SARBATT KHALSA (sarbatt from Sanskrit sarva/ sarvatas meaning the whole or entire) is a term with a dual connotation. It is a concept as well as an institution. In the conceptual sense, KhaJsa is the extension of sarig”at, holycongregation, an institution which has been eulogized in the Sikh Scripture as symbolizing God`s Own presence (GG.460,1314, B35). Sarbatt Khalsa in this sense is a mystic entity representing the “integrated conscience” of the entire Sikh people imbued with the all pervasive spirit of the Divine. Guru Gobind Singh transformed sahgat into Khalsa sub serving God`s will or pleasure.

A verse in Sarabloh Granth, generally ascribed to the Guru, declares : “Khalsa is the army of the Akalpurakh, Khalsa is born of the wish of the Supreme Spirit.” Sarbatt Khalsa as the Guru Panth, along with the Guru Granth Sahib, is held to be the true and eternal spiritual successor in the line of personal Gurus ending with Guru Gobind Singh. In the other, historical, sense, Sarbatt Khalsa is the highest organ of the Khalsa Commonwealth representing its “integrated will,” which no Sikh commoner, sardar or prince could dare defy. Sarbatt Khalsa, meeting in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, is the supreme sovereign body, with deliberative and executive powers, including authority to direct the affairs of the community.

The institution of Sarbatt Khalsa grew out of the needs and compulsions of the turbulent eighteenth century when Sikhs, driven away from their homes to find shelter in remote hills and forests in large or small batches, the ablebodied baptized Singhs among each forming a fighting band, living off the land in defiance of the imperial might, it became customary for them to assemble at Amritsar, especially on the occasions of Baisakhi and Divali. These gatherings of warriors and noncombatants considered to be representing the entire Panth, came to be called Sarbatt Khalsa.

In this general sense, Sarbatt Khalsa denoted, as it still does, the entire body or the whole commonwealth of Sikhs in whose name ardas or the supplicatory prayer was offered individually or at public congregations. The Sarbatt Khalsa discussed and took decisions by common counsel upon matters of policy and upon matters requiring action. Reports on the activities of different jathas or groups were taken note of and strategies in respect of their continuing conflict with their Mughal and Afghan oppressors as well as in respect of their relationship with friendly powers such as the Jats and the Marathas were worked out.

The earliest known meeting of the Sarbatt Khalsa took place on the occasion of Divali in 1723 when a clash between Tat Khalsa and the Bandais (owing fealty to Ban da Singh Bahadur) was averted and amicably settled through the intervention and wise counsel of Bhai Mani Singh. The next notable Sarbatt Khalsa held soon after the martyrdom of Bhai Tara Singh of DallVan in 1726 passed a gurmata, as the decisions of the Sarbatt Khalsa were designated, laying down a threefold plan of action, viz. to plunder government treasures in transit between local and regional offices and the central treasury ; to raid government armouries for weapons and stables for horses and carriages ; and, to eliminate government informers and lackeys.

Another Sarbatt Khalsa assembled in 1733 deliberated upon and accepted the government offer of a Nawabship andjaglr to the Panth. Under a gurmata of the Sarbatt Khalsa on 14 October (Divali day) 1745, the active fighting force of the Sikhs was reorganized into 25 jathas or bands of about 100 each. A further reorganization into 11 divisions or misis forming the Dal Khalsa was made by Sarbatt Khalsa on Baisakhi, 29 March 1748. Thus, Sarbatt Khalsa became the central body of whatJ.D`. Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, terms a “theocratic confederate feudalism” established by the misls.

But as the misi chiefs settled down in their respective territories, with the threat of invasion or intervention from outside eliminated, they began to bicker and fight amongst themselves. In that situation, Sarbatt Khalsa gatherings became less frequent and less important. Their constitution also changed. Whereas formerly all present could take part in the deliberations, now it was only the misi chiefs or their vakils (representatives) who mattered. With the establishment of monarchy under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the institution fell into desuetude.

The last known Sarbatt Khalsa assembly took place in 1805 to deliberate upon the question of policy to be adopted towards Jasvant Rao Holkar, the Maratha chief who, defeated by the British, had sought the Sikhs` help. Only chosen Sikh chiefs were invited by Ranjit Singh to take part in the convention. Opinions were freely expressed, but the role of the assembly was only advisory, the final word resting with the new sovereign, Ranjit Singh. Some details about the working of the Sarbatt Khalsa have come down to us through the writings of near contemporaries.According to them, the Sarbatt Khalsa was invariably convened at the Akal Takht.

The participants after ablutions in the holy sarovar and obeisance at the Harimandar, assembled in the open space in front of the Takht where Guru Granth Sahib was seated attended by Akali (Nihang) officiants. According to John Malcolm, Sketch of the Sikhs : When the chiefs and principal leaders meet upon this solemn occasion, it is concluded that all private animosities cease and that every man sacrifices his personal feelings at the shrine of general good and actuated by the principles of pure patriotism, thinks of nothing but the interests of the religion and the commonwealth to which he belongs.

After the prayers (ardas) and distribution of karah prasad, the session commenced: Then distinction of original tribes, which are on other occasions kept up, are on this occasion laid aside in token of their general and complete union in one cause. The Akalis then exclaim, “Sardars (chiefs), this is a Gurmata” on which prayers are again said aloud. The chiefs after tills sit closer and say to each other, `the sacred Granth is betwixt us, let us swear by our scripture to forget all internal disputes and to be united`. This moment of religious fervour and ardent patriotism is taken to reconcile all animosities.

They then proceed to consider the danger with which they are threatened, to settle the best plans for averting it and to choose the generals who are to lead their armies against the common enemy. In recent years efforts have been made to revive the institution of Sarbatt Khalsa to discuss important political issues confronting the Panth but no consensus on its constitution or commonly accepted sanction has so far emerged. 10. Gian Singh, Giani, Panth Prakash [Reprint]. Patiala, 1970 11. Sukhdial Singh, Akal Takht Sahib. Patiala, 1984

References :

1. Malcolm, John, Sketch of the Sikhs [Reprint]. Patiala, 1970
2. Forester, George, A Journey from Bengal to England. London, 1798 .
3. Prinsep, Henry T., Origin of the Sikh Power in the Punjab and Political Life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Calcutta, 1834
4. Ganda Singh, ed.. Early European Accounts of the Sikhs. Calcutta, 1962
5. Gupta, Hari Ram, History of the Sikhs, vol. II. Delhi, 1978
6. Khuswant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, vol. I. Princeton, 1963
7. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1983
8. Sinha, N.K., Rise of the Sikh Power. Calcutta, 1960
9. Bhangu, Ratan Singh, Prachin Panth Prakash. Amritsar, 1914