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THE NIHANGS: ONCE VALIANT WARRIORS

Why in news?

The Patiala incident in which a group of Nihangs attacked a Punjab police party and chopped off the hand of an assistant sub-inspector when stopped for a curfew pass, and the subsequent seizure of weapons and narcotics, has put the spotlight on the Nihangs.

Who is a Nihang?

  • Nihang is an order of Sikh warriors, characterised by blue robes, antiquated arms such as swords and spears, and decorated turbans surmounted by steel quoits.
  • The 19th century historian Rattan Singh Bhangu described Nihangs as “unaffected by pain or comfort”, “given to meditation, penance and charity” and “complete warriors”.

When was the order formed?

  • This can be traced back to the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699.
  • The word nihang, he says, also occurs in a hymn in the Guru Granth Sahib, where it alludes to a fearless and unrestrained person.

How were Nihangs different from other Sikhs, and other Sikh warriors?

  • As per an account by the East India Company’s Colonel James Skinner (1778-1841), Khalsa Sikhs were divided into two groups: “Those who put on blue attire which Guru Gobind Singh used to wear at the time of battle” and those who “do not follow any restrictions on the colour of their dress” though both of them “follow the profession of soldiery and are brave without peer in the art of musketry and chakarbazi, and the use of quoits”.
  • Nihangs observe the Khalsa code of conduct in its strictest sense.

What is their role in Sikh history?

  • Nihangs had a major role in defending the Sikh panth after the fall of the first Sikh rule (1710-15) when Mughal governors were killing Sikhs, and during the onslaught of Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Durrani (1748-65). When the Khalsa army was divided into five battalions in 1734, one Nihang or Akali battalion was led by Baba Deep Singh Shahid.
  • Nihangs also took control of the religious affairs of the Sikhs at Akal Bunga (now known as Akal Takht) in Amritsar. They did not consider themselves subordinate to any Sikh chief and thus maintained their independent existence. At Akal Takht, they held the grand council (Sarbat Khalsa) of Sikhs and pronounced the resolution (Gurmata) passed.
  • Their clout 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.

What is their current status?

  • Nihangs today constitute a small community. About a dozen bands, each headed by a jathedar (leader), are still carrying on with the traditional order.
  • With the advent of modernity, the balance between Bani (Guru Granth Sahib) and Bana (outer form) broke down, resulting in problems and unethical actions.
  • Earlier, Nihangs would never attack an unarmed person.
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October 2022
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