Twenty kilometres from Haryana’s Karnal, in a gurudwara landlocked by green farms, rests the body of Baba Ram Singh. On Wednesday, Singh shot and killed himself at the protest against the farm laws at Singhu on Delhi’s border.
“To support farmers, some have returned their awards to the government. I have decided to sacrifice myself," that Baba Ram purportedly left behind.
Baba Ram, 65, was a revered Sikh priest based out of Karnal’s Singhra village, where he ran the Ek Onkar Ashram, home to the towering Nanaksar gurudwara. Thousands poured into the ashram this morning to pay tribute to the priest who had made the village his home nearly three decades ago.
The priest’s body was wrapped in a blanket and kept inside a glass casket in the gurudwara’s main hall, segregated into two for men and women. Despondent devotees from towns and villages across Punjab and Haryana bowed before their “sant” and offered prayers, flowers and money. Some wept while others stared blankly at the casket resting before giant portraits of the Sikh gurus.
“Whenever a great man dies, the impact is equally great,” said Amarjeet Singh, a close associate of Baba Ram Singh, when asked about the impact of the priest’s death on the farmer protests. “This is a result of the government turning a deaf ear to the farmer protests.”
Nanaksar Gurudwara at the Ek Onkar Ashram in Karnal.
Devotees pay tribute to Baba Ram Singh at Nanaksar gurudwara.
Amarjeet added that he and “sant sahab” had first been to Singhu on December 9, where Baba Ram donated Rs 5 lakh to the protest. On December 15, they travelled to Tikri border and distributed blankets among the protesters.
“He returned at 2.30 am that night and left once again at 10 am on December 16 without informing me,” Amarjeet said.
Mahinder Singh, another associate of the priest, claimed that Baba Ram did not attend any phone call that day. “He had been crestfallen in the past week, pained by the plight of the farmers.”
On the evening of December 16, the priest, who had a bad leg, asked his companions to head to the protest stage while he stayed behind in his car. He gave them detailed instructions for a prayer recital. A young follower accompanying him was asked to fetch a cup of tea. The priest then locked the car from inside, covered up the windows, and shot himself in the head.
An alleged suicide note on social media by late evening. “I feel the pain of farmers fighting to ensure their rights,” it read. “I share their pain because the government is not doing justice to them. To inflict injustice is a sin, but it is also a sin to tolerate injustice.”
“It was only one page of a 10-page note,” said Amarjeet. “He wrote that it was a well-thought out decision, and that his suicide was actually a sacrifice to the farmer protests in face of the government’s injustice. It was his contribution to the movement.”
Baba Ram Singh was the successor of Baba Jang Singh. According to local residents, Jang Singh’s guru, Baba Ishar Singh, laid the foundation of the Nanaksar gurudwara in Karnal in the early 1960s. When 34 Sikhs were allegedly killed in police custody in Punjab in September 1982, Jang Singh and fellow Akalis the Parliament in Delhi with swords and spears. He was killed after the police opened fire.
Baba Ram Singh, who moved to Nanaksar gurudwara from Ludhiana in 1983, became the head priest in 1990. He organised religious recitals all over the world, including England, Canada and Australia.
At 12 pm on Thursday, Sukhbir Singh Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal arrived at the gurudwara, surrounded by musclemen and hounded by journalists. Badal, whose party left the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance in September over the contentious farm bills, duly paid his respects to the priest and sat down with his associates for half an hour.
Sukhbir Singh Badal with Baba Ram Singh’s associates and followers at the Nanaksar gurudwara.
The main hall at the Nanaksar gurudwara in Karnal.
Patinder Singh clears the soil at Baba Ram Singh’s funeral site at the Nanaksar gurudwara.
“We should take santji’s body to the Parliament to send a message to the government,” said one follower. Badal looked up and responded: “Ab ye pure qaum ki jung hai.” This is now a battle of the entire community.
As Badal stood up to leave, a female follower’s voice boomed through the hall: “Bole so nihal”. “Sat Sri Akal,” hundreds cried in unison.
The media, sections of which have been , were not spared. After Badal left, Amarjeet took the microphone to make an announcement.
“One lady has said that the suicide note does not contain santji’s handwriting,” he began. “It is insinuated that he was murdered. This is the function of the useless media. They put a mic before anyone who can say anything. Who is this random woman to claim what santji’s handwriting was like?”
When I turned to a nearby follower, one Jaspal Singh from Karnal, to help me translate Amarjeet’s admonishment, he looked startled. “Don’t write anything unnecessary!” he exclaimed.
The atmosphere at the religious site was calm throughout the afternoon. Outside the gurudwara, men actively levelled the ground for the funeral scheduled for noon on Friday.
“He always preached compassion and brotherhood and asked his followers to abide by the principles of Guru Nanak,” said Patinder Singh, 45, who cleared the soil at the funeral site. “He once came to my village and blessed every household, regardless of their faith. It is a huge loss.”
Conversations with Baba Ram Singh’s young followers revealed the underlying anger against the Centre's seemingly intractable differences with the protesting farmers.
Sunny, 22, who travelled to Singhra from his village 70 km away, told Newslaundry that Baba Ram’s death will add momentum to the protests against the farm laws. “The government must cancel the laws,” he said. “Else, there is the public; who knows what it can do when they are not heard.”
Jaspal Singh explained that Baba Ram Singh’s “qurbani” will add greater pressure on the government to repeal the laws.
“That is the change that santji wanted, to make this government feel the pain of the farmers, which it does not, but it will,” he said. He then stood up, faced the direction of the priest’s casket, put his hands together, and bowed down one last time.
“Don’t write anything unnecessary,” he repeated, and walked away.
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