JATHA, from Sanskrit yutha meaning a herd, flock, multitude, troop, band or host, signifies in the Sikh tradition a band of volunteers coming forth to carry out a specific task, be it armed combat or a peaceful and nonviolent agitation. It is not clear when the term jathd first gained currency, but it was in common use by the first half of the eighteenth century. After the arrest and execution of Banda Singh Bahadur in 1716, the terror let loose by the Mughal government upon the Sikhs forced them to leave their homes and hearths and move about in small bands or jathds, each grouped around ajatheddror leader who came to occupy this position on account of his daring spirit and capacity to win the confidence of his comrades.

For every able bodied Sikh who had undergone the vows of the Khalsa, it became necessary to join one or the other jathd to fight against the oppressors. Besides skill in the use of arms, he had to be a good horseman, because in guerilla warfare, such as the Sikhs had to resort to against the superior might of the State, speed and mobility were of paramount importance. The weaponry, in the beginning, ranged from knobbed clubs, spears and battle axes to bow and arrows and matchlocks. A long sword and a dagger were of course carried by every member of the Khalsa.

Some of them wore armour, but no helmets. During raids on enemy columns and baggage trains, the booty most valued was good horses and matchlocks so that most of the jathds were gradually equipped with firearms. Heavy artillery pieces were not favoured, as they impeded mobility and speed. However, as Ratan Singh Bharigu, Prachin Panth Prakash, says, they did carry lighter pieces such as zambiiraks or camel swivels and long range muskets, called janjails. Usually, each jathd had to fend for itself; yet it was necessary to coordinate its activities with those of others and operate under an overall plan.

The diverse jathds voluntarily accepted the control of Sarbatt Khalsa, the assembly of all the Sikh jathds at Amritsar on the occasions of Baisakhi and Divali when plans of action were formulated in the form of gurmafdsor resolutions adopted in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib. The brief respite provided by a temporary detente with the government during 1733-35 enabled the Sk} jathds to assemble and stay in strength at Amritsar with immunity. Nawab Kapur Singh, their chosen leader, knit the entire force into two dais, i.e. branches or sections the Buddha Dal (army of the old) and Taruna Dal (army of the young). Taruna Dal was further divided into five jathds each with its own flag.

With the end of the detente and the renewal of State persecution with redoubled vigour, the Sikhs had again recourse to smaller and more numerous jathds. Need for coordination forced them again to regroup themselves on the Divali of 1745 into 25 jathds, but the number multiplied again. `All udDIn Mufti, `Ibrat Ndmah, mentions 65 jathds. They were finally reorganised on the Baisakhi of 1748 into 11 misis, under the overall command of Jassa Singh AhluvalTa. The entire fighting force of the Sikhs was named Dal Khalsa Ji. The misis owere large bodies of mounted warriors and might have been divided into subunits, but the terms jathd an djatheddr gradually fell into disuse.

The leaders of misis and J/VI ruKA the Dal Khalsa preferred to be called sarddrs, a term borrowed from the Afghan invaders under Ahmad Shah Durranl. The establishment of monarchy under Maharaja Ranjit Singh put an end to all these older institutions jathd, misi, Dal Khalsa, Sarbatt Khalsa and gurmatd. During the religious revival of the later nineteenth century, the Sikh reformers adopted the term Khalsa Diwan for their central bodies and Singh Sabha for the local branches as well as for the entire movement. The term jathd was generally restricted to bands of preachers and choirs, a connotation still in vogue. It was during the Gurdwara Reform movement of the early twentieth century that dal and jathd reappeared.

The apex body of Sikh agitators for political action for the liberation of their shrines from the mahants, the effete priestly class, came to be named the Shiromam Akali Dal and its locally organized branches Akali Jathas. During the subsequent morchdsor peaceful agitations organized by the Shiromam Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, a body that later got statutory recognition under the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, and by the ShiromanT Akali Dal, which emerged as the major political party of the Sikhs, each band of volunteers going forward to press a demand or to defy an unjust fiat of the government, was called a jathd. This use of the term is still prevalent.

References :

1. Bharigii, Ratan Singh, Prachm Panth Prukdsh. Amritsar, 1914
2. Ganda Singh, Sardar Jassd Singh Ahluvdiid. Paliala, 1969
3. Forsler, George, A Journey from Bengal lo England, 2 vols. London, 1798
4. Khushwant Singli, A History of the Sikhs, vol.1. Princeton, 1963
5. Bhagat Singh, Sikh Polity in the Eighteenth find-Nineteenth Centuries. Delhi, 1978
6. Gandhi, Snrjit Singh, St-niggle of the Sikhs for Sovereignty. Delhi, 1980
7. Fauja Singh, Military System of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1964