By Alice Basarke + additional information.

As fate would have it Mahatma Gandhi is credited with starting the non-violent movement to oust the British out of India. Gandhi deserves a lot of praise because he did implement the principles of non-violence, but he certainly was not the originator of that concept. He learnt that from the Sikhs. The same Sikhs whose Guru he called a "miguided patriot!" The Sikhs drew their inspiration from their very Gurus, two of who had suffered martyrdom in order to make their point. Over time, the principle of non-violence was used again and again.

In 1861 the British had introduced the Waqf Act which gave control and management of the holy places to their respective communities. The Hindus and Muslims were given control of their places of worship. But in the case of Sikh Gurdwaras, the Act was not applied. The British knew full well that the Sikhs drew their strength and inspiration from their scripture and ideology. They also knew that Sikhs had a long history of fighting oppression and injustice no matter what the cost. For well planned political reasons, the properties of Sikh places of worship were transferred and given over to Hindu caretakers (Udasi Mahants) and who could be more easily controlled by the British masters. Most of these caretakers had very litte understanding Of Sikh religion and its practices. These caretakers received their instructions from the Deputy Commissioner, a Britisher. The government needed to maintain the Gurdwaras as channels of indirect control of the Sikhs. Naturally the Sikhs were not happy with this arrangement. It was a major factor in the first uprising against the British.

At that rime there was a small group of Sikhs. Ram Singh (1815 -1885) was their leader. He once served in the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In 1849 when the British annexed Punjab, his army unit was disbanded. Ram Singh hated the British whom he called ferengis (foreigners). He was further incensed at the takeover of the Gurdwaras in 1861 by the British, and the fact that nobody was able to do anything about this. He was very perturbed at the intrigue and duplicity all around him. Sikhs who fought and died to keep the British out of Punjab were now starting to admire all things British. The fact that they were most intolerant somehow did not register on the conquered Sikhs. Yet in the words of Brigadier-General John Jacob a leader of Indian cavalry, "the British were the favourites of heaven, the civilizers of the world. They were masters of India because they were superior beings by nature to the Asiatic. Their superiority, both in science and religion, induced them to look down upon dark-skinned heathens".

After the collapse of the Sikh Empire, Ram Singh turned to religion and meditation, on God's name, hence the name Namdhari due to his intense piety, he had many admirers. However, his military training and political preoccupation soon emerged as the main topic of his sermons. He started the non-violent movement to oust the British out of Punjab. He preached the Sikh gospel with great fervour, both to fight the progress being made by Christian missionaries, and to stop the evil political and cultural effects of foreign rule. He asked the people to boycott all British goods. "Do not accept service with the government; do not send children to government schools; do not go to court of law but settle disputes by reference to panchayats (village council); do not use foreign goods; do not use government postal services."

His followers spun their own cloth and dressed in pure white cotton, and boycotted all that was even remotely British. His following grew very rapidly, which alarmed the British masters. The East India Company had a great monopoly going. Cotton was being shipped to England, where it was processed and made into cloth. British economy was booming. Every one had a job. The cloth manufactured in England was shipped back to India and sold at a great profit. Ram Singh's preaching was a threat to the British system. Moreover, he fed the people prophecies of a Sikh resurgence. He truly believed that it could be won by peaceful means. However, because his following grew too rapidly, he soon lost control of some members of the group.

A small group of Kooka fanatics, murdered some Muslim butchers in Amritsar and Raikot (Ludhiana district). For this, eight of them were hanged. Though the passions of the Kookas were inflamed, Ram Singh was still able to persuade his followers to return peacefully to their homes. L. Cowan, the deputy commissioner of Ludhiana saw this as an opportunity not to be wasted. Using the pretext, of the above mentioned incident, he captured 68 Kookas, including 27 seriously wounded as they were making their way home. Smt. Hookmee, a popular preacher of this sect was one of two women also captured. Cowan sent a note to his commissioner, T.D. Forsythe, and without any further formality, or pretence of trial blew up 66 of the prisoners by tying them to the mouths of cannons. Two were hacked to pieces with a sword. Forsythe then joined Cowan at Malerkotla, where 16 more Kookas were rounded up and blasted off cannons.

The reasons for this barbarism was not the murder of Muslim butchers as is evident in these words of Cowman: I propose blowing away from guns, or hanging, the prisoners tomorrow morning at daybreak. Their offence is not an ordinary one. They have not committed mere murder and dacoity; they are open rebels, offering resistance to constitutional authority, and, to prevent the spreading of this disease, it is absolutely necessary that repressive measures should be prompt and stern. I act for the best, this incipient insurrection must be stamped out at once." The commissioner T.D. Forsythe supported the action of his deputy. He wrote in a letter dated January 18, 1872; "My dear Cowan, I fully approve and confirm all you have done. You have acted admirably."

For those who may wonder just what blowing from guns means, the following graphic description has been found- "Only those with the strongest stomachs, however, could remain unaffected when prisoners were blown away from the mouths of cannon, a punishment inflicted by the British in India. This was a "frightful sight", Dr. John Sylvester thought; and for the victims a peculiarly horrible punishment since, though hanging in itself was sufficient to make paradise uncertain, death by mutilation after defilement made its attainment even less likely. The victim was latched to a gun, the small of his back or the pit of his stomach against the muzzle, then "smeared with the blood of someone murdered by a member of his race if such could be procured". [Sylvestees diaries] When the gun was fired the man's body was dismembered. Usually the head, scarcely disfigured, would fly off through the smoke then fall to the earth, slightly blackened, followed by the arms and legs. The trunk would be shattered, giving off "a beastly smell", and pieces of the flesh and intestines and gouts of blood would be splashed not only over the gunners but also over any spectators who stood too close. Vultures would hover overhead and with grisly dexterity catch lumps of flesh in their beaks. "The pent up feelings of the bystanders found vent in a sort of loud gasp like Ah-h! Wrote an artillery officer who was required to supervise such an execution. "Then many of them came across the ditch to inspect the remains of the legs, and the horrible affair was over." This horrendous slaughter took place on January 11 - 12, 1872. Cowan was right. Ram Singh was a dangerous Sikh. Had he not been dealt with promptly and sternly, he would have gone down in history as the real father of the nation, for the British would have been thrown out almost a hundred years sooner. Many years later, Mahatma Gandhi had only copied the plans of Ram Singh to earn this title. Even the boycott of British cloth was copied. The spinning of cotton, and the wearing of only white, hand spun cotton was exactly as Ram Singh had prescribed.

The second major non-violent revolt against the British was again enacted by Sikhs- It was known as the Singh Sabha movement and was started in 1873, It took some time, but the Singh Sabha movement steadily gained momentum. Things took on an added urgency when in 1919, 1,500 unarmed civilians, mostly Sikhs were shot down in cold blood at the Jalianwalla Bagh in Amritsar, on orders of the British General Dyer. Winston Churchill had described the massacre: "as a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation in the annals of British history"


The early 1920s were very difficult times for the Sikhs in Punjab. The Singh Sabha movement organized campaigns where groups of ordinary unarmed people would march to their places of worship and ask peaceably to be given possession of their shrine. At the time of accession to throne on the 25th January, 1912 A.D., Maharaja Ripudaman Singh, after performing the prayer to Guru Granth Sahib Ji, had himself donned the sword, symbolising authority to rule. He did not get some British officer to bestow on him the symbol to Govern as was the custom. In his state, a Singh wearing a sword and black turban could move freely although it was banned by the British government

The British Government was looking for an excuse to remove him from the throne.. Taking advantage of an oppurtunity, the British government dethroned the Maharaja of Nabha on the 9th July, 1923 A.D., and sent him to Dehradun with a yearly allowance of three hundred thousand rupees.

There was great unrest among the people of the state on the dethronement of the Maharaja. In this connection the Sikhs organised an 'Akhand Path' (continuous recitation of Guru Granth Sahib) in Gurdwara Gangsar in Jaito Mandi between 25th and 27th August, 1923 A.D. The police started taking down the names of those coming to the congregation and threatened those who brought rations for the 'langar' (free kitchen). The devotees kept coming to the Gurdwara inspite of this kind of attitude of the police. On the 27th August, the police arrested Sardar Inder singh Maur from the presence of Guru Granth Sahib without any warrant. The arrest of a Sikh in presence of Guru Granth Sahib became a religious matter for the Sikhs. The 'Sangat' (Sikh Devotees) decided that a chain of 'Akhand Paths' should be continued as long as the Government does not stop interference. The Shiromani Committee started sending squads of Singhs for the 'Akhand Paths' from Amritsar from the 1st September.

The Sikhs took out processions in the Sikh states and the towns of Punjab on the 9th September, 1923 A.D., to show their resentment against the interference of the Government. On the 14th September, policemen arrested those sitting in congregation, attendants and the reciter sitting in attendance of Guru Granth Sahib from Gurdwara Gangsar. The Shiromani Committee stated sending a squad of twenty-five singhs daily from Amritsar from the 15th September. Before the departure of the squad, the Singhs were asked to take the pledge.

"My aim is to restart the interrupted 'Akhand Path' in Gurdwara Gangsar and to keep it going in the Gurdwara independently and collectively in the form of congregation according to Sikh tradition. If in doing so, I have to face hardship and trouble at the hands of the Government officials, I shall bear all very politely and without lifting my hand to strike."

The Government arrested those squads before they reached Gangsar. The Singhs of the squads were beaten up, kept hungry for two days at a stretch and lef off in the forest of Nabha. On the 13th October, the leaders of Akali Dal were arrested on the 7th January, 1923 A.D. The Government was of the view that the agitation would fail by the arrest of the members of the committee but contrary to their views the agitation intensified further.

On the 9th February, 1924 A.D., the first martyr squad of five hundred Singhs saffron attire marched from 'Sri Akal Takht'. A band preceded the squad followed by five beloved ones with saffron flags (Nishan Sahib). The palanquin of Guru Granth Sahib was in the middle followed by the squad of martyrs in the lines of four. This squad was proceeding towards Gangsar reciting hymns, shouting slogans and holding congregations on the way. The people were serving the squad with milk, water, sweets and fruits, etc. although the Government was exerting great pressure on people not to serve them.

When the squad reached near Tibbi Sahib on the 21st February, a British officer said ,"Stop, otherwise there will be firing." The squad kept on moving forward. The officer ordered to open fire. Firing continued from three sides for five minutes. Bearing the brunt of fire the squad continued to advance. As firing stopped, mounted soldiers and police beat the surviving members of the squad, tied them with ropes and took them inside the fort. Seven hundred singhs were arrested that day, about two hundred were injured and one hundred attained martyrdom. After the arrest of the squad of martyrs, the rulers of Nabha set up a special torture chamber in which the leading singhs were taken and tortured. they were hung feet up and were hit on the genitals. They were kept naked outside in cold. Inspite of these tortures on the Singhs, every time more Singhs presented themselves for the next squads than were asked by the Committee. Singhs came from as far off as Canada, Hongkong, Shanghai to join the Squads. After firing on the first squad of martyrs, this 'Morcha' (agitation) became an international movement.

First shaheedi jatha from the Jeto morcha. After the shooting had stopped these Sikhs were captured and given stiff jail sentences. After seven years in jail they were released on 12th March 1931.
The sixteenth squad of martyrs of five hundred Singhs started from 'Sri Akal Takht' on the 17th April, 1925 A.D., Before that Squad had reached Gurdwara Gangsar, Sri Malcolm Heely, the Governor of Punjab gave approval to the Gurdwara Act on the 11th July, 1925 A.D. All the Akalis were released on the 27th July. Freedom to hold 'Akhand Path' at Jaito was obtained after one year and ten months.

The struggle ended in 1925 with the passage of the Sikh Gurdwara Act. In the last 5 years of agitation for regaining control of their places of worship, 30,000 men and women had gone to jail. 400 had been killed and over 2,000 seriously wounded. The political results were far reaching. The British lost forever the support and loyalty of the Sikhs.
The struggle for independence continued, and Sikhs made a tremendous contribution before independence, the Sikh community was only 1.1% of the total population of India. What they achieved is nothing short of phenomenal.

Gandhi was there, watching when the Sikhs were struggling to regain control of their Gurdwaras, through non-violent means. Indeed he admired their courage and their tactics, sending congratulatory notes on more than one occasion. One such telegram dated Jan. 19, 1922 and addressed to the Sikh leadership, read: "The first decisive battle for independence won. Congratulations."