A grenade attack Sunday at the Nirankari Mission branch on the outskirts of Amritsar, on which three persons were killed and 21 injured, threw the spotlight on the Nirankari sect, which has historically been in conflict with Sikhs who follow traditional practices. When mainstream leaders were seen associating or allegedly associating with Nirankari members, it has often led to controversy.
The early years
The Nirankari sect was formed by Sikh activists in the 19th century. Under Baba Deyal Singh, it is credited with starting the tradition of Anand Karaj, the Sikh way of getting married. A breakaway group formed by Baba Buta Singh preached largely similar customs and principles but there some differences from Sikh customs. He was followed by Avatar Singh, who registered Sant Nafinkari Mandal in 1948.
The first clash between Sikhs and Avatar Singh took place over alleged misinterpretation of the Gurbani by Avatar Singh in Amritsar in 1956-57. It left a few persons injured. Avatar Singh’s son Gurbachan Singh wrote Granth Avtar Bani; some of its references to Sikh Gurus offended many Sikhs.
In a clash with Sikhs opposing a Nirankari congregation in 1978, 13 Sikhs were killed. Gurbachan Singh and 64 followers were booked for murder and acquitted in 1980.
Later that year, Gurbachan and an aide were shot dead in Delhi. Militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhundranwale was questioned and charged with murder; prime accused Ranjit Singh surrendered in 1983, was sentenced to 13 years and, after his release, went on to become Akal Takht jathedar.
Amarinder vs Tohra
The Nirankari sect came into focus again in 1998, when Captain Amarinder Singh accused former Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhadak Committee (SGPC) chief jathedar Gurbachan Singh Tohra of having visited Nirankari Bhawan in Patiala to seek votes. No Sikh leader is supposed to visit Nirankari Bhawan due to an Akal Takht edict against it.
With pictures of the alleged visit, Amarinder approached Akal Takht jathedar Ranjit Singh — who had served a jail sentence for Baba Gurbachan Singh’s murder. Ranjit Singh, who was seen as close to Tohra, summoned him. Later, he ruled that the negatives provided by Amarinder were fake, and Ranjit Singh absolved Tohra. When Ranjit Singh was removed as Akal Takht jathedar the following year, it was seen as a fallout of his decision.
Read | Who are Nirankaris?
Nirankari Mission’s previous head, Baba Hardev Singh, Gurbachan’s son, died in a road accident in Montreal in 2016. The accident also killed his son-in-law Avneet Satya, while another son-in-law, Sandeep Khinda, survived. A group of followers demanded an investigation, and submitted an online petition to the Prime Minister with 3,556 signatures.
It was speculated that Hardev’s daughter Sudeeksha (Satya’s wife) would become the next head, but it was her mother Savinder Kaur who was appointed head.
In 2017, another controversy broke. Based on a complaint by Hardev’s other daughter, Samta Nirankari, her husband Khinda was booked for fraud. Samta, director of a company called Jain Floriculture, accused her husband of forging her digital signature and removing her and two other directors, and appointing himself and two others. She accused him fraud involving crores of rupees in property and cash. When this surfaced, Nirankari Mission issued a clarification that it was a personal matter that had nothing to do with the mission.
Hardev Singh was the subject of political controversies, too, both before and after his death. Shiromani Akali Dal leaders would often circulate a video in which AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal is purportedly seen at a Nirankari sect function in the presence of Hardev Singh.
When Hardev died, neither SAD nor the AAP state unit issued a condolence message. Amarinder posted on Facebook remembering Hardev, and was criticised by the Dal Khalsa, a political body with former Sikh militants.