After the fall of kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, there were several attempts to raise the old glory of the Khalsa. Several movements to reform Sikhism were started. First one being the Namdhari movement, which was started by Baba Ram Singh Namdhari after the Anglo-Sikh wars. He was a soldier in Khalsa army.
Like the Nirankari, this second reform movement known as the Namdhari, or Kuka, movement also had its origin in the north-west corner of the Sikh kingdom, away from the places of royal pomp and grandeur. It harked back to a way of life more in keeping with the spiritual tradition of the community. Its principal object was to spread the true spirit of Sikhism shorn of tawdry customs and mannerism, which had been growing on it since the beginning of Sikh monarchy. In the midst of national pride born of military glory and political power, this movement extolled the religious obligation for a pious and simple living. They were called "Kukas" because of their peculiar style they used in reciting Gurbani (Sayings of the Gurus). This style was in a high pitched voice, called Kook in punjabi, and thus Namdhari Khalsa's were named Kukas.
The founder, Bhai Balak Singh (1799-1862) of Hazro, was a holy man whose noble example and sweet persuasive manner won him a number of followers. The most prominent among them was Baba Ram Singh who undertook the direction of the movement after Bhai Balak Singh, giving it a more positive orientation.
Baba Ram Singh, born at Bhaini, in Ludhiana district in 1816, was a soldier in the Sikh army. With his regiment he once happened to visit Hazro where he fell under the influence of Bhai Balak Singh. He became his disciple and dedicated himself to his mission. For his religious pursuits he had ample time in the army which, towards the end of Ranjit Singh's day, was comparatively free from its more arduous tasks. In the 1845 Anglo-Sikh war, Baba Ram Singh fought against the English at Mudki.
He gave up service after the occupation of Lahore and returned to his village, Bhaini, which became another important centre of the Namdhari faith. Upon Baba Balak Singh's death, in 1862, the chief responsibility passed on to Baba Ram Singh, whose growing influence helped in the extension of the movement in central and eastern Punjab. An elaborate agency for missionary work was set up. The name of the head in a 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.
In the government papers of that period, Baba Ram Singh' s mission is described thus:
- He abolishes all distinction of caste among Sikhs;
- advocates indiscriminate marriage of all classes;
- enjoins the marriage of widows;
- enjoins abstinence from liquor and drugs,
- exhorting his disciples to live cleanly and tell the truth.
To the points mentioned above he also advocated reverence for the cow, simpler wedding ceremonies and abolition of infanticide (male and female infants equally). Baba Ram Singh never reconciled himself to British rule. His prediction about its early demise was implicitly believed by his followers, who were forbidden to join government service, to go to courts of law or even learn the English language. The movement thus acquired a strong political bias. Its chief inspiration was, in fact, derived from opposition to foreign rule and anything that implied it was ignored and anyone recognizing it was shunned by his followers. English education, mill-made cloth and other imported goods were boycotted. In its advocacy of the use of the Swadeshi, the Kuka movement forestalled, in the sixties of the last century, an important feature of the nationalist struggle under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.
Kukas even avoided use of the post of fives established by the British and depended upon their own system of postal communication. Messages from their leader were conveyed with special despatch and alacrity. A fast-riding follower would carry the letter to the next village where another devotee, setting all other work aside, would at once speed on with it. Riders would even leave their meals unfinished to hurry a message to the next post.
A spirit of fanatical national fervour and religious enthusiasm grew among the Kukas and the personality of Baba Ram Singh became the focal point of a close and well-organized order. The government, after the incidents of 1857, kept a keen eye on Baba Ram Singh. In 1863, when the civil authority found out that Baba Ram Singh was planning to travel to Amritsar for Baisakhi celebrations to which he had invited his followers from all over the Punjab, they became very alarmed. The Lieutenant-Governor ordered the Deputy Inspector-General of Police and the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar to find out just what Baba Ram Singh and his companions were up to. The officials were not in favour of imposing any restrictions, especially on the occasion of a religious fair. But two months later, when the Kukas announced a meeting to be held at Khote, a village in Ferozepore district, prohibitory orders were issued banning all Kuka meetings.
The Kuka organization was subjected to strict secret vigilance, and intelligence officers in the districts sent in alarming reports about Kuka aims and activities. It was bruited about that Baba Ram Singh was raising an army to fight the English. Bhaini and Hazro were kept under continual survaillance and Baba Ram Singh was arrested, charged with treason and given a life sentence and quickly shipped off to the dreaded Andaman Islands, from which he wrote letters to his disciples in Punjab and other places. A selection of these letters was published by Dr Ganda Singh a few years ago. They reveal to to us, Baba Ram Singh's undying faith, his strength of character and his love for his followers. While an occasional note of loneliness appears in these letters, his spirit of patient fortitude always proves stronger.
Baba Ram Singh passed away on November 29, 1885. But many of his followers did not believe that he was dead. They continued to hope that he would one day come to the Punjab and free India from the shackles of the English.
The Kuka movement marked a significant stage in the development of a national consciousness in the country. In the years after the revolt of 1857, when the loyal Sikh units had helped to put a quick end to the scattered rebellion the machinations of the Namdharis were watched very closely.
Like the Nirankaris, Namdharis also formed themselves into a separate sect. Today, they form a distinctly cohesive group among the Sikhs. Two things immediately mark them off from the latter-the style of their headgear and their adherence to the personality of their leader, Baba Jagjit Singh. Apparelled in immaculate, white homespun, they wind round their heads mull or longcloth without any semblance or embellishment and without giving it any sharp, emphatic lines.
Their sudden busts or shouts, lend them a name
While chanting the sacred hymns, they work themselves up to such ecstatic frenzy that they begin dancing and shouting. From these shouts and shrieks-kuk, in Punjabi-some humorously inclined youth in a Ludhiana village called them Kukas, little knowing that they were conferring upon the newly developing order a name which would be widely accepted and which would outlive the more carefully chosen appellations adopted by its authors.
The growth of the Kukas was shadowed by a secret campaign which aspired to return Maharaja Duleep Singh, the youngest son of the fabled ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh, last Sikh ruler of the Punjab who had been exiled by the British and Baptized into the Church of England. In the 1880's, Punjab was certainly astir with rumour--anticipation filled the air. Reports were studiously kept in circulation that Duleep Singh would lead a Russian invasion into India and overthrow the British. A network of secret communication was laid out. Duleep Singh's emissaries kept infiltrating into India in spite of government vigilance. His statements and proclamations-as from "the Sovereign of the Sikh nation and Implacable Foe of the British Government"-were smuggled into the country for distribution. But after several attempts to return to India hed died in a hotel in Paris. Dilip Singh, youngest son of Ranjit Singh had 6 children, 5 daughters and one son all died issueless.