After the decline of Sarkar Khalsa in 1850's, Khalsa population dwindeled very fast. There were over 1.5 million Sikhs when Ranjit Singh was ruling in the 1830-40s, but in the first sensus conducted by the British they found the Sikhs population to be approximately 780,000 in the Punjab. This survey furthers reiterates that Sikh numbers had declined due to people returning to their Hindu roots. Many people, who had become khalsa during Ranjit Singh's rule did so only to take advantage of his largess. They now left the Khalsa. Hindu reform movements led by many reformists like Arya Samajis, etc all over India and Punjab were striking hard and zealously working to cut the numbers of the Khalsa.
Dayanand, a Baniya Swami from Gujrat launched a movement called ARYA SAMAJ, which shunned Idol Worship but mocked Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind singh.
Dayanand's ideals could be summed up in few words.
- Idol Worship is bad.
- Hindi should be the only language of everyone in India.
- Muslims can be converted to hindusim after Shuddhi rite.
- The only way to worship is through the old "Aryan" ways of Havan
- Widows can remarry.
- Marriage between different castes is OK.
Several of these ideals are consistent with Sikhi and several are not. But, Dayanand made a grave mistake when he criticized Guru Nanak by calling him "a Fool". Anyway, Arya Samaj was successful only in areas where many Punjabi Hindus has joined the Arya Samaj. Thus sowing the seeds of future confrontation.
Movements like Arya Samaj helped to empower Sikhs to reaffirm their values. Maharaja Rajinder Singh of Patiala on September 7, 1890. In the address presented to the Maharaja, it said: In peacetime, the Sikhs mostly are land-cultivators and artisans- poor men for the most part-and the light of western education and civilization has not reached them in their remote and ignorant villages.
Lethargy has fallen upon the people. The beginnings of disintegration threaten. The religious faith in the Timeless God, once received with enthusiasm from the great Nanak and the sacred Gurus who followed him, is no longer the sustaining power it was. Even the few Khalsa students who come forth from the recognized colleges of the Punjab exhibit a tendency to despise and abandon the religious and civil traditions of their fathers, instead of becoming patriotic leaders to guide their people to higher planes of enlightened usefulness. The great educational institutions of the Province provide culture for "leisured" and well-to-do subjects of the Crown, and show even the less-favoured youth among Hindus and Mohammadans the way to emoluments in Government's services, at the Bar, and elsewhere.
It is owing, however, to no want of energy on the part of the Sikhs that they have failed more largely to take advantage of these institutions, as may be seen from their readiness to join board and indigenous schools near their homes; but partly because of their traditionary surroundings (mainly agricultural), and partly because of their poverty, Sikh boys have hitherto found little opportunity for joining the larger schools and colleges, thus working their way to intellectual, moral and material advancement. The result is that the Sikh community is very poorly represented in the learned profession; and in posts of honour and responsibility in the civil administration. Sikhs now serving in the British army see their sons left in their native villages, far from the tide of civilization, which is being taken at the flood by the rising generation of other communities.
Besides this the purely secular education imparted in public schools is calculated, under existing circumstances, to slowly obliterate the distinctive characteristics of the Sikhs, to check the development of the qualities which enabled them to attain to a proud position, and to merge them finally in the general mass of the surrounding population.
Thus, by 1890's Sikh effort was to create institutions which will strengthen Sikhism. Efforts were at last succeeded when decision to create the first Institution of Sikhs, Khalsa college Amritsar was agreed upon by all parties. Sir James Lyall, Governor of Punjab was invited to put the foundation-stone of the Khalsa College on March 5,1892. The teaching started with the opening on October 22, 1893, of middle school classes.
This is how the report describes the inaugural ceremonies:
The Khalsa School was opened on the 22nd October at Amritsar in the late Pandit Bihari Lal's house near the Hall Gate. The religious part of the opening ceremony was conducted a day earlier in the spacious Hall of the schoolpremises, with great enthusiasm. Asa-diVar and other sacredhymns were sung by a selected body of trained musicians, and karahprasad was freely distributed. There was a very large gathering of native gentlemen present on the occasion, and they all rose to offer prayers to the Timeless God and to ask Him to grant prosperity to the new institution. After the ceremony was over, a procession was formed of those present, and the whole gathering consisting of about one thousand gentlemen moved, singing hymns, to the TownHall where a public meeting was already arranged for. The spacious Hall was full, and many had to remain standing in the verandah and on the road.
The Singh Sabha movement made a deep impact on Sikh psyche. Sikhs understood that need of the hour was to protect their identity. Khalsa now was facing a different kind of threat, earlier Khalsa had faced military and persecution threat against its beliefs by Mughals. Now the threats were at the core beliefs of Khalsa, against Punjabi language, against Guru Nanak, against right to keep hair. Singh Sabha urged the Sikh youth to come back to Sikh ideals. Youth leaders like Kartar Singh Jhabbar used to preach in rural Punjab to stop Sikh youths from Drinking alcohol, and other wrong activities. Stimulated by the Singh Sabha preaching, the Sikh youth began to assemble for religious discussion .
In 1891 what came to be called the Khalsa Vidyarthi Sabha or the Sikh Students Club was formed. This association of Sikh young men, the first of its kind, was established at Amritsar on the initiative of Dr Sundar Singh Sodhbans. The Sabha used to congregate every Saturday. The members would thereafter go to the Harimandir and circumambulate the sacred pool chanting hymns from the Guru Granth. They set up special programmes to mark the anniversaries connected with the lives of the Gurus. But Golden Temple management least appreciated their fervour.
On the occasion of their annual meeting in September 1893, the students set out from Bunga Mananwalian reciting holy songs. They first went to the Akal Takht to offer ardas, but Bhai Multana Singh Ardasia refused to lead the prayer for them. He rejected the request for the reason that the young men were in sympathy with the Singh Sabha and had written in a local newspaper disparagingly about the Golden Temple priests.
Singh Sabha started a movement to free gurdwaras from the control of hereditory mahants. The Mahants were not only harassing the pilgrims but also going against the basic philosophy of Sikhism. Smoking, Idol Worshipping, drinking, abuse, etc was common at these pilgrim centers under the influence of these mahants. Singh Sabha pleged to free these gurdwaras through non-violent means. By 1928 almost all the Gurdwaras in Punjab were freed from the control of Mahants, more than 5000 Sikhs were martyred by these mahants, directly or indirectly. At Nankana Sahib Gurdwara, Mahant Narain Das, hired mercenaries to fire indiscriminate at the group of Singh Sabha members who had come to take control of the Gurdwara, about 200 were killed by gun fire, the rest were burned alive by the mahant. Later he was punished by the British government.
The affirmation in Sikh values played a great role in this period of 1890's to 1930's when Sikhs turned back to Khalsa and basic philosophy of Sikhism. Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee was established, which elected its officers to administer the gurdwaras all over Punjab and many other parts of country. The Akali party later came out of Singh Sabha movement.