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Government Moves To Rein In Hola Mohalla





Those of us who admire the Holla Mohalla festivities are in for a rude shock next March.

The Drainage Department of the Government of Punjab has hurriedly erected a new, five-foot high embankment around two hundred meters from the pavilion of the stadium at Anandpur Sahib, the site of the festivities.

This has drastically shrunk the size of the grounds that host the exquisite display of Nihang Singhs performing incredible feats with arms and horses every year.

To put matters in context, for centuries the rivulet Charan Ganga has flowed near the stadium but it is a rain river. Now that the embankment has come up, thick shrubs have overtaken the fertile soil of the riverbed.

Nihang Lakhan Singh of the Tarn Taran branch of the Taruna Dal says, 'The horses need a ten-acre run up to the stadium. That is when they ease into a trot and we can stand on two of them without holding the reins and display our feats with spears and swords ... Else, the audience crowds in. Instead of giving us more ground, the authorities have drastically reduced it.'

In 1999, the Sikh community celebrated its third centenary. The government of Punjab decided to mark the occasion with a memorial museum - Virasat-e-Khalsa. The estimated budget was Rs 350 crore out of which the Central Government contributed 100 crore.

The historic city benefitted. Gurdwaras were refurbished, the Bus Stand was upgraded, the roads were remade, even the lanes were laid with coloured tiles. That is when the Nihang Singhs sought the city authorities’ intervention to help maintain the stadium where they conduct the Holla Mohalla celebrations.

A few years later, while the Virasat-e-Khalsa building was being constructed, the then sub-Divisional Magistrate ("SDM") Arvinder Pal Singh Sandhu took a keen interest in the matter that the Nihangs had raised. He conducted the survey of the adjoining lands and marked a track for the horses. He presented the case to the Municipal Committee and discussed the matter even at the Chief Minister's office.

The Nihangs asked for permission to bring their own implements and flatten the ground, make it conducive to conduct their activities. The municipality asked them to wait.

Then the SDM was transferred and that sidelined the matter.

The festival went on drawing bigger and bigger crowds (between 200,000 and 300,000) who huddle into the small stadium. Accidents happen: minor stampedes, for example.

Last year a horse trampled a photographer, and so on.

At the Nihang Dera at Shaheedi Bagh behind Anandgarh Fort and Gurdwara, land hallowed by the blood of martyrs since the time of the Guru, Yarro Singh says, "Go ask them. Since the Santa Singh episode in 1984, their regard for us has changed."

In 1984, Santa Singh, the head of Buddha Dal, upon requests by the Congress Minister Buta Singh and the then President Giani Zail Singh, had supported the hurried rebuilding of the Akal Takht in Amritsar in the days immediately following Operation Blue Star, during which the Akal Takht was razed to the ground by the Indian Army.

The Sikh community had rejected the governmment's attempt to hide its ignominy by hastily reconstructing the Akal Takht, before it reopened the Golden Temple complex to the public.

Santa Singh forged ahead and fulfilled the government's wishes, ignoring the outraged sentiments of the community. Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee ("SGPC") promptly declared him a tankhaayia - an apostate.

Later, when the SGPC asked him to ban the use of sukka (cannabis) in his dera, Santa Singh had condemned its use by the Nihangs but had expressed his helplessness in enforcing the ban.

Now Bhai Balbir Singh heads the Patiala-based Buddha Dal.

"But, isn’t this Anandpur Sahib land where it all originated?"

"'Yes"' says Lakha Singh. "See, we follow the rehat maryada from the time of the Guru. Unlike many Gurdwaras who are now unable to afford langar or shelter, you can come to our dera anytime day or night and be assured of care. Yet the lights are dimming. The gurdwaras, the SGPC, even the administration, is no longer very interested in preserving our living legacy. In fact, the lights are at their lowest ever in history."

"So, why don't you agitate?"

"When one knows that one would suffer the most in an attack, then is there logic in attacking?"

Now that is a very un-Nihang like outlook for it was Guru Gobind who said, 'purja purja kat mare / kabhoon na chaadey khet.'

Yet, I do not bring it up.

"But, you know, it is when the light dims the most that it becomes ready for another blaze ... It is about time now that things have to change.'

I laugh when Lakha Singh says, "Where do the Nihangs come from? For a while it looked like our dera wasn't getting new recruits. Then suddenly last year we got seven or eight new boys. We did not erupt from the land; the Sikhs too did not suddenly erupt. There is history …"

I ask eight-year-old Udham Singh how long it took him to learn to tie the complex layered-turban he is wearing.

"One month," he says and smiles.

I wonder at his smile. I wonder if Udham Singh is aware of all that entails in his choice to grow up a Nihang Singh. I wonder if he would be able to live a life dedicated to a cause but in which the way the world looks upon the Nihang Singhs is as if they are attractive museum pieces, more ceremonial than participatory and now even those ceremonies are being truncated.

On my way back, Shinda, the auto-rickshaw driver says, 'The Nihangs are silent but when they are agitated, they are like wasps. If they apply themselves to it, they would get their stadium.'

The legend survives.

I console myself, looking at the under-construction Gurdwara at Shaheedi Bagh.

Nine months to Holla Mohalla.

Will anything get done?

[Amandeep Singh Sandhu is the author of Sepia Leaves and the upcoming fiction on 1984:  Roll of Honour.]

June 20, 2012 

Conversation about this article

1: Sharandeep Singh (Glasgow, Scotland), June 20, 2012, 6:04 AM.

It was actually Bhagat Kabir who said 'purja purja kat mare / kabhoon na chaadey khet. Interesting article - highlighting the attack on the sovereign celebration of the great Nihang warriors.

2: Amandeep Singh Sandhu (Delhi, India), June 20, 2012, 12:25 PM.

Thanks, Sharandeep, for raising the point. I am aware that a controversy exists over the authorship of the quote. I learnt it from my father when I was a child and he ascribed it to Guru Gobind Singh ji. However, if you are correct, so be it. Anyway, the point is that the Nihangs suddenly feel bereft and I feel we should focus on that.

3: Gurinder Singh (San Diego, California, U.S.A.), June 20, 2012, 1:57 PM.

There is no controversy. The line is a direct quote from Guru Granth Sahib. It is by Bhagat Kabir.

4: Rosalia (Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A.), June 20, 2012, 3:17 PM.

For me, an outsider, an article about a colorful group. Maybe all of us should be like the Nihang warriors, silent, except when agitated.

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