The Problem with Nihang Singhs

I was fortunate to be blessed with Amrit a little less than two years ago, and I credit a lot of the knowledge and understanding that I gained on my journey to education charities such as Basics of Sikhi. However, along this journey, I came to be aware of Nihang Singhs, their tradition and their history. What I had not realised is that they face a very big problem in the Panth.

As I began to get deeper into Sikhi, watching videos online and attending Sikhi education courses, I came to learn more about the history of the Khalsa, the creation of the Akaal Senna, the Buddha Dal and Tarna Dal, the Rehitname of Puratan Sikhs and about Nihang Singh Maryada. I also became aware of Nihang Singhs within my own family, past and present, and I became good friends with Nihang Singhs all over the country.

What I learned was that Nihang Singhs, on average, are far, far more knowledgeable on GurSikhi than the average Sikh. I have been Amritdhari for nearly two years, and still I know next to nothing compared with most Nihang Singhs, or even Taksali Singhs in my Sangat, for that matter.

And this is where the problem lies, that today’s mainstream Sikh Sangat have very little appreciation for Nihang Singhs.

Sikh Channel

The catalyst for writing this article came after my second experience with UK TV station, the Sikh Channel. This past weekend, I attended the Sant Baba Ishar Singh Ji Smagam in West London, where I received Darshan of the UK’s Nihang Singhs.

As they do at most Smagams, the Nihang Singhs were doing Shardaiyan Seva, serving a sweet and spicy nut-based health drink as Degh or Prasad, and chatting to Sangat about Maryada, history and modern-day issues affecting the Panth, such as health and nutrition.

An elderly presenter from the Sikh Channel approached us and asked if he could do a piece-to-camera with the Nihang Singhs. Despite being relatively new to the GurSikhi, I have 12 years of experience in media so I joined a couple of the more knowledgeable Singhs to appear on camera, but even I was unprepared for what was to come next.

The presenter – who wore his beard long and proudly sported a large Dastar – seemed to have an agenda; to embarrass Nihang Singhs.

I know that this is a very bold claim to make and I have since been in contact with the Sikh Channel to clarify a few points, but read on and you will see that it is not entirely unfounded.

The interview began with the presenter asking one of the Nihang Singhs to say a few words on the Smagam. The Nihang Singh spokesperson, Nihang Lovejyot Singh of Birmingham, gave an excellent answer in fluent Punjabi, before repeating it again in fluent English for the non-Punjabi speakers.

He said that Smagams such as this are fantastic, because the whole Panth gets together. He praised Sant Baba Ishar Singh Ji and explained that such Mahapurakhs, regardless of Jatha, have the same focus and love for Naam and Gurbani.

He added that Sikhs from all over the country – from West to East, from South England to Scotland, get together to enjoy each other’s Sangat at this Smagam.

Lovejyot Singh added that while this Ekta is fantastic to see on special occasions such as the Smagam, it is important that we have Ekta in the Panth every day, and not only on the weekend.

I was very impressed by our Nihang Singh spokesperson. How often do you see a young Sikh who is fluent in Punjabi and English, knowledgeable on Sikh Itihaas, on Maryada, and on issues affecting the Panth today, while also being confident and charismatic on camera? I felt this is one young Singh the Panth would benefit from giving a lot more TV airtime to.

The presenter then moved on to another young Sikh, who was carrying a large, long, hardwood stick that is used as a “pestle” to grind herbs in a mortar, or stone bowl. In Nihang tradition, the hardwood stick is known as a “Salotar”.

The presenter proceeded to ask the young Singh what this stick is called in Punjabi. The Singh replied, showing much respect to his elder by calling him Baba Ji, that this is known as a Salotar, and is used to grind herbs as well as being used as a Shastar, a weapon, to fight enemies. The presenter was dissatisfied with this response and probed further as to what this stick is called in Punjabi.

The presenter then said that this stick is known as a Kottna. Lovejyot Singh once again chimed in to provide further explanation – he explained how the dialect of Nihang Singhs uses words that are rooted in Gurbani and Puratan Boli (Old Punjabi language).

He explained various different terms, and that in modern Punjabi a stick could be called a “Danda” or a Kottna, but Nihang Singhs prefer to call it Salotar or Akaldaan (a tool used to instill sense into a person).

The presenter soon wrapped up the interview. I searched for it online, but could not find it. The entire broadcast from the Smagam was avaiable to view on social media, but the interview with British Nihang Singhs seems to have been omitted.

I have asked on social media, emailed the Sikh Channel and spoken to their representatives on the phone. At the time of writing, 3 days after I first reached out to the Sikh Channel, I have still heard nothing back on the matter.

I do not want to single out the Sikh Channel, but I can’t ignore my experiences with this particular organisation. As a journalist, I have been fortunate to gain broadcast journalism experience in the BBC, with CNBC, and in corporate business media. Yet even though I am experienced in broadcast journalism, I never felt that the British-Sikh TV channels were the right place for me. I do not feel that they serve as a strong enough voice for the young, British Sikhs who are interested in authentic, fully-researched Sikhi in language that they understand.

Reading Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan 2016

My scepticism of the Sikh Channel was actually borne in my only other experience with them, which came at the Reading Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan in 2016, when I was very new to the Dal.

At this Nagar Kirtan, I was handing out Basics of Sikhi leaflets and speaking with non-Sikhs from Reading who were watching from the sidelines, explaining what a Nagar Kirtan was and why we were celebrating. I stuck closely with the Buddha Dal that day, and I was dressed in the traditional blue colour of Nihang Singhs.

At the time, videos had been going viral of British Sikhs at Nagar Kirtans who did not know why they were celebrating. Sikh TV presenters had been asking Sangat, on camera, to explain the story of Vaisakhi, and found that a lot of them could not. Many people shared these videos online.

At the Reading Nagar Kirtan, I was asked by a female presenter who spoke Punjabi if I would answer a few questions. I happily obliged, and we spoke for around 12 minutes. The first 10 minutes felt like a test, rather than a conversation.

I was asked why we celebrate Vaisakhi, and if I could name the Panj Pyare; Bhai Daya Singh Ji, Bhai Dharam Singh Ji, Bhai Himmat Singh Ji, Bhai Mohkam Singh Ji and Bhai Sahib Singh Ji.

I was asked if I could name the 9th Guru, Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji and when the Khalsa was initiated (1699). Fortunately, I was able to answer the presenter’s questions confidently and accurately, and I took heart from this. I was then asked a question about challenges facing the youth in the Panth, before the presenter concluded.

What aired was the final two minutes of our conversation with the first ten minutes cropped out. Interviews with other people that were broadcast from the Nagar Kirtan were a lot longer than mine – they seemed to have been presented in full – and not just a 2-minute clip.

I began to wonder what would have happened had I answered her questions wrongly. Would the full conversation then have been broadcast in full? Was the motive of this interview to embarrass me and make me go viral?

I know it is unfair to tar a whole organisation with the actions of a few. I still believe there are some people who work for the Sikh Channel and who do not have an agenda to denigrate the youth or the Nihang Singhs.

But the problem that I see that Nihang Singhs face today, is in the treatment they often receive by those claiming to represent mainstream Sikhi.