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Posted at: Oct 7, 2018, 1:10 AM; last updated: Oct 7, 2018, 1:10 AM (IST)

SAD state of a glorious past

The role of Akalis in the independence struggle won the admiration of top national leaders. The recent Akali leadership, however, has failed to get support of society

Mohinder Singh

A common cause (the freedom struggle) and a common enemy (the British) kept the Akalis close to the Congress till India got freedom. However, soon after cracks started appearing in this friendship. The ambition of Akali leaders to capture power at the provincial level because of their sacrifices in the past and Congress leaders’ inability to accept an exclusive Akali claim for ruling the border state resulted in serious differences. Subsequently, there were powerful Akali agitations — Struggle for Punjabi Suba (1956-66), Akali morcha against the Emergency (1975-77) and the Dharam Yudh morcha leading to Operation Bluestar and the tragic events that followed.

Non-Cooperation Movement

The Akali achievement in the past is significant because of the large-scale Sikh participation. Despite being less than 2 per cent of India’s population, the number of Sikhs who courted arrest exceeded those held in connection with the larger countrywide Non-Cooperation Movement. 

Again, while Mahatma Gandhi withdrew the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1922 without achieving any of its three goals — (i) Restoration of the Khalifa of Turkey to his throne (ii) Righting the Punjab wrongs (over the Jallianwala Massacre) (iii) Attaining Swaraj within one year — the Akalis did not stop their agitation till they liberated the historic Sikh shrines from the hereditary control of the corrupt mahants. This is what led Khushwant Singh to describe Mahatma Gandhi’s larger Non-Cooperation Movement as “pale imitation of the Akali movement”.

In the Akali movement, the Congress found an opportunity to further its own programme of non-cooperation launched by Mahatma Gandhi and to strengthen its position in Punjab. By winning over the Akali leadership, they were able to influence a large section of the Sikh masses, who had till then remained aloof from the Congress. As Maulana Mohammed Ali remarked in the course of his presidential address at the Cocanada Session of the Indian National Congress held on December 31, 1923, “A better opportunity for Civil Disobedience at least on a provincial scale never presented itself since the arrest of the Mahatma.…”

Jaito morcha

Apart from passing a formal resolution to support the Akalis in their non-violent struggle against the government, the Congress leadership also decided to send Jawaharlal Nehru, A. T. Gidwani and K. Santhanam to Jaito in Punjab where the Akalis were engaged in a powerful struggle against the local administration for having interrupted an akhand paath. On arrival in Jaito, the Congress representatives were summarily arrested and put behind bars. 

It was here that Nehru experienced what it meant to be in jail in a princely state governed by a British administrator where no rules were followed. In a lengthy handwritten statement, Nehru attacked the administration and the judicial machinery for their ‘unscrupulous and crooked ways’ and recorded his admiration for the Akalis. The last paragraph of his note drafted in the Nabha jail on November 23, 1923, reads as follows:

“I was in jail when the 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.”

Punjabi-speaking state

Ironical as it may seem, it was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, much maligned by the Akalis, who conceded to their long-pending demand for Punjabi-speaking state after bifurcation of the state into Haryana, Himachal and Punjab on a linguistic basis. 

While the Sikhs came in a majority in the new state, the Centre retained its control over Chandigarh, which undisputedly was built as capital for Punjab after the Partition. To gain control over Chandigarh and other Punjabi-speaking areas left in Haryana, the Akalis launched fresh agitations.

Sant Fateh Singh, who replaced Master Tara Singh as the Akali supremo, went on fast unto death for transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab. To pressurise the Centre, Sant Fateh Singh got an agnikund constructed on the roof of a house adjoining the Akal Takht and threatened to immolate himself if his demand was not conceded to. He, however, violated the sanctity of ardas by breaking his fast on false assurances, and thus joined the line of fallen idols of the Akali struggle.

It was left to Darshan Singh Pheruman, a devout Sikh with an Akali-Congress background, to restore the sanctity of ardas by going on fast unto death. He attained martyrdom on the 74th day of his fast. His determination can be seen from a letter he wrote to Indira Gandhi in response to her appeal to break the fast.

“My dear child, do not take my ardas to mean any kind of pressure. The ardas of a Sikh offered with sincerity can never be intended to exert pressure on anyone or hurt anyone’s feeling. Its purpose is absolutely pure”.

Mainstream support

A comparative study of its three most powerful agitations by the Akalis reveals some interesting facts, the most important of these being the role of the leadership. It shows how Akali leaders in the past succeeded in channelling the popular religious upsurge during the Gurdwara Reform Movement (1920-25) into a powerful instrument for India’s struggle for freedom and brought the Sikh community into the mainstream of the freedom struggle. 

Three distinct features of the past struggle made it more effective than its later manifestations. The first was that the Akali leadership realised the value of press and public opinion. They started an English daily, the Hindustan Times, in addition to two vernacular papers, Akali and Akalite Pardesi, besides securing the active support of Ruchi Ram Sahni, a trustee of The Tribune.

The second was that from the very beginning they eschewed violence and quickly disowned violent activities of the splinter group, Babbar Akalis. And third, the movement was never allowed to take a communal turn.

In contrast, the recent Akali leadership has failed to carry with it support of larger section of the Indian society and the national media. During the turbulent period of the 1980s, both the SGPC and the Shiromani Akali Dal failed in their duty to ensure the sanctity of the Golden Temple by checking extremist elements from carrying out activities from the sacred premises. Rather than fighting from the front like the past Akali leaders, they ensured their own safety by being detained in the safe haven of circuit houses. Master Tara Singh’s famous slogan ‘main marante panth jeeve’ (I may die so that the panth lives) seems to have been reversed by the present Akali leadership with disastrous consequences.

— The writer is director, National Institute of Panjab Studies, New Delhi

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