Sikh Institutions and Parties

views updated


SIKH INSTITUTIONS AND PARTIES The preoccupation of Sikhs with the political can be traced to Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. His experience of the condition of North Indian society during the fifteenth century inspired his formulation of parallel critiques of the Brahman and the Mulla, the respective representatives of Hindu and Muslim society. Guru Nanak was an eyewitness to the central political event of his time, namely, the change of North Indian power from the Lodi Sultanate to the Mughal empire, initiated by Babur's invasion of India in November 1525. Guru Nanak described this event as having brought inevitable suffering, including the rape and slaughter of innocent people. Although Nanak unambiguously condemned such violence, he was not opposed to violence or to politics, only to that which was unjust, and which stemmed from egoistic desire. He believed that the actions of the ideal ruler had to be grounded in certain norms of behavior derived from spirituality. Nanak translated his ideas into action through the establishment of a commune based on socioethical practices of simaran (self-emancipation through remembrance of the divine Name) and seva (compassionate service of others), both of which were instituted through the sadh sangat (the community of those committed to these principles) and langar (free kitchen).

During the reign of Nanak's successors, these early institutions were extended and supplemented with the establishment of the manji system run by the masands, an order of territorial deputies who represented the living guru's authority in far-flung places. By the time of the fifth guru, Arjan, it had become common for the Sikhs to refer to the guru as sacha patshah (sovereign king) and to the spiritual position of the guru (gaddi) as takht (seat of power) and to the congregation as darbar (the court), denoting unity between spiritual (piri) and political (miri) authority. To proclaim Sikhism's fluid synthesis of miri and piri, the sixth guru, Hargobind, established a platform opposite the Harimandir (Golden Temple) in June 1606, naming it the Akal Takht (Seat of the Timeless). Guru Hargobind thereby inaugurated the tradition of conducting the political affairs of the Sikh community alongside its spiritual and religious development, issuing the first hukamnama (edict) asking Sikhs to include in their offerings gifts of weapons and horses. Bhai Gurdas became the first officiant (in contemporary parlance, jathedar) of the Akal Takht. Even today, the Akal Takht remains the premier seat of political decision making and the symbol of politico-religious authority, although Sikhs also recognize four other takhts: Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib (Anandpur); Takht Sri Harimandar Sahib (Patna); Takht Sach Khand Hazur Sahib (Nanded); and Takht Sri Damdama Sahib (Talvandi Sabo). All of these four other takhts are connected with the life of the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, and the Khalsa, the politico-religious order that he established on the Baisakhi of 1699 and which henceforth became the driving force behind all Sikh politics and institution building.

Post-Guru Period (1708–Present)

During the early decades of the eighteenth century, the Khalsa, as representative of the Sikh body politic and led by the enigmatic figure of Banda Singh Bahadur, was locked in a struggle for its survival against the Mughal state. However, due to the increasing number of invasions by the Afghans during the middle of the eighteenth century, the balance of power in the Punjab had begun to shift in the Khalsa's favor, led at this time by Jassa Singh Ahluwalia. This period also witnessed the emergence of a new and different Sikh collective: the misls, or independent units of Khalsa forces, each with its own sirdar, or chieftan. Though they acted independently, the misls would combine and unite under a political configuration known as the Dal Khalsa, or combined Khalsa army, which met twice a year at the Akal Takht in Amritsar. On such occasions the Sikh community would constitute itself as Sarbat Khalsa (literally, the "entire Khalsa"). Collective political decisions taken by the misls were known as gurmata (decision according to the guru's will), binding on all members of the Khalsa, even those who were absent at the time the decision was made. Despite the seemingly ad hoc nature of the Sarbat Khalsa and thegurmata, this institution nevertheless enabled the Dal Khalsa to act in a united manner, even though it was physically divided into twelve independent misls. Despite the fall of the Mughal empire by the late eighteenth century (an event that also heralded rise to power of the British East India Company) the Sikh misls degenerated into internecine warfare. Eventually the twelve independent misls were superseded by the Sukerchakia misl, whose leader, Ranjit Singh, emerged as the supreme ruler or maharajah of the Punjab, establishing his independent Sikh kingdom there. Ranjit Singh ruled as the chief representative of what came to be known as the Sarkar Khalsa, or government of the Khalsa. Although his kingdom was administered from Lahore in the name of the Khalsa, Ranjit Singh also assumed trusteeship of the Harimandar and the Akal Takht, managing the affairs of these two premier religio-political institutions of the Sikhs through his trusted sirdars.

The death of Ranjit Singh in 1839 was followed by a period of conflict and eventual surrender of the Sikh kingdom to the British in 1849; the British also took control of the Akal Takht and Harimandar complex. For the Sikhs this loss of political sovereignty ushered in a period of chaos, confusion, and humiliation. During this period (1850s to early 1870s) the British pushed through radical measures for the economic advancement of the Punjab, bringing about improvements in communication and education. In particular, the creation of a network of English-language mission schools helped to foster a new generation of Western-educated Sikh leaders who made it a priority to revive the pre-colonial Sikh tradition, which they believed had slipped into decadence following the demise of Ranjit Singh's kingdom. In 1873 a group of prominent Sikhs convened a series of meetings in Amritsar that eventually led to the formation of a society called the Singh Sabha, which would lay the foundations for modern Sikh political institutions to emerge in the twentieth century. The founders of the first Singh Sabha were mainly conservative Sikhs, like Baba Khem Singh Bedi, who emphasized caste distinctions, tolerated idol worship, and maintained close ties with Hindus. Such views naturally antagonized reformist Sikhs, who emphasized a more pristine version of Khalsa identity (Tat Khalsa), which also found support with British administrators eager to promote the view that Sikhism was in danger of merging back into Hinduism if it lost its Khalsa identity. By 1879 the more radical members of the Singh Sabha had broken away to form a second branch of the Singh Sabha based at Lahore. Within a few years the radical Lahore Singh Sabha, guided by personalities like Kahn Singh Nabha, Giani Ditt Singh, and Bhai Vir Singh, completely superseded the Amritsar Singh Sabha as the result of a massive campaign of expansion, revivalist teachings, and political canvassing. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, all Punjabi cities and many villages had flourishing Singh Sabhas. However, given the sheer numbers of these organizations and with increasing need to consolidate mainstream Sikh opinion, the Amritsar and Lahore Singh Sabhas were merged in 1902 into a single representative body called the Chief Khalsa Diwan (CKD), whose explicit purpose was to represent all Sikhs in matters of religion and to further their political position in the province at a time of growing political rivalry and separation among Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities.

Although one of the CKD's professed objectives was to safeguard the political rights of the Sikh community, its political stance was compromised from the outset by its need to maintain cordial relations with the British rulers. CKD leaders were therefore opposed to the agitational politics that had become the norm during the first decades of the twentieth century. Out of step with the anticolonial stance of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, who had successfully campaigned for separate electorates and proportional representation for Hindus and Muslims, respectively, the CKD ended up far short of its expected share of the electoral seats in the Punjab Council. As a consequence, it was eventually superseded by a more strident voice in Sikh politics, the Akali movement.

In 1919 the CKD was dissolved into another organization, the Central Sikh League, which in turn gave rise to two separate organizations in 1920: the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). The SAD was founded on 14 December 1920 in the hope of protecting the political rights of Sikhs, to preserve their religious heritage, and to represent them in public bodies and legislative councils set up by the British. Closely related to the SAD was the SGPC, which was essentially an organization that administered the historical Sikh shrines and under whose control they were to function. Within three years of its formation, the SAD became the premier political party of the Sikhs, and its control over Sikh and Punjabi politics is still powerful today. Soon after its inauguration, the SAD aligned itself with the Indian National Congress and launched a campaign of peaceful agitation against the British, and immediately following, a separate agitation to wrest control of historical Sikh shrines from the mahants—the hereditary proprietors of the sacred Sikh shrines, most of whom were descended from the order of Udasis, wandering Hindu ascetics who had taken over the shrines during the time of Ranjit Singh, and many of whom were accused of misappropriating Gurdwara funds for personal gain. This agitation culminated in 1925 with the passing of the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, which, through the SGPC, gave the Sikh community the rights to possess and manage their own shrines through an electoral process. The first leader of the SAD, Baba Kharak Singh, lost the leadership in 1926 to Master Tara Singh, who continued to steer its fortunes for three decades.

Political events and other episodes that have occurred in Punjab since 1925 are a testimony to the influence and longevity of the SAD and SGPC partnership. Key achievements include the reformulation and universal approval of the document called Sikh Rahit Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct) published by the SGPC in the 1950s, and the Indian government's granting of Punjabi Suba (Punjabi state) to the Punjab. The severest test for the SAD and SGPC occurred during the 1980s, a fateful decade that saw a protracted political battle against Indira Gandhi's Congress Party; internal challenges from clerical organizations like the Damdami Taksal, led by the charismatic preacher Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale; the Indian army's assault on the Golden Temple complex; and the destruction of the Akal Takht in June 1984 as part of the army's effort to oust Bhindranwale and his supporters. The assassination of Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh guards in October 1984 followed, and thereafter Sikh insurgent groups demanded a separatist state called Khalistan. During the 1990s, coinciding with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the demise of the Congress Party, the SAD split into various factions: Akali Dal (Badal) led by former chief minister of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal; Akali Dal (Longowal) led by Surjit Singh Barnala; and Akali Dal (Mann) led by former police officer Simranjit Singh Mann. Perhaps the real test for the SAD and SGPC is yet to come, as Sikhs living outside Punjab, constantly growing in numbers and financial strength, seek to articulate a notion of Sikh political sovereignty, derived from the dual sources of Sikhism's supreme authority: Guru Granth Sahib and the lived experience of its Khalsa Panth.

Arvind-Pal S. Mandair

See alsoGandhi, Indira ; Sikhism ; Singh, Maharaja Ranjit


Grewal, J. S. A Short History of the Akalis. Chandigarh: Punjab Studies Publications, 1996.

McLeod, W. H. Sikhism. London: Penguin, 1997.

Singh, Major Gurmukh. "Akali Dal, Shiromani." In The Encyclopedia of Sikhism, vol. 1, edited by Harbans Singh, Patiala: Punjabi University, 1995.

Singh, Mohinder. The Akali Movement. Delhi: Macmillan, 1978.