Reforming Temple Administration in India Part I - Lessons from the Akali Movement

Akali Jatha (Courtesy:
There is a lot of discussion these days with respect to the way Hindu temples are being administered across the country. While there is a lot of debate on how the temples are being managed in the current form, and there are efforts going on through legal means to create greater accountability and transparency in the systems, it is important to also propose alternatives to the current administration frameworks, which completely leave out local communities from the well-being and care-take of the temple management affairs, leaving them to be open fields that breed rampant corruption and avenues for belittling the Dharmic faith. In this regard, efforts are now needed to explore possible alternatives to the status quo. In this multi part series, I shall try to examine the merits and demerits of models of administration that are visible across India among different communities, in order to obtain positive lessons that Hindus need to implement and advocate. The attempt is not to replicate any one, for every community internally does see contradictions and weaknesses of the administration of their places of worship; however, it does make sense to have a starting point of discussion and deliberation within the Dharmic fold on how greater public accountability can be brought about.

From a vantage point, it can be no one’s case today that Sikh gurdwaras are a good model of administration that involve the community to the greatest extent in the daily affairs of management and upkeep, while also driving the large scale philanthrophic activities in the fields of healthcare, education and even livelihoods and housing in certain cases. However, people do not pay enough attention to the causes underlying these. In this part, I shall bring to light briefly the history of the reform movement, with a focus on the Akali movement, and highlight the lessons to be learnt from the history of the eventual formation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). The attempt here is to identify the fact that the movement to free temples has to be a multi-step movement, which shall be delved into in the latter part.


The first signs of Gurdwara reform emerged in 1905. The Gurdwaras had effectively gone under the control of the British government, aided by the Mahants who controlled these places of worship. Khalsa Diwan and Singh Sabhas were the first phase of the reform movement, wherein effort were being undertaken by a moderate leadership within the Sikh community that undertook setting up new institutions such as Khalsa colleges and Singh Sabha Gurdwaras. However, the general perception of the moderates of the time across various social and political movements was that of being pro-British, which got reinforced after the Khalsa College Amritsar episode, wherein the administration was forcefully changed to appease British demands. The move towards involving the Panth or the larger community came in 1906, whenr esolutions were passed in Khalsa Diwan sessions to to that effect, asking for managers appointed as per the community’s wish for governing the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple). The community also found it difficult to seek legal recourse in cases of rampant corruption and blatant misuse against the Punjab government backed Mahants as the fees for jurisdictions were often found prohibitive.

However, with repeated petitions, particularly from the retired army soliders of Sikh regiments who constituted the reform movements, the British government started to fear that the Sikhs, ‘the most loyal community’, may go against them, given the heating up of India’s political climate. Hence, in 1920, in the face of the Civil Disobedience Movement, the Charitable and Religious Endowments Act (Act XIV, 1920) was passed. Under this act, some nominal rights were handed to the community, the beneficiaries of the act, in the control and management of the temples; however, the act was designed with malafide intentions so as to ensure that power still remained with the Mahants as consensus clauses were invoked everywhere. This eventually gave birth to the Akali movement, whereby they offered non-cooperation through Akali Jathas that were formed by the ‘extremists’ of the Central Sikh League. This movement of extremists was divided into two aspects - the SGPC and the SAD, wherein SAD offered the political non-cooperation as it led the Jathas to free Gurdwaras. The The demands of the Akalis were four fold: bringing gurdwaras under Panth’s control; removal of mahants; utilizing the incomes and properties of the gurdwaras effectively and correctly; and practising the faith as said in the Adi Granth. The movement, which started off with its successful campaign at the Babe-Di-Ber Gurdwara, saw Mahants of many smaller temples falling in line in the face of the increasing swell of Sikh community support; however, the Nankana Sahib and Harmandir Sahib Mahants offered stiff resistance, even leading to bloodbath on one occasion. The 1920 Act at this time was instituted among the calls so that gurdwaras could be placed ”…in the hands of a representative body of Sikhs constituted on an elective basis and responsible for its actions to the Panth at large.” A provisional committee was set up for the Harmandir Sahib, Akal Takht, and nearby gurdwaras, comprising of 36 members, and included Kings of Phoolkian States and the Mahants among others. However, the Akalis defied it by creating a body subsuming it within the SGPC, and increasing the members to 175 to outnumber all British loyalists. This happened during the months of October and December of 1920, when there had been a major bloodbath over the control of the Nankana Sahib because of the Mahant’s hired goons, while SGPC elections took place amidst an attendance of 10,000 Sikh members.

1921 saw further political action, wherein an ordinance was passed to create a Judicial Commission to redress all disputes on gurdwara control and expedite the transfer of properties from Mahants to the actual gurdwaras, even as the government deliberately refused to recognize the SGPC. The first draft of Gurdwaras and Shrines Bill was introduced in 1921. AS the bill collapsed, 1922 saw further attempts at a second draft that was willing to concede more space on the overall governing board to the community, which SGPC and SAD did not agree to, leading to another draft falling through. William M Hailey, the Commissioner of Punjab at that time, tried to break the Akali movement and challenged the Akalis to present an alternative. The Akalis then sought help of Madan Mohan Malaviya and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who drafted the 1925 Bill, but this bill was conveniently ignored by Hailey. It was then that Malaviya decided to introduce the same bill in the Central legislature at the time, on the gruonds that there were gurdwaras across India that needed to be brought under Panthic control. With this checkmate, Hailey eventually relented and the Malaviya Bill was passed in 1925, through which SGPC got recognition.


The Akali movement has several lessons for the Hindus to consider seriously when it comes to temple reform. The current initiative for temple reform bears striking similarities with the way British backed Mahants were working in Punjab’s gurdwaras, much to the consternation of the Sikh community, and saw similar levels of rampant corruption and looting of the institutional resources. However, one has to realize that the success of the Akali movement, despite several earlier levels of reform, can be seen to be a result of serious of actions - voluntary, forced and otherwise - that were necessitated. For instance, the grounds up movement within the Sikh community provided the backbone and strength to get this done, and it remained non-violent to the end, which also helped it gain sympathy across the nation. Clearly, the message has to go the masses to make the movement effective.

Another critical aspect of the movement was the formation of a management committee that could overlook affairs of the Harmandir Sahib and other gurdwaras in the area, whose members are voted in by the community at large, thus providing an alternative to the British backed Mahants who were in control. Such a committee can be practically impossible for the country as a whole, given the diverse traditions of agama, puja, pratyahara etc; however, local level committees are entirely possible, which can include members of administration but have members directly elected to the temple governing body in significant numbers like local body elections for a fixed term.

One major initiative that founded the seeds for the birth of the Akalis was the Khalsa Diwan and Singh Sabha initiatives. Such initiatives are currently impossible under the present educational and rights based dispensation, given the disaster of RTE as well as the minority-ism of institutions. To that end, the ability of the community to create relevant avenues of discussion, discourse and consensus building is significantly impaired. The trusts running modern temples therefore will have to take a lead in providing the necessary support to this movement of administrative control. Also, while schools are not a possibility right now, colleges and university systems can certainly be created in order to build the case of an independent machinery that can openly criticize the administrative controls. Some Hindu saints have already started the same, but the community at large also needs to rally in numbers to set up such systems.

One of the measures that had expedited the transfer of management to SGPC was the Judicial Commission that overlooked the disputes. Such tribunals are necessitated today, given the burden on the courts. However, there has to be an overall greater engagement with the judicial system in order to demonstrate the problems of the current temple administrations and the concerns of the Hindu community. At a legislative level, members of state legislative assemblies and Parliament must be convinced towards the urgency of reforms, and assisted with the necessary informational and legal aid where necessary, so that private member bills can be passed to get the temples out of the deathly grips of the government and its corrupt officers. This is necessary since there will be significant attempts to poison such efforts, and needs continuous checkmating.

Another major lesson that one can see is that political capital is precious and need not be wasted on issues that do not directly concern the community just because it becomes a matter of prestige. In a personal capacity, the SAD and SGPC’s involvement in the Nabha affair was unnecessary, causing much goodwill to be lost in playing games with the Patiala state. While it had become a matter of pride, this had led to the delay of the key reforms needed by at least a year. Such moves can prove to be suicidal for the Hindu community, and hence any distraction of the kinds we are seeing today are totally unwarranted and unnecessary.

Thus, we have seen how the Akali movement arose from its initial roots of reformers in the 1900s towards becoming a full fledged force that eventually freed the gurdwaras in Punjab from the British control. In the next part, we shall examine the present management of gurdwaras across India, and see the administrative and legal machinations in order to understand it better.

The Akali Movement, Mohinder Singh, 1997 edition
Struggle for Reform in Sikh Shrines, Ruchi Ram Sahni, 1974
The Gurdwara Reform Movement and the Sikh Awakening, Teja Singh, 1922, Lahore


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