A petite 20-year-old girl looks nervous reciting the ‘ardas’ (prayer) on Thursday at Bhaini Sahib, headquarters of the Namdhari sect, near Ludhiana. Suba (area head) Balwinder Singh hears the ‘ardas’ and announces her pass. He then asks her brother to deposit ‘sawa rupaye’ (one rupee, 25 paise), the amount the dera charges for organising the marriage ceremony. Before leaving, the girl’s mother asks him if her daughter can wear a white dupatta with white beads — a taboo in the sect that preaches simplicity and puritan way of life. The suba nods and adds: “We have to change with changing times.”
Not far away, boys as young as seven are practising the tabla in the kala kendra and girls ‘riyaaz’ of santoor and dilruba. The voice of peacocks mingles with the evening kirtan at the gurdwara. But the tranquillity is broken by a police escort vehicle that announces the arrival of Jagtar Singh, the once-powerful son-in-law of sect matriarch Chand Kaur, in a SUV. The sprawling bungalow of the satguru is out of bounds for commoners and commandos of Punjab Police at every gate remind you of the bloody feuds that have convulsed the community distinguished by its white attire.
Exactly five months after two men had murdered the 85-year-old matriarch in broad daylight, many Namdharis have reconciled to the two factions headed by elder brother Thakur Dalip Singh and the anointed head, Satguru Uday Singh. But Chand Kaur’s murder remains unsolved. It is the precise knowledge of Kaur’s whereabouts to the killers that has the police working on the “insider hand” theory. But it has not gone beyond tracing mobile call records and confiscating phones of the absentee driver, Kesar Singh Ladi. Though the bitter succession war between the brothers over control of the multi-crore Namdhari empire is seen as the motive for the murder, many palace intrigues abound the sect. Some believe Kaur was trying to forge unity between the brothers and some others see a property angle as she had a huge inheritance. Both the brothers have openly accused each other of having a motive.
Between them, they have also entangled the two governments of Punjab and Haryana, where Sirsa-based dera of Dalip is located. The cloak-and-dagger games in the Namdhari Darbar even before the last sect head, Satguru Jagjit Singh, passed away in 2012 without nominating his successor saw Bhaini Sahib, which used to issue a ‘hukumnama’ (edict) to its followers to vote for Congress, align with the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Dalip, with his area of influence in Haryana and parts of Punjab’s Doaba and Majha, has openly announced his support to the SAD and BJP governments in the two states.
Why not CBI probe ?
Many Namdharis believe the police probe to be influenced by political pressure and question if the Punjab government could refer attack on RSS leader Jagdish Gagneja to the CBI then why not Kaur’s murder. But Ludhiana police Commissioner Jatinder Aulakh denies any political pressure. “The political pressure is to solve the case. We have announced Rs 10 lakh reward and so has the dera. But we have not been able to get any concrete evidence,” Aulakh adds. So far the faction of Uday Singh has been silent on demand for a CBI probe. That of the Thakur too does not want to “discredit” the police probe. “The police is doing its investigation. If they cannot solve it, we can explore other options,” says Suba Balwinder Singh, also Satguru’s close aide. “We are fully satisfied with the police probe. But if the government decides to go to a higher authority, we will support it,” says Thakur Dalip’s close aide Navtej Singh.
Though most Namdharis have accepted one or the other brother as Satguru, the factional war continues. In an open letter liberally distributed among followers, Satguru Uday’s faction has accused Thakur Dalip of “lies, being disobedient to Satguru Jagjit Singh and inciting violence”. Dalip’s followers describe the allegations as ‘falsehood”. Dalip is also trying to widen his base by reaching out to Hindus and Sikhs. Last year, he had asked his followers to wear the kirpan (sword) — in a bid to align with the Akalis — and last month held Janmashtami celebrations in Ludhiana with saffron-clad sandhus and political leaders to woo Hindus.
Split within families
The divide can be seen even within families -- between brothers, sisters, even husband and wife. Many faithfuls are even losing the faith. “I have sent my children to a school in a neighbouring village. We no longer want them to hear and get influenced by the hostility. Earlier we were proud to be Namdharis. Now people link our community clad in white with bloody feuds,” says a sweet shop owner in Bhaini Sahib, requesting anonymity. Outside the Bhaini Sahib gurdwara, 75-year-old Master Darshan Singh, who has taught both the brothers, fondly remembers the old times. “Its all in the hands of the almighty. We did not create any divide between them nor can we bridge it,” he says.