Significance of the role of Akal Takht
Dr Kirpal Singh
The Akal Takht was built by Guru Hargobind, the master of Miri and Piri in 1609 A.D. It is situated in front of Darbar Sahib which is the seat of spirituality. Akal Takht was considered the highest seat of temporal authority. During the 18th century when there was a period of struggle, it symbolised unity and solidarity of the Sikhs. It gained a lot of political importance in the eyes of contemporaries. Non-Sikh especially Persian writers began to call it Akal Bunga like other Bungas surrounding it. Bunga is Persian word meaning a building. During the period of turmoil after the demise of the tenth Guru, when Guru Granth had been invested with Guruship, Akal Takht was developed as the highest seat of Panth’s political authority. It, therefore, played a significant role in the annals of Sikhs during 18th century.
After the martyrdom of Banda Singh Bahadur in 1716 A.D. there was a wave of repression of Sikhs. Bahadur Shah, the Mughal emperor had already issued orders of extermination of the Sikhs.1 Banda Singh Bahadur alongwith his seven hundred companions had been martyred to terrorise the Sikhs.2 Most of the Sikhs had gone to the forests, mountains or deserts of Bikaner. In some small pockets in Bari Doab Sikhs were staying. One such pocket was at village Van3 where Tara Singh lived. Another was. Marhi Kambo where Mehtab Singh lived. These pockets were subsequently liquidated by the government.1 Under these circumstances the farsighted Sikhs and Mata Sundari, the revered spouse of Guru Gobind Singh sent Bhai Mani Singh to Darbar Sahib, Amritsar to organise the Sikhs.
After reaching Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, Bhai Mani Singh made great efforts to revive the fairs of Baisakhi and Diwali. In this effort he had to sacrifice his life. He was, however, successful in showing the Sikhs that Akal Takht was the rallying point where Sikhs could hold their deliberations on the occasion of Diwali and Baisakhi.
During these fairs Khalsa held their Assembly at Akal Takht which was conducted by the most prominent persons of the time. Deliberations regarding the welfare of the community were held at Akal Takht.
During the 18th century, Akal Takht gained much importance because all the important political, military and religious decisions of the Khalsa were made in the assemblies at Akal Takht. It was here that Nawab Kapoor Singh was given Jagir with the title of Nawab by Zakaria Khan, the Governor of Punjab (1726-1765AD). It was here that Budha Dal and Taruna Dal were organised to fight against the excesses of the Mughal government. Again, it was here in 1748 that Dal Khalsa was organised and Jassa Singh Ahluwalia was made the Commander of Dal Khalsa.4 It was a very significant decision as it unified the warring bands of the Sikhs. This unified command gave an added strength to the Khalsa.
The political discussion and military strategy to fight Ahmad Shah Abdali were evolved in these assemblies. That is why, Ahmad Shah Abdali and his generals repeatedly tried to destroy this sacred place of the Sikhs. Darbar Sahib and Akal Takht were destroyed twice by the Afghans in 1757 and 1762. In 1757 Baba Deep Singh fell alongwith his fearless companions while fighting Ahmad Shah Abdali’s general Jehan Khan. This battle has been described by Tahmas Khan in his Tahmas Nama.5 Second time it was destroyed by Ahmed Shah Abdali in Feb. 1762 AD after great carnage of Sikhs at village Kup district Sangrur.6 Destruction of Darbar Sahib and Akal Takht could not dampen the spirit of the Sikhs to fight against Ahmad Shah Abdali. Qazi Noor Mohammad who called the Sikhs ‘dogs’ has beautifully described how thirty Sikhs came out of Akal Takht and fought most valiantly against the large forces of Afghans and were cut to piece one by one. Qazi Noor Mohammad writes they were fearless :
“When the Shah arrived at the Chak there was not a single Kafir to be seen. But a few of them had remained in an enclosure and they sacrificed their lives for the Guru. When they saw the renowned king and the army of Islam they came out of the enclosure. They were only thirty in number. But they had not a grain of fear about them. Thus, they grappled with the Ghazis .... All accursed Sikhs were killed.”7
(Jang Namah Qazi Noor Mohammed, pages 35)
During the middle of the 18th century there had been quarduple struggle for the domination of Punjab viz Mughals, Marathas, Afghans and Sikhs. The Sikhs who were considered the weakest were fighting under the guidance of Akal Takht Assembly. The Marathas captured power from the weak Mughal Emperor Shah Alam and subseqently they were defeated by Afghan Emperor Ahmad Shah Abdali in the thrid battle of Panipat in Jan. 1761 A.D.8 Now Sikhs had to face Ahmed Shah Abdali who wanted to annex Punjab to Kabul kingdom. Under one collective leadership of Assembly of Akal Takht, Sikhs successfully fought against Ahmed Shah Abdali and exhausted him by guerrila war. This led to the rise of Sikh Misals. Misals’ rule was scattered at distant places. But they were controlled and guided by Assembly at the Akal Takht.
Akal Takht Assembly as Central Government of the Sikhs
When the Misals gained power, they conquered territory in distant areas in Punjab and used to get them recorded at Akal Takht. All the mutual quarrels and differences were resolved on the occasion of Diwali and Baisakhi when Khalsa used to assemble at Akal Takht. So much so, this Assembly has been described as Central Government of the Sikhs because different Misaldars had been ruling at different places but they were working under the direction of Assembly at Akal Takht. Akal Takht became the rising symbol of the political power of the Sikhs. The Assembly at Akal Takht has been described in 1783 A.D. by a contemporary English man George Forester who was a traveller in 1783 A.D. as under :
“The grand convention, called in their language Goorimotta, was that in which the army met to transact the more important affairs of the nation; as the declaration of war or peace, forming alliances, and detaching parties on the service of the year. The amount of the contributions levied on the public account was reported to this assembly, and divided among the chiefs, proportionately to the number of their troops. They were at the same time obliged to distribute a certain share of this property to their soldiers, who, on any cause of dissatisfaction, made no hesitation in getting their service, and following a more popular leader. Subordinate officers were established for registering the political correspondence of the state, and for providing war-like stores; and the administration of ecclesiastical affairs was entrusted to a certain society of religious, composed chiefly of the descendants of their original priests, but they did not possess any influence in the temporal regulation of the state.”9
During the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, there were several mints in the Kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. But Amritsar mint specially mentioned Akal Takht as symbol of authority.10
Akal Takht during British Period
In the earlier phase of the British rule all the Gurdwaras of Amritsar including Darbar Sahib were under the Sarbrah who was appointed by the British Government. The Udasis and Pujaris used to work for the maintenance of the Gurdwaras. When the political awakening came among the Sikhs, these Gurdwaras were brought under public control.
For the political reasons the British government wanted to continue its control over the Gurdwaras as is clear from a private letter of R E Egerton Lt. Governor of Punjab dated August 8, 1881 which I discovered from the British Museum in 1964- “I think it will be politically dangerous to allow the management of Sikh temples to fall into the hands of a Committee emancipated from government control and I trust your excellency will assist to pass such orders in the case as will enable to continue the system which has worked successfully for more than thirty years.
The British government knew the potentials of the Akal Takht so it was made subordinate to the SGPC, Amritsar. The practice of appointment of the Jathedars of Akal Takht was started recently. Jathedars acted according to the wishes of the Executive Committee of the SGPC Amritsar. SGPC Amritsar was considered the Parliament of the Sikhs as all the Sikhs in Punjab had been represented in it. The Jathedar of Akal Takht was its spokesman with regard to the Sikh religious affairs.
Erosion and misuse of the Authority of Akal Takht
In the modern time the authority of Akal Takht has been grossly misused. The heroes of Kamagata Maru were declared to be non-Sikhs. General Dyar was given siropa when he visited Golden Temple after the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in 1919.
After Independence the authority of Akal Takht which was considered supreme has been eroded. Shromani Akali Dal which is a product of Gurdwara Reform Movement itself is responsible for this decline. During the Misl period Misals had mutual quarrels and conflicts. But Akal Takht was considered supreme and nobody used Akal Takht’s authority in one’s own favour. Ahluwalia and Ramgarhia Misals were at logger heads. Bhangis and Ahluwalia Misals did not see eye to eye; but Akal Takht was never involved in the internal matters. Unfortunately in the recent times the major factions of Akali Dal having control over Akal Takht used its authority to suit their political ends. This has resulted in the erosion of the authority of Akal Takht. Its Hukamnamas have been flouted. Its remedy is that Akal Takht should be kept above party politics and it should not be involved or used or misused for ones own party. Following measures may be adopted to restore it authority.
1. Suitable procedure should be adopted for the issue of Hukamnamah and should not depend on the whims of a person.
2. Akal Takht should be exclusively devoted to religious affairs and it should not dabble in politics.
The scenario of Sikhs however, has changed tremendously. The Sikhs have scattered throughout India and large number of Sikhs migrated to different countries like England, USA and Canada. Now, with the advancement of education and political awakening, the Sikhs living abroad rightly raised their voice in the management of the most sacred places in Amritsar. Sikhs are living in different countries and they follow the politics of their respective countries. They can only be united on the basis of religion. Akal Takht being the significant institution, has been and can be unifying factor of Sikhs. Sikhs are divided in various states in India and abroad. They cannot follow one political policy or programme. They have to act according to the local circumstances of their respective states. For their religious sentiments they look towards Darbar Sahib and Akal Takht. It will be appropriate if Akal Takht is accepted supreme in the religious affairs among the Sikhs. But it can only be possible if SGPC agrees to such an arrangement. The appointment of Jathedar is made according to the wishes of entire Sikhs. The selection of jathedars of Akal Takht be made by such an electoral college where the Sikhs living in other countries get representation. At present Sikhs have no central authority whatsoever. The previous central authority has been eroded by following political circumstances :
1. Partition of Punjab in 1947 scattered the Sikhs in different states throughout India.
2. Sikh diaspora - Sikhs migrated in large number to different countries like US, UK, Canada, etc.
It is crying need of the time for the Panth to have some religious central authority so that the dignity of Akal Takht and integrity of Panth is maintained.
1. A Short History of the Sikhs, Teja Singh Ganda Singh, Orient Longman, 1952, page 96
2. Ibid pages 119, 127
3. Panth Parkash, Rattan Singh Bhangoo, Amritsar, 1939, pages 272-287
4. History of Sikhs, Hari Ram Gupta, Vol. II, New Delhi, 1978, p. 88.
5. Tahmas Namah, Tahmas Khan (tr) P. Setu Madhara Rao, Bombay, 1967, p. 61-62.
6. Maharaja Ala Singh of Patiala and His Time, Kirpal Singh, Amritsar 1954, p. 109
7. Jang Namah, Qazi Nur Mohammad, Amritsar 1939, page 35
8. Ibid, page 103
9. George Forsters Travels, Vol. I, Patiala 1970, p. 330
10. See Dr. Surinder Singhs paper entitled “Diwindling Status of Akal Takht”. published in this volume.
11. Sikh Itihas de Vishesh Pakh (Punjabi), Amritsar 1997, p. 128