Who is Teja Singh Samundri and what is the Gurdwara Reforms Movement? - Hindustan Times

Who is Teja Singh Samundri and what is the Gurdwara Reforms Movement?

Apr 17, 2024 09:56 PM IST

Former Indian diplomat Taranjit Singh Sandhu is contesting elections from Amritsar. Meet his grandfather, who played a key role in shaping the Sikh community

With former Indian diplomat Taranjit Singh Sandhu contesting the Lok Sabha elections from Amritsar seat on the Bharatiya Janata Party ticket, legendary Sikh leader Teja Singh Samundri and the Gurdwara Reform Movement in which he took part actively, are back in the news.

Teja Singh Samundri was born on February 20, 1882, in a village called Rai Ka Burj in Amritsar district(Taranjit Singh Sandhu Twitter) PREMIUM
Teja Singh Samundri was born on February 20, 1882, in a village called Rai Ka Burj in Amritsar district(Taranjit Singh Sandhu Twitter)

Sandhu is the grandson of Samundri, who played a crucial role in liberating gurudwaras during colonial times.

Such is his influence that the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) — the elected gurdwara management body often referred to as the Sikh parliament — is now headquartered in a building called the Teja Singh Samundri Hall.

In the early years of the 20th century, Sikh leaders, including Samundri, worked hard to liberate historic gurdwaras including the Golden Temple from the clutches of mahants [priests], who were backed and patronised by British rulers. This was referred to as the Gurdwara Reforms Movement, also called the Akali movement.

Samundri was born on February 20, 1882, in a village called Rai Ka Burj in Amritsar district (this area now falls in Tarn Taran district).

“He was raised by parents (Sardar Dewa Singh and Nand Kaur) who were devout Sikhs, in a deeply religious atmosphere. His father was also known for his bravery in the army, and Samundri followed in his footsteps and was recruited into the army at 18 years old. However, he left after three years and moved abroad for employment. He stayed in the US and Canada where he also met activists of Gadar Movement. Upon returning to the country, he started taking part in the Sikh movement including the Gurdwara Reforms Movement,” said Professor Kirpal Singh Badungar, former president of SGPC.

At the time, gurudwaras were maintained by mahants or priests, whose guardianship was often hereditary — a system that was supported by the British government. These mahants were accused of being financially and morally corrupt, as they used the gurdwaras as their personal property and used the money from devotees for their own personal purposes.

In 1914, the boundary wall of Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Sahib was razed at the order of the British government. Enraged, a group of Sikhs launched an agitation — Samundri was part of it — which led to the wall being rebuilt six years later.

“Samundri was first arrested during Chabian Da Morcha, an agitation that sought to take control over Sri Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) in 1920. After the Saka (massacre) took place at Nankana Sahib, he was among the first leaders to reach the birthplace of Guru Nanak to lead the sangat (community)”, said Harwinder Singh Khalsa, a noted Sikh historian.

On February 20, 1921, reformist Sikh activists launched an agitation to take control of the historic gurdwara at Nankana Sahib (the birthplace of Guru Nanak, which falls in Pakistan now). Their aim was to unseat Mahant Narain Das, who was the most notorious among the hereditary custodians of the shrines. However, the mahant's goons killed hundreds of Sikhs including children, who were part of the protesting jatha (group). In political significance, this incident is second only to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919. On hearing of the massacre, a sangat (community), including Sikh leaders like Samundri rushed to Nankana Sahib to cremate the activists.

The agitation received a filip with the formation of the spgc in 1920. Samundri, who was key in forming the committee, was also a member. However, the British government did not recognise this board, and declared it unlawful, said Roop Singh, a prominent Sikh scholar and former chief secretary of the SGPC.

Roop Singh who has researched the formation of SGPC, said that the reformist Akali leaders wanted the gurdwaras to be managed by the Sangat (community) and not by one person, or the colonial government. They also wanted the restoration of Sikh Maryada (code of conduct) and sanctity in the gurdwaras as the mahants indulged in activities that hurt the sentiments of Sikhs.

Since this committee was selected by the Sikh community, the government had no control over it. To rectify that, the British government passed the Sikh Gurdwara Act in 1925, to bring the SGPC under its control. The Sikh leaders including Samundri strongly opposed this move of the British government.

Samundri was arrested once again for being one of the leaders in Jaito Da Morcha, an Akali agitation which took place in February 1924 seeking the restoration of Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, a Sikh princely state in the Punjab. During the Jaito Da Morcha, Sikh protesters were denied access to the Gurdwara Gangsar Sahib in Jaito, which was part of Nabha state at that time and now lies in Faridkot district. He died in the Central Jail Lahore on July 17, 1926 – he was arrested for his key role in the Jaito Da Morcha.

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