New Delhi: A year and half after one of their groups cut off the hand of an Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) in Patiala after being intercepted to show a curfew pass during Coronavirus lockdown, Nihang Sikhs are once again in spotlight – this time for brutally killing oa 35-year-old-man at the Singhu border in New Delhi on Friday morning, whom they accused of disrespecting holy scripture in a viral video.
While, several videos are being circulated from the Singhu protest site, with a group of them claiming responsibility, here is an explainer on the past incidents involving this Sikh sect, Nihangs, and their history:
Who are Nihangs:
Nihang – is an order of Sikh warriors, that are characterised by blue robes and decorated turbans surmounted by steel quoits, in possession of antiquated arms such as swords and spears – traces its origin to the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. They are said to have their own deras and a specific way of life.
In the words of 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.”
“However, there are some sources which trace their origin to Guru Gobind Singh’s younger son, Fateh Singh (1699-1705), who once appeared in the Guru’s presence dressed in a blue chola… and blue turban with a dumala (piece of cloth forming a plume). On seeing his son look so majestic, the Guru remarked that it shall be the dress of Nihangs, the reckless soldiers of the Khalsa,” Dhillon adds.
While the 19th century historian Rattan Singh Bhangu describes Nihangs as “unaffected by pain or comfort”, “given to meditation, penance and charity” and “complete warriors”.
Their role in history:
When the Mughal governors were killing Sikhs, Nihangs had a major role in defending the Sikh panth after the fall of the first Sikh rule (1710-15) and during the onslaught of Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Durrani (1748-65). Nihangs also took control of the religious affairs of the Sikhs at Akal Bunga (now known as Akal Takht) in Amritsar. They do not consider themselves subordinate to any Sikh chief and thus maintain their independent existence.
Their influence came to an end after the fall of Sikh Empire in 1849 when the British authorities of Punjab appointed a manager (sarbrah) for the administration of the Golden Temple in 1859. “In the recent past, the Nihang chief, Baba Santa Singh, at the instance of Indian Government had fallen afoul of the mainstream Sikhs as he went on to rebuild the Akal Takht that was damaged during Operation Bluestar in June 1984. Some Nihangs, namely Ajit Singh Poohla, collaborated with the Punjab police to eliminate Sikh militants,” observes Dr Dhillon.
Controversies involving Nihangs:
In April 2020, a group of Nihang Sikhs attacked policemen in Patiala and chopped off the hand of an Assistant Sub Inspector of Punjab police with a sword after they were intercepted and asked to show ‘movement passes’ during Covid lockdown. Nihangs crashed their vehicle into a police barricade and came out wielding sharp-edged weapons, chasing and attacking the policemen. ASI Harjeet Singh had to undergo a seven hour surgery at PGI Chandigarh to suture back his chopped off hand.
Later, police had nabbed 11 Nihangs, including a woman, from a dera complex in Balbera village, which also houses a gurdwara.
In July this year, two Nihang Sikhs set afire a statue of slain Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Ludhiana and uploaded a video on social media claiming responsibility for the act. Both were arrested.