February 23 was fixed for the cremation rites. Charred, mutilated bodies were collected and torn limbs and pieces of flesh picked from wherever they lay in the blood stained chambers. A huge funeral pyre was erected. Bhai Jodh Singh, in a measured oration, advised the Sikhs to remain cool and patient and endure the calamity with the fortitude with which their ancestors had faced similar situations. The Sikhs, he said, had cleansed by their blood the holy precincts so long exposed to the impious influence of a corrupt regime.
The Nankana Sahib Massacre refers to the grim episode during the Gurdwara Reform movement in which a peaceful batch of reformist Sikhs was subjected to a murderous assault on 20 February 1921 in the holy shrine at Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak. This shrine along with six others in the town had been under the control of Udasi priests ever since the time the Sikhs were driven by Mughal oppression to seek safety in remote hills and deserts. In Sikh times these Gurdwaras were richly endowed by the State. The priests not only treated ecclesiastical assets as their private properties but had also introduced practices and ceremonial which had no sanction in Sikhism. Their own character was not free from the taints of licentiousness and luxury. The puritan reaction engendered by the preachings of the Singh Sabha movement during the last quarter of the nineteenth century led the community to revolt against the retrogression and mal administration of their places of worship. The protest became louder in the opening decades of the twentieth century and culminated in the Gurdwara Reform or Akali movement of 1920-26.
Of the Udasi clergy, Mahant Narain Das, the high priest of Gurdwara Janam Asthan at Nankana Sahib, was the richest and the most wayward. His stewardship of the shrine had started many a scandal. Sikhs’ petitions to the government for the removal of the Mahant had gone unheeded. Matters came to a head when, in 1918, two cases of molestation of women pilgrims were reported.
Early in October 1920, a large Sikh gathering held at the village of Dharovali, in the present Sheikhupura district, recorded strong pro-test. Almost simultaneously a Sikh shrine, Gurdwara Babe di Ber, at Sialkot, was liberated from priestly control and taken over by the Sikhs on 5 October 1920, which marked the beginning of the Gurdwara Reform movement. The Harimandar and the Akal Takht were occupied on 12 October 1920. Narain Das, instead of showing repentance or conciliation, started recruiting a private army and laying in arms. On the morning of 20 February 1921, as a jatha of 150 Sikhs entered the sacred precincts, his men fell upon it. The Sikhs were chanting the sacred hymns when the attack started. Bullets were mercilessly rained on them from the roof of an adjoining building. Their leader, Bhai Lachhman Singh, the staunch reformist, a tall and handsome Sikh from Dharovali, was struck down sitting in attendance of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Outside the main gate, Narain Das, pistol in hand and his face muffled up, pranced up and down on horseback directing the operations and all the time shouting, “Let not a single long-haired Sikh go out alive.” Bhai Dalip Singh, a much-respected Sikh who was well known to him, came to intercede with him to stop the bloody carnage. But he killed him on the spot with a shot from his pistol. Six other Sikhs coming from outside were butchered and thrown into a potter’s kiln. Firewood and kerosene oil were brought out and a fire lighted. All the dead and injured were piled up on it to be consumed by the flames. Bhai Lachhman Singh was fastened to a tree near by and burnt alive. The total number of Sikhs killed has been variously estimated between 82 and 156.
February. Mahatma Gandhi, along with Muslim leaders Shaukat ‘Ali and Muhammad ‘Ali, came on 3 March. Princess Bamba Duleep Singh (1869-1957), daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, came accompanied by Sir Jogendra Singh (1877-1946), to offer her homage to the memory of the martyrs.
Narain Das and some of his hirelings were arrested and the possession of the shrine was made over by government to a committee of seven Sikhs headed by Sardar Harbans Singh of Atari, vice-president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
A criminal case against Mahant Narain Das and his men started on 5 April 1921 which was observed by the Sikhs as the Martyrs’ Day. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee appealed to the Sikhs to wear black turbans in memory to the martyrs until the next birth anniversary of Guru Nanak coming off on 15 November 1921 (black turban thenceforth became the insignia of the Akalis). The sessions court, announcing its judgement on 12 October 1921, sentenced Narain Das and seven others to death and eight to transportation for life. Sixteen Pathan mercenaries were awarded seven years’ rigorous imprisonment each. The rest were acquitted. The High Court delivering on 3 March 1922 its judgement on Narain Das’s appeal, reduced his sentence to life imprisonment. Three of his men were awarded capital punishment and two were given life terms; all others were let off. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee instituted a fund to provide relief to the families of the martyrs. It also established the Sikh Missionary Society, which opened the Shahid Sikh Missionary College at Amritsar as a permanent memorial to the martyrs.