Origins of Non-Violence Movement in India

As fate would have it Mahatma Gandhi is credited with starting the non-violent movement to oust the British out of India. Gandhi deserves a lot of praise because he did implement the principles of non-violence, but he certainly was not the originator of that concept. He learnt that from the Sikhs. The Sikhs drew their inspiration from their very Gurus, two of who had suffered martyrdom in order to make their point. Over time, the principle of non-violence was used again and again.

In 1861 the British had introduced the Waqf Act which gave control and management of the holy places to their respective communities. The Hindus and Muslims were given control of their places of worship. But in the case of Sikh Gurdwaras, the Act was not applied. The British knew full well that the Sikhs drew their strength and inspiration from their scripture and ideology. They also knew that Sikhs had a long history of fighting oppression and injustice no matter what the cost. For well-planned political reasons, the properties of Sikh places of worship were transferred and given over to Hindu caretakers (Udasi Mahants) and who could be more easily controlled by the British masters. Most of these caretakers had very little understanding Of Sikh religion and its practices. These caretakers received their instructions from the Deputy Commissioner, a Britisher. The government needed to maintain the Gurdwaras as channels of indirect control of the Sikhs. Naturally the Sikhs were not happy with this arrangement. It was a major factor in the first uprising against the British.

At that time there was a small group of Sikhs known as the Namdharis. Ram Singh (1815 -1885) was their leader. He once served in the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In 1849 when the British annexed Punjab, his army unit was disbanded. Ram Singh hated the British whom he called ferengis (foreigners). He was further incensed at the takeover of the Gurdwaras in 1861 by the British, and the fact that nobody was able to do anything about this. He was very perturbed at the intrigue and duplicity all around him. Sikhs who fought and died to keep the British out of Punjab were now starting to admire all things British. The fact that they were most intolerant somehow did not register on the conquered Sikhs. Yet in the words of Brigadier-General John Jacob a leader of Indian cavalry, “the British were the favorites of heaven, the civilizeres of the world. They were masters of India because they were superior beings by nature to the Asiatic. Their superiority, both in science and religion, induced them to look down upon dark-skinned heathens”.

After the collapse of the Sikh Empire, Ram Singh turned to religion and meditation, on God’s name, hence the name Namdhari due to his intense piety, he had many admirers. However, his military training and political preoccupation soon emerged as the main topic of his sermons. He started the non-violent movement to oust the British out of Punjab. He preached the Sikh gospel with great fervor, both to fight the progress being made by Christian missionaries, and to stop the evil political and cultural effects of foreign rule. He asked the people to boycott all British goods. “Do not accept service with the government; do not send children to government schools; do not go to court of law but settle disputes by reference to panchayats (village council); do not use foreign goods; do not use government postal services.”

His followers spun their own cloth and dressed in pure white cotton, and boycotted all that was even remotely British. His following grew very rapidly, which alarmed the British masters. The East India Company had a great monopoly going. Cotton was being shipped to England, where it was processed and made into cloth. British economy was booming. Every one had a job. The cloth manufactured in England was shipped back to India and sold at a great profit. Ram Singh’s preaching was a threat to the British system. Moreover, he fed the people prophecies of a Sikh resurgence. He truly believed that it could be won by peaceful means. However, because his following grew too rapidly, he soon lost control of some members of the group. A small group of Kooka fanatics, as the Namdharis came to be known, murdered some Muslim butchers in Amritsar and Raikot (Ludhiana district). For this, eight of them were hanged. Though the passions of the Kookas were inflamed, Ram Singh was still able to persuade his followers to return peacefully to their homes. L. Cowan, the deputy commissioner of Ludhiana saw this as an opportunity not to be wasted. Using the pretext, of the above mentioned incident, he captured 68 Kookas, including 27 seriously wounded as they were making their way home. Smt. Hookmee, a popular preacher of this sect was one of two women also captured. Cowan sent a note to his commissioner, T.D. Forsythe, and without any further formality, or pretence of trial blew up 66 of the prisoners by tying them to the mouths of cannons. Two were hacked to pieces with a sword. Forsythe then joined Cowan at Malerkotla, where 16 more Kookas were rounded up and blasted off cannons. The reasons for this barbarism was not the murder of Muslim butchers as is evident in these words of Cowman: I propose blowing away from guns, or hanging, the prisoners tomorrow morning at daybreak. Their offence is not an ordinary one. They have not committed mere murder and dacoity; they are open rebels, offering resistance to constitutional authority, and, to prevent the spreading of this disease, it is absolutely necessary that repressive measures should be prompt and stern. I act for the best, this incipient insurrection must be stamped out at once.”

The commissioner T.D. Forsythe supported the action of his deputy. He wrote in a letter dated January 18, 1872; “My dear Cowan, I fully approve and confirm all you have done. You have acted admirably.”

For those who may wonder just what blowing from guns means, the following graphic description has been found- “Only those with the strongest stomachs, however, could remain unaffected when prisoners were blown away from the mouths of cannon, a punishment inflicted by the British in India. This was a “frightful sight”, Dr. John Sylvester thought; and for the victims a peculiarly horrible punishment since, though hanging in itself was sufficient to make paradise uncertain, death by mutilation after defilement made its attainment even less likely. The victim was latched to a gun, the small of his back or the pit of his stomach against the muzzle, then “smeared with the blood of someone murdered by a member of his race if such could be procured”. [Sylvestees diaries] When the gun was fired the man’s body was dismembered. Usually the head, scarcely disfigured, would fly off through the smoke then fall to the earth, slightly blackened, followed by the arms and legs. The trunk would be shattered, giving off “a beastly smell”, and pieces of the flesh and intestines and gouts of blood would be splashed not only over the gunners but also over any spectators who stood too close. Vultures would hover overhead and with grisly dexterity catch lumps of flesh in their beaks. “The pent up feelings of the bystanders found vent in a sort of loud gasp like Ah-h! Wrote an artillery officer who was required to supervise such an execution. “Then many of them came across the ditch to inspect the remains of the legs, and the horrible affair was over.” This horrendous slaughter took place on January 11 – 12, 1872. Cowan was right. Ram Singh was a dangerous Sikh. Had he not been dealt with promptly and sternly, he would have gone down in history as the real father of the nation, for the British would have been thrown out almost a hundred years sooner. Many years later, Mahatma Gandhi had only copied the plans of Ram Singh to earn this title. Even the boycott of British cloth was copied. The spinning of cotton, and the wearing of only white, hand spun cotton was exactly as Ram Singh had prescribed.

The second major non-violent revolt against the British was again enacted by Sikhs- It was known as the Singh Sabha movement and was started in 1873, only one year after the Namdharis were murdered so brutally by the so called civilized British. It took some time, but the Singh Sabha movement steadily gained momentum. Things took on an added urgency when in 1919, 1,500 unarmed civilians, Mostly Sikhs) were shot down in cold blood at the Jalianwalla Bagh in Amritsar, on orders of the British General Dyer. Winston Churchill had described the massacre: “as a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation in the annals of British history”

The early 1920s were very difficult times for the Sikhs in Punjab. The Singh Sabha movement organized campaigns where groups of ordinary unarmed people would march to their places of worship and ask peaceably to be given possession of their shrine. Every day one hundred volunteers, men, women and children would march peacefully to make their demands known. The first groups were arrested. Each morning a new group was ready to take up the march. The policy of arrests was abandoned. Now the police took to beating the passive resisters. They were clubbed mercilessly, dragged by the hair and thrown in the mud. Still, wave after wave of Sikhs would go to their Gurdwaras and demand to be given their rightful control. First there was a disturbance at Taran Taran, which resulted in a few deaths. A month later at Nankana Sahib, 130 Sikh worshippers were butchered by the hirelings of the caretaker of that place. The campaign continued. Unarmed men and women suffered beatings with bamboo canes and faced gunfire, still they kept on coming. Thousands were arrested. Still they kept on coming. The Maharaja of Nabha was deposed because he made no secret of his sympathy with the cause. The police fired upon a batch of passive resisters, which marched to Jaito to offer prayers for the deposed Maharaja. At least 40 were killed.

The struggle ended in 1925 with the passage of the Sikh Gurdwara Act. In the last 5 years of agitation for regaining control of their places of worship, 30,000 men and women had gone to jail. 400 had been killed and over 2,000 seriously wounded. The political results were far reaching. The British lost forever the support and loyalty of the Sikhs.

The struggle for independence continued, and Sikhs made a tremendous contribution before independence, the Sikh community was only 1.1% of the total population of India. What they achieved is nothing short of phenomenal, as the following table will show:


TypeAll CommunitiesSikhsPercentage
Prison term over 1 year2,1251,55073%
Death sentence1279272%
Indian National Army (I.N.A.)20,00012,00060%

Gandhi was there, watching when the Sikhs were struggling to regain control of their Gurdwaras, through non-violent means. Indeed he admired their courage and their tactics, sending congratulatory notes on more than one occasion. One such telegram dated Jan. 19, 1922 and addressed to the Sikh leadership, read: The first decisive battle for independence won. Congratulations.

Alice Basarke