The rage of the Sikhs sole spokesman

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 30, 2012

In every era Lahore has had its peculiar political characters, colourful as they come. Give them half an issue and then watch the fun. In the history of Lahore few can match the colour and controversy generated by the famous Master Tara Singh.

Most older people in Lahore recollect this Sikh leader as the man who stood on the stairs of the Punjab Assembly in 1947 and pledged that he would never allow Pakistan to be made, drawing his ‘kirpan’ in the process. The result of that defiant gesture was that hundreds of innocent Sikhs were butchered the next day. That is the abiding image of the man in Lahore. But then he was a much more serious politician. It would be interesting to trace his life and see how he fared, for after 1947 little is known of his ways.

Born to a Hindu Malhotra family in 1885 in the village Harial in Rawalpindi District, his childhood name was Nanak Chand. His father was Bakshi Gopi Chand the village ‘patwari’. His was a religious family, but tolerant as all Punjabis once were of other religions. Having passed his primary examination from a school near his village, he moved to Rawalpindi to join the Mission School. His interest in the Sikh faith resulted in him, during holidays, going to listen to a well-known Sikh ‘saint’ Attar Singh at Dera Khalsa.

In 1902 Baba Attar Singh initiated him into the Khalsa order and named him Tara Singh – ‘the star with the love of the Almighty in his heart’. The following year he passed his matriculation and joined Khalsa College, Amritsar. At college he organised a few strikes over trivial matters and soon was known as a rabble rouser. In 1907, Tara Singh joined the peasant movement in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) against the passage of the Colonization Bill.

Strangely, he concluded that people were trying to portray the Sikhs as anti-British. In an amazing flip, which would be the hallmark of his life, he supported what he set out to oppose. But then he sought solace in educating Sikh farmers of the benefits they stood to gain. It was, by any measure, a progressive leap of faith.

After graduating in 1907 he decided to become a teacher and joined the Teacher Training College, Lahore. In 1908 after completing his teacher training, he opened the Khalsa High School, Lyallpur. From this school he rose to become a national leader, preaching that Sikhs educate other Sikhs for free. He formed ‘The Lyallpur Group’, which brought out a magazine called ‘Sach Dhandhora’.

In 1914 he returned to Lyallpur as headmaster for his own school when the Gurdwara Reform Movement started. He was thus called Master Tara Singh. Elected to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, his life as a progressive religious politician had started.

In 1921 took place the infamous Nankana Sahib massacre. It all started with complaints of immoral practices in the Janam Asthan Gurdwara at Nankana Sahib by the Udasi mahant (priest) Narain Das and his companions. The Sikhs resolved to take the management of the gurdwara in their own hands. A group of 150 Sikhs entered the gurdwara as ordinary pilgrims, unarmed and peaceful. But the priest, apprehending a takeover, had hired a few armed Pathans, who opened fire on the ‘peaceful’ posse. According to an official report about 130 devotees were massacred inside the gurdwara.

The next day Master Tara Singh joined a group of over 1,000 Sikhs and after negotiating with the British administration took over control. He was truly into active Sikh religious politics, which he would pursue for the rest of his life. Leaders like Gandhi, Maulana Shaukat Ali, Saifuddin Kitchlew, Lala Dhuni Chand and Lala Lajpat Rai visited the scene of the tragedy and expressed sympathy for the Akalis.

This exposure Master Tara Singh had never experienced, and he pledged before the Sikh community to devote his whole life to the cause of the Sikhs. He was immediately invited to become the secretary of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee at Amritsar. Master Tara Singh had truly arrived.

He immediately was engulfed in a dispute over possession of the Golden Temple, and after a brush with the local administration was arrested under the provisions of the Seditious Meetings Act, tried and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. He immediately resigned from his job as a headmaster and devoted himself to the Akali Dal. The Sikhs resolved to not cooperate with the British and soon everyone was released. Mahatma Gandhi sent a telegram which said: “First battle for India’s freedom won, congratulations”. Master Tara Singh was propelled to a much higher pedestal.

In March 1922, Master Tara Singh was again arrested alongside 1,400 others for wearing extra long swords publicly. In this he again emerged an even bigger Sikh leader. Then followed a series of Sikh related issues, and every time he was arrested his stature grew. Very soon he was to be dubbed ‘Sole Spokesman of the Sikhs’. The ‘patwari’s’ son from Rawalpindi had made it to become a headmaster in Lyallpur, and from there to a national leader in Lahore, all in a matter of 15 years.

The rise and rise of Master Tara Singh saw him, in 1923, take on the authorities after they deposed the Maharajah of Nabha, who was viewed as an Akali supporter. Master Tara Singh organised a ‘shaheedi jatha’ – suicide squad – and went to Nabha. In the tragedy that followed over 40 Sikhs were killed.

The whole of Punjab was alight. Master Tara Singh was at the centre of this dispute. Leaders of the Indian National Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, who demonstrated in support of Master Tara Singh, were also arrested. It had become an All-India affair. The Khilafat Committee and the Muslim League also expressed their sympathies with Master Tara Singh. The situation had the colonial rulers reconsider their position and the rabble rouser had won yet another victory.Barely had the matter been resolved that the Punjab governor, Sir Malcolm Hailey, was willing to pacify the Sikhs by assisting them in taking possession of all the important gurdwaras in the province through a five-member committee. A draft of a new Gurdwara Bill was sent to the Akali leaders imprisoned in the Lahore Fort. The leaders let the ‘headmaster’ read the complicated piece of legislation, who within minutes ruled that it was fine. It was passed into law in November 1925. Thus ended what came to be known in Lahore as the ‘Third Sikh War’.

Master Tara Singh moved to a house in Shahdara. As the Freedom Movement gained pace, the Nehru Report on the abolition of communal provisions in elections was opposed by the Sikhs, who felt that this would mean that the Muslims of the Punjab would gain ascendancy over the Sikhs. He wrote: “As Congress wants to please the Muslims, so it is ignoring the Sikh interests”.

The seeds of partition of Punjab were being sown. From then onwards he always spoke of ‘majority despotism’, a phrase, ironically, the Muslim League used much later when demanding Pakistan.

When Gandhi launched his Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930, Master Tara Singh extended his support and a conference of Congress, Muslim and Sikh leaders was held in Lahore. He got 5,000 Akalis ready to fight it out. All over Punjab strikes took place. In April 1930 in Peshawar’s Qissa Khawani Bazaar, people protesting against the arrest of their leaders were fired upon, killing 300 persons. Master Tara Singh, as a mark of sympathy, led 100 suicide fighters to Peshawar. It was an impressive march by all accounts and he was arrested in Lahore and sent to Gujarat Jail.

The Simon Commission of June 1930 issued an award which favoured separate electorates and reservation of seats and recommended only 19 per cent representation to the Sikhs in Punjab. The Congress and the Sikhs rejected the report. Sikh agitation was brewing and he was interned in his house at Shahadra.

Master Tara Singh realised that they would have to struggle against the Communal Award on their own. A split occurred as many Sikhs realised that their demands were unfair. The end result was that an angry Master Tara Singh was asked to quit politics as he was driving them into an unacceptable position. In anger he left for a self-imposed exile to Burma, bidding farewell to politics and promising not to return. “When I return you will have forgotten me”, he said. But how could Lahore forget such a colourful person.

In January 1935, he learnt of the death in Patiala Jail of his companion Sewa Singh Thikriwala. He rushed back and the leaderless Sikhs immediately passed a resolution expressing full confidence in his leadership. He accused the maharajah of betraying the Sikhs. The Maharajah of Patiala even sent a gang of killers to finish him.

The 1937 elections of the Punjab Assembly resulted in a clear-cut majority for the Unionists. In an astute move Sikandar Hayat Khan sought the cooperation of the Khalsa National Party. Sunder Singh Majithia became a minister in the Unionist government. Master Tara Singh condemned him as a traitor.

In the first year of his rule in July 1937 Sir Sikander called a ‘Unity Conference’ of leaders from all political parties for the purpose of maintaining communal harmony in the province. Master Tara Singh decided to take part. On the question of playing music before mosques, Master Tara Singh and Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia exchanged hot words and the conference ended in total failure. After years of success, now his position was more and more confused.

The Sikander-Jinnah Pact led Sikhs to believe that Sir Sikander was basically a communal politician. It forced Master Tara Singh to start favouring the Congress Party. The complexities of the situation meant that Sikh aspirations could not be met. After the Second World War as freedom neared, Master Tara Singh fiercely argued against the partition of India. The reality was that no district has a Sikh majority.

The fact that they would have to leave behind Nankana Sahib, Hasanabdal, Lahore and their other holy sites was, in human terms, a massive tragedy for the Sikhs. After all they belonged to the land. It was in this rage of utter hopelessness that he stood on the steps of the Punjab Assembly of Lahore in 1947 and waved his ‘kirpan’. The result was death and destruction.

In the new East Punjab State he demanded that ‘gurmukhi’ be the official script. In a way his politics ended up with a Sikh majority East Punjab where the Sikhs lived their lives as they wished. But then the divided Punjab was further sub-divided in November 1966 into three parts. One a Sikh-majority Punjab, and two Hindu-majority states of Himachal Pradesh and Haryana. The rabble rouser from Harial and Shahdara had had his final say. He died on Nov 22, 1967 always longing to return to die in his native village.



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