Ram Singh was a religious leader and a good preceptor. He preached purity of body and purity of mind. He himself practiced both. He opposed lavish spending at marriages and taught people to help the poor. When the British began to strengthen their Empire by sowing the seeds of quarrel among the people of India, Ram Singh worked against them but had to pay the price. He breathed his last in a far off prison.
The guns were kept ready.
Fifty lives were to be destroyed on that day.
Hundreds of persons had assembled to witness this terrible event. The British Officer, Cowan, was sitting on a chair, his wife by his side.
How did the people, who were condemned to death, behave in their last moments? Perhaps they wept bitterly? Perhaps some of them fell at the feet of the British officer? Perhaps they begged for mercy? Perhaps they shrieked and raved when they were led to face the guns?
No, the spectators saw an entirely different scene. The British officers had decided to cover the faces of the prisoners, to bind their hands and feet and then shoot them dead. But the prisoners opposed this arrangement stoutly. Then the prisoners were asked to stand with their backs to the guns. But again they refused. They wanted the bullets to enter their chests. Smiling, they faced the guns and bared their chests. They loudly shouted ‘Sadguru Ram Singh ki Jai’.
There was more fear in the hearts of the spectators than in the hearts of the people who were condemned to die.
All eyes and ears and hearts were fixed on the mouths of the guns. Breathless they watched the Martyrdom.
The British Officer Cowan gave the order: ‘Fire!’.
Bang went the guns and the bodies of the prisoners were torn to pieces beyond recognition.
As one prisoner was killed another stepped into his place.
The eyes of some of the spectators were dim with tears. Tears dropped to the ground. They felt a lump in the throat and grief welled up in their hearts. But Cowan and other British officers enjoyed the spectacle. And their wives took it as entertainment.
The Tender Boy
49 prisoners died in this manner. Now it was the turn of a young, lad of hardly twelve years!
He was of an age when he should have been playing with toys. Besides, he was the only son of his mother Khem Kaur. Like the others, the boy walked straight to the mouth of the gun with his head raised.
The British Collector’s wife Mrs. Cowan had been enjoying the scene till then. But her heart melted when she saw this boy. Tears began to roll down her cheeks as she remembered her lost son who was of the same age. As Cowan was about to give the order to fire, she pleaded with her husband to spare the life of that teenage boy.
“Please, please save at least this boy. I cannot bear to see him killed,” Mrs. Cowan begged her husband.
Cowan could not ignore the appeal of his wife.
Haughtily he said to the boy, “You fool of a boy, if you are prepared to leave the company of that rascal Ram Singh, I will spare your life. Go!” Lad or Lion?
As soon as the boy heard these words which insulted his master his eyes became balls of fire.
Like a lion with a single leap, he pounced on Cowan. He caught hold of his beard and pulled it so hard that Cowan fell flat on the ground. He began to shriek.
The soldiers around him ran to the rescue of Cowan. They tried hard to loosen the hold of the boy on Cowan’s beard. But no! No one could succeed. Finally, a soldier solved the problem with his sword. The tiny hands were cut off and thus the hold was loosened.
You can very well imagine the wrath of Cowan.
Both his ego and his beard had been hurt very much. He managed to stand up and ordered the soldiers to do away with the boy. The troop obediently carried out his order.
The above incident took place on January 17, 1872, at about 7 a.m. The place was Maler Kotla, in the district of Ludhiana, Punjab. Cowan was the Collector of the district.
The fifty persons who became martyrs on that day belonged to a sect known as the Kukas.
They were the followers of Sadguru Ram Singh, a great religious leader. What a teacher he should have been to have, won such disciples!
Ram Singh was born on the auspicious day of Vasantha Panchami in the year 1816. Bhaini is a small village in the district of Ludhiana. It was here Ram Singh was born. He came from an ordinary family. His father Jassa Singh was a carpenter by profession. Sadan Kaur, the mother, was very religious. She had very great affection for her son Ram Singh. Ram Singh loved to sit on the lap of the mother and listen to tales of great persons. And she used to narrate scores of tales.
He was quick in learning by-heart verses from religious books, which his mother made him repeat every day.
Jassa Singh was a respected person in the village. He used to manufacture small iron implements like plows, which the village folk needed. Rich and poor came to him. The elders of the village used to assemble at his house for a chat.
When he was nine, Ram Singh began to help his father in his work. Like other lads of the village, he used to take out the cattle of his house to graze.
Ram Singh was the first son of parents. He had a sister and a brother. Sister was already married. Brother Singh was four years younger than Singh. According to the custom of the days, Ram Singh was married at the age of seven! His bride was Jassan of Dhala village.
Young Ram Singh was a very lovable lad. The neighbors were fond of his recitations of holy verses. Other boys of the village who took out cattle to graze liked him immensely. His intelligence and good behavior attracted them. The simple boys had great respect for his opinions.
Ram Singh had an uncle, (his mother’s brother) Kabul Singh, who was in the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore. Once he visited Ram Singh’s house. When he returned he took Ram Singh along with him and put him in the army.
Ram Singh was a youth of twenty years at that time.
Lahore was the capital of the then Punjab Province. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the ruler. He was an excellent warrior. He organized the Sikhs and built a strong state. Because of his religious life, liberal views and efficient administration, he was highly respected. But as he grew old conditions in the state changed.
Young Ram Singh had opportunities in Lahore to watch the ways of the world. There was shameless drunkenness. Men married as many wives as possible. Selling women and killing unwanted infants were common.
Such an immoral life is a danger to a state.
The British had been plotting for a long time to gobble up Lahore.
The social climate had its effect on everybody, but yet Ram Singh led a disciplined life.
He never missed his daily prayers and meditation. This kept his mind very pure. Because of his gentle ways, everyone called him ‘Bhai’ (elder brother). His platoon was nicknamed, ‘The Saint’s Platoon’. But yet the atmosphere in the army was not congenial to his saintly qualities.
Back to the Village
Maharaja Ranjit Singh died in 1839. A bitter quarrel arose between his children and his ministers. Blood flowed like a river because of this.
Betrayal and deception were rampant. The British were waiting for such a chance. They took full advantage of it. Lahore fell into the hands of the British in the first battle between the Sikhs and the British at Mudki in 1845.
Ram Singh had expected this. He returned to his native village during the war. Not that he was patriotic but he felt that such selfish and immoral people could not achieve victory.
Back in the village, Ram Singh worked in his fields. But he never missed his daily prayers or other religious duties. News reached him of the cruel deeds of the British and the gradual expansion of their kingdom. He became restless.
The Christian missionaries who had accompanied the British to India were very active. They used to visit prisons and convert inmates to Christianity. They had even converted Dilip Singh, the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to Christianity. People were carried away by the clothes and the glitter of the life of the British.
Many Indians sincerely believed that the British had come to India only to uplift them. Ram Singh stimulated the sense of self-respect of the people and tried to bring about an awakening.
Bhaini – A Holy Place
Have you ever seen a Sikh gentleman? He is tall and sturdy. The majority of Sikhs live in Punjab. Even today our army is full of these warriors from Punjab.
Ram Singh was also a tall man. He was well-built, with a broad chest and bright eye. His unfailing cheerfulness, thoughtful words and spotlessly clean clothes won him the respect of one and all. He used to get up at 2 in the morning. His routine was – bathing three times a day, reading scriptures, distributing food and clothes to the poor and the needy, and consoling those in distress.
The fame of Ram Singh spread steadily. People began to flock to his place to have his ‘darshan’ and to tell him about their sorrows. His guidance comforted them. Bhaini turned into a place of pilgrimage. Jassan, the good wife of Ram Singh, would take care of all the guests. She became ‘Mother Jassan’ to all.
People began to call Ram Singh ‘Sadguru Ram Singh’ (the Good Master). His followers formed a sect of their own. Though the sect had man; names (Kuka, Namdhari, Sant Khalsa), it came to be popularly known as the Kuka sect.
What was the way of life of the Kukas? A Kuka used to get up before sunrise. He bathed and put on white clothes and a white turban. Only after reading the Holy Scriptures did he touch food. Liars, thieves, and drunkards had no place in this sect. Sale of girls, child marriage, the killing of children and meaningless rituals were all strictly banned. Instead, Sadguru Ram Singh stressed devotion to God, selfless service, a pure and simple life, and truthfulness. The Kukas even believed that Ram Singh was the very incarnation of the tenth Sikh Guru Govind Singh.
Once a drunkard by name Durbar Singh came to Ram Singh and said, “Oh Guru! Please give me a drink which will make me forget the sorrows of my life.” The Guru replied, “Come tomorrow morning after a bath.” Durbar Singh did so. Then the Guru said, “Repeat the name of the Lord and you will get peace.” The Guru taught him how to meditate on God. Durbar Singh followed his instruction and he became a great devotee of God. Quite many people were similarly converted by Ram Singh.
‘Ananda Vivaha’ (The Happy Marriage)
Ram Singh brought about an important reformation in the institution of marriage. Then, as now, people used to spend huge sums of money on the marriages of their daughters. The poor people were unable to bear the burden of these marriages. They used to incur heavy debts and then suffer for the rest of their lives.
The expenses of marriage were a rock, which crushed them.
To end this, Ram Singh thought of a plan. He introduced a system of mass marriages. Many couples could get married at the same time with the minimum of expenditure and rituals. On the 3rd of June 1863, the first such mass marriage took place at Khote. People called it ‘Ananda Vivaha’ (the happy marriage).
This practice was a boon to the poor. The entire expenses of the marriage came to just a few rupees. But the priestly class refused to recognize such marriages, probably because their income was slashed. But the Sadguru ignored such opposition.
Even today the Kukas perform their marriages in this way only.
After having put an end to foolish expenses on marriages, the Guru made bold to go a step further. He encouraged marriages between members of different castes to end the quarrel among the castes. He even encouraged widow marriages. Women were encouraged to take part in the civic and social lives of the villages and so gained a higher status than before.
Because of all these bold and progressive steps, the name of Ram Singh spread far and wide.
The Vow of Swadeshi
In the early stages, the Kukas were interested in social and religious matters only. Once Ram Singh met another Guru by name Ramdas and had discussions with him. It is believed that this Ramdas advised the Kukas to take to political work also. The protection of cows became one of the main goals of the Kukas.
Soon the followers of sadguru Ram Singh Kuka increased in numbers. They were seen everywhere. Their work spread to all the 21 districts of Punjab.
Bharath (India) is our motherland. It must progress and become a great country. Our country does not belong to foreigners like the British. They came here in the guise of merchants.
They looted us and carried away all that is valuable because this is not their homeland. We have become slaves in our own country. Sadguru Ram Singh preached these ideas and condemned British tyranny in flaming words. They thrilled the masses and created an awakening.
A triangular flag with a white background was hoisted at Bhaini on 14th April 1837. Certain plans were chalked out to oust the foreigners.
Ram Singh asked the people not to purchase goods manufactured in foreign countries. If they did, he warned, the profit would go to the foreign countries. People began to boycott foreign goods and vowed to use only locally manufactured ones. Even the offices and courts which were run by the British began to be boycotted.
People gave up traveling by train.
Day by day the influence of the Kukas grew.
The eagle eyes of the British could not miss this.
The British Government restricted the movements of Ram Singh. He was compelled to give up travelings. But the activities of the Kukas could not be checked; in fact, they secretly grew.
The Kukas went to the extent of establishing their postal system. It was useful to send secret communications also. The Kukas chosen for this work relayed the letters. They used to travel on foot with the letters avoiding the high-ways, each carrier handing over the letters to the next person. Sometimes they used horses. The highly confidential and secret messages were carried by word of mouth only. All these arrangements made the Kukas feel the importance of their role.
You can see a stamp made in remembrance of him.
Ram Singh appointed 22 officers to carry out the work efficiently and in a planned manner.
He called them Subas. These Subas traveled throughout Punjab and spread the ideas of Ram Singh. Ram Singh very much wished that this group should become strong and be able to drive out the British. He also wished that this group should bring about social and religious reformation too.
The Sadguru established contacts with the neighboring states of Kashmir and Nepal through his followers. They promised to help him in times of need. The followers of Ram Singh even went to Russia to seek help. They were the first persons to go to such a far off country in the cause of freedom. The names of those who went to Russia on that occasion are still found in the secret documents of the country.
The Fear of the Government
The Government appointed many secret agents to study and report on the activities of these Kukas. R. G. Taylor, the then Commissioner of Ambala, reported on a detailed study of the Kuka sect. It was an important document submitted to the British Government in Punjab.
He says, ‘In my opinion, a day will dawn when these Kuka youths will draw their swords against us (the British).’
The officiating Commissioner of Ambala J. W. Macnab requested the British Government to arrest Ram Singh immediately. He wrote, ‘Whatever might have been the motive of this religious leader in the beginning, now it is political.’
Though the secret agents of the British Government were giving much trouble, the sect of the Kukas quickly grew in numbers. No wonder it had 4, 30,000 members by 1871. The affairs of the sect were guided by the sadguru with the help of his Subas. The Subas met regularly in the durbar (court) of Ram Singh.
Divide and Rule
Have you watched your mother worshipping a cow on the day of a festival? She offers rice and jugglery to eat. She goes around the cow and salutes her. The cow is a sacred animal to us. We regard it as our mother. But the British encouraged the killing of cows. This was one of their methods to bring about a split among the people.
The British knew quite well that they could not remain in this land if the Hindus and the Muslims came together. So they always provoked quarrels between them. So long as these two were fighting each other the British were safe. All their actions were guided by this consideration only.
As soon as they took over Punjab, they passed an order prohibiting the wearing of chapels in temples and other places of worship. But the same Government passed another order after a few days. It said that the Hindus should not object if others ate beef. What was worse, the Government never banned the sale of beef near any temple or a Gurudwara.
Simply because a person or a group of persons follow a particular faith or religion, he or they should not be subjected to harassment; don’t you think so? It should be so in all the countries of the world. The constitution of independent India has made this point very clear and has guaranteed full freedom of faith to all. But the Englishmen wanted the people of India to quarrel among them.
Some persons began to sell beef openly by the roadside. This upset the Hindus. Feelings ran high in Amritsar. You should remember that Amritsar is a big religious center for the Sikhs. The rural folk who used to visit Amritsar at the time of the Holi and Deepavali Festivals were astonished to find that beef was being sold openly by the roadside. In such a tense atmosphere a few Kukas could not control themselves. On the 15th of June 1871, they raided a few butcher shops and killed four people.
The Death of Warriors
The Government reacted quickly. They began to arrest the Kukas wherever they could find them. Many innocent people were arrested and were forced to confess that they were guilty.
The police in Amritsar entered even the inner apartments of houses and tortured the inmates.
The sufferings of the common people who were innocent were beyond description.
Ram Singh could no longer tolerate this situation. He decided to put an end to the sufferings of thousands of innocent people. He called for the culprits among the Kukas and asked them to surrender to the Government. Wonderful!
They did not hesitate even for a moment. They obeyed the orders of the Guru by immediately surrendering.
An interesting fact came to light in this episode. Some innocent people had been subjected to inhuman treatment by the Government and had forced to confess that they had committed the crimes. The lower court, which tried them convicted them and referred their cases to the higher courts. In the meanwhile, the real culprits came out and declared that they were responsible for the act! The Government had to bow its head in shame.
Four of the real culprits were sentenced to be hanged and others were thrown into the jail.
The Kukas who received death sentences neither repented their action nor lost their morale. The jail authorities intended to allow a little freedom before the day of their execution. They said, “You can eat whatever you want and meet anybody you like.” But the Kukas refused to take advantage of this concession.
They went to the gallows on September 15th.
They were dancing and singing hymns on their way to the gallows. No one who watched them could believe that they were on the brink of death. When people came to know all these things they admired the Kukas for their bravery.
These Kukas did not allow themselves to be tied by the leather straps to the gallows. Instead, they insisted on cotton ropes being used. And they declared they would tie the knot with their own hands. The request granted, they died with smiles on their lips.
Hakim Singh was one of the Kukas who were hanged. He was the only son of his widowed mother. When someone tried to console this aged woman she replied, “I am proud of my son who gave his life in the cause of the secret cow, the poor people and the freedom of the country.”
‘I Will Be Born Again’
A similar incident took place at Raikot. This was a month after the Amritsar incident. The Government permitted the opening of a mutton shop near a Gurudwara. After some time a quarrel arose and as a result, two persons died. Seven Kukas were arrested. All of them were hanged on the 26th of November 1871.
One of the accused Kukas, Rathan Singh, told the English Magistrate at the end of the trial, “I am going to be born again as a Sikh after nine months and I will revenge myself upon you. Your justice is a fraud. When we are born we will draw our swords against you and see that your Raj is finished. Your downfall is not far off.”
There used to be a fair at Bhaini, the birthplace of sadguru Ram Singh, in the month of Magh (i.e. January – February). Kukas from far off places used to assemble there. The singing of devotional songs, reading of the Holy Book and discourses on religious subjects were the usual program during those days.
It was the 13th of January 1872. A batch of Kukas was passing through Maler Kotla on their way to Bhaini. One of the Kukas who was tiredly lagged. Some mischief-mongers took advantage of this and manhandled him. He was thrashed severely, disgraced and driven away.
He somehow managed to reach Bhaini and appeared before Ram Singh in the same state. He was shivering in fear. He could not even narrate what had happened. He began to weep loudly.
It took a long time to console him. Then slowly he began to narrate the happenings. He told the whole story. Hundreds of Kukas who had gathered at Bhaini came to know of this. They became uncontrollably enraged. They wanted to settle accounts immediately. Though Ram Singh also felt sad about the affair, he remained calm when he heard the story.
But there was one young man Hira Singh, who could not control himself. His eyes became red with rage. He prostrated before the Guru and begged for his permission to take revenge for this. “We shall not tolerate this disgrace! Oh, Guru! Bless us. We will finish them in no time” he said. Ram Singh thought for a while and then answered, “Control your-self a little. Haste is always unwise.”
But the younger ones present there did not heed his advice. Nothing short of immediate revenge could pacify them. Hira Singh took the lead. He took out his sword and drew a line on the ground and cried out, “Those of you, who are ready to sacrifice yourselves, come over to this side of the line.” There was total silence.
About 140 of the crowd crossed the line. All of them proceeded to Maler Kotla with unsheathed swords on January 14th.
These Kukas had no proper arms and ammunition. How could they fight with mere swords?
Hence they first attacked the fort at Malodh and acquired arms, ammunition, horses, etc.
From there they went straight to Maler Kotla and attacked. This was on January 15th. But news of this attack had already spread. The British army was ready to receive them. It was a British army only in name. Only the officers were British; the rest of the army consisted of only Indians. So whenever there was a fight between the British army and Indians, it was Indians who died on both sides.
Compared to the Kukas, the British army was well equipped, more disciplined and ten times bigger. There was a fierce battle. The Kukas fought bravely and inflicted heavy losses on the enemies. But it was a losing battle. During the fight, Hira Singh lost his left arm. Gradually the British army gained the upper hand.
Hira Singh began to feel that it was difficult to win the battle. He decided to get arrested. He addressed the remaining Kukas and said, “Comrades, those of you who are ready to become martyrs, step forward. Anyway, I am allowing myself to be arrested. But I wish to compel nobody.”
Except for one or two, all the 68 Kukas got arrested. All of them were mercilessly shot dead on the morning of 17th January. The collector Cowan was present along with his wife when the Kukas were put to death. What happened on that morning has been narrated at the beginning of this book. Including the boy Kuka, 50 were killed on January 17th.
The rest of the Kukas were conveniently executed on the next day. Among these Waryam Singh was a short man. The bullet from the gun would not touch him. The officers took pity on him and asked to quit the place. But he would not. He brought a few bricks, which were lying in the field and prepared a small platform with them. Standing upon it he faced the gun.
“We Must Be Prepared For Hardships…”
The Government began to arrest Kukas in large numbers. Satguru Ram Singh and other important Kukas were arrested on 19th January 1872.
The army officers came to Bhaini and said to Ram Singh, “You are under arrest. You must proceed to Ludhiana now.” Ram Singh replied, “I expected this long ago.” How were they to reach Ludhiana? There was a brief discussion and then Ram Singh himself settled it by ordering a bullock cart. A cart was brought to the Gurudwara to pick up the Guru. Ram Singh proceeded to take his seat in the cart. The grief of the simple village folk knew no bounds. Some were shedding tears silently, some others covered their faces with towels and began to weep loudly. It was a heart-rending scene at Bhaini. The scene was similar to that in Ayodhya when Lord Shri Rama left for the forest to spend 14 years there.
Jassa Singh, the father of Ram Singh, was continuously weeping. Even the younger brother Budh Singh was crying loudly. He offered to go to jail in the place of his brother. But how could Ram Singh agree to this? He consoled his brother saying, “Please do not weep. We have to pay the price for everything in this world. My life is the price for the freedom of Punjab and the country. We must all be prepared to suffer hardships.”
At first Ram Singh was kept in the prison at Allahabad. But Punjab was rather near this place.
So he was shifted to Rangoon in Burma. The Government was afraid to try Ram Singh in a court of law. It knew that there was no valid charge against him. Hence he was never tried at all.
But the activities of Ram Singh did not stop even then. He guided his disciples from inside the jail itself through his letters. His disciples used to go too far off Rangoon to meet their Guru.
When the Government got scent of this it tightened the security arrangements and forbade Ram Singh to meet any person.
Still, the letters came from Ram Singh. He used to tie his letters to small pebbles and throw them out of the jail. The disciples who were loitering outside would pick them up, They similarly sent their letters.
At last, the Government shifted him from Rangoon to Meragi. But the disciples reached even that place. Nearly 14 years were spent by Ram Singh in jail. The end came in 1885.
Hundreds of letters of Ram Singh had reached Punjab from the jail. They are full of affection for the disciples. And they show his keen understanding of the political situation at the time.
Though Ram Singh was mainly a religious leader he was an excellent warrior also. He fought for the freedom of the country. He was always thinking about the welfare of the country, even in jail, and never about himself. He was a religious teacher and taught his disciples to live a life of virtue; he also set an example of supreme self-sacrifice for the motherland.