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A 100-year-old story of British brutality & Sikh sacrifice

Bibi Balbir Kaur left her dead child by the roadside and continued to march forward before she met the same end.

A 100-year-old story of British brutality & Sikh sacrifice

Historic: A jatha came from Canada to participate in the Jaito Morcha. Photo: Harvinder Singh Khalsa



Mohinder Singh

Director, National Institute of Panjab Studies, New Delhi

JAITO, a small town in the erstwhile princely state of Nabha, became the scene of a vigorous Akali Morcha. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), with a view to vindicating its right to free worship and getting the Maharaja of Nabha restored to the gaddi (throne), decided to send jathas daily to Jaito from the Akal Takht at Amritsar. To begin with, jathas of 25 members each walked daily to Jaito after taking a pledge of non-violence before the Akal Takht, with the following aims: (1) To resume the interrupted Akhand Path at Gangsar, Jaito; (2) To suffer all hardships and tortures inflicted by officials for the sake of establishing the Sikh birthright to free congregation and worship in all gurdwaras.

The province’s British officials, who were watching with great concern the growing influence of the Akali leadership, noticed that the jathas were helping the SGPC impress upon non-Akali Sikhs that this was a purely religious programme. The officials were particularly worried that the journey of the Akali jathas to Jaito would be ‘of the nature of a triumphal procession’. Higher officials suggested that timely action would not only check Akali activities but also restore the supremacy of the bureaucracy. British authorities in the province were waiting for ‘sufficient evidence’ to implement the Secretary of State’s order “to put an effective stop to the Akali operations by the arrest and prosecution of all the organisers (of the Akali Movement) as abettors”. The Akali jathas’ march to Nabha provided them with a good opportunity to declare the Shiromani Akali Dal, the SGPC and other allied organisations ‘unlawful associations’. However, this measure could not check the zeal of the Akali volunteers and they continued to pour into Jaito. The Indian National Congress, which has been supporting the Akali Movement since the Nankana tragedy, decided to send a team of observers comprising Jawaharlal Nehru, AT Gidwani and K Santhanam to Jaito to get first-hand information about the developments. However, as soon as Nehru and his companions reached Jaito, they were arrested by the Nabha state officials, handcuffed and put behind bars. Nehru vividly describes his experiences in jail and the ‘crooked and unscrupulous ways’ of the state machinery. Having gained a first-hand impression about the Akalis, he became their admirer and wished to prove “worthy of their high tradition and fine courage”. The last paragraph of his statement drafted in the Central Jail, Nabha, on September 25, 1923, reads: “I rejoice that I am being tried for a cause which the Sikhs have made their own. I was in jail when the Guru-ka-Bagh struggle was gallantly fought and won by the Sikhs. I marvelled at the courage and sacrifice of the Akalis and wished that I could be given an opportunity of showing my deep admiration of them by some form of service. That opportunity has now been given to me and I earnestly hope that I shall prove worthy of their high tradition and fine courage. Sat Sri Akal.”

As soon as the jatha members reached the boundaries of the Nabha state, they were arrested and beaten up. But the members, as Nehru testified, gave an “amazing exhibition of courage and endurance... and never retreated a step, nor did they raise their hands against the police...” After being kept in custody for a few days, they were sent to the neighbouring areas of Babal Kanti in Rajasthan or to Rewari. Here, they were left “in a penniless condition to shift for themselves as best as they could”. According to a contemporary, “within seven months, this happened with no less than 5,000 Akali pilgrims”.

In order to intensify its agitation, the SGPC decided to send a bigger Shaheedi Jatha of 500 Akalis to reach Jaito on February 21, 1924, a day after the third anniversary of the Nankana tragedy. After making preliminary arrangements, the SGPC decided to despatch the jatha on February 9, 1924. Before its departure, the jatha, which comprised persons from various professions and classes from all parts of Punjab, was exhorted by the Jathedar of the Akal Takht “to remain perfectly non-violent in thought, word and deed”. According to the report of the Deputy Commissioner, Amritsar, “the members of the jatha were not regular hangers-on of the Darbar Sahib but included genuine fanatics”. Later, Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, Pandit Dina Nath and other members of the Congress also joined the jatha. According to official reports, about 30,000 people witnessed the jatha set out from the Clock Tower at Amritsar.

When the jatha reached a spot about 150 metres from Gurdwara Tibbi Sahib on February 21, 1924, Wilson Johnston, the administrator of Nabha, arrived and ordered it to stop. But the jatha, which had taken a vow before the Akal Takht to resume the interrupted Akhand Path and was determined not to return without achieving its goal, continued to march towards the gurdwara. Johnston gave the signal to open fire. Savel Zimand, a correspondent for The New York Times who joined the jatha at Bargari, 15 km from Jaito, wrote: “It was at 2:25 pm that the firing started. The firing was in regular volleys and there were no desultory shots. The first round of firing lasted for full two minutes, i.e., from 2:45 to 2:47 pm. The second round of firing started at 2:55 and it lasted for full three minutes.”

According to Prof Ruchi Ram Sahni, then a trustee of The Tribune: “Then followed a scene unique in the history of the world for the calm restraint, cool courage and a remarkable capacity for suffering in a righteous cause displayed by the Sikh victims of the official fury.”

Firing on the peaceful Shaheedi Jatha consisting of men and women, including those who travelled all the way from Canada, China and other countries, led to the martyrdom of 22 people, including a child being carried by his mother. Bibi Balbir Kaur left her dead child by the roadside and continued to march forward before she met the same end. This was described by a foreign correspondent as a unique portrait of courage and sacrifice.

#SGPC #Sikhs


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