A group of Nihangs has claimed responsibility for the brutal murder of a 35-year-old man at the Singhu border farmers’ protest site on Friday, allegedly because he had disrespected the Sikh holy book. In April 2020, Nihangs had attacked a Punjab Police party in Patiala and chopped off the hand of an assistant sub-inspector when stopped for a curfew pass in the midst of the lockdown.
Nihang is an order of Sikh warriors, characterised by blue robes, antiquated arms such as swords and spears, and decorated turbans surmounted by steel quoits. The order can be traced back to the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, according to Sikh historian Dr Balwant Singh Dhillon. “Etymologically the word nihang in Persian means an alligator, sword and pen, but the characteristics of Nihangs seem to stem more from the Sanskrit word nihshank which means without fear, unblemished, pure, carefree and indifferent to worldly gains and comfort,” he said.
Scholars say it is difficult to give a specific count, given that Nihang Sikhs are divided into many factions. Broadly, there are three factions: Baba Budha Dal, Tarna Dal, and Baba Bidhi Chand Dal. The Budha Dal (basically considered a faction of the elderly) and the Tarna Dal (formed as a band of the young) are divided into further factions, including around a dozen factions in the Tarna Dal.
Bhai Pritpal Singh, head granthi of the gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib, Patiala, said there are more than 30 factions of Nihangs in Punjab, big and small. According to Rajinder Kaur, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Guru Nanak College, Budhlada, “Because of a large number of factions and their dynamic nature — they keep moving from one place to another (chakravarti or chalda vaheer) — it is very difficult to have a specific count of the Nihangs”.
Dr Dhillon said the Nihangs today constitute a small community. In the absence of a central command or leadership, they are loosely organised. They are stationed at their deras all year round, but set out on an annual pilgrimage of Anandpur Sahib, Damdama Sahib, Talwandi Sabo, and Amritsar, and take part in religious events and exhibit their martial skills and horsemanship.
“The lynching can never be justified but the issue of desecration of sacred scripture of Sikhs is a very sensitive issue, so politicians have avoided getting into it,” a Sikh scholar said.
“Another factor was that politicians did not want to have confrontation with Nihangs, who leave their homes and have no fear of death.”
Nihangs played a major role in defending the Sikh panth against attacks and persecution by Mughal governors in the early decades of the 18th century, and then during the invasions of the Afghan Ahmad Shah Durrani between 1748 and 1767. When the Khalsa army was divided into five battalions in 1734, a Nihang or Akali battalion was led by Baba Deep Singh Shahid.
Nihangs also took control of the religious affairs of the Sikhs at the Akal Bunga (now known as Akal Takht) in Amritsar, where they held the grand council (Sarbat Khalsa) and passed the Gurmata (resolution). Their clout came to an end after the fall of the Sikh Empire in 1849; the British appointed a manager (sarbrah) for the administration of the Golden Temple in 1859.
During the militancy years, the then Baba Budha Dal chief Nihang chief, late Baba Santa Singh, fell afoul of the mainstream Sikhs when he, at the instance of Indian government, went on to rebuild the Akal Takht that had been damaged during Operation Bluestar in June 1984. “Some Nihangs, including Ajit Singh Poohla, collaborated with the Punjab police to eliminate Sikh militants,” Dr Dhillon said.
There were others who supported the militants. Dr Gurmeet Singh Sidhu, professor and Guru Gobind Singh Chair at Punjabi University, Patiala, recounts an instance where a Nihang misled a police party about the movement of alleged terrorists in an area.
The major Nihang factions have under their control a number of gurdwaras, where devotees make offerings. The major factions also have agricultural land, and earn income by renting out shops in their properties. The Budha Dal also runs three schools. “Admission in the schools is purely on merit,” Budha Dal secretary Diljit Singh Bedi said. Asked about income and expenditure, Bedi said, “There are a number of cantonments of Budha Dal in different parts of the state, where the in-charges maintain records of income and expenditure.”
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“Nihangs observe the Khalsa code of conduct in its strictest sense. They do not profess allegiance to any earthly master. Instead of saffron, they hoist a blue Nishan Sahib (flag) atop their shrines,” Dr Dhillon said.
Nihangs use the slogans ‘chhardi kala’ (forever in high spirits) and ‘tiar bar tiar’ (state of ever-preparedness) for unforeseen events.
“The Nihangs are fond of a drink called shardai or sharbati degh (sacrament drink) which contains grounded almonds, cardamom seeds, poppy seeds, black pepper, rose petals and melon seeds. When a small measure of cannabis is added to it, it is termed sukhnidhan (treasure of comfort). A higher dose of cannabis in it was known as shaheedi deg, or sacrament of martyrdom. It was taken (while) battling enemies,” Dr Dhillon said.