The “Gurdwara Rikabganj agitation” of Delhi exactly a hundred years ago shows some quite startling parallels with the farmers’ agitation currently roiling New Delhi. As today, the earlier agitation was primarily by Punjabis and Sikhs against autocratic rulers in the capital oblivious to their sensitivities. As today, the ruling regime’s first response was to spread misinformation, demonise the protesters, and suppress the agitation by misguiding the public about their real intention.

In the end, the Gurdwara Rikabganj agitation shows the rulers caving in, realising that to play with the sentiments of Punjab was to play with fire. At this point, it seems difficult to tell if the buckling of colonial rule in the face of the Rikabganj agitation is also a foretelling of the Punjab farmers’ agitation – or whether colonial rule was in fact in some ways less malign – because of its willingness in the end to listen – than the centralising and autocratic tendencies on display today.

“Wanted 100 martyrs to save Gurdwaras” – an unusual appeal under this heading was part of Sardul Singh Caveeshar’s passionate letter printed on 2 September 1920 in the columns of an up-and-coming newspaper of Punjab, The Akali. Sardul Singh sought a hundred martyrs who would be willing to sacrifice their lives to reconstruct, in defiance of the British authorities, a portion of Gurdwara Rikabganj’s outer wall in Delhi.

The wall had been dismantled in 1913 by engineers of the Public Works Department in their vigorous efforts to beautify the landscape in the vicinity of the viceregal palace, and to enable them to construct a road through the estate of the gurdwara. The demolition of the sacred enclosure led to a prolonged agitation in the Punjab, largely among the Sikhs, and has come to be known as “the Gurdwara Rikabganj agitation or affair”.

Though accounts written by contemporaries of the Akali movement, and later by some historians, have succinctly referred to the Rikabganj movement as an indicator of the growing resentment against British rule, on the whole it has either been ignored or studied as a minor event deserving only a brief description. The general neglect of the Rikabganj movement in historical works is understandable because the first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed various crucial developments in the Punjab, such as the agrarian unrest of 1907, the Ghadar movement, the Rowlatt Satyagraha, and the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, all of which had a considerable role in India’s freedom struggle. Historians have tended to concentrate on these events, by comparison with which the Rikabganj movement has seemed of less import [....]

Gurdwara Rikabganj, situated in the heart of New Delhi behind Parliament House, was in 1912 a small structure in what was then known as Raisina village. According to Sikh religious tradition, the shrine was built in memory of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, whose headless body was cremated in November 1675 at the spot where the gurdwara now stands.

The Sikh religious tradition traces the construction of the building to the last years of Guru Gobind Singh, who it is believed verified the exact spot where his father was cremated and subsequently had a small gurdwara built there. Since then the gurdwara has stood like a barometer of Sikh power, being demolished when the Sikhs were at their weakest (1710), then reconstructed once again in 1783 when they were dominant in the Punjab; at present it is a palatial marble complex which hardly reminds anyone of its vicissitudes.

In December 1911 the British government decided to shift the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. A Capital Committee was set up to recommend the best physical location within Delhi where the new government house and offices could be located. The committee, in consultation with the viceroy, Lord Hardinge, decided that the new imperial complex should be built south of the old city in the village of Raisina. The spot chosen was adjacent to Gurdwara Rikabganj.

For a devout Sikh, a gurdwara is the most holy of all sites, but to Lutyens, the chief architect of New Delhi, and other authorities charged with the mission of constructing the new capital, Gurdwara Rikabganj with its ancient building, a large barren estate, and an uneven boundary wall must have appeared a structure ill suited to the new neighbourhood of a viceregal palace. Lutyens wanted Gurdwara Rikabganj demolished to accommodate his architectural plans for his imperial palace, but the local authorities were unwilling to take such a drastic step.

The chief commissioner of Delhi, WM Hailey, after consulting the chief engineer, formulated a plan to pull down the hexagonical stone wall enclosing the gurdwara, replace it with a quadrangular iron railing, and convert the inner area of the shrine into a garden. To acquire the land, which was part of the gurdwara estate, a sum of Rs 39,133 was deposited in the name of a charitable trust controlled by the mahant of the gurdwara.

In May 1913 the wall enclosing Gurdwara Rikabganj – 78 feet on the north and 322 feet on the east – was demolished to make way for a straight road to pass through the north-east corner of the gurdwara and thence to the viceregal palace. Trees that fell within the alignment of the road were also cut.

Initially, the government action went unnoticed because of Delhi’s sparse Sikh population and the gurdwara being located outside the city, but soon the news spread to Punjab and sparked vehement opposition against the government’s action. A spate of telegrams, petitions, and memoranda against the sacrilege were addressed to the viceroy, the lieutenant governor of Punjab, the commander-in-chief of the army, and the chief commissioner of Delhi. Sikhs in Burma, China, Hong Kong, and the United States sent telegrams asking for the reconstruction of the dismantled wall.

Meanwhile, Sikh devotees from Punjab started arriving in Delhi to gauge the lie of the land for themselves. On 27 January 1914 Harchand Singh, a member of the landed gentry from Lyallpur district, visited the gurdwara. On his return to Punjab he published a pamphlet which gave an eyewitness account of the gurdwara and its demolished wall. He concluded the pamphlet by noting: “the officers are informed that the Sikh public totally disapproves of a railing being put up instead of the rampart and that by so doing the religious sentiments of the Sikhs shall be wounded.”

In February a series of diwans were held at Lyallpur, Lahore, Shimla, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jullundur, Taran Taran, Rawalpindi, Patiala, Montgomery, and various other places protesting the action and asking the government to rebuild the demolished wall at its own expense. These protest meetings brought home to the administration the gravity of the situation [....]

Colonial policy towards the Rikabganj movement can be analysed by focusing on three distinct phases: initially, an attempt to mislead the people; subsequently, the exploitation of divisions existing among the Sikhs by alienating those who demanded reconstruction of the wall; and finally, when even this imperial ploy failed, working out a compromise in face of the mounting opposition.

The first response of the British administration to the numerous protest letters and telegrams was to say that Gurdwara Rikabganj and the enclosure wall would not be touched. Hailey instructed his private assistant, de Montmorency, to reply all whose letters and telegrams demanded reconstruction of the dismantled wall by saying, “All that has been taken up is a garden attached to the Gurdwara and the wall of the garden is being taken down as it is intended to make the Gurdwara the centre of a much larger garden.”

In other words, the government stand was that the wall which was demolished was not a part of the main gurdwara but merely that of a garden, and by this demolition of the irregular wall and the development of a garden the shrine would find itself positioned in the centre of a square park. Only one Sikh association immediately accepted this argument. Others vacillated; most opposed it vociferously, arguing that the walls, the bricks used in its construction, and the garden were all an integral part of the gurdwara and could not be isolated from it.

Even after substantial opposition against the government plans, Hailey wrote to HT Keeling, chief engineer of Delhi, in December 1913: “there is, I think going to be some agitation on the subject of the demolition of outer wall at Rikabganj Gurdwara...I think we should begin work on these roads at once.”

When it became obvious to the British officials that their stratagem of misguiding the public had not gone down well, they sought help from their local collaborators.

Hailey asked Raja Sir Daljit Singh to mobilise support for government policy. Daljit Singh promptly contacted the leaders of the Chief Khalsa Diwan, the most influential Sikh organisation at the time, which was dominated by the Sikh aristocracy. As a moderate body, with its own class interests usually in view, it showed ample willingness to accept the government proposal for the replacement of the Rikabganj wall by an iron railing and make adjustments in the boundary of the gurdwara precincts. Sir Sunder Singh Majithia, secretary of the Chief Khalsa Diwan, used all his resources to gather support for the government. He issued a pamphlet explaining the history of Gurdwara Rikabganj, the changes proposed by the government, and the policy of the Chief Khalsa Diwan.

When Harchand Singh tried to raise the issue of the Rikabganj wall at a Sikh educational conference in Jullundur in April 1914, the leaders of the Chief Khalsa Diwan forced him to leave the conference on the grounds that “his words spoken before such a gathering who are unable to discriminate between right and wrong can create very bad effect.” The “very bad effect” would have been that the pro-government activities of the Chief Khalsa Diwan would have been made public in a conference attended by the Sikh masses from all over Punjab.

When the Sikh public learnt that representatives of the Chief Khalsa Diwan had agreed with British officials in principle that the Rikabganj wall might be replaced by an iron railing, it denounced the move of the Diwan as a “stab in the back of the community”. Once again, letters and telegrams from all over Punjab started pouring into the chief commissioner’s office asking him not to view the Chief Khalsa Diwan as a representative body of the Sikhs.

The opposition being quite vocal, the leaders of the Chief Khalsa Diwan decided they needed to be cautious in their support to the government. To give its decisions the appearance of a general consensus, the Chief Khalsa Diwan, under government influence, convened a meeting in the Town Hall at Amritsar on 3 May 1914. This meeting was attended by about 250 hand-picked people who were sure to support the government.

Excerpted with permission from the forthcoming When Does History Begin: Religion, Identity, and Narrative in the Sikh Tradition, Harjot Oberoi, Permanent Black.