The Role of the Singh Sabha Movement
One of the unique features of the organisational structure of the Singh Sabha was the British model of organising social and welfare associations. The Singh Sabha had a constitution based on democratic principles, i.e. it provided a proper membership criterion, a membership fee and the election of office bearers. One could argue that the democratic structure of the Singh Sabha went a long way towards acknowledging, at least in theory, the authority of the sangat (Sikh congregation) in Sikhism.
In the 1920s, the Sikhs under the leadership of the Akali Dal (political party of the Sikhs) launched a mass movement for the control of major historical gurdwaras then under the control of hereditary Mahants (custodians) who traced their ancestry to the Sikh Gurus. Attached to these gurdwaras was a lot of land which had been donated by Sikh royalty and others. Moreover, these shrines were a major recipient of income donated by Sikh pilgrims. The Sikh leaders argued that the gurdwaras and their income belonged to the Sikh community and therefore should be controlled and managed by the Sikh community as such. Initially, the British Government supported the claim of the hereditary Mahants who were political allies of the British, but as a result of prolonged agitation the government agreed to the demands of the agitators and passed a piece of legislation called the Punjab Sikh Gurdwara Act, in 1925.
The significance of the control of historical gurdwaras for the British administration is evident from the following report sent by the Lt. Governor of Punjab to the Viceroy of India on August 8, 1881. He wrote:
"I think it would be politically dangerous to allow the arrangement of Sikh temples fall into the hands of a committee emancipated from government control, and I trust your Excellency will assist to pass such orders in the case as will enable to continue the system which has worked out successfully for more than thirty years. (Quoted in Law of Religious Institutions: Sikh Gurdwaras. Kashmir Singh, 1989:60)
Commenting on the above-mentioned report, Kashmir Singh writes that "The British Government regarded and used the Sikh shrines as a powerful channel for an indirect control of the Sikhs" (1989:60). It is evident that the real authority in Sikh affairs was exercised by the British Government through the Mahants.
Article by Dr. Sewa Singh Kalsi Dept. of Theology and Religious Studies University of Leeds Leeds LS2 9JT UK