Sikh shrines have played a vital role in shaping the course of events of the 550-year-old history of the Sikhs and in the development of the Sikh religious tradition. Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, established the twin institutions of sangat and pangat where all could partake of food from the Guru’s kitchen, sitting in one line without any distinction of caste and class. Earlier, these gurdwaras were managed by pious men, who following the advice of Guru Nanak did not look upon offerings as their personal property.
With the rise of the Sikhs to political power in the 19th century, historic gurdwaras were endowed with land grants. After the fall of the Sikh kingdom in 1849, Punjab came under British control and the Sikh community’s hold over the mahants weakened. With the sudden increase in the income of the mahants, there came a change in their lifestyle — a shift from piety to indulgence in pleasures.
Realising the influence that the gurdwaras had in the daily life of the Sikhs, British rulers tried to establish indirect control over them by supporting the corrupt mahants, who, in turn, used these historic places to legitimise the British rule. When the country was busy condemning the killing of innocent Indians by General Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh, Arur Singh, manager of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, invited the General to the temple and tried to whitewash his bloodstains by honouring him with a siropa and declaring him a ‘Sikh’.
Nankana, being the birthplace of Guru Nanak, occupies the most important position among the Sikh shrines. During early decades of the 20th century, the gurdwara of Janam Asthan came to be controlled by Mahant Narain Das, who was leading an immoral life.
Bhai Lachhman Singh Dharowali, who had played a prominent role in the liberation of gurdwaras in Tarn Taran and other places, decided to take the initiative of liberating Nankana Sahib by leading a jatha from his village, which reached Nankana Sahib on the morning of February 20, 1921.
Unaware of the mahant’s intentions, he entered the gurdwara with members of the jatha and thus fell into the trap laid by Narain Das, who had hired nearly 400 mercenaries, including notorious criminals like Ranjha and Rehana, armed with lethal weapons. According to an eyewitness account, on hearing the news of the arrival of the jatha, the mahant exhorted his men to action. Without any provocation, they started firing and, in the process, Bhai Lachhman Singh received a volley of bullets while trying to protect the holy Granth. The mahant took the extreme step of dragging him from his hair and after chopping off his arms, smashed his head on the ground. Similar treatment was given to the other members of the jatha. In order to obliterate all traces of the killed, the mahant’s men burnt the bodies. A few members of the jatha, who had taken shelter inside the rooms, were dragged out, tied to the jand tree and burnt by pouring kerosene. The historic tree, burnt from one side yet still green from the other, is a mute witness to the cold-blooded murder of innocent men, women and children.
The Public Prosecutor confirmed that “the mahant tried to obliterate all traces of the killed by burning the corpses”. Lord Reading, the Viceroy of lndia, in his report to the Secretary of State for India, also referred to the attempt to burn all the bodies.
On learning about the tragedy, Bhai Uttam Singh, a local factory owner, informed the higher authorities and also sent urgent telegrams to the Akali leaders. The Deputy Commissioner reached Nankana Sahib around noon. In the meantime, prominent Akali leaders also arrived. On noticing that the Akali leaders were greatly agitated over the inaction of the authorities in protecting the peaceful jatha, Mahant Narain Das and his henchmen were arrested and sent to Central Jail, Lahore, and the keys of the gurdwara were handed over to the Akali leaders.
The tragedy greatly perturbed the Sikhs in different parts of the country who sent messages of sympathy for the Akali martyrs. Mahatma Gandhi visited Nankana on March 3, 1921. While condemning the cruel deed of the mahant, he described the martyrdom of the Akali reformers as an ‘act of national bravery’.
With the help of volunteers who had also joined the Akali leadership in Nankana, mass cremation of the martyrs was performed. Prof Ruchi Ram Sahni, a trustee of The Tribune and author of ‘Struggle for Reform in Sikh Shrines’, mentions a touching incident when a very old woman talked to Sir Edward Maclagan, the Governor of Punjab, and said, “My child, my four sons and a grandson have been massacred. I request you for justice.” Uttering these words, the old lady fell down senseless.
According to Khalsa Samachar, a young woman with prayers on her lips and tears trickling down her cheeks was complaining why her brothers had not allowed her to attain martyrdom just like them.
Bhai Jodh Singh, a respected Sikh scholar, who offered ardas for the martyrs, exhorted the Sikhs “to bear the suffering like their forefathers as a sacrifice without a reproach or curse”, and mentioned that the crime committed in the holy shrine required a flood of innocent blood to be washed away. In their daily prayer, the Sikhs the world over remember the sacrifice of the martyrs of Nankana Sahib which led to the liberation of historic Sikh shrines from the control of mahants and provided democratic management of the historic gurdwaras.
— The writer is Director, National Institute of Panjab Studies, New Delhi