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150th Anniversary of Kuka Movement

Hazara Singh*

The following celebrations were held at national level during 2007:

– 50th anniversary of the 1857 - Revolt by the Bengal Sepoys of the East India Company on May 10 acclaiming it as India’s First War of Independence;
– Diamond Jubilee of Independence on August 15; and
– The birth centenary of martyr Bhagat Singh on September 28.

Such celebrations need to be objectively assessed for imparting their precise impact at national level.
The terming of 1857-Revolt (regarded as mutiny by the British) as India’s First War of Independence leads to the implied recognition that the earlier invasions from north-west were not acts of foreign aggression but had been a chain of home-coming by the natives despite their being marauders. If this is accepted as a historical fact then the heroic deeds of Indian patriots and reformers prior to the advent of East India Company would appear as acts of treason. Any resentment against the demolition .of religious places would not only be misplaced but amount to sheer vandalism. If the invasions from north-west had been continual aggression then the acclaiming of 1857-Revolt by a few detachments of Bengal Sepoys as India’s First War of Independence is a misnomer.

In fact our approach to historical events had been casual if not distorted. The redemarcation of Bengal into two provinces in 1905 was resented as partition, whereas the separation of Burma from India in 1937 was accepted as a prerogative of the British. It would be worthwhile to note that Lokmanya Bal Ganga Dhar Tilak (1856-1920), who spearheaded a sustained campaign for swadesi and swaraj, did not accept the 1857 Revolt as an uprising of the masses, because beyond Mogulserai in the east and Jhansi in the south-west, there were no noteworthy protests.

The Punjab Government took a corrective step by deciding to observe the 150th anniversary of Namdhari (Kuka) Movement at a state-level function at Bhaini Sahib on April 15, 2007. Baba Ram Singh, founder of the Namdhari sect, adored as Satguru (preceptor of truth) had been a soldier of the Khalsa Army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. After the demise of Maharaja in 1839, he got fed-up by the intrigues of his survivors and their gradual departure from lofty ideals of Khalsa Raj. In disgust, he left the army service in 1845 and returned to his native place, Bhaini, near Ludhiana. But after the annexation of Punjab by the East India Company in 1849, the provocative activities of patronized missionaries and the demoralization of the disarmed Khalsa Army awakened his national pride. He resolved to restore the glorious values of sovereign secular Khalsa Rule. It was on the Baisakhi of 1857, about four weeks earlier than the revolt of Bengal Sepoys on May 10, that Baba Ram Singh founded the Sant Khalsa. It enjoined a strict code of simple pious living attuned to Naam (Name of God). The new sect began to be called Namdharis accordingly.

As, in their ecstasy, they often indulged into loud shrieks (called kuks in Punjabi) the epithet Kuka also got added to Namdhari. Because wearing of kirpans was resented by the East India Company regime, the Kukas began to carry sticks (lathis). Mass physical drills formed a part and parcel of their congregations. The Namdharis were the first to start a parallel self-rule by introducing their own postal system for maintaining secrecy about their activities. They settled all mutual disputes through sabhas (panchyats) instead of petitioning to courts. Child marriage, infanticide, sati and all such practices, derogatory to dignity of women, were forbidden. Education through mother tongue was encouraged so that the taught remained acquainted with their cultural heritage. The campaign was the forerunner of the non-co-operation movements launched by Mahatma Gandhi from 1921 onwards. The British did not take kindly to the growing activities of the Namdharis, as they were reviving the national pride and martial spirit of the ruled.

The opening of a chain of slaughterhouses by the British for providing beef to the colonial army was resented by the Namdharis. The sentiment for cow-protection was exploited by the British to incite clashes between Namdharis and the local butchers. After one such encounter, sixty six Kukas were blown up without any trial by L. Cowan, Deputy Commissioner, Ludhiana on January 17-18, 1872. The executed included Bishen Singh, a teenager, who was hacked to pieces. Baba Ram Singh was deported to Rangoon where he passed away in 1885. As per its aims and goal, the foundation of Sant Khalsa on the Baisakhi of 1857 deserves to be acclaimed as the declaration of India’s First War of Independence.


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