Failure of Sikhs to gain an Independent State during Partition of India

Source: Wikimedia Commons
By Hardev Singh Virk | OPINION |

After more than 70 years of Indian independence, Sikhs are not yet reconciled to their fate. As a hindsight, they considered themselves as “Rulers of Punjab” who have been reduced to second rate citizens of free India. Much water has flown in the river Sutlej since 1947 but the Sikhs are looking for alibis to blame the Sikh leaders for their lapse. India was divided on the basis of  two nation theory into India and Pakistan. Sikhs were considered as part of 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. It is well known about the Sikhs that they are the bravest fighters on the battle field but on the negotiation table, they are mostly the losers as they have not perfected the art of chicanery.

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. It has become a fashion with Sikh intelligentsia to blame the Master squarely for all failures in getting an independent Sikh State (Sikhistan or Khalistan) at the time of partition of India. I believe Master did his best to involve educated Sikhs available in his party as his nominees to represent the case of Sikhs. It is failure of his nominees which is being thrust on him. Another reason, which is obvious, 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.

Looking for the documents based on the Sikh demands, I have come across a long letter of 27 pages written by Prof. Puran Singh to John Simon of Simon Commission on 21st October, 1928. Puran Singh laments about the fate of Sikhs in free India. His predictions about  Indian Democracy, Self Government and Sikh issues are proverbial. He writes: “Self Government in India means Government by the very few cunning and aggressive people who, once put in possession of the authority, would twist all letters of law and constitutions to their individual wills and make them work on the communal or the so called religious bias“.

His views on Indian Constitution and Democracy are noteworthy: “The truly Democratic Constitution should not allow one community to get into power and work mischief through the democratic institutions to crush the other. In the grant of your New Constitution, the right of all people should be equal in the eye of law. No Democracy can be made to work equitably in India”.

Puran Singh knew that if the principle of universal adult suffrage is going to be introduced in Indian Democracy, the Sikhs will be loser because of their lower numbers. So he was worried about the fate of Sikhs in democratic India. He writes: “The Nehru Committee has ignored the Sikh because he is not as many in numbers as the Muslim. But conquerors like Ahmad Shah acknowledged the Sikhs as the only entity in the Punjab. If that principle is granted why should not the Central Punjab be made into a Sikh Province?” He argues succinctly to support his viewpoint: “Under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Punjab was never a Muslim province but a Sikh province. The Muslim ministers of the Maharaja remained faithful to the last, while the Hindu and the Brahmin ministers proved traitors”.

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 two for the sake of brevity. Akhtar Hussain Sandhu of London University in his paper “Sikh Failure on the Partition of Punjab in 1947” 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. The Sikh leadership sometimes would adopt aggressive approach but lost the fervour when ever some British agents approached them. Major Short and Sir Penderel Moon’s activities prove this contention.
  3. 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.
  4. The Sikh leaders tried to purport themselves as nationalists which aggravated their confusion because their agenda in essence was communal. They were not clear what to do with the provincial and national politics. Nationalism did not suit the Sikhs and their political demands. Their struggle was purely of a communal nature while they kept on posing as nationalists.
  5. 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 Congress repeatedly betrayed them on many issues but the Sikh leadership never thought to get rid of the undue influence of the Hindus.
  6. The Congress gave word in the Ravi Pledge of 1929 during its annual Session held at Lahore that no constitutional package would be conceded by the Congress until the Sikhs approved it but practically they never honoured this pledge.
  7. 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.
  8. They supported and secured support of the Hindu Mahasabha in the Punjab in the name of enmity with the Muslims.
  9. Although Master Tara Singh repudiated the incident of brandishing kirpan on the stairs of the Punjab Assembly in a talk with Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal but he admits that his own lieutenants had misquoted it just to highlight the Akali courage and unremitting enthusiasm against the Pakistan scheme.
  10. 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.
  11. Akali Dal itself could not avoid factionalism within the party. It was divided into Giani Kartar Singh and the Nagoke groups and the top Akali leadership had to back a specific group in the Gurdwara elections.
  12. 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 .
  13. The political culture popularized by the Akalis convinced them that the sagacious policy for them was to support the Congress. Akalis won 23 seats, yielding 10 to Congress in the 1946 provincial elections in Punjab.
  14. The Akalis brainwashed the Sikh masses through speeches and statements that the Muslims were their enemies and the Hindus were their friends.
  15. Master Tara Singh undertook the anti-British stance while the Sikh community needed an opposite policy. He took the British advice and showed strong reliance on them but acted differently. The decisions and erratic postures at this critical moment meant a narrow role and a disaster for the Sikhs. Gurmit Singh writes that ‘Master Tara Singh lured by the false promises of the Congress leaders gave a wrong lead to the Sikh Community’ (in: Failures of Akali Leadership).
  16. 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.
  17. He (Master Tara Singh) was headmaster of a high school who lacked the vision of a national or provincial political leadership.
  18. 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. When the Sikhs tried to take an independent course like the Azad Punjab scheme or Sikhistan, the Hindus opposed them and forced them to reverse their stand on the schemes pledged with their community.
  19. In March 1946, Surjit Singh Majithia opposed the separate electorates and Sikh state on the ground that by accepting the principle of Pakistan, the Sikhs would weaken their position and the task of the League would become easier while the Sikh state would even then be a doubtful phenomenon.
  20. Sikhs issued every statement that could undermine the Muslim cause whether it helped their own cause or not. The Sikhs had rejected the Cabinet Mission proposals but even then they were pursuing a change in the plan which testifies to their weak performance in the political contest. Therefore, the Akalis’ pro-Congress politics as a one item agenda throttled the possibility of their being workable alternatives for the Sikh future.
  21. Sikhs trusted Jenkins, the Governor of Punjab, a lot but he gave them nothing. By using his friendly relations with the Sikhs, he obtained information from them regarding their plans and dispatched it to the Viceroy. Sikhs shared information, desire and even their secret plans with Jenkins.
  22. 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.
  23. The third option was Khalistan or Sikhistan which had no concrete foundation due to the scattered population of the Sikhs and dissent within the community, the attitude of the Congress and the League which were the main stakeholders.
  24. 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.
  25. Attaining Khalistan was the best option; joining Pakistan would have been the second best option while joining India was never a good option for them but they went for it in 1947 without paying attention to the British advice and the concessions offered by the League leadership.
  26. 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.

The Second Study “The Role of Sikhs during the Partition of India” has been reported by Avinash Hingorani ( 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. But there was a third religion which was the odd man out in this situation, and this, was Sikhism. 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. In the Lucknow pact “50 percent of seats were reserved for Muslims under this League-Congress pact and Sikhs were completely ignored.” Sardar Gajjan Singh of Ludhiana, a Sikh representative recommended an amendment calling the addition of a similar pact that the Muslims had received but both Hindus and Muslims ignored his wishes. The Sikhs were vastly underrepresented in the Indian politics as they only had two Sikhs in the legislative assembly.
  4. In 1928, the Chief Khalsa Diwan, an apolitical Sikh organization believed the Sikhs should cooperate with the rest of India in creating a unified country, but still believed that the Sikhs needed to maintain their individuality. In response to this the Sikhs decided that they would be the first religious group in India to welcome a national government, which would be based purely on merit and not favour political leaders from a particular caste or religion.
  5. 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?”.
  6. 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”.
  7. 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.
  8. Muhammad Ali Jinnah learned of Tara Singh’s disapproval of Pakistan and decided to meet with him with to discuss their disagreements. At this meeting “Mr. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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”.
  11. 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”.
  12. 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.

It is evident from the letter of Prof. Puran Singh and other studies based on documents retrieved from the British archives that there was neither a strong case presented by the Sikh leadership nor any offer made by the British to divide India into three parts just for accommodating the Sikhs as equal partners with Hindus and Muslims. Out of all options available to the Sikhs, joining India was considered to be the most viable option by the Sikh leadership due to their cultural affinity with the Hindus.


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. 



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


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