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Akali Agitation over the Keys’ Affair article by Sawan Singh Gogia


Akali Agitation over the Keys’ Affair

by Sawan Singh Gogia

The Nankana tragedy proved a turning point in the Akali movement for the libration of the Gurdwaras from the corrupt Mahants supported by the British Government. The Akalis directed a two-pronged struggle against the corrupt priests who controlled the Gurdwaras on the one hand and against their supporter, the British Government on the other. This struggle was to remain non- violent and non- cooperative at any cost and aimed at libration of the Gurdwaras from Mahants and the state control.

The Keys’ Affair

The Golden Temple and the Akal Takhat were under the control of the Akalis in October 1920, but the keys of the Toshakhana (Store where precious articles and cash etc were stored) were still in the possession of a Government- appointed manager. The Akalis and the Public felt that the Government was still controlling the Gurdwaras. The S.G.P,C , the body which controlled the Gurdwara, at its meeting held on 29th October,1921asked the manager to hand over the keys to Sardar Kharak Singh, the President of the S.G.P.C. Before the resolution was passed, the Deputy Commissioner, Amritsar sent Extra Assistant Commissioner with a police party and took the keys from the manager. The Government feared that the Sikhs under Baba Kharak Singh were planning to take possession of the treasury for political purposes.Thus an agitation for the possession of the keys started.

The Agitation

As soon as the period of intense agitation started, the pro-Akali news papers protested sharply and criticized the Government for taking over the keys. In the meeting held to protest against the action of the Deputy Commissioner, Sardar Kharak Singh and Jaswant Singh delivered violent speeches. The S.G. P. C decided not to allow the Government appointed agent (Sarbrah), Captain Bahadur Singh, to interfere in the affairs of the Golden Temple and asked the Sikh members of the Legislative Council to vacate their seats. Protest meetings were held in different parts of the state. Volunteers from different parts of the state for courting arrest started reaching Amritsar in the middle of November. People called it Chabeean da Morcha. Thus the Sikh masses were brought into the Non-cooperation movement.

The State Efforts to suppress the Agitation

Seeing the deluge of protests and indignation throughout the central Punjab, the  Government of India feared the danger of its reaction on the loyalty of the Sikh troops in the army. As advised by the Central Government, the state Government arrested 50 Sikh leaders holding a meeting at Ajnala. More arrests were made from different parts of the state on the charge of discussing the prohibited keys issue. They were prosecuted and awarded rigorous sentences with fines.

The Akali Reaction

The Akali reaction was immediate and forceful. Religious meetings were held in the Gurdwaras in the state where the key affair was explained and the Government was condemned for arresting and punishing the peaceful protesters. The agitation was spreading fast in the villages where Sikhs were in majority. All the members of S.G.P.C. were arrested. Thousands of Sikhs volunteered to be arrested. Soon the Punjab jails were full of the Sikh volunteers. Arresting the Akali leaders and awarding them sentences and fines made the movement more popular. They were non- cooperative and did not offer any defense in the courts as they had no regard for a foreign government and its courts. The following lines taken from Baba Khark Singh’s statement made in the court will prove it: As the Government is a party to this prosecution and the judge is one of its servants, I, therefore, do not wish to make any statement. My position as President of the Sikh Panth is like that of the Presidents of the United States, France and Germany” The S. G. P. C advised the Sikhs to observe strike on the day of the arrival of the Prince of Wales in India. Sikh soldiers and pensioners were asked not to attend any of the functions in honor of the Prince. Consequently, people were asked to boycott the scheduled visit of the Prince to Amritsar . Such a spirit of defiance was working behind the Gurudwara reform movement. The agitation showed serious effects on the Sikh troops in the military. No Sikh was prepared to accept the office of the Government Agent.

The Government Surrendered

The close relationship of the Congress and Akalis also disturbed the Government and it started thinking of a plan to solve the complicated situation. It tried appointing a committee of a few moderate Sikhs, but even the moderate Sikhs did not accept the official offer in face of the determined agitation. The SGPC refused to negotiate with the Government unless and until the Sikhs arrested in this agitation were released unconditionally. As written in “The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi” (Page 208-209), the Punjab Government was in a real dilemma. On January 12, 1922, a compromise was made and the Government agreed to leave the administration of the Golden Temple in the hands of the S.G.P.C and to hand over the keys of the Toshkhana to it. All those arrested in connection with the agitation were released unconditionally on 17th January, 1922. A gazetted officer of the Government handed over the keys to Baba Kharak Singh in a special congregation arranged for the purpose. The Government totally surrendered to the Akalis and had to eat a humble pie.

Public Reaction

A cotemporary European writer described the unconditional release of the Akali prisoners and handing over the keys to Baba Kharak Singh as the most shameful defeat of the British Government. Mahatma Gandhi not only remarked it a glorious triumph of non-violence and self-sacrifice over high-handedness, but also sent a telegram to Baba Kharak Singh, the then President of S. P. G. C . congratulating him in these words: “First battle for India’s freedom won. Congratulations.” The Sikhs had nothing but hatred for the foreign rule and anti- British feelings prevailed in the politics of those days. Fear of the government, its officials, judges and police disappeared. The Sikh community was awakened and its religious places could no longer be misused by the Mahants and the state. Gurdwara Reform Movement was strengthened and ‘Struggle at Guru-Ka-Bagh’ was started. The scheduled visit of the Prince to Amritsar was cancelled and his reception at Lahore was boycotted.

Let us not ignore our Golden Heritage

My casual survey of the Sikhs below40 in the Punjab as well as out of the Punjab showed that a very small percentage of them knew anything about this unique non- violent struggle . Even in many Gurdwaras this day is not observed. We have forgotten what Guru Amar Daas said:

‘The stories of one’s ancestors make the children good children.’

This is the main reason that new generation of Sikhs are drifting away from Sikhism. It is said that people who forget their golden heritage are ruined. This prompted me to write the above few lines. I will request all those who read it to share it with other members and particularly the adults of their families Those who want to learn about other Sikh martyrs are requested to visit my website ( sawansinghgogia.com) and read my books Sikh Martyrs Part 1&Part2.


The Govt. had opened a new front to regain the loss of prestige and wanted to deliver a severe blow to the Akali organization, but received a set-back. The Sikhs remained peaceful despite the rude and cruel behavior of the police. They had exhibited that Sikhs could also remain united, peaceful and non-violent against provocation and cruelty. The Gurdwara Reform Movement was transformed into political cum religious movement which forced the state to surrender.

“India-USA Magazine” is thankful to Mr. Sawan Singh Gogia to allow us permission to bring to you this article. In the coming weeks, we plan to publish more of his work on the web and also in the Magazine.

About the Author: Sawan Singh Gogia

Sawan Singh Gogia

Sawan Singh Gogia was born at Narpur Thal District Sargodha (Pakistan) on 23rd December, 1923 in a middle class Sikh family. His father, the late S. Partap Singh was in business, earlier as a cloth merchant, and later as a share broker. S. Sawan Singh received his early education in Mian Channu and then at Nurpur. (both in Pakistan). As he was a brilliant student with proficiency in Persian, he passed Munshi Fazal exam in 1942. For a number of years, he worked a teacher and it was only after partition that he did his graduation privately while in service (he attended DAV College Ambala for two months only) and BT (Bachelor of Training) from Govt. College, Faridkot (1949–1950 respectively.)

He started his regular teaching career in 1950 at Government Balbir School, Faridkot and while in service he completed his Graduation in History and Post Graduation in Punjabi. He got a state award for being one of the best five heads of five schools, when he was serving at Mansa. He became Principal of a Government Primary Teachers Training (JBT) School at Budhlada (Bhatinda) and served there until he was deputed with the Punjab School Education Board, Mohali as officer in charge of the Adarsh Schools. From there he retired in December, 1981. From 1984 to 87 he served as Honorary Founder Principal of an Elementary Model School started by Gurdwara Sector 15, Chandigarh (Gurdwara Guru Tegh Bahadur), which is now a recognized Higher Secondary School. As a teacher he was always a role–model by self example and also by guiding the students regarding the spiritual values and teachings of Sikh religion.

When his retired life started after shifting to USA where his three sons and only daughter are settled, he took the role of a teacher and a writer on Sikhism. In highly advanced age, he learnt operating computer and started working as a dedicated teacher. He has written 12 books and more than 100 articles on Gurbani and Sikh history which can be seen on his website www.sawansinghgogia.com He himself published some of these books but never sold any of them. Rather, he distributed them in different Gurdwaras, not for free, but for the donation that went to the Gurdwaras where distributed.

Three of his books, namely, “Thus say Sri Guru Granth Sahib”, “Noble and Brave Sikh Women”, and “How to Reach God?” have been published by a reputed publisher of Amritsar. Seven of his books are being sold on line by Amazon in many countries. Most of his articles are published in the Sikh Review (Kolkata), Abstract of Sikh Studies (Chandigarh), Kesar Mari (Delhi), Gursikh (Canada), Sikh Bulletin (California) and Punjabi Weeklies in USA. On Sundays, He serves in the library having four thousand books at Gurdwara Sikh Center, Santa Ana.

Now Sawan Singh Ji is 93 years old and remains a role–model playing his role of a teacher and a writer with dedication and spirit having complete faith in the grace of God. He still does one Sehaj Path of Sri Guru Granth Sahib every year by reading about four pages with meanings each day. He is grateful to his dutiful and religious minded sons who have supported him and enabled him to do whatever he wanted to do for his religion. He lives in Santa Ana, California, USA.