Role in the Independence Movement
After successfully reforming the Sikh places of worship and winning the first elections of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee in 1926, the Shiromani Akali Dal extended the scope of its activity to the national arena. It participated in the Indian freedom movement during the Bardoli satyagraha (agitation) and the campaign for the boycott of the Simon Commission in 1928. After the boycott of the Commission the issue of Swaraj (self determination) and the formation of a constitution for free India became important. To draft this constitution an all party conference formed the Nehru Committee. But the report of the Motilal Nehru Committee came as a sore disappointment to the Sikhs because it had defaulted in proposing any measure to protect their minority rights. Towards the end of December 1929, the Shiromani Akali Dal and its sister organization, the Central Sikh League, convened an Akali conference at Lahore to coincide with the 44th annual session of the Congress Party. Presiding over the conference, Baba Kharak Singh reiterated Sikhs’ determination. not to let any single community establish its political hegemony in the Punjab. The Akali Conference, and even more dramatically the huge Sikh procession which preceded it, made a tremendous impact. The Congress not only rejected the Nehru Report but also assured the Sikhs that no political arrangement which did not give them full satisfaction would be accepted by the party.
The first round table conference was organized in London on November 12, 1930 with the object of obtaining Indian opinion for future constitutional reforms. The majority of the Sikh leadership along with the Indian National Congress refused to participate in it and in fact over the next two years the Akalis participated in the Civil Disobedience movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi with remarkable enthusiasm with its leaders like Master Tara Singh even being arrested. Due to divergent claims the first conference was unsuccessful and could not solve the question of separate representation.
In the charter adopted at the annual session of the Central Sikh League held on 8 April 1931 under the presidentship of Master Tara Singh, the Sikhs expressed their opposition to communal representation and favored joint electorates, adding the rider that if it was finally decided to resort to reservation of seats on communal basis they would demand a 30 per cent share of the assembly seats in the Punjab and five per cent in the Central legislature. Other demands included a one-third share in provincial services and the public service commission; maintenance of the then existing Sikh percentage in the army; Sikh representation in the Central cabinet and the central public service commission; recognition of Punjabi as the official language in-Punjab; and protection of Sikh minorities outside the Punjab on a par with, protection provided for other minorities. At the national level, the Sikhs wanted the government to be secular; and the Centre to have residuary powers including powers needed for the protection of minorities.
The subsequent round table conference and the communal award of 1932 as a result of these conferences was not favourable to the Sikhs as they were given weightage but not to the same extent as it was given to Muslims in Provinces where they were in a Minority. While the Sikhs got proportionate representation in Punjab they got nothing in the United Provinces and Sindh where they had a sizeable population. As a result of this the Shiromani Akali Dal vociferously opposed this Communal Award. It raised its voice against this Award in the Sikh Conference at Lahore in 1932 and Master Tara Singh raised all the concerns of Sikhs in the Third Round Table Conference. However, despite his protests and demands the Communal Award was not changed and the constitutional reforms relating to the provisions of this award were implemented. The Shiromani Alaki Dal fought the first elections, under the Government of India Act of 1935 which was based on the Communal Award. These elections where fought in collaboration with the Indian National Congress. Out of the 29 Sikh seats, the Akali Dal carried 10 seats (out of 14 contested) and the Congress won five. Opposing them was the Khalsa National Party aligned with the Chief Khalsa Diwan and the Unionist Party. While the Unionist Party with 96 out of a total of 175 seats formed the ministry, the Akalis joined hands with the Congress to form the Opposition. With the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, a rift occurred between the Congress and the Akalis. While the former boycotted the assemblies, the Akalis, although they agreed with the Congress in their demand for the declaration of war aims and the way these aims were to be applied to India, pressed the Government for the protection of their minority interests. Their representative, Baldev Singh, joined the Unionist ministry in the Punjab as a result of a pact made with the premier, Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan. Although known in history as the Sikandar-Baldev Singh Pact signed on 15 June 1942, it essentially marked rapproachement between the Unionist leader and the Shiromani Akali Dal which had spearheaded a very active campaign against this government in Punjab
The Pakistan Resolution passed by Indian Muslim League at Lahore in 1940, demanding a separate country comprising of Muslim majority provinces, posed a serious threat to the Sikhs. In Pakistan as envisaged by the Muslim League, Sikhs would be reduced to a permanent minority, hence to a subordinate position. The Shiromani Akali Dal opposed tooth and nail any scheme for the partition of the country. It successively rejected the Cripps’ proposal (1942), RajaFormula (1944) and the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946). But the existing demographic realities were against the Sikhs. Nowhere in the Punjab did they have a sizeable tract with a Sikh majority of population. To counter the League demand for Pakistan, the Shiromani Akali Dal put forward the Azad Punjab scheme proposing the carving out of the Punjab of a new province, roughly between Delhi and the River Chenab, where none of the three communities–Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs-would command an absolute majority. But the proposal did not gather sufficient support. Even the Central Akali Dal led by Baba Kharak Singh, set itself up against it.
The Shiromani Akali Dal, under the prevailing circumstances cast its lot with the Indian National Congress trusting to it the protection of Sikhs’ minority rights. In a public statement made on 4 April 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “redistribution of provincial boundaries was essential and inevitable. I stand for semi-autonomous units as well…. I should like them [the Sikhs] to have a semi-autonomous unit within the province so that they may experience the glow of freedom.”