Institution of Gurmatta

Placed before a congregation in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib and some decision is arrived at with common consent after dispassionate and unbiased deliberations and is confirmed by a formal prayer followed by the recital of a hymn from the Guru Granth Sahib, the mata is deemed to have been endorsed by the Guru himself and is, therefore. called gurmata. But the term gurmata has been erroneously interpretted by European and English writers, such as Browne, Polier, Forster and Malcolm. They have taken it to mean as the grand meetings or councils of the Khalsa. Polier thought of the gurmata as, "the greatest council or Gurmata of the nation, held annually either at Amritsar, Lahore or some other place. Every thing is decided by the plurality of votes taken indifferently from all who choose to be present at it. In this council or Diet all the public affairs are debated . "93 James Browne and George Forsters used 'Diet' or grand Diet and 'grand convention' for the gurmata. J.D. Cunningham considers the gurmata as 'the assembly of chiefs. C.H. Payne calls it ' national conncil.' But actually, as explained above, it was a resolution passed or a decision taken by an assembly of the Sikhs.

Its origin and Evolution

Its origin can be traced in the sangat (congregation) that played an important part in the life of a Sikh in keeping him on the right path. The sangat was fully competent to punish or forgive his faults and lapses.95 Even ordinary breaches of the rules of cond act could be taken up for action in the local songals, and no person, however highly placed he might be, was ever considered above the jurisdiction of these conclaves. When a guilty person offered himself before an assembly for punishment, he stood with folded hands. The necessary action was proposed traditions gave the Sikhs a strong grounding and experience in democratic principles. According to the Dabistan, whenever a Sikh had a wish to be fulfilled he made a request to the assembly and then it was referred to the Guru or invoked to God. And whenever the Guru bad a wish to be fulfilled he also placed it before the sangat, considering, it spiritually competent to get ig granted through an efficacious prayer to that effect. It may be remarked that spiritually the sangat helped the Sikhs in maturing their beliefs according to the instructions of the Guru. Socially, they provided opportunity to the people of all castes and creeds, high and low, rich and poor, to meet and sit together as equals. And, politically, they developed among the Sikhs strong democratic traditions later practised by the Sikhs earnestly during the eighteenth century.

The gurmata is said to have been started during the days of Guru Gobind Singh.100 of his close indentification with the congregation or sangat, Guru Gobind Singh provided a unique example at the initiation ceremony in which he, the superme head of a religious organisatiotz, surrendered his authority to his disciples and adopted the unusual procedure of being baptised by the same disciples, who, a short while ago, had been baptised by him and he undertook to abide by the same discipline that had been enjoined upon the Sikhs to follow. Guru Gobind Singh, thus, brought Guruship on a level with his followers. It was a revolutionary and a democratic step that the Guru took." He told the Sikhs that the Guru was the Khalsa and the Khalsa was the Guru.l02 This brings out in clear terms how earnestly the Guru wished his followers to lead a corporate life, a community, depending on autocratic leadership. The gurmata played a vital role in the Sikh struggle for independence.

The contemporary Punjabi writers, Sohan Kavi and Senapat, refer to the matas passed by the Sikhs in the sense of resolutions. Sohan Kavi writes that the Siklls of Lahore informed Guru Hargobind through a Setter and also conveyed verbally that the Mughals had started against him with forces. The Sikhs got ready with weapons and took a decision (mata hyena) to figllt.103 Senapat writes that the Sikbs of a place decided (mata dhara) to take the baptism of Guru Gobiod Singh.104 But it became an instrument of power when the Sikhs started meeting at Amritsar or at other places to plan their future course of action. Ordinarily they tried to meet twice a year during the Baisakhi and Diwali105 festivals (i. e. in April and October) at Akal Takht a place within the holy precincts of Darbar Sahib, and discussed their problems. But on other occasions also they would meet as and when some urgent matter of political importance had to be discussed or some imminent danger threatened the country or any larger expedition was to be undertaken. When Tara Singh of Van was killed in 1726, along with his cornpanions, the Sikhs passed a gurmatal06 to assert themselves to make the government machinery inactive and inoperative. As an effective step to weaken the government the Sikhs pounced upon some government treasures and arsenals and chastised the officials who spied upon them.

Rattan Singh Bhangu and Gian Singh have referred to various gurmatas. They seem to be making no distinction between mata and gurmata. For example, Rattan Singh writes that the Khalsa used to visit Amritsar from their hideouts to holy tank they all used to sit in the Akal Bungah to discuss their matters and to take decisions (mato sabh matayan). Generally, the assemblage at Akal Takht was in proportion to the magnitude of the danger facing the Sikhs. If they had local problems they decided them through local gurmatas, as a gurmata could be passed at any place in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. After Zakariya Khan's death which took place on July 1,1745, his two sons quarrelled for the viceroyalty of the Punjab. The Khalsa took advantage of the confusion and lawlessness prevailing at Lahore and met at Amritsar at the very next Diwali which fell on October 14, 1745, and passed a gurmata and divided itself into 25 groups, each consisting of about 100 persons. Though gurmatas had been passed earlier too but according to Hari Ram Gupta, "this was probably the first gurmata regularly passed by the Sikhs after a long period of persecution. This great institution gave each individual a personal share in the important national deliberations and placed within the reach of every Sikh the attainment of rank and influence." Thus, at this time, the Khalsa created the Dal Khalsa and brought into prominence the institution of gurmata. These two institutions, the Dal Khalsa and the gurmata, were of vital importance to the Khalsa's future success as they set the pattern of the later development of the Panth by combining the benefits of centralised counsel with those of dividing itself for the purpose of better organisation. These groups were united not only by religious ties but also by mutual interests and, therefore, a system of general confederation, for self-protection as well as for operations, came into being. When all the contingents of the dals undertook an enterprise unitedly they assumed the name of 'Dal Khalsa' and on common consent one of the chiefs of the dals was appinted the supreme head of the Dal Khalsa or the national army and the other chiefs constituted a war cabinet. The entire body of the Sikhs known as the Sarbat Khalsa met twice a year at Amritsar during Baisakhi and Diwali festivals (April and October respectively) and passed gurmatas regarding matters of Panthic interest. The Sarbat Khalsa was dominated by the chiefs of the Misals as they were the persons in a position. Leader of the Dal Khalsa was looked upon as the head of the church and the state.

With the development of the Sikh liberation movement and its assuming larger proportions, it was felt that a closer union between different groups had become necessary. They assembled in large numbers at Amritsar on the day of Baisakhi on March 29, 1748, and discussed the situation facing the Panth. At the suggestion of Nawab Kapur Singh, a gurmata was passed choosing Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia for the supreme command of the Dal Khalsa908 which was reorganised. Rattan Singh Bhangu and Giani Gian Singh have referred to many gurmatas passed on various occasions. Some of these gurmatas are said to have been passed by the Dal Khalsa near Kasur, Sialkot, Sirhind, etc. A gurmata was passed at Akal Takht on November 7, 1760, on the occasion of Diwali to occupy Lahore. A gurmata was passed at Akal Takht on October 27, 1761, that the supporters of Ahmad Shah Abdali, including Aqil Das of Jandiala be chastised. According to Baron Hugel, the first open assembly of the Sikhs took place after the expulsion of Ahmad Shah Abdali's viceroy, Khwaja lJbaid, in 1762. This assembly of the Sarbat Khalsa was held with great rejoicings. After every Sikh had bathed in the purifying holy water of the sacred tank, they met to pass a gurmata for the organisation of the Sikh confederacy By a gurmata the Sikhs decided to get rid of Zain Khan of Sirhind as a result of which he was killed on January 14, 1764. Through anothergur)nata the Sikhs decided to sack Sirhind.

In March 1765, on the festival of Baisakhi the Khalsa assembled at Akal Takht and passed a guri77ata to occupy Lahore.Il4 we also hear of many other meetings of the Sarbat Khalsa as in 1766, 1798, 1805,etc. The gurmatas relating to securing the release of Shah and Timur Shah, avenging the murder of Bhai Taru Singh, constructing a fort at Amirtsar, sending expeditions against their enemies, approving rah-hi system, recognising territorial possessions of the Sardars under raking emohasising the supremacy of the Sarbat Khalsa, etc., are available in contemporary and semicontemporary records. After 1765, when the Sikhs assumed sovereignty of different parts of the province, the meetings of these councils became less frequent but they continued to be held occasionally till 1805, when Ranjit Singh had been securely settled at Lahore and there were no problems left confronting the Sikh community.

Its Working and Nature

Whenever there was need for the passing of a gurmata, generally the assembly session of the Sarbat Khalsa was convened by the leaders of the community at Akal Takht. According to John Malcolrn: "When the chiefs meet upon this solemn occasion it is concluded that all private animosities cease and that every man sacrifices his personal feelings at the shrine of general good and actuated by the principles of pure patrotism, thinks of nothing but the interests of the religion and commonwealth to which he belongs. "When the chiefs and principal leaders are seated the Adi Granth and Dasama Patishah ka Granth are placed before them. They all bend their heads before their scriptures and exclaim 'Wah Guru Ji ka Khalsa Wah Guru ji ki Fateh. 'A great quantity of cakes made of wheat, butter and sugar are placed before the volumes of their sacred writings and covered with cloth. These holy cakes, which are in commemoration of the injunctions of Nanak,to eat and give to others to eat, next receive the salutation of the assembly, who then rise, and the Akalis pray aloud, while the musicians play. The Akalis, when the prayers are finished, desire the council to be seated. They sit down and the cakes being uncovered are eaten by all classes of Sikhs. Then, distinctions of original tribes, which are on other occasions kept up are on, this occasion laid aside in Akalis then exclaim, "Sardars (chiefs), this is a gurmata, on which prayers are again said aloud. The chiefs after this sit closer and say to each other, the sacred Granth is between us, let us swear by our scripture to forget all internal disputes and to be united. This moment of religious fervour and ardent patriotism is taken to reconcile all animosities. They, then, proceed to consider the danger with which they are threatenend, to settle the best plans for averting it and to choose the generals who are to lead their armies against the common enemy.

As the Sikh Sardars held Akal Takht in high esteem, the decisions taken there had a moral and religious binding on them. The Sardars could not, therefore, afford to go against the recisions taken at the Akal Takht and run the risk of losing their popularity with the community. "Though the Sardars, at times, .uarrelled among themselves, all was peace and friendship when they met at the holy tank of Amritsar. There, each independent oardar had his fort or dwelling house with a bazar attached for pply of his followers and retainers with food and other necessries of life.'' The chiefs of the Misals had got their hospices or bungas erected round the Harmandir, where they stayed during their visit to Amritsar to attend the meetings of the Sarbat vhalsa. At the time of their meeting, they assembled in the open space in front of the Akal Takht. Originally, a Gurmata or resolution was passed by an assembly of all Sikhs giving to each member of the community a sense of participation. As the organisation of the Misal developed the leaders or chiefs of the misals began to take decisions. Each Sardar had his companions behalf of his men. If the followers had any point to make they did it through their Sardar or they could do it direct. In tl tory, the Sarbat Khalsa always remained a primary assembly, in actual practice, at times, it became representative but it still retained its democratic character. The chief faithfully represented the wishes of his followers as he was himself a chosen leader. Moreover membership of the Misal being entirely voluntary the members were free to leave the Misal if the chief acted against their wishes. At the same time it was not Sardar's assembly nor were the deliberations of the national problems the monopoly of the chiefs. But it was a gathering of the community. According to Fauja Singh, the basic ideas kept before them by the members of the assembly were those of equality, unanimity and respsonsibility. The idea of equality entitled every member of the connmunity, including women, to attend and participate in the deliberations of the assemblies This right of participation in the discussions had to be exercised personally and directly and not through elected or nominated representatives. The principle of unanimity was based on the belief that the Khalsa was an embodiment of the holy Guru and that all their assemblies were made sanctimonious by the Guru's presence in them. Therefore, 311 collective deliberations were conducted in an objective manner. Different view points could be expressed but as they were bound by a solemn pledge of being united in the presence of the Guru, the resolutions were carried unanimously. The choosing of a committee which was created to carry the gurmatas of the Sarbat Khalsa into effect and even otherwise to look after the affairs of the community was also conducted on the principle of unanimity. This popularly elected committee was answerable for its work to the parent body which had the power to change it whenever it was deemed necessary. The principle of responsibility involved in this practice was useful and necessary so far as it kept the leadership on guard.ll8 When the Sardars met under urgent circumstances in view of a grave situation, taking of decisions might have been confined to a few that happened to attend. In fact, anybody could attend the meeting of the Sarbat Khalsa and express his opinion in respect of every point.

As referred to above, the resolutions were not voted upon individually or passed by majority but were carried nem. con.ll9 The individual Sardars did not hinder the proceedings of the deliberations. A safeguard, inherent in the constitution of the Khalsa was helpful in avoiding deadlocks. No resolution could be put before a meeting of the Sarbat Khalsa unless, as a preliminary condition, a solemn assurance was given by the leaders present that they were positively one in the Guru. If they had any old scores still to settle they—as many as had differences—would retire for a time to make them up and when they had done so they would come forward and announce that they had made their peace and were fit to participate dispassionately in the gurmata. The presiding officer of the Sarbat Khalsa would then announce that the Khalsa was in the Guru and then put the gurmata before the assembly and announced the wordings of the resolutions after which the discussions started. Sometimes very lively discussions were held and the participants advanced opposing views but when more people were for a particular decision the persons with dissenting votes yielded and the decision was taken unanimously.

In theory and practice the Sarbat Khalsa was democratic as within the council the Sardars—whatever their territories, forces and positions as chiefs—were always considered equal members of the council. The common leadership of the federation was elective. The elected leader never acted despotically, rather he held full discussions over national problems with the other Sardars and mostly worked according to the will and direction of the other chiefs. From close secrutiny we discover that the main object of the Sarbat Khalsa and the gtxrmata was the preservation of the corporate existence of the Sikh people. The Sikhs at that time took it as a national institution. The only body to which the Misals owed allegiance was the Sarbat Khalsa or the Panth Khalsa ji as a whole which had been consecrated by Guru Gobind Singh as the sovereign authority for the defense of the Panth.

The councils of the Sarbat Khalsa had a variety of problems for their deliberations. Thorough discussions were held before the gurmatas were passed. Through the gurmatas the Sarbat Kha]sa elected the jathedar or the chief leader of the Dal Khalsa and chose agents who were entrusted with powers to negotiate with others on behalf of the Sikhs. Secondly, by the gurmata the Sikhs decided the foreign policy to be pursued by them. Thirdly, they drew up plans of military operations against the common enemies of the community. Fourthly, they took up the private feuds of the Sikh chiefs; sometimes cases of disputed succession were also brought before the Diet for its verdict as a judicial body. And fifthly, they took measures for the spread of the Sikh faithand the management of the Gurdwaras. When the Dal Khalsa undertook an important expedition under the decisions of the Sarbat Khalsa in the form of the gurmata, the amount of the booty was reported to the assembly and decision was taken regarding its division among the Sardars in proportion to the number of their troops.

This assembly of the chiefs, meeting unfrequently, could not be called the eentral government of the Sikh Misals. This assembly had no political jurisdiction or military sanction over the individual chiefs, nor was it necessary. Their attendance was not compulsory but the chiefs considered it obligatory to attend it, specially with a view to promoting the general interests of the community. Although there existed no means to enforce an obedience to the gurmata passed at Akal Takht yet there Evas never an occasion known to history when such a decision was flouted. The decisions taken in the presence of the Guru G'ranth had behind them the religious sanction, the force of which was greater than that of a military dictator. The Sikhs obeyed these decisions even at the cost of their lives. They believed that the gurmata or the decision of the council had the spiritual sanction of the Guru.l22 This simple constitution of the Sikh commonwealth was sufficient to preserve the Khalsa through troublous times. The gurmata was a system of the inherent strength of the unity of the Khalsa.

Sometimes when the Sikh chiefs were confronted with such problems as related to their individual states and there was no immediate possibility of taking the case to the Sarbat Khalsa meeting at Akal Takht the chief transacted business locally by inviting the concerned Sikhs or important persons of the Misal. Sometimes questions of foreign policy were also taken up and decided in such local meetings. Local gurmata also had the same meaning and force. According to the Haqiqat-i-binu-i-Sikhan, "If a messenger from any other power went to them for negotiations, the Sardars did not have an independent power to have dialogue with him. At first a mattress was spread at a particular place. The Sardar sat there with his associates. One was asked to offer a prayer. He stood up, made an announcement about the coming of an envoy of a particular Amir to make peace with the Khalsa ji. It was for the Khalsa to announce their resolution. Those who had assembled would give their opinion. "The above author writes further that all persons assembled there had full freedom to express their opinions regarding the matter under discussion And "every one is independent in his own position. Even if he had two horses and one village he would not bow down to anybody.''l23 we see in the contemprory record the coming of Jowahir Singh, the son of Suraj Mal, the ruler of Bharatpur, to an assembly of the Sikhs. He made a request for avenging his father's blood. The Sikh Sardars who attended the meeting said whatever they felt like saying.

We find that in the meetings of the Sarbat Khalsa held for national concern and in the local gatherings of the Khalsa for local affairs, it was the whole assembly that decided the matters. No Sikh however insignificant he might have been, ever carried an impression of being ignored. He could participate in debates and push forward his point. In the words of Polier: "All the chiefs, great or small, and even the poorest and most abject Siques, look on themselves as perfectly equal in all the public concerns and in the greatest council or Goormotta of the nation held annually either at Ambarsar, Lahore or some other place. In this council or Diet all the public affairs are debated, such as alliances, wars and the excursions intended to be made in the ensuing year." There was no ban on freedom of speech. "A real democratic element was there in the constitution." In external appearance it was an aristocracy but in spirit it was, undoubtedly, a democracy. When the situation on all front eased, the Sikh chiefs became a little indifferent to attending the meetings of the Sarbat Khalsa at Amritsar. Now, their meetings were attended by a few chiefs. But the absentees never meant any opposition to such meetings or any resistance to decisions taken there. Being busy in their internal affairs, the Sardars sometimes, just could not attend. There was absolutely no such thing as intentionally breaking away of the Sardars from the Sarbat Khalsa with a calculated design to weaken this institution as John Malcolm and Prinsep believe. The real fact was that with the rise of Ranjit Singh as a sovereign ruler, the Punjab had come to be consolidated and the foreign invaders had ceased to endanger the country and the community. Therefore, the occasion for calling the grand Diet of the whole community had disappeared.

Some people wrongly believe that Ranjit Singh abolished the gurmata after 1805, when only a few Sardars responded to his call to attend the meeting to take a decision in respect of the situation created by Jaswant Rao Holkar's entry into the Punjab followed by the English forces. Explaining Ranjit Singh's not calling the meeting of the Sardars at Akal Takht. Teja Singh writes that it was a long awaited fulfilment of the Sikh ideal; the secularization of service.. he wanted to make Hindus and Muslims feel that they were as much the people of the land as his own co-religionists. He, therefore, abolished the rule of the Akal Takht so far as political affairs were concerned... the gurmata of Akat Takht had no place in such a secular scheme. It would have put a great strain on the loyalty of the Hindu and Muslim subjects if he had still tried to rule over them by the religious edicts issued from the Mecca of the Sikhs. Teja Singh's contention that in a bid to secularize his rule Ranjit Singh dissolved the gurmara is not correct. The Maharaja's regard for all people irrespective of their religious affiliations was not rooted in any conception of a secular state. Ranjit Singh had no idea of a secular state as we understand it today. His policy towards the non-Sikhs was inspired by his sense of paternalism and benevolence. He was the product of the revolution that had taken place in the Punjab in the eighteenth century. He followed the Sikh traditions of liberalism. He always remembered that he was a member of the Khalsa fraternity. He worked for the glorification of the Sikh Panth and wassincere in his professionsof his government being the Sarkar-i-Khalsa.

Teja Singh wrongly puts gurmata tradition vis-i-vis secular tradition. With the attainment of political power neither the need for the Sikh unity and Panthic organisation becomes less important nor the need of the gurmata or collective deliberations fades out. Rather, in the changed circumstances it was necessary to give a new shape to the relationship between the Panthic organization and gurmata on one side and the government authority on the other. On the one side, the government should have the autonomy to function as a liberal and paternal authority and on the other the Panthic organization should determine the directive principles of state policy through the procedure of gurmata. As we see today, the political party takes decisions as to how its government should function and the government implements the party's policies. So through the gurmata polity Ranjit Singh could conduct the affairs of his state according to the discussions of the Panthic organization through the gurmata. But he failed to avail himself of the decisions of the Panth taken collectively. The government could implement these decisions in a liberal manner. The eighteenth century Sardars had also observed non-sectarian and liberal traditions and showed full religious toleration. The Muslims and Hindus, however, had to establish their bonafides before getting into the government of the Sikh chiefs. The meeting of the Sikhs at a common, religious and respected place, never meant that they would exclude non-Sikhs from their services. Lehna Singh Bhangi was given preference over a Muslim as the ruler of Lahore by the Muslim population of the city. At no meeting of the Sarbat Khalsa we hear of a proposal being made or a resolution being passed to the detriment of the interests of the non-Sikhs under the Sikh chiefs. Rather, their non-communal attitude to the temporal problems was one of the main ideals of Sikhism.

As the situation created in 1805, by the presence of the Maratha army under Jaswant Rao Holkar pursued by the English under Lord Lake, was not very serious, the meeting of the Sarbat Khalsa was not very seriously taken by the Sikh Sardars. Nor was it very serious indeed for the whole Sikh nation. None of the two had come to the Punjab as an aggressive invader. Jaswant Rao Holkar was a helpless fugitive who had come here to seek shelter and help from the ruler of Lahore, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Lake, on the other hand, was only pursuing him into his place of refuge, to chase him out for surrender and wanted the Punjab's neutrality in the matter He had no intention, whatever, overt or covert, to invade the Punjab or any part of any Sikh territory. Thus, the situation did not warrant the urgent attendance of all the Sikh Sardars at Akal Takht. The meeting of the Khalsa convened by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to chalk out their future course of action, in respect of the Marathas and the English, therefore, attracted only a few directly affected Sardars and their gurmata was able to successfully solve the problem that faced them.

Thereafter, there never arose during the reign of the Maharaja and some five years after his death, up to the end of November, 1845, the eve of the First Anglo-Sikh War, an occassion for a national convention to resolve upon a problem of national magnitude. Therefore, although the Baisakhi and Diwali festivals were, as usual, celebrated with the same old enthusiasm and meetings of the Sarbat Khalsa were also held at Akal Takht, there have been only one or two occasions during the Akali movement in the third decade of the twentieth century when questions affecting the whole of the nation called for a national gurnlata. It is, therefor historically incorrect to say that Maharaja Ranjit Singh abolished the gurmata or that it canne to be abandoned with the mutual wranglings of the Sikh Misaldars and Sardars or that it died of itself with the passage of time. The gurmata is a living thing and can be made use of whenever an occasion for it arises. In a limited sense, every resolution passed by any sangat anywhere at any time in the presence of the Sikh Holy Book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib is a gurmata and is usually passed in the matters of local general interest and is binding on members of the sangat like a national gurmata. In fact, the gurmata is, purely, a Sikh religious resolution even if it were to solve political or social problems of the community. No individual Sikh, however highly placed, could abolish it.


  1. Copyright © Bhagat Singh "History of Sikh Misls"