Bibi Balbir Kaur
The Akali movement had rejuvenated a new life among GurSikhs. Since the Sikh Raj period, this was the first time GurSikhs had asserted their religious independence and initiated non-violent efforts to seek control of their Gurdwaras. The bloody incident of Nankana Sahib and Guru-Kae-Bagh added fuel to the fire and served to strengthen the movement. As a result, the Sikhs raised slogans of India’s freedom along with slogans for the independence of their Gurdwaras. Unfortunately, the level of commitment and self-sacrifice of Sikhs deeply disturbed the British. They sensed a potential threat to their control from this small community of lions. Expectedly, the British directed their terror machinery against the Sikhs. Along with Akalis, their sympathizers also troubled the British Psyche. As a result, the British forces arrested and confined all Akali sympathizers in the jails.
The Maharaja of Nabha, Ripudaman Singh, was an independent minded ruler. He never considered himself disjoint from his community. When Guru Khalsa Panth observed the eve of Nankana Sahib martyrdom, he too conducted Akhand Path of Sri Guru Granth Sahib in Nabha and wore black turban to participate in this Panthic observance. Subsequently, he visited Harimandir Sahib at Amritsar and consulted with Akali leaders who were outside the jails. Maharaja’s activities deeply troubled the British. They could not tolerate such activities as they smelled some sort of a rebellion through such participation. The British action was swift. They initiated legal steps to seize control of Nabha rule and expelled Maharaja Ripudaman Singh.
The news of Maharaja Ripudaman Singh’s expulsion spread through Guru Khalsa Panth like a lightening rod. It shook the very core of Sikh psyche. Such excesses by the British became unbearable for the Sikhs and the whole Sikh nation galvanized to fight against this injustice. The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandhak Committee (SGPC), working in collaboration with the Shiromani Akali Dal, conducted Akhand Paths at various places to openly express their outrage at this injustice and demanded the reinstatement of Maharaja. Sikhs initiated a Akhand Paath of Sri Guru Granth Sahib at the Jaito Gurdwara as well to express their outrage against this injustice. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to be completed. The agents of British empire, operating under British instructions, dragged and arrested the Granth Sahib who was reciting the Paath. As a result, the Akhand Paath was forcibly interrupted.
This incident was equivalent of pouring salt over open Sikh wounds. The expulsion of Maharaja was a political affair that the Panth was still struggling to grapple with. It hadn’t yet resolved on how to best deal with this issue when the forced interruption of Akhand Paath served a deep blow from the rulers to the Sikhs religious sentiments. This was an open challenge to Guru Khalsa Panth’s freedom and honor. Akali leaders decided to accept this challenge. They immediately announced a non- violent morcha for the resumption and completion of the interrupted Akhand Paath. Thousands of GurSikh Singh, Singhnia, children, and elders started flocking in Amritsar ready to shed their lives for this religious battle. They were all eager to reach Jaito. However, the Akali committee decided to send a Jatha of 500 GurSikhs. The remaining GurSikhs were asked to await the schedule for the next Jatha. Everyone was eager to proceed to Jaito, yet they had to accept their Jathedar’s decision. Under the echoes of Jaekara, “Jo Bolay So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal,” this Jatha left Amritsar after having sought the Hukam from Sri Akal Takhat and pledged to remain non- violent. Thousands of supporters were present on this occasion. Singhnias were not allowed to proceed on this Jatha. But how could they remain behind and not participate in such a holy endeavor? They successfully sought permission to accompany the Jatha for organizing langar along the way.
The non-violent march of this Jatha was a unique event for the whole world. Organized in rows of four, these Saint-Soldiers proceeded bare-foot from Amritsar while reciting “Satnaam VaahGuru.” Soon they reached their first rest-stop. The dedication and volunteer sewa of the local Sikhs testified to the whole world that the Sikh nation not only understood non-violence and how to die but how to honor its martyrs.
It become evident from the first rest-stop that the services of Singhnia, who had accompanied the Jatha for organizing langar, were not needed. Jathedar asked with them to return. Many did. However, several wanted to continue with their brave brothers and they did not return. Our Balbir Kaur was among this group. When Jathedar asked her to return, her eyes were filled with tears. She said, “Veer! Do not stop me from serving the living martyrs of Guru Gobind Singh. Sewa is the only essence of this life. Beside we never know when death will come upon us. I plead for permission to continue for Guru’s sake. Let me proceed.” Jathedar could not break her heart. He reluctant gave permission, especially when faced with the utter display of self-sacrifice.
Balbir Kaur was 22 years old, full of youth and utterly beautiful. Guru’s faith and feelings of selfless service for humanity had generated such a glow on her face that she seemed like a goddess of purity or an angel. She was not alone. She was accompanied by an year old beautiful son. The playful happy face of this child was not only Balbir Kaur’s joy but the source of amusement for the whole Jatha. He played with everyone in the Jatha along the way.
The journey was nearing completion. Jatha prepared to depart from its final rest-stop. Jathedar stood on a high spot and pleaded for the return of the accompanying congregation. British forces had dug-in with machine gun. This information had previously reached the Jatha. Jathedar did not hide this information from anyone. He said, “With Guru’s blessing, a martyr’s maela is being organized. However, only those GurSikhs, who have Sri Akal Takhat’s Hukam, should proceed further. Others should return and await their turn.” The congregation stopped and let the Jatha proceed. However, not everyone obeyed the Jathedar’s instructions. Several GurSikhs, eager to seek the martyrdom, found hidden routes parallel to the Jatha’s established route. They advance in hiding, with the view that when the whole program of martyrdom is unveiled they too will participate to seek martyrdom. However, Bibi Balbir Kaur did not seek any hidden routes. She continued marching with her brothers while her son enjoyed the sight, simply watching people on either side.
When Jathedar learned of Balbir Kaur’s continued march with the Jatha, he left his leading position and caught up with her. “Bibi, there is potential of firing ahead. You should not continue any further.” Jathedar pleaded. “My Veer! Do not stop me. My quest for sewa has not been quenched yet. Allow me to enjoy this sewa. You tell me of the dangers from the potential firing ahead? Five hundred Veers are with me. Since they are continuing for sure death why shouldn’t they be accompanied by a Bahan (sister). I too have partaken Gurus Amrit. I shall consider myself blessed if I too could accept martyrdom along with my brothers and reach Guru Gobind Singh’s court. Here my quest has not been quenched by serving my Veers.” Balbir Kaur again pleaded with tears in her eyes. “But ” Jathedar was about to say something when he was interrupted by Balbir Kaur saying, “My child, this is what you wanted to point out. He too is Guru’s blessing. If he too serve the Panth, what greater deeds could be beyond this.” Saying this, Balbir Kaur again hugged her child who burst out laughing.
Jathedar pressured Balbir Kaur to return. Others pressured her too, but she did not budge from her decision to continue her march to death with her brothers. She insisted that the “non-inclusion of a Bahan along with 500 Veers in the pending martyrdom is an insult to the brave daughters of Tenth Guru. How could the Guru, whose amrit turned women into Singhnia, who bestowed equality to women, tolerate that not even a single daughter participate in his holy war? This is sacrilegious that Balbir Kaur simply could not allow.”
The power of her persuasive arguments forced her brothers to accept her position. Even the Jathedar had to bow against her spirit of sacrifice and courage. Who so ever talked with her was perplexed and could not raise a convincing counter argument. Jathedar having been forced to accept her decision, returned to his lead position in the march. Guru Khalsa’s Kesri flag was freely fluttering in the winds. The Jatha exhibited a unique presence while the accompanying band’s performance portrayed innocence. Under the guidance of their deeply held faith in Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the command of their Jathedar, the brave force of Sant-Sipahis marched toward the Jaito Gurdwara. They were chanting “Satnaam VaahGuru.” Every GurSikh in the Jatha was projecting calmness.
Hindu, Muslims, and Sikhs welcomed the Jatha all along of the way from Amritsar to Jaito, because of their participation in this religious task. They were served with abundant amounts milk, kheer (milk and rice pudding) and other things. Flowers were showered upon these living martyrs along the way. Thousands of rupees were donated.
Now it was turn for people serving the British to extend their welcome. They too welcomed these braves GurSikhs with rifle and gun fire. They showered them with rain of bullets. Gurus non-violent force was prepared for such a welcome. They accepted this welcome with “Satnaam Sri VaahGuru’s” Hukam and continued the sweet walk towards their goal without any interruptions. Witnessing the scene it appeared that the Jatha was playing holli (festival of colors). After all martyr’s holli is a holli of blood. If someone’s face was colored with blood, someone else’s head, chest, or thigh were colored. Blessed were the GurSikhs, for no one’s back was visibly colored. Many Veers fell to the ground but would rise immediately to continue their march. The bullets would hit their chest only to fall again. With courage they would either rise again or accept death to reach the Kalgidhar father’s lap. Martyrdom was being openly served by now. It was the same serving that Balbir Kaur had insisted to reached and accept. Let us focus our attention on her condition. She continued her march while hugging to her child. She loved the rain of bullets that she had eagerly awaited. By now her face was glowing with some unique brightness.
Suddenly, She was hit by a bullet in her forehead. A blood spring burst open. Her whole face was covered with blood, eyes were covered with blood. However, this did not affect her march. She continued with the chanting of “Satnaam VaahGuru” while her child played with the flowing blood on her face. It was all a game for the child.
Suddenly another bullet hit Balbir Kaur’s child. The bullet pierced the child through his ear and then hit Balbir Kaur’s chest. The child died immediately and proceeded to the Guru’s court. Balbir Kaur kissed his forehead and place his body on a nearby platform saying “VaahGuru look after your amanat (temporarily entrusted to me for safe custody).” However, she did not stop. Her face had turned yellow from the loss of blood. She had no strength left to continue. Her walk was wobbly by now, yet her heart’s quest had not been quenched. Chanting the tune of “Satnaam VaahGuru,” she kept her pace with others. On the other hand, the bullets had not stopped raining. They continued showering as if their thirst for blood had not yet mellowed.
Surprisingly, another bullet came hissing her way. It hit straight in Balbir Kaur’s chest, pierced her body and left from the other side. This bullet was the message of death, the one Balbir Kaur had been eagerly awaiting. With this bullet, her beautiful body fell to the ground. But not her soul. Her soul left to join her child in Kalgidhar Father’s protection. Her deepest quest was finally fulfilled. Her blood filled face still exhibited peace and dancing valor.
Movement for the liberation of Gurdwaras from the control of corrupt priests (Mahants), protected by the British, had awakened the Sikhs and they began to assert their religious independence through non-violent efforts. The British rulers gunned down many participants of the movement and arrested thousands to suppress them. This short life story of Bibi Balbir Kaur will show that the Sikh women also did not lag behind their brothers, and willingly sacrificed themselves and their children by taking part in the movement in a non-violent way. Their joint struggle forced the British to yield. The ruler of Nabha state (now part of the Punjab), Ripudaman Singh, had a soft corner for the movement mentioned above and was an independent minded ruler. His activities deeply troubled the British. He was not on good terms with the ruler of the Patiala state. The quarrel between them could be easily settled by imperial arbitration, but the British officials forced the ruler of Nabha to abdicate. This forced abdication led to a strong agitation among the Sikhs. British officials of the Nabha state forcibly dispersed a meeting of the Sikhs who had gathered in the Gurdwara Gangsar at Jaito, a city in the Nabha state. The British officials also interrupted Akhand Path (continued recitation of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib for forty eight hours) started by the Sikhs to pray for the restoration of the rights of the ruler, Ripudaman Singh. This incident led to a strong agitation by the Sikhs who could not tolerate the interference in their right to worship freely.
This was an open challenge ,which the S.G.P.C. (Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) or supreme body for the management of the Gurdwaras with its headquarters at Amritsar, accepted. It had already liberated Gurdwara at Nankana Sahib (the birthplace of Guru Nanak) and the Golden Temple at Amritsar. It had also won the struggle against the government at Guru Ka Bagh near Amritsar. A state of war was declared and a band of martyrs started from Akal Takhat, Amritsar to Jaito to start the Akandh Path there. Every member of the band took a pledge to remain non-violent at any cost and to sacrifice his/her life if attacked. At first a band of 25 volunteers left Amritsar daily for Jaito, but they were forcibly stopped by the administration of Nabha from entering the Gurdwara. Many of them lost their lives, but the result was not satisfactory. Now the S.G.P.C. decided to send five hundred people daily, and the first batch of martyrs left the Akal Takhat on February 9, 1924. Every one of them took a pledge to remain non-violent if fired or tortured, and to start the Akhand Path at the Gurdwara at Jaito on February 21, 1924. The number of volunteers was much more than required and thousands were asked to wait for their turn. Ladies were not allowed to proceed with the band, but they insisted to participate in such a holy endeavor. They succeeded to accompany the band on their plea that they would cook food on the way. Bibi Balbir Kaur, with her two year old son, was the leader of the women volunteers.
The first batch of five hundred left Amritsar under the echoes of “Jo Bole, So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal.” Everyone was garlanded and they were in high spirits. Thousands had gathered to wish them success. This non-violent march of unarmed batch was a unique event being watched by the whole world. Organized in rows of four, these saint- soldiers proceeded from Amritsar on foot reciting “Sat Nam Waheguru.” At their first rest stop, the local Sikhs honored the batch, served them and took care of their food and other necessities. After the first stop, it became clear that the services of the ladies for cooking food would not be required. The leader of the band asked them to return. Others agreed, but Balbir Kaur wanted to continue the march with her brave brothers and did not return. When the leader asked her to go back, she, with tears in her eyes, said, “Brother, don’t stop me from participating in this noble struggle. I am not afraid of death. I request you to let me proceed with my brothers.” The leader did not want to break her heart, and reluctantly permitted her, keeping in view her utter display of self-sacrifice. She was a beautiful lady of 22 years and full of youth. Her determination and feelings of selfless service were visible on her face. She looked like a goddess of purity and sacrifice. Her innocent two year old child was a source of amusement for every member of the party. When the group reached near the destination, the leaders stopped and said, “The British forces are ready to face us with machine guns.
I request the accompanying congregation to return. Only those permitted by the Akal Takhat should proceed further and others should return ,and wait for their turn.” Some returned while others found hidden routes. They planned to join the band to seek martyrdom when the firing would start. Bibi Balbir Kaur, with her son did not adopt any hidden route and continued to march with the other members of the party. When the leader came to know that the Bibi was marching with the band, he stopped, came to her and said, “Sister, there is real danger of firing ahead. You should not continue further.” She replied with folded hands, “Dear brother, don’t stop me, I am also a baptized one and shall deem myself fortunate if I am martyred along with 500 brothers. Our Gurus have bestowed equality to women. This is sacrilegious that I should not be allowed to proceed further. If you are worried about my child, let him serve the community. He cannot get a better chance in life.” Saying these words, she hugged the child and could not talk further due to tears in her eyes. The leader persuaded her to return and other members of the party also pressured her to go back. She did not budge from her decision to march to death with the others. Her persuasive arguments and her burning desire for sacrifice forced everybody to accept her plea. Even the leader was forced to accept her decision. Saint-soldiers, with their yellow flag fluttering in the air again started their march, under the command of their leader, with faith in their mission. Their brave faces projected calmness. Every one seemed fully prepared for sacrificing his life. People of every faith welcomed them on their way and served them with sweets and milk. Flowers were showered upon these living martyrs.
But as soon as the party entered the boundary of the Nabha state, it was warned by the state police and the British forces not to proceed forward. The saint-soldiers did not stop and continued their march. When they reached near the city of Jaito, they were welcomed with the shower of bullets. Still they continued the march while meditating Sat Nam Waheguru. None showed his back. There was blood everywhere. It appeared that they were playing Holi (festival of colors) of blood. Many fell on the ground, but courageously rose immediately and continued the march. Some of them died on the spot and received martyrdom. Bibi Balbir Kaur continued her march hugging her child. With a smile on her face, she was waiting for the bullet she had eagerly waited so far. Suddenly a bullet hit her in her forehead. Her face was covered with blood. She did not stop and continued the march while her innocent child played with the flowing blood on her face. A stray bullet struck the child in her arm. The bullet pierced the child through his ear.
The child died in an instant. She kissed his forehead and placed his dead body along with the other wounded and killed. Saying, “O God, Take back Your charge temporarily entrusted to me,” she rushed forward along with the members of the band, encouraging them to face the bullets bravely. Her face turned yellow for the loss of blood, and her steps were unsteady, but she kept her pace with others. After reaching the Gurdwara she bowed her head to God and thanked Him for giving her a chance to reach there. The bullets had not stopped raining. Suddenly a bullet hit straight her chest and pierced her body. This bullet was the message that she had been waiting eagerly. Her body fell on the ground, but her soul left to join her child. Her cherished desire was fulfilled. Her bloody face showed peace and courage. The agitation continued for twenty-one months and many bands of five hundred each followed one another. In the end, the British government yielded, and the Sikhs completed not one but one hundred and one Akhand Paths in that Gurdwara. Balbir Kaur became immortal and her heroic deed is mentioned in many books. In fact, such sacrifices created a new life amongst the Sikhs in those days.