Campaign started by the Sikhs to assert their right to keep and carry
Kirpan, i.e. sword, religiously obligatory for them, which was denied
to them under the Indian Arms Act (XI) of 1878. Under this Act, no
person could go armed or carry arms, except under special exemption
or by virtue of a licence. Whatever could be used as an instrument
of attack or defence fell under the term "Arms." Thus the
term included firearms, bayonets, swords, daggerheads and bows and
arrows. Under the Act, a kirpan could be bracketed with a sword.
Early in the 20th century various Sikh religious bodies, particularly
the Chief Khalsa Diwan, made representations to the government demanding
freedom for the Sikhs to keep kirpan as enjoined by their religion.
At the time of World War I, the British government, fearing that
the ban on the keeping of kirpan would affect the recruitment of
Sikhs to the Indian army, thought it advisable to relax the enforcement
of the provision. Thus between 1914 and 1918 by separate notifications
issued by the Home government, the Sikhs were given the freedom
of possessing or carrying a kirpan all over British India. However,
the terms of these notifications were vague; the size and shape
of the kirpan having remained undefined; prosecution of Sikhs for
wearing, carrying and manufacturing the kirpan continued.
During the Gurdwara Reform movement (1920-25) the kirpan question
became a major political issue. As the agitation started by the
Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and Shiromani Akali Dal
gained momentum, the British Indian government shelved the two notifications.
Sikhs possessing kirpan began to be prosecuted and imprisoned, and
many of the Sikh soldiers in the armed forces were court-martialled
for keeping kirpan and dismissed from service.
The Akali Dal's Kirpan agitation remained in full swing during
the years 1921-22 when black turbans and kirpans became the symbols
of the Sikh defiance. The Punjab government resorted to several
measures: any Sikh carrying a kirpan could be arrested without warrant.
As an act of defiance, the Akalis began carrying full-sized kirpans.
Thousands of Sikhs were sent to jail for contravening the Indian
Arms Act. The kirpan factories at Bhera and Sialkot were raided
in 1921, all kirpans exceeding 9 inches in length were seized, and
the owners of the factories put under arrest. Excesses were committed
by police upon non-violent kirpan-carrying Sikhs who bore these
with stoic resignation and unfaltering faith; by he Sikh religious
organizations they were honoured with the title of Kirpan Bahadur,
Hero of the Kirpan. A weekly newspaper, the Kirpan Bahadur, edited
by Seva Singh, was launched in 1922 from Amritsar to support the
In 1922, the Punjab Governor opened negotiations with the Shiromani
Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. A compromise was arrived at according
to which an announcement was made on behalf of the Punjab government
that the Sikhs would not be prosecuted for wearing, keeping and
carrying the kirpan. In March 1922, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak
Committee issued instructions to the Sikhs that they must carry
kirpan which was one of their religious emblems but it may be unsheathed
and drawn out only for prayers (ardas), initiatory ceremonies (amrit
prachar), and by the Five Beloved (Panj Piare) leading a religious
march. As a sacred symbol of the faith, it should not be unsheathed
and brandished except on these occasions. In this manner ended the
Kirpan Morcha, a confrontation between the Sikhs and the British
Indian government for the restoration to the Sikhs of their right
to keep and carry kirpan.