JATHEDAR BHAI KARTAR SINGH JHABBAR
In his book The Akali Movement (National Institute of Punjab Studies, New Delhi, p. 94), Dr. Mohinder Singh describes Jhabbar as the first jathedar—missionary leader—of the Sikhs in the 20th century.
Prof. Kartar Singh writes, “The part played by Sardar Kartar Singh Jhabbar in bringing the gurdwaras under direct Panthic management and control was unique, decisive, and most fruitful. But for him, the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee could not have been formed in the form and manner, and at the opportune time that it was formed, nor commanded the respect and authority among the Sikh masses which it did because of the manner, form, and place of its constitution. Again, the Shromani Akali Dal, the militant organization which supplied brave, selfless workers to carry out the orders of the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and to make enormous sacrifices in doing so, and which has, ever since, played a most prominent part in the public affairs of the Sikhs and the country at large, came into existence as a result of his brain-wave and initiative. The name Akali Dal itself was of his coinage” (Sikh Phulwari Souvenir, by Sikh Missionary College).
Sarabjit Pandher, in a special feature of The Hindu titled “Shiromani Akali Dal: Legendary Leaders” wrote, “The role of Jathedar Kartar Singh Virk alias Jhabbar in the struggles that led to the creation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and the Shiromani Akali Dal seemed to have set high standards for those who followed. A descendant of the legendary Jhabbar chiefs of Sheikhupura (now in Pakistan), he was accepted as a leader who faced the most daunting tasks.”
Kartar Singh belonged to a family with an illustrious history. Notably, his grandfather, Sardar Mangal Singh Virk, was kumedan—a commander—in the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the legendary founder and ruler of the first Sikh empire of Punjab (1801–39). Mangal Singh attained this position for his demonstrated bravery. Mangal Singh’s ancestors, for their part, had the fortitude, alongside other Virks and members of Singhpuria Misl (also sometimes called the Virk Misl), by repeatedly repulsing forcible and coercive attempts to be consolidated into the Sukharchakia misl of Raja Mahan Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s father. Misls were autonomous regions, each with a standing army, comprising the Sikh confederacy during the 18th century. When Maharaja Ranjit Singh succeeded to the throne and continued the drive to expand the regions under his control, he took a different approach, as the Virks continued to resist. He made a pact of peace and joined forces with the Virk Misl, offering one of its brave leaders, Mangal Singh Virk, the position of kumedan and marriage to his daughter.
Jathedar Kartar Singh Jhabbar was born in the early 1870s to a prominent Sikh family of farmers in the village of Jhabbaran in district Sheikhupura of Punjab. Although born into a Virk family, he later took on the name of his village for his considerable contributions to his community and religion, as was the regional norm for the famous sons of a village. His early life was unremarkable in most respects, aside from his oft-demonstrated fearlessness. Arguably this trait may have stemmed from his strong family heritage of resistance, as discussed above.
Kartar Singh grew up living the rural family life of a typical buffalo-herding Jat landowner family. He received limited schooling in his village, opting to work the soil and ride horses. Anecdotal evidence suggests that he demonstrated leadership skills and fearlessness in his youth. In the early to mid-1890s, around the age of twenty, he had an arranged marriage. The couple had three sons and a daughter spread over a long period, of which only two sons survived early life.
Around 1904, young Kartar Singh had an epiphany while listening to a lecture by the Sikh preacher Bhai Mool Singh Gurmula. Leaving behind peasant life, he embraced a lifelong mission of serving the cause of the Sikh religion and community—the panthic cause. As background, for over a hundred years leading up to the second half of the nineteenth century, Sikh affairs had been primarily dominated by militarism in empire-building. This period had led to much neglect and erosion of Sikh religious, communal, and cultural matters. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a Sikh renaissance had begun through the founding of Singh Sabhas, local chapters of a social movement dedicated to protecting and promoting the Sikh religion and way of life. Bhai Mool Singh Gurmala’s work emanated from this movement. The situation of Sikh affairs was further compounded by British efforts at domination, resulting in their effective control over Sikh congregations and gurdwaras in the beginning of the twentieth century. Such repressive practices were not uncommon towards any peoples in India that the British ruled over, but were particularly targeted at the Sikhs against whom they had lost two battles before prevailing in the third.
Bhai Jhabbar, as he was initially known, joined the ranks of Bhai Gurmula, and thereby, the social movement endeavoring to restore Sikh religious and cultural awareness and Sikh communal practices.
Preacher and Reformer
The first lecture of Bhai Gurmula made such an impression on young Jhabbar that he found every opportunity to listen to additional lectures. Over time, Bhai Gurmula and Jhabbar formed a close bond. Recognizing Jhabbar’s dedication, Bhai Gurmula helped him gain admission to an esteemed school of religious studies so he could immerse himself in the study of Gurmat—Sikh religious studies—for three years. Around 1910, Jhabbar, now qualified in Sikh studies, dedicated his time to educating others, both through his preaching and through the opening of new schools. During this period, not only did he effectively relocate to Lahore, but also tirelessly travelled from village to village, carrying the message of gurmat. While in Lahore, he took charge of the affairs of the local Singh Sabha, whose membership he helped enhance manifold over a seven-year period. He worked without any remuneration, as was the case throughout his life’s work. His time away from his family—his wife and two sons—left his father, Teja Singh Virk, in effect, responsible to care and provide for them. Following the Lahore phase of his career, Jhabbar began to spend much time at Churhkhana, where he was actively engaged in the school he had helped establish.
Initiation into Politics
Working on community issues, Jhabbar had run-ins with British authorities on numerous occasions, all resulting in amicable resolutions. This changed, however, during the protests triggered by the Rowlatt Act of March 1919, which allowed political cases to be tried without juries and allowed internment without trial in response to political unrest that had developed after the Komagata Maru incident of 1914. Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship chartered primarily by Sikhs—who made up 85% of the nearly 400 passengers—for emigration to British Columbia. Denied immigration, the ship was returned to India where the British, fearing the returning group as troublemakers, confronted them, resulting in over 20 shot dead and most of the rest imprisoned. As the Rowlatt Act protests spread widely, especially in Punjab, the British responded with the horrific massacre of over 1000 peaceful Sikhs gathered on the religious occasion of Baisakhi in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, in April 1919. This only served to further inflame the people as widespread protests turned into riots, including the burning of train stations and bridges. As Jhabbar learned of a stranded train at Churhkhana, he rushed to help vulnerable passengers against rampaging rioters. He successfully helped provide safe harbour to many before soldiers arrived on the scene.
In the wake of these riots, the authorities arrested hundreds, including Jhabbar, who was then falsely implicated as a perpetrator of the riots. Being familiar with his communal work and leadership, albeit peaceful, the British authorities conveniently used the riots as a pretext to stymie the Sikh leader. Jhabbar was sentenced to be hung to death. Fortunately, as it happened, not only was the sentence first commuted to a life-sentence at the remote Andaman Islands prison but subsequently terminated entirely. After a year’s harsh captivity in the island prison, widely known as kala pani (black water), Jhabbar returned to Punjab in 1920. The time in jail led to numerous interactions with other political prisoners and freedom fighters, sharpening his political dissent against British rule. Back in Punjab, his work took on a growing political focus.
Gurdwara Sudhar and Genesis of the Akali Movement
After returning to Punjab, Jhabbar addressed his attention to the problematic occupation of gurdwaras by mahants (temple managers) and pujaris (priests). Management and effective control,of Sikh gurdwaras, from the period soon after their establishment, had been in the hands of hereditary mahants, who were either nominally Sikh and not strict practitioners or non-Sikh administrators of gurdwaras. Over time, and especially as they gained land tracts, they became powerful and corrupt, leading to greater self-enhancement and a decline in worshippers’ practices and sometimes even the violation of the sanctity of a sacred place. In the extreme, some gurdwaras served as venues for personal pleasures and business of the mahants in an immoral and sacrilegious affront to the Sikhs. Furthermore, there was also widespread misappropriation of patron donations, including for purposes of making financial contributions to the British. In return, the British provided tacit support and effective protection to the mahants’ power, thereby gaining indirect control of gurdwaras.
On October 5, 1920, Jathedar Jhabbar (leader Jhabbar), as he later came to be known, along with fellow leaders like Jathedar Teja Singh Bhuchher, led a jatha, an orderly procession, to successfully evict the offending mahant of Gurdwara Babe di Beri in Sialkot. Confronted with overwhelming numbers of marchers, the mahant asked the local (British) District Commissioner (DC) to intervene. The DC, having arrived with his police force, ultimately chose not to interfere in internal Sikh affairs. After evicting the mahant, Jathedar Jhabbar then peacefully took possession of the gurdwara and formed a management committee to oversee its affairs. This gave birth to the Gurdwara Freedom Movement, or Gurdwara Sudhar (Reform) Movement, as it is variously called. Word of this success quickly spread across Punjab.
Founding of the predecessor of SGPC and Akali Dal
Just two months later, on December 12, Jathedar Jhabbar and Jathedar Bhuchher happened to be in Amritsar when the priests at the Golden Temple denied worship to lower-caste Sikhs. Rushing to the Golden Temple, Jathedar Jhabbar asserted that the gurdwara was an inclusive place of worship. As the standoff persisted, Jhabbar proclaimed that if the mahants do not provide access, then his group would take charge of the gurdwara to secure communal access. The mahants summoned fighters to push out Jathedar Jhabbar’s group, but the latter group was able to repel the fighters. Just as in Sialkot, the mahant’s appeal to the British DC ended in the official not interfering in Sikh affairs. Again, a committee was created to manage the affairs of the Golden Temple. Being the seat of the Sikh religion, Akal Takht, the newly-created Shiromani Gurdwara Committee became the highest religious body. It was eventually merged with a parallel Prabhandak Committee, forming the current Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC).
During this early period and in quick succession, emboldened by the non-intervention of the British government, a series of jathas led by Jathedar Jhabbar resulted in Sikhs gaining control over several important gurdwaras. Notably, these included gurdwaras at Panja Sahib, Sacha Sauda, and Tarn Taran. Management of each of these gurdwaras was returned to a local Singh Sabha committee, securing unfettered access for the community. Barring one bloody contest at Tarn Taran, all of these transfers happened peacefully, with Jathedar Jhabbar exhibiting the deft skills of an ambassador but the formidable heft of a general when needed.
After liberating Panja Sahib Gurdwara, Jathedar Jhabbar formally formed a Sikh jatha with dedicated members in January 1921 in order to better organize Sikh missions. Initially named the Akali Jatha Khara Sauda Bar, he proposed the Akali Jatha be based in Amritsar as a standing jatha for interventions to take control of gurdwaras. Akalis, as the participants in this movement began to be known, gained recognition as a body across the country and, in particular, among the British authorities. Years later, Jathedar Jhabbar was instrumental in renaming the movement Akali Dal and establishing Amritsar as its permanent headquarters. The Akali Dal has since evolved into a leading political party in the state of Punjab.
Liberation of Nankana Sahib
Early in 1921, Jathedar Jhabbar turned his attention to Gurdwara Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, which was under the control of a particularly immoral mahant, Narain Das. He requested and received permission from the new Shiromani Gurdwara Committee at the Akal Takht to lead a jatha to gain control of Nankana Sahib. Jathedar Jhabbar at first engaged in futile negotiations with the mahant to relinquish control in return for an economic allowance. When all else failed, plans were made for a large jatha to make a liberation march on Gurdwara Nankana Sahib.
The mahant had planned an armed defence with a mercenary group stationed at the gurdwara. As the appointed day arrived and word had spread of the battle-ready group, Jathedar Jhabbar received a wire from the Shiromani Committee to delay his march in order to avoid bloodshed. Jhabbar reluctantly agreed and accordingly sent word to various collected jathas, but one 200-strong jatha ignored his instructions and chose to march forward. Members of this group were butchered in an ambush on the grounds of the gurdwara. Over a hundred were martyred on that day. As word of this got to the authorities, they arrested the mahant and many of the perpetrators and took control of the gurdwara with 150 fully armed soldiers.
Incensed, on the very next day, Jathedar Jhabbar led 2,200 armed Sikhs as their sole commander in the march to the Nankana Sahib gurdwara, all ready to sacrifice their lives until possession was achieved. As the procession moved forward, repeated warnings and pleas to Jhabbar from Sikh leaders to retreat for fear of further bloodshed fell on deaf ears. Nearing the gurdwara, repeated British ultimatums to stop or face gunfire were also met with defiance as Jhabbar relentlessly led the marchers ever closer. Reportedly, he said to the British commander that while the guns may kill him and some members of the jatha, there were enough of them present to overwhelm the guns and reach the gurdwara. Ultimately, the ranking British official chose to avoid bloodshed and handed Jhabbar the keys to the gurdwara. This peaceful standoff and success were lauded all across India as national leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, visited the gurdwara and congratulated Jathedar Jhabbar. This success by Jathedar Jhabbar and the Akalis was seen by the Indian political leadership as an early validation of their own policy of non-cooperation as a central pillar in the fight to liberate India from the British.
The events at Nankana Sahib triggered a succession of negotiations and peaceful transfers of gurdwara control from mahants to prabhandak committees. Many gurdwaras, though, continued to remain under mahants, and therefore, British, control.
British Pushback of the Akalis and the Gurdwara Movement—1921-25
The British quickly became wary of the Akali movement, fearing its possible coalition with the broader non-cooperation movement spearheaded by the Indian National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi. They issued directives outlawing gurdwara possession gained by the Gurdwara Shiromani Committee and the local Singh Sabhas from the mahants. This was a move to reiterate and re-legitimise the mahant management of gurdwaras. Although effective control of liberated gurdwaras was not returned to mahants, further progress was stymied. The practical ramifications, and the true goal of the directive, was to target and arrest Akali leaders for their role in the liberation movement and to ban and monitor Akali gatherings—an effort to weaken or disband the Akalis. Undaunted, Jathedar Jhabbar continued to openly oppose the British in promoting Akali jathas, gatherings, and the right to religious freedom. He was sent to jail several times, as were other Sikh leaders in the hundreds. During this phase, Jathedar Jhabbar spent several years in jail enduring solitary confinement, hard labour, and torture. One such imprisonment caused him to be hospitalized in a severely weakened form, which eventually led to his release on grounds of poor health.
The British were so resolute in their anti-Akali posture that not only did they abandon their initial policy of non-intervention in internal Sikh affairs but went so far as to acquit Narain Das and many other perpetrators who had been initially sentenced to death or life imprisonment for their roles in the Nankana Sahib massacre. Furthermore, in a symbolic move, they retained control of the keys to the Akal Takht at the Golden Temple and refused to hand them over to the Shiromani Committee that now managed Sikh affairs. The standoff on this matter led to public protests at Ajnala in late 1921, resulting in the single largest wholesale arrest of Sikh leadership, including that of Jathedar Jhabbar. In another notable example, the jathas to liberate Guru Ka Bagh Gurdwara from another particularly immoral mahant in 1922 led to waves of jathas being arrested in 1922, ultimately amounting to 565 arrests. These confrontations received a national spotlight and a flood of donations. In another example, after the dethroning of the Maharaja of Nabha by the British, massive protests occurred at the Jetu Gurdawara in 1923. The authorities responded with the banning of akhand path, an integral Sikh prayer service. This triggered further waves of jathas attempting to recite the akhand path. Each wave was repelled by police firing and arrests. By early 1924, about a 100 participants were martyred, and hundreds injured in their effort to restore prayer services at this gurdwara.
The Gurdwara Act of 1925
In the wake of the clampdown of gurdwara liberation by the Akalis, a state committee was tasked in 1921 to review the matter of gurdwara management. The nominally independent committee recommended legislation to enshrine the freedom of Sikh religious practices at gurdwaras and their management. As the legislation began to be drafted, it provided many conditions and qualifications to the terms, with the result of not entirely ridding the system of mahant participation. The Sikh leadership invited to review various drafts insisted upon unqualified access and management control of gurdwaras, taking a stiff position against the compromised draft legislation. Over this period, as the broader British oppression of Sikhs hardened, this legislation was entirely shelved.
By 1925, under the weight of the courageous sacrifices, unwavering commitment, and steadfast representation by Akali and Sikh leaders, the government returned to the shelved Gurdwara Act. This time, it consulted the Sikh leadership in drafting the law, leaving the management of gurdwaras and their free use under the leadership of the newly formed Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Commttee (SGPC) through a merger of existing bodies as mandated by the Act. Jathedar Jhabbar’s mission to liberate gurdwaras was accomplished as he was released from his latest jail sentence, along with other imprisoned leaders, on the occasion of the signing of this Act. The Akali movement he started had come to its resolution, leaving Sikh affairs in the management of the SGPC, a body he helped to shape.
The Sikhs made great sacrifices and endured pain and hardship to win their religious battle against the British. The Akali movement culminating in the Gurdwara Act was heralded as an early success against the British, which played a catalysing role in emboldening the broader political fight for freedom.
Later Life: Return to Community Affairs
After 1925, Jathedar Jhabbar returned to his community work and his preaching of Sikh studies. He was active as a member of the committee that finalized the Sikh Rehat Maryada, a guide to the Sikh way of life and heritage. He was often invited to various places to intervene in communal disputes and problems. A notable example of his leadership on communal issues occurred around 1935. A dispute broke out in Muslim-majority Jandiala, where the local Muslims challenged the Sikh right to kill chicken and goats by the jhatka method, which was different from their preferred halal method. Several people lost their lives in the fights that ensued. Upon an invitation to intervene, Jathedar Jhabbar took up the matter with the authorities, including a visit to the capital in Simla, and convened an all-religion conference in Jandiala to secure the Sikh right to consume non-halal meat. His efforts led to a negotiated understanding enshrining the respective use of halal and jhatka methods.
Another instance of his work in the 1930s includes the episode at Kot Fateh Khan. The local gurdwara had received a demand from the local nawab—ruler—claiming a share of its income. When this demand was refused, the nawab seized the gurdwara land and caused damage to its property. Local congregants reached out to Jhabbar. He arrived with a jatha that was met by the nawab’s armed force. Undeterred, Jhabbar and his jatha were able to enter the gurdwara and hold their ground until the local police agreed to intervene in favor of the gurdwara.
In January 1933, Jathedar Jhabbar and Narain Singh, the general manager of Nankana Sahib Gurdwara, acted to end illegal farming on the gurdwara estate land and to evict the illegal tenants brought by Lehna Dass, the former mahant occupant of the gurdwara. During the eviction process, likely in a tussle between a volunteer and a tenant, one of the tenants died. Yet again, Jathedar Jhabbar found himself behind bars, along with Narain Singh, both leaders of the group. At the behest of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, a trial was initiated, which found Jhabbar innocent of the murder charge.
All the way through to independence, Jhabbar never backed off from his challenges of the anti-Indian and anti-Sikh policies of the British government. As a result, the authorities kept a close watch on his movements and monitored his utterances. From time-to-time, arrest warrants were issued in his name, but he managed to avoid any long incarceration. Possibly the last such instance in undivided India was a warrant issued by the Deputy Commissioner of Sheikhupura for a speech Jhabbar made in 1944 that ended in a sentence for a year in prison.
Partition and Migration
Jhabbar’s home and much of the area he had traversed during his community and preaching work fell on the Pakistan side of the partition. At the time of partition and the independence of India in 1947, Sikhs and Hindus on the Pakistan side were advised to leave for the Indian side, just as Muslims on the Indian side were urged to move to Pakistan. These migrations turned violent as inter-communal attacks are estimated to have taken up to two million lives. By 1948, up to 20 million people had been displaced. Jhabbar rode from village to village urging Sikhs and Hindus to take refuge in the gurdwaras of Nankana Sahib and Sacha Sauda among others, where massive camps had been arranged as transit points for migrants waiting to mount buses headed across the new border to India. He was the last to leave the gurdwara of Sacha Sauda.
After losing everything they owned in Jhabbaran, his family was given compensatory land and a home in Habri village in the Karnal district of Indian Punjab. He continued his community work and joined in support of Sikh causes whenever he could. He was held in high esteem by the younger and new leadership in Punjab, including Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon and the Maharaja of Patiala. He threw his weight behind the Punjabi Suba movement in the 1950s, which demanded a redrawing of the map of the Indian Punjab such that it became a Punjabi language-majority region.
His long and illustrious life ended on November 20, 1962 at his new home in Habri. At his wish, the cremation ceremony and prayer service was a modest one and his ashes were spread in a nearby stream.