Evelyn Roy

The Colonies

The Struggle of the Akali Sikhs
in the Punjab

(13 October 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 88, 13 October 1922, pp. 669–670.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2020). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

A struggle whose greatness and potentiality is little realized is being carried on in the Indian province of the Punjab, between the Government and property-holders on one side, and the insurgent peasants known as the Akali Sikhs on the other. This struggle is not a new one; it has been going on continuously, though less spectacularly, for many years. But of late it has broken out in such a form as to merit the august attention of the London Times and similar organs of Imperialism.

The Sikhs are a rugged northern people inhabiting the province of the Punjab, of whose population they number about 11%. They are mainly agricultural by profession, the majority being small tenants or day laborers, the number of the latter having swelled enormously of late years, owing to the growing pauperization of the peasantry and the intensifying land-concentration in the hands of large capitalists holding directly from the Government. By religion, the Sikhs are a reformed sect of the Hindus, with a strong military tradition dating back to the days when the Moghul Empire was overthrown and the Sikhs under their tenth Guru or spiritual leader, Govind Singh, established an autonomous military state. The history of this militant sect resembles somewhat the semi-military, semi-religious Christian communities that flourished during the Middle Ages in Europe, and in the manner of living, customs and traditions, is not unlike the Russian Cossacks of the Don. Nine spiritual heads preceded the advent of Govind Singh, who died in 1708, after having reorganized the Sikhs into a strongly militarized political unit and laid down certain principles of religious and social reform which are scrupulously observed by his followers even today. According to his mandate, the Sikh population was divided into two main branches or professions, – 1. The Nirmalas, or Spotless Ones, who formed the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and 2. the Akalis or Immortal Ones, whose first duty was to be good soldiers and who constituted the military defenders of the Sikh State. Every member of this military brotherhood was enjoined to wear the “five K’s”, – the Kes or long hair, to protect head in battle; the Karra, or iron circlet; the Kangi, comb; the Kirpan, a knife or sword, and the Kadi, or short drawers. In addition, each Sikh wears a turban, folded upon his head in a particular fashion peculiar to his sect

As time passed, the Nirmalas, whose functions were purely priestly, degenerated into a corrupt and licentious body, fattening on the rich proceeds of the worshippers, and handing on the guardianship of the numerous sacred shrines with their vast landed estates as an hereditary trust to their sons. The Akali, on the other hand, tilled the soil and were forced more and more into the ranks of the agricultural proletariat. Unemployment and their own strong military traditions, forced many of them to take service in the Indian army and police force to earn a livelihood. The Sikh regiments formed the flower of the British defense forces, and in this capacity, have acted not only as the jailors of their own people, but have been freely used to keep other races in bondage, beyond the confines of India. Sikh soldiery served in Europe and were sent to fight in Mesopotamia in the late war, and Imperialism thinks to have found in them an inexhaustible reservoir of mercenaries to carry out its plans of conquest.

But Man proposes, and the Law of Economic Determinism disposes. The end of the war and the exigencies of the Indian budget, top-heavy with military expenditures, forced the demobilization of thousands of men who had learned more valuable lessons than manslaughter during their campaign abroad. Every Sikh soldier who returned to his village carried with him the seed of discontent and incipient revolt against the poverty and misery that he found there. This spirit added fuel to the flame that had already kindled the Punjab with sporadic agrarian revolts. The years from 1918–20 are filled with official reports about looting and burning, rioting and killing, on the part of the Punjab peasantry. In 1918, the Sikh League was formed to give political expression to this growing unrest, and in 1920, the Sikh community formally allied itself with the Indian National Congress to win Swaraj by means of Non-violent Non-cooperation, including non-payment of rent and taxes.

The Akalis, who were the most aggressive members of the Sikh community, succeeded in forcing upon the acceptance of the Sikh League and the Congress leaders, the prosecution of their program of reform of the Sikh shrines, which they wished to remove from the guardianship of the Nirmalas and Udasis (an older Sikh sect closer to orthodox Hinduism than to reformed Sikhism), and administer in the interests of the Sikh peasants. There are upwards of three hundred of these shrines scattered throughout the province, dedicated to the memory of the ten Gurus, and used as places of worship by the people. Up till now, these Gurdwaras, or shrines, have been in the keeping of rich and corrupt Mahants or guardians, some holding their office by hereditary succession, others by government appointment. Needless to say, the treasure and revenue from the vast estates attached to these Gurdwaras, whose annual income alone is estimated at over £700,000 sterling, are vested exclusively in the Mahant or custodian. The program forced upon the Sikh League and Congress Committee by the Akali Dal (peasant organization) was to take forcible possession of these shrines by direct action. The Congress agreed to back the Akalis provided their tactics were non-violent.

Thereupon, between the latter part of 1920 to February 1921, several shrines were seized by orderly detachments of Akalis, who would descend suddenly and in a body upon the unprepared Mahant, demand the keys, evict him and take possession. The first to be captured in this manner was the famous “Golden Temple”, which the Akalis took by surprise and proceeded tranquilly to administer, despite the protests and wails for protection from the evicted Mahants. The Government held aloof in the beginning, not wishing to be accused of interfering in what was ostensibly a religious movement for reform. But the deeper conflict between the vested interests of the rich Sikhs and Manants and the direct action of the landless Akali peasantry was soon apparent, and forced the Government to take its stand by the side of the propertied classes, where it spiritually belongs.

In February 1921, the whole of India was startled by the slaughter of 130 Akalis who had visited the shrine of Nankana Sahib to attend a Conference called there by the Sikhs, and who were attacked by armed Pathan soldiery hired by the Mahant. Thousands of Akalis rushed to the spot to vindicate the wrong perpetrated upon their brothers, and the forces of the government intervened. Hundreds of Akalis were arrested and sentenced to jail, while the Mahant who had caused the outrage, after being put on trial and condemned to death, had his sentence reduced to transportation for life.

This incident united the Sikh community against the Government and made a political issue out of what had seemed a purely religious affair. A bill introduced by the Government in April 1921 for the reform of the Shrines had to be withdrawn because the Sikhs refused to cooperate in its discussion unless all Akalis held in jail were released, and the bill were drawn up according to the dictates of the Gurdwara. Prabandhak Committee (Committee for the Reform of the Shrines). Sikh members of the Legislative and Provincial Assemblies resigned, and one of them, Sirdar Mehtak Singh, former Government Advocate and Vice President of the Punjab Legislative Council, became Secretary of the Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee. The effect on the Sikh masses was instantaneous and alarming to the Government. Every Sikh, man, woman and child, armed himself with a kirpan, which grew overnight from a conventional religious symbol into a shining two-edged sword. Disaffection spread to the Sikh regiments, recruited directly from the peasantry, and soldiers appeared on parade in black turban and trousers, with their kirpans conspicuously displayed. Those sentenced for insubordination for refusing io remove these symbols went on hunger strike; whole companies followed their example. So serious did the situation appear that the Government was forced to make hurried concessions to save its face during the visit of the Prince of Wales. In January 1922 Sikh prisoners were released, the keys of the Golden Temple which had been taken by the Government were handed over unconditionally to the Gurdwara Reform Committee, and the Kirpan recognized as exempt from the Arms Act.

The next few months witnessed a steady strengthening of the Akali movement, now organized into well-disciplined peasant societies known as the Akali Dal. Their program was access to land, free of rent and taxes, and their tactics that of passive resistance by the application of Civil Disobedience in the shape of non-payment of rent and taxes, to the landlords and Government. The repression that visited India on the departure of the Prince of Wales, fell heaviest of all on the Punjab. Over 3,000 Akalis were thrown into jail, martial law was declared throughout the province, and the press effectually muzzled to conceal the true state of affairs.

Out of this state of darkness, the Punjab has once more leaped into the center of the world’s stage. The Akali Sikhs, after suffering temporary suppression, have recommenced their activities in a more determined and sensational manner than before. The forcible capture of shrines has been again resorted to, in the teeth of Government opposition, and Akali volunteers are marching in bands to the shrines, clad in black turban and kirpan, singing nationalist songs and refusing to obey the order of troops posted on the highroads to turn back whence they came. At Guru Ka Bagh, a shrine six miles from Amritsar, five Akalis were arrested by order of the Mahant for chopping down a tree on the estate of the shrine. They were sentenced on a charge of theft to six months imprisonment and a heavy fine. Next day five more Volunteers were called for and they came in hundreds, then in thousands. The railroads, by government order, refused to carry them, and so they walked, swinging along the high-roads in organized formation, singing their martial songs, and declaring themselves ready to die in the cause. Troops were rushed to the spot to defend the shrine, a cordon of armed soldiers and police was thrown around it for several miles, and pickets stationed on all the approaching roads to turn back the Akali volunteers. The latter refused to obey, and orders were given to fire. At Guru ka Bagh, six miles from the scene of the Amritsar massacre of 1919, more Indian blood has been shed in the defence of fundamental human rights.

The Government has openly declared its position. The efforts of the Akalis to take possession of the shrines will be resisted by all the resources of the state. The sacred rights of private property are declared to be in jeopardy, and a deputation of the mahants to the Government protesting against the action of the Akalis was received sympathetically. A second bill for the reform of the shrines, introduced in the last session of the Punjab Council, was rejected by the vested Sikh interests. It is proposed by the Government to introduce a third one, effectuating a compromise between the mahants and property-holders on one side, and the militant peasantry on the other.

Meanwhile, the situation is described as “critical”. Battles are being fought, not alone at Guru ka Bagh, but in other parts of the Punjab, where the Akali bands have repeated their attempts to oust the mahants and put themselves in possession of the temple lends. Such lawless actions form stepping stones on the road to an open agrarian revolution, and the Government sees the danger ahead. The Akali revolt in the Punjab is but one manifestation of the widespread spirit of unrest that has seized every part of the Indian people, and which expresses itself in the case of the rich merchant and manufacturer in the demand for “home rule” and “fiscal autonomy”; on the part of the lower middle-class and intellectuals in the Non-cooperation agitation for “Swaraj”; on the part of industrial proletariat of all the great cities in numerous and prolonged strikes and on the part of the Indian peasantry, from Madras to the Punjab, from Bombay to Assam and Bengal, in riots and risings, in non-payment of rent and taxes, and in frequent bloody conflicts with the armed forces of the state. The ferment in India has many essences, but all are working together to produce, one fine morning, a monumental revolution which will not be a mere expression of resurgent nationalism, but a vast social and economic upheaval as well. In the final reckoning with British Imperialism, it is the Indian worker and peasant who must pay the price for freedom, and they will see to it that their blood has not been shed in vain.

Last updated on 3 December 2020