Formation of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) was the first pure attempt of Sikhs towards their political mobilisation after the annexation of Punjab in 1849. Earlier, Sikhs were the main force behind the Gadar movement, which aimed at revolting against the British in the second decade of the 20th century. However, the Gadar movement was not a political Sikh movement in the same manner they same way the farmer agitation going on in Delhi is is not just by Sikhs.
SAD was founded on December 14, 1920, exactly a month after the formation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee by Sikhs with the prime motive to take control of the Golden Temple and other historical gurdwaras in their hands.
Political position of Sikhs
Sikhs were just 13 per cent of the total population of Punjab, however, due to education, share of community in government jobs was around 20 per cent. They were not identified as an independent community in the 1916 ‘Lucknow Pact’ despite representations by Sikh leaders like Sunder Singh Majithia and recommendations by some British officers. Sikhs were spread all over Punjab and not concentrated in any specific region. Most elite Sikhs were hand-in-glove with the British and they didn’t show much interest in SAD activities. It was the reason that the Akali Dal leadership mostly came from rural areas.
Exemplary show of non-violence
The first aim of the party was to free gurdwaras from the mahants and establish control of SGPC. The party was formed in the times when Mahatma Gandhi was experimenting with non-violence and civil-disobedience. But it was SAD which displayed the courage to stand against British using non-violence as a tool to free the gurdwaras and got covered in the foreign press too. Around 500 Sikhs died and 40000 were arrested in five years long agitation that ended with the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925. Akalis were even praised for non-violence during the Gurdwara Reform movement in Congress party resolution passed during its national session at Gaya in 1921.
The same spirit of non-violent agitation was also transferred to different agitations launched by Congress against British. The SAD cadre was in demand during Congress party agitations and there was no conflict between Congress and SAD at that time. It was just the start of issue-based alliance between Congress and SAD that continued till the mid-50s. There were many Sikh leaders including Master Tara Singh, who had dual membership of Congress and SAD.
When SAD stood for Pathans
Though it was the period when all communities were catering to their interests only, Master Tara Singh decided to sent an Akali Jatha to Peshawar in support of Pathans, who faced British atrocities during the Civil Disobedience Movement. Master Tara Singh left for Peshawar on May 10, 1930, with 100 Sikhs. He was arrested in Lahore whereas other members of Jatha were beaten with sticks to stop their march to Peshawar. While Master Tara Singh was in jail, he was elected SGPC president.
Nehru Committee and Communal award
The Simon Commission had noted that it was an injustice with Sikhs that Muslims got 30 per cent seats in Uttar Pradesh despite in legislature with their 14 per cent population where as Sikhs could get only 18 per cent seats in Punjab against 13 per cent population.
However, the Nehru Committee report declined to address the concerns of Sikhs about their representation in the legislature. Congress had later withdrawn the Nehru report after stiff opposition from Akalis. Later, Akalis also declined to accept the ‘Communal Award’. This time Congress was not ready to step back from the ‘Communal Reward’. Congress leader Madan Mohan Malwia had also pushed for voting against the ‘Communal Reward’ in a Congress party meeting on October 27, 1934 at Bombay. However, voting was in favour of the ‘Communal Award’. Master Tara Singh alleged that Congress was under the influence of the Muslim community and overlooking interests of Sikhs.
Congress-SAD election alliance
Master Tara Singh was nominated Sarab-Hind Congress delegate in January 1937. Though SAD never got the representation it demanded in legislature, its friendly association with Congress continued. SAD and Congress won 23 out of total 32 Sikh seats in Punjab assembly in 1937. It was a big success for both parties. The Unionist party formed the government.
In a working committee meeting on March 5, 1937, all Akalis were asked to become Congress members to strengthen the agitation against the British. It was also the time when Akali leaders felt Congress was not supporting them in issues important to the community. However, it was still asking its cadre to also join Congress in a gathering called in November 1938 at Raval village in the presence of Subash Chandra Bose.
SAD against formation of Pakistan as Congress positioned in favour
In its attempt to stop formation of Pakistan, SAD agreed to support the Britsh in the Second World War on the condition that recruitment of Sikhs will be increased in the Army, nominating one Sikh to the executive of viceroy and representations of Sikhs in jobs.
In a party conference called in February 1940, SAD opposed the idea of Pakistan and repeated its demand of ‘Sawraj’. Congress was also positioning in favour of Pakistan. It was a big setback for SAD and relations between Master Tara Singh and Mahatama Gandhi sore again. Gandhi wrote back to Master Tara Singh, “You have nothing in common with Congress. You believe in the rule of sword, Congress doesn’t.” This led to the resignation of Master Tara Singh from Congress. SAD condemned Gandhi and also asked Congress to clear its position on Pakistan. However, SAD agreed to support Congress party’s Civil Disobedience Movement on November 19, 1940.
Urdu was made a medium of education in Punjab in January 1941 and it was the first time when SAD took strong a position on Punjabi language. Akali Dal also fought to allow Sikhs to eat ‘Jhatka’ meat as the unionist government in Punjab had imposed restrictions. It was one of the points of Sikaendar-Baldev Singh Pact signed in June 1942 that also provided Sikhs a seat in viceroy executive.
Demand of Azad Punjab
SAD passed resolution for ‘Azad Punjab’ (Independent Punjab), a term coined by Master Tara Singh in June 1943. However, there was criticism of this demand within Congress and Master Tara Singh resigned from party and SGPC. In the run-up to Partition, the situation was volatile and changing everyday. It was no surprise that soon after he resigned, an all-Sikh parties meeting called at SGPC headquarters asked Master Tara Singh to make efforts for a separate Sikh state.
SAD again contested the 1946 elections in Punjab in alliance with Congress on a few Sikh seats. The Muslim League became the biggest party. SAD and Congress extended support to the Unionist party to form government. Demand of Pakistan was the only reason that SAD didn’t align with the Muslim League to form government. SAD always maintained that its first priority was United India, however, it demanded a separate Sikh state in case Pakistan is formed.
SAD again come close to Congress
Making a fresh start after Independence, the Akali Dal working committee asked the party’s Punjab Assembly members and MPs to join the Congress resolution on March 17, 1948. Then SAD president Giani Kartar Singh said that SAD didn’t want a separate election system if Congress was ready to look after the interests of Sikhs.
The Indian government made Punjabi and Hindi the medium of education in Punjab in 1948, however, the Jalandhar Municipal Committee passed resolution to provide education only in Hindi in its schools. It was followed by Punjab University to not adopt Punjabi as its medium. The Punjab government, however, made it compulsory to provide education in Punjabi in the Punjab zone, if parents of students agree.
It was the time when SAD accused Congress leaders and a section of media for running an agenda against Sikhs. Master Tara Singh decided to call a conference in Delhi to push for party demands at the time the Indian Constitution was being drafted. However, he was arrested on the way to Delhi on February 19, 1949.
Break away with Congress
SAD started raising demand for Punjabi Suba and the party asked its MLAs and MPs to come out of Congress government on July 29, 1950.
SAD victory in 1954 SGPC elections boosted the confidence of the party to push for Punjabi Suba. Punjab government, however, had banned the slogan of Punjabi Suba and SAD launched 64 days-long agitation to force government to withdraw the ban and it was another boost to the Akali Dal.
SAD intensified its agitation and finally the government came with ‘Regional Formala’ in response to the demand of Punjabi Suba. Though Master Tara Singh and other leaders were not fully satisfied with ‘Regional formula’ however, they agreed to it. Meanwhile Jan Sangh continued to oppose regional formula.
Regional formula again melt ice between Congress and SAD
Once again, the Congress and SAD came close. Master Tara Singh met then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru on June 30, 1956, and started negation about double membership of SAD and Congress. It was decided to partially merge Akali Dal into Congress on October 2, 1966. It started a brief period when SAD quit politics and limited itself to religion and cultural activities.
However it didn’t last long as Master Tara Singh announced his departure from Congress in January 1957 alleging Congress for discrimination with Akali Dal in seat distribution. Congress won 118 seats in 1957 in Punjab and 18 of these were SAD quota. Master Tara Singh couldn’t win any seat but his vote share was more than 23 per cent.
Meanwhile, the Hindi Rakhsha Samiti started a Hindi agitation against Regional Formula. This agitation again activated SAD politics. SAD accused the Punjab government for not implementing the regional formula. SAD restored its political constituency by defeating Congress supported Sadh Sangat Dal in SGPC elections on issue of Punjabi Suba. For the next six years, SAD stoked itself into Punjabi Suba Morcha and it ended in 1966 with formation of Punajbi Suba. Congress and SAD never came to terms again.
Operation Blue Star
Punjabi Suba Morcha started on May 25, 1960, and ended on October 1, 1961, registered arrests of 57,129 Akali workers. More than a dozen workers died during the agitation. Punjabi Suba was formed in November 1966. However, it was not an end to morcha culture within SAD, which had started with Gurudwara Reform Movement and which Congress turned against British before 1947. SAD leadership and workers also participated in protests against Emergency in big numbers followed by Dharam Yudh Morcha in 1982.
“Overwhelming support to protests by SAD against the Emergency created a hatred in Indira Gandhi’s mind not just for SAD, but the whole Sikh community. Indira Gandhi, after becoming PM, sacked the SAD government in the state and imposed President’s rule. This was the time when a conspiracy was designed to hurt the image of Akalis in the Sikh psyche,” says the documentary Jo Larey Deen ke Het, produced by Shiromani Aklai Dal, in 2017. Operation Blue Star ended any possibility SAD-Congress joining hands.
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