Baba Bir Singh

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Baba Bir Singh (1768-1844), soldier-become-religious preacher and saint, was born in July 1768 at the village of Gaggobua, in Amritsar district of the Punjab. The son of Seva Singh and Dharam Kaur. after the death of his father (in one of the campaigns against the Afghan rulers of Multan) Bir Singh joined the Sikh army. He participated in Maharaja Ranjit Singh's campaigns for the capture of Kashmir and Peshawar. After several years of active service, he secured his dismissal from the army after he came under the influence of Baba Bhag Singh, a Sikh saint belonging to Kuri, in Rawalpindi district. Bir Singh took to preaching Guru Nanak's word and soon attracted a considerable following in the Majha area. He set up his dera in the village of Naurangabad, near Tarn Taran. The dera, named Santpura, soon became a popular pilgrim centre were it is said that about 4,500 visitors were fed in the langar every day. Such was the influence Baba Bir Singh had acquired that a volunteer army of 1,200 musket men and 3,000 horse attended upon him.

Baba Bir Singh was a true wellwisher of the dynasty of Ranjit Singh and was deeply grieved at the disaster which had overtaken it through the envy of the courtiers after the death of the Maharaja in 1839. During that critical period, Sikh soldiers and peasantry began to turn to him for guidance. On 2 May 1844, Atar Singh Sandhanvalia, who had been in residence in British India for some time, crossed the Sutlej into Sikh territory and joined Baba Bir Singh who was then camping near Harike Pattan. Prince Kashmira Singh and Prince Pashaura Singh and many Sikh sardars, including Jawahar Singh Nalwa, son of the celebrated Sikh general Hari Singh Nalwa, and Diwan Baisakha Singh, had already taken asylum at Bir Singh's dera. Bir Singh's camp had become the centre of a Sikh revolt against the Dogra dominance over the Punjab.

Perturbed at these developments, Hira Singh, the Dogra prime minister of the Sikh kingdom, sent a strong force comprising 20,000 men and 50 guns under the command of Mian Labh Singh to attack the citadel of Baba Bir Singh. The troops besieged the camp on 7 May 1844. Baba Bir Singh forbade his Sikhs to fight back saying, "How can we attack our own brethren?" He was in meditation in the presence of the Holy Book, when he was killed with a shell from the besiegers. Prince Kashmira Singh and Atar Singh Sandharivalia also lost their lives in the heavy cannonade and, in the panic, hundreds of Baba Bir Singh's followers were drowned in the river while trying to cross it. The troops, however, never forgave Hira Singh for forcing them into an action which led to the death of a holy man.

He tried to atone for what had happened by promising to build a samadh where Baba Bir Singh had been cremated, and set aside land yielding Rs 5,000 annually for its maintenance, but his critics were far from assuaged. He had to pay for this onslaught on Naurarigabad with his own life before the year was out. General Court's battalion, which had played a leading part in the action, was boycotted when it reached the headquarters and was always referred to as gurumar (killer of the guru or holy man).

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References

  • 1. Smyth, G. Carmichael, A History of the Reigning Family of Lahore. Patiala, 1970
  • 2. Bhagat Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and His Times. Delhi, 1990
  • 3. Ganda Singh, ed.. The Panjab in 1839-40. Amritsar, 1952
  • 4. Sher Singh, Sri Bir Mrigesh Gur Bilas Dev Taru.