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THE BRITISH ERA (1850-1925)

After the British occupation of Punjab in 1849, Sikhism was subjected to active onslaught first by the proselytizing Christian Missions and later by the militant sect known as Arya Samaj. Infact the decay of Sikhism had started in the very heyday of Sikh power. Brahminism had asserted itself with the rise of Dogras and Brahmins at the Sikh court in the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. With them had once again come the worship of stones, idols and tombs. Hinduism had actually pushed images into the holy precincts of a number of Sikh shrines where in contradiction to the spirit of Sikhism, idol worship was being practised. A number of persons, who posed as Gurus had arrogated to themselves the position and priveleges to which they had laid claims as self-appointed successors of Guru Nanak. They also reintroduced Brahminical rites and rituals connected with birth, marriage and death, and encouraged pilgrimages to Hardwar and other Hindu sacred places. The relapse of Sikhism into Hinduism was thus in progress.

The enlightened section of Sikh community were perturbed on the growing laxity of character and irreligiousness among them. A number of saintly Sikh thinkers began to assert themselves in order to restore the faith to its original purity, to revive and revitalise the Sikh way of worship, life and conduct. This reformist zeal gave birth to two reform movements known as Nirankari and Namdhari movements.

Nirankari Movement

This movement was started by Baba Dayal Das who was born in 1783 in Peshawar. He revived the purity in the Sikh form of marriage and funeral ceremonies, and discountenanced all Brahmanical superstitions associated with birth and death. He preached avoidance of intoxicants, abstinence from meat and bowing only before Guru Granth Sahib and worshipping only Nirankar the Formless Lord.

The Nirankari Sikh movement did creditable work in fighting Brahmanical autocracy which had invaded the Sikhs and pervaded their faith. But as Baba Dayal Das did not keep unshorn hair and beard, he, inspite of his excellent noble qualities, failed to observe the Khalsa Rehat and therefore could not be accepted as a leader by the Sikh community as a whole. His followers brought further deviations in the norms of Sikhism: they greeted each other with the words 'Dhann Nirankar' and they have a different flag of their own. They also have made some changes in Ardas (Sikh prayer). After the partition of India, Baba Hara Singh established a centre at Chandigarh and organised the scattered Nirankaris throughout the country. presently Baba Gurbax Singh is the leader of Nirankari sect. Because of certain deviations from the code of conduct of Khalsa, the Nirankari sect is not considered to be the main stream of the Knalsa.

To avoid any confusion it is necessary to mention that Sant Nirankari Mission or Mandal was started by seccessionist Nirankari and is not the same as Nirankari sect. The Nirankar Mandal was registered in Delhi in 1947. Its votaries do not believe in ethics of any religion and are free to eat, drink and indulge in such idulgences which are strictly prohibited by Sikhism. It is the Nirankari Mandal with which Sikhism came in an open confrontation on April l3,l978 in which thirteen devout Sikhs were killIed, giving rise to the present political religious upheavals and awakening among the sikh masses.

Namdhari Movement

The founder of the Namdhari movement was Baba Balak Singh, born in 1799 in the north-west province of Pakistan. The main aim of this movement was to revive and maintain the purity and glory of Sikhism. He took to preaching and popularising teaching of the Sikh Gurus. He used to exhort people to lead simple and pure lives and recite the Nam, earn with honost labour and give one-tenth of earnings to charity, give or take no dowry, abstain from meat, wine, and tobacco, not to seek alms and do good to all. Namdharis were out to eradicate a number of Social evils like child marriage, infanticide, sale and barter of girls and discrimination between the sexes.

Thus Namdharis or Kukas started well and did a lot of good work towards reforming the Sikh society. But with the passage of time they have drifted back into some of the Hindu practices and rituals like untouchability and havans. They also consider their leader as their Guru and do not administer Khande-ki- Pahul as ordered by the tenth Guru. They have also made some changes in Ardas. Thus they have formed themselves into a separate sect, differing in some important aspects from the mainstream of Khalsa. Therefore their leaders are not accepted as the leaders of the Khalsa Panth.

Singh Sabha Movement

As the above discussed Nirankari and Namdhari movements made only a limited impact on the Sikh people as a whole, there was need of a popular campaign to save and re-establish Sikhism thereby saving the Sikh community from being hopelessly eroded. This need was met by the Singh Sabha movement which was a mass upsurge and not just a creation of a few leaders. A society under the name of Singh Sabha was formed and its inaugural meeting was held at Manji Sahib in Amritsar on October 1, 1873. Sardar Thakar Singh Sandhawalia was its president and Giani Gian Singh its secretary. The main objectives of the Singh Sabha were to inculcate love for Sikhism among those who called themselves as Sikhs or Khalsa. It aimed at preaching the principles of the Sikh religion and to restore it to its pristine purity and glory by propagation of knowledge through religious books magazines and papers

The Singh Sabha aroused much interets among the Sikhs and a vigorous campaign was set on foot to achieve its objectives Thus even though Sri Guru Singh Sabha at Amritsar came into being in 1873 and started reformative work but due to acute differences between three of its prominer founders they could not pull on together. While Kanwar Bikram Singh was a committee reformer, Baba Khem Singh Bedi besided being wedded to reform, was keen to getting himself recognised and worshipped a Guru. Thakar Singh Sandhawalia had the Sikh spirit and zeal which sometimes colored his discretions and made him take extreme decisions which were not pragmatic in that situation. Due to the differences the activities of Singh Sabha came to almost a standstill.

About three years later Bhai Gurmukh Singh, a dynamic and energetic missionary entered the field of Panthic service and gave birth to Singh Sabha Movement. He was the greatest figure in the said movement. Sri Guru Singh Sabhas began to be founded in various places. The present name of S: Guru Singh Sabha given to various Gurdwaras all over India is the result this movement. Bhai Gurmukh Singh succeeded in 1877 in getting Punjabi recognised as a subject of study Oriental College Lahore. He was appointed as an assistant professor in the college He brought reconciliation between the prominent leaders of Sri Guru Singh Sabha Amritsar and also founded Singh Sabha Lahore on November 12, 1879 and affliated it to Singh Sabha, Amritsar. Its preside was Diwan Buta Singh and he was its secretary.

While Amritsar Singh Sabha was dominated by Sikh chiefs and Sardars, the Lahore Singh Sabha was more democratic in character as its members were drawn from the Sikhs of all classes, including the so-called low ones. However great caution was exercised in keeping away apostates and opponents of Sikhism. In November, 1880 he started a Punjabi weekly called 'The Gurmukhi Akhbar' for propagation of Singh Sabha ideals. He himself was its proprietor and editor. Professor Gurmukh Singh, besides having a strong and dynamic personality, had a clear vision of Sikhism as conceived by the Gurus. He worked untiringly to restore Sikhism to its original state without compromising its tenets. He toured Punjab and carried the message of Singh Sabha movement to all nooks and corners of the province. As a result various Singh Sabhas were established and affiliated to Singh Sabha Lahore. In the beginning Singh Sabhas held their meeting in Gurdwaras but later Mahants and Pujaris, due to their own self-interest, did not allow Singh Sabhas to use the Gurdwaras. Therefore Singh Sabhas constructed their own Gurdwaras and had their own Granthis, Ragis and preachers to spread the message of the Khalsa with a view to restore it to its original shape

On April 11, 1880 a General Sabha was set up at Amritsar to supervise the activities of Amritsar and Lahore Singh Sabha. But later it was replaced by a new organization called Khalsa Diwan on April 11, 1883. Its office bearers were Raja Bikram Singh of Faridkot, Patron; Baba Khem Singh Bedi, President; and Professor Gurmukh Singh, Chief Secretary. With differences, Lahore Khalsa Diwan was founded as unanimously decided in the meetings of Singh Sabha. In the constitution of Lahore Khalsa Diwan due provisions were made to avoid centralization of power in the hands of president, secretary or other office bearers and a democratic set up supporting the making of decisions by majority votes was insured.

One of the major achievements of Lahore Khalsa Diwan was to take the Sikhs out of Arya-Samajist grip. Swami Daya Nand founder of the Arya Samaj came to Punjab in 1887. In the earlier days, Singh Sabha and Arya Samaj used to preach together in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib. Bhai Dit Singh was one of the great speakers and writer who worked shoulder to shoulder with Arya Samaj. But shortly afterwards Swami Daya Nand started denouncing Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Nanak Dev and attacked Sikh Gurus and Sikh religion. Such attacks by Arya Samajists greatly annoyed Bhai Jawahar Singh and Bhai Dit Singh and they broke off with the Arya Samaj. They had great dynamic personalities and had intense desire to serve the cause of Sikhism. They came under the fold of Professor Gurmukh Singh and started a newspaper in Punjabi called Khalsa Akhbar. Bhai Dit Singh wrote scores of articles, pamphlets and books and created a strong opinion in favour of Singh Sabha movement. Bhai Dit Singh worked untiringly to restore Sikhism to its pristine purity and glory.

Another person who came under influence of Professor Gurmukh Singh was Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha who produced such great works for Sikhism as Hum Hindu Nahi, Gurmat Prabhakar, Gurmat Sudhakar and Mahan Kosh. These books articulai Sikh doctrines most clearly and helped to de-Hinduize the Sikhs. As a result the efforts of Khalsa Diwan, the Khalsa College at Amritsar was founded in 1892.

Lahore Khalsa Diwan suffered grievous losses; in 1896 occurred the death of president Sardar Atar Singh; two years later in 1898 it lost its main guide secretary Professor Gurmukh Singh; and September 1901 passed away the great scholar and writer Bhai Dit Singh. After the death of the above dynamic leaders, only Amritsar Khalsa Diwan was left in the field to serve the cause of Sikhism. Sardar Sundar Singh Majithia took the pain to organize a new Panthic organisation under the name of Chief Khalsa Diwan which was founded on October 30, 1902. Sundar Singh Majithia was secretary and Bhai Sahib Bhai Arjan Singh was its president. The active and tirelles secretary of Chief Khalsa Diwan pursuaded a number of Singh Sabhas to join the Diwan. The main objectives of the Diwan were religious and secular education reformation and improvement of the Sikh community and representation of its needs to the Government. Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia worked hard and enthusiasticaly for the Diwan and good of the Khalsa College, whose secretary he became 1902.

Chief Khalsa Diwan also did great work in getting Sehajdharis baptised as Singhs. Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia and Harbans Singh Atari went to Sind with Parcharak Jathas. The Sindhis were won over to the Great Gurus. Many high noble families of Sindhis came into fold of Sikhism and thus Sindhis' love for Gurbani became proverbial.

The Diwan also spread the message of Sikhism in various other places like Shikarpur, Karachi, Poona, Sasaram in Bengal, Calcutta and Rangoon. Chief Khalsa Diwan thus served the Sikh Panth to a great extent through spread of secular and religious education and by bringing a socio-political awakening among the Sikhs.

Akali Movement.

The Akali Movement was another name for Gurdwara Reform Movement. It came into full swing from 1920 to 1925. Its aim was to bring reform in the working and management of Sikh Gurdwaras. Thus Akali Movement was a struggle for freedom and purification of the Sikh historical places of worship. It produced tremendous and far reaching effects on the social and religious life of the Sikhs and brought them into the political movement for freedom of the motherland. The Sikhs became the frontline fighters for India's freedom from the British Raj

The Sikh temples, its property and wealth were being misused by the Mahants and Priests of the temple. With the establishment of British rule in Punjab, the lands and property attached to the Gurdwaras were entered against the names of the Priests or Mahants. Thus Mahants considered the Gurdwara as their personal property and misused the income of Gurdwara on drinking and loose living. Bad characters flocked around them as Chelas to lead easy and immoral lives. In this way the Mahants converted these sacred places of virtue and religion to centres for immoral life.

Gurdwara Reform Movement or Akal Movement was created to free the Sikhs historic Gurdwaras from these Mahants who were supported by the British rule. The Sikhs had to give supreme sacrifices and endure untold brutalities to free to historic Gurdwaras like Tarn Taran, Nanakana Sahib and Guru-ka-Baug. In addition Sikhs had to fight for tb freedom of faith and management of the Gurdwaras against the Government in respect of Gurdwara Rakab Ganj, Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, and Gurdwara Jeto. In this movement the Sikhs faced with great calm and courage the cruelties and death inflicted on them by the British Government and the Mahants, supported by the Britishers.

Eventually the Gurdwara Reform Act was passed in July 1925 which placed all Gurdwaras in Punjab under Panthic control This control was to be exercised through elected Panthic bodies viz., Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandak Committee and local Gurdwara Committees. Thus holy places were rid of the corrupt elements and practices and their income could be used for propagation of the Sikh faith and good of the community

Leadership Evaluation

During the period from 1850 to 1925 covered in the foregoing discussion, we find that the leaders who started Nirankari and Namdhari Movements did not practice in pure form the Khalsa Rehat Maryada. Even though they brought reform in Sikhism by fighting and checking the ingress of influence and practices of Hinduism and Brahminism into Sikhism. Gurmukh Singh, who was a spiritualy oriented intellectual imbued with the spirit, dynamism and zeal of pure Khalsa is an example of an ideal Sikh leader at Panthic level in the modern times.

[Courtesy : Dr. Santokh Singh Ji]