Akali Movement of 1919-1925 which resulted in seizure of Gurudwaras and forced transfer of power to Keshdhari Sikhs(mostly Jats) was a culmination of the decades of strife in Punjab which started with the rise of Singh Sabhas in 1870s. This puritanical and orthodox neo-Sikh movement hinged on the point “Hindus are not Sikhs” and aimed at capturing the whole public space from other sects of Sikhs – especially the Sahajdharis like the Udasis. On a closer look, the dynamics of the movement exactly match those of the dynamics of Khalistan movement, and to some extent, the current Farm Protest troubles.

This makes one question if this sequence of events is inherent to the Sikh way of life and can be excited at the drop of a hat by anyone who knows how to play well.

  1. Violent takeover of Gurudwaras from the existing managers, starting with Harmandir Sahib of Amritsar: This is exactly what Bhindrawale and his men did. They seized control of Harmandir Sahib and made it their base of operations.
  2. Social reforms: Akalis emerged as a puritanical form of Sikhism which, in fact had no parallel in history professing to control the rot in Sikh society rampant with Hindu conversions and people preferring the Sahajdhari way than the Keshdhari way. Bhindrawale emerged when Green Revolution was slowing down and moral corruption was rife in Sikh society.
  3. A pseudo-military top down control structure: Every activity was coordinated from the top. The bottom layers were allowed to fund their activities in whatever way they deemed fit.
  4. Refusal of the government to crush the protests with a firm hand: In 1920, the Akali movement comprised of the same castes which constituted the bulk of Sikh soldiers in Punjab Army and in order not to antagonize them, the British government didn’t take a firm position and believed talks can settle the issue. In the Khalistan issue, the government didn’t take a firm position because of political necessities but believed talks can settle the issue.
  5. Refusal to own up their atrocities: Nankana Sahib, was a provocation from the Akalis which led to an avoidable disaster. However, the narrative built is that Mahant Narayan Das of Nankana Sahib is the only culprit. Guru ki Bag, Jaito, Taran Tarn – all fit the same pattern. In the similar way, all of Bhindrawale’s excesses which led to Operation Bluestar are ignored. The whole blame rests on Indian government.
  6. Criminals as posterboys: As the movement gained strength and with the government’s reluctance to take on the Akali Jathas, all sorts of unsocial elements started joining the Jathas – more for personal gains and doing mischief than for any intension to serve the cause. Bhindrawale era Punjab is known for the same.
  7. Climbing up the escalation matrix without budging an inch: Whenever negotiations failed, the Akalis escalated their opposition. They didn’t budge even when government offered them a better deal. They demanded total capitulation of the government. Any acts to check the illegal acts was portrayed as anti-Sikh attitude of the government. For example, first they demanded keys to Harmandir Sahib. When Government asked for a civil suit, they refused and rioted. When Government was ready to give, they demanded release of prisoners.
  8. Demands for legislators to resign and soldiers to rebel: Soldiers and Legislators were ordered to quit government service at the expense of complete ostracization. They weren’t allowed to use the village well, they were boycotted, they were denied even basic services like barbers and washermen. There was a petition filed in 1922 by the wives of some soldiers to the extent that they are insulted for being wives of soldiers and asked the British not to deploy their husbands on field. The same treatment of ostracization was employed against anyone perceived to be a government agent
  9. Ex-Soldiers managing the military aspect of the movement: The Akali camps were organized in a military fashion and SGPC maintained a crack troop of 5000 which contained a large number of ex-soldiers. One need not go further than Shahbeh Singh when dealing with Operation Bluestar.
  10. A parallel state of Kangaroo Courts: Perceiving the weakness of the state to counter them, the Akalis started to preach anti-government propaganda and roamed around with weapons. Counter Akali unions were created for every Government union(like the loyalist pensioners’ club) forcing the state apparatus to retreat. This was followed by their justice dispensation system where anyone who doesn’t toe their line was severely punished.
  11. Bluestar Movement: At one point, the Akali excesses became unbearable to the extent that even soldiers started to wear Akali black turbans. The government decided to act and break the movement. Gurudwaras were broken into, ring leaders were arrested and the movement was forced to retreat with brute power of the government. How different was this from Operation Bluestar?
  12. Violent offshoots: As the lawlessness increased, some Jathas like the Babbar Akalis focussed only on violence – assassinations, intimidations and all. A more violent form of Khalistani Movement like the Babbar Khalsa which came to be known more as terrorist organizations than Khalistani freedom units represented the Bhindrawale wave.

It is important to observe how the movements faded as well. Both the movements(in fact, even the current farmer protests) started with a promise, gathered massive ground support antagonizing the governments, a violent showdown and loss of popular interest due to continuous protests without achieving anything tangible – the same state current farmer protests are in.


  1. Assuaging the Sikhs: Government Responses to the Akali Movement, 1920-1925 – Tai Yong Tan

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