Chandigarh: Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, has pivotal role in the history, culture of Sikhs. Its significance is not only attributed to the birthplace but also to the liberation from Mahant Narain Das.
Central Government has denied permission at the eleventh hour for the Sikh jatha comprising 600 people heading to Pakistan for the 100th anniversary of the Nankana Sahib massacre or Saka Nankana Sahib has raised eyebrows. A jatha is a group of Sikhs who meet formally or march in order to celebrate a religious event or to protest against or support something.
Nanakana Sahib massacre
During early decades of 20th century, the gurdwara of Janam Asthan was controlled by Mahant Narain Das, who was regarded as iniquitous. The Nanakana Sahib massacre was the bloodiest in history of Gurdwara Reform Movement. It occurred less than two years after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on April 13, 1919, with one crucial difference — the British colonial government was responsible for Jallianwala Bagh massacre and Mahant Narain Das and his private army massacred Sikhs within gurdwara.
Martyr Bhai Lachhman Singh Dharowali
Bhai Lachhman Singh Dharowali, who had played a prominent role in the liberation of gurdwaras in Tarn Taran and other places, decided to take the initiative of liberating Nankana Sahib by leading a jatha from his village, which reached Nankana Sahib on the morning of February 20, 1921.
Unaware of the mahant’s intentions, he entered the gurdwara with members of the jatha and thus fell into the trap laid by Narain Das, who had hired nearly 400 mercenaries, including notorious criminals like Ranjha and Rehana, armed with lethal weapons. According to an eyewitness account, on hearing the news of the arrival of the jatha, the mahant exhorted his men to action.
Without any provocation, they started firing and, in the process, Bhai Lachhman Singh was hit by a volley of bullets while trying to protect the holy Granth. The mahant violently attacked him. Other members of the jatha also faced violent attack.
In order to obliterate every trace of the killed people, the mahant’s men burnt the bodies. A few members of the jatha, who had taken shelter inside the rooms, were dragged out, tied to the jand tree and burnt by pouring kerosene. The historic tree, burnt from one side yet still green from the other, is a mute witness to the cold-blooded murder of innocent men, women and children.
High income from the Nankana Sahib gurdwara and its estate gave Narain Das financial capacity to hire criminals and manage local officials whose failure became evident when the massacre happened in the morning of February 20, 1921 even as local authorities were aware of the tension brewing between the Akalis and the mahant. Around 150 Sikhs (one report put the figure at 168) were butchered and bodies burnt to destroy evidence by Mahant Narain Das and his hired criminals.
Bhai Uttam Singh's Role
On learning about the tragedy, Bhai Uttam Singh, a local factory owner, informed the higher authorities and also sent urgent telegrams to the Akali leaders. The Deputy Commissioner reached Nankana Sahib around noon time. In the meantime, prominent Akali leaders also arrived.
On noticing that the Akali leaders were greatly agitated over the inaction of the authorities in protecting the peaceful jatha, Mahant Narain Das and his henchmen were arrested and sent to Central Jail, Lahore, and the keys of the gurdwara were handed over to the Akali leaders.
The tragedy greatly perturbed the Sikhs in different parts of the country who sent messages of sympathy for the Akali martyrs. Mahatma Gandhi visited Nankana on March 3, 1921. While condemning the cruel deed of the mahant, he described the martyrdom of the Akali reformers as an ‘act of national bravery’.
A collective cremation of the remaining parts of the bodies was held on February 23. Narain Das and his seven accomplices were later sentenced to death by the trial court on October 12, 1921. However, on March 3, 1922, the high court converted it to life term and he was released in 1930.
The pilgrims had been geared up for their visit. COVID-19 tests were done and everyone tested negative. Security checks were clear. Visas were granted and people reached Golden Temple with their luggage to cross over to Pakistan from the Wagah border on February 17. The jatha was supposed to visit Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak Dev, in Pakistan and some other gurdwaras from February 18 to 25, 2021.
However, on February 17, the joint director of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) Avi Prakash sent a letter to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) president Bibi Jagir Kaur denying permission. The letter cited “recent inputs” indicate a threat to the safety and security of Indian citizens visiting Pakistan.
On the other hand, visitors said that the government has apparently taken such a decision following the farmers’ protest. Though the government thinks that it is the Sikhs who are leading the farmers’ protest, the reality is that it is an agitation of every individual in the country.
A research scholar from Punjabi University, Patiala, Jagdeep Singh, who was ready for his maiden visit to Nankana Sahib said that if COVID-19 was such a serious threat, then the Centre should not have granted permission to the jatha which went to Pakistan to celebrate Guru Nanak Dev’s Jayanti in November 2020.
“COVID-19 was at its peak in November. If the Central government could allow the devotees to go to Pakistan during the pandemic's peak, then they should have readily agreed now. Our COVID-19 tests were done and all of us had tested negative. We were all set to leave for Pakistan when the permission was denied. Though the Central government has not given any response so far, we are still hopeful,” he said.