The Nirankaris and the Sikhs have shared a deeply troubled relationship since before Independence.
Chandigarh: The grenade attack on the Nirankari Bhawan in Amritsar that killed three people and injured 20 Sunday has come as a grim reminder of the violent past shared by the Sikhs and the Nirankaris in Punjab.
While tensions have simmered ever since Partition, the clashes of 1978 are considered to be the beginning of two decades of Sikh militancy in the state.
The Nirankaris began as a tiny reformist group within Sikhism, under Dayal Das, who became active towards the end of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign (1799-1839) in Punjab.
The Nirankaris believe in the formless God – Nirankar — who can be reached through a “God-realised soul” or “satguru”.
In the 1930s, the ‘Sant Nirankaris’ emerged as an offshoot of the Nirankaris. While the original Nirankaris receded into the background, the Sant Nirankaris continued to spread and grow, inviting the ire of orthodox Sikhs.
Following Partition, the Sant Nirankaris shifted from Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan) to Delhi, where the first Nirankari Mission Mandal was set up.
An uncomfortable relationship
The relationship between Sikhs and the Nirankaris was always uncomfortable. But as long as the Nirankaris were small in number, they did not face any serious opposition.
Trouble began in 1951, when Satguru Avtar Singh proclaimed himself a living guru in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book, which is considered to be a living Guru). Sikhism does not allow any living Guru to replace the Guru Granth Sahib.
Sikhs attacked Avtar Singh’s followers during a satsang of his, after which it was decided that the Guru Granth Sahib will not be kept at any Nirankari congregation.
But tensions continued over other issues. Avtar Singh proclaimed himself the reincarnation of Guru Nanak in the Nirankari text Avtarbani, and the Nirankaris adopted several symbols of Sikhism, but with variations considered sacrilegious.
The institution of the ‘panj pyaras (the five beloved)’ was changed to ‘sat sitaras (seven stars)’, and instead of using ‘khande ka amrit (nectar of the sword)’, the Nirankaris used water touched by the satguru’s feet to baptise followers.
Gurbachan Singh succeeded Avtar Singh in 1963 and started spreading the mission vigorously. He activated its sewa dal, consisting of young Nirankaris, and was also believed to make provocative speeches, allegedly slandering Sikh gurus.
Sikh preachers began openly denouncing the Nirankaris as “nakli Sikhs (fake Sikhs)” and demanded the closing down of their centres. The Avtarbani and another Nirankari work, Yug Purush, were declared “heretic books”.
The Sikh religious seminary, the Damdami Taksal, was at the forefront of the opposition against the Nirankaris.
In September 1973, the Taksal Sikhs and the Nirankaris clashed near Chowk Mehta in Amritsar, outside a newly founded centre of the former. Another clash in Ludhiana led to a police lathicharge.
In November, Sant Kartar Singh, who headed the Taksal, managed to get a resolution passed against the Nirankaris by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC).
Tensions resurfaced in September 1977, after a Nirankari congregation was stoned in Pathankot and another clash took place in Gurdaspur. Thousands of Nirankaris staged a dharna outside the Punjab secretariat in Chandigarh, demanding action.
The turning point
On Baisakhi day 1978, 13 April, Gurbachan Singh was scheduled to address a samagam (gathering) in Amritsar, before which his followers took out a procession.
Protesting against the samagam, Sikh militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had taken over the Damdami Taksal in 1977, sent a jatha (an armed group of Sikhs) to the venue. They were joined by the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, led by Fauja Singh.
While the Nirankaris claim they were attacked by armed fanatics, several reports suggest they were armed to the teeth and attacked the Sikh jatha. Fauja Singh was killed by Gurbachan Singh’s guard and another 12 Sikhs and the Nirankaris were killed in the ensuing clash. Two onlookers also died.
Despite what happened, the samagam continued and Gurbachan Singh addressed the gathering.
The incident is considered to be a turning point in Punjab’s history, triggering a series of events that pushed the state into almost two decades of militancy.
In June the Akal Takht, the highest spiritual and temporal seat of the Sikhs, issued a hukumnama or decree, excommunicating the Nirankaris, prohibiting Sikhs from dealing with them.
In August, the government, then led by Parkash Singh Badal, ordered the shutting down of all Nirankari Bhawans, in the state only to revoke the directive a week later. Bhindranwale then took it upon himself to get the bhawans closed.
Sikhs chased away Gurbachan Singh from a samagam in Allahabad in September and, a day later, at another gathering in Kanpur, police fired at Sikh protesters, killing 12 of them.
In November, the union government – Morarji Desai was then Prime Minister — allowed the Nirankaris to hold a three-day samagam in Delhi. The Delhi Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee decided to hold a protest march against the decision.
Following clashes between the Sikhs and police, in which three persons were killed, curfew was imposed around the Bangla Sahib gurdwara. In the aftermath, two Sikh union ministers, Surjit Singh Barnala and minister of state Dhanna Singh Gulshan, resigned from the government.
More than 60 Nirankaris, including Gurbachan Singh, went on trial for the Baisakhi 1978 incident. Two years later, in January 1980, they were all acquitted, with the court ruling that they acted in self-defence. In March, Gurbachan Singh escaped an attempt on his life at Durg in Madhya Pradesh.
On 24 April 1980, Gurbachan Singh was shot dead as he was alighting from his car on his return from a congregation. Ranjit Singh, a member of the Baba Deep Singh Ranjit Akhara in Delhi and a carpenter by profession, was convicted of the murder, which he executed after gaining entry into the mission as a sewadar. He went on to become jathedar (leader) of the Akal Takht.
The Baisakhi incident gave birth to the Dal Khalsa in August 1978. In 1981, five of its members hijacked an Indian plane to Lahore to protest against Bhindranwale’s arrest for the murder of politician and editor Lala Jagat Narain. The organisation was banned in 1982 and scrapped 10 years later, but it staged a comeback in Punjab in 1998.
The reins of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha were taken over by Fauja Singh’s widow Amarjit Kaur. Militant group Babbar Khalsa is considered to be an extremist offshoot of the jatha.
Nirankaris make peace
After Gurbachan Singh’s assassination, his photographer son Hardev Singh was declared satguru. In 1981, he wrote a letter to the jathedar of the Akal Takht, saying the Nirankaris were not disrespectful towards Sikhism, and offered to remove any objectionable content from the Avtarbani and Yug Purush.
In 2016, Hardev Singh died in a car accident in Toronto, Canada, after which his wife Savinder Kaur became the head. In July this year, their daughter Sudiksha was made the head of the mission. The mission has lakhs of followers, with its centres spread across India and abroad.
Issuing a statement on the Sunday blast, the mission said “the unfortunate incident has left all of us in Nirankari Parivar deeply hurt and saddened”.
“Sant Nirankari Mission is a Mission of Love, Peace and Tolerance,” it added, “The Sant Nirankari Mandal promises to stand by all the affected brothers and sisters in the incident in every possible way. Let us pray to Almighty Nirankar that such unwarranted incidents do not recur with anyone and may wisdom prevail everywhere.”