CHIEF KHALSA DIWAN. Until the emergence of more radical platforms such as the Sikh League (1919), Shiromam Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (1920) and Shiromani Akali Dal (1920), the Chief Khalsa Diwan, established on 30 October 1902, was the main council of the Sikhs, controlling their religious and educational affairs and raising its voice in behalf of their political rights. It has proved to be a durable setup and it still retains its initiative in education, though its role in the other spheres has progressively shrunken over the years.

It was originally conceived as a central organization of the Sikhs to replace Khalsa Diwan, Amritsar, and Khalsa Diwan, Lahore, then torn by a conflict which was hampering the work of Singh Sabhas affiliated to them. A large public assembly held in the Malvai Buriga, in the vicinity of the Golden Temple at Amritsar, on the Baisakhi day of 1901, constituted a committee to draw up the constitution of such a unitary body. The draft prepared was finally adopted on 21 September 1902.

The opening session of the new society, designated Chief Khalsa Diwan, was held in the Malvai Bunga on the Divali day, 30 October 1902, Babu Teja Singh, of Bhasaur, saying the inaugural ardas or prayer. Bhai Arjan Singh, of Bagarian, was elected president, Sundar Singh Majithia secretary and Sodhi Sujan Singh additional secretary. A total of twenty-nine Singh Sabhas including those of Amritsar, Rawalpindi, Agra, Bhasaur, Badbar, Multan, Dakha and Kairon affiliated themselves to the Diwan, the number rising to 53 in an year`s time.

Enrichment of the cultural, educational, spiritual and intellectual life of the Sikhs, preaching the tenets of the Guru Granth Sahib, propagating Sikh history, and protecting the rights of the Sikhs by putting up memoranda and memorials to the government were among its main concerns. It especially aimed at opening schools and institutions for the spread of education among men and women, publishing books on Sikh history, sacred texts and doctrine, translating into Punjabi works from other languages and opening institutions of community welfare. Membership of the Diwan was open to all amntdhan Sikhs, i.e. those who had received the rites of Khalsa initiation and who could read and write Gurmukhi.

Members were also expected to contribute for the common needs of the community the obligatory dasvandh, or one-tenth of their annual income. Any Singh Sabha or any other Sikh society sharing its ideology could have itself affiliated to the Diwan. The Chief Khalsa Diwan theoretically incorporated the perspectives and decisions of five major committees. A general committee consisted of representatives from member institutions, members delegated by the takhts and the Sikh princely states and individuals who met fiscal and service criteria.

That committee elected an executive committee that met monthly and conducted most of the regular business, referring critical matters to the broader body. The other three committees dealt with finances, advice (legal, administrative, religious) and life members. In general, the Chief Khalsa Diwan solicited public input on issues and spent considerable time discussing letters and differing opinions. It frequently circulated documents to Singh Sabhas or published them in journals for public comment.

For example, the Diwan sent out a questionnaire about opening the Guru Granth Sahib in public meetings and decided on the basis of the replies received (over 1,600) that the correct thing to do was to open the Guru Granth Sahib in a room connected to the assembly but not in the public meeting hall. To propagate the message of the Gurus, the Chief Khalsa Diwan recruited a cadre of preachers.

The Delhi darbar of 1903 when the Duke of Connaught was visiting India as a representative of the British Crown was considered an appropriate occasion to initiate the programme and several religious divans or congregations were convened in the city by the Diwan to acquaint the people with the beliefs and practices of the Sikhs. An English translation of Guru Nanak`sJapu was distributed. Besides towns and cities in the Punjab, the Diwan preachers made regular visits to adjacent provinces, notably North-West Frontier Province and Sindh.

To train ragis (musicians who recited the sacred hymns), granthis (Scripture readers) and preachers, the Diwan opened in 1906 a Khalsa Pracharak Vidyalaya at Tarn Taran, near Amritsar. In 1903, it launched its weekly newspaper, the Khalsa Advocate. Religious reform was one of the main objects of the Chief Khalsa Diwan, and in pursuit of this aim it undertook to codify the Sikh ritual and rules of conduct. To this end, a committee was set up on 20 October 1910, consisting of Bhai Teja Singh, of Bhasaur, Sant Gurbakhsh Singh, of Patiala, Bhai Vir Singh, BhaiJodh Singh, M.A., Bhai Takht Singh, Trilochan Singh, M.A., and the Secretary of the Diwan.

The draft the committee prepared was circulated widely among the Singh Sabhas and other Sikh societies as well as among prominent individuals. The process was repeated twice, and the code as finalized after prolonged deliberations was published in March 1915 under the title Gurmat. Prakash: Bhag Sanskar. Historically, this was an important document, standing midway between the traditional Rahitnamas and the Sikh Rahit Maryada issued by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in 1950.

Linked with religious reform was the Chief Khalsa Diwan`s programme for the promotion of Punjabi language and literature. For this purpose it established a Punjabi Pracharak subcommittee and assiduously sought to have Punjabi, in Gurmukhi script, accepted in government offices, especially in the postal and railways departments, for certain preliminary work. The Diwan also opened libraries and Gurmukhi schools as well as night classes for adults. It established in 1908 a Khalsa Handbill Society to prepare lithographed posters in Punjabi for free distribution.

Advancement of Punjabi was one of the main planks of the Sikh Educational Conference formed in 1908 at the instance of the Diwan dignitaries such as Sundar Singh Majithia and Harbaris Singh Atari who, travelling through Sindh preaching Guru Nanak`s word, had attended in December 1907 a session of the Muhammadan Educational Conference at Karachi and returned with the idea of having a similar institution set up for Sikhs. Besides channelizing the Diwan`s work in behalf of Punjabi, the Sikh Educational Conference did much to promote Western style education among Sikhs. Its annual sessions rotating from town to town were always occasions for considerable public fervour.

They were largely attended and, besides discussion of the problems of Sikh education, they comprised religious sessions as well as competitions of Sikh kirtan and poetry. The Conference still continues to be an active wing of the Chief Khalsa Diwan. To ensure for Sikhs their due share in government employment and in power then available to the Indian people, the Chief Khalsa Diwan kept up pressure on the British authority through representations and memoranda. In 1913, one of its leaders, Sundar Singh Majithia, presented Sikh demands and claims before the Royal Commission. Sundar Singh had been nominated a member of the Imperial Council in 1909 replacing Tikka Ripudaman Singh, heir apparent ofNabha state.

There in the Council he piloted the Anand Marriage Bill introduced by his predecessor in 1908. This was a major step towards reforming Sikh ritual. The Diwan put up on 31 March 1911 a memorandum to the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, then visiting the Punjab, seeking just representation for the Sikhs in the services and in Imperial and Provincial councils. In 1916 and 1917 the Diwan`s resolutions and public demonstrations gradually moved from requests to demands. A series of documents was sent to the government concerning Punjabi language, jobs, and commissions in the army.

As secretary of the Chief Khalsa Diwan, Sundar Singh Majithia sent a letter to the Punjab Government on 26 December 1916 reiterating the claims of the Sikh community for representation in government jobs and legislative bodies, which should be “adequate and effective and consistent with their position and importance.” On 18 September 1918, the Chief Khalsa Diwan called a representative conclave of the Sikhs to consider the Montagu Chelmsford scheme of reform. In the memorandum prepared on behalf of the community, government was urged to carry out the assurances given the Sikhs.

The publication of the Montagu Chelmsford report was followed by the appointment of Franchise Committee to go into the question of the composition of the new legislatures in India. It had three Indian members, but none of them was a Sikh. When the Sikhs protested, Sundar Singh Majithia was taken as a co-opted member for the Punjab, but their demand for one third of the total number of nonofficial seats held by Indians in the Punjab, 7 out of 67 nonofficial seats in the Assembly of India and 4 seats in the Council of States for the Sikh community remained largely unfulfilled.

The political awakening among Indians in the early years of the twentieth century gave rise to certain mass movements. In the Punjab, the Chief Khalsa Diwan came to be looked upon as moderate, pro-government and elitist over against the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and the Shiromani Akali Dal which were more dynamic, anti-government and massbased. They soon wrested from the Diwan initiative in religious and political spheres. The Shiromani Committee after the adoption of the Gurdwaras Act 1925 took over management of all the major historical Sikh shrines.

The Shiromani Akali Dal has been over the years the premier political party of the Sikhs. The Chief Khalsa Diwan thus had its area of influence and activity severely curtailed. It now restricts itself to expressing its opinion through resolutions and memoranda on religious and political issues facing the Sikh community. In retrospect, the Chief Khalsa Diwan may be seen to have made three key contributions to Sikh life. The first was institutionalizing the Singh Sabha view of Sikhism as a separate religion with distinct rituals and a tradition devoid of Hindu influence.

The resulting consciousness affected the way Sikhs looked at each other and the world around them. Without that consciousness, the mobilization of Sikhs spread across the world would have been impossible. There would have been no drive for protecting Sikh rights nor assertion of community control over the gurdwaras. Secondly, the Diwan took existing but often disparate Sikh organizations and linked them together in an effective communication system. Efforts were focussed and information and ideas disseminated over time and distance. This enhanced the sense of Sikh identity and mission and opened up new paths of collaborative action and also conflict.

The religious gatherings, conferences, district and provincial meetings, tracts and, most importantly, the journals and newspapers all were critical legacies from the Singh Sabha and Chief Khalsa Diwan era. Without them, there would have been no dissemination of Sikh rituals, no sustained communication and exchange of ideas, no network that could be activated for legislation over anand marriage and no Akali challenge to the community. The final element was a strategy for dealing with internal division and survival as a minority community. Accommodation, negotiation and compromise were hallmarks of the Diwan`s policy. Sikhs could not be totally self reliant.

Some of the Chief Khalsa Diwan leaders, such as Sundar Singh Majithia, pursued collaborative arrangements in the widened legislature and attempted to help Sikh interests through alliances with other political groups and the British. The Chief Khalsa Diwan, as an institution, however, resumed its familiar task of trying to buttress Sikhism through education, toleration and institution building. The new representatives of the Sikhs, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and the Akali Dal, now had to face the problems of disunity, political alternatives as a minority, and maintaining the contours of Sikh identity.

References :

1. Jagjit Singh, Singh Sabha Lahi`r. Ludhiana, 1974
2. Pra tap Singh, Giani, Gurdwara Sudhar arthat Akali Lahir. Amritsar, 1975
3. Teja Singh, Gurdwara Reform Movement and the Sikh Awakening. Jalandhar, 1922
4. Sahni, Ruchi Ram, Struggle for Reform in Sikh Shrines. Amritsar, 1965
5. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, vol. 2. Princeton, 1966
6. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1983