The Tale Of A Tree: Saka Nankana Sahib – OpEd


Saka Nankana Sahib (The Nankana Massacre) occurred in Nankana Sahib gurdwara on February 20, 1921 now in modern-day Pakistan (than United/British India). Between 140 and 260 Sikhs were killed, including children as young as seven, by the Udasi Custodian Mahant Narayan Das and his mercenaries, in retaliation for a confrontation between him and members of the reformist Akali movement who accused him of both corruption and sexual impropriety. The saga constitutes the core of the Gurdwara Reform Movement started by the Sikhs in early twentieth century. The saka constitutes the core of the Gurdwara Reform Movement started by the Sikhs in early twentieth century.

Saka Nankana Sahib forms a very important part of Sikh history event which took place in February 1921 and is next only to Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919 in political significance. The interesting part of this saka (demonstration or agitation) is the unprecedented discipline, self-control and exemplary patience displayed by the peaceful Sikh protesters even in the face of extreme barbarism. Even the national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi had to acknowledge in no ambiguous terms the glory and the prestige which the peaceful and passive resistance of the Sikhs had brought to the India’s Struggle for freedom.

The Sikh faith was founded by Guru Nanak in the fifteenth century and his divine torch was carried on by nine gurus who followed in succession. The concepts of Sangat, Pangat, Dharamshala (an early word for Gurdwara) and Kirtan took firm roots during this period and became important constituents of Sikhism. Congregations in Gurdwaras had played crucial roles in the religious and social affairs of the early Sikhs. Later, they assumed wider dimensions by transforming into a religio-political organization. The peaceful and non-political budding Sikh brotherhood was transformed into a proud and fiercely martial nation through the baptismic process of Amrit-pan. After a long and continuous resistance of several decades against the tyrannies of Mughal rule, the brave Sikhs finally emerged victorious and succeeded in carving out 12 Khalsa principalities in Punjab which soon led to the creation of a unified Khalsa kingdom with Ranjit Singh at the helm.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh reconstructed the Gurdwaras earlier destroyed by the Moghuls and also raised many new ones at the sacred places connected with the Sikh Gurus. For the sustenance of the Mahants, Maharaja Ranjit Singh had attached handsome landed properties too many of these Gurdwaras. The earlier Mahants were devoted Sikhs and true missionaries who did a lot for the spread of Sikhism. As the times rolled by, the Gurdwara incomes swelled enormously and the enormous money corrupted and degenerated the later-time Mahants into loose lived individuals. They started treating the Gurdwara properties as if they were their personal fiefs. This changed the things for the Sikh Panth.

Gurdwara Nankana Sahib (managed by Mahant Narayan Das in the early 20th century) had a huge property of over 19000 acres (77 km²) of highly fertile land attached to it which yielded enormous income per year. Money-power made the Mahant corrupt and he started using the Gurdwara’s money for wrongful deeds. Mahant Narayan Das was a very dissolute and wicked person who also used Gurdwara premises for immoral and highly objectionable activities. He had kept a Muslim girl as his mistress and all kinds of imaginable debauchery were committed within the Gurdwara premises. Dance girls were brought to the Gurdwara and dances were held and obscene songs were sung within the holy premises. In 1917, he arranged a dance-show by a prostitute near the holy Gurdwara. In 1918, a retired A.A.C. officer paid a visit to the Gurdwara with his 13 years old daughter to offer prayers to the Guru. As the Rehraas was being read in the Gurdwara, a Pujari rogue was raping the minor girl in another room within the Gurdwara premises. When the father lodged a complaint with the Mahant to take action against the Pujari rogue, the Mahant simply ignored his request. In the same year, six young female devotees from Jaranwal village (Lyallpur) visited the Gurdawara on Puranmashi (full Moon) to pay their offerings at Gurdwara and they too were similarly raped.

All this went on before the very eyes of the Sikhs which had sent shock waves across Punjab. The issue was effectively raised in the The Akali (Punjabi), published from Lahore by Master Sunder Singh Lyallpuri (q.v.), a true patriot and the founder-father of the Akali Movement and Shiromani Akali Dal . Lyallpuri belonged to Bohoru village close to Nankana Sahib and he personally preached against the debauchery of the Mahant in the nearby villages and also continued to organize the Sikhs for a dynamic movement to bring reforms into the Gurdwaras.

Mahant, a very shrewd and cunning person tried to play politics. Publicly, he wanted to leave the impression that he was very peace-loving person and anxious to settle the issues with the Panth. On February 14, Mahant held a secret meeting with his associates to chalk out a secret plan to kill the Sikh leaders on March 5 at Nankana Sahib. Mahant recruited 400 hooligans including fierce Pathans paid at twenty Indian rupees per month to oppose the Sikhs. With government’s help, Mahant also collected guns, pistols and other arms and ammunition. He also arranged and stored fourteen tins of paraffin and further got the Gurdwara gate strengthened and the holes made in it so that he could use them for firing bullets at the Sikhs.

Mahant Narayan Das had the full backing from the Mahants of other Gurdwaras in Punjab. The Bedi Jagirdars who had received Jagirs from the English Government by virtue of their past connections with Guru Nanak also supported the Mahant. Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia also maintained double standards. But Maharaja of Patiala flatly refused to back Mahant and offered him a healthy advice not to rebel against the Panth. He further advised the Mahant to create a committee of prominent Sikhs and hand over the Gurdwara charge to them. But Mahant ignored the well-intentioned advice of Patiala Royal house. The Shiromani Committee extended invitation to Mahant for talks at Gurdwara Khara Sauda to resolve the issue but he did not show up at the given time. Then he offered to hold talks with the Sikh leaders in Sheikhupura on February 15, 1921, but again he failed to show up. Third time he promised to meet the Shiromani Committee leaders at the residence of Sardar Amar Singh Lyall Gazette on February 16, but once again he failed to turn up.

There was a growing demand in Sikhism that the traditional hereditary custodians hand over their control of the gurdwaras to democratically elected committees. In October 1920, a congregation was held at Dharowal in Sheikhupura for reform in Gurdwara Nankana Sahib. The misdeeds committed within Gurdwara by Mahant were revealed to the Sangat. There was a growing demand in Sikhism that the traditional hereditary custodians hand over their control of the gurdwaras to democratically elected committees. As part of that movement, the Shiromani Committee decided of its own to meet the Mahant on 3 March 1921 to advise him to hand over the charge of gurdwara Nankana Sahib to the committee. On January 24, Shiromani Committee held a general meeting and took decision to hold a Dewan in Nankana Sahib on March 4, 5 and 6 and advise Mahant to mend his ways. But the Committee got the information from its own intelligence that Mahant was planning to invite the Sikh leaders at Nanakana Sahib and have them killed from hired gundas. This greatly angered Kartar Singh Jhabber and others. A meeting of the Sikh leaders was called at Gurdwara Khara Sauda on 16, 1921 to chalk out the future course of action. It was decided that Sangat would go in Jathas (squads) and take charge of the Gurdwara. Sikh leaders learnt that Mahant was going to Lahore on 20th of February 1921. Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabbar and Bhai Lachaman Singh Dharowal decided to take their jathas to Nanakana Sahib on 20th February. Having known his wicked plan, they decided to take charge of Gurdwara in his absence.

On the evening of February 19, 1921, Bhai Lachaman Singh Dharowali (Jat Sikh) reached Nizam Deva Singhwala with his jatha of 8 Singhs (6 males and two females). At Nizam Deva Singh wala, Jathedar Tehal Singh (Kamboj Sikh) had already arranged a Jatha of about 150 Singhs, majority of them belonging to the Kamboj community. All these Singhs came from nearby Kamboj villages of Nizampur Moola Singh wala, Nizampur Chelewala, Dalla Chand Singh, Bohoru, Thothian and Nizam Deva Singh wala etc, all falling in District Sheikhupura (now Pakistan).

The combined Jatha took a Hukamnama and started for the Gurdwara at about 10 PM on that night so as to reach there by early morning at Amrit vela (nectral hours). On the way 50 more Sikhs joined the Shaheedi Jatha and total number swelled to about 200. At Chanderkot Jhal, Jathedar Lachhman Singh decided to wait for Kartar Singh Jhabber and his Jatha but in vain. Finally Jathedar Dharowal decided to cancel the plan for further march to Nankana Sahib. But at this very moment, Jathedar Tehal Singh came forward and harangued the Shaheedi Jatha not to vacillate even for a moment from forward march since “the prayers having already been made and the action plan having already been decided with Guru’s word, it is now imperative to move forward”. He further advised that “all the members shall keep cool even under extreme provocations”.

From here-onwards, Jathedar Tehal Singh took over the supreme command of the Shaheedi Jatha and resumed the march to Nankana. By almost at Amrit vela, the Shaheedi Jatha reached the Railway-crossing near Nankana Sahib. Some of the Jatha members raced towards Darshani Deori to take possession of the Gurdawara, but at this very moment, Chaudhury Paul Singh Lyallpuri showed up with the latest decision of Shiromani Committee advising to postpone the action for taking possession of the Gurdwara. Having conveyed the information, Bhai Paul Singh grabbed Jathedar Lachhman Singh from his waist behind and persuaded him not to proceed further.

Once again, brave Jathedar Tehal Singh took the initiative and shaking Chaudhury Paul Singh forcefully off from the person of Jathedar Lachhman Singh. He once more challenged the Shaheedi Jatha to get ready for the sublime action. He once again harangued: “Khalsa ji, the time is not to stop now, but to act. We have come here to achieve martyrdom under Guru’s word. This is very un-Sikh-like to back out from one’s commitment at the last moment” Saying this, Jathedar Tehal Singh walked with the Jatha towards the Gurdwara. Bhai Lachhman Singh and others repeatedly requested him to relent, but the Singh Surma stuck to his Ardas.

Enthused by the speech of Jathedar Tehal Singh, the entire Shaheedi Jatha followed him. By this time, another horseman messenger, Bhai Ram Singh, arrived. Vain fully, he too try to persuade Jathedar Tehal Singh and the Jatha to return. The Jatha soon entered Darshni Deohri of the Gurdwara and shut the main door from inside. While some of the devotees took their seats inside the Prakash Asthan, others sat on the platform and the Baran dari. Bhai Lachhman Singh Dharowali sat on Guru’s tabia. Mahant Narayan Das came to know of the situation through the Jaikaras (victory slogans) of the Shaheedi Jatha. At first, he was utterly shocked thinking that the game was over but he soon recovered and ordered his hired gundas to kill all the Sikhs in the Jatha. They fired bullets at the Sangat in Gurdwara hall. Several bullets pierced through Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The hired gundas wielded swords, spears, hatchets and other lethal weapons to mercilessly slaughter the peaceful, unarmed and unprovocative Sikhs within the very premises of the Gurdwara. The dead and dying Singhs were then dragged to a pile of logs which had been collected earlier and consigned to flame. By the time the police and local Sikhs came on the scene, all the dead men had been consumed by the fire. Bhai Lachhman Singh Dharowali who was wounded with a gunshot was tied to a Jand tree and burnt alive. It was butchery at its worst form.

On the 22nd/ 23rd February, the bodies were cremated according to Sikh tradition. Charred, mutilated bodies were collected and torn limbs and pieces of flesh picked from wherever they lay in the blood stained chambers. A huge funeral pyre was erected. Bhai Jodh Singh, in a measured oration, advised the Sikhs to remain cool and patient and endure the calamity with the fortitude with which their ancestors had faced similar situations. The Sikhs, he said, had cleansed by their blood the holy precincts so long exposed to the impious influence of a corrupt regime.

The news spread like wild fire and the Sikhs from every part of Punjab started their march towards Nankana Sahib. Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabber reached next day with 2200 Singhs armed with shastras (arms). Fearing more trouble, Mr King, Commissioner Lahore, handed over the keys of Nankana Sahib to Shiromani Committee and arrested Mahant Narayan Das and his hired gundas including Pathans and charged them with murder, but only Mahant Narayan das and a couple of Pathans got the death sentences for this heinous crime for over 86 barbaric murders. Mahant along with 20 Pathans and other of his group were sentenced by British. Only Mahant and couple of Pathans got death sentence for this crime of more than 50 murders. (The High Court on 3 march 1922 delivering its judgment on Narain Das’s appeal, reduced his sentence to life imprisonment.) 

There are different versions on number of fatalities in this holocaust. Some writers put the death figures at 120, 150 or even 200. The government reports placed the death figures at 126. Police inspector Bachan Singh had put the number at 156. The report by Nankana Sahib Committee published in Shaheedi Jeewan however, placed the deaths at 86 and also listed the strength of the Shaheedi Jatha at 200. It seems that, besides Shaheedi Jatha Singhs, many non-participant devotees and others staying within Gurdwara also fell victims to Mahant’s barbarism. In this tragedy a total of 86 Sikhs achieved martyrdom which included the Jat, Kamboj; Khatri; Kumhar and Majhabi Sikhs. But the lion’s share was achieved by the Kamboj community. According to Giani Partap Singh, out of a total figure of 86 Sikh Shaheeds of Nankana saka, the Kamboj community alone shared 31.

News of the Nankana Sahib massacre shocked the country. An urdu newspaper ‘Zamindara’ wrote in its editorial of 23 February 1921, “what more proof of shamelessness of muslims is required than that they have helped the Mahant. O, Shameless Muslims, isn’t the cup of your shamelessness and impudence full as yet? You used your guns and swords against those who went to Nankana Sahib to perform religious duties. You are not fit to be called Muslims. You are worse than infidels.”

Sir Edward Maclagan, Governor of the Punjab, visited the site on 22nd February. Mahatma Gandhi, along with Muslim leaders Shaukat ‘Ali and Muhammad ‘Ali, came on 3rd March 1921. Princess Bamba Duleep Singh, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, came accompanied by Sir Jogendra Singh, to offer her homage to the memory of the martyrs.

Addressing the gathering, Mahatama said: “I have come to share your anguish and grief. It is interesting indeed to note that the Sikhs in this drama remained peaceful and non-violent from the start to the end. This (the behaviour of the Sikhs) has greatly added to the glory and prestige of India…” All indications point to the fact that the cruel and barbaric action is the second edition of Jallianwala Bagh massacre; rather more evil and more invidious than even Jallianwala”. The Mahatama further spoke: “the action of these dimensions could not be perpetrated by Mahant alone. The government officers are also involved in this heinous crime. Where had the authorities gone when the Mahant was making preparations for murderous plans?” The supreme sacrifices made by these Sikhs Shaheeds have been gratefully acknowledged by the Sikhs. From that day onwards, the Sikh nation remembers these brave Sikhs in their Daily Ardas (prayer). Every year on 21st February at this Shaheedi AsthanGuru Granth Sahib’s Swaroop with Bullet marks is brought to Deewan (assembly) from 2pm to 4pm for darshan of the Sikh Sangat.

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth is Founder–Director of Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *