A radical outgrowth of the Akali movement
for the reform of Sikh places of worship during the early 1920's.
The latter, aiming to have the shrines released from the control of
priests who had become lax and effete over the generations, was peaceful
in its character and strategy. In the course of the prolonged campaign,
Akalis true to their vows patiently suffered physical injury and violence
at the hands of the priests as well as of government authority.
The incidents at Tarn Taran January 1921) and
Nankana Sahib (February 1921) in which many Sikhs lost their lives
led to the emergence of a group which rejected non-violence and
adopted violence as a creed. The members of this secret group called
themselves Babar Akalis-babar meaning lion. Their targets were the
British officers and their Indian informers. They were strongly
attached to their Sikh faith and shared an intense patriotic fervour.
At the time of the Sikh Educational Conference
at Hoshiarpur from 19-21 March 1921, some radicals led by Master
Mota Singh and Kishan Singh Gargajj, a retired havildar major of
the Indian army, held a secret meeting and made up a plan to avenge
themselves upon those responsible for the killings at Nankana Sahib.
Among those on their list were J.W. Bowring, the superintendent
of police in the Intelligence department and C.M. King, the commissioner.
However, those assigned to the task fell into the police net on
23 May 1921. Arrest warrants were issued against Master Mota Singh
and Kishan Singh as well, but both of them went underground.
In November 1921, Kishan Singh formed a secret
organization called Chakravarti Jatha and started working among
the peasantry and soldiers inciting them against the foreign rulers.
While Kishan Singh and his band carried on their campaign in Jalandhar
district with frequent incursions into the villages of Ambala and
Kapurthala state, Karam Singh of Daulatpur organized a band of extremist
Sikhs in Hoshiarpur on similar lines. In some of the villages in
the district, divans were convened daily by the sympathizers and
helpers of the jatha of Karam Singh, who was under warrants of arrest
for delivering seditious speeches.
Towards the end of August 1922, the two Chakravarti
jathas resolved to merge together and rename their organization
Babar Akali Jatha. A committee was formed to work out a plan of
action and collect arms and ammunition. Kishan Singh was chosen
jathedar or president, while Dalip Singh Daulatpur, Karam Singh
Jhingan and Ude Singh Ramgarh Jhuggian were nominated members. A
cyclostyled news-sheet called the 'Babar Akali Doaba' had already
been launched. Contacts were sought to be established especially
with soldiers serving in the army and students.
The party's programme of violence centred on the word sudhar (reformation)
- a euphemism for liquidation of jholichuks (lit. robe-bearers,
i.e. stooges and lackeys of the British).
The Babar Akali Jatha had its own code. Persons
with family encumbrances were advised not to join as full members,
but to help only as sympathizers. The members were to recite regularly
gurbani, the Sikh prayers. They were not to indulge in personal
vendetta against anyone. Likewise, they must not molest any woman
nor lift any cash or goods other than those expressly permitted
by the group.
The total strength of the Jatha scarcely exceeded
two hundred: the exact number was not known even to its members.
The outer circle of the Jatha consisted of sympathizers who helped
the active members with food and shelter. Some ran errands for the
leaders carrying messages from one place to another, others arranged
divans in advance for itinerant speakers and distributed Babar Akali
leaflets. In order to evade the police and keep their activities
secret, the Babar Akali Jatha also evolved a secret code.
The movement was very active from mid-1922 to
the end of 1923. Several government officials and supporters were
singled out and killed. Encounters with the police took place during
which some rare feats of daring and self-sacrifice were performed
by Babar Akalis.
The government acted with firmness and alacrity.
In April 1923, the Babar Akali Jatha was declared an unlawful association
under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908. Units of cavalry and
infantry were stationed at strategic points in the sensitive areas,
with magistrates on duty with them. A joint force of military and
special police was created to seize Babars sheltering themselves
in the Sivalik hills. Every two weeks propaganda leaflets were dropped
from aeroplanes with a view to strengthening the morale of the loyalist
Punitive police-post tax was levied and disciplinary
action was taken against civil and military pensioners harbouring
or sympathizing with the Babar Akalis. These measures helped in
curbing the movement. The arrests and deaths in police encounters
of its members depleted the Jatha's ranks.
The movement virtually came to an end when Varyam
Singh Dhugga was run down by the police in Lyallpur district in
The trial of the arrested Babar Akalis had already
begun inside Lahore Central Jail on 15 August 1923. Sixty-two persons
were challenged originally and the names of 36 more were added in
January 1924. Of them two died during investigations and five were
acquitted by the investigating magistrates; the remaining 91 were
committed to the sessions in April 1924. Mr J.K.M. Tapp, appointed
Additional Sessions Judge to try conspiracy cases, opened the proceedings
on 2 June 1924. He was assisted by four assessors. Diwan Bahadur
Pindi Das was special public prosecutor. The prosecution produced
447 witnesses, 734 documents and 228 other exhibits to prove its
case. The judgement was delivered on 28 February 1925. Of the 91
accused, two had died in jail during trial, 34 were acquitted, six
including Jathedar Kishan Singh Gargajj were awarded death penalty
and the remaining 49 were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment.
The government, not satisfied with the punishments
awarded, filed a revision petition in the High Court. The High Court
overruled the Sessions Court judgement on a few points, but let
the death sentences remain unaltered. Babars so condemned were hanged
on 27 February 1926. They were Kishan Singh Gargajj, Babu Santa
Singh, Dalip Singh Dhamian, Karam Singh Manko, Nand Singh Ghurial
and Dharam Singh Hayatpur. The Babar Akali Jatha ceased to exist,
but it had left a permanent mark on the history of the Sikhs and
of the nationalist movement in India. The Naujawan and Kirti Kisan
movements in the Punjab owned their militant policy and tactics
to the Babar insurrection.