The Akali Nihangs represent the traditional Sikh martial order. Within, the older sub-order is the Buddha Dal which informally emerged with the Akal Takht in 1606, and formally in 1735. The present 'Gurdev' (teacher) of the Akali Nihang Baba Darbara Singh Sanatan Suraj Bansia Shastar Vidiya Shiv Akhara, is Nidar Singh Nihang. As all previous Gurdevs of the Akhara, he is a Nihang affiliated to the Buddha Dal.
The Akharas were traditionally seen as martial arts schools within the 'Misls' (confederacies / regiments) of the Buddha Dal. This particular Akhara belonged to the 'Misl' of Baba Mastana Singh, which later came to be known as 'Karora Singh Misl'. In the tenure of the sixth and last 'Misl' head, Baba Baghel Singh (d.1802), the regimentwas dissolved as Baba Baghel carved out a kingdom for himself.
Even after the dissolving of the 'Misl' this Shiv Akhara remained attached to Baba Baghel Singh; it was later headed by Gurdev Baba Lakha Singh (1720-1830) who continued to train Baghel Singh's warriors. However, a year before his death, due to a certain disagreement over provisions, the Akhara split from Baba Baghel Singh. Even though the apologetic Baghel Singh entreated Gurdev Baba Lakha Singh to return to his kingdom, the stubborn old Gurdev left him and his territories. He made his way to the neighbouring Sikh kingdom of Lahore, which was at the time headed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
In 1802, Baba Baghel Singh passed away and his kingdom was annexed by Ranjit Singh. Shortly after, Gurdev Baba Lakha Singh declared he and the Akhara were 'Sutantar' (independent). Although the Akhara was a loyal Akhara of Buddha Dal, from this point on, it maintained its independence; to train warriors without any political interference from its parent martial orders, or Hindu Sikh kingdoms. This tradition of fierce independence has been maintained to this day.
Gurdev Nidar Singh Nihang is a proud Buddha Dal warrior; to date, no one has done more to lift the profile of Akali Nihang tradition around the world than he. He has, through himself and the work of his 'shagirds' (students) exposed the populace at large to the Akali Nihang name in the form of websites, books, seminars, and documentaries.
During the tenure of the 13th Shromani Jathedar (supreme head) of Buddha Dal, Akali Nihang Baba Santa Singh (1928-2008), Gurdev Nidar Singh had full respect and backing of Buddha Dal; he was also very close to the Jathedar. In a letter drafted by Baba Santa Singh, he thanks the Gurdev for gifting old Nihang images to the Buddha Dal, and addresses the Gurdev as Jathedar (head). Nihang Nidar Singh is considered a Nihang Jathedar representing the Buddha Dal in the UK; this is not common knowledge, primarily as he has not openly claimed this till more recently.
During the winter of 2005, Gurdev Nidar Singh Nihang, whilst being mindful of Baba Santa Singh's age and health, presented his research on the 'Dal Panth' (also known as the Buddha Dal, the oldest Sikh military order) to the veteran Jathedar. In fact, Baba Santa Singh had instructed Nidar Singh in the late 1980s to research and document the history of the Buddha Dal. The work itself was in the form of a book, written in English. As such, the elderly Baba Santa Singh and his nephew Uday Singh handed the work to Ranjodh Singh, a respected industrialist from Ludhiana, Punjab. Ranjodh Singh's own family has long been associated with the Buddha Dal. Meanwhile, as Ranjodh Singh went through the work, Nidar Singh made his way to Patiala where he sat with the learned Akali Nihang Baba Dyal Singh and discussed the more controversial points more thoroughly. The controversy only existed if one viewed the work through the eyes of modern revisionist Sikhs.
Later that same month, on 24th November 2005, Baba Santa Singh received a report back from Ranjodh Singh through Uday Singh. The elderly Baba Dyal Singh headed a ten-man, closed forum review committee where all controversial facets of the research were thoroughly discussed. In concluding the forum, Baba Santa Singh gave his unequivocal and full approval by presenting Nidar Singh with a 'Siropa' (robe of honour).
Akali Nihang Baba Santa Singh also ensured that Ranjodh Singh, through Uday Singh, noted a few words of approval in English on an official Buddha Dal letter. Upon Uday Singh explained the nature of the contents to Baba Santa Singh, the Jathedar signed and presented it to Nidar Singh.
In order to ensure proper documentation of the review process, the remaining nine members of the review committee where interviewed after the 'Siropa' ceremony. They stated who they were, why they were present, and their views on Nidar Singh Nihang's research.
Gurdev Nidar Singh Nihang also has excellent relationships with the younger Nihang orders, the Tarna Dals.
In 2007, the well-known British historian and weapon master Mike Loades managed to convince the Discovery Channel USA to film a documentary on the 'chakar' (quoit) in India in a series named Weapon Masters. He had met Nidar Singh a few years earlier at a seminar that took place at the Wallace Collection in London.
In order to ensure support for this documentary from the Nihangs in India, Nidar Singh contacted all the major Akali Nihang Dals prior to his arrival. All appeared to be going according to plan, however, a day before Nidar Singh was to fly off to India, all anarchy was let loose in the ranks of the Buddha Dal. Two opposing factions had been involved in an intense fire fight, resulting in four members of Jathedar Balbir Singh's family being tragically killed. The Buddha Dal was to be the star of the documentary; this was not going to be the case any longer. After a great deal of effort and tireless negotiating, Nidar Singh managed to get the elderly Nihang leader Baba Daya Singh Bidhi Chandia onto his side. In doing so, he managed to provide the impetus which would see the Baba Bakala and Bidhi Chandia Nihangs fully participated in this documentary.
In 2008, the 300th anniversary of the inauguration of the Granth Sahib as the eternal Sikh Guru took place at Nanded, Maharashtra. Nidar Singh was present at Hazoor Sahib for the imminent release of his book (co-authored by Parmjit Singh), In The Masters Presence, The Sikhs of Hazoor Sahib Vol.1. The Buddha Dal Nihang faction representing Baba Surjit Singh and the Baba Bakala Tarna Dals, the two of the leading Nihang Dals, provided Nidar Singh a message for the Sikh nation on this auspicious occasion. These letters are signed and stamped by Jathedar Baba Joginder Singh and Jathedar Baba Makhan Singh themselves.
As Baba Santa Singh passed away in 2007, two claimants to Buddha Dal leadership emerged in India. This resulted in bloodshed. Over the course of time, certain Nihang factions in India and their allies in UK began to disapprove of Nidar Singh, especially due to his neutral non-political stance. More recently, a falsified letter has appeared in UK claiming Nihang elders in India have sought Gurdev Nidar Singh's excommunication from the Sikh faith.
In keeping with the independent nature of the Shiv Akhara, as established historically, Gurdev Nidar Singh states:
"Whilst I respect all my good Nihang brothers and sisters, my duty to my ancestors and the Akhara demands I staying independent of all politics and religion. I adhere to teaching the martial skills and traditions of the Akhara."
It is truly a sad state of affairs to view such hate and acrimony from envious fellow Sikhs towards Gurdev Nidar Singh, especially in light of how much he and his 'shagirds' (students) have done to preserve and promote Sikh culture globally. Ironically, it is the larger non-Sikh world that is appreciative in recognising the achievements of Nidar Singh. He has been recognised as "The Last Sikh Warrior" with respect to being the only master of Sanatan Shastar Vidiya in existence. In 2011, the BBC World Service broadcast a radio documentary that reached millions across the globe. This was shortly followed by a diverse range of international press coverage about his mission.
In 2009, Gurdev Nidar Singh Nihang had appeared in an article titled "Ancient but deadly: The return of Shastar Vidiya" for which he received great accolades for preserving this ancient art form.
Within the martial arts world, Sanatan Shastar Vidiya has gained international recognition from the foremost masters and martial artists. Once again with this widespread coverage, the profile of the Nihang Sikh warrior has been elevated around the world. As the art spreads across the globe and establishes itself internationally, it can only be seen as positive for the Sikh martial tradition.
Given the accolades and recognition Gurdev Nidar Singh and Sanatan Shastar Vidiya has received, it is disappointing to realise that amongst many revisionist Sikhs from the 'Gatka', Nihang, and mainstream S.G.P.C. (mainstream Sikh governing body) affiliated world still confuse it with Gatka. Indeed, many Gatka practitioners have hijacked the term 'Shastar Vidiya' in an attempt to deceive their target audience. Word has also been received of conferences being held at Fatehgarh Sahib where Sikhs with such limited foresight are discussing actions against Nidar Singh Nihang.
Many Sikhs from these same associations do not approve of Gurdev Nidar Singh openly teaching people, regardless of race, religion, political affiliation, or caste. The extent of their paranoid character can be seen in a recent edict on the teaching of Gatka. On 23rd November 2012, the five supreme clergy within the mainstream Sikh world, headed by the Akal Takht Jathedar, Singh Sahib Gurbachan Singh, held a gathering in Amritsar. They declared:
"Only the readers of Sikh scripture and wearers of Sikh dress (i.e. five K's), the Guru's Sikhs can do Gatka."
(Desh Pardes, dated 7-12-2012, 19)
In contrast, Gurdev Nidar Singh Nihang welcomes people of all backgrounds, and does not limit the teaching of Sanatan Shastar Vidiya to any particular religion or race. He states:
"Many practitioners of Gatka employ their art as a deceptive tool to hoodwink and gain converts to Sikhism. This is a vile distortion of Guru Nanak / Gobind Singh's teachings. Deception undermines the very spirit of any true faith. In essence, all is already ultimately within One 'Brahm'(infinite One); and nothing else. My Gurdev, Baba Mohinder Singh always taught that if we learn from each other, and respect each other, the world will easily become a better world; thus we will begin to see the 'Brahm' in its infinite hues in all."
(Gurdev Nidar Singh Nihang)
In opening up the world of Sanatan Shastar Vidiya to all, he holds regular seminars, both individually and collaboratively alongside other leading martial arts masters such as Tuhon Pat O'Malley and Maul Mornie. They too share his love of martial arts. Thankfully, the Shiv Akhara numbers are steadily growing daily across the world. Furthermore, the Gurdev states:
"Over the course of history, Shastar Vidiya has sojourned with a variety of different peoples and cultures. It does not only belong to Sikhs, but to all humanity. The Akali Nihang Baba Darbara Singh Sanatan Suraj Bansia Shastar Vidiya Shiv Akhara is its latest custodian."
(Gurdev Nidar Singh Nihang)
In order to contextualise Sanatan Shastar Vidiya through the traditional Hindu Sikh culture it arose from, the Gurdev put pen to paper. The aim was to ensure preservation of the art. As with many other sophisticated martial cultures in the world, in the Indian Kshatriya martial tradition, the pen and sword go hand-in-hand. Over the years, the Gurdev and inspiring his Shagirds (students), in setting up their own publishing house with the motto: "Illuminating books. Illuminating minds", have published several academically-acclaimed historical works. In addition, they have staged successful exhibitions that highlight the beauty and sophistication of their Indian Sikh heritage.
In 2011, members of the Akhara staged a very successful exhibition based upon the history of the Hari Mandir Sahib (Golden Temple) at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London. An estimated 22,000 people from across the globe attended the 10-week event; one of the most popular events the gallery is said to have hosted for over a decade (https://www.soas.ac.uk/gallery/goldentemple).
Gurdev Nidar Singh has managed to galvanise the best and most intelligent of Sikh youth, and inspired them to research and preserve their great heritage. His efforts in de-radicalising Sikh youth have managed to reconnect them back with their Indian roots. Aside from his own community, employing the vehicle of Sanatan Shastar Vidiya, Nidar Singh is connecting with the other great peoples of the world. The Gurdev explains:
"Ultimately, the truth is that we humans have more things in common with each other than we do differences. So let us concentrate on the similarities; learning from each other, and progressing, rather than arguing over the few differences. A Punjabi saying goes: 'Five digits of the hand are never the same.' Yet only on them uniting can the hand become strong and function properly."
(Gurdev Nidar Singh Nihang)