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Baba Hardev: Nirankari chief dies in Canada accident. Who was he?

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 13 May 2016, 21:45 IST

The chief of the Nirankari sect Baba Hardev Singh died in a road accident in Canada Thursday night. He was travelling to Montreal from the US, and was accompanied by his two sons-in-law, one of whom is said be battling for life.

Hardev become chief of the sect when his father Baba Gurbachan Singh, who was heading the Sant Nirankari Mission, was assassinated in 1980.

The Nirankaris have been at loggerheads with orthodox Sikhs since the 60s. In fact, it was a clash between the two groups on Baisakhi day in 1978 that is said to have triggered the militancy in Punjab. The state remained in the grip of violence for the next 17 years, which saw the rise and fall of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Operation Bluestar, the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi, anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, Operation Black Thunder, the assassination of chief minister Beant Singh.

It's perhaps because of all this that the Akalis, who claim to represent the "true Sikhs", have maintained a stoic silence on the death of Hardev Singh.

Was it a bloody clash between Nirankaris and orthodox Sikhs in 1978 that triggered Punjab militancy?

Born to Gurbachan Singh and Kulwant Kaur on 23 February 1954 in Delhi, Hardev was schooled at Rosary Public in Delhi and Yadavindra Public in Patiala. After graduating from Delhi University, he joined Nirankari Sewa Dal as a primary member in 1971. He married Savinder Kaur at the annual Nirankari Sant Samagam in Delhi in 1975.

The Nirankari movement apparently began with the teachings of Baba Buta Singh, who emphasised the importance of a living guru. This contrasts with mainstream Sikhs' acceptance of the scriptures as the final and current guru of the faith. In 1929, this distinction in thought birthed the Sant Nirankari Mission, which was disassociated from mainstream Sikhism.

The mission is widely spread across the world, with more than 100 branches in 27 countries, mainly in Britain, the US and Canada. Its headquarters are in Delhi.

Contested belief


According to observers, it was during the 1960s that the sect saw a spurt in popularity, much to the agitation of orthodox Sikh leaders. The differences came to boil in 1978, when a clash between the Nirankaris and orthodox Sikhs claimed 16 lives, 13 of them from the latter group. The Nirankaris instantly became a target of hardline elements. In 1980, Baba Gurbachan Singh was assassinated by Ranjit Singh, reportedly a member of Akhand Kirtani Jatha which had led many protests against the Nirankaris.

According to the website of the Sant Nirankari Mission, "The rapid progress of the mission had upset these elements to the level of desperation. Many a time, Baba Ji (Gurbachan Singh) called upon them to first understand the mission and then point out if there was anything wrong. But all his gestures fell flat on them. Congregations were disturbed at many places. Violent attacks were also reported from several centers."

In the aftermath of the 1978 clash, several Nirankari saints were taken into judicial custody, where they remained until being acquitted two years later.

"The opposition, however, did not end with the historic Karnal verdict in the Amritsar case, acquitting all accused Nirankaris, including Baba Gurbachan Singh Ji, honourably. The fanatics made Baba Gurbachan Singh Ji personally the target of their violence. They made an attempt on his life first in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, and then near Durg in Madhya Pradesh. Ultimately, Baba Ji fell to their bullets in Delhi on April 24, 1980," the website claims.

Hardev became chief of Nirankari sect after his father Baba Gurbachan was assassinated in 1980

Since Hardev took over as their leader, the Nirankaris have maintained a low profile in Punjab. The observers say he has never visited the state since. Said sociologist Manjit Singh, "The Nirankaris are in good numbers in Punjab, but they are not as prominent as other sects like Radha Soami and Dera Sacha Sauda."

Hardev's death has reportedly been condoled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP chief Amit Shah and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

In Punjab, it was left to Amarinder Singh to mourn the "sad and untimely death". "It is a great loss not only to his followers, but to humanity as a whole as he was a great spiritual leader of our time," the state Congress chief said.

There has been no message of condolence from the state government or the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal. "This is because the Sikhs are bound by an Akal Takht directive of June 1978 asking them to have nothing to do with the members of the Nirankari sect," explained a veteran journalist who has covered Punjab since the mid-70s.

It's yet to be decided where Hardev Singh's last rites will be conducted. The Nirankari Mission headquarters have appealed to the followers not to rush to Delhi.

First published: 13 May 2016, 21:45 IST