When India got independence on 15th August 1947, everyone thanked the great leaders of that time, who fought throughout their lives for this day. On the one hand, people were rejoicing with extreme happiness, and on the other, they were remembering those whom they lost in this 100 year-long battle for independence. The first major protest, which spread nationwide was recorded in 1857, which is now known as the First War of Indian Independence. After the British suppressed this mutiny, they got busy in reorganizing their power and ensuring that such incidents were contained in the future. But the spark of freedom had kindled a fire in every nook and cranny of India. So some of the revolutions grew bigger and became famous, while most of the revolutionaries died well within the small paragraphs of myriad history books.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s royal mansion near the Rashtrapati Bhawan has now been converted into a museum. Several rooms in there are filled with stuff related to Nehru and by corollary the Indian Independence. In a corner of one such room, the curator has taken care to put a few pictures of those social reformers, who rose after 1857 but were silenced by the British. This article is about one such social reformer, whose contribution to Indian society has been relagated to passive memory with time. He started his protest in 1857, just a month before the famous mutiny broke out, and was able to fight till 1872. But his followers have continued to obey the commandments even to the present day.
The battle of Mudki in Punjab was a major turning point for the British and their advance towards North India. A soldier from the 12th Battalion of Kanwar Nau Nihal Singh’s regiment (Grandson of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab), decided to leave his job as a warrior and take the path of peace. But he was also very much disturbed by the way in which the British had played dirty tricks, and bribed the Sikh generals to take over Punjab in unethical fashion. He came back to his village near Ludhiana and started meditating. A decade later, he decided to restore the status of Sikhs in Punjab. He found out that there was hardly any person left who is following the true path of Guru Nanak & Guru Gobind. Hence, in April 1857, he baptised his followers who later came to be known as the Namdharis, or more popularly, the “Kukas”. A month later, the 1857 uprising started but the Kukas continued to meditate and live peacefully. They were now obeying the commandments of this reformer, this saint-soldier, Satguru Ram Singh (as he is till today commonly referred by his followers).
After the war of 1857, the British went back to their thinking desks and started working on a better plan to rule India. They found that this outbreak was due to religious sentiments. The only way to ensure that no such thing happens again is to break the religious backbone of the people of India. The infamous “Divide and Rule” policy of British was tested to its extreme. One major decision taken during this course was to remove the copper plates from Amritsar, which read “Cows are not to be killed in Amritsar. The penalty of killing a cow is death”. After removing these plates, a cow-slaughter house was approved in Amritsar, right next to the holy shrine of Sikhs, the Golden Temple. Similar slaughter houses came up in other areas of Punjab as well. During this period, the Kukas had formed a strong sect. Baba Ram Singh gave them few instructions, from where the “Kuka Movement” started. It also became one of the first boycott movements of India. The commandments clearly stated:
- • We will boycott British governance & Administration
- • We will boycott British products
- • No one will ever drink English tea, as it was introduced by the British
- • No one would wear English clothing. Only home-spun white kurta-payjama would be worn
- • No one will use refined sugar from mills setup by the British. We shall continue to use jaggery and sugarcane juice
- • No one will use the water of canals dug by the British. Use water from wells, which the community has dug up
- • No one will even stand in the shade of trees that the British have planted
- • No one will use the public transport system set up by the British
- • No one will use the British postal System
With the above commandments, the Kukas established a parallel administration. They had 22 Subas (heads) across 22 zones of Punjab. They started their own transport and postal system. Many Kukas do not drink tea even till date. They are distinguished by their white cotton/khadi Kurta Payjamas and round turbans. They have also abolished socially detrimental practices like the taking of Dowry and the abandonment of widows. Kukas practice mass-marriages and believe in widow remarriage, and are very strictly against dowry.
This movement shook the British to such an extent, but they managed to supress the Kukas after a series of incidents at Amritsar, Malerkotla and few other locations. A small batch of Kukas decided to go violent and take revenge for the setting up of slaughterhouses, which were butchering cows right next to Sikh religious shrines. The British took these incidents as an excuse and arrested Baba Ram Singh. He was sent to various prisons in India before finally being exiled to Burma, from where he never returned. He was kept in the same building where Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor of India spent his last days. I had earlier written an article about this Prison Palace of the Last Mughal. In the coming days, I shall perforce write about the episodes of Malerkotla and Amritsar, where tghe Kukas went to massacre butchers and destroy slaughterhouses, after which they surrendered themselves in courts and not only accepted capital punishments, but also went on to fulfil the death penalties without any assistance.