Saka Nankana Sahib centenary inspiring protesting farmers to keep fighting

The Nankana massacre (or Saka Nankana) in February 1921 marks a significant moment in Sikh history and farmers protesting against the three farm laws seem to be drawing inspiration from the bravery and spirit of sacrifice shown by the Sikhs on that day

Guru Nanak Dev, The Federal, English News Website
Sikhs don't fear for their lives, dignity is more important to them. Their gurus and history have taught them well, says a farmer from Punjab, protesting against the three farm laws. File Photo/PTI

Their gurus and history have taught Sikhs one important thing — don’t fear for your life, dignity is more important. That, in essence, underpins the indomitable Sikh spirit in the ongoing farmers agitation in the country.

“Nearly 250 farmers have lost their lives protesting against the three farm laws, and lakhs are in the line to sacrifice their life. They don’t fear for their lives but dignity is important to them. Our gurus and history have taught us that,” he said. From day one of the farmer’s protest, Sikh farmers seem to be motivating themselves by delving into their history and quoting from it. And they say the centenary of the Sri Nankana Sahib massacre — an important day in Sikh history also widely known as Saka Nankana Sahib — on Sunday (February 21,2021) inspires them more to continue with their protests. This day will be marked by an event to be held at Fatehpur Rajputtan village in Punjab.

What is significant about Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak Dev, is that it was also the site of the first big agitation by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), to take back control of the gurdwaras from mahants backed by the British.

History of Nankana Sahib

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After 1708, whilst the Khalsa community were trying to survive holocausts and genocidal campaigns by escaping to the jungles and deserts, Udaasi Saadhs, who were Sikh sympathisers, took charge of the management of the Sikh gurdwaras and their historical shrines linked to the Gurus. These caretakers of the gurdwaras, who were non-Sikhs, were known as mahants (caretakers).

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Then came the reign of Raja Ranjit Singh. Although the Khalsa had returned to the cities and villages, the majority of gurdwaras remained under the control of the mahants. During Raja Ranjit Singh’s rule, the mahants were given property rights and estates (jagirs). As a consequence, the non-Sikh mahants become more powerful and began to treat and accept the gurdwaras as their personal property and later came to not only distort Sikh practices and traditions but also commit acts of sacrilege and disrespect.

In 1849, the British came into power and employed their own sarbrahs (managers) at major Sikh shrines like Tarn Taran and Amritsar. The British knew that if Sikhs controlled their gurdwaras, they would be able to control the large amount of money that the gurdwara land generated and from donations. Furthermore, the gurdwaras would allow Sikhs to empower the masses with knowledge and spirit, which could cause a revolution and threaten the rulers.

Mahant Narain Das was in control of Sri Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak Dev.  In 1917-18, Sri Nankana Sahib had 18,750 acres of land, which generated ₹1 lakh revenue, and the donations to Gurdwara Sahib were an additional income as well.

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In 1917, the news of rapes inside the gurudwara by Mahant Narain Das and his men at Sri Nankana Sahib made Sikhs furious. In October of 1920, the Sikhs asked him to mend his corrupt ways. The mahant also refused to hand over the gurdwara to the newly formed SGPC, a Sikh run committee set up to manage the Sikh shrines and gurdwaras.

A Sanatan Sikh Group was formed by anti-Sikh mahants with the support of the British authorities, who planned a conference in Lahore in February 20, 1921. The Sikhs thought this was the perfect time to take over Sri Nankana Sahib. The Sikh leaders planned to peacefully go to Sri Nankana Sahib and take over, while Mahant Narain Das was away attending the Lahore conference.

However, he got wind of the plan by the Sikhs before he even reached Lahore. The Lahore British Commission helped the mahant  to prepare to kill the Sikhs, when they enter Sri Nankana Sahib. Mahant Narain Das was supplied with arms and ammunition like guns from Lahore; he bought and stored 14 tines of flammable paraffin as well. He reinforced the gurdwara gate, and made holes in the walls to fire bullets.

The Nankana Massacre

Sikhs gathered in small groups ready to die and embrace martyrdom to free Sri Nankana Sahib from the clutches of Mahant Narain Das. These groups were called Shaheedi Jathas. Around 150 Singhs got together to form a Jatha but it was decided that women and children should go back.

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A Sikh’s wife, Bibi Inder Kaur was given ₹18 and told to use it to arrange the funerals of Sikhs, who would become shaheed (martyred). One member was a nine-year-old, Darbara Singh. From the age of 7, young Darbara Singh would ask his mother whether he can become a shaheed, after his mother told him stories of amazing sacrifices of the Gurus. His mother would often tell him, “Shaheedi is expensive. You have to earn to get Shaheedi.” When the women and children were asked to leave the Jatha, the young Darbara Singh refused to leave. Seeing his determination, the elders allowed him to join their group.

The squad arrived at Nankana Sahib on February 20, bathed in the pool and entered the gurdwara at 6am. Mahant Narain Das, who got the news of the squad’s arrival had gathered his men together the night before and briefed them about their duties. After the squad had sat down, he signalled his men to carry out the predetermined plan.

The mahant’s men closed the main gate and started firing from the rooftops. Twenty-six Singhs became martyrs to those bullets in the courtyard, while another sixty sitting inside the Darbar Sahib were killed by the bullets as well. When the mahant’s men saw that no one was moving, they came down with swords and choppers. Any Singh who was found still breathing was cut to pieces. All 150 Sikhs were massacred.

The Nankana massacre (or Saka Nankana) took place in Nankana Sahib at that time in united India, in what is Pakistan today. This tragic event forms an important part of Sikh history, and is as significant politically next to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919.

Taking control of Sri Nankana Sahib

On February 21,1921, 2,200 armed Sikhs on horseback arrived at Sri Nankana Sahib. Curry, the British Deputy Commissioner of Lahore, had already arrived at Sri Nankana Sahib the day before to witness the aftermath of the massacre. Curry’s army surrounded Sri Nankana Sahib with guns and was ready to fire at any Singhs that planned to take over the gurdwara.

When the Singhs arrived, Curry stepped forward to tell them: “If the Sikhs come forward any more the army will open fire and kill them.” The Jathedar of Sikhs laughed, and replied, Mr Curry we have come here to die. Who are you trying to scare with death?… Singhs! Take out your Kirpaans and get ready to attack the British!”

Their courage and fearlessness in the face of death worried Curry. The Jathedar then told him, “Mr Curry, you have two and a half minutes to hand me the keys [of Sri Nankana Sahib].” Curry handed over the keys immediately and asked his army to step down. The last rites were performed for all the Shaheed Sikhs and preachings at the gurdwara were restored.

Farmer’s Protest

Similar to the Jathedar’s challenge to Britisher Curry in 1921, the Sikhs in 2021, who are protesting against the three farm laws claim that they have come on the Delhi borders to die. The government of India banned the visit to Nankana Sahib this year, citing terrorist threats. Sikhs believe that this ban only widens the difference between the government and Punjab.

Not allowed to go to Nankana Sahib in Pakistan, the farmers are organising an event, uner thed banner of Samyukt Kisan Morcha, to mark the centenary of the Sri Nankana Sahib massacre at Fatehpur Rajputtan village in Punjab.

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