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Crossing Swords with The Law: Spotlight on Nihangs Again following Spate of Violence

Nihangs or Akalis are distinguished by their blue robes, antiquated swords and spears, and decorated turbans. Representational pic/PTI

Nihangs or Akalis are distinguished by their blue robes, antiquated swords and spears, and decorated turbans. Representational pic/PTI

Aside from the killing of a young man this week over suspicion of kidnapping a girl, there have been instances of violence earlier too, some over personal quarrels while others in the name of religion

A group of Nihangs allegedly fatally torturing a man in his twenties on suspicion of kidnapping a girl this week has brought focus onto this Sikh warrior order once again. As per the family members of the deceased, the Nihangs assaulted and tortured Avtar Singh of Kuhli Kalan village (Samrala) who later succumbed to his injuries.

The matter was before the police and was being investigated but the Nihangs became the “judges”, say the family members.

Karam Singh, a cousin of the deceased, told News18 that the Nihangs were involved at the behest of the girl’s family.

“They had first complained to the police. The police questioned Avtar but he had no idea regarding the whereabouts of the girl. He used to talk to her but did not know about her being kidnapped or running away,” he said. The police called him for questioning on another day but they were intercepted by the girl’s family members along with the Nihangs on the way to the Samrala police station, Karam added.

“They told my Mama ji (uncle) to give Avtar to them for questioning. On protesting, they were beaten and threatened not to tell anybody. They took Avtar to the dera in Majhli Kalan village and tortured him. The next day, my Mama ji got a call from the Nihangs saying they gave ice cream to Avtar to eat and he was unable to breathe after that. The police called to inform us that he had died. However, the villagers said Avtar was beaten at the dera and his screams could be heard all night,” he said.

Who gave the Nihangs the authority to do this? This is a question Avtar’s family is asking. Karam said, “These Nihangs are disrespecting the Bana (the Nihang clothing). Nihangs are supposed to protect the innocent but these Nihangs are misusing the sacred arms.”

The family members protested against the killing after which the police arrested the accused.

Past instances

This is not the first case where the actions of the Nihangs are in question. There have been instances of violence earlier too, some over personal quarrels while others in the name of religion. When it comes to killings related to sacrilege (disrespecting of the holy book), the issue becomes very sensitive.

A few days ago, a man was beaten when he allegedly was getting his beard cut while wearing a Dumala (the Nihang turban) and a video of the assault was also shared.

During the 2020-21 farmers’ protest, a Dalit labourer, Lakhbir Singh, was killed at Singhu Border by a group of Nihang Sikhs “on suspicion of disrespecting the Sikh holy book”.

Days after this, another man, a poultry farm worker, was allegedly attacked at the protest site as he refused to give a chicken for free.

In December 2021, a man was killed after he allegedly attempted to commit sacrilege in the sanctum sanctorum of the Golden Temple when Rehras path (routine evening prayer) was in progress. The man, with shorn hair, all of a sudden jumped over the metal fence around the place where ‘parkash’ of Guru Granth Sahib is kept.

Hours after this incident at the Golden Temple, another person was killed at a village gurdwara in Kapurthala for suspected theft and attempted sacrilege.

On April 12, 2020, a group of Nihang Sikhs from a dera in Patiala drove through multiple barricades around the sabzi mandi in Sanaur, violating curfew norms and brutally attacking an assistant sub-inspector and others. The ASI’s hand was chopped off with a sword.

Who are Nihang Sikhs?

Nihangs or Akalis are distinguished by their blue robes, antiquated swords and spears, and decorated turbans. They are said to belong to the ‘Akaal’ (God) and to no one else. Their origin is associated with the founding of the Khalsa Panth by the tenth Sikh Guru Gobind Singh. In general, they are known as Guru Gobind Singh’s army, one strictly following the religious code.

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. They were the brave and ruthless warriors on the battlefield for the Sikh Empire.

‘Sword is not to terrorise’

Why do the Nihang Sikhs take the law into their hands? Who gives them the right to moral policing? Should they be asked questions? Should one keep mum because they are a religious sect? Those are the questions asked by the victims in such cases.

“Being representatives of the Sikh religion, Nihang Sikhs face much scrutiny, and much responsibility falls on their shoulders,” says Gurmeet Singh Sidhu, professor of religious studies at Punjabi University, Patiala. “Guru Gobind Singh ji, the founder of the Khalsa Panth, has said that the sword is to be used only when all else fails. The sword is not to be used to terrorise. There is no concept of violence in Sikhism, it is a non-violent religion. Even the Guru did not attack anyone who could not defend himself.”

Nihangs had been giving punishment to those challenging Sikh religious practices earlier too but now they are highlighted more, said the professor. “Social media is one factor too. But law and order should not be taken into own hands; no one can be judged by something like this. Even as per religion, a public hearing should be conducted in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib,” he said.

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first published:May 18, 2022, 08:00 IST