness also received an impetus with the passage of the Anand Marriage Act in 1909, which sought to validate the marriage ceremony common among Sikhs called Anand. It had somewhat lapsed during the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and was sought to be revived by the Singh Sabha. Hitherto, Brahmins had presided over different Sikh ceremonies, which were the same as Hindus. The tendency was now to have separate rituals. (3)

(RS) The British played their game as best as they could, but they did not hold all the cards. Only a small section maintained that there was a ‘distinct line of cleavage between Hinduism and Sikhism’, but a large section, as the British found, ‘favours, or at any rate views with indifference the re-absorption of Sikhs into Hinduism. The glorification of Sikhs was welcome to the British to the extent it separated them from Hindus, but it had its disadvantages too.  Patrie found it a ‘constant source of danger’, something that tended to give the Sikhs a ‘wind in the head. (3)


(RS) Sikh nationalism was meant to hurt Hindus, but it also hurt the British. For what nourished Sikh nationalism also nourished Hindu nationalism. The glories of Sikh Gurus are part of the glories of Hindus, and these have been sung by poets like Tagore and others. On the other hand, as rulers, the British could not go very far in this direction. Privately, Patrie tells us how ‘Tegh Bahadur, as an infidel, a robber, and a rebel, was executed at Delhi by the Moghul authorities’3. As imperialists, the British naturally sympathized with the Mughals and shared their viewpoint. (3)

(RS) Even during the heydays of Sikh loyalty to the British, there were many rebellious voices. In 1885, one Baba Nihal Singh wrote a book titled ‘Khurshid-i-Khalsa’ which the British deemed ‘dealt in an objectionable manner with the British occupation of Punjab’3. When Gopal Krishan Gokhale visited Punjab in 1907, he was received with great enthusiasm by the students of Khalsa College, an institution started in 1892 in Amritsar, specifically to instil loyalty to the British among Sikh youth. He spoke from the college Dharamsala from which the Granth Sahib was specifically removed to make room for him. It was here that the famous poem Pagri Sambhal Jatta was first recited by Banke Dayal, editor of Jhang Sayal. It became the battle song of Sikh revolutionaries. (3)

A powerful voice of revolt came from America where many Punjabis, mostly Sikh Jats had settled. The drought of 1905-07 and the epidemic in its wake had killed nearly two million Punjabis. The Colonization Bill 1906, which provided for transfer of property of a person after his death to the government if he had no heirs, was rejected by all sides. British fiscal and monetary policies had led to large scale alienation of land from cultivators. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were wiped out or fell into debt. Many of them emigrated east to Bengal. They then moved across the frontier to Burma, Malay States, and then China. There onwards, Sikhs went to Canada and the USA. Stories of Canada’s wealth started spreading among the impoverished Sikh peasantry. Steamship companies began to publicize the prospects of employment in Canada and the United States.  The peak years of Indian emigration to British Columbia (Canada) were 1906 and 1907, the number of emigres being 2,124 and 2,623, respectively12. The most popular areas of settlement remained British Columbia in Canada and California in the US. (12)

In 1906, the Canadian Legislature passed the Immigration Act to control the influx of Asiatics. In 1907, the British Columbia Legislature deprived Indians of the right to vote in provincial elections. In 1908, municipal franchise was also taken from them — by the Dominion Election Act of 1920, Indians in British Columbia were deprived of Dominion franchise. Emigration to Canada was thus brought to a standstill. Mackenzie King (later Prime Minister of Canada) went to England in 1908 to settle the Indian problem with the British Government.  King stated that there was in England ‘a ready appreciation that Canada should desire to restrict immigration from the Orient as natural; that Canada should remain a white man’s country is believed not only to be desirable for economic reasons, but highly necessary on political and national grounds’. (13)

In India, the government put into effect the agreement arrived at between Mackenzie King and the British ministers, so that immigration could be checked at the source. An Emigration Act was passed, which enabled the government to frame rules in accordance with the wishes of the Canadian Government. Warnings about the ‘risks’ involved in going to Canada were issued. Steamship companies were told that any attempt on their part to convey Indians abroad would be viewed with disfavour. All these rules were said to have been made ‘to protect the natives of India’ and ‘for safeguarding the liberty of British subjects in India’. The emigrants started to realize that the reason they had to suffer indignities in foreign lands was because they had no government of their own. (14)


In March 1913, first steps towards organizing a revolutionary movement were taken. Invitations were sent to Indian laborers and farmers to attend a conference in Washington. Among the sponsors of this move were Sohan Singh of Bhakna and Lala Hardayal. Nearly 200 delegates attended the Washington conference, and its outcome was the founding of an organization known as the Hindi Association. Its main object was the liberation of India from British rule, if necessary, by force of arms. Within six months, thousands became its members. It opened branches in Japan, China, Fiji, and the Malay States. (15)

In October 1913, the Hindi Association met a second time in Sacramento. A month later the association brought out the first issue of the Ghadr (‘Mutiny’) in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and Marathi, with Hardayal as its editor. From then onwards, the association came to be known as the ‘Ghadr Party’. In March 1914, Hardayal was arrested. His comrades had him bailed out and sent him away from the US. (16)

A few months later, came the Komagata Maru incident. On 23 May 1914, the steamship Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver with 376 passengers from India, seeking to immigrate to Canada. All but 20 passengers were denied entry to Canada based on two immigration rules. One required immigrants that they did not break their journey on their way to Canada; the other demanded that Asian immigrants have $200 instead of the normal $25 required of immigrants. Two months later, after many delays and a failed appeal, the ship and its passengers departed under escort of a Canadian warship (17). On 27 September 1914, Komagata Maru reached Calcutta and was piloted to Budge Budge Harbour, 14 miles away. The passengers were served a notice, forbidding them to proceed to Calcutta. The few Muslims who were on board agreed to obey the order; the Sikhs refused. The Sikhs formed themselves into a procession and proceeded towards Calcutta. The procession was forced back by the police. A scuffle ensued and the police opened fire. Twenty-one Sikhs and two sightseers were killed. Most of the others were handcuffed and put in trains bound for Punjab. Incidentally, on May 18, 2016 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a formal ‘full apology’ for the incident in the House of Commons.

News of the treatment meted by the Indian Government to the passengers of Komagata Maru spread in the countries along the Pacific coast. The Ghadr Party called for action. Indian troops were contacted and some persuaded to mutiny. Arsenals were attacked, bridges blown up, and lines of communication destroyed. But the major uprising planned by the revolutionaries for 21 February 1915 went off badly. There were too many spies. Two days before zero hour, soldiers who had agreed to mutiny, were arrested (18). By March 1915, the British Government assured itself that the Ghadr headache was over.

But it could not risk an ordinary criminal trial for these revolutionaries. Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Governor of Punjab, submitted the draft of an ordinance for speeding up procedure in cases by providing for the trial of offenders directly, after police investigation had established a prima facie case. There was to be no further appeal.  O’Dwyer himself admitted that the methods proposed were exceptional. Nine batches of conspirators were tried by special tribunals constituted under the Defence of India Act. This was the First Lahore Conspiracy Case. (19)

(RS) Many of the Ghadarites, once loyal soldiers, had raised the banner of Indian nationalism and spoken against the Singh Sabhas, Chief Khalsa Diwan, and the Sardar Bahadurs at home. They spoke of Bharat Mata. Their heroes were patriots and revolutionaries from Bengal and Maharashtra, and not their co-religionists in the Punjab whom they called ‘traffickers of the country’. (3)


(RS) The earlier trends, some of them mutually opposed, became important components of subsequent Sikh politics. The pre-war (pre-1914) politics continued under new labels at an accelerated pace. Social fraternization with Hindus continued as before, but politically the Sikh community became more sharply defined and acquired a greater group consciousness. Pre-1914, attempts had been made to de-Hinduize Sikhism. Now, it was also Khalsa-ized. (3)

Hitherto, Sikh temples were managed by non-Khalsa Sikhs, mostly the Udasis. Apart from the mahants, after the British annexation of Punjab in 1849, some control over the Gurudwaras was exercised by Government nominated managers and custodians, who often collaborated with the mahants. There were increasing allegations of misuse of funds and the Udasi Mahants leading immoral lives. There was some truth to this, but it was also the case that the followers of Tat Khalsa wanted control of the Gurudwaras.

There was angst when some mahants, under government inspiration, issued a hukumnama (directive) declaring Ghadarites renegades. They then honored General Dyer, the butcher of Jallianwala massacre with a saropa (robe of honor) and declared him to be a Sikh. A popular agitation for the reform of Gurudwaras developed rapidly during 1920, when the reformers organized groups of volunteers known as Jatthas, to compel the mahants to hand over the control of the Gurudwaras to local devotees.

With a view to establish a central committee for administration of Gurudwaras, a representative assembly of Sikhs from all walks of life was called by the new jathedar or chief, of Takht Akal Bunga 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 Punjab at the instance of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. He had been approached by Bhai Jodh Singh and a few of his faculty colleagues at Khalsa 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 ‘Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee’. (20)

The first session of the Committee was held at the Akal Takht on 12 December 1920. Sundar Singh Majithia, Harbans Singh of Atari, and Bhai Jodh Singh were elected president, vice-president, and secretary, respectively. The more radical elements organized a semi-military corps of volunteers known as the Akali Dal (Army of Immortals). The Akali Dal was to raise and train men for ‘direct action’ to take over gurdwaras. (20)

Under pressure of Sikh opinion, backed frequently by demonstration of strength, the mahants began yielding possession of gurdwara properties to elected committees and agreed to become paid granthis or scripture-readers. Several gurdwaras had thus come under the reformists’ control even before the Shiromani Committee and the Akali 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. (20)

For instance, Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, was the scene of violence on a much larger scale. On the morning of 20 February 1921, as a jatha or band of 150 Akalis came to the Gurdwara, they were fired upon. Many of the jatha fell in the indiscriminate firing. Among those who came to Nankana to express their sense of shock were Sir Edward Maclagan, the British Lt. Governor of Punjab. Mahatma Gandhi came accompanied by Muslim leaders, Shaukat Ali and Muhammad Ali. (20)

Another crisis arose as the Punjab Government seized keys of the Golden Temple treasury on 7 November 1921. The SGPC lodged a strong protest. Further means of recording resentment included a decision for Sikhs to observe a hartal, i.e., to strike work on the day the Prince of Wales landed in India. To fill the British jails, volunteers, draped in black and singing hymns from scripture, marched forth in batches. Ex-servicemen gave up their pensions and joined Akali ranks. Under pressure of the growing agitation, the government gave way. On 19 January 1922, a court official surrendered the bunch of keys, wrapped in a piece of red cloth, to SGPC president Kharak Singh. (20)

On 9 August 1922, the police arrested on charges of trespass five Sikhs who had gone to gather firewood from the Gurdwara’s land for Guru ka Langar, 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 courted arrest and prosecution. After 30 August, police adopted a sterner policy to terrorize the volunteers. Those who came to cut firewood from Guru ka Bagh were beaten up in a merciless manner. The Sikhs suffered all this stoically and went every day in larger numbers to submit themselves to the beating. A committee appointed by the Indian National Congress to visit Amritsar lauded the Akalis. Rev C. F. Andrews, a Christian missionary, came on 12 September 1922, and was deeply moved. At his instance, Maclagan, the Lt. Governor of Punjab, arrived at Guru ka Bagh (13 September) and ordered the beatings to be stopped. Four days later, the police retired from the scene. By then 5605 Akalis had been arrested, with 936 hospitalized. The Akalis got possession of Gurdwara Guru ka Bagh along with the disputed land. (20)

Another Akali morcha was precipitated by police interrupting an akhand path, i.e., continuous recital of the Guru Granth Sahib, at Gurdwara Gangsar at Jaito, in the Princely State of Nabha. They were demonstrating solidarity with Maharaja Ripudaman Singh, 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 Shiromani Committee and the Akali Dal were declared illegal bodies by the 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. (20)

With the arrival in May 1924 of Sir Malcolm Hailey as Governor of Punjab, the government began to relent. Negotiations were opened with the Akali leaders imprisoned in Lahore Fort. A Bill accommodating their demands was moved in the Punjab Legislative Council and passed into law in 1925 — 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 gurdwaras. They were to be under the administrative control of the Central Board, later renamed the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Procedure was also laid down in Section 7 of the Act for the transfer of any other gurdwara not listed in Schedules I and II to the administrative control of the Central Board. With the passage of this Act, the Akali agitation ceased. (20)

(RS) “From this point onwards, Sikhism became heavily politicized. Those who controlled the resources of the temple, controlled Sikh politics. The 1925 Act defined Sikhs in a manner which excluded the Sahajdharis and included only the Khalsa. SGPC, Akalis, and Jathas became important in the life of the Sikh community. Non-Khalsa members became second-grade members of the community. The Akalis, representing the Khalsa, acquired a new self-importance. That, combined with the memories from the Akali agitation, led them to come into conflict with the British on several occasions. The Government was less sure of their loyalty. Their share in the Army fell from 19.2 percent in 1914 to 13.6 percent in 1930; while the Muslim share rose from 11 to 22 percent during the same period.” (3)


(RS) The Akalis did provide a necessary counterweight to the pre-1947 politics of the Muslim League in Punjab. On the eve of independence, League leaders tried to woo the Akalis. By and large, the Muslim League was shunned. Independence came accompanied by the division of the country and a large displacement of the population. (3)

(RS) When the British showed solicitude for minorities, national India resented it and called it a British game. But the game continued to be played, even after the British left. The atmosphere provided hot-house conditions for the growth of divisive politics.  Sikhs remembered the old lesson (never really forgotten) taught to them by the British — that they were different. Macauliffe’s works published in the early-1900’s, were reissued in the 1960’s. More recent Sikh scholars have written histories of the Sikhs, which are variations of the same theme. (3)

KPS Gill, who led the war against terrorism as the Director General of Police (Punjab) between 1988-90 and 1991-95, was very critical of Sikh institutions in his book ‘Punjab, Knights of Falsehood’ (1997). He says that institutions of Sikhs, both religious and political, have been hijacked by a small clique, a self-interested oligarchy. It represents a particular ethnic cluster and a small endogamous segment of Punjab’s social fabric. This narrow caste group seeks to define Sikhism and Sikh identity in terms of its own constricted vision. This straitjacketed vision cannot accommodate the great faith of the Gurus (21).

“The question now is whether they will shed their separatist agendas. Will they realize that what once might have made some sense makes no sense any longer? Will they find their roots again or will they be satisfied with the artificial identity imposed on them during a certain phase of history?” (9)

Sikh scholars who cherish the spirituality bequeathed by the Gurus should come forward and make themselves heard more. Their voices may appeal to the heart of the Sikh masses — a heart which is still tuned to Sabad-Kirtan, singing the ancient strains of Sanatana Dharma’’ (3)  



  1. What Really led to Pakistan and Partition, by Rajnikant Puranik (2018)
    Location 1096, Kindle edition
  2. What Really led to Pakistan and Partition, by Rajnikant Puranik (2018)
    Location 1106, Kindle edition
  3. Hindu-Sikh Relationship, by Ram Swarup
    The passages quoted, are marked (RS)
  4. The Sikh Religion, its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors (Volume 1), by Max Arthur Macauliffe (1909)
    Preface, page XXII
  5. The Sikh Religion, its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors (Volume 1), by Max Arthur Macauliffe (1909)
    Preface, page XX
  6. The Sikh Religion, its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors (Volume 1), by Max Arthur Macauliffe (1909)
    Preface, page XXIII
  7. The Sikh Religion, its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors (Volume 1), by Max Arthur Macauliffe (1909)
    Preface, page XXV
  8. How the British Sowed the Seeds for Khalistani Movement before the Indians took over, by Sanjeev Nayyar
  9. Hinduism and Monotheistic Religions, by Ram Swarup (2015)
    Page 291-301
  10. Historical Dictionary of Sikhism, by W H McLeod
  11. Debating Sikh Identity by Sheena Pall
    Page 195
  12. The Sikhs, by Khushwant Singh (2006)
    Page 130
  13. The Sikhs, by Khushwant Singh (2006)
    Page 132
  14. The Sikhs, by Khushwant Singh (2006)
    Page 133
  15. The Sikhs, by Khushwant Singh (2006)
    Page 134
  16. The Sikhs, by Khushwant Singh (2006)
    Page 135
  18. The Sikhs, by Khushwant Singh (2006)
    Page 142
  19. The Sikhs, by Khushwant Singh (2006)
    Page 143
  21. Punjab, Knights of Falsehood, by KPS Gill (1997)

Manu Kohli

An enthusiastic reader of books on history, politics, and philosophy, Manu is trying to develop an understanding of the world, from the Bharatiya perspective. He is a logistics and management professional on weekdays, and divides his weekends between volunteering and nature walks.