|Location||Punjab (British India)|
|Goals||Transferring control of Sikh gurdwaras from traditional clergy (Udasi mahants) and Government-appointed managers to elected Sikh bodies|
|Methods||Nonviolent resistance including demonstrations and petitions|
|Result||Sikh Gurdwara Bill (1925) places historical Sikh shrines in India under the control of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
The Akali movement or the Gurdwara Reform Movement was a campaign to bring reform in the gurdwaras (the Sikh places of worship) in India during the early 1920s. The movement led to the introduction of Sikh Gurdwara Bill in 1925, which placed all the historical Sikh shrines in India under the control of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC).
The term Akali derives from the word Akal ("timeless" or "immortal") used in the Sikh scriptures. By the early 20th century, a number of Sikh gurdwaras in British India were under the control of the Udasi mahants (clergymen) or managers appointed by the Governors. The main aim of the Akali movement was to have the Sikh gurdwaras released from the control of the traditional clergy, which had become powerful and ritualized.
The Akali movement was started in 1920 by the Singh Sabha's political wing (later known as Akali Dal). The jathas (volunteer groups) led by Kartar Singh Jhabbar played a major role in the movement. The first shrine chosen for reform was the Babe di Ber gurdwara in Sialkot. It was under the control of the widow of the mahant Harnam Singh. She initially resisted the takeover of the gurdwara by the Akalis, as it was her only source of income, but relented after she was offered a pension. The control of the gurdwara was then transferred to an elected committee headed by Baba Kharak Singh.
The next major target of the Akalis was the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. The priest of the Golden Temple had refused to allow low-caste Hindu converts to offer prayers in the shrine. Kartar Singh Jhabbar walked to the Akal Takht in the temple premises, urging the Sikhs to give up the caste-based restrictions and reform the gurdwaras. On 28 June 1920, the Golden Temple came under the control of an elected committee called Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC).
Next, the Akalis headed to Hasan Abdal, where Gurdwara Panja Sahib was under the control of Mahant Mitha Singh. Singh allowed sale of cigarettes inside the gurdwara, and was disliked by the Sikhs. The Akalis led by Karatar Singh Jhabbar took control of the gurdwara on 20 November 1920. However, the local Hindus, who also frequented the gurdwara for worship, opposed this takeover. Around 5-6 thousand of them surrounded the gurdwara on the night of the Akali takeover, but were dispersed by the police. The next day, around 200-300 Hindu women squatted at the Gurdwara. Nevertheless, the gurdwara was later successfully brought under the authority of the SGPC.
The Akalis then took control of the Gurdwara Sacha Sauda at Chuhar Kana (in present-day Pakistan). They then turned their attention to the Gurdwara Sri Tarn Taran Sahib, whose clergymen were accused of allowing dancing girls, smoking and drinking inside the shrine's premises. The clergymen were also accused of spreading the teachings of Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement some of whose leaders had criticized Sikhism. The Akalis, led by Kartar Singh, arrived at the gurdwara, performed ardas (Sikh prayer) and declared that the gurdwara was under now their control. The clergymen attacked the Akalis with crude bombs and bricks while the latter were sleeping. Next day, the Sikhs from the surrounding villages took control of the Gurdwara. Following this, the Akalis led by Kartar Singh then took control of five more gurdwaras, including the Gurdwara Guru ka Bagh near Amritsar.
In 1921, the Akalis turned their focus to the gurdwara at Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of the first Sikh Guru Nanak. The gurdwara was under the control of a mahant called Narain Das, who was accused of allowing immoral activities in the temple premises. One of the clergymen at the gurdwara had allegedly raped the 13-year old daughter of a Hindu devotee from Sindh. When the Akalis tried to take over the gurdwara on 20 February 1921, the Pashtun guards of the Mahant attacked them, killing 130 people in what came to be known as the Nankana massacre. Two days later, Mahatma Gandhi and the Governor of the Punjab province visited the site, accompanied by a number of Sikh and Hindu leaders. Gandhi sympathized with the Sikhs and said that the Mahant had "out-Dyered Dyer."
The British Government, finding itself under immense political pressure, agreed to transfer the control of the gurdwara to the Akalis on 3 March 1921. Narain Das and 26 of his henchmen were arrested.
Amid the ongoing agitations, the SGPC urged the British Government to release the protestors and legalize its control of the gurdwaras. On 1 May 1921, the influential Sikh leaders passed a resolution for launching a passive resistance movement. The next day, a Sikh-Hindu conference was organized during the Punjab Congress Provincial Congress at Rawalpindi. The Jagat Guru Shankaracharya urged the Hindus to join the Sikhs in the struggle for taking control of the gurdwaras from mahants with personal interests. On 11 May, a number of Akali jathas were asked to proceed to designated gurdwaras to take over their control.
The Government meanwhile launched a "Gurdwara Bill" to facilitate the settlement of the gurdwara disputes. The Bill provided setting up a Board of Commissioners for the management of the gurdwaras. However, the SGPC objected to the Government's right to appoint the Board memebrs, and the bill was postponed. In On 17 November 1922, the "Sikh Gurdwaras and Shrines Bill" was introduced in the Punjab Legislative Assembly. All the Sikh and the Hindu members opposed the bill, but it was passed by 41 votes to 31 votes.
Jaitu and Bhai Pheru agitations
In 1923, the Akalis decided to take over the Gurdwara Gangsar at Jaitu (or Jaito) in the Nabha State. The erstwhile Maharaja (ruler) of Nabha Ripudaman Singh had been sympathetic to the Akali and the Indian nationailst cause, but was deposed by the British Government. When the SGPC launched an agitation, its leaders and members were arrested on the charge of sedition. Subsequently, several marches were organized in support of the agitation. The protestors were arrested, beaten and shot at by the police at various instances.
The Indian National Congress declared its support for the Akali agitation in at the special Congress Session in Delhi. The Akalis were then joined by several non-Sikhs, including Jawaharlal Nehru (later the first Prime Minister of India) and Kasturiranga Santhanam. Nehru and others were arrested during one such march. Finally, the Government of Punjab relented and agreed to transfer the control of the gurdwara to the Akalis.
While the Jaitu agitation was on, the Akalis also sought the control of the gurdwara at Bhai Pheru. The gurdwara was controlled by Udasi mahants including Pala Ram, the brother of Narain Das (who was responsible for the Nankana massacre). The mahant agreed to transfer the control of the gurdwara to SGPC, after being offered a pension. However, in August 1923, when the Akalis decided to eject the Udasi tenants housed in the gurdwara premises, they faced considerable resistance. On 4 December 1923, a group of Akalis damaged a mahant's residence attached to the shrine. The police arrested 11 Akalis following a complaint. In December, the Government recognized the SGPC as the manager of the gurdwara, but also ordered the Akalis to follow the legal process for ejecting the Udasi mahants out of the premises. On 1 January 1924, an Akali jatha forcibly took the possession of the property occupied by Pala Ram. Around 34 Akalis were arrested by the police for this action on the next day. In subsequent days, a number of Akali jathas staged demonstrations at the site. A total of 5,251 persons were arrested for the demonstrations, and 3,092 of these were sent to the prison.
Sikh Gurdwara Bill
The British Government considered the Akali movement to be a greater threat than Mahatma Gandhi's civil disobedience 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.—D. Petrie, Secret CID Memorandum on Recent Developments in Sikh Politics (11 August 1921)
In 1925, after further demands and protests from SGPC, a new "Sikh Gurdwara Bill" was introduced in the Punjab Legislative Assembly. It came into force on 1 November 1925, and awarded the control of all the historical shrines to SGPC. A tribunal was set up to judge the disputes, and all the Akali prisoners were released.
By this time, an estimated 30,000 people had been arrested by the British Government; over 400 had been killed and another 2,000 had been injured during the movement. The movement fueled the anti-British Government feeling among the Sikhs. It also led to an anti-Hindu sentiment among a section of Sikhs, who identified the pro-Udasi mahants such as Narain Das and their supporters with the Hindu community.
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