The fall of Sikh Empire in 1846 led to tectonic changes in Punjab’s way of life. After the likes of Jawahar Singh and Chattar Singh Ahluwalia were severely punished for fighting against the British in Anglo-Sikh Wars, the old gentry didn’t have an option but to cooperate with the British to maintain their positions. Only a half of the old gentry survived in decent positions by 1860. The same effect was seen on the management of temples as well. Udasis, who managed the main Gurudwaras of Sikhism were also under siege and had no option but to co-opt. In 1859, the way Harmandir Sahib is being managed was drastically changed from being a managing committee to a controlling committee and the Khalsa was placed under it’s control. Though the Temple was still under the control of Guru Ram Das, there was a Governing Committee headed by Raja Tej Singh which advised Sardar Jodh Singh, the British appointed Extra Assistant Commissioner to manage Harmandir Sahib in 1859.

This collapse of Sikh morale led to the retreat of Sikhism towards more orthodoxy – Nirankari, Namdhari whose orthodoxy led to the Kuka Rebellion of 1870s and more importantly, the Singh Sabha, a gathering of Sikhs which started in 1873 which was launched partly to contain the fallout of the Kuka Rebellion and to mainstream Sikh identity. These were small gatherings which grew in number massively with time necessitating the need for a coordinating committees – Khalsa Diwan of Amritsar in 1893 and Khalsa Diwan of Lahore in 1896. As these too grew with time, a Chief Khalsa Diwan was established at Amritsar in 1902 to which every Diwan and Singh Sabha was affiliated to. Parallel to this, ancillary institutions like Dharma Pracharak Sabhas, Orphanages and even Banks were established in this period.

They had three major problems – Ahmediya Movement, Arya Samaj and Christian missionary activity. After the Arya Samajis attacked Sikh Gurus in 1888, the rift between Sikhs and Hindus only started to increase. The case of Dyal Singh Majithia’s Will of 1898 necessitated a legal definition of the word Sikh. The gulf only widened with time – Bhai Kahn Singh wrote a book Ham Hindu Nahin While Bawa Chajju Singh said Sikh Gurus were only Hindu reformers, Lakshman Singh countered it by saying Sikhism is not a part of Hinduism. On one side, Arya Samaj conversions continued and Sikhs started with their own. The Keshdharis said Sahajdhari Sikhs are not Sikhs and Sahajdharis insisted they are Sikhs. There was an internal churning in Sikhism as well – with some claiming the Gurus prayed to Hindu gods and some claiming they weren’t. Pamphlets and books flew in every direction. This slow radicalization claimed another casualty – the Udasis. Udasi is a religious sect of ascetic Sadhus who managed the main shrines of Sikhism for centuries. They were the key intepreters of Sikh Philosophy and played a key role in propagating Sikhism in 17th and 18th Centuries. They followed the traditional way of Sikh worship – accepting the Sikh Gurus as well as Hindu Panchayatana – Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Ganesha, and Surya. They traced their origins from Guru Nanak through his son Sri Chand and gained prominence during the Sikh rule – by the end of Khalsa Raj, they controlled almost 250 major Gurudwaras.

It’s a combination of toppling the old order and rising orthodoxy which led to further disturbances. A comprehensive code was published by the Chief Khalsa Diwan in 1915 over Sikh way of life and in 1917, a petition was put forward for separate electorate for Sikhs. This radicalization of the society is seen not just in India but overseas as well – in 1919, Vancouver Gurudwara ordered that none of it’s members should wear any kind of medal or insignia signifying that the person is a subservient to the British. In 1919, Central Sikh League was announced and one of it’s explicit aims was to bring Gurudwaras out of the control of the Udasis. October the same year, they seized Akal Takht and installed their representatives countering a Government appointed committee. The Central Sikh Committee elected a 175 member governing committee – Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee(SGPC) to manage all elections. Akali Dal was formed the next year and it managed the ground level coordination of such activities.

It was not at all a peaceful takeover and in fact, this mindless aggression is the root of every problem which Punjab faced from then on. When the Akalis raised Darbar Sahib at Taran Taran, two Akalis were killed before the Gurudwara was seized. This was the second attack on the Gurudwara. The British were not happy at this violent takeover.

Two prominent incidents should be looked into when dealing with the takeover of the Gurudwaras – Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919 and Nankana Clash of 1921. Jallianwala Bagh massacre came at the peak of these disturbances and other disturbances in Punjab. A fear of Ghadarite uprising on one side, protests against release of two Congress leaders on the other, the violent molestation of a British woman on the third and Rowlatt Act on the fourth was driving the narrative in Punjab along with the disturbances created by Singh Sabha. When a group of people assembled at the park of Jallianwala Bagh, the British sealed the entrance to the park and mowed the people present in, killing at least 350. A follow up massacre happened in Gujranwala two days later, where Royal Airforce mowed down 12 protestors.

While one reason for the protest is cited to be the refusal of the Mahants to allow low caste converts into Sikhism to enter Harmandir Sahib, it makes one wonder if the reality is something completely opposite – to lay the ground for takeover of Harmandir Sahib from the Udasis and hand it over to the SGPC. In fact, one would notice that the Akalis who seized the Temple from Udasis immediately declared Reginald Dyer, the butcher of Jallianwala Bagh as a honorary Sikh. Why would the Akalis do that had the Udasis were the beneficiaries?

The other one is Nankana Clash in 1921, one of the last acts of Akali takeover of Gurudwaras. Mahant Narain Das of Nankana Sahib approached the authorities for help and they asked him to form his private army. On 20 February 1921, the Akalis marched on Nankana Sahib to sieze the Gurudwara. In spite of repeated requests for them to return back, they persisted forward and took over the Gurudwara. Alerted by their chants of victory, the Mahant retaliated. A violent clash ensured leading to the death of 86. The Akalis retaliated and a band of 2000+ attacked the Gurudwara. Fearing the damage they are going to cause, the Commissioner of Lahore ordered the Gurudwara to be handed over to the Akalis and the Mahant be arrested. With pressure building up, he was executed.

SGPC hasn’t stopped flexing it’s muscles. It demanded the keys of Harmandir Sahib from it’s appointee while the British ordered the keys to be handed over to the Government appointee. Protests and arrests became a norm, only for the British to release all of them by 1922. One major casualty of this Gurudwara takeover was the syncretic Sikhism and overt declaration that Sikhs are not Hindus leading to separatist tendencies and racist attacks on those who don’t subscribe to their ideas even into 1990s. It is ironic to note that a movement which started as Khalsa pride completely disowned the Khalsa Raj and it’s syncretic Sikhism to create a more virulent form of Sikhism which none of the Sikh elders till the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh envisioned. It’s no wonder the current generation Sikhism refuses to recognize the words of their last Guru, Gobind Singh, whose Chandi da Var starts with the lines

Prathami bhagautī simar kai Gurū Nānakalaī dhiāi.
First I remember Bhagawati(Goddess Durga), then I remember Guru Nanak.

It may not come as a surprise that Hindus like Hari Singh Nalwa or Diwan Sawan Mall, some of the greatest names in Sikh history will find no place in the current day political situation. At this point, I would want you to have a closer look at the cover picture for the article – both of them are Guru Nanak’s portraits. Which one do you believe, represents correct Sikhism – the left one being the Sikhism of the Gurus which accepted Nanak as a Vaishnavite Guru and the right one being the Sikhism of the Modern Sikhs where Nanak had no truck with Hindus?

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