Root Cause of The Sikh Problem: The Partition of India (1947) – Part I  

Another map of Panjab – Source: To be identified
By Hardev Singh Virk | OPINION |

India Wins Freedom: An Autobiographical Narrative[1] by Abul Kalaam Azad outlines how Congress betrayed Muslim nationalists; Partition could have been avoided if it were not for some poor policy decisions from Congress high command. Sir Evan Jenkins, the governor of the Punjab from April 1946 – 15 August 1947, complained that the dogmatism of the Congress and Muslim League high commands prevented any settlement of the political impasse in the region. The British-Congress-Muslim League triangle in Delhi was intent on a swift transfer of power[2], which was not conducive to arriving at a settlement that took account of the particular conditions in the Punjab. On 15 August 1947 the Indian people gained their independence; but the price was Partition, death and displacement of population in the Punjab.

After more than 70 years of Indian independence, Sikhs are not yet reconciled to their fate. India was divided on the basis of  two nation theory into India and Pakistan. Sikhs were considered as part of the Hindus along with Jains and Buddhists. During political parleys with the British, the Sikhs were  invited as equal partners with Muslim League and Indian National Congress but Sikh leaders failed to put up their case with the acumen and political wisdom desired at such meetings. Till the day of Partition, they displayed a dithering attitude to their demands. They were not sure which way to go? The demand for a separate nation status remained dormant and buried in their bosom. They were left with the only option to join India.

Master Tara Singh was the indisputable leader of the Sikhs before and after partition  of India. Master Tara Singh and Akali Dal strongly opposed the partition of India. I believe Master Tara Singh had to share the blame for failure of Sikh leadership during the parleys for Partition of India. It is obvious that Sikh leaders were not sure of their moves at the negotiation table. They had not done their homework sincerely. Sometimes, they were asking for Azad Punjab with dominant Muslim population, other times they were opposed to partition of India, which shows that in both these cases the Sikhs were fighting a losing battle. Ultimately, they were caught in a trap well laid out by the leaders of Indian National Congress and opted to join India without asking any written guarantees for their liberty and status as an independent nation.

There are several studies on failure of Sikh leadership to obtain an independent  Sikh state at the time of Partition of India but I shall summarize the results of only three for the sake of brevity.


1.  Sikh Failure on the Partition of Punjab in 1947

Akhtar Hussain Sandhu [3] in his paper published in International Journal of Punjab Studies  (September, 2012) has presented an incisive survey of the Sikh failure. The main points of this study are summed up as follows:

  1. Sikh leaders lacked political vision, therefore the Akalis were simultaneously anti-government, anti-Muslim League, anti-Congress, anti-Unionist, anti-British, anti-Khalsa National Party and anti-Communist and other Sikhs who were not their allies.
  2. Sincerity of purpose was badly missing in the political creed of the Akalis. While dealing with the Congress, the Sikh leadership many times demonstrated compromising behaviour on political issues.
  3. Sikhism attracted the main bulk of the followers from Hinduism. The impact of this link remained intact and affected the political idealism of the Sikhs. The Akalis brainwashed the Sikh masses through speeches and statements that the Muslims were their enemies and the Hindus were their friends.
  4. At every crucial moment, the Congress ignored the Sikhs but the Akali leadership did not dare to adopt an independent direction in their politics. The acceptance of the Congress’ influence proved pernicious for the Sikh future.
  5. The Akali policy to sideline and humiliate the Sikh aristocracy, Communists, Mazhabi Sikhs, Congress-supporting Sikhs, and other groups proved detrimental in the long run.
  6. The dual membership of many Sikhs was another problem as many were enjoying affiliation with more than one party. A Sikh was a Congressite and the Akali member at the same time or a Communist and Congressite .
  7. Master Tara Singh remained unchallenged as the sole leader of the Sikhs during the period 1923 to 1947. The Sikh masses rendered their wholehearted support to him but at the most sensitive time he went into the background and left the Sikh panth at the mercy of Sardar Baldev Singh and Sardar Swaran Singh. One of the main causes of Master Tara Singh’s aloofness was the severe opposition from within the Akali circles which convinced him to remain in the background for the time being as a deliberate tactic.
  8. He (Master Tara Singh) was headmaster of a high school who lacked the vision of a national or provincial political leadership.
  9. The Sikh demographic pattern was such a critical disadvantage which could not be adequately addressed by the Sikh leaders. They did not form a majority of the population in any district of the Punjab.
  10. Creation of a Sikh state or joining Pakistan or India were the main options available to the Sikhs but as freedom was coming closer the Sikhs started restricting their options. Their leaders were not talking to the Muslim leaders and were least interested in taking advantage of their bargaining position. They were pleasing the Hindu leadership by posing themselves as the champions of united India and protectors of the Hindus. They relied on the Congress which had betrayed them on every important political turn in their history. The Congress and the Hindu press gave a cold shoulder to the Sikhs but still they did not take the independent course in politics.
  11. The Sikh leadership also became victim of their traditional weakness in political parleys. Moreover, they had to deal with the competent leadership like M. A. Jinnah, M. K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru which put them in a defensive position.
  12. Sikh leadership, in the run up to partition, could not gauge the depth of the political issues confronting their community. They joined hands with the Congress and favoured united India in which they were only one per cent of the population. The main reasons behind this decision was their religious and cultural affinity to Hinduism, weak leadership, disunity, Mughal atrocities during the early centuries of the rise of Sikh tradition, and the Muslim onslaught in the late 1940s.
  1. The Role of Sikhs during the Partition of India

Avinash Hingorani [4] has reported this study on in 2014. He reports that after creation of Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikhs aspired for their political identity and fought for independent political status in Punjab: From the time of Guru Nanak (1469-1539) to the last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), Sikh followers began to acquire their own political identity which was independent from that of the Hindus and Muslims.  Due to religious persecutions, the Sikhs wanted to create their own empire that was independent from Mughal rule, and this led to a war between the Sikhs and the Mughal Empire. Guru Gobind Singh inaugurated a group of Sikh authoritative leaders known as the Khalsa. Guru Gobind Singh then sent Banda Singh Bahadur, a Sikh general, to go fight the Mughal rulers”.

The main points of this study are summed as follows:

  1. When partition occurred in 1947, the Sikhs wanted their own state in the Punjab region. Unfortunately the British Raj categorized the Sikhs as merely being a subdivision of the Hindus and never considered giving them their own separate nation.
  2. While the Sikhs shared many similarities to the Hindus it would be unfair to consider them as merely being a subdivision or a caste of Hinduism.
  3. The British did not acknowledge the Sikhs grievances, and in 1943 it became clear that the Muslims would be given their independent state of Pakistan. In response to this Giani Kartar Singh called for a separate state called Azad Punjab, which was to be comprised of Ambala, Jullundar, Lahore, Multan, and Lyallpur divisions. Many Sikh leaders supported this independent state of Azad Punjab. Lahore was once the capital of the Sikh empire and the Sikhs wanted Lahore most of all. Giani Kartar Singh asked “if Pakistan was to come out of compulsion because Mr. Jinnah’s demand could not be resisted, why not give an independent state to the Sikhs also?”.
  4. In 1944, Sikh leader and activist Master Tara Singh led the Sikhs in declaring their own independent state. Tara Singh believed that the creation of Azad Punjab would be necessary to protect Sikhs and Hindus from Muslim rule. Tara Singh believed that Azad Punjab could “take out the overwhelming majority of the Hindus and Sikhs from Muslim domination and get rid of the present Pakistan”.
  5. Master Tara Singh feared that if Pakistan were created the Sikh community would be “lost forever”. After making these comments Tara Singh was invited to a round table conference at Simla at the end of the Second World War by Governor-General Lord Archibald Wavell to represent the Sikhs of India and to quell the political relations between the different religious groups of India. Tara Singh argued that the “creation of Pakistan would be more injurious to his community than to any other community”. He strongly encouraged against the demand of Pakistan by the Muslims and coincidentally made several Muslim enemies.
  6. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who outwardly maintained an attitude of sullen and studious disregard towards the Sikhs, tried to cajole them privately. He knew in his heart of hearts that Sikh opposition to Pakistan was one real obstacle in his way and made several secret overtures to the leaders of the community. He chided them for being too subservient to Congress influence and held out all kinds of allurements, including the formation of an autonomous Sikh area within Pakistan. Some British officers also conveyed similar offers to Sikh leaders.
  7. It can be argued that the Muslims were able to achieve their own separate state from India because they were more assertive than the Sikhs. The Sikhs did not use violence against the other ethnic groups of India like the Muslims chose to do.
  8. The Sikhs were ultimately the odd man out in India’s partition and now had to make a difficult choice between India and Pakistan. For most Sikhs India seemed like the better option even if it meant leaving behind “their homes, their livelihoods, and their ancestral villages”.
  9. They also argued that an independent Punjabi Sikh majority state “was promised to the Sikh leader Master Tara Singh by Nehru in return for Sikh political support during the negotiations for Indian Independence”.
  10. This promise would finally be fulfilled on November 1st, 1966 and Punjab would finally become a Sikh majority state. Before 1966 Sikhs “constituted just over 33 percent of Punjab, after 1966, they made up a majority at 66 percent”. The Sikhs finally had power again in the land of their ancestral history and even though Lahore was still a part of Pakistan, the Sikhs were at least once again the majority group in Punjab.
3.  The Sikhs and the Partition of Punjab

Amabel Crowe [5] has reported this study as a part of MA history dissertation in the University of Edinburg in 2014. This study reveals many new facets of Sikh failure to share the exploits of Partition of Punjab along with the Muslim League. Sikhs constituted less than 15% of Punjab population but they contributed more than 40 % revenue to the state exchequer and were the richest community in Punjab. During Partition of India, Sikhs were the worst sufferers of all. They not only lost their religious and cultural heritage but also the richest economy based on agriculture in Pakistan.

The main conclusions of this study can be summed up as follows:

Sikhs were caught unawares as they were not prepared for the Partition of Punjab. First they wanted Azad Punjab with 40 % Muslim, 40 % Hindu and 20% Sikh population. When this proved to be a utopia, then they passed a resolution in favour of an independent Sikh State. Master Tara Singh and Giani Kartar Singh were their front rank leaders but they passed the baton to Baldev Singh and Swaran Singh. I consider this as a big blunder. Swaran Singh was a staunch Congressman and Baldev Singh was prevailed upon by Pandit Nehru to go with the Congress plan. He was the weakest link to present the Sikh case at London round table conference as his personal interests lay in joining India to save his business. Sikh masses were kept in the dark and Sikh elites were holding the reins of Sikh Panth. The elites (Baldev Singh, Surjit Singh Majithia, Ujjal Singh etc.) were in favour of joining India.

The Akali leadership was not united and had no clear cut policy to protect the interests of Sikhs. Master Tara Singh failed to provide leadership at this crucial juncture of history. He wanted to remain in the background and his nominees (Baldev Singh et al.) had personal political ambitions to join India. Sikh leaders’ antagonism against Muslim League proved to be another hurdle in their decision making. Ultimately, Master Tara Singh, Baldev Singh and Giani Kartar Singh crumbled under the Congress pressure and together on 18 April 1947 met Lord Mountbatten to demand the Partition of Punjab into Muslim and non-Muslim areas.

Sirdar Kapur Singh [6] squarely blames Master Tara Singh for failure of the Sikhs to get an independent Sikh State in Sachi Sakhi. I feel his account is based on some half-truths. For example, there is no written document found in the archives of Partition where British offered some special status for the Sikhs. However, Kirpal Singh historian cites one oral evidence based on the statement of Lord Mountbatten [7]: “It must point out that the people who asked for the partition were the Sikhs. The Congress took up their request and framed the resolution in the form they wanted. They wanted the Punjab to be divided in two predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim areas. I have done exactly what the Sikhs requested me to do through the Congress. The request came to me as a tremendous shock as I like the Sikhs, I am fond of them and I wish them well“.


[1] Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom: An Autobiographical Narrative, (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1988).

[2] Lucy P. Chester, Borders and conflict in South Asia: the Radcliffe Boundary Commission and the partition of Punjab, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 13.

[3] › journals › volume19 › Sandh

[4] › The_Role_of_Sikhs_during_the_Pa…

[5] › The_Sikhs_and_the_Partition_of_th…

[6] › searches › displayPage

[7] Justice Din Mohammad, 5 August 1947. in: Kirpal Singh, Select Documents on the Partition of the Punjab. p. 377.


Scholar and scientist Hardev Singh Virk retired from Amritsar-based Guru Nanak Dev University in 2002 after serving as Founder Head Physics Department and Dean Academics. Ex-Professor of Eminence, Punjabi University, Patiala. He is the present Visiting Professor at SGGS World University, Fatehgarh Sahib (Punjab), India. 



Failure of Sikhs to gain an Independent State during Partition of India (Asia Samachar, 10 Sept 2020)

Betrayal of the Sikh Community (Asia Samachar, 11 May 2019)


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