In a video statement issued from hiding, Amritpal Singh, the head of Waris Punjab De, has asked Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh to call the Sarbat Khalsa on Baisakhi Day (April 14) at the Takht Sri Damdama Sahib in Talwandi Sabo. Amritpal Singh has been on the run since March 18, when the Punjab Police moved to take him into custody.
The word sarbat means ‘all’, and literally, the Sarbat Khalsa is an assembly of all factions of Sikhs (Khalsa). The idea of a deliberative assembly of Sikhs dates back to the 18th century.
Following the death of the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikh misls (military units) began to convene the Sarbat Khalsa to discuss political, social, and religious issues of great importance to the community, which was then in the midst of its struggle against the Mughals.
These gatherings, called twice a year on the occasion of Baisakhi and Diwali, had the power to issue directions to all Sikhs. The Sarbat Khalsa was first institution of Sikhs that took shape after the tradition of Guru in human form came to end, and turned out to be very effective amid the internal conflicts among the misls.
The historian Henry Prinsep, who wrote one of the earliest histories of the Sikhs in the first half of the 19th century, recorded that despite their fierce sense of independence, all the Sikh misls sat together at the Sarbat Khalsa without any conflict.
After the Mughals executed Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, the commander of the Khalsa army, in 1716, the Sikhs began a guerrilla war that caused considerable damage to the state. To stop the Sikh raids, Zakarya Khan, the Mughal governor of Lahore, offered them the title of Nawab.
There was resistance to accepting this offer among the Sikhs, and the issue was discussed at the Sarbat Khalsa. After long deliberation, it was decided to accept the offer — however, instead of someone in the top leadership, a stableman named Kapur Singh was asked to take the title. The intention was to send a message to Zakarya Khan that the title of Nawab does not mean much for Sikhs.
Nawab Kapur Singh proved to be a very capable leader of the community, who combined the various Sikh militias into the Dal Khalsa. Subsequently, Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia was appointed by the Sarbat Khalsa to lead the Dal Khalsa.
The establishment of the Sikh kingdom by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1799 ended the era of the Sikh misls, and also the primary need for the institution of the Sarbat Khalsa. This was also the beginning of a period in which Sikhs experienced independence for the first time, which solved most of their issues.
In the 20th century, the formation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) further reduced the need for an institution like the Sarbat Khalsa. Over the years, the SGPC has set up a well-oiled mechanism for taking decisions on behalf of the community.
In 1920, the Sarbat Khalsa was called to discuss control over gurdwaras and subsequently, the SGPC was born.
After the Army action at the Golden Temple in 1984, some organisers called the Sarbat Khalsa, but prominent Sikh bodies including the SGPC were not part of the call. One of the most important of these gatherings was called on January 26, 1986, when radical Sikhs sought to discuss kar sewa at the Akal Takht, which had been damaged in Operation Bluestar. A panthic committee that was formed to decide on the future of the Sikh struggle later that year, gave a call for Khalistan.
More recently, Sikh bodies opposed to the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) called the Sarbat Khalsa on November 10, 2015. Resolutions were passed to remove Jathedars of the Akal Takht, Takht Damdama Sahib, and Takht Kesgarh Sahib, and to appoint other, parallel Jathedars. This Sarbat Khalsa impacted Punjab politics in a number of ways.