A cult in crisis: Faith, feud and fault lines in the Namdharis

  • Sukhdeep Kaur, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Apr 11, 2016 16:49 IST
Namdhari community members at a gathering at Jeewan Nagar near Sirsa, Haryana, on Saturday. (Keshav Singh/HT Photo)

As irony would have it, a puritanical and pacifist sect distinguished by its immaculate, white clothes has been convulsed by blood feuds over the spiritual seat. Namdharis are distinct from Sikhs not just in attire but also way of life. They follow strict vegetarianism, consume no alcohol, not even tea and coffee.

The faith also prophesied some noble ideals. Austerity was the hallmark of the sect and even the rich got married at mass weddings held at Bhaini Sahib in a simple ceremony. The spiritual heads groomed musicians and the world got some of their most talented singers such as ghazal singer Jagjit Singh from the community. They popularised hockey among small children and created a national team --- Namdhari 11. In their sermons, the gurus spoke against female foeticide and allowed women to do kirtan at gurdwaras.

Read more: At Chand Kaur’s parallel bhog, Dalip Singh backs SAD, BJP

Predominantly a business community, Namdharis own five-star hotels and yarn factories in Thailand, the only country where the community head is chosen through voting and is invited by the King to all important events. With big business establishments in India and abroad, donations by devout Namdharis at Bhaini Sahib alone run into crores of rupees.

But along with affluence came politics and former Satguru Jagjit Singh and his younger brother, Maharaj Bir Singh, fell out with each other after the former’s powerful coterie comprising his son-in-law Jagtar Singh and Satguru’s close aides, including politicians, businessmen and sewadars, took over.

Ever since, the small but affluent community, whose spiritual gurus were known for pious ideals of promoting classical music and hockey, has been torn apart by the bitter succession war between two generations of brothers.

The changing face

The faithful, too, have been split between the two warring factions of the sect, which has been shorthand for spartan life and entrepreneurship. This when the crisis-plagued faith had been losing its moorings and appeal to the Gen Next of Namdharis who have moved away from the orthodox style and embraced a more liberal ethos.

So rigid were its daily regimen and religious customs (maryada), that the affluent, technology-savvy new generation felt either a total disconnect with it or found difficult to follow. The devout are expected to get up early, take a head bath and do ‘nam simran’ (meditation in the name of God) --- the ritual that gives the cult the name Namdharis.

To lead a puritan way of life, the food had to be cooked by men or women who kept ‘sodh’ (practice of ablution). Even simple indulgences such as watching movies, eating out and wearing make-up were seen as aberrations. Many consumed only milk and fruits when they travelled and carried their own glass for drinking water. 

Wearing colour black and blue were prohibited — as it was believed that they were derived from animals — and the specifications on clothing were rigorous, including the length of the ‘kurta’ and the style of the ‘salwar’.

The bride and groom had to reach a day early to Bhaini Sahib to show they can recite the ardas. Nearly 30 years back, a groom from Thailand had to pay Rs 20,000 as fine as he could not reach a day early before his wedding to recite it. Such customs alienated liberal Namdharis, be it in Thailand or India.

As young Namdharis took up corporate jobs, practicing some of these rituals became impossible, says Ludhiana-based doctor, Parminder Singh Grover. “The patients don’t take a kurta-pyjama clad doctor seriously. It is not possible to sport flowing, open beards in private jobs. You have to take life saving drugs even if they contain gelatin and colour black is synthetic these days. So we have to be rational. We watch movies for recreation and how do we explain to our children why such things should make us guilty,” he says.

His wife, Jaspreet, an MBA, runs a fashion studio in Ludhiana and feels education has made all the difference. “As a business community, education was never too high on the agenda of the community. The generation before us did not reason out but we do. Religion has to be liberal and change with changing times. We do ‘nam simran’ and have taught our children to do so but we like to celebrate birthdays and weddings and enjoy life. Not following rigid customs does not make us disrespectful towards our faith,” says Jaspreet.

Now, a fashion-conscious community

Taranjeet Kaur, 38, whose husband is working at a corporate firm in Chandigarh, says he can’t afford to wear a kurta-pyjama to his job. “He is asked during interviews, why the style of his turban is informal. We have to look well-groomed to compete in today’s world. We watch movies, eat outside and attend late- night parties but I also take my kids to Bhaini Sahib during the Holla Mohalla celebrations. Religion is being spiritual and not rigidly puritan or austere. We can’t preach our children what we don’t practice,” she says.

Citing the mass wedding held at Bhaini Sahib last month, her husband, Harsharan Singh, says his nephew from England too got married there in a simple ceremony. “People killed girls due to burden of dowry. So the ideals of austerity should be cherished. Even reciting naam is a form of meditation. As for the rigid old customs, the new generation does not find any logic in them nor are they being enforced by the new age Satguru,” he said. Even conservative families in far-off small towns such as Daltonganj in Jharkhand and Mandi in Himachal which have sizeable population of Namdharis are now sending their children to high-end boarding schools and colleges. Namdharis are now taking to unconventional jobs such as commercial pilots and fashion designing.

Marrying outside the community — a taboo till a decade ago — is no more seen as a deviation that should attract social censure. Namdharis now not only run many boutiques but also wear the most fashionable clothes. Mandi, a small town in Himachal, with as many devouts as liberals, is now proudly dubbed as the fashion capital of the sect.

“Every religion has to change otherwise the new generation will drift away. Namdharis in even a small town like Mandi are liberal as we believe faith and reason have to go together,” says Harsharan Kaur ‘Candy’, whose family has a wedding plaza in Mandi. Young Namdharis in Thailand now openly sport trimmed beards, have lavish weddings and party late-night at discotheques.

Winds of change at dera

While the community was witnessing a silent churning on what’s socially and culturally acceptable, the dera, too, is witnessing winds of change. Earlier, the coterie around Satguru Jagjit Singh was  notorious for making the sangat wait for hours in queues for his darshan. It disillusioned the younger Namdharis. “In this age of communication, you cannot create an unrealistic sense of inaccessibility to the spiritual head. It is all changing now. Namdharis have started going to Bhaini Sahib even in shirts and jeans,” adds Harsharan Singh.

But the sect could not eradicate some of its social inequalities. The caste system was deeply entrenched and majhabis (scheduled castes) were made to sit separately at langar, gurdwaras and weddings. The old generation never complained but the new generation of Majhabis felt humiliated by this discrimination. Many left the community and embraced other faiths. 

How Namdhari sect was born

The Namdhari sect was born nearly a century-and-a-half after Guru Gobind Singh announced Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, as the last guru. Under the influence of Baba Balak Singh, a spiritual leader at Hazro in Pakistan, Ram Singh gave a call for embracing puritanism. The sect observes all tenets of Sikhism and reveres scriptures and 10 gurus. Its followers, however, are strict vegetarian shun alcohol, wear white clothes and have a living guru. Satguru Ram Singh gave a clarion call to save cows from slaughter, which triggered the Kuka movement in 1867 resulting in 67 Namdharis being blown by a canon without trail. Presently, the community functions through appointed subas (governors) where there is a sizeable population. 

Succession war

The sect has had a history of quiet successions --- from sect founder Ram Singh to his younger brother Hari Singh after the former was deported by the British in January 1872 and from Hari Singh to his son, Partap Singh, in 1906 and from him to his elder son Jagjit Singh in 1959.

But since Jagjit Singh just had a daughter, his older nephew, Thakur Dalip Singh, was groomed to succeed him while the younger, Uday Singh, went on to set up a flourishing business, Namdhari Seeds Corporation, in Bengaluru, a company that currently files income tax return of over `500 crore annually.  The dera owns hundreds of acres at Bhaini Sahib --- its main headquarters in Ludhiana and birthplace of its founder Satguru Ram Singh -- and at Jeewan Nagar and Mastangarh in Sirsa, which Partap Singh is said to have bought to donate to Sikh settlers from Pakistan after the country’s partition. Other than gurdwaras and schools and a college, it owns two hospitals, including the multi-specialty Satguru Partap Singh Hospital at Ludhiana, which earlier had a tie-up with Apollo.

As per old-timers who have been close to the brothers, there was a clear division of powers between the siblings --- the older brother was to be the spiritual head of the sect while the younger had financial control. “But Satguru Jagjit Singh’s coterie started indulging in financial irregularities. Donations were siphoned off to buy personal property. False letters were sent to him in the name of Bir Singh to create a rift. The differences between the brothers led to Bir Singh confining himself to his dera at Jeewan Nagar on the land willed to him by their father,” said a Delhi-based follower who had stayed at Bhaini Sahib between 1968 to 1973 till he too got “disillusioned by the corruption”.

But Bir Singh’s two sons remained close to the Satguru till Dalip, who was deeply loved by his grandfather Partap Singh and had a non-conformist streak in him, too started having differences with the former’s powerful coterie.

After Jagjit Singh’s health started deteriorating, Dalip was finally banished from Bhaini Sahib in 2009. In December 2012, when Satguru passed away, Chand Kaur, the sect’s 85-year-old matriarch, anointed Uday Singh as her husband’s successor. On April 4, Chand Kaur was murdered at Bhaini Sahib by two assailants, plunging the community into its worst turmoil and deepening the bad blood between the brothers. Each has accused the other of having a motive for the murder.

Two brothers, many contrasts

Thakur Dalip Singh, his former confidants say, is an avid photographer and spent many years living his passion till he was stung by his banishment from Bhaini Sahib. He is rigid in his views and makes radical statements to overthrow “corrupt” in Bhaini Sahib. He never tried his hand at business and has lived a more ascetic life compared to his brother. His ideology to increasing following is not only limited to aligning with other Sikh groups and seminaries, but also reaching out to Dalits and Hindus.

His younger brother Uday Singh, being a businessman, is more diplomatic. Soft-spoken and more liberal in his views, unlike his predecessors, he shakes hands with people, gives interviews and checks his mobile phone during programmes.

He has been reaching out to Namdharis abroad and now has complete control of affairs at Bhaini Sahib.

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