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Gur Panth Parkash

Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Translated by
Prof Kulwant Singh

 

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THE AKALI MOVEMENT

Ruchi Ram Sahni

The Organization and Administration of the S.G.P.C.
Having watched the whole movement at close quarters and enjoying, as I did, the intimate confidences of the leaders for a considerable time, I must say a few words here about the organization and day to day administrations of the Shromoni Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C) which was the recognized machinery for guiding and controlling the activities of the whole Akali movement with its ramification all over the province.

The offices of the S.G.P.C. were in those early days located in a small humble two-storeyed building at one corner of Guru Ka Bazar, close to the Golden Temple. The seven or eight men who were chiefly concerned with the conduct of the day to day and hour to hour business of the organization and who held in their hands the reins of the whole movement lived on the spot. As a matter of fact, they lived nowhere in particular. They were to be found wherever their immediate duties carried them, within the town itself or out of it. As a rule during the day and the greater part of the night they were on their legs returning now and again to the “office” to give instructions to the men who were to be sent out on various errands, sometimes, to distant parts of the province. The “office” was the one place where they were sure to be found if they were in town. No body knew and no body could ask one of them what he was about at a particular moment. They formed a compact, well-organized “War Council” and, in fact, that was exactly the word that was frequently used about them.

At night they slept together in one fair-sized room about fourteen feet by fourteen feet. They all lay stretched pell-mell on the floor covered with a thin durree with a celling fan overhead.1  The “War Council” went on practically for the greater part of the night. The general meeting of the “Council” was held about at 11 or 12 p.m. No particular hour was fixed, but as soon as all or most of the principal men were present, they would squat together in one part of the room to exchange notes and discuss the business of the day or, may be, some important change in the programme for the future.

I should mention here that, in those days, S. Teja Singh Samundri was the President of the organization. I have not had occasion to watch the working of the Akali machine at such close quarters when S.B. Mehtab Singh, S. Kharak Singh or one of the other leaders was in power. But what I saw of it during the month or more of the Guru-Ka-Bagh struggle, when I was privileged to be practically one of them, was enough to give me more than a peep into the smooth and orderly running of the whole minute to minute administration which filled me with no small admiration for those at the helm of affairs. In particular I can honestly say that I find it difficult to convey to the reader anything like an adequate idea of the wonderful personality of the President, his calm and unruffled temper in the midst of a tumultuous sea of troubles, of insistent demands from various quarters and not infrequently uncomfortable information about what the high-placed and all-powerful authorities at Amritsar and Simla had done or were contemplating to carry out, his remarkable resourcefulness and the light hearted manner in which he would habitually speak of things that would have frightened many other leaders almost to despair; these and other things that one noticed from hour to hour filled every body with infinite confidence in the man under whose command they were working. Tall, wiry, with no pomp or show, or hurry about him, one could easily mistake him for a man of no particular importance. And yet when the occasion required, even in the midst of a vast crowd he would pull himself up erect and asserting his presence, there he would give the word of command in the full assurance that it would be implicitly obeyed. On such occasions and even when he was approached by small groups of men with complaints and questions, he would generally address them familiarly as chhors (boys).  I never heard him speak in any language but the simplest colloquial Punjabi as one hears in the countryside in the province. I do not think he could make a ten minute speech in urdu and certainly not at all in English with which he had only a nodding acquaintance. I do not think he could clearly follow a speech in the English language. All his own correspondence was carried on the Gurmukhi. I believe he had some system of obtaining correct and prompt information from official sources. On a few occasions within my knowledge this information proved to be of very great use to the Committee. I have also reason to believe that the Committee had a secret code of their own. This code was in my possession for a time, but I never attempted to look at it.

One interesting incident illustrating the importance of the secret information department of the Akalis may here be mentioned. Once, a report came to the S.G.P.C. that the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar had received information from his own sources that the Akalis who had always been present in large numbers — sometimes as many as two three thousands being available-to be sent to Guru-Ka-Bagh in batches of 100 a day had, for one reason or another, become dissatisfied with the movement and were therefore dispersing to their homes. Tired of the never ending struggle with the obstinate Akalis, the Government was at this time thinking of approaching the S.G.P.C. for a settlement and were for this purpose prepared to go a long way towards meeting the demands of the leaders. On receipt of this information, however, the authorities, at Simla, which meant practically Sir John Maynard, sent immediate instructions that no approach should be made to the Akalis since dissensions had broken out amongst them and the movement was fizzling out. Such at least was the report that was received at the office of the S.G.P.C. The President got confirmatory information to the effect. As I have already explained the S.G.P.C. had system of espionage of their own and they believed that they were in possession of all the important information that was reaching the Government and upon which the Government was basing its own decisions.

Anyway, on receipt of this information, the President himself got up in an excited manner, (a rather unusual thing with him), and told his principal co-workers that he would be absent from the station for two or three days at least. To my knowledge he did not explain at the moment why he was leaving Amritsar so abruptly and on what mission. It is possible that he may have mentioned it to one or two members of the Council of Action. But certainly most of them did not know or did not like to tell me why Teja Singh Samundri had left Amritsar at a time when his presence was most needed. Of course, we all came to know of the whole truth of the matter after his return.

The fact was that  on account of the near approach of the Guru-Purb (Guru Nanak’s birthday festival) at Nankana Sahib, a couple of thousand of Akalis who were then present at Amritsar begged the S.G.P.C. to allow them to go home and take their families to Nankana Sahib to join the festival there. They promised to return as soon as the function was over. The S.G.P.C. kept about five hundred men at Amritsar and allowed the rest of them to absent themselves for a few days. Teja Singh Samundri wanted to show to the authorities that far from having lost their control over the rank and file of the Akalis, their hold on their allegiance was unbounded. From Amritsar, therefore, Teja Singh went straight to Nanakana Sahib and as soon as the festival was over returned with some ten thousand Akalis bubbling with enthusiasm to take part in a great demonstration at Amritsar and thus show to the authorities that the S.G.P.C. was still the master of the situation and commanded an unlimited supply of men and even women to take part in the jathas for the Guru ka bagh morcha. The demonstration had its effect upon the Government, and it was from this moment that the situation began to improve, the Government being once for all convinced that the hold of the S.G.P.C. continued unabated and that they could command, if need be, many thousands of men to come forward for service in connection with the morcha. The credit for this sudden turn of events was given by everybody to that remarkable man, S.Teja Singh Samundri, who had with the ungrudging help and support of many other equally determined leaders organized the whole of the Guru-ka-bagh struggle. I have not words enough to describe my admiration for the calm, cool, but determined manner in which he conducted the complicated organization of the S.G.P.C. in its various branches to a successful issue. In spite of his literary deficiencies, Teja Singh was a remarkable man, one among tens of thousands of men, who was born as an organizer and leader of men and movements. More than this I consider it quite unnecessary to say.2

Religious Propaganda and Recruitment of Akali Jathas.
The most essential part of the activities to which the S.G.P.C. devoted their special attention was the holding of religious Diwans in all parts of the province. Small tracts consisting mostly of selection form the Sikh scriptures were printed and sold by tens of thousands for private daily recitations. Care was taken that these tracts (gutkas) be offered to the public at an exceeding low price so that they may be available with in the means of the poorest members of the community. It need not be pointed out here that the standard of literacy is much higher among the Sikhs than either Hindus or Mohammedans, the proportion of literates among women being particularly high. The professional singers were specially in evidence at religious Diwans and very frequently the Diwans were held because some famous group of professional singers had offered their services to the Akali organizer. It must be added, however, that the itinerant singing parties had now become more active because they discovered that they met with greater appreciation for their performances. The local S.G.P.C. leaders were generally present at the Diwans but on special occasions some of the topmost leaders were also invited.3 

Incidently, these Diwans became important centres for the recruitment of men for the Akali struggle for the control of the Gurdwara and, generally, for the revival of the Sikh faith on puritanic lines. It was in the spirit of the causaders that the men enlisted themselves. When the time came, and army of volunteers arose, nobody knew from where, to carry on the work of enlistment. The volunteers went about the country and held Diwans in the remotest parts of the province. In spite of my inquiries I was not able to discover if any of the volunteers were in the regular pay of the  S.G.P.C. On coming to know from the lips of the leaders that jathas were being formed fro service in connection with a particular duty, those that were moved by the appeals would offer themselves there and then but, more frequently, the work of recruitment was left to the volunteers.

Information and Publicity Bureau of the SGPC
Certainly, the most remarkable department of the publicity bureau was the small office directly attached to the Council of Action from which the S.G.P.C. communiqués were issued. As a rule, at least one communiqué was issued every morning. Sometimes even two or more. So, long as he was free, S. Bhag Singh B .A. LL.B. was incharge of this important and delicate business.  During the Guru ka Bagh Morcha he would regularly appear in the Council of Action room at about midnight and show his draft to the particular leaders to whose special charge the various items belonged.  It is worth mentioning here that Prof Teja Singh and next to him Bawa Harkishan Singh of the Khalsa College at Amritsar had a considerable hand in the preparation of the drafts of the communiqués.  For some time Prof Teja Singh was solely in charge of the publicity department of the SGPC.

Occasionally, when a particularly difficult or dangerous point was to be dealt with, Sumandri could also be shaken out of his deep slumber on the hard floor.  It may be that now and again the draft had to be submitted to the whole Council before it was considered to be ready for publication.  A confidential staff was present in an adjoining room to prepare the required number of cyclostyled copies of the communiques, and as soon as they were ready, they were sent out to their destination.  The list of addresses consisted of all the important nationalist papers in India, certain Sikh and other gentlemen sympathetic to the Gurdwara Reform movement and certain prominent bodies in the country.  It must be pointed out here that on certain occasions when it was feared that the copies of a particular communiques may be seized by the authorities and forfeited, a certain number of copies meant for particular individuals were posted from some outside station.  Reliable sewadars were also always ready to be sent out at a moment’s notice with copies of communiques which they were instructed to post from distant places.  They were, of course, directed to be on the look-out for police detectives who might be shadowing them.
 
Besides the important items of news about the movement itself, the communiques often referred to official orders or other information which they considered it necessary to challenge.  The communiques contained the Committee’s own version of the facts and opinions as set out in the official announcements.  No other political organisation, so far as I know - not even the Indian National Congress was ever so prompt and efficient in carrying out this part of their propaganda as the Akali Bureau.  The reason for it was obvious.  The Akalis were openly engaged in a real war, and every member of the organisation was deeply conscious of being on active service day and night and lived and worked on the danger line.  I have not known any other political body so directly and fearlessly challenging and counteracting official statements, orders and direction as some of the SGPC communiques did.  On the other side, the official administrative machine was also never so alert, active and thorough in dealing with any community as with the “dangerous Akali eruption”. Above everything else, they knew that if the menace to their prestige was not suppressed in time, the stability of their whole administration might be undermined.  Sir Michael O’Dwyer, and following him other high officials, often declared that with the Sikhs there was very little interval between thought and action.  Besides they could not understand why the Akalis had been led so suddenly and completely to change their places - from faithful and devoted friends they had become sworn enemies - and they were determined either to suppress them altogether or, if possible, to win them back to their old allegiance and friendship.  Officials would sometime remind their Sikh friends of the danger the community ran of being reduced to the condition of landless and homeless labourers as the Poorbias after the Great Mutiny.  The very comparison showed what a serious view the authorities took of the Akali defection.

Newspaper Propaganda of the Akali Movement
Conscious of the importance of journalistic propaganda, the SGPC took great pains in organizing this department of their Publicity Bureau through their own daily journal in the English, Urdu and Panjabi language.  As they had no English daily newspaper under their own control, on the 27th August 1923, they acquired an interest in the Nation,4 then published at Lahore.  The Nation had started some years earlier and had by this time a circulation of about five thousand copies a day.  After some of the leading members of the SGPC had joined the Company that owned the Nation. S.B. Mehtab Singh, Bawa Harkishen Singh, S Mangal Singh, S Teja Singh Sumandri, Giani Sher Singh, S Bhag Singh, all prominent members of the SGPC became Directors or Managers of the paper.  The Nation now also began to have a Dummy Editor after the fashion of some of the Russian revolutionary journals.  A youngman of the name of S Gurdit Singh became the first “Dummy” Editor.  These dummy editors were popularly know as “jail editors”.

The SGPC, owned and controlled three vernacular Dailies.  The Akali Te Pardesi (daily Gurmukhi paper) was published at Lahore.  It was the chief paper of the SGPC with a circulation of about seven thousand copies.  The well-known Akali leader S Hari Singh of Jullundur, was the printer, editor and publisher, while Master Tara Singh was the joint editor.  As the organ of the SGPC it vigorously supported the cause of that body and, as such, was constantly appealing to its Sikh readers to help the Jaito Morcha which was then agitating the whole community in every possible way even to the extent of joining the struggle.  On the Nabha Day (9th September 1923), this paper came out as a single leaf issue with the streamer “Jaito Morch: Sikhs reach the Morcha”, running across the whole of the front page.

The Urdu daily paper was known as the Akali.  It was under the same management and control as the Gurmukhi paper, it had a circulation of about five thousand copies and was published at Amritsar. Several Sikh leaders were directly connected with the paper as contributors, managers, etc.  As has already been remarked, the SGPC attached great importance to the propaganda side of its activities and therefore they took care that the organs of the Society should be under the control and guidance of some of the top leaders so as to get most out of these important instruments of the public opinion.

~~~

References

   1. This description holds good chiefly about the time when the Guru-ka-Bagh morcha was in progress.  For more than a month I also slept in the same room and when an occasion arose-but this was very seldom - I would be awakened for consultation on a point under discussion.  This was the case, of course, only when they thought that my opinion or advice might be of use to them, or when they were in need of some information which they thought I could supply better than any one else present there.

   2. From an account of the grand demonstration staged at Amritsar after the Nankana Sahib festival.

   3. It must not be supposed that the movement about holding the Diwans was initiated by the SGPC. Their only credit lies in greatly extending the sphere of such activities and thus creating a most remarkable religious reawakening in the community.  The Chief Khalsa Diwan was primarily responsible for starting the tractarian movement - the chief object being the popularisation of the Punjabi language.  A considerable progress was made in this direction, chiefly through the efforts of Bhai Vir Singh assisted by several other enthusiasts.  So far as the purely religious side of these activities is concerned, the credit must go mainly to Sardar Harbans Singh of Attari seconded by his life-long friend, Sir Sunder Singh Majithia.  They were responsible for creating the new horizons, which they themselves were not destined to enter. 

   4. I do not know if with their wonderful sources of information the Akali leaders had got an inkling of the official plans to start criminal proceedings against the movement, but in any case it was fortunate for them that they had by this time a well established English paper also under their control.

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