Tearing at the seams: A murder, factional battle threaten a 159-year-old Sikh sect in Punjab

A murder and a factional battle threaten a 159-year-old Sikh sect in Punjab

Written by Divya Goyal | Updated: May 1, 2016 11:03 am
The murder of ‘Mataji’ Chand Kaur at their heavily guarded dera in Bhaini Sahib has shaken the Namdhari sect. Gurmeet Singh The murder of ‘Mataji’ Chand Kaur at their heavily guarded dera in Bhaini Sahib has shaken the Namdhari sect. Gurmeet Singh

AT THE imposing entrance of the Namdhari headquarters at Bhaini Sahib, some 30 km from Ludhiana in Punjab, hangs a huge portrait of ‘Mataji’. As devotees of this austere Sikh sect, clad in crisp white from head to toe, stream in through the main gate, they bow before the portrait; some wail while others click pictures on their mobile phones. A woman tells her child to kneel before the portrait, while another asks her daughter to cover her head properly — one of the many “lessons” from Mataji.

The reverence is telling for the 159-year-old wealthy sect, whose very existence is under threat following a brutal murder: less than a month ago, in the early hours of April 4, 88-year-old Chand Kaur, the matriarch of the Namdhari sect and Mataji to her followers, was gunned down inside the dera.

While women can never head the sect, Kaur was the matron ‘saint’ who held the influential six-lakh-member community together: she provided legitimacy to her nephew and the present Namdhari satguru (sect chief), Uday Singh, in the succession battle with his older brother Dalip Singh.

A few metres from the Mataji portrait, a white board, meant for devotees to pay tributes to the elderly woman, contains handwritten messages that sum up the turmoil in the dera since the murder. ‘The vacuum left by Mataji cannot be filled…’, reads one. ‘Mataji… please come back. You were our only hope…’, reads another.

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The Namdhari factional battle has its genesis in 2009 — a year after the death of the brothers’ father, Maharaja Bir Singh — when the older Dalip Singh and their mother Dalip Kaur were ousted from Bhaini Sahib, allegedly on Uday’s directions. It worsened in 2012, when the previous satguru Jagjit Singh, Kaur’s husband and Maharaj Bir Singh’s brother, passed away. Since then, there have been over 30 incidents of violence between supporters of the brothers, including an attack on Uday Singh at a gurdwara in the UK in August 2014. Kaur’s murder though is unprecedented and has opened a can of worms for the sect: Whom should they consider as their guru, now that the only ‘peacemaker’ is no more? And more importantly, should they continue being Namdhari at all?

The divide in the community is over Uday Singh’s ascension. The brothers were in line to take over as Jagjit Singh and Chand Kaur had no male heir. Insiders say Jagjit may have wanted Dalip to be his successor but Chand Kaur supported Uday Singh; no one is sure of why she backed the younger brother.

The mystery over Chand Kaur’s murder has not helped matters either, coming as it did inside the heavily guarded dera. Police have made no arrests so far (they are yet to identify the accused) and the two brothers have been blaming each other.

“The seeds were sown in 2012 itself. We don’t know what happened behind the four walls of these palatial bungalows. We considered Jagjit Singhji as our satguru and his decision on a successor would have been supreme for us. But till date, it is a mystery as to who he wanted to take over from him,” says Surjit Kaur, a devotee from Bathinda, which is three hours away.

“There is no elder to solve this family dispute, which is affecting followers now. When satguru Jagjit was alive, we had hope. Even when Mataji was alive, there was still hope. We knew she would unite the clan and guide followers like us who are currently torn by this battle. Following satguru Jagjit’s death, there has never been a clear answer on who our guru is. Mataji supported Uday Singh but doubts have always been there,” says Namit Singh, another follower.

The cracks at the top are now tearing away at the social fabric of the Namdharis and splitting families. “Husbands are fighting with wives over believing in different gurus. Sons are disagreeing with fathers and families are entering into disputes. This is not what the Namdhari sect was all about. We believed in unity, not clashes. We believed in simplicity, not wars over wealth and succession. The entire meaning of our faith is being lost, vanishing to where it can never return from,” says Rachhpal Singh, a devotee.

At stake in the feud, apart from the sprawling Bhaini Sahib headquarters, with its manicured lawns, plush buildings and golf carts, is over 6,000 acres of land in Punjab and Haryana; farms in Ooty, Manali, Ludhiana, Thailand and Bengaluru; a fleet of luxury cars from Maybachs to Rolls Royces; and a multinational seed company with a turnover of over Rs 800 crore.

“Wealth will keep fillings the dera coffers but Namdhari followers are not increasing as expected… Our faith has been shaken with this becoming a battle of money and egos,” says Kirpal Singh, 46, from Moga, whose family has been a part of the sect for decades.

Founded in April 13, 1857, by Ram Singh, the Namdharis differ from mainstream Sikhism in their belief that the lineage of the living gurus continued after the10th Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh (hence the satgurus). They also maintain their own gurdwaras, practise strict vegetarianism and do not marry outside the sect. Most of the believers hail from Punjab, Haryana and include wealthy Sikhs in Thailand.

The older devotees feel their children may no longer follow their faith. “We are just a few lakh in number. Seeing this feud, even my son sometimes says ‘let us not get into this. Let us simply believe in pious Guru Granth Sahib like other Sikhs’. When both the gurus are themselves fighting, how can they preach peace to us? If this battle continues and gets uglier, which it will now with the murder of Mataji, we doubt if the coming generations will continue to be in the Namdhari faith,” says a follower who lives within Bhaini Sahib.

“In this war of rights and wrongs, it is the Namdhari sect which is the ultimate sufferer,” says another follower.

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