Tragedy On Vaisakhi Day of 1978

Prof. Kulraj Singh. Sikh Review, February 1996

Tragedy cast its spell on numerous households on the auspicious day of Vaisakhi (13th April) in the year 1978. Impatient of the increasing offensiveness of the Nirankari derogation of the principles that the Sikhs hold in profound reverence, a concourse of the followers of Sant Jarnail Singh of Bhindran and Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh proceeded to the Railway Colony in Amritsar, where the Nirankaris were holding their annual gathering, to demonstrate against the hurts which Nirankaris caused to the Sikh feelings everyday. They had taken the vow before starting out that they would remain non-violent whatever the provocation from the other side. The 150 odd marchers were stopped by the police a long distance from the venue of Nirankari meeting. According to the Times of India’s special correspondent’s report dated 19th April ’78, the jatha agreed not to go any further if the police conveyed their request to the Nirankari not to show disrespect to the holy Guru Granth Sahib. The policeman returned and regretted that they could not get the Nirankaris to comply with the jatha’s request. The jatha was, thereafter, either allowed to proceed, or forced its way, toward the venue of the “satsang”! But they had hardly come within 100 meters of the venue when a volley of bullets issued from the opposite direction felled several people, 13 of whom succumbed to the gunshot wounds whether on the spot or later. The Nirankari “concourse of truth” continued for two hours more as victims of gunshots lay all over. After the so-called “satsang” concluded, Baba Gurbachan Singh, the Nirankari chief was escorted to safety and was soon smuggled to Delhi (outside the Punjab Police’s reach) where he was granted half-hour interview by the Prime Minister Morarji Desai - a privilege reserved for V.V.I.Ps.

The reaction all over the Sikh world to this gruesome tragedy was of utter shock followed by uproarious protests The Punjab Police was forced to get to work. Even though the Nirankaris protested that they were victims of an onslaught, the bullets, significantly, had been fired from their side. Searches by the Punjab Police later, revealed that the Nirankaris had built up arsenals of arms, including firearms, and it is also alleged that the boot of Baba Gurbachan Singh’s car had a posse of firearms and a sizeable quantity of ammunition. In fact, his complicity in the attack on the unarmed jatha, whose kirpans, according to the Times of India report (ibid) were found in their sheaths, has been established sufficiently beyond doubt to enable the Punjab Police to secure warrants for his arrest and to contest his bail applications in various courts.

The Amritsar incident was the culmination of seething unrest among the Sikhs generated by Baba Gurbachan Singh’s and his followers ‘derogation, by word and deed, of Sikhism, its holy scriptures, its founder Gurus, and conventions and practices held by all Sikhs in profound reverence. Until recently, and even now, to a substantial extent, the “Nirankari Church’s scriptural mainstay has been the Guru Granth Sahib. But the interpretation of the verses in the Guru Granth has been distorted to suit Nirankari propaganda.

In 1973, the Sikhs carried out a marathon operation to remove silt from the base of Harmandir’s sacred lake, and repair and reinforce the masonry structures that support of the Golden Temple, the bridge leading to it and the peripheral stairs leading down to the base of the lake. The operation is reverentially called kar-seva - Voluntary service work. Sikhs from all over India and abroad had thronged to Amritsar, and organisations got areas of silt marked off for them. People stood in thousands in long queues to get to the bottom of lake, and those who could not get buckets and vessels to carry the slit away used their snow-white shirt-skirts. The operation, which was carried on with entirely voluntary labour and monetary offerings, and which, if carried out with hired labour, would have cost millions of rupees, was completed before schedule leaving several groups, to whom specified areas had been assigned, grumbling that their areas had either been curtailed or appropriated by others. Such upsurge of spontaneous emotion is rare in the history of peoples and indicates the degree of reverence in which the operation is held by the Sikhs. However Baba Gurbachan Singh’s fancy, in a serious writing such as may not call it vulgar in spite of its being patently so - bethought itself of a pun on “kar”, and called it “bekar seva,” or “useless service.”

Earlier he had been reported to have remarked as to what Guru Gobind Singh, having remained engaged in warfare all his life, knew of pious devotion! This was blasphemy and deliberately contrived insult to Guru Gobind Singh’s personality and writing.

There is a line in Sikh scriptures: ’Himself is the scales, Himself the measure, Himself commodity, Himself the Weigher." That is expressive of Sikh monism. It has been customary among Nirankaris to weigh their “Baba” against currency notes. This line from Gurbani had been painted or pasted over the lever of the scales.

A claim is staked on behalf of the “Baba” that he is the latest in the line of prophets starting with Semitic prophets and comes down through Rama, Krishna, Jesus and Mohammed to Guru Nanak... While he had spared the other prophets by stopping at this, Baba Avtar Singh named his sister Bibi Nanaki - after Guru Nanak’s sister.

Other instances of deliberate offence to the Sikh sentiment will be cited in other contexts in ensuing paragraphs. All this, one suspects had been deliberate and planned. In northern India, the Sikhs alone have constituted a strong viable political force. Their long unadulterated tradition of struggle against tyranny and high-handedness of any kind makes them anything but docile. Attempts to tame them having failed, the political authorities at the Centre thought of the alternatives of perverting their faith and institutions through their lackeys and, driving a wedge between the urban Sikh who constitute the bulk of committed Sikhs and the rural Sikhs who give to Sikhism the bulk of its agitational muscle, in order to weaken them. It was not for nothing that during Baba Avtar Singh’s visits abroad the Indian Embassies had been instructed to arrange for him V.V.I.P.’s receptions by local Indian communities, the bulk of whom, in some countries, is the Sikhs.

Baba Gurbachan Singh, the Nirankari chief and the successor of Baba Avtar singh, was said to have a following of 6 millions people in India and abroad. This has been built up in just about 3 decades. The size and speed with which the “creed” has spread would be the envy of any godman. How has such following been gathered in so short a time?

There is more than one explanation for the meteoric rise of the Nirankari creed of Buta Singh - Avtar Singh - Gurbachan Singh brand which, as we shall presently see, has little doctrinally to commend it. We have already taken note of the motivated governmental patronage brazenly bestowed to promote the Nirankari Chief’s image. But the Government patronage has not remained confined merely to the promoting of the Nirankari Chief’s image; it has provided to him comfortable footholds in seats of authority. It is most significant that in the city of Amritsar, the Sikh Mecca, Nirankaris continued their “satsang” for two hours after having mercilessly shot to death thirteen Sikhs who had dared to join doctrinal issues with them peacefully. There could hardly be a more eloquent testimony to an organisation’s influence over administrative and police cadres. A highly placed police officer was being sought for alleged complicity in the shooting at Amritsar and remained underground for many days. How were such footholds provided? The following illustrative story provides the answer.

A frustrated officer of the Punjab I.A.S. cadre (who subsequently rose to a flatteringly high position in the Punjab administrative set-up) narrated his tale of woe to a political “somebody” who introduced him to Baba Gurbachan singh, who in turn interceded for him with the then Prime Minister. All hurdles from the road to officer’s advancement were removed in no time. He has justifiably been an ardent Nirankari ever since, reportedly, participating in the Nirankari procession like a commoner. It should not be difficult to imagine how zealously he would have discharged his debt of gratitude by showering patronage on Nirankaris inside and outside the administration, engendering a net-work of pro-Nirankari officialdom.

What is painfully striking is that such highly educated men as the I.A.S. officer referred to above, should have accepted a doctrinally bankrupt creed in exchange, in some cases, for so rational, progressive and sophisticated a religion as Sikhism, which, in addition, had an unequalled record of struggle, sacrifice and ardently commended achievements.

What is this Buta Singh - Avtar Singh - Gurbachan Singh Nirankari creed, which was rechristened by its late chief as “Sant Nirankari”, to distinguish it from an earlier movement within Sikhism which went by the name “Nirankari”? The Nirankari movement was launched by one Baba Dayalji, who lived during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s times, to retrieve Sikhism from growing trends towards idolatory and lapses in the Sikhs’ living. Since Baba Dayalji’s plank was “back to the worship of the formless One (Nirankar) he and his movement came to be known as Nirankari (of the formless One). Baba Dayaji’s movement assumed the shape of a Sikh sect presided over by a continuing line of successors.

The “Sant Nirankari” creed splintered from this Nirankari creed and has no physical or doctrinal links with the parent except its founder Buta Singh and Avtar Singh were Nirankari renegades. Buta Singh was a valued kirtan singer of Nirankari sect whom Baba Hara Singh, the then Nirankari chief, expelled him from the sect for his weakness for liquor and other vices. Bhai Buta Singh, coaxed by Avtar Singh, a fellow Nirankari, who ran a petty bakery at Peshawar, established an independent Nirankari cell which attracted some people, thanks to his talent for kirtan. Not much was, however, heard of the two until Buta Singh died in misery, reportedly of a venereal disease, and Avtar Singh established himself as the Nirankari guru in Pahargunj, Delhi. The creed has thereafter, grown. Its scriptural mainstay up till recently has been the Guru Granth, the Nirankari exposition of the hymns from which was give in the Nirankari gatherings published in the “Sant Nirankar” under the caption: Vichar Sache Patshah. The interpretation was invariably twisted, mostly incorrect of grammar and the meaning of the words, and deliberately distorted.

This is not the only area where the Nirankari propaganda coaxed the Sikh nerve. The background of its founder, was, avowedly, rooted in Sikh tradition. Sikh, the Nirankari social values were Sikh. The Nirankari organisation a distorted version - almost a burlesque of - the Sikh organisational set-up during that time and practically all their doctrinal values, if any, were based on (though they constituted a perversion of ) Sikh concepts. Since any system, to establish itself, has to stake its claim of being superior to an existing system, the Sant-Nirankari “gurus” had grown with Sikhism, they will nilly ape Sikh ideas and institutions. Guru Gobind Singh had five piaras (beloved ones). Avtar Singh had seven. Avtar Singh’s sister was the Nanaki, since Guru Nanak had a sister of the same name, deeply revered by all Sikhs. The Nirankari hierarchy had its own Baba Buddha, Bhai Gurdas, etc. - after the Sikh elders of same names.

The concept of “Guru” occupies a important position in the Sikh doctrine. In Sikhism it is highly involved and sophisticated concept. Meaning literally “one who strives to dispel darkness”. After the Tenth Guru, Shabad is the guide, being the revelatory message, uttered in moments of attunement with the divine.

Logically, therefore, the shabad, the human Guru’s inspired utterance, is the Guru. So is the collection of the shabads, the inspired writings of the Gurus and a few other chosen , the Guru Granth Sahib! The Sant Nirankari’s aim being the building of their Baba’s image, they repudiate this concept and proclaim that the real guru is the human being who gives the exposition of such scriptural writings. They do not enunciate their position without reference to any particular scripture; but state it in the form of a hurtfully slighting reference to the Guru Granth Sahib, which gospel the Sikhs profoundly revere as being the Guru. On page 240 of the Avtar Bani, the Nirankari scripture, offers the lines :

ghar wich hai sri guru granth, main ot os di rakhi
(There is Sri Guru Granth at home; I relied on it.)
Satguru di main dehi Samaj behan na devan makhi
(I regarded it the true enlightener’s body and did not let a fly perch on it).
eh na pata ke shabad guru nahi hondi
(I did not know that a hymn or a book is not a guru).
raj guru Avtar na milda sari umra rondi
(If I had not met the royal guru Avtar, I should have rued my fate through the rest of my life).

This, incidentally, is a specimen of the “profound” writing in the Puran Avtar Bani which Baba Avtar Singh allegedly got composed by a hired “poet” whose claim to any poetic or literary excellence can best be judged from these lines. The Avtar Bani has other similar masterpieces! Here is one:

doctor de larh lagi koi, ban gai ape doctorni
(One who got wedded to a doctor became Mrs. Doctor automatically)
master de nal laian lavan, sab jag akhe masterni
(One who circumambulated with a teacher became a Mrs. Teacher)
Avtar guru de larh main laggi ban galijag di rani main
(On holding to the apron string of Guru Avtar I became, in like manner, the queen of the world).

It is difficult to bring out the element of the banal in the original, in the translation. It shows up, in the first instance, in the sound and the diction. Then, the words in the original corresponding to Mrs. Doctor and Mrs. Teacher also stand for “lady doctor” and “school-mistress” respectively, It would perhaps come out if the words “school-mistress” and “lady doctor” were employed. In any case, the “richness” of the content of these lines and their “poetic impact” are simply remarkable!

The Avtar Bani, again, is patterned on the Guru Granth in the sense that it contains compositions - allegedly - of Baba Avtar Singh, his wife Budhwanti; designated Jagat Mata, a predeceased son, the other living son and the ex chief, baba Gurbachan Singh, the latter’s wife Kulwant Kaur, Baba Avtar Singh’s son-in-law, Mahadev Singh, and men and women constituting the Sant Nirankari organisational nucleus, such as Labh Singh, Amar Singh, Des Raj, Juggal Kishore, Ram Chand, Roop, Lal, Nirmal Joshi, etc.

The essentials of the Sant Nirankari creed - except for their living faith in the equality of men and unequivocal opposition, in practice, of casteism - are no more flattering than their scriptures. Doctrinally it is a retrograde religious creed in as much as it ordains the worship of a human being whom it regards the incarnation of God:

lakh lakh vari bandhana, namashkar har var (Bow (unto him) millions of times! Hail him every moment).
ape sabh kujh kar riha nan rakh ke Avtar
(He himself is doing everything having assumed the name “Avtar”).
dhan dhan akho jagat man jis jaya din dayal.
(Say, of peerless merit is the mother of the world who has given birth to the benefactor of the helpless)
nirgun sargun ap hai har dam rehnda nal
(And who is himself the nirguna and saguna and is with everyone every moment.)

On the death of Budhwanti, “the mother of the world”, Nirmal Joshi wrote:

mar gai kehne wale khayal karen
(Those who say she has died take note)
khuda ki biwi khuda ki man thi woh
(She was the wife of God and the mother of God)

Allah ape mur aya je
(Allah has himself come back)
God bhi nal liaya je
(Has brought God with him)
Ram vi is di buki vich
(Ram is also his side)
eh rab ape aya je
(The Sustainer himself has come)

Why has the Sant Nirankari sect prospered in spite of such doctrinal, scriptural and linguistic poverty? “Political and administration patronage” provide a part of the answer. Sant Nirankari sect enjoins no restriction on eating, drinking and sex (as a matter of fact, it has openly been alleged that it indulges in, countenances and exploits promiscuity. The Indian Observer of 22nd October, 1965, as per booklet entitled Nakli Nirankari published by the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, carried a story of a school mistress who was lured into Nirankari Baba’s precincts and fell pray to his lust) and this has attracted a large number of people not disposed kindly towards their faiths which enjoined restraints. This provides another part of the answer.

It is a foolish general who under-estimates his adversary’s strength and dismisses his achievements as coincidental or merely the product of negative qualities. Complacency is suicidal as much in an ideological conflict as in a physical war. We must, therefore, not ignore Sant Nirankari sect’s achievements.

It has embraced many of Sikhism’s enviable qualities. It has been able to promote equality among its followers in a real sense. It has virtually rid its followers of casteism. It has assiduously nursed a spirit of mutual helpfulness among its followers. It has boosted the morale of the social left outs (who have joined its ranks) providing to them the means for ego satisfaction. Men and women who were neglected “nobodies” have been drawn into church and liturgical setups. A novel feature of the Nirankari organisation is the economic support given to the followers of the sect to launch them off into economic enterprise. This often takes the form of loans on comparatively easy terms. A most highly placed Nirankari government or business executive would come to the door of his office room to receive and see off a poor fellow-Nirankari caller.

While the Nirankaris have imbibed these basically Sikh virtues, the Sikhs are turning back on them. There is infighting in Gurdwara managements. Sikhs have allowed casteism to affect their culture and a new kind of jat-bhapa casteism is raising its head among them. Among most Sikhs mutual helpfulness is a far cry; they are very often not even polite to other Sikhs.

If in spite of strong social and economic allurements, Sant Nirankari following, drawn from amongst the Sikhs, is a mere 7% of the total Sant Nirankari following. This testifies to the vitality of the Sikh religious ideology, its historical incidents and its unmatched tradition of sacrifice. However, economic and social advantages are powerful allurements which only a very deep commitment to one’s principles can resist. This latter can be nursed by continuous and scientific religious education, and, in the Sikh-Sant Nirankari context, by the re-assertion of lofty social values that Sikhism represents and which the Sant Nirankari sect has appropriated with some superficial alterations.

The course that this Sant Nirankari movement has taken, its bestowing special attention on Punjab, and other areas with sizeable concentration of Sikhs, and the motivation behind the movement may be to make a dent into the Sikh organisational cohesion. Building up a following among people of other religious persuasions may just be gathering the wherewithal for this eventual enterprise. If that be so, the Sikh leadership will have to pause and ponder as to which is the more effective way of counteracting the Sant Nirankari cultural assault: (1) merely calling Sant Nirankaris names, or (2) to initiate and intensify efforts to educate the Sikhs about their religion and rid them of their weakness, that have crept into their lives.

These comprise growing ignorance of the essentials of the Sikh doctrine and history and the resultant weakening of the loyalty to the Sikh religious and secular principle, the Sikh social order and the Sikh form. The Sant Nirankari movement’s greatest assets are elimination of inequality between man and man, investing the socially-neglected with dignity, fostering of a spirit of helpfulness to other people of Sant Nirankari persuasion and establishment of institutions for financial aid to the followers of Sant Nirankari sect. All these, except for the institutions for financial aid, are borrowed from Sikhism. No religion repudiates inequality based on caste, social status, or anything else, more unequivocally than Sikhism, which initiates neophytes in groups, and while initiating them makes them drink Amrit from a single bowl by putting their lips to edge. This is the implementation of countless declarations in Sikh scriptures and codes of conduct (rehatnamas) as to equality of all men. What can boost a man’s morale more than his being told that he shares with the richest and ablest “baptised” Sikh, the common parentage of Guru Gobind Singh and Mata Sahib Kaur. If we suffer, by comparison with the Sant Nirankaris, the fault is not in our doctrines, it is entirely our own. The Sant Nirankaris’ winning adherents from among the Sikhs should serve as a warning to us that we shall lose ground unless we refurbish our loyalty to the Sikh social values and unequivocally denounce the neo-casteism to which we seem to be giving in.

The Sikh answer to the Nirankari high-handedness which reached a bloody culmination on 13th April, 1978 has been the issue of a Hukumnama (religious ordinance) ordering social boycott of Nirankaris. This is the least that the Sikhs could organisationally have done to express their resentment at the Nirankaris continuing to offend their sentiments and even perpetrating physical injury on them if, and when, the Sikhs dared demonstrate against such high-handedness. The issue of Hukumnama was perhaps the mildest retaliatory action. The situation was desperate and even warranted more drastic action.

However, an important aspect of the situation that has arisen after issue of the Hukumnama needs to be examined. Every contact between the Sikhs and the Nirankaris having snapped, it would no longer be possible to re-convert the Sikhs turned Nirankaris with persuation, and exposing the hollowness of their newly embraced creed.

Besides, the opportunities of putting Sant Nirankari movement on the rails have also ended. Perhaps, the opportunities existed even before the Hukumnama. Even though the Nirankaris had, at one time, declared they merely supplemented the Sikh missionary work, carrying the gospel of the Guru Granth Sahib to people outside the Sikh fold, the Nirankaris had also, for a long time, aspired to establish an independent new faith. The bloody drama enacted by Nirankaris on 13th April 1978 and at Kanpur and Delhi, may, given time and opportunity for cool thinking, arouse the present chief’s conscience to the sect’s original declared aim of spreading the gospel of Guru Granth Sahib. Even if that by a miracle, happened, the Nirankari chief will be finicy because the bridges are now broken.

But there is no reason why the Sikhs should not forgive the Nirankaris if there is a real and genuine change of heart among them. Sikhs have helped all institutions engaged in propagation of gurbani even though they had retained independent organisational set up. Nirgun Balak Satsang Sabha is a case in point. Sikhs have also inherited a unique largeness of heart from the Tenth Guru, who tore a cruel letter of dis-awoval (bedawa) when its author implored him to. They will always be willing to forget, should an offender see his mistake and express regret for it.

Home | Human Rights | Library | Gallery | Audio | Videos | Downloads | Disclaimer | Contact Us