Ram Singh, Baba
Leader of the Namdhari or Kuka Movement (1816-1885)
Was born on 3 February 1816, in the village of Bhaini Asian, in Ludhiana district. Ram Singh was the eldest among the four children of Jassa Singh and his wife, Sada Kaur. Ram Singh was married at the tender age of 7, such child marriages being common in the Punjab in those days. His wife, whose name was Jassafi, bore him two daughters, Nand Kaur and Daya Kaur. In the village, he learnt to read the Guru Granth Sahib. At the age of 20, he joined the Sikh army under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and was assigned to Kanvar Nau Nihal Singh’s regiment.
In 1841, the regiment moved to Peshawar, where he met Baba Balak Singh (1799-1862), a saintly person preaching a simple way of life in keeping with the teachings of the Gurus. After the first Anglo-Sikh war (184546), Ram Singh resigned his army service and returned to Bhaini. He became a sharecropper, started a grocery shop and worked for a short time in 1855-56 as a building contractor at Firozpur. At the same time, he continued to disseminate the message of his mentor, Baba Balak Singh. On Baisakhi day, 14 April 1857, he laid down the code of conduct for his followers. The Namdharis or Kukas as they were called (from kuk, Punjabi for a shriek or shout for, while chanting the sacred hymns, they worked themselves up to such ecstatic frenzy that they would begin dancing and shouting) were enjoined to abstain from eating meat, drinking and worshipping of tombs or samadhs and to lead simple and chaste lives. An elaborate agency for missionary work was set up. The name of the head in the district-suba, meaning governor-had a significant, though remote, political implication. There were altogether twenty-two such subas, besides two jathedars or group leaders for each tahsil and a granthi, Scripture-reader or priest, for each village. Baba Ram Singh remained antagonistic to the rule of the British and his prediction about its early recession was implicitly believed by his followers. The boycott of British goods, government schools, government service, law courts and of the postal service, and the exhortation to wear only home-spun cloth (khaddar) he propagated anticipated in 1860’s a major thrust of the nationalist movement in the country.
A spirit of fanatical national fervour and religious zeal marked the growing Kuka order of which the personality of Baba Ram Singh was the focal point. The prospect was not looked upon with equanimity by government, who after the incidents of 1857, had become extra watchful. When in 1863, Baba Ram Singh wanted to go to Amritsar for Baisakhi celebrations to which he had invited his followers from all over the Punjab, the civil authorities became alarmed and permission for Kukas to assemble for a religious fair was given only reluctantly. But two months later, when Ram Singh announced a meeting to be held at Khote, a village in Firozpur district, prohibitory orders were issued banning all Kuka meetings. The Kuka organization was subjected to strict secret vigilance. It was bruited about that Baba Ram Singh was raising an army to fight the English. Bhaini and Hazro were kept under constant watch, and under the orders of the Punjab government, Baba Ram Singh was detained in his village.
Early in 1867, Baba Ram Singh’s request to be allowed to visit Muktsar on the sacred day of Maghi was refused by government. His alternative request was for permission to hold a fair in his own village on the occasion of Holi but the civil authority insisted on restricting the number of those who might visit Bhaini on that day. Meanwhile, Baba Ram Singh decided to celebrate the festival at Anandpur Sahib where Sikhs gathered for this purpose from all over the Punjab. The Lieut-Governor gave him the permission, but police and civil officers were appointed to watch over the movement of the pilgrims. Baba Ram Singh set out in great state. He was accompanied by twenty-one of his subds on horseback and by more than two thousand of his followers on foot, with a large number of drums and banners. The visit went off peacefully, and the government were led to shedding much of their suspicion. All restrictions on Baba Ram Singh’s freedom were withdrawn, but the truce did not last long. The followers of Baba Ram Singh, who had a deep sentiment of reverence for the cow, had strongly resented the opening of beef shops in the sacred city of Amritsar. On the night of 14 June 1871, some of them attacked the butchers, killing four and injuring another three. A similar incident took place at Raikot, in Ludhiana district, where three persons were killed. When the government took action against the Kukas, they became defiant. The government charged them with sedition and the Commissioner of Ambala Division recommended severe official measures against them including the deportation of their leader, Baba Ram Singh.
Towards the end of 1871, the Punjab Government placed a ban on the Kukas assembling for any festival or fair outside of Bhaini. Baba Ram Singh, who was refused permission to go to Muktsar for the Maghi fair, issued messages to his followers to come to Bhaini for celebrating the festival. Kukas were in a state of great excitement, and the atmosphere at Bhaini was tense. The storm that had been gathering burst. On the morning of 15 January 1872 Kukas numbering more than a hundred reached Malerkotla and suddenly made an attack upon the treasury. In the fracas that followed eight policemen including an officer lost their lives. Sixty-eight of the Kukas were captured who were blown off the guns on the afternoon of 17 January without any trial. Baba Ram Singh was exiled from the Punjab along with ten of his subcds and taken to Ailahabad. From Ailahabad he was taken to Rangoon where he was detained under the Bengal Act of 1818. He lived in the same place where the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, had been kept, similarly charged.
For fourteen weary years, Baba Ram Singh suffered confinement. His deep faith in the Almighty and the undiminished devotion of his followers sustained him in that solitary state. Every now and then some bold spirits, braving many a hazard, succeeded in circumventing the guards and seeing their leader, even though for a short while. A regular system of correspondence was maintained in this manner. Many of Baba Ram Singh’s letters have been preserved and a representative selection was published by Dr Ganda Singh a few years before his death. The latters reveal Baba Ram Singh’s undying faith, his strength of character and his love for his followers.
Baba Ram Singh passed away on 29 November 1885, but many of his followers did not believe it. Long after it, they continued to hope that he would one day come to the Punjab and free India from the shackles of the English.