On the day of Holi, 27 February 1926, when we were getting high on our enjoyment, a terrible thing was happening in a corner of this great province. When you will hear it, you will shudder! You will tremble! On that day, six brave Babbar Akalis were hanged in the Lahore Central Jail ... [Kishan Singh Garhgajj, Santa Singh, Dilip Singh, Nand Singh, Karam Singh and Dharam Singh] had been showing a great indifference to the trial for the last two years, which speaks of their fond waiting for this day. After months, the judge gave his verdict. Five to be hanged, many for life imprisonment or exile, and sentences of very long imprisonments. The accused heroes thundered. Even the skies echoed with their triumphant slogans. Then an appeal was preferred. Instead of five, now six were sent to the noose …
The city was still celebrating. Color was still being thrown on the passers-by. What a terrible indifference. If they were misguided, if they were frenzied, let them be so. They were fearless patriots, in any case. Whatever they did, they did it for this wretched country. They could not bear injustice. They could not countenance the fallen nation. The oppression on the poor people became insufferable for them. They could not tolerate exploitation of the masses, they challenged and jumped into action. They were full of life. Oh! The terrible toll of their dedicated deeds! You are blessed! After the death, friends and foes are all alike-this is the ideal of men.
- Comrade Bhagat Singh, “A Panjabi Youth,” Partap Hindi Weekly, 15 Mar 1926
Babbar Akali (Babbars) movement (1921-1925) was a radical outgrowth of the Akali movement for the reform of Gurduaras. The latter practiced non-violence of the strong to free Gurduaras from state-sponsored “priests” suffering physical injury and violence at the hands of the “priests” and government authority. Many Sikhs lost their lives at the Tarn Taran (Jan 1921) and Nankana Sahib (Feb 1921) incidents. In response emerged a secret group called Babbar Akalis, literally Immortal Lions. The secret campaign for the "reformation," a euphemism for liquidation of the jholichaks (lit. robe-bearers, i.e. British stooges and toadies), especially those who spied on the Babbar Akalis.
Why did Kishan Singh raise a Chakarvarti group to fight under the Babbars? In his own affidavit, he cites because of “the arrest of S. Ajit Singh, demolition of the wall of Gurduara Rakab Ganj, the episode at Budge Budge port, Rowlatt Act, the bloody massacre of Jalianvala Bagh and the Martial Law.”
Kishan Singh criticized and eventually resigned from the army to fight imperialism. And remarked: “The government has done countless oppressions in the Panjab. Much torture has been perpetrated in jails and many innocents have been thrown into prisons. People have been pressurized to make false evidential statements. Karam Singh Daulatpur had followed the footsteps of his elder Sikhs in eliminating the minions and sycophants. Sikh history reveals that reform is a must. It is a matter of shameful death for those who have turned approvers for selfish gains fearing repression...’’
Majority of the Babbars were returned immigrants from Canada. Some of them had actively participated in the Ghadar movement. The Babbars were initiated Sikhs who were against the British imperialist policies and didn’t approve of the Congress and Gandhi’s version of non-violence and noncooperation.
The Shiromani Gurduara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) issued appeals to the Sikhs to disassociate with the activities of the Babbars. Jathedar Kishan Singh replied to SGPC: “Why are you forcing the people to make unnecessary sacrifices and are offering them for getting their bones broken? If you are desirous of complete freedom of Gurduaras and the country, you will have to raise the sword to achieve it. If you adopt this path, I can reach Amritsar with hundreds of Jathas.”
Town-hall style meeting in the village squares were held to counter the Babbars by the elders, pensioners, and sycophants. Economics and development, globally even today, trumps human rights and self-governance. Here’s an extract of propaganda tactics used against the Babbars:
‘‘Our government has turned India into a heaven. They have established post offices, hospitals, schools colleges and provided us with the services of motor cars, buses and trains. They have controlled all thefts and dacoits and have established a reign of peace and prosperity. Carry gold on your palm and no one will look at you. The courts dispose-off cases most judiciously. A few unwise and foolish people are roaming about in the villages who are propagating that they will bring the rule of the Khalsa and bring their own form of prosperity. They preach pillaging the houses of the rich and killing the gentlemen. They loot the travelers and snatch the food from the women who carry it to the fields for their father, brothers or husband. These Englishmen are Sikhs who wear cap. They have the blessings of the Gurus: That is why their roots are in the nether regions. Therefore, do not come into the talk of the Babbars and spoil the peace of the land. Instead report about them to the government and earn an honorable name for yourselves.’’
Babbars surfaced at the Sikh Educational Conference. Their aim was to gain independence in India and Sikh rule in the Panjab. They published Babbar Akali Doaba via Safari and Udaru press. They held divans in villages. Their targets were the British officers and their Desi informers.
Babbars were ruthlessly suppressed. Lack of secrecy, insider’s treachery, scarce resources, and awards on their heads marred the Babbars. In the first Babbar case, 133 Sikhs were tried; six were hanged in February of 1926. In the second Babbar case, 37 Sikhs were tried; six were sent to gallows in February of 1927.
Ghadar dream continued via the Babbars. It commenced in 1921 in Panjab and the Diaspora Gurduaras, Khalsa Diwan Society (Vancouver and Victoria, BC, Canada) as well as Pacific coast Khalsa Diwan (Stockton, California, USA), funded and eulogized them. Although the Babbars were physically extinguished by 1925, but their thunder could be heard till 1944. Since then, very few artists and authors give voice to the Babbars, and even fewer identify with them!
Several Babbars were former Ghadarites who continued to dream freedom. Some continued to realize the dream after the Babbars. There would have been no “freedom at midnight” without the Babbars. Sikhs, Panjab, India and Pakistan, and other South Asians must acknowledge that!
Babbar Akalis narratives and Odes were part of Panjab’s culture. Now, there’s a dearth of articles, books, and audio-visuals. Is that due to ignorance or by design? Thanks to Panjab Digital Library, the collection of Prof. Malvinderjit Singh Waraich’s on Babbars and Ghadar is digitized for perpetuity.
Malangi, 1965 Pakistani film, featured a Panjabi folk hero like Robin hood who robbed the feudal landlords in cahoots with bureaucrats and distributed their money to the poor. Malangi started out fighting along with the Babbar Akalis; later he became a feared 'dacoit' as branded by the British India. And the saying became: “the night is controlled by Malangi (carefree), the day is governed by the Firangi (British).” A song in the aforesaid film demands: “O! Young Lion of Majha, Get up!” It is akin to Bob Marley’s cry: “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!”
We now remember those who were either with the Axis or the Allies. In case of the Sikhs of Panjab, it was either joining the army aligned with the British or the Japanese. Their medals and stories are still told with pride, but what about the 500-strong Babbars. Why they are not talked about? Because they were sovereign, not aligned to any earthly masters. Because their source of strength was Guru Granth Sahib, allegiance to the Guru Khalsa Panth. Because they upheld the dictum of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib to fight militarily after exhausting all means, didn’t suit the new non-white masters enjoying the “transfer of power.”
Just before the hanging, ‘reverberating thunderous’ Kishan Singh spoke:
‘‘We are fortunate that we are going to be standing in the ranks of many patriots who kissed the gallows in the liberation of mother land. Our enemy also must be feeling happy but the real happiness is to us because we are fulfilling the vow as well as duty. This is eternal success for us. The happiness of our enemy is temporary only. He thinks he can now plunder our country with impunity by removing us from their path. This is his misconception. The drops of martyrs’ blood are seeds of revolution those will destroy the tyranny and oppression from the world for ever. The day is not far when this power will uproot the British rule from the soil of India for ever. The blood of the martyrs is making the revolutionary force more powerful. Thank Vahiguru that we have received the boon of becoming a small part of this mighty force.
This rule has become so weak that it has been rendered ineffective in a particular region [Doaba] by the activities of the Babbars. When such Jathas rise at every place, what will be the state of this empire? Our last wish is that our country should become free during the times of the living Babbars. We are confident that it will be so.’’
Love, revolutionary or personal, is an act of will. And will of the Babbars was to be sovereign in a Sikh-like manner.
I leave you with the words of Guru Nanak Sahib recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib (579):
Death of warrior beings is Truthful
if that death is for acceptable cause.
Only they are called warriors ahead
who obtain honor in the Divine Court.
Harinder Singh is an educator, thinker and activist who tweets @1Force.