RĀM SIṄGH, BĀBĀ (1816-1885), leader of the Nāmdhārī or Kūkā movement in the Punjab, was born on 3 February 1816, in the village of Bhāīṇī Arāīāṅ, in Ludhiāṇā district. Rām Siṅgh was the eldest among the four children of Jassā Siṅgh and his wife, Sadā Kaur. Rām Siṅgh was married at the tender age of 7, such child marriages being common in the Punjab in those days. His wife, whose name was Jassāṅ, bore him two daughters, Nand Kaur and Dayā Kaur. In the village, he learnt to read the Gurū Granth Sāhib. At the age of 20, he joined the Sikh army under Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh and was assigned to Kaṅvar Nau Nihāl Siṅgh's regiment.
In 1841, the regiment moved to Peshāwar, where he met Bābā Bālak Siṅgh (1799-1862), a saintly person preaching a simple way of life in keeping with the teachings of the Gurūs. After the first Anglo-Sikh war (1845-46), Rām Siṅgh resigned his army service and returned to Bhaiṇī. He became a sharecropper, started a grocery shop and worked for a short time in 1855-56 as a building contractor at Fīrozpur. At the same time, he continued to disseminate the message of his mentor, Bābā Bālak Siṅgh. On Baisākhī day, 14 April 1857, he laid down the code of conduct for his followers. The Nāmdhārīs or Kūkās as they were called (from kūk, Punjabi for a shriek or shout for, while chanting the sacred hymns, they worked themselves up to such ecstatic frenzy that they would begin dancing and shouting) were enjoined to abstain from eating meat, drinking and worshipping of tombs or samādhs and to lead simple and chaste lives. An elaborate agency for missionary work was set up. The name of the head in the district—sūbā, meaning governor — had a significant, though remote, political implication. There were altogether twenty two such sūbās, besides two jathedārs or group leaders for each tahsīl and a granthī, Scripture-reader or priest, for each village. Bābā Rām Siṅgh remained antagonistic to the rule of the British and his prediction about its early recession was implicitly believed by his followers. The boycott of British goods, government schools, government service, law courts and of the postal service, and the exhortation to wear only home-spun cloth (khaddar) he propagated anticipated in 1860's a major thrust of the nationalist movement in the country.
A spirit of fanatical national fervour and religious zeal marked the growing Kūkā order of which the personality of Bābā Rām Siṅgh was the focal point. The prospect was not looked upon with equanimity by government, who after the incidents of 1857, had become extra watchful. When in 1863, Bābā Rām Siṅgh wanted to go to Amritsar for Baisākhī celebrations to which he had invited his followers from all over the Punjab, the civil authorities became alarmed and permission for Kūkās to assemble for a religious fair was given only reluctantly. But two months later, when Rām Siṅgh announced a meeting to be held at Khoṭe, a village in Fīrozpur district, prohibitory orders were issued banning all Kūkā meetings. The Kūkā organization was subjected to strict secret vigilance. It was bruited about that Bābā Rām Siṅgh was raising an army to fight the English. Bhaiṇī and Hazro were kept under constant watch, and under the orders of the Punjab government, Bābā Rām Siṅgh was detained in his village.
Early in 1867, Bābā Rām Siṅgh's request to be allowed to visit Muktsar on the sacred day of Māghī was refused by government. His alternative request was for permission to hold a fair in his own village on the occasion of Holī but the civil authority insisted on restricting the number of those who might visit Bhaiṇī on that day. Meanwhile, Bābā Rām Siṅgh decided to celebrate the festival at Anandpur Sāhib where Sikhs gathered for this purpose from all over the Punjab. The Lieut-Governor gave him the permission, but police and civil officers were appointed to watch over the movement of the pilgrims. Bābā Rām Siṅgh set out in great state. He was accompanied by twenty-one of his sūbās on horseback and by more than two thousand of his followers on foot, with a large number of drums and banners. The visit went off peacefully, and the government were led to shedding much of their suspicion. All restrictions on Bābā Rām Siṅgh's freedom were withdrawn, but the truce did not last long. The followers of Bābā Rām Siṅgh, who had a deep sentiment of reverence for the cow, had strongly resented the opening of beef shops in the sacred city of Amritsar. On the night of 14 June 1871, some of them attacked the butchers, killing four and injuring another three. A similar incident took place at Rāikoṭ, in Ludhiāṇā district, where three persons were killed. When the government took action against the Kūkās, they became defiant. The government charged them with sedition and the Commissioner of Ambālā Division recommended severe official measures against them including the deportation of their leader, Bābā Rām Siṅgh.
Towards the end of 1871, the Punjab Government placed a ban on the Kūkās assembling for any festival or fair outside of Bhaiṇī. Bābā Rām Siṅgh, who was refused permission to go to Muktsar for the Māghī fair, issued messages to his followers to come to Bhaiṇī for celebrating the festival. Kūkās were in a state of great excitement, and the atmosphere at Bhainī was tense. The storm that had been gathering burst. On the morning of 15 January 1872 Kūkās numbering more than a hundred reached Mālerkoṭlā and suddenly made an attack upon the treasury. In the fracas that followed eight policemen including an officer lost their lives. Sixty-eight of the Kūkās were captured who were blown off the guns on the afternoon of 17 January without any trial. Bābā Rām Siṅgh was exiled from the Punjab along with ten of his sūbās and taken to Allāhābād. From Allāhābād he was taken to Rangoon where he was detained under the Bengal Act of 1818. He lived in the same place where the last Mughal emperor, Bahādur Shāh Zafar, had been kept, similarly charged.
For fourteen weary years, Bābā Rām Siṅgh suffered confinement. His deep faith in the Almighty and the undiminished devotion of his followers sustained him in that solitary state. Every now and then some bold spirits, braving many a hazarad, succeeded in circumventing the guards and seeing their leader, even though for a short while. A regular system of correspondence was maintained in this manner. Many of Bābā Rām Siṅgh's letters have been preserved and a representative selection was published by Dr Gaṇḍā Siṅgh a few years before his death. The latters reveal Bābā Rām Siṅgh's undying faith, his strength of character and his love for his followers.
Bābā Rām Siṅgh passed away on 29 November 1885, but many of his followers did not believe it. Long after it, they continued to hope that he would one day come to the Punjab and free India from the shackles of the English.
M. L. Āhlūwālīā