- Master Tara Singh
Master Tara Singh Malhotra (
24 June, 1885, Rawalpindi, Punjab - 22 November, 1967, Chandigarh) was a prominent Sikhpolitical and religious leader in the first half of the 20th century. He was instrumental in organizing the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee, in organizing Sikhs politically, and guided the Sikhs during the Partition of India, and later led their demand for a Sikh-majority state in Punjab, India.
Master Tara Singh Malhotra was born on
24 June, 1885in the village Harial in Rawalpindi District, now in Pakistan. His childhood name was Nanak Chand and his father’s name was Bakshi Gopi Chand, who by religion was a Hindu. He had four brothers and a sister. His father was the village "" by profession and was held in great esteem by the villagers, and his mother was Mullan Devi, a very pious lady. The entire family, especially their parents believed in Sikh Gurusand Gurbani.
Education and Religious experiences
After passing his primary, he joined the mission school at
Rawalpindi. There he baffled his teacher of divinity by asking him very probing and inquisitive questions about Christianity. Sometimes, he was attracted towards Hinduismand sometimes towards Christianity. During his childhood period there used to be a daily discourse from Sikh religious book "Panth-Parkash" in the village gurudwara. Nanak Chand daily went to the congregation to listen to the katha(discourse). His daily attendance had a deep-rooted effect and it became one of his foremost ambitions to become a Sikh as he was immensely inclined to the faith.
Whenever he came home on some holidays he along with several others went to have
darshanof Attar Singh, a famous Sikh saint and theologian at Dera Khalsa. He was very popular in the area and held in high esteem by both Sikhs and Hindus. In 1902, on Attar Singh’s persuasion he was initiated into Khalsaorder with some other friends and given a new name, Tara Singh. Attar Singh was very impressed by his personality and blessed him saying, "You are given inner illumination, go and give light to others too".
Tara Singh's family did not object to him becoming a Sikh, as it was normal practice in those days for the eldest son in a Hindu family to become one of the Khalsa, he continued living together even after his father's sudden death. He passed his
matricin 1903 and decided to join the Khalsa College at Amritsar. He was good not only in studies but also a first class sportsman and captain of the college field hockeyteam and member of the football team. Singh was also admired for his spirituality and firm adherence to Sikh religious values.
Agitation in college
At the time when Tara Singh was a student of the Khalsa College, its management worked entirely under official supervision. As a student and a sports person Tara Singh was also conscious of traditions of selfless service and showed it effectively during his stay in the college. Once Major Hill who was a member of the governing council came to the college to enquire about the progress of construction work of the college, he found the pace of construction slow. Sardar Dharam Singh was overseeing the construction work in an honorary capacity. Major Hill is recorded to have remarked, "Labour of love is nonsense".
Dharam Singh was removed from the job and Tara Singh took it upon him as a challenge to the Sikh tradition of selfless service. He with the help of fellow students saw to it that the new engineer does not step into the college. On
February 10, 1907when the new engineer came to the college, the students under his leadership wore black badges. The persuasion of the principal of the college had no effect on him and the situation deteriorated so much that Maharaja of Nabha himself came to Amritsar and assured Tara Singh that Major Hill had no intention of showing disrespect to Sardar Dharam Singh or criticizing his spirit of selfless service.
In 1907, Tara Singh was a student when the farmers of Lyallpur inhabiting the colonies protested against the passage of the Colonization Bill. Tara Singh thoroughly studied the organizational, directional and the leadership aspects of the agrarian movement of 1907. He was instrumental in organizing a protest demonstration at the farewell visit of the outgoing lieutenant governor, Charles Rivaz. After studying all aspects of the movement he came to the conclusion that the leaders of the movement had been trying to exploit the reputation of the Sikhs in the eyes of the British.
Tara Singh decided to awaken the farmers living in the colonies by spreading education to them. After completing his graduation in 1907, he consciously decided to become an educator and joined the Teacher Training College,
Lahorefor a teaching training diploma (S.A.V.). It was in the same year that he was married to Bibi Tej Kaur of village Dhamial in Rawalpindi District. In 1908, after completing his training he along with two fellows, Sunder Singh and Bishan Singh opened Khalsa High School at Lyallpur, now Faisalabad. Tara Singh preferred to give over his life to the service of his community. It is from this place that his career in public life began.
Tara Singh ran the Khalsa High School on an honorarium of rupees fifteen per month. His personality and sacrifice inspired several others to volunteer their services to serve the school as teachers; accepting salaries lower than warranted by their qualifications. The whole staff worked with devotion that motivated the students. In two years period it became one of the leading schools in both education and sports. Soon the school became the center of Sikh education in the district and several more schools opened as its branches.
Tara Singh by his sociability and competence succeeded in creating a group of Sikh workers in the district. Sardar Harcharan Singh Rias, Sardar Bishan Singh Singhpuria, Teja Singh Samundari, Maghar Singh Jamadar, Sadhu Singh, Hari Singh, Babu Tript Singh and Bhai Buta Singh became his comrades and formed a powerful group of workers who later became known in the community as "The Lyallpur Group". His desire was to awaken the whole Sikh community to the reality of their proud heritage by effecting resurgence among them. Initially, as an attempt to realize this objective he brought out a weekly from Lyallpur called as Sach Dhandhora (Pbi). Thereafter, he came to be permanently associated with all kinds of political activities concerning Sikhs.
In 1914, the Sikh emigrants to
Canadasent a representative delegation to Punjab, to make their countrymen aware of the discriminatory and unjust attitude of the foreign government towards them. In this delegation, Master Tara Singh’s old school mate, Nand Singh was also present. On hearing Master Tara Singh’s popularity in Lyallpur, came to meet him and familiarized Master Tara Singh towards the condition of the emigrants and injustice being done to them. Master Tara Singh organised many meetings at Lyallpur, Rawalpindi and Gujjarkhan criticising the Canadian as well as the British Rajagainst this discriminatory treatment and his revolutionary urge came in the open. The foreign bureaucracy did not like this and they started creating problems for him.
He left Lyallpur in 1914 for two years and served as headmaster of Khalsa High School, Kallar. At the time, the financial position of this school was not good and he put that budding institution on a sound footing. He returned to Lyallpur and was again working as Headmaster for his own school when Gurdwara Reform Movement started.
SGPC and the Gurdwara Movement
Tara Singh was one of the first members among the one hundred seventy five members elected to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, whose formation provided a focal point for the movement for the reformation of the Sikh religious places. Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee began controlling Gurdwaras one by one, but the trouble arose where the mahants were stubborn as they were shielded by law. Starting in late 1920, large number of reformers both in urban and rural Punjab had joined to form separate and independent groups called jatha, for gaining control over their local Gurdwaras. Leader of a jatha was called jathedar under whose command a jatha would occupy a shrine and try to gain transfer of management in its favor from its current incumbents. Sometimes the transfer went peacefully especially in the case of smaller Gurdwaras with less income resources, and sometimes with the threat of force.
The Sikh leadership was fully aware of the importance of press for the success of any movement. It enlisted the active support and sympathy of some of the important nationalist papers in the country like "The Independent" (English), "Swaraj" (
Hindi), "The Tribune", "Liberal", "Kesari" (Punjabi), "Milap" ( Urdu), "Zamindar" (Urdu) and Bande Mataram (Hindi). Two of the vernacular dailies Akali (Pbi.) and the Akali-te-Pardesi (Urdu) also played an important role. It brought the necessary awakening among the Sikh masses and prepared them to undertake the struggle for reform. Master Tara Singh remained the editor of these two papers. With the direct and indirect support of the Central Sikh League, the Indian National Congress and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, the Shiromani Akali Dal started a non-violent struggle against the government for the control of the Gurdwaras.
The reports of some immoral acts perpetrated at Tarn-Taran reached the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee at its meeting on January 14, 1921. A fortnight earlier a local jatha was beaten up and not allowed to perform kirtan at the Gurdwara. It decided to send a jatha from Amritsar under Jathedar Teja Singh Bhuchar. Jathedar Kartar Singh Jhabbar with Akalis from ‘Khara Sauda Bar’ joined him. On January 25, a group of about forty workers took over the control of Sri Darbar Sahib Tarn-Taran from its Mahant. In the ensuing conflict two Akalis were killed and several others wounded by the henchmen of the Mahants. The Mahants were ousted from the Gurdwara and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee appointed a managing committee.
Nankana Sahib massacre
There were many complaints of immoral practices in the Janam Asthan Gurdwara at
Nankana Sahib, by the Udasi Mahant Narain Dass and his companions. The Sikhs resolved to take the management of the Gurdwara in their own hands. Accordingly, a posse of about 150 Sikhs, under the leadership of the Bhai Lachhman Singh on February 20, 1921proceeded to take possession of the Gurdwara. The Jatha entered the Gurdwara as ordinary pilgrims, unarmed and peaceful. The Mahant Narain Dass, apprehended such an attempt and had collected plenty of arms and ammunition in the Gurdwara and had engaged a considerable number of Pathans inside the Gurdwara. The Sikhs were fired upon without any warning and hounded from room to room. According to government reports about 130 Akali devotees were massacred inside the Gurdwara. The wounded as well as the dead were then burnt in the fire of wood sprinkled with kerosene oil. Next day on hearing the news of the massacre, a jatha consisting of 1,000 Akalis headed by Kartar Singh Jhabbar marched towards the scene. Master Tara Singh along with Sardar Teja Singh Samundari also joined it. When the jatha was about to reach the Gurdwara the Deputy Commissioner of Nankana Sahib and Sardar Bahadur Mehtab Singh who was the public prosecutor of Lahoreat that time met them on the way and requested them not to proceed to the spot in view of serious situation, to which the jatha agreed. The same evening the control of the Gurdwara was handed over to a committee of six members with Harbans Singh Attari as its president. The mahants of the other Gurdwara at Nankana Sahibvoluntarily surrendered.
Next to the
Amritsar Massacre, the tragedy of Nankana evoked the greatest public criticism in press and amongst the public. The tragedy greatly perturbed the Sikhs in different parts of the country who vehemently condemned the action of the mahant and sent messages of sympathy for the Akali martyrs. National leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Shaukat Ali, Saifuddin Kitchlew, Lala Dhuni Chand and Lala Lajpat Raivisited the scene of the tragedy and expressed sympathy for the Akalis. Prominent Sikh members of the Punjab legislative council, the Sikh League, the Chief Khalsa Diwan and other Sikh organizations reached the spot, especially at the time of the Shahidi Diwan held on March 3, 1921. The leaders used the inflamed sentiments fully and the Sikhs were asked to wear black turbans in honour of the Nankana Sahib martyrs. Information booth was opened to provide assistance to the families of the deceased. A school and a hospital at Nankana Sahib and a missionary college at Amritsar was opened in memory of the incident.
The Nankana Sahib tragedy in the year 1921 ended Master Tara Singh’s career as a teacher as he felt upon to take his share in the struggle that had come about as an inevitable result of the injustice, repression and disrespect to the Sikh religious places. Master Tara Singh had become an active participant in the Gurdwara Movement and at the historic Shahidi Diwan, Nankana Sahib, pledged before the Sikh sangat to devote his whole life to the cause of Sikh panth. Being an honest and sincere man with great prestige was requisitioned by Sardar Teja Singh Samundari and Sardar Harbans Singh Attariwala to come to Amritsar as a whole time worker and at the very outset, was appointed secretary of the newly formed Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee.
Management of the Golden Temple had always been of special interest to the community. After the annexation of Punjab, the Deputy Commissioner, Amritsar, looked into the important Sikh affairs, which might have some impact on the government’s relations with the Sikhs. For the rest, the mahants had everything to their own way. At a meeting presided by the Deputy Commissioner and attended by leading Sikh Sardars held on December 22, 1859, decided to set up a management committee of nine members. It did not have much control and interest in management affairs and the mahants continued to be powerful as before.
Newly elected Executive Committee of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee on October 29, 1921 adopted a resolution asking its secretary Sunder Singh Ramgarhia to hand over the keys of the treasury to its president, Kharak Singh. Sunder Singh Ramgarhia consulted the Deputy Commissioner and deposited the keys with the government treasury and subsequently also resigned as the sarbrah of the Golden Temple. The government appointed Honorary Captain Bahadur Singh as the new sarbrah. The Keys became the bone of contention and the Akalis had no alternative but to protest against the uncalled for and unwarranted interference of the government in the matters of Sikh religion. Public meetings were held throughout the province that was followed by widespread agitation. This agitation is known as ‘Chabian da Morcha (Keys Affair)’ in the Sikh history. In order to put an end to the agitation the government invoked the provisions of the Seditious Meetings Act. Subsequently, Master Tara Singh and other Sikh leaders including Baba Kharak Singh and Sardar Bahadur Mehtab Singh were tried, convicted and sentenced to various terms of rigorous imprisonment. He was arrested in connection with his speech delivered in a Diwan held at Sri Akal Takht Sahib. This was his first arrest in public life. After this Master Tara Singh resigned from his job as a headmaster and solely devoted himself to the work of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and the Akali Dal.
The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee passed a resolution on December 16, 1921 that no Sikh should agree to any arrangement about the restoration of keys until all the Akali arrested in connection with the Keys Affair were unconditionally released. After arresting more than one thousand leaders and workers the government had to give up the policy of repression and on January 11, 1922 released all the prisoners. The Akali leadership refused to collect the keys from the district magistrate. The government had to send an Indian gazetted officer to hand over the keys to Kharak Singh at a diwan especially arranged for the purpose.
This was great victory for the Akalis,
Mahatma Gandhi’s telegram to Kharak Singh read, “First battle for India’s freedom won, congratulations.” It was because of the policy of cooperation with the Indian National Congress, that the victory in the Key’s Affair was declared so by Mahatma Gandhi and Master Tara Singh was instrumental in the adoption of this policy.
Kirpan da Morcha
In March 1922, Master Tara Singh was again arrested in connection with the Kirpan-da-Morcha during which within a fortnight seventeen hundred black turbaned Sikhs were arrested. Sikhs were also persecuted for wearing Kirpan beyond certain length. The Sikh leaders on the other hand directed the people to wear them in the manner and length prohibited by the government. Ultimately, the government conceded the Sikh demand and the ban on the full size sword was removed. Later on it may be noted the keeping of the swords was exempted from the operation of the Arms Act not only in case of the Sikhs but for all communities.
Morcha Guru Ka Bagh
Master Tara Singh was soon re-arrested in the Guru ka Bagh Morcha on September 1922.The Mahant Sunder Das of the Gurdwara Guru-Ka-Bagh near Ajnala in the Amritsar district had submitted to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee in August 1921. When the government after the ‘Keys Affair’ started taking repressive measures against the Akalis under a sense of humiliation, the mahant also reverted to his old ways after a year of his submission. On August 9, 1922 the representatives of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee who had chopped wood from the land adjoining the Gurdwara for the langar (community kitchen) were arrested and put on trial for theft, on the basis of a complaint by Mahant Sunder Das that the land belonged to him. This provoked the Sikhs to assert their right, as the land was the property of the Gurdwara. The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee started sending jathas of five Akalis everyday to Guru-Ka-Bagh from Amritsar. More than 200 Akalis were arrested by August 25. Every jatha was given strict instructions to remain non-violent and to bear all hardships and excesses on the part of the police without any retaliation.
On August 26, 1922, eight important leaders of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee including Master Tara Singh and Sardar Bahadur Mehtab Singh were arrested who were trying to hold a meeting at the Gurdwara Guru-Ka-Bagh. Akali volunteers continued to reach Amritsar in a group of 80, 100 or even 200 and continued to march from the Akal Takht to the Guru-Ka-Bagh to suffer the most brutal repression of the police. By October 19, the number of Akalis arrested was more than 2,450.
It was here, in the morcha of Guru ka Bagh that the Akalis demonstrated the efficacy of the weapon of peaceful
satygrahaby their strict adherence to the vow of non-violence and thus set a new example to inspire the forces of nationalism in the country. Their firm faith shook the authorities whose immoral use of power was exposed by the patient sufferings of the peaceful Akalis. Hindusand Muslimsboth had their sympathy with the Sikh cause. This agitation ultimately came to an end through the intervention of Sir Ganga Ram, the well-known philanthropist of Lahorewho took the land on lease and gave it to the Gurdwara.
The next and final war of the movement was fought in the neighboring state of Nabha. The immediate cause for the morcha was the deposition of Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha. It was believed by the British that he was in sympathy with the Akali Movement and was also considered to be too independent to suit their political needs. He had to abdicate the throne in a dispute with the Maharaja of
Patiala, largely because of his being an Akali sympathizer. Master Tara Singh could not digest this act of gross injustice and through his forceful editorials in Akali and Akali-te-Pardesi was able to arouse the sentiments of the Sikh masses. In the "Akali-te-Pardesi" of July 9, of 1923 he wrote an emotional article regarding the deposing of Maharaja Ripudaman Singh, it read,
"Lovers of the Panth, will you allow the guardians of Maharaja Duleep Singh to take charge of the Tikka Sahib of Nabha? Rise, hold diwans and deliver lectures. Every Sikh society should raise a storm of agitation against this treachery and deceit -- Do not stop, be fearless and come forward."
Through this spadework he was able to make a strong public opinion in favour of the Nabha issue. He was instrumental in Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee taking up the matter in its hand and passing a resolution in the first week of August 1923 to have the Nabha wrongs undone by every legitimate and peaceful means. As a link in the agitation akhand path was held at a Gurdwara at
Jaitoin the Nabha state to pray for the restoration of the Maharaja. The Nabha police entered the Gurdwara and arrested the Akali workers and the pathis. Akhand Path was thus interrupted. It was a great affront to the religious feelings of the Sikhs. The morcha was launched and the jathas from Amritsar started reaching Jaito where they were not allowed to enter and arrested on arrival. The Punjab government launched a rigorous attack on the base of Akali headquarters and declared the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and Akali Dal, as unlawful bodies on January 7, 1924 and arrested sixty-two of its leaders including the entire working committee of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee. Master Tara Singh and other Akali leaders were also put behind the bars. Their trial continued for two years and three months and is popularly known as Akali Leaders Case. The interesting thing about the case is that Master Tara Singh and other leaders were charged at the start of the morcha with harbouring feelings of mutiny for ending the British rule and establishing a Sikh Raj. In the statement in the Akali Leaders Case, Master Tara Singh frankly admitted this charge. He said,
"Another thing that I wish to say is that I am responsible for the Nabha agitation including the taking up of the question by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee."
Since the case was not based on legal sound footing and also no witness went into its favour, which, ultimately led the government to take back the case. Here are some extracts from the statements of Master Tara Singh in the court of J. P. Anderson:
"I am surprised that I have not been asked the question whether I am a conspirator and have joined in any kind of conspiracy? Has the court not asked me the question because it is convinced that this is the kind of conspiracy of which the conspirators know nothing? I do not understand the poetry of such laws or of such legal machinery. I have not yet understood what the facts produced by the prosecution are to prove? Was it intended to prove that these facts were the result of any conspiracy or that they may result in any conspiracy?"
The jathas continued to march towards Jaito for courting arrest. The Nabha police fired upon one such shahidi jatha on Feb 21, 1924 in which about 40 Sikhs were killed. The government inquiry into the Jaito firing exonerated the state police and held the jatha responsible for initiating the trouble. The members of the jatha were persecuted and given long-term imprisonment.
Master Tara Singh in his autobiography "Meri Yaad" strongly condemned this false blame and prosecution of the jatha on false charges. He said that "he is not so such unhappy over the firing incident as he has regret over the lies of the government."
Another shahidi jatha of 500 men again marched from Amritsar towards Jaito. No firing was resorted to this time but all its members were arrested. A state of war was thus declared as jatha after jatha poured into Jaito to assert their right. The whole prisons of the Nabha state were filled with prisoners from Amritsar and the things became serious and beyond the control of the Nabha state, the Punjab government joined in the affray. During the jaito morcha the Sikhs were attacked on two fronts, one at Amritsar, the point of start and the other at the destination, at Jaito.
Leaders of the
Indian National Congress, who were watching with keen interest the Akali movement in the "Nabha Affair", formally expressed sympathy with the affairs and condemned the official action. Public meetings were held at various places in the country, which were addressed by popular national leaders. In a resolution passed on December 31, 1923 the Congress described the official action against the Akali leadership as “a direct challenge to the right of free association of all movements for freedom” and appealed to the nation to stand by the Sikhs. In the special session of the Congress held at Delhi in September 1923, it was decided to send Congress observers to Nabha to get first hand information about the development. Jawaharlal Nehru, A.T. Gidwani and K. Santanam who went there for the purpose were arrested as soon as they entered the state territory and were put behind bars. During his detention and subsequent trial in Nabha, Pandit Nehru became the great admirer of the Akalis and wished to prove worthy of their high tradition and exceptional courage. The KhilafatCommittee and the Muslim Leaguealso expressed their sympathies with the Akalis. Nationalist members in the central assembly and the Punjab legislative council also condemned the Jaito firing.
This led the government to reconsider its position with the result that the policy of repression had to be abandoned both in Nabha and in Punjab. Twelve shahidi jathas had been dealt with at Nabha but the thirteenth was now left untouched and it marched triumphantly to the Gurdwara at Jaito. Akand Path was again held at the Gurdwara without any hindrance.
Gurdwara Act of 1925
At the same time
Malcolm Hailey, the governor of the Punjab, showed his readiness to assist the Sikhs in taking possession of all the important Gurdwaras in the province through a five-member committee constituted by the Sikh members of the legislative council. Hailey presented a draft of a new Gurdwara Bill to the Akali leaders imprisoned in Lahore fort. Master Tara Singh, Baba Kharak Singh and Sardar Teja Singh Samundri studied each clause of the bill carefully. The bill met all the Akali demands and was passed into law on July 28, 1925 by the Governor General of India after its ratification by the Punjab legislative council. The Act came into force on November 1, 1925 with a gazette notification from the government of Punjab. According to the Act a Central Gurdwara Board elected by the Sikhs was to be the custodian of all-important Sikh places of worship. The first meeting of the Gurdwara board passed a resolution that its designation be changed to Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, which was accepted by the government. Thus ended what came to be known in common parlance as the "Third Sikh War".The Punjab government recognized the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee as a representative body of the Sikhs. In making the Punjab government agree to such recognition, the Akali leadership scored a major victory over the British.
Emergence as the Sole Spokesman of the Sikhs
The Sikh Gurdwara bill met most of the demands of the Sikhs, but the government was willing to release the prisoners conditionally i.e. on the understanding to be given by the Akalis that they would agree to work for the Gurdwara Act. The Shiromani Akali Dal and the executive declared conditions imposed for the release of prisoners as wholly unnecessary, unjust and derogatory. Among the prominent Akalis, Mehtab Singh and Giani Sher Singh along with twenty other Akali leaders accepted the conditional release. Master Tara Singh, Baba Kharak Singh and Teja Singh Samundari and sixteen other Akalis did not come out as government emphasis on eliciting written assurance and acceptance was to Master Tara Singh, an attack on the self-respect of the Sikhs. He said,
"We ourselves have enacted this Act and we are responsible for implementing it, then why this condition?"
Teja Singh Samundari died of heart attack in the jail after some time. The Punjab Government failed to prove the charges against Master Tara Singh and the remaining Akalis, few months later they all were released unconditionally. The courage and sacrifice shown by the Akalis during the trial very soon drove the Mehtab Singh’s group out of the political field and led to a rift in the Akali ranks, as the newly released Akalis condemned Mehtab Singh’s group as collaborators. Mehtab Singh’s group was also known as "Rai Bahadur Party". This group had majority in the committee and Mehtab Singh was elected its President. The Akali Party launched a campaign against the conditionally released leaders. When the new elections for the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee were held, the Akali Party won majority and the newly elected Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee elected Kharak Singh as the President and Master Tara Singh as the Vice President. Since Baba Kharak Singh had not yet been released the responsibility of the president fell on the shoulders of Master Tara Singh. He became indispensable in the cause of the struggle for the Sikh panth and emerged as the sole spokesman of the community.
Non Co-operation Movement and SGPC
With the formation of the Central Sikh League a new kind of leadership emerged on the central stage of the Sikh politics. The new leadership differed from the old leadership in its ideas and actions. The old leadership had its roots in Jagirdari class whereas this leadership belonged to the new educated professional middle class.
So far the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee was concentrating on the movement against the mahants, the Central Sikh League made the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee to simultaneously direct it against the government as it had full control over the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee executive.
In the election of SGPC held on July 1921, Baba Kharak Singh became the president and Master Tara Singh the Vice-President. The executive committee of newly elected Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee consisted almost entirely of non-cooperators. The executive of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee brought the non-cooperation movement in the Punjab to its highest pitch. In May 1921, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee passed the resolution in support of non-cooperation. Master Tara Singh was mainly responsible for connecting the Gurdwara Reform Movement with the non-cooperation movement.
Nehru Report and the Sikhs
Important Indian leaders called an ‘All Parties Conference’ in Bombay, in February 1928, to discuss the future constitutional framework of the country. The Central Sikh League was the only Sikh organisation invited to attend the conference. Master Tara Singh, Mangal Singh, Kharak Singh, Mehtab Singh, Amar Singh and Giani Sher Singh attended the conference at Allahabad. The Conference appointed a committee with Pandit Moti Lal Nehru as chairman to draft an agreed formula. Sardar Mangal Singh was also appointed its member. The committee submitted its report to All India Congress Committee, which is known as the Nehru Report.
About the communal aspect of the report relating to Punjab, the report stated, “As regards the special claim of the Muslims and Sikhs for greater representation than their population would justify--- it is enough to say that in the view we have expressed above, no such claim is admissible on the part of any community, however, important it may consider itself to be”.
The report accepted claims by the Muslims in the provinces where they were in minority while dismissed the Sikh claims on the basis that the Punjab problem is a peculiar one where there is the presence of the strong Hindu minority side by side with the Muslim majority and the Sikh minority. The report further said, “endless complications will arise if we recommend reservations for all minorities. The communal question is essentially a Hindu-Muslim question and must be settled on that basis”.
The Nehru Report deeply effected the politics of Punjab as it did not only cause disappointment to the Sikh community but was also responsible for the division among them especially over the communal clauses of it which provided for universal adult franchise in Punjab with no reservation of seats for the minorities, as was done in other states excepting Bengal, where the Muslims were in minority. The Report became the root cause of acute differences between Master Tara Singh and Sardar Mangal Singh on one hand and Baba Kharak Singh and the Congress on the other hand. Master Tara Singh was the first Sikh leader to react sharply to the communal clauses and provisions of this report. He immediately expressed his resentment by sending a telegram to Moti Lal Nehru. Sardar Mangal Singh came in for severe criticism for having signed the report ignoring the Sikh interests.
Master Tara Singh expressed his views in his editorials in Akali-te-Pardesi. He along with the majority of the Sikhs at that time was against the communal electorates and was suspicious of the intentions of the makers of the Nehru Report; about the abolition of communal provisions. He thought that in Punjab also this has been maintained in such a way so that the Muslims can dominate the other minorities. He wrote, “As Congress wants to please the Muslims so it is ignoring the Sikh interests. From the provisions and views expressed in the Nehru Report itself, it is clear that Congress is taking into question only two major communities and working out a compromise between them. Although it admits the importance of Sikh minority, yet it is doing nothing to safeguard its interests in Punjab.”
On August 21, 1928 about 80 Sikhs representing different parties assembled to discuss the report. Master Tara Singh criticising the Nehru Report moved a resolution. It asserted that the Sikhs would not relinquish their rights under the existing circumstances when; special representation had been allowed to minorities in other provinces. It demanded the same consideration for the Sikhs in the Punjab.
In the editorial of September 15, 1928, under the title Sikh Ki Kurbani Kar Sakde Han? (What the Sikhs can sacrifice?) Master Tara Singh wrote, “A Sikh can sacrifice his all for a good cause or the cause of religion, but not for the establishment of any kind of despotism. The Congress is assisting the Muslims to establish a kind of majority despotism in Punjab and telling the Sikhs to sacrifice for this cause. The Sikhs have always favoured the end of communal representations as a sacrifice for the national cause, with some provisions to safeguard the interests of the minorities. The real meaning of self-rule is that, no community should fight among themselves and everything should be done in perfect peace and harmony. If after getting self-rule we are going to fight among ourselves, then, what is the use of it? If we promise something now, won’t that affect us in future also?”
Role of Sardar Mangal Singh
Another section of the Sikhs under the leadership of Sardar Mangal Singh took stand in favour of the report. Both the sides were so rigid in their views that attempts at rapprochement failed. The debate continued, Master Tara Singh claimed that the League would decide in favour of his stand on the Nehru Report, which proved true subsequently. In 1928, an all parties Sikh conference was held at Shahid Sikh Missionary College, Amritsar, it was agreed that if the conference endorsed the recommendations of the Nehru Committee, Master Tara Singh would resign from the editorship of daily Akali and if the conference supported the stand taken by Master Tara Singh, then Sardar Mangal Singh would have to relinquish the editorship of Urdu Akali in favour of Master Tara Singh. In the conference Baba Gurdit Singh Kamagata Maru, Sardar Amar Singh Jhabal and Giani Hira Singh Dard justified the action of Sardar Mangal Singh while Sardar Gopal Singh Quami, Sardar Amar Singh and Baba Kharak Singh sided with Master Tara Singh. Master Tara Singh won with a narrow majority and under the terms of mutual agreement Sardar Mangal Singh resigned. The two leaders parted ways and Sardar Mangal Singh limited himself to the affairs of the Congress party only.
In a telegram to Pandit Motilal Nehru, he regretted that the Congress had ignored the Sikh aspirations. However, he was not ready to breakaway from Congress and said that he would rather secure Sikh rights within the Congress. He wanted to fight for Sikh rights while remaining within it. As an astute politician, it was clear to him that at the all India level he could not protect the rights of the Sikhs without the co-operation of the Congress.
Afterwards, Mangal Singh issued a long statement defending his action that was published in the Tribune. It stated that in signing the Nehru Report he had only followed the policy of the Central Sikh League, that is, the rejection of franchise on the basis of communal representations. Now, when the Nehru Report has rejected the communal representations in Punjab, his colleagues in the Central Sikh League are not supporting it.
Master Tara Singh refuted Mangal Singh’s impression that the Central Sikh League or for that matter any other Sikh organisation wanted the abolition of the communal representation only in the Punjab. In every resolution of the Central Sikh League and the All Parties Sikh Conference it was clearly stated that communal representation be abolished throughout the country and not applied selectively. Master Tara Singh also controverted Mangal Singh’s contention that the position taken by them was an afterthought. He pointed out that, before Mangal Singh had gone to Allahabad in July 1928 some of them had met together and arrived at the unanimous solution that the present proposal of the Nehru Committee should not be accepted. But on reaching Allahabad, Mangal Singh changed and supported the proposal contained in the Nehru Report whole-heartedly
Relations with Congress
Thus the association of the Central Sikh League with the Congress of more than eight years stood broken. It was partially restored later but the confidence once lost was never fully restored. Mahatma Gandhi tried to mollify the feelings of the Central Sikh League leadership. On December 30, 1928 while addressing the All Parties Conference he stated that personally he believed that the Nehru Report had not done justice to the Sikhs.
The Congress session was going to be held in Lahore in December 1929; Master Tara Singh did not see any wisdom in boycotting the national organisation as the decisions of national importance were going to be taken at the session. As president of the League he therefore called the annual session of the Central Sikh League at Lyallpur. In the course of his presidential address at the session held in October 1929, Master Tara Singh said, “We cannot boycott the Congress permanently as we are born to fight for freedom and we cannot stand aloof from an organisation whose sole object is such a fight -- I would not mind of you, instead of standing with Congress, boycott it and stand in front of it in the fight for freedom. But if you boycott the Congress and stand in the back lines, it will be a matter of shame for our community. Those who are for boycotting the Congress must devise some positive fighting program and I am sure all the people will be with them. But if you simply pass resolution to boycott the Congress and oppose whatever the Congress does you will be caught in the trap of bureaucracy.” No formal decision could be taken at the conference. However, Master Tara Singh took the permission from Baba Kharak Singh to attend the Congress session in his personal capacity and not as a representative of the Sikh community. Master Tara Singh at the time had become the leader of the workers group, which was also called ‘Jathedar Group’, whereas the leader of the whole panth was Baba Kharak Singh.
The Congress session at Lahore could not be a success without the co-operation and active participation of the Sikhs. Therefore, Congress leaders like Mahatama Gandhi, Moti Lal Nehru, and M. A. Ansari met Baba Kharak Singh, Master Tara Singh and other Sikhs leaders before the start of the Congress session. They assured them that in the open session of the Congress; a resolution would be passed assuring the minorities, especially the Muslims and the Sikhs, that no such constitution would be promulgated in the country that would not satisfy the minorities. Accordingly, the resolution was passed in the session where Master Tara Singh participated along with large number of Akalis. With the passing of the resolution in Lahore Congress session, the Nehru report got automatically lapsed. Thus the Sikhs feeling of being ignored in the Nehru committee report were also soothed and Master Tara Singh continued supporting the national struggle for independence. Master Tara Singh’s diplomacy and steadfast adherence to the rights of the Sikhs brought him a large following and a greater popularity as he was able to undo the injustice done by the Nehru report without in any way coming in the way of national struggle for independence.
Master Tara Singh becomes undisputed leader of the Sikhs
From 1930 onwards, with Master Tara Singh taking over the reins of Sikh politics, the importance of the Shiromani Akali Dal increased in Sikh affairs. His thought process, ideology and leadership style were shaped and conditioned by a strong desire to protect the distinct Sikh, socio-cultural identity and to promote Sikh interest and aspirations which were directly linked with the independence of the country. This dual loyalty towards the Sikh-Panth and towards Indian nationalism appeared to be confusing and contradictory to many of his contemporaries. But, according to him there was no incompatibility, he considered both complimentary to each other. Under his leadership the primary political objective of Shiromani Akali Dal became the pursuit of greater political leverage for the Sikhs as a community.
Despite Master Tara Singh’s control of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Baba Kharak Singh remained popular with the Sikhs for some years. Gradually his followers joined other parties because his Central Akali Dal had no definite political programme except the anti-Akali attitude.
Sardar Mangal Singh, Sardar Mehtab Singh and Giani Sher Singh also could not maintain their hold over the Sikh masses or could emerge as the undisputed leader of the Sikhs as they could not maintain a balance between the nationalist forces and the religious aspirations of the Sikh masses. Sardar Mangal Singh conceded to the Congress policies. Sardar Mehtab Singh was branded as collaborator of the government after his conditional release from jail and Giani Sher Singh was considered near to the Maharaja of Patiala and was against spreading the freedom movement in the princely states, so none but Master Tara Singh could emerge as an undisputed leader of the Sikhs.
The success of Master Tara Singh in emerging as a powerful leader of the Sikh community could be made possible only by his unrelenting pursuit of Sikh interests. To safeguard Sikh interests he joined the struggle against British imperialism. Strategy of combining the movement of Sikhs for the liberation of Gurdwaras and his goal of protecting interests of the Sikh community with the struggle against British imperialism. He was also able to enlist the support of the Indian National Congress for the struggle of Sikhs which further helped him to gain ascendancy in Sikh Politics. The Akali Dal led by Master Tara Singh was able to unite the rural and urban classes on a common platform, on the basis of its general stand based on the Sikh nationalism and Indian nationalism.
The greatest assets of Master Tara Singh, which ensured his leadership during this period was his continued ability to equate the Shiromani Akali Dal with the Khalsa Panth. His popularity as against the other leaders could also be attributed to the fact that although he combined the struggle of the Sikh community with the National Movement, yet, he always gave priority to the cause of the panth. He did not hesitate to reject the ‘Nehru Report’ as it did not comply with the Sikh interests. His ascendancy was also possible due to his control over the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and Shiromani Akali Dal, which provided him with organizational structure and patronage to consolidate his position. It also gave him the effective media for political communication.
As the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee had emerged as the religious parliament of the Sikhs, the dominance over it gave him the legislate authority to be the chief representative of the community. His dominant and charismatic personality also helped him to emerge supreme. By his gallant and fearless participation in ‘Gurdwara Reform Movement’ as well as the movements started by the Indian National Congress for liberation of the country, he acquired the image of a hero. He was able to project himself as a selfless, honest and an incorruptible leader who was not interested in power but was dedicated to the cause of his community. Thus after the ‘Gurdwara Reform Movement’ from the cluster of leaders it was Master Tara Singh who was able to emerge as a leader, to provide leadership to the community for the next turbulent years, which were once more to change the course of the Sikh community and the history of the country.
Role in Civil Disobedience Movement
In March 1930, Gandhiji declared the Civil Disobedience Movement. Baba Kharak Singh who was then the president of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee opposed it while Master Tara Singh who was then the vice-president of the committee supported it. Master Tara Singh was opposed to such a boycott as he considered it suicidal for the community to keep itself aloof from the national movement. He was successful in persuading Shiromani Akali Dal to extend its support to the civil disobedience movement and placed the immediate services of 5000 Akalis at the disposal of Mahatma Gandhi. He asked the Sikh councilors to resign from their posts. The Central Sikh League also decided to participate in the movement. A conference of representatives of the political parties like the Congress, nationalist Sikhs and Muslim was held at Lahore. Master Tara Singh assured the conference that nationalist Sikhs would not lag behind in the struggle for national independence. The British Government let loose terror and inflicted untold atrocities on the people during the Civil Disobedience Movement. There were widespread disturbances in Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan. In Peshawar alone there were nearly three hundred casualties. On April 23, 1930, in Kissa Kahani Bazar inside Kabuli Gate, Peshawar, the people were protesting against the arrest of their leaders in connection with the Civil Disobedience Movement. The police opened fire and killed thirty-five people and again on May 31, opened fire on a procession taking the dead bodies of the two children killed in another incident of police firing, killing a person again. This incident stirred Master Tara Singh to the depth of his soul and as a mark of sympathy for the sufferers Master Tara Singh led a Sikh jatha of 100 satyagrahis to Peshawar. Before marching to Peshawar he addressed a huge gathering at Jallianwala Bagh and declared, “The Sikhs, in sympathy with their tyrannized countrymen, will shed their blood at the same place where the Pathans have shed it. It is said that the Sikhs and Pathans are each other’s enemies. That is absolutely wrong. The Sikhs and Pathans are sons of the same Motherland, and if any such impression prevails that they are enemies, the Sikhs will wash it off by mingling their blood with that of the Pathans. The Sikhs must, therefore, go to their rescue and lay down their lives and do their duty honourably as enjoined upon them by their Gurus. ”It was an impressive march and everybody admired the courage of Master Tara Singh as at every movement there was a threat of police firing. Master Tara Singh was arrested on the way at Lahore and sent to the Gujarat jail, where other leaders arrested in connection with this movement were also interned. During his imprisonment in jail he was elected the president of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee in the annual elections replacing Baba Kharak Singh. He was now the President of two main institutions of the Sikhs, one religious and the other political. During the ‘Civil Disobedience Movement’ that Master Tara Singh got himself endeared not only to the Sikh community but also to the nation at large. It is estimated that the Sikh participation in the ‘Civil Disobedience Movement’ was proportionately the largest and the most glorious as out of 7000 satyagrahi convicted on Punjab over 3000 were Sikhs. The credit for this large mobilization goes to Master Tara Singh.
Communal Award and the Sikhs
In June 1930, The Simon Commission submitted its report. It favoured the separate electorate and reservation of seats and recommended 19 percent representation to the Sikhs in Punjab. The dispatch was strongly criticised by the Shiromani Akali Dal. As the Congress and the Sikh rejected the Simon report, the Viceroy called the Round Table Conferences from 1930 to 1932 to decide the future of India with the involvement of Indians. The first Round table Conference was boycotted by both the Congress and the Sikhs. After the Gandhi-Irwin Pact of March 5, 1931 Gandhi went to attend the second Round Table Conference on behalf of the Congress. Before going to London he met leaders of all communities, princes and leaders of important organisations. A Sikh deputation under the leadership of Master Tara Singh placed the Sikh point of view before him and stressed that the Sikhs being an important minority, required adequate safeguards in any future constitution. Important among them were the re-demarcation of Punjab territories by transferring overwhelming Muslim majority areas to the North West Frontier, joint electorate without reservation of seats and one third share for the Sikhs in the Punjab Cabinet and the Public Service Commission.In the absence of any acceptable solution for the communal problem, the British Government on August 16, 1932, gave its own verdict in the form of Communal Award. The Award made the position of Muslims in Punjab and Bengal strong. According to the Award the system of separate electorate was retained and the Award represented the three communities in Punjab as such that the Muslims got the statutory majority of seven seats in Punjab while the Hindus and the Sikhs gained nothing. The Sikhs got agitated over the issue, there was a lot of anger against the Loyalist Sikhs, but on this issue even the loyalists gave strong statements in the press, which further encouraged the Sikhs.Previously, on July 24, 1932, a Sikh conference representing the Akali Dal and the Central Sikh League was called at Lahore, which rejected the proportion of seats allocated to the Sikh as unacceptable. It voiced its grim determination not to allow the successful working of any constitution, which does not provide full protection to the Sikhs by guaranteeing an effective balance of power to each of the three principal communities in the Punjab. The Conference then set up Council of Action to take further steps in the matter. After the announcement of the Award, the Council in its meeting held at Lahore, on August 20, 1932 decided to create a forum called the Khalsa Darbar, with the exclusive task of pioneering agitation against the Communal Award. A storm of agitation took place in the Sikh circles and Master Tara Singh was pivot of all these. He has interned in his house at Shahadra and was not allowed to enter the municipal limits of Lahore, but he continued to guide the community while remaining behind the scene. The Sikh representatives joined the All India Anti-Communal Award League formed by Hindus. To find out an alternative to the Communal Award a Unity Conference was held at Allahabad on November 3, 1932. At the conference the Sikhs agreed to accept the statutory majority of Muslims in Punjab with joint electorate. In return the Sikh wanted safe guards like a seat in the cabinet of the province and 4.5 percent seats in central legislature. When almost all the parties had agreed to accept the decision of the Unity Conference, Sir Samuel Hoare, the Secretary of State for India, declared that 33.5 percentage seats would be given to the Muslims in the central legislature and the separation of Sindh was acceptable in principle. With this announcement the Muslims withdrew from the Unity Conference, which ended in failure. The Khalsa Darbar viewed with suspicion the efforts going on for a settlement on the issue of the Communal Award between Jogendra Singh and the Unionist leader Sir Fazl-i-Husain, and made it clear that the Sikhs would accept no such settlement unless endorsed by the Darbar. Master Tara Singh had realised that under the system of separate communal representation his community would never be safe. But as far as the Sikh demand of thirty percent reservation was concerned both the government of India and the home government in England were convinced that the Sikh demand of thirty percentages could not be acceded. The government of India was not in favour of any increase in Sikh representation because it may create suspicion among the Muslims. As, Sikander Hyatt Khan, a prominent Muslim Leader of Punjab once told Lord Willington that, “The Sikh objective is not to obtain the few extra seats for themselves but to deprive the Muslims of their majority”.The Third Round Table Conference was held in London in December 22, 1932, the Sikhs again decided to boycott it. The Shiromani Akali Dal wanted the Congress to oppose the Communal Award. The Congress on its part claimed to represent all the communities, so neither accepted nor rejected the Communal Award because of difference of opinion among its members. As the stalemate continued, the Congress neutrality went in favour of the Award and the British government went ahead in the formation of the new act on its basis, called the Government of India Act of 1935.Master Tara Singh had realised that the Akali Dal had to struggle against the Award on its own strength, but Sikh opposition to the Communal Award could not be as strong and united as should have been. In the beginning the loyalist group expressed strong opposition to the Award and subsequently sent invitation to the Akalis to come to Simla for compromise with the Muslims on this issue. On reaching Simla, the Akalis realised that the loyalist group was not as firm in the opposition to the Award as it had shown earlier. On the other hand Muslim leaders approached the government with the wrong information that the Sikhs have accepted the Communal Award that was duly published in the foreign press.Giani Sher Singh along with his two hundred supporters held a separate meeting and formed the ‘Khalsa Central Council’. Giani Sher Singh joined Baba Kharak Singh and at a well attended meeting leaders of both the parties agreed to form the Central Akali Dal, with Baba Kharak Singh as its president, Jaswant Singh Jhabal and Amar Singh as vice-president and Ranjodh Singh Tarsika as general secretary.After their walkout, the Khalsa Darbar held a joint meeting of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Central Sikh League at which Master Tara Singh was elected president for the forthcoming conference. In reaction to the activities of the other party, Master Tara Singh to avoid confusing the common people it was decided to merge the Central Sikh League with the Khalsa Darbar. Thus the Central Sikh League an important political organisation of the Sikhs ceased to exist and henceforth became a part of the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Master Tara Singh and Gopal Singh Qaumi tried to induce Giani Sher Singh to come to a settlement but, the he demanded dismemberment of the organisation controlled by Master Tara Singh. In the meantime ‘Gursewak Sabha’ formed in December, 1933 by some Sikh teachers of Khalsa College Amritsar tried to resolve the differences between the two groups and asked Master Tara Singh and Giani Sher Singh to retire from politics for sometime. Master Tara Singh according to the wishes of the Sabha went on a self-exile to Burma, Paonta Sahib and other places bidding farewell to politics and active panthic service and even promised not the return for sometime so that people might forget him. The offer was made to avoid a rift in the Panth. He also resigned from all the organisations and institutions of which he was a member or chairman including Shiromani Akali Dal, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and Sarb Hind Sikh Mission. On the other hand Giani Sher Singh refused to make any compromise.During Master Tara Singh’s period of self imposed exile i.e. from June 1934 to January 1935, the oppressive policies against the Akalis increased in the Sikh States and as a result of this oppression, Sewa Singh Thikriwala, an Akali activist and a close friend of Master Tara Singh died in Patiala jail in January 1935. Master Tara Singh came to know about his death through newspapers and decided to come back. Unity efforts were resumed after a few months of the return of Master Tara Singh. In April 1935, a partial accord was reached. But the Executive Committee of the Central Akali Dal, instead of ratifying the agreement put alternative suggestions and undid the unity efforts. In April 1935, an important meeting of the Akali workers passed a resolution expressing the full confidence in Master Tara Singh’s leadership.The Central Akali Dal was the product of the disunity caused in the Sikh ranks by the Gurdwara Act of 1925. As the time passed the opposition between the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Central Akali Dal grew. Sardar Bahadur Mehtab Singh’s party officially came to be known as the Central Akali Dal and had no long-term programme but advocated short gap measures. Sometimes it advocated the policy of the Shiromani Akali Dal and sometimes opposed it merely for the sake of opposition. It consisted of men like Sardar Bahadur Mehtab Singh, Gyani Sher Singh, Amar Singh Sher-i-Punjab, Sardar Bahadur Santokh Singh, Harbans Singh Sistani, Jaswant Singh Jhabal, Kartar Singh Jhabal, Amar Singh Jhabal etc. The party seemed to consist more of leaders than followers.
Relations with Patiala Ruler
Next battle of Master Tara Singh’s political life was fought with the Patiala ruler Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. Sardar Sewa Singh Thikriwala was an accused in the ‘Akali Leaders Case’ and was one of those who had refused to purchase their release conditionally. He was a subject of Patiala State. He had broadened the scope of Akali movement in Patiala state by disseminating the Akali ideology to the peasantry. In fact, the Akali activities assumed wide ramifications after the Parja Mandal and the Tenants Movement joined hands with the Akalis. The Maharaja of Patiala got him transferred to one of his own jails and began to create trouble for him unless he begs pardon from the government. When the Punjab government released all the prisoners unconditionally, the Patiala ruler treated Sardar Sewa Singh as an exception. ‘It was a gross betrayal to a friend and a colleague’, said Master Tara Singh, ‘to leave him alone in the jail when all others were released, either he should come out or they should join him behind the bars’. The Akalis therefore started their agitation for the release of Sardar Sewa Singh Thikriwala. They announced the holding of diwans in the State to protest against the continued detention of Thikriwala whom he addressed as Sardar Sahib. A deputation led by Baba Kharak Singh also met the Patiala authorities but to no avail. The Patiala ruler let loose a reign of terror on the Sikhs in the state. All leaders were put in the jail and any person wearing black turban was dealt with severely. Properties of the Akali workers were confiscated and heavy fines and punishments imposed.It was a challenge to the Akalis and wished that it should be properly replied, but the memory of the recent deposition of the Maharaja of Nabha was yet fresh in their minds. They therefore decided not to resort to any direct action, which could put the existence of another Sikh State in danger. After his election as vice president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Master Tara Singh along with Baba Kharak Singh started an agitation for the release of remaining Akali prisoners. Therefore, Master Tara Singh decided to meet him through the medium of Press, as the editor of both the Urdu and Gurmukhi editions of Akali. He through his fiery editorials and articles exposed the misdeeds of the Maharaja. An Akali agitator daring to reveal the truth of the scandals of a Prince was by no means a small thing and it enraged the Maharaja. It is believed that Maharaja once sent a gang of killers to kidnap and murder Master Tara Singh but was not successful in his plans. It was also a common talk among the Sikhs that a blank cheque was placed before Master Tara Singh on behalf of the Maharaja, which was immediately torn like a waste paper by Master Tara Singh. Master Tara Singh even challenged the Maharaja to persecute him if he was proved wrong. The press propaganda by Master Tara Singh through the ‘Akali’ on one hand inspired hope and confidence to the suppressed Patiala masses and on the other the attention of the government and of the All India State Peoples Conference. The government of India was obliged to conduct an inquiry into the Maharaja’s conduct under the leadership of Fitzpatric. It was held at Dalhousie but, the Akalis boycotted the inquiry and the agitation continued till 1935. It was for the first time that public agitation had forced an inquiry against a Maharaja.
Master Tara Singh, the Unionists and the Congress
Through the Act of 1935, which included the Communal Award, provincial autonomy was introduced in Punjab. Sikhs felt upset over the prospects of their existence after the introduction of the provincial autonomy in the Punjab. It was a period when Master Tara Singh as leader of the Sikhs adopted various strategies to keep the Sikh interests safe while dealing with the Unionists and the Congress party. Till now, he had always emphasized the necessity to maintain cordial relations with the Congress; be it the question of Nehru Report or the participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement or the participation in the Round Table Conferences. The Congress stand on the Communal Award and some other questions relating to Sikhs vis-à-vis Muslims forced Master Tara Singh to adopt an independent course for the Shiromani Akali Dal to safeguard Sikh interests. Meanwhile, the Unionist Party had emerged as an important factor in Punjab politics. The leaders of the Unionist party always claimed that their party was non-communal in character and program. They projected themselves as the protagonists of the interests of the peasantry. But, nevertheless always opposed the Sikh demands. The Government of India Act of 1935 contemplated a federation of British Indian provinces and the Indian states. The provincial governments were to be autonomous for the administration of subjects listed in the provincial section of the Act. The Sikhs who had already rejected the Communal Award did not approve of the new constitution based on this award and the provision of provincial autonomy. Although the governors of the provinces were entrusted with the special responsibility of protecting the minorities, but the Sikhs wanted independent constitutional rights to safeguard their political and cultural existence. The Government of India Act allowed the Sikhs only 33 from the 175 seats in the Punjab legislative assembly, 3 out of 50 seats in the North West Frontier Province, 6 out of 250 seats in the Federal legislative assembly and in case one existed 4 out of 150 seats in the council of state. The Sikhs felt themselves drawn to a position of political insignificance by these provisions.The first elections under the Act were held in 1937. Despite reservations Shiromani Akali Dal decided to contest the elections. The efforts for compromise between the Chief Khalsa Diwan and the Central Akali Dal could not materialize and a faction of Central Akali Dal under Giani Sher Singh and the loyalists group among the Sikhs organized themselves under the banner of new party called as Khalsa National Party. Even Maharaja of Patiala and the British were supporting it. Master Tara Singh refused to enter into any compromise with this party because he was not willing to co-operate with the loyalists of the Chief Khalsa Diwan. He feared this might throw this nationalist part into the company of a pro-government party. Master Tara Singh tried to sort out the differences with Giani Sher Singh but the later refused to leave the company of Sundar Singh Majithia and Sir Joginder Singh. There were two other main contestants in fray for the elections: the Unionist Party and the Congress Party.Master Tara Singh was opposed to any Sikh candidate contesting on the Congress ticket. He felt that Congress could not be trusted if it hesitated in joining the Sikhs in matters where the Sikh interests clashed with the Muslims or the injustice was done to the Sikhs. In a meeting of the Shiromani Akali Dal and Khalsa Durbar held at Amritsar in June 1936, under the presidentship of Mangal Singh, it was decided to set up a joint parliamentary board for the choice of candidates for the forthcoming elections. A nineteen-point election manifesto was drawn up. The manifesto said that the party will fight for complete independence and co-operate with those political parties whose program and ideals were similar to those of its own. It reinforced its strong opposition to the ‘Communal Award’. The Shiromani Akali Dal’s opposition to the Congress came into the open. There was a split among the Akali ranks over the question of co-operation with the Congress. As Master Tara Singh was opposed to the co-operation, Mangal Singh, the president of the Khalsa Durbar resigned from the board as he felt that the board should not oppose Congress candidates. In October 1936, Congressite Sikhs resolved to form a compromise board to confer with other progressive Sikh parties and make adjustments on Sikh seats. However, before reaching any agreement with the Congress, Master Tara Singh wanted the Congress to declare its attitude towards the Communal Award. Jawahar Lal Nehru in his reply to Master Tara Singh expressed sympathy with the Sikh attitude towards the Communal Award. In view of the imminent Muslim domination in the province by the provisions of the new act, the Akali circles were anxious to secure the support of the Congress to strengthen their position in the province. Moreover the Akali program was identical with the Congress policy that is to wreck the constitution and to work for the complete independence. The pressure from the pro-Congress section of the Akalis, as well as the immediate need of the hour forced Master Tara Singh to reach on agreement on the distribution of seats. The prime initiators of the move were Giani Kartar Singh, Partap Singh Kairon, Gurmukh Singh Mussafir and Ishar Singh Majhail. The February 1937 elections of the Punjab assembly resulted in a clear-cut majority for the Unionist Party. In these elections the Unionists won 88, Congress 15, Khalsa National Party 12 and Akali Party 10 seats. Despite absolute majority, Sir Sikander Hyatt Khan of the Unionist Party decided to seek co-operation of other parties including the Khalsa National Party. Sir Sunder Singh Majithia the leader of the party became a minister in the Unionist party’s government. Master Tara Singh condemned the acceptance of office by Sir Sunder Singh Majithia.Immediately after the establishing their government in the province the Unionist with the help of Khalsa National Party raided the offices and residences of leading Akali leaders, including those of Master Tara Singh, Giani Gurmukh Singh Musafir, Office of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Shiromani Akali Dal, Sarab Hind Sikh Mission, Sri Darbar Sahib Committee, Sri Nankana Sahib Committee, Sikh Missionary College Amritsar and Bombay Khalsa College. Several civil suits were filed against the Akalis in the Gurdwara Judicial Commission accusing them of embezzlement and misuse of Gurdwara funds. A criminal case was started against Master Tara Singh under section 409 in the same connection. These acts of the government proved apprehensions of the Sikhs, consequent to this, leaning of the Sikhs towards the Akalis increased and in the 1938 Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee general elections despite the unity between the opponents of Master Tara Singh; Shiromani Akali Dal had unprecedented victory.
Clash with Unionists
The 1937 elections weakened the position of the Sikhs in Punjab vis-à-vis the Muslim domination because the Shiromani Akali Dal was mainly considered to be the representative of the Sikh masses. The Dal in collaboration with other parties observed hartal (strike) on April 1, 1937 successfully all over the province against the new constitution. But at Kot Bhai Thaan Singh in the Campbellpur District an untoward incident took place, which confirmed the apprehensions of Master Tara Singh about his community’s existence in the Punjab under the new set up. Some Muslim hooligans, on the pretext, attacked a Sikh congregation in a Gurdwara that their evening service was being chanted in louder-tones than usual. The police had to resort to firing, six persons were injured, out of whom one died later on. This incident was fresh in the minds of the Sikhs when a mob of Muslim hooligans attacked a peaceful Sikh diwan at Ahla in the Gujrat district resulting in the death of Bhai Sunder Singh Ragi and injuries to a number of Sikhs. The Punjab premier, Sir Sikander in a speech held the Sikhs responsible for these disturbances. The stand taken by the Unionist government over these issues reinforced the doubts of Master Tara Singh.In the first year of his rule in July, 1937 Sir Sikander called a ‘Unity Conference’ of leaders from all political parties for the purpose of maintaining communal harmony in the province. Master Tara Singh took part in it as a representative of the Shiromani Akali Dal. On the question of playing music before mosques, Master Tara Singh and Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia exchanged hot words and the ‘Unity Conference’ ended in a failure. Master Tara Singh became a thorn in the eyes of the coalition government also because he refused to compromise on the issue of possession of Shahidganj Gurdwara. The issue of Shahidganj Gurdwara created tension and bad blood between the Unionist and Master Tara Singh and dominated the Punjab politics for two years.
Gurdwara Shahid Ganj Affair
Shahidganj was a monument in the memory of those Sikh men, women and children who had laid down their lives in the defense of their religion in the first half of the eighteenth century. The ‘Gurdwara Act’ had also notified this as a Gurdwara and gave it for management to the local Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee of Lahore. In March 1935, this committee decided to repair the Gurdwara which was in a dilapidated condition. In the Gurdwara premises there were ruins of a small building, which the Muslims claimed was a mosque. The Gurdwara committee decided to raze it in the course of which a Sikh mason fell down from the roof and died. The Muslims regarded this accident as a punishment of God on a kafir that was razing a mosque. Some zealous Muslims began an agitation against the Sikhs, demanding that the demolition of the mosque should be stopped. Later on they raised their demand to the restoration of the place to the Muslims. The Unionist Government tried all the means to handover the place to the Muslims, but Master Tara Singh refused to submit the possession of the Gurdwara to the Muslims, while Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia favoured a compromise even if the Sikhs had to part with something. Sir Sikander called the leaders of the various communities at a ‘Unity Conference’ in July 1937. Master Tara Singh opposed the move as he had lost faith in the good intentions of Sir Sikander. In his letter of September 10, 1937 to him Master Tara Singh explained this decision that he and his colleagues believed that Sikander’s efforts were to strengthen the Muslim position and to build a Muslim rule in Punjab.Earlier, Sir Sikandar had tried to allure Master Tara Singh into a compromise by offering to withdraw a criminal case registered against him. It was also assured that Sir Sunder Singh’s party would not contest Gurdwara elections against them. In the meantime the Lahore High Court and the Privy Council delivered their judgment in favour of the Sikhs. It was during these days that a prominent Muslim leader Maulana Shaukat Ali wrote a letter to Master Tara Singh with a view to opening ‘negotiations with the Sikh Leaders regarding the Shahidganj question.’ Maulana Shaukat Ali met Master Tara Singh accordingly on October 3, at Shahid Sikh Missionary College, Amritsar, but, nothing concrete came out of the meeting as Master Tara Singh had already cleared his stand on the issue. In the meantime Muslim leaders and ulemas had called for enlisting one million volunteers in order to strengthen their agitation, which further complicated the situation leading to crimes against the Sikhs. On November 4, 1935 Master Tara Singh gave a final reply in the question of compromise or talks. He said, “Under the circumstances, it is cowardly to have any talks with the Muslims, I therefore wish to declare that I, at least shall not participate in any such talk. No Sikh leader, no Sikh organization and not even all the Sikh organizations combined have the power to agree to this demand owing to Muslim threats and bullying. The Sikhs consider it an insult to the Panth and the Martyrs to yield even an inch”.The legal and moral position of the Muslims in respect of the issue was extremely weak, so the Unionist government could not do much to help them. But in spite of all this, they urged their claim upon this building by force and unlawful means. When their activities defied the law and the authority of the executive government, they had to be suppressed with the help of armed troops. Sir Sikander although tried to take a sober view of the whole thing, but most of Unionist M.L.A.’s inside the legislative assembly supported the Muslim sentiments.The British blamed Master Tara Singh for not coming to a compromise over the Shahidganj affair between the Sikhs and Muslims. Master Tara Singh, it was alleged was, least interested in any sort of compromise. According to reports, “at present a settlement depended more on him than on anything else”. They considered that as the Gurdwara elections were imminent therefore Master Tara Singh and his friends were afraid of giving platform to their opponents. The outbreak of the World War II in September 1939 and the launching of Pakistan Plan in March 1940 by the Muslims League altered the situation in the Punjab and the attention of both the parties was diverted from this issue.
The Congress attitude during the whole affair was disappointing to Master Tara Singh; according to him he has not met any Congressman who does not consider the Sikh position right on the Shahidganj issue. But, it has neither passed any resolution in this regard nor sent any volunteers according to its earlier principles of protection of the minority rights.
Creates tension between Sikhs and Muslims (Kirpan da Morcha)
When the Muslim agitation over the issue of Shahiganj was at its peak, not only against the Sikhs but also against the government, the Punjab government decided to exempt small kirpans from the provisions of the Arms Act, but put ban on the carrying of big kirpans. The exemption to the kirpans from the provision of the Arms Act further encouraged the Muslim agitators to carry them and they resorted to broad day light murders of the Sikhs. Master Tara Singh made the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and the Shiromani Akali Dal pass resolutions, requesting the government remove restrictions on full-size kirpan. On December 15, 1935 a joint meeting of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and Shiromani Akali Dal was held were the prohibitory order was condemned as an attack on the Sikh religion and it was decided to start a morcha. The morcha called as ‘Kirpan da Morcha’ under Master Tara Singh started on January 1, 1936 when a jatha left Amritsar for Lahore. The morcha lasted only till Jan 31, 1936 when the ban on full-sized kirpan lapsed automatically.
Jhatka and Halal issue
Consumption of Meat in any form is not allowed in Sikh Religion.The Sikhs had a grievance that jhatka meat was not allowed in any government institution where as there was no restriction on the use of halal meat. This was regarded as an act of discrimination against the Sikhs and they demanded that in all government institutions jhatka and halal should be given equal treatment. In Muslim dominant localities also the Sikhs were not allowed to perform jhatka. There was an increase in skirmishes between the two communities over the question during the Unionist rule. Master Tara Singh accused Sir Sikander that his speeches in the legislature had emboldened the Muslims and they had begun to harass the Sikhs over these issues. On December 1, 1938 Sardar Partap Singh introduced the Jhatka Meat Bill in the Punjab legislature aimed at removing restrictions on the preparation and sale of jhatka meat. Sir Sikander cleverly side tracked the issue and said that since the question involved the allied questions of beef diet also, the bill could not be allowed to introduced. The ‘Second All India Akali Conference’ held at Rurka Kalan on February 14-15, 1941 condemned the restriction on jhatka. The problem could not be solved, as the Unionist government could not afford to loose the support of the Muslims by any relaxation in favour of the Sikhs.
Gurmukhi Language issue
For the Sikh community the Gurmukhi language is a symbol of their social religious identity. They demanded its status on par with other Indian languages, but on the contrary the Unionist government passed the ‘Primary Education Bill’ in 1941, by which Urdu was adopted as a language for elementary education in the province. After the Rurka Kalan Akali conference Master Tara Singh wrote a letter to the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab Henry Craik and delivered an ultimatum of one month to the government at the termination of which he proposed to launch a morcha for the amendment of the Primary Education Bill and make suitable arrangements for the teaching of Gurmukhi in schools and other Sikh demands. The letter also demanded the unconditional withdrawal of the cases against the Sikhs arrested at Sargodha where a number of local Sikhs deliberately defied the orders of the district magistrate (a Muslim ICS) about the route of Sikh procession and allegedly assaulted police officers who tried to restrain them. Later, on March 27, Sikander made a statement on the whole subject of the Sikh demands and subsequently withdrew the cases against the Sikhs arrested at Sargodha.
Bad relation with Muslims, Akali Dal merges with Congress
Through his editorials in Akali-te- Pardesi and Akali Patrika he was able to create an impression that the Sikh interests would never be secure under Muslim rule. He was emphatic that the Sikhs had suffered due to communal attitude of the government and accused the government for not providing protection to the Sikhs in the riots at Kot Fateh Khan, Ahla and Amritsar. He condemned the Muslim officials for demonstrating sympathy with their community. The termination of services of five teachers of Khalsa College, Amritsar and the case of embezzlement of Gurdwara funds was considered deliberate attempt by Sir Sikandar Hyatt Khan to undermine the strength of the Akalis in the province. An important aspect of this struggle of Master Tara Singh against the Unionist government was that he got cooperation neither from the moderate, loyalist Sikhs nor the Congress party to whom he had supported earlier. Noteworthy in this context is the fact that the personal enmity between Master Tara Singh and Sir Sunder Singh Majithia became public. Master Tara Singh’s fears were further augmented by the Sikander-Jinnah Pact of October 1937. It was a development of great significance, according to which, all Muslim member of the Unionist party would join the Muslim league and would follow its policies in all India matters and would remain independent of Muslim league in the provincial matters.The Sikander-Jinnah Pact led ultimately to sharp polarization to Punjab politics. It changed the politics of Punjab because it afflicted shock to the Hindus and the Sikhs of the Punjab, who considered Sir Sikander, first as a Punjabi and then as a Muslim. It led to an agreement of views among the political Sikh group of loyal and moderate Sikhs and of Master Tara Singh that Sir Sikander was not practicing any more the non-communal politics. The ‘Pact’ again forced Master Tara Singh to change his attitude towards the Congress party and once again the Shiromani Akali Dal called upon all the Sikh members of the Punjab assembly to separate themselves from the Unionist government and join the Congress party. As a reaction to the pact, Dr. Satyapal, representative of the Punjab Congress, G. C. Narang, representative of the Punjab Hindu Sabha and Master Tara Singh, representative of the Shiromani Akali Dal reached an alliance with the aim of building a strong opposition to the Sikander and the Muslim League.On March 5, 1937 in the working committee meeting of the Shiromani Akali Dal, it was decided that the Akalis would also become the members of the Congress to keep its flag high. Soon the decision to merge the Dal in the Congress was also taken on June 14, 1937. At the All India Akali Conference held at Rawalpindi in November 1938, the Congress flag was flown side by side with the panthic flag. The policy of the Unionist government was declared to be communal and Congress was seen as a truly national organization. Master Tara Singh continued this policy first of cooperation and then of collaboration with the Congress till World War- II.The Congress leaders knew it well that Master Tara Singh was the only unyielding and fearless kind of person who could put a relentless fight against the British. Master Tara Singh on the other hand, based his policy towards the Congress on the resolution passed by the Congress party in Lahore in 1929, assuring the Sikhs and other minorities that, the Congress will not agree to any constitution which does not satisfy them. But after the indirect support of the Congress to the Communal Award, he held the Congress responsible for backing out of its promise as Gandhi had bound himself and the Congress to the Communal Award through the Poona Pact. After the Sikander-Jinnah Pact the complexities of the situation again forced Master Tara Singh to adopt a policy of cooperation with the Congress. But the relations soon became problematic, as both the parties could not fulfill the expectations set upon them.
World War -II changes relations with Congress
Partition and Independence of India
Indian Independence Movement, Partition of India
Tara Singh was invited to represent
Sikhsat the Round Table conference at Shimlaafter the end of the Second World Warby the Governor-General Lord Wavell, to ease the political situation in the country, the Sikhs were given representation along with other communities. Tara Singh fiercely argued against the demand of Muhammad Ali Jinnahand the Muslim Leagueto partition India, forcefully reiterating that such a move would irreparable hurt the Sikh community, which was scattered all over the province of Punjab without a majority in any district.
Tara Singh was especially infuriated at the prospect of Sikhs having to leave their most important and holy sites in the Punjab, such as
Nankana Sahib, Lahore, Rawalpindiand Faisalabad. The muslim league wanted their majority districts as well from East Punjab such as Amritsar, Firozpur, Aliwal, Dharamkot, Faridkot, Sangroor, Gurdaspur, Mansa district, and Shariffpura. Master Tara Singh was one of the first leaders to recognize that it would become impossible for Sikhs to continue living in what would become the new state of Pakistan.
The Congress Party assured Tara Singh,
Baldev Singhand other Sikh leaders that India would belong to all its religious communities, and the Constitution would be secular. Having established faith and obtained some assurances through dialogue with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Tara Singh and the SGPC backed partition. Tara Singh also began to encourage Sikhs to leave Pakistan, so they could avoid the violence and repression he believed was inevitable.
But when partition came, over one million people, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were killed. Millions of Sikh and Hindu families were uprooted from Pakistan. During this period, many alleged that Tara Singh was endorsing the killing of Muslims as retaliation for the murders in Pakistan. The Muslim population suffered a great number of losses because they were the majority from both sides of the Punjab. Many Muslims beileved all of Punjab would be handed to Pakistan since Muslims had a majority 51% population in East Punjab. As soon as violence erupted in Lahore on Hindus and Sikhs,east Punjab went in flames starting from
Amritsarto JindMuslims were not to be spared. Muslim deaths were really high in the cities of Amritsar, Gurdaspur, firozpur, Barnala, Moga, Ludhiana, and Jalandhar. On the other hand in west Punjab violence was mostly in Lahore, saikot, multanand gurjat. When sardar Patel and the Indian government assured the Sikh leadership that India would not hesitate to fight Pakistan if the violence did not stop, Tara Singh appealed to all Sikhs to stop and prevent all violence, and focus on helping the refugees arriving from Pakistan. The only village that was spared in East Punjabwas malerkotla thanks to Guru Gobind Singh Ji no muslims were killed there. Malerkotlawas the only safe haven for muslims. The muslims who were living in villages close by Malerkotla were not spared and hacked to pieces to scare the malerkotla residents to leave the village and fall in their trap. There were two Sikh warriors from the village of malerkotla who protected the muslims and warned other angry Sikhs to not even look at malerkotla with a dirty look. 4,000 muslims were saved and lived happliy in malerkolta. There hasn't been one wrong incident until this day in malerkotla. The muslim resident respect and honour Guru Gobind Singh Ji and on April 13th the birth of Sikhismmuslims pray and celebrate along with Sikhs.
Tara Singh was the eldest leader and guide of the demand of the
Shiromani Akali Daland other Sikh groups for a state where Sikhs would be the majority, and Gurmukhiwould be the official script. Tara Singh adopted this demand ever since 1947. He was aware that millions of Sikh families had suffered a lot and were uprooted in a matter of days from newly formed Pakistan by Muslims, he wanted a secure political space in India for Sikh communities.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, there were a series of demonstrations, especially when after 1957 the Union government began re-organizing state boundaries and creating new states on linguistic basis, but
Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India was opposed to the creation of any state upon religious lines, fearing a repeat of partition and a degradation of Secularism.
However in 1966, with the political pressure coming to a climax following the
Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, where thousands of Sikh officers and soldiers in the Indian Armyhad displayed tremendous valor in defending the country, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Nehru granted the demand.
The state of Punjab was trifurcated into the Sikh-majority Punjab, which included the Sikh holy city of
Amritsar. Hindu-majority areas were divided into the states of Himachal Pradeshand Haryana. Many Akali Dal leaders believe it was a mistake dividing Haryana because majority of the upper districts were heavliy Sikh populated.
This was Tara Singh's last agitation. He died on the eve of its fulfillment, on
November 22, 1967.
*"Heritage of the Sikhs", by Sardar Harbans Singh
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