Baba Kharak Singh
Professor Hazara Singh
Baba Kharak Singh, the Grand old Man of Punjab, was adored by the
Sikh masses as an uncrowned king of the Punjab in
recognition of his selfless sacrifices, unfaltering dedication, indomitable will and capacity to suffer for a cause.
He was born on June 6, 1867 at Sialkot His father Sardar Hari Singh Ahluwalia was a fairly prosperous person. After matriculating from the Scott Mission School Sialkot, Kharak Singh graduated in 1889 from Govt. College Lahore. He wanted to become a lawyer. The nearest law school to Punjab in those days, when Calcutta and not Delhi was the capital of British India, was at Allahabad in the United Provinces. He had to discontinue his studies in laws due to the sudden demise of his father, because his presence at Sialkot was enjoined for looking after the family affairs.
Kharak Singh joined as Secretary Municipal Committee Sialkot. The Deputy Commissioner of each district, used to be the Chairman of the Municipal Committee of the District Town and expected that the native officials presented files to him in a servile manner by standing and bowing. Kharak Singh was not prepared to accept any position at the cost of self-respect and resigned the post. Rather this event marked the beginning of his glorious career in public service.
Ever since the annexation of the Punjab, Sikhs had been facing crisis threatening their identity. Brahamanical rites and idol worshipping were finding inroads into Sikh shrines. Conversion to Christianity of Sikhs here and there posted another challenge. Singh Sabha movement was launched in the late 19th century to bring about religious and social reforms among the Sikhs. As an offshoot thereof Chief Khalsa Diwan was established in 1902, which was dominated by the Sikh aristocracy and was not inclined to take any anti-imperialistic stand. It felt that Sikh communal interests could be best safeguarded by cooperating with the foreign regime. The Chief Khalsa Diwan showed no interest in the Agrarian movement of 1907 in which the Sikh peasantry form canal colonies participated. It described the Ghadarite Sikhs, who had given the clarion call in the wake of the First World War that England’s difficulty was India’s opportunity, as denationalized Sikhs. The cringing attitude of the Diwan became all the more degrading, when it honored Brigadier Dyer, the perpetrator of the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre, by presenting him a siropa.
Kharak Singh had been watching all these activities of Chief Khalsa Diwan with disgust. He gave vent to his feelings whenever he found a forum or an opportunity. He was invited to preside over the 7th Sikh Educational Conference held at Taran Taran in 1916. It used to be a ritual in those days that every social, cultural and political organization began its proceedings with a resolution moved from the chair eulogizing the British rule and praying for its perpetual continuance over India. Even the Indian National Congress had been no exception to this practice upto 1907. Kharak Singh took a bold stand in the meeting of the Subjects Committee and ruled out that the resolution declaring the British rule as a blessing for India was not consistent with the agenda of the Educational Conference. The event assumed a special significance in the context that all organizations were vying with each other to display their loyalty to the crown by passing resolutions praying for the Victory of the British in the First World War.
The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre staged in April 1919 disillusioned even the ardent admirers of the British rule. A new political organization called the Central Sikh League was formed in December 1919. To begin with its leadership was in the hands of moderate Sikhs, who soon lost influence and Kharak Singh was elected president for its second session held at Lahore in October 1920. Mahatma Gandhi, Ali Brothers, Dr. S.D. Kitchlew and many other prominent Congress leaders attended this session. Kharak Singh gave a call to the Sikhs to throw their weight with the Congress against the Imperialism. The resolution of non-cooperation with the British rule was also passed in this session. Thus the Gurdwara Reforms Movement in the Punjab acquired a new dimension.
The Gurdwara Liberation movement was launched in 1921. The occasion was provided by a number of unhealthy practices and provocative incidents. Even at Darbar Sahib Amritsar, parshad as an offering, was not accepted from the scheduled castes under Brahamnical influence on the priests. The Mahant of Nankana Sahib Gurdwara burnt alive a number of Sikhs on February 20, 1921 who had gone to pay obeisance there. He doubted that they have come to capture the shrine. On November 7, 1921 the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar took away the keys of toshakhana (treasury) of Darbar Sahib. Kharak Singh was arrested for his lodging a strong protest against that uncalled for official interference in the religious affairs of Sikhs. When put up for trial, the valiant crusader refused to accept the jurisdiction of the court on the plea that a servant of British Government had no authority to prosecute the President of Sikh Panth. The court awarded a punishment of 6 months imprisonment and fine of Rs. 1000.00. This act further added to the intensity of movement. The Government had to yield at last. Not only all he arrested persons were released, but the Deputy Commissioner returned the keys on January 18, 1922, which Kharak Singh accepted before the Akal Takhat with the permission of the congregation. This movement was popularly called ‘Chabian Da Morcha’ or a campaign for the restoration of keys. Mahatma Gandhi felicitated Kharak Singh through a telegraphic message
‘First decisive battle for India’s Freedom won. Congratulations.’
It was during this campaign that Kharak Singh began to be adored as an uncrowned king of the Panth.
Immediately thereafter a 175 member body called Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee was constituted unofficially and Kharak Singh was elected unanimously as its President. The formation of Akali Dal was an offshoot thereof. Presidentship of this body was also entrusted to Kharak Singh. After the arrest of Lala Lajpat Rai who was the President of Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, Kharak Singh was also chosen as the President of that organization. Thus in 1922, Kharak Singh wore a Triple crown i.e. Presidentships of SGPC, Akali Dal and the PPCC. These responsibilities were in addition to the stewardship of Central Sikh League.
During the Non-Cooperation Movement, Mahatma Gandhi felt the need of having a national flag under which people belonging to all religions could be rallied in the campaign against imperialism. Thus tricolour flag with a green, a white and a saffron strip was evolved; green colour represented the Muslims, white the other minorities like Christians, Sikhs, etc. and saffron the Hindus. Kharak Singh insisted that each minority should have distinct representation on the flag to display its respective identity and accordingly he demanded a black strip for the Sikhs. Thereafter not only the order of strips was changed but a secular interpretation was given to each of them; saffron at the top stood chivalry and sacrifice, white symbolized truth and non- violence and green at the bottom aspired for prosperity through development of agriculture.
The British Government was apprehensive of the growing popularity of Kharak Singh. He was tried under section 121-124 of the Indian Penal Code for delivering seditious speeches against the Crown and awarded an imprisonment of 3 years. He was shifted to Dera Gazi Khan Jail. There was a ban on the wearing of Gandhi caps and black turbans in the Jail, because it implied that the wearers of these head gears were political prisoners and not ordinary convicts. Kharak Singh protested and in spite of his being a better class prisoner refused to put on other clothes even, except the kachha (underwear). He was tried thrice within the jail for defying the jail instructions and his sentence was thus increased to five years. The insalubrious climate of Dera Ghazi Khan and the repressive measures of the jail authorities strengthened further his capacity to suffer for a cause. One day Mr Gales, the Jail Superintendent tried to win over Kharak Singh by offering that the Government was prepared to accept the right of Sikh Sardar to wear black turban, but why should he insist for a corresponding right for the Hindu congressites, whose organization was practically dead. Kharak Singh retorted that the Congress might be dead but he was alive. For his struggle in the jail he began to be addressed by the inmates as Baba Ji which epithet preceded his name thereafter in the same manner as Mahatma in the case of Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi and Sardar in the case of Valbh Bhai Patel.
After his release he was given a hero’s welcome everywhere. The Municipal Committee of Amritsar, Calcutta and Rangoon (Burma) presented him addresses. Many Congress Committees even mooted his name for the presidentship of Indian National Congress. The protest by Baba Kharak Singh in the Dera Ghazi Khan Jail was a fore-runner for the historic hunger strike which the militants of Hindustan Socialist Republican Association undertook in 1928 in the Borstal Jail Lahore to seek the status of political prisoners.
Baba Kharak Singh led a huge demonstration on February 3, 1928 at Lahore, the day Simon Commission landed at Bombay, with the placards
‘Simon go back, we have self-respect’.
Thus in their protest against the Raj the Central Sikh League never lagged behind the Indian National Congress.
Difference began to develop between the Central Sikh League and the Congress on the framing of Swaraj Constititution. The All Parties Conference which met on February 12, 1928 at Delhi for this purpose constituted a sub-committee under the chairmanship of Moti Lal Nehru, which unanimously recommended the adoption of joint electorate with reservation for each minority on the basis of its population in each state, with the exception of Punjab and Bengal. Baba Kharak Singh strongly reacted to this provision because whereas it protected both the Muslims and Hindus in the states, where-ever they were in minority, but it assured no corresponding safeguards to the Sikhs in Punjab. The Nehru Report also solicited for a dominion status for India within the Empire which Baba Kharak Singh regarded as a diversion from a clear-cut political aim. He appealed to the Sikhs to throw the Nehru Report in the dustbin and exhorted them not to associate themselves with the Congress Session to be held at Lahore in December 1929.
Because the Muslim League had also pulled itself out of the All Parties Conference over the question of Nehru Report, the Congress leadership did not want to lose the support of Central Sikh League. Before the Congress Session began at Lahore, M.K. Gandhi, Moti Lala Nehru and M.A. Ansari met Baba Kharak Singh, Master Tara Singh and other Sikh leaders to listen to their grievances,. They informed the latter that as the congress had withdrawn the request for dominion status the Nehru Report stood lapsed ipso facto. They further assured that in future no solution would be accepted for the Congress which did not satisfy the aspirations of the Sikhs and the Muslims. The text of the resolution passed at the Lahore session of the Congress read as follows;
The Congress believing that in an independent India common questions
can only be solved on strictly national line, as the Sikhs in particular
and Muslims and other minorities in general have expressed
dissatisfaction over the solution of communal questions, proposed
in the Nehru Report, the Congress assures the Sikhs, the Muslims and
other minorities that no solution thereof in future constitution will
be accepted to the Congress that does not give full satisfaction to the
parties concerned. (The Indian Annual Register, Vol. II, Calcutta 1929, p. 310)
Baba Kharak Singh was arrested both in the Individual Satyagraha Movement (1939) and the Quit India Movement (1942).
After the partition of India, Baba Kharak Singh settled in Delhi, where he passed away in 1963. Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru paid a full throated tribute to the Baba as follows:
His outstanding qualities were a passion for freedom and courage and
fearlessness in the pursuit of his objectives. For generations he had been
a great leader of the Sikhs and had been something much more. He had
been a leader of the Indian people and he thought of the freedom and
unity of India always, and his nationalism was a vibrant type which affected
all who came in touch with him. The memory of his great personality will
ever be with us and we shall cherish it. Let us have something of his great
courage and love of India and act up to it.