The recent execution of a 35-year-old Dalit Sikh, Lakhbir Singh, at the Singhu border by the members of Nihang sect has drawn strong reactions across the world. The execution was cruel and looked like a warning to others against the sacrilege of their sacred book, the Sarab Loh Granth. However, there seems to be an attempt to turn the opinion of the people against the Sikh community as if the entire Sikh tradition symbolises cruelty and violence.
One of the mainstream media houses characterised the killing as “lynching”, thereby implying that a large crowd of Sikhs carried out this ghastly act. It also shows how fickle our memories are in the face of one episode, whereas during the high tide of the second wave of Covid-19, the tradition of ‘sewa’ was highlighted as central to the Sikh tradition.
There is, however, a rising interest in knowing who these Nihangs are, particularly when certain individuals from the sect came forward and owned up to this execution with the claim that they killed the man because he committed the sacrilege by being disrespectful to their sacred book. I propose to succinctly describe the Nihangs in terms of their position within the Sikh religion, their traditions, and religious practices.
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Digging a less-known history
The word ‘Nihang’ conjures up an image of a Sikh armed with traditional weapons and attired in a loose blue top almost touching the knees, long (generally white) breeches, and a turban of more than normal length. Their sheer appearance arouses curiosity, and at times they are understood as orthodox Sikhs with medieval clothing and weaponry. The prevalence of numerous traditions and practices in the Indian religious landscape makes it possible for the Nihangs to pass for just another group with a distinct identity.
Of the various meanings of the word Nihang given by scholars, the one offered by Kahn Singh Nabha in Mahan Kosh is “alligator, sword, fearless, impartial and enlightened”. It is believed that Nihangs are “akalis”, the ones who have conquered death, and are always prepared to sacrifice their lives. They are entirely self-sufficient because they always keep necessary things with them. In his book The Punjab: Being A Brief Account of the Country of the Sikhs, written in 1846, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Steinbach, an officer in the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, described the Nihangs as “Akalees” with a degree of dislike and said they were part of the Lahore government’s irregular cavalry and numbered about 3,000. He characterised them as “religious fanatics”, lawless and prone to committing robbery, and also said that they attempted to assassinate the Maharaja more than once.
The origin of the Nihangs is not clear, but various writings on Sikh history agree that they originated during and after the Guru period. However, it is wrong to assume that all Sikh warriors were Nihangs.
Four names are popularly used with different emphases for the Nihangs’ headquarters. First, there is a gurdwara and it looks identical to the Sikh gurdwara, but there is a difference. In a Nihang gurdwara, the Dasam Granth, in addition to the Guru Granth Sahib, is placed at its rightful location. There is also a distinct space in the gurdwara where ‘sukha’, a drink made of cannabis, is prepared. The second name is ‘Dera’, which subsumes the existence of a gurdwara, but also houses a number of Nihangs living and practising martial arts.
The third is ‘Shauni’, which literally means cantonment – a place where soldiers are located. Nihangs regard themselves as “Guru ki fauj” (the army of the Guru) and tend to be always ready to proceed to the ‘war front’. Shauni is a place where they keep horses and look after them. The fourth name is ‘akhada’. Traditionally, the word ‘akhada’ is used to denote a place where training in wrestling and martial arts takes place, and it is linked with the Naga Sadhu tradition of India. In the case of the Nihangs, an akhada is a place commonly located within the Nihang gurdwara/dera, where arms training takes place.
There are four factions among the Nihangs: Budha Dal, Taruna Dal, Ranghreta Dal, and Bidhi Chand Taruna Dal. The last two are less prominent. Not much is talked about the Ranghreta Dal, and it consists of Nihangs exclusively belonging to the Mazhabi caste, whereas the Nihangs identified with Bidhi Chand, a devout follower of the sixth Guru of the Sikhs, are confined to village Sur Singh in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district to which he belonged.
The prominent Nihang groups are the Taruna Dal and the Buddha Dal. As their names indicate, there is a general impression that the Taruna Dal has something to do with youth, whereas the Buddha Dal is a group of elder Nihangs. In reality, it is not the case, for both the factions have young and old Nihangs in their ranks.
There are about 14 major groups of Nihangs of which three are Buddha Dals and 11 are Taruna Dals. Each Dal is headed by a ‘Jathedar’, who presides over a large number of gurdwaras. It is claimed that the Buddha Dal headquarters is located at the Talwandi Ber Sahib gurdwara, whereas the Taruna Dal headquarters is at Baba Bakala. The most important aspect is the number of gurdwaras each Dal controls and has constructed over the years. There are also stories of Nihangs forcibly occupying and taking control of gurdwaras.
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Nihangs and their place in Sikh tradition and history
It is important to clarify the contribution of the Nihangs to Sikh history. Most of the books on the Nihangs do not distinguish the Khalsa (fighting Sikhs) and the Nihangs. All are treated as synonymous in the historical narratives of the Nihangs. As such, there is no history of the Nihangs except for the occasions when they either confronted or collaborated with the state. Instead, there are narratives of actual feats of bravery in some real sense.
The Nihang Dals follow two routines: daily and annual. They strictly observe the daily rituals irrespective of whether they are stationed at the Deras, or are on the move as per their annual calendar. Their daily routine begins with getting up in the last quarter of the night called ‘amrit vela’, taking a bath and reciting Gurbani. However, in contrast to the Sikhs in general, who exclusively regard the Guru Granth Sahib as the eleventh Guru with their recitations confined to it, the Nihangs have two other sacred texts, the Dasam Granth and the Sarab Loh Granth. They have a special respect for the Sarab Loh Granth, which depicts in primordial symbols the eternal fight between Sarab Loh, the all-steel incarnation of God, and Brijnad, the king of demons. Guru Gobind Singh’s poem Chandi di Var, describing the titanic contest between the gods led by the goddess Durga and the demons is recited daily. The Nihangs’ sacred world is inseparable from the composite and ancient Hindu religious tradition. They have a common kitchen and langar duty is assigned. The most notable aspect of their daily life is the consumption of the sukha. Unlike baptised Sikhs who are mostly vegetarians, the Nihangs are largely non-vegetarians and meat curry is their favourite dish (mahan prasad).
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A unique way of Nihang life drives curiosity
The Nihangs strictly follow a definite movement pattern throughout the year. They travel to sites connected with the life events of the Gurus for anniversaries, where gurdwaras have been constructed. Despite the fact that all Nihangs are not always mobile, they tend to reach their destinations quickly and wait for the mobile group known as ‘chalda vaheer’. One way to map their movement in terms of time and space is to describe it according to the Gregorian calendar.
On the day of the Maghi, which generally falls on either 14 or 15 January, the Nihangs reach the Muktsar Sahib. The second destination is Anandpur Sahib on the occasion of Holi (Holla Mohalla). The third destination, on the occasion of Vaisakhi on 13 April, is Damdama Sahib (Talwandi Sabo). The fourth destination is Baba Bakala, where, according to tradition, Guru Tegh Bahadur was recognised as the ninth Guru of the Sikhs on the day of Rakharh Punia in the month of July or August. On the festival of Dussehra, the Nihangs come together at the Chamkaur Sahib and at the Hazoor Sahib in Nanded, Maharashtra. They celebrate Diwali at the Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, as it was on Diwali that Guru Hargobind reached Amritsar after his release from the Gwalior prison. Diwali is also named ‘Bandi Chhor Diwas’ on account of the release of imprisoned kings by the Mughal emperor Jahangir on the insistence of the Guru. The last destination is the Fatehgarh Sahib at the Jorh Mela in the last week of December. It is the place where two sons of Guru Gobind Singh were martyred.
The Nihangs are distinguished from the others in their manner of speech, behaviour, and clothing pattern in three ways. One, their clothing and particularly their turbans make them conspicuous. They get up early in the morning and take considerable time to tie the turban, and in some cases, the turban weighs 25 to 35 kilograms. Their usage of certain words with different meanings has made the Nihangs a sect of special interest. A Nihang on an empty stomach would call themselves maddened with prosperity. Similarly, eating parched grams would be described as eating almonds. Interestingly, onions are silver pieces, rupees, on the other hand, mere pebbles, and a stick is an arsenal of wisdom. Most of their weapons are outdated, and a Nihang looks like a warrior burdened with too many arms. Cumulatively, their peculiarities have made them an object of humour.
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Understanding their Isolation
The interactions of the Nihangs with the Sikhs as a whole, wider society and the state are an interesting area of investigation. Most of the Nihangs are men and very few marry, but there is no strict rule governing their conjugal ties. Various legends and some accounts of historical events suggest that the Nihangs accepted no ruler and lived by observing their own traditions and rules. At the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, they participated in many battles and helped his army score unprecedented victories. However, they were not visible during British rule. Since India’s independence in 1947, the Nihangs have been mainly indifferent towards political processes. However, on many occasions, some groups have collaborated with political parties in power. One such case was the construction of the damaged structure of the Akal Takht after Operation Blue Star in 1984, when the chief of the Buddha Dal, Baba Santa Singh, took over the responsibility at the request of the Congress leaders to renovate it. He was criticised and excommunicated from the Sikh Panth.
From their history and behavioural patterns, it seems strange that they joined the farmers’ agitation, for they have a long history of staying away from any opposition against the ruling dispensation. During the Sikh militant movement in the 1980s, there were only two Nihangs, Avtar Singh Brahama and Pipal Singh, who joined the militants, whereas the clashes between the militants and some Nihang leaders had been noticeable. Since the Nihangs do not represent any interest group in the farmers’ movement, nor is the movement a religious one, it would remain an enigma why they were there at the Singhu border.
Paramjit Singh Judge is president of the Indian Sociological Society and former professor of Sociology at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)