being shot and burned alive by the hired assassins
of Mahant Narain Das at Nankana Sahib Gurdwara
The Nankana Sahib Massacre refers to the grim episode during the
Gurdwara Reform movement in which a peaceful batch of reformist
Sikhs was subjected to a murderous assault on 20 February 1921 in
the holy shrine at Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak.
This shrine along with six others in the town had been under the
control of Udasi priests ever since the time the Sikhs were driven
by Mughal oppression to seek safety in remote hills and deserts.
In Sikh times these gurdwaras were richly endowed by the State.
The priests not only treated ecclesiastical assets as their private
properties but had also introduced practices and ceremonial which
had no sanction in Sikhism. Their own character was not free from
the taints of licentiousness and luxury. The puritan reaction engendered
by the preachings of the Singh Sabha movement during the last quarter
of the nineteenth century led the community to revolt against the
retrogression and mal administration of their places of worship.
The protest became louder in the opening decades of the twentieth
century and culminated in the Gurdwara Reform or Akali movement
Of the Udasi clergy, Mahant Narain Das, the high priest of Gurdwara
Janam Asthan at Nankana Sahib, was the richest and the most wayward.
His stewardship of the shrine had started many a scandal. Sikhs'
petitions to the government for the removal of the Mahant had gone
unheeded. Matters came to a head when, in 1918, two cases of molestation
of women pilgrims were reported.
Early in October 1920, a large Sikh gathering held at the village
of Dharovali, in the present Sheikhupura district, recorded strong
test. Almost simultaneously a Sikh shrine, Gurdwara Babe di Ber,
at Sialkot, was liberated from priestly control and taken over by
the Sikhs on 5 October 1920, which marked the beginning of the Gurdwara
movement. The Harimandar and the Akal Takht were occupied on 12
October 1920. Narain Das, instead of showing repentance or conciliation,
started recruiting a private army and laying in arms. On the morning
20 February 1921, as a jatha of 150 Sikhs entered the sacred precincts,
his men fell upon it. The Sikhs were chanting the sacred hymns when
the attack started. Bullets were mercilessly rained on them from
the roof of
an adjoining building. Their leader, Bhai Lachhman Singh, the staunch
reformist, a tall and handsome Sikh from Dharovali, was struck down
sitting in attendance of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Outside the main gate, Narain Das, pistol in hand and his face
muffled up, pranced up and down on horseback directing the operations
and all the time shouting, "Let not a single long-haired Sikh
go out alive." Bhai Dalip Singh, a much-respected Sikh who
was well known to him, came to intercede with him to stop the bloody
carnage. But he killed him on the spot with a shot from his pistol.
Six other Sikhs coming from outside were butchered and thrown into
a potter's kiln. Firewood and kerosene oil were brought out and
a fire lighted. All the dead and injured were piled up on it to
be consumed by the flames. Bhai Lachhman Singh was fastened to a
tree near by and burnt alive. The total number of Sikhs killed has
been variously estimated between 82 and 156.
News of the Nankana Sahib massacre shocked the country. Sir Edward
Maclagan, Governor of the Punjab, visited the site on 22 February.
Mahatma Gandhi, along with Muslim leaders Shaukat 'Ali and Muhammad
'Ali, came on 3 March. Princess Bamba Duleep Singh (1869-1957),
daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, came accompanied by Sir Jogendra
Singh (1877-1946), to offer her homage to the memory of the martyrs.
Narain Das and some of his hirelings were arrested and the possession
of the shrine was made over by government to a committee of seven
Sikhs headed by Sardar Harbans Singh of Atari, vice-president of
the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
February 23 was fixed for the cremation rites. Charred, mutilated
bodies were collected and torn limbs and pieces of flesh picked
from wherever they lay in the blood stained chambers. A huge funeral
pyre was erected. Bhai Jodh Singh, in a measured
oration, advised the Sikhs to remain cool and patient and endure
the calamity with the fortitude with which their ancestors had faced
similar situations. The Sikhs, he said, had cleansed by their blood
the holy precincts so long exposed to the impious influence of a
A criminal case against Mahant Narain Das and his men started on
5 April 1921 which was observed by the Sikhs as the Martyrs' Day.
The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee appealed to the Sikhs
to wear black turbans in memory to the martyrs until the next birth
anniversary of Guru Nanak coming off on 15 November 1921 (black
turban thenceforth became the insignia of the Akalis). The sessions
court, announcing its judgement on 12 October 1921, sentenced Narain
Das and seven others to death and eight to transportation for life.
Sixteen Pathan mercenaries were awarded seven years' rigorous
imprisonment each. The rest were acquitted. The High Court delivering
on 3 March 1922 its judgement on Narain Das's appeal, reduced his
sentence to life imprisonment. Three of his men were awarded capital
punishment and two were given life terms; all others were let off.
The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee instituted a fund to
provide relief to the families of the martyrs. It also established
the Sikh Missionary Society, which opened the Shahid Sikh Missionary
College at Amritsar as a permanent memorial to the martyrs.