JATHA from Sanskrit yutha meaning a herd, flock, group, multitude, troop, band or host, signifies in the Sikh tradition a 'group of volunteers coming forth to carry out a specific task, be it armed combat or a peaceful and non-violent agitation. It is not clear when the term jatha first gained currency, but it was in common use by the first half of the eighteenth century.
After the capture and execution of Banda Singh Bahadur in 1716, the terror let loose by the Mughal government upon the Sikhs forced them to leave their homes and hearths and move about in small bands or jathas, each grouped around a jathedar or leader who came to occupy this position on account of his daring spirit and capacity to win the confidence of his comrades. For every able-bodied Sikh who had undergone the vows of the Khalsa, it became necessary to join one or the other jatha to fight against the oppressors. Besides skill in the use of arms, he had to be a good horseman, because in guerrilla warfare, such as the Sikhs had to resort to against the superior might of the State, speed and mobility were of paramount importance.
The weaponry, in the beginning, ranged from knobbed clubs, spears and battle axes to bow and arrows and matchlocks. A long sword and a dagger were of course carried by every member of the Khalsa. Some of them wore armour, but no helmets. During raids on enemy columns and baggage trains, the booty most valued was good horses and matchlocks so that most of the jathas were gradually equipped with firearms. Heavy artillery pieces were not favoured, as they impeded mobility and speed. However, as Ratan Singh Bhangu, Prachin Panth Prakash, says, they did carry lighter pieces such as zamburaks or camel swivels and long-range muskets, called janjails. Usually, each jatha had to fend for itself; yet it was necessary to co-ordinate its activities with those of others and operate under an overall plan. The diverse jathas voluntarily accepted the control of Sarbatt Khalsa, the assembly of all the Sikh jathas at Amritsar on the occasions of Baisakhi and Diwali when plans of action were formulated in the form of gurmatas or resolutions adopted in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib.
The brief respite provided by a temporary detente with the government during 1733-35 enabled the Sikh jathas to assemble and stay in strength at Amritsar with immunity. Nawab Kapur Singh, their chosen leader, knit the entire force into two dals, i.e. branches or sections—the Buddha Dal (army of the old) and Taruna Dal (army of the young). Taruna Dal was further divided into five jathas each with its own flag. With the end of the detente and the renewal of State persecution with redoubled vigour, the Sikhs had again recourse to smaller and more numerous jathas. Need for co-ordination forced them again to regroup themselves on the Diwali of 1745 into 25 jathas, but the number multiplied again. Ali ud-Din Mufti, ‘Ibrat Namah, mentions 65 jathas. They were finally reorganized on the Baisakhi of 1748 into 11 misls, under the overall command of Bhai Jassa Singh Ahluwalia. The entire fighting force of the Sikhs was named Dal Khalsa Ji. The misls were large bodies of mounted warriors and might have been divided into subunits, but the terms jatha and jathedar gradually fell into disuse. The leaders of misls and the Dal Khalsa preferred to be called sardars, a term borrowed from the Afghan invaders under Ahmad Shah Durrani. The establishment of monarchy under Maharaja Ranjit Singh put an end to all these older institutions—jatha, misl, Dal Khalsa, Sarbatt Khalsa and gurmata.
During the religious revival of the later nineteenth century, the Sikh reformers adopted the term Khalsa Diwan for their central bodies and Singh Sabha for the local branches as well as for the entire movement. The term jatha was generally restricted to bands of preachers and choirs, a connotation still in vogue. It was during the Gurdwara Reform movement of the early twentieth century that dal and jatha reappeared. The apex body of Sikh agitators for political action for the liberation of their shrines from the mahants, the effete priestly class, came to be named the Shiromani Akali Dal and its locally organized branches Akali Jathas. During the subsequent morchas or peaceful agitations organized by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, a body that later got statutory recognition under the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, and by the Shiromani Akali Dal, which emerged as the major political party of the Sikhs, each band of volunteers going forward to press a demand or to defy an unjust fiat of the government, was called a jatha. This use of the term is still prevalent.