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1921 Nankana Massacre (or Saka Nankana)

The Nankana massacre (or Saka Nankana) took place in Nankana Sahib at that time united India, modern-day Pakistan. The event forms an important part of Sikh history. In political significance, it comes next only to Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919. The saga constitutes the core of the Gurdwara Reform Movement started by the Sikhs in early twentieth century. The interesting part of this saga is the unprecedented discipline, self-control and exemplary patience displayed by the peaceful Sikh protesters even in the face of extreme barbarism. Even the national leaders had to acknowledge in no ambiguous terms the glory and the prestige which the peaceful and passive resistance of the Sikhs had brought to the India's Struggle for freedom.

The Nankana Sahib Massacre refers to the grim episode during the Gurdwara Reform Movement/ Akali Movement in which a peaceful batch of reformist Sikhs were subjected to a murderous assault on 20 February 1921 in the holy Gurdwara at Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji.

Gurdwara Nankana Sahib was managed by Mahant Narayan Das in early 20th century. This Gurdwara had a huge property of over 19000 acres (77 km²) of highly fertile land attached to it which yielded enormous income per year. It is alleged that the mahant became corrupted.

Dance girls were allegedly brought to the Gurdwara and dances were held and obscene songs were sung within the holy premises.[citation needed] In 1917, he is said to have arranged a dance-show by a prostitute near the holy Gurdawara.

In October 1920, a congregation was held at Dharowal, District Sheikhupura to inform the sangat of the the misdeeds being committed inside Gurdwara Nankana Sahib. This Gurdwara 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. The priests not only treated the Gurdwaras as their private properties but had also introduced practices and ceremonial which had no sanction in Sikhism.

At the meeting, it was unanimously resolved that the Mahant be asked to mend his ways. When Mahant Narian Dass was asked upon to do so, he started making preparations to oppose the Panth instead. He did not feel it necessary to pay heed to the suggestions of the Committee.

Almost simultaneously a Sikh Gurdwara, 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 Reform movement. Darbar Sahib and the Akal Takht were occupied on 13 October 1920.

According to some, the Mahant, Narain Das, was a shrewd politician who publicly impressed that he was anxious to settle the issues with the Panth. On February 14, Mahant held a meeting with his associates to chalk out a plan to kill the opposing Sikh leaders on March 5 at Nankana Sahib. The Mahant recruited 400 mercenaries including fierce Pashtuns paid at twenty Indian rupees per month to oppose the Sikhs. With the government's help, Mahant also collected guns, pistols and other arms and ammunition. He also arranged and stored fourteen tins of paraffin and further strengthened the Gurdwara gate and carved out shooting galleries.

Mahant Narayan Das had the backing from the Mahants of other Gurdwaras in Punjab. The Bedi Jagirdars who had received Jagirs from the English Government by virtue of their past connections with Guru Nanak also supported the Mahant. Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia also maintained double standards. But Maharaja of Patiala flatly refused to back Mahant and offered him a healthy advice not to rebel against the Panth. He further advised the Mahant to create a committee of prominent Sikhs and hand over the Gurdwara charge to them. But Mahant ignored the advice of Patiala Royal house.

Nankana Sahib Massacre of 1921

The Shiromani Committee extended invitation to Mahant for talks at Gurdwara Khara Sauda to resolve the issue but he did not show up at the given time. Then he offered to hold talks with the Sikh leaders in Sheikhupura on February 15, 1921, but again he failed to show up. Third time he promised to meet the Shiromani Committee leaders at the residence of Sardar Amar Singh Lyall Gazette on February 16, but once again he failed to turn up.

In the meeting of Parbhandak Committee on 17 February 1921, it was decided that two jathas one led by Bhai Lachhman Singh and the other by Bhai Kartar Singh Virk (alias Jhabbar) should meet at Chander Kot on 19 February. From there they were to reach Nankana Sahib early in the morning of 20th February, to talk to the Mahant, Narain Das.

Upon seeing the preparation of the Mahant, the Parbhandak Committee held a meeting on 19th February, in which it was resolved that the jathas should not be taken to Nankana Sahib on the 20th February. Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabbar was present in the meeting. He was informed about the changes and was told to inform Bhai Lachhman Singh. Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabbar immediately dispatched Bhai Waryam Singh to Chander Kot so that other jatha could be stopped.

Bhai Lachchman Singh, in accordance with the original programme had reached Chander Kot on the night of 19th February with his jatha of 150 Singhs and waited for Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabbar and his jatha.

Bhai Waryama Singh arrived with news not to lead the jatha to the Gurdwara, Bhai Lachchman Singh said to the Singhs of his jatha, “When we have started for a good cause, we should not waste time.” All members of the jatha agreed. Bhai Lachhman Singh got a promise from the Singh's not to strike and remain peaceful no matter what. After that the jatha prayed for their success of their nobel resolve. After the prayer, as the jatha was about to move forward, Bhai Waryam Singh arrived. He showed them the letter about the new decision of the Committee. Bhai Tehal Singh Said, “Dear Khalsa, we have taken our resolve at the prayer (Ardaas)and cannot turn back now. It is imperitive for us to move forward.” The jatha as a whole moved forward following Bhai Tehal Singh.

Thus on the morning of 20 February 1921, the jatha of 150 Sikhs lead by Bhai Lachhman Singh entered the sacred precincts. The Mahant had got the news of their arrival at Chander Kot on the evening of 19th February. He had gathered his men at night and briefed them about their duties.

After the jatha of Singh's had sat down, the Mahant signalled his men to carry out the predetermined plan. The Sikhs were chanting the sacred hymns when the attack started. Bullets were mercilessly rained on them from the roof of an adjoining building. Bhai Lachhman Singh was struck down sitting in attendance of the Guru Granth Sahib. Twenty-six Singhs became martyrs to those bullets in the courtyard while another sixty or so sitting inside the Darbar Sahib became targets of bullets. When the Mahant's men saw no one moving, they came down with swords and choppers. Any Singh they found breathing was cut to pieces.

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. The body of one alive Singh said to be 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.

As news reached back to Punjab, 20 pathans had been arrested, the Gurdwara had been locked and the city was handed over to Army which cordoned it to restrict any Akali movement to take over Gurdwara. Sardar Kartar Singh Jhabbar arrived with his jatha on 21st February. Commissioner, Mr. King, informed him that if he tried to enter city with his jatha army will open fire. Kartar Singh Jhabbar and his jatha of twenty two hundred Singhs did not listen to the Commissioner and kept on moving towards city. At end, Commissioner Mr. Curry handed over the keys of Gurdwara to Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabbar.

On the 22nd/ 23rd February, the bodies were cremated according to Sikh tradition. 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 corrupt regime.

An urdu newspaper called ‘Zamindara' wrote in its editorial of 23 February 1921, “what more proof of shamelessness of muslims is required than that they have helped the Mahant. O, Shameless Muslims, isn't the cup of your shamelessness and impudence full as yet? You used your guns and swords against those who went to Nankana Sahib to perform religious duties. You are not fit to be called Muslims. You are worse than infidels.”

Mahant, 20 Pathans and other of his group were sentenced by British. Only Mahant and couple of Pathans got death sentence for this crime of more than 50 murders. (The High Court delivering on 3 March 1922, its judgement on Narain Das's appeal, reduced his sentence to life imprisonment.) News of the Nankana Sahib massacre shocked the country. Sir Edward Maclagan, Governor of the Punjab, visited the site on 22nd February. Mahatma Gandhi, along with Muslim leaders Shaukat ‘Ali and Muhammad ‘Ali, came on 3rd March. Princess Bamba Duleep Singh, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, came accompanied by Sir Jogendra Singh, to offer her homage to the memory of the martyrs.

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