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After 133 years of anonymity, Kuka martyrs finally get a name

Bajinder Pal Singh

Posted: Jul 05, 2005 at 1505 hrs IST

They were the true precursors of the Independence movement in India. Long before martyrdom became the creed of the national movement, 66 Namdhari Sikhs stood in front of a British canon, raised the slogan of Sat Sri Akal and were blown apart.

But for a century-and-a-half, they were steeped in anonymity. Even the monument built in their honour at Malerkotla had no names - the khanda-like structure only had holes depicting the canon strike.

Today, the martyrs have finally got a name thanks to a dogged retired researcher who trolled through the archives of the Patiala dynasty. Last month, Malwinder Singh Waraich, former professor of Guru Nanak Dev Engineering College, Ludhiana, and now a practising advocate managed to lay hands on the list of the Namdhari martyrs, also known as Kukas.

Eureka was a mild word for Waraich. “Unlike the famous leaders of the famous struggle, who have museums dedicated to them with their relics lovingly preserved, few have shown interest in the Namdharis”, Waraich remarks. He quotes a 1928 essay by martyr Bhagat Singh to narrate their heroic feat. Forty-nine of them had already been blown apart by the canon. The 50th turned out to be a 13-year-old called Bishan Singh, whose two brothers had also fallen to the canon. Unfazed, the boy rushed to the deputy commissioner and tried to strangulate him. His heroicism did not last long, for he was cut into pieces by the soldiers.

But as Bhagat Singh wrote, unlike many “smart leaders” of the national movement, Kukas may not have been clever, but their bravery is astounding. Fifty of them died on January 17, 1872, and another 16 the following day. The Bengal Revolution Act 1818 was used for the first time on them, and within a day of their arrest, they were awarded capital punishment.

The lack of a credible list of martyrs was what rankled Waraich, when he was writing a book on their martyrdom during the tercentenary celebrations of the Khalsa. “I thought the list of martyrs would be readily available, but to my surprise, there was no such authenticated version”. Says Gurbachan Singh Namdhari, general secretary of Namdhari Sangat, “It is a fact that the authenticated list of martyrs was not available with us for a 133 years”. Another researcher who was working to unravel the names of the martyrs was Surinder Kaur Kharal who spent over a dozen years searching for it.

“Unfortunately, the historian Nahar Singh, who spent a quarter of a century researching on the Namdharis had expired”, says Waraich. The list of 16 persons who were martyred on January 18, 1872 was available in the official records, but not the list of 49 who were blown by the canon a day earlier. In 2002, Waraich discovered a 1878 publication where some record was available. But the remaining records had been herded by a tractor and dumped at another place.

Finally last April, a senior executive engineer called Waraich to inform him that the archival material had been traced. And finally the list of Namdharis who were arrested was falling into place. Surprisingly, it included two women as well. “It was difficult to decipher the record, as it is written in shorthand Urdu. But the task is now complete”, Waraich adds.

Why were they killed?

The Namdharis were protesting against cow slaughter which resulted in an altercation between them and the Muslims. The Muslim judge at Malerkotla ordered that an ox be butchered before the eyes of a protesting Namdhari named Gurmukh Singh. Following this, a batch of about 2O0 Namdharis proceeded towards Kotla to avenge the wrong. On the morning of January 15, there was a bloody skirmish between the Namdharis and the officials of the Malerkotla state that left eight men from Kotla and seven Namdharis dead. Later, they were arrested by the Patiala State, and the Deputy Commissioner ordered that they should be blown apart.

Claim to be freedom fighters

Apart from those who died in the Kama Gata Maru incident, Malerkotla martyrs are not accorded the status of freedom fighters. Waraich filed a petition in the High Court demanding this right. Though the Union government initially insisted that they were not freedom fighters, a change of heart has come about recently. In a letter to the Chairman of Minorities Commission, Tarlochan Singh, the Union Minister of State for Home has claimed that it would not contest the plea.

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