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Baba Kharak Singh: Uncrowned King of the Sikhs




Baba Kharak Singh Marg is situated in the heart of New Delhi, India. People from all over the world go there hunting for handicrafts at emporiums of different states, including Punjab. But who is this Baba after whom this important road in India's  Capital has been named?

What was his role in India's freedom movement? Why did free India's new rulers decide to rename the famous Irwin Road as Baba Kharak Singh Marg? Lord Irwin was a Viceroy of British India (of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact fame).

Driving from Connaught Place towards Rashtrapati Bhavan recently, I saw a Nihang Sikh crossing Baba Kharak Singh Marg. I asked him if he knew anything about the Baba. He replied: "Beta, Baba ji Sikhaan de be-taaj Badshah san." (Son, Babaji was the uncrowned King of the Sikhs).

A politician who spurned positions, perks and privileges, Baba Kharak Singh (1867-1963) was often addressed by this title.

To quote Khushwant Singh: "In the history of every nation, some figures stand out as landmarks by whose presence we recognize the events of time. Baba Kharak Singh is such a landmark-not only in the history of the Sikhs, but that of India itself."

"Baba Kharak Singh's name is associated with the birth of political consciousness in Punjab, its maturing into a movement and the first triumph of the experiment of passive resistance to be carried out in India. He is the most important Sikh character of the Indo-British history."

An aristocratic lineage and his family's good relations with the British (Baba Kharak Singh's father and his elder brother held the titles of Rai Bahadur), did not prevent this well-educated man (the Baba was among the first graduates from Panjab University, Lahore, in 1899) from joining the freedom struggle.

What made him give up a comfortable and privileged lifestyle and opt long terms in prisons? In a word - patriotism.

Baba Kharak Singh's long public life began innocuously enough - when he was elected Chairman of the Reception Committee of the fifth session of the All-India Sikh Conference held in his home town, Sialkot, in 1912.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 and the subsequent events in Punjab under Martial Law galvanized him into political activity. He addressed the annual session of the Indian National Congress which was held as Amritsar in December 1919, under the presidentship of Motilal Nehru (Jawaharlal's father).

Baba Kharak Singh was elected the first President of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC) in 1921. In November that year, the Punjab Government passed an order whereby the keys of the toshakhana (treasury) of the Golden Temple at Amritsar were to remain in the custody of the Deputy Commissioner of the district.

The SGPC protested and an agitation was launched. Baba Kharak Singh was arrested. The agitation continued.

As Rana Jang Bahadur Singh, a former Editor of The Tribune wrote: "Ultimately the proud ruling power had to bend before the iron will of the puissant Baba. The key was delivered to him at a public function by a representative of British imperialism. And, metaphorically speaking, with that key he eventually opened the gates of the temple of freedom. He became a general of the army of liberators in the Punjab and his life became a saga of sustained, valiant struggle."

On January 17, 1922, the keys of the Golden Temple were handed back to Baba Kharak Singh, who had been released along with thousands of other political prisoners, at the Akal Takht. On this day, Mahatma Gandhi, who was then ‘Dictator' of the Indian National Congress, sent the following telegram to Baba Kharak Singh:

"First decisive battle for India's freedom won. Congratulations."

In February, 1922, Lala Lajpat Rai, who was then President of the Punjab Provincial Congress was imprisoned. Baba Kharak Singh was elected the new President. Commenting on this move, Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Young India: "I congratulate the Punjab Provincial Congress Committee on its decision to elect Sardar Sahib. It is indeed an excellent choice."

"In the days of our struggle for freedom, he was a pillar of strength and no threat of coercion could bend his iron will. By his example, he inspired innumerable persons," Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said on the occasion of the 86th birthday of Baba Kharak Singh.

The Morcha for the Gandhi topi (cap) is a good illustration of this statement. While Baba Kharak Singh, along with Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, was among the 40 prisoners held in Dera Baba Ghazi Khan Jail, the British jail authorities issued an order under which political prisoners were not allowed to wear anything which formed a part of their national dress.

Thus Sikhs could not wear a black turban (the Sikh symbol of protest since the Nankana Sahib tragedy) and Hindus as well as Muslim could not wear Gandhi topis.

Led by the Baba, the prisoners decided to violate the ban. When a month or so later, in January, 1923, the inspector General of Prisoners came on an inspection, the political prisoners wore their black turbans or Gandhi topis.

The enraged British authorities forcibly removed the turban from Baba Kharak Singh's head. At this, the prisoners refused to wear their clothes. The Sikhs vowed to wear only their kacheras, the Hindus their dhotis, and Muslims their lungis, till the ban was lifted.

Baba Kharak Singh was to remain in jail for five and a half years till the Punjab Legislative Council unanimously passed a resolution to release him in 1927.

While in jail, he was offered various inducements to change his stance and start wearing clothes. The British even tried the famous 'divide and rule' tactics by allowing the wearing of the turbans, not Gandhi topis.

The Baba remained unfazed and unmoved. His sentence was increased several times for defying the ban. He was even incarcerated in the ‘condemned cell' where those who have been awarded the death sentence are kept, but he refused to bend or compromise.

An iron will and firm convictions set Baba Kharak Singh apart from the rest. While the Congress party accepted Dominion status as a first step towards the achievement of independence in1929, this man refused to compromise.

When Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya went to Baba Kharak Singh to request the latter to give his support for the ‘Nehru Report' which accepted Dominion status, the Baba said: "Panditji, I respect you but how can I accept semi-slavery?" Baba Kharak Singh did not bend and eventually the Congress revised its decision.

Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, writing about Baba Kharak Singh later, said: "In the midst of fluid alignments and changing politics which swept many a patriot off his feet, Baba Kharak Singh ever remained steadfast to his convictions of sturdy and secular nationalism."

After Partition, Baba Kharak Singh settled down in Delhi. He refused offers for any position and became an elder statesman of the nation and the Sikhs.

As Gurdit Singh Jolly, a 93 years old veteran freedom fighter who was a close associate of Baba Kharak Singh, recalled in a firm voice which belied his years:

"We could not celebrate the 84th birthday of Baba ji's because of his ill-health. Pandit Nehru came to Baba Kharak Singh's house near the Old Secretariat in Delhi, at 9:30 a.m. to greet Baba ji.

"We received the Prime Minister and ushered him to the drawing room where Baba ji was sitting. After the exchange of greetings, Nehru said: ‘To whom has this house been allotted?'

"Sant Singh Layalpuri said that the house had been allotted to Baba ji's grandson to compensate the loss suffered by the family in Pakistan (Baba ji's son died in 1947 in a car accident in the Kuku valley).

"Nehru said: ‘Baba ji, aap ke ...' - before he could complete the sentence, Baba Kharak Singh snapped back:'Jawahar, mere ko kharidne aye ho?' Jawaharlal Nehru was left speechless," recalled Mr. Jolly, who witnessed the exchange, when I met him in New Delhi recently.

Two years earlier, on June 6, 1949, Nehru presented Baba Kharak Singh with a silver replica of the National Flag at a public function held to commemorate his birthday.

He had then said: "There are few hands which can uphold the honour and preserve the dignity of the National Flag better than those of Baba ji's. Baba Kharak Singh's record of honesty and integrity could not be easily equalled."

Baba Kharak Singh died on October 6, 1963. Even in his death, he caused a stir.

"Pandit Nehru was in Parliament when he heard that Baba Kharak Singh had passed away. He rushed from Parliament to be by his bedside.

"When he arrived there he saw that Baba ji was still struggling. Nehru was angry at having to rush out on the midst of a Parliament session and he asked the doctors for an explanation. ‘Well, technically he is dead. But this is some kind of a struggle going on within him,' said the doctors. There he was, struggling till the very last", recalls Gurdit Singh Jolly.

It is interesting to see how perceptive Baba Kharak Singh was. On July 10,1949. In an appeal to the nation he said:

"It is a matter of genuine pride that India has become free from foreign domination and I pray to the Providence to bless my motherland with lasting prosperity and biding peace.

"But I regret to say that the lot of the common man in India has not much improved as it should have under the national government. Our Prime Minister (Nehru) is truly a great man worthy of the position that he holds, but I regret to observe that most of the things that he intends to do for the country's good and many a declaration of policy he makes are nor fully implemented by those who are doing the day-to-day administration.

"Black marketing, corruption, jobbery (fraudulent official transactions) and several other vices are rampant both in the administration as well as outside. I am afraid that if drastic steps are not taken immediately and if nothing substantial is done effectively to stem this vicious tide, our hard-won freedom will be of little use."

Baba Kharak Singh was describing the Indian scene of four decades ago. His advice still holds good, but just as it did not have much affect on those who were eulogizing him then, it will have little impact on those who are in the power now.



Conversation about this article

1: Karam Singh (Belgium), December 28, 2009, 2:17 PM.

How quickly we forget our heroes! This man was a giant of his time and easily eclipsed all around him in his integrity, commitment, resolve, steadfastness and decency. We need to pass on his legacy to our children. And the first step is to bring him alive in the consciousness of our children.

2: Raj (Canada), December 28, 2009, 10:52 PM.

Unfortunately, he lacked the vision to see what will happen to the Sikhs under a Hindu majority. This despite the fact that the Muslims and the British warned Sikhs of such consequences. A dominion for Sikhs wouldn't have been a such a bad idea. We as a minority would have had our own self-ruled home, a buffer state between two opposing communities.

3: Karan Singh (U.K.), December 29, 2009, 5:28 PM.

Did Baba Kharak Singh ever speak out against the Indian Constitution which stated that Sikhs were Hindus?

4: Taran (London, United Kingdom), April 05, 2010, 2:41 PM.

We had so many great leaders like Baba Kharak Singh. But still Sikhs were always at loggerheads with each other and are even now. None of them understood the cunning mindset of the top brahminical leadership. As a result, the Sikh Qaom repeatedly fell into their traps. First, the British did it to us, then Hindus, and now we are at the mercy of our own brethren.

5: Bibek Singh (Jersey City, U.S.A.), September 19, 2010, 10:18 PM.

Thanks ... Very nice article.

6: Harbeen Paintal (Kashipur, Uttarakhand, India), April 19, 2012, 11:46 PM.

During Baba ji's life time, we used to celebrate his birtday. Why not now? If we do it now, today's generation will also come to know about him, his sacrifices, his character, his strong will. Our children don't even know who he was, how great he was. They should know about our heroes.

7: Joginder Paintal (Mumbai, India), September 22, 2013, 8:12 AM.

It is an excellent write-up about Baba Kharak Singh and I congratulate the writer to have brought out quite a few episodes in the political life of Baba Kharak Singh. However there are three very important episodes in his life which has not been mentioned in any write-ups or in the books on Kharak Singh and I would like to briefly mention those episodes hereunder. When the Punjab Congress President was arrested by the British government and was given a very heavy punishment, no Congress leader dared to offer to be the new president. Although Baba Kharak Singh was not very pleased with Congress, in order to take up the British challenge he took over the president-ship of the Punjab Congress. He was promptly arrested along with some other leaders and was confined to a jail in Dera Ghazikhan. The jail authorities there told Baba Kharak Singh that black turbans were banned in the jail. Baba Kharak Singh insisted that he would only wear black turban (signifying fight for freedom) ... if not allowed to do so, they would wear nothing -- no clothes, Ultimately Babaji and the other prisoners had to protest by taking off their clothes, except their underwear. They started a virulent agitation by the Sikhs in Punjab and elsewhere. Babaji refused to accept Mohandas Gandhi's request whereby other congress leaders refused to join in the protest. Due to the Sikh agitation, the government had to yield and the British inspector general of jails had to bring Babaji's clothes to inform him that the ban on the black turban had been removed and he should wear his clothes. However Babaji refused to wear his clothes saying that his agitation was against the ban of the Gandhi cap also. Thereupon the inspector general told Babaji that the Congress in Punjab is dead and therefore he should wear his clothes as the black turban is allowed. However Baba Kharak Singh told him that the congress may be dead but Kharak Singh is alive and when he takes up an issue he never looks back. Babaji had to go without clothes for years together. That is, about 5 years. Number 2: In 1930 the office of Shrimoni Akali Dal under the president-ship of Baba Kharak Singh was in Lahore and preparations for the annual session of the Akali Dal were under way. The Akali session coincided with the annual session of the Indian National Congress under the president-ship of Jawaharlal Nehru. On this occasion Gandhi sent a message to Baba Kharak Singh in Sialkot requesting him to unfurl the national flag which had in those days 3 colors with red representing Hindus at the top, in the middle was the white flag for the minorities and at the bottom was the green flag for the Muslims. Prior to that Motilal Nehru had chalked out a possible constitution of India which had specific reservations for the Muslims and the minorities. There was no mention of any Sikh representation which according to Motilal Nehru was not necessary as the Sikhs were Hindus, he said. Baba Kharak Singh had taken a virulent stand against this document which was popularly known as the "Nehru Report". The Sikh agitation against it and its total rejection by them had forced Motilal Nehru to retract the Nehru Report. It was due to this episode that Baba Kharak Singh refused Gandhi's request to unfurl the national flag which had no Sikh colors. Mahatma Gandhi thereupon sent one of the stalwart leaders of Congress - Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya to Sialkot with a personal request that Babaji unfurl the congress flag. However as Babaji refused to accede to Gandhi's request even after long parlays in Sialkot where other Sikh leaders had also assembled and Malviya had to go back to Lahore empty handed. Gandhi then wrote to Babaji that since he was to preside over the Akali session during those days he would request him to agree to a meeting to sort out all the Sikh concerns. When Babaji reached Lahore he sent a message to Gandhi that he was available for talks upon which Gandhi suggested that Babaji come to the congress camp where all the congress leaders were assembled and where all the talks could be held comprehensively. However Babaji sent his representative to the congress camp telling Gandhi that he had no problem about Sikh rights because they can look after their interest themselves and if the congress had anything to talk they were welcome to come to his office for talks. Thereupon Gandhi along with Motilal Nehru and Pandit Malviya went to Babaji's office for talks. There Motilal Nehru said: "Sardar Sahib, we are here and we know you are angry because of the Nehru Report so you can punish us as you like". It was in a light mood that this was said and Babaji just laughed away. Gandhi asked Babaji what was the Sikh colour to which Babaji said it had two colors. One Saffron and the other Navy Blue. So it was decided that instead of red colour there wold be saffron colour and the Charkha over it would be Navy Blue. So this point was settled. Then there was discussion about the Sikh representation and the main resolution of the congress was written on Babaji's table in his office by Gandhi in which it was said that no constitution of India shall be acceptable to congress which was not endorsed by the Sikhs. However there were some other points on which consensus could not be reached and Babaji stood on his refusal of unfurling the congress national flag. Motilal Nehru on this occasion said: "Sardar Sahib, I had heard of three obstinacies -- the Raj hath, the Tria hath and the Bal Hat, today we have seen the Sardar Hat also". It may be recalled that Babaji's annual procession was very impressive and Gandhi, Jinnah and other Leaders also participated in the procession. Number 3: During the Second World War, Lord Linlithgow who was Viceroy of India ordered the construction of an abattoir in Lahore where goats and cows were to be slaughtered mechanically to provide meat to the British forces in the Eastern Sector. The construction of this abattoir was vehemently opposed by both the Hindus and the Muslims as the mechanical slaughter was against Halal rules. There was a virulent agitation by both the Muslims and the Hindus and the government remained adamant. Lord Linlithgow said that the abattoir was in the war effort and no power on earth could stop it. At this Hindu leaders under Raja Narindra Nath and Gopichand Narang and some Muslim leaders went to Babaji while he was in Lahore and requested him to lead the agitation as it was not possible for them to change the government stance. Babaji agreed and on the very next day Babaji addressed a huge gathering of Muslims and Hindus in Lahore where he said that Lord Linlithgow had challenged that no power on earth can stop the construction of the abattoir. "I challenge Lord Linlithgow and give him three days to stop the construction otherwise Kharak Singh will go and demolish it. It shall be either Kharak Singh or the abbatoire." On the third day the government yielded and discontinued the construction while arresting Babaji. It is a pity that Sikhs ... and India ... have forgotten the sacrifices of Babaji who left an aristocratic lifestyle and spent, on different occasions, a total of about 20 years in jail. Once I was sitting with Prakash Singh Badal whose farm in Bazpur was adjacent to ours. At that time Badal was not in power and there was a tussle with the central government over several Sikh issues. Badal told me that the Hindu government at the center has forgotten the sacrifices of the Sikhs and the leaders have forgotten even Baba Kharak Singh's. Upon this I reminded Badal that he was chief minister in Punjab twice and I wanted to know as to what the Akali government did for Babaji. He said that there was a lapse on their part and they will rectify it when they came to power again. However still there is no institution or even a road or chowk in the name of Baba Kharak Singh in Punjab, while the government in the center named a very important road in Babaji's name and at his death they brought out postal stamps in his name and have put up his photograph in the parliament while even in the Sikh Museum in Amritsar and others there is no mention of Baba Kharak Singh under whose leaderships the Sikhs and Indians won all the campaigns against the British and even Gandhi after the victory of Babaji's campaign sent the following telegram to Babaji: "First Battle of India's freedom won, Congratulations." It's a shame that the sacrifices of the uncrowned king of the Sikhs are absolutely Ignored.

8: Satwant Singh (United Kingdom), December 22, 2014, 3:38 AM.

All well and good, however the current SGPC have single-handedly destroyed the true Khalsa Maryada of Guru Gobind Singh.

9: Ravneet Kaur (Chandigarh, Punjab), August 18, 2015, 3:43 AM.

Super! Commendable job. A great piece of history submitted above. Pathetic it is that there is no mention of Baba ji wherever one gets to read about the Freedom Struggle. It was for Baba ji's adamance and steadfastness that India is now a sovereign republic. Such huge contributions galore deserve to be honoured and celebrated by us all. We must pledge to dissipate the factual history to as many people as we can, since a majority of the population is unaware of this legendary dynamic personality for whom all words fall short.

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