After the fall of the kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, there were several attempts to raise the old glory of the Khalsa. Several movements to reform Sikhism started. After the British occupation of Punjab in 1849, Sikhism was subjected to active onslaught first by the proselytizing Christian Missions and later by the hindu militant sect known as Arya Samaj.
The decay of Sikhism had started in the very heyday of Sikh power. Brahminism had asserted itself with the rise of Dogras and Brahmins at the Sikh court in the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. With them had once again come the worship of stones, idols and tombs. Hinduism had actually pushed images into the holy precincts of a number of Sikh shrines where in contradiction to the spirit of Sikhism, idol worship was being practised. A number of persons, who posed as Gurus had arrogated to themselves the position and priveleges to which they had laid claims as self-appointed successors of Guru Nanak. They also reintroduced Brahminical rites and rituals connected with birth, marriage and death, and encouraged pilgrimages to Hardwar and other Hindu sacred places. The relapse of Sikhism into Hinduism was thus in progress.
The enlightened section of Sikh community were perturbed on the growing laxity of character and irreligiousness among them. A number of Sikh thinkers began to assert themselves in order to restore the faith to its original purity, to revive and revitalise the Sikh way of worship, life and conduct. This reformist zeal gave birth to two reform movements known as Nirankari and Namdhari movements.
The movement was started by Baba Dayal Singh (1783-1855) a Sehajdhari Sikh whose main mission was to bring Sikhs back to the Adi Granth and nam-simaran. Baba Dayal Singh revived the purity in the Sikh form of marriage and funeral ceremonies, and discountenanced all Brahmanical superstitions associated with birth and death. He preached avoidance of intoxicants, abstinence from meat and bowing only before Guru Granth Sahib and worshipping only Nirankar the Formless Lord.
Baba Dayal Singh's successor Baba Darbara Singh established many centres beyond Rawalpindi and wrote about the essential teachings of Baba Dayal. The sect had grown considerably and the third successor, Sahib Rattaji (1870-1909) kept the Nirankaris in order via strict adherence to their rahit (Khalsa code of conduct). At this time they numbered in the thousands and some had taken interest in the Singh Sabha movements (see entries on Singh Sabhas), under the fourth successor Baba Gurdit Singh.
The Nirankari Sikh movement did creditable work in fighting Brahmanical autocracy which had invaded the Sikhs and pervaded their faith. But as Baba Dayal Das did not keep unshorn hair and beard, he, inspite of his excellent noble qualities, failed to observe the Khalsa Rehat and therefore could not be accepted as a leader by the Sikh community as a whole. His followers brought further deviations in the norms of Sikhism: they greeted each other with the words 'Dhann Nirankar' and they have a different flag of their own. They also have made some changes in Ardas (Sikh prayer). After the partition of India, Baba Hara Singh established a centre at Chandigarh and organised the scattered Nirankaris throughout the country. presently Baba Gurbax Singh is the leader of Nirankari sect.
Because of deviations from the code of conduct of Khalsa, the Nirankari sect is not considered to be the mainstream of Sikhism and the Khalsa. The key belief that questions their orthodoxy is their belief in the continuation of the line of human Gurus after Guru Gobind Singh. Therefore they do not believe in the orthodox view of the Adi Granth being the last and only eternal Guru for all Sikhs.
To avoid any confusion it is necessary to mention that Sant Nirankari Mission or Mandal was started by seccessionist Nirankari and is not the same as Nirankari sect. The Nirankar Mandal was registered in Delhi in 1947. Its votaries do not believe in ethics of any religion and are free to eat, drink and indulge in such idulgences which are strictly prohibited by Sikhism. It is the Nirankari Mandal with which Sikhism came in an open confrontation on April 13, 1978 in which thirteen devout Sikhs were killIed, giving rise to the present political religious upheavals and awakening among the sikh masses.
Baba Dayal Singh, a man of a humble origin, preached against the rites and rituals that were creeping into Sikhism. He saw that Sikhism was being assimiliated into Hindusim in front of his eyes. His main target was the worship of images against which he preached vigorously. He re-emphasized the Sikh belief in Nirankar the Formless One. From this, the movement originating from his message came to be known as the Nirankari movement.
Situation after the fall of Sarkar Khalsa was were such that to quote Sardar Harbans Singh in Heritage of the Sikhs he says "The Sikhs were deeply galled at the fall of their kingdom, but not unduly dismayed. They attributed the outcome of their contest with the English to the chances of war. They were also aware that, despite the deceitfulness of courtiers such as Lal Singh and Tej Singh, they had fought the ferringhi squarely, and maintained their manly demeanour even in defeat. In this mood, it was easier for them to be reconciled to their lot after normalcy was restored. The peaceful spell which followed, however, produced an attitude of unwariness. Conventional and superstitious ritual which, forbidden by the Gurus, had become acceptable as an adjunct of regal pomp and ceremony during the days of Sikh power gained an increasing hold over the Sikh mind. The true teachings of the Gurus which had supplied Sikhism its potent principle of reform and regeneration were obscured by this rising tide of conservatism. The Sikh religion was losing its characteristic vigour and its votaries were relapsing into beliefs and dogmas from which the Gurus' teaching had extricated them. Absorption into ceremonial Hinduism seemed the course inevitably set for them."
Two factors which separated the Sikhs from other Punjabis were the outward marks of their faith, especially the kesas. Baba Dyal's influence was confined to the north-western districts of the Punjab. In 1851, he founded at Rawalpindi the Nirankari Darbar and gave this body the form of a sect. On his death, four years later, he was succeeded in the leadership of the community by his son, Baba Darbara Singh. The latter continued to propagate his father's teachings, prohibiting idolatrous worship, the use of alcohol and extravagant expenditure on weddings. He introduced in the Rawalpindi area the anand form of marrying rite. Anand, an austerely simple and inexpensive ceremony, became a cardinal point with leaders of subsequent Sikh reformation movements.
Sardar Harbans Singh ji further quote "What an unambiguous, crucial development the Nirankari movement was in Sikh life will be borne out by this excerpt from the annual report of the Ludhiana Christian Mission for 1853:
Sometime in the summer we heard of a movement . . . which from the representations we received, seemed to indicate a state of mind favourable to the reception of Truth. It was deemed expedient to visit them, to ascertain the true nature of the movement and, if possible, to give it a proper direction. On investigation, however, it was found that the whole movement was the result of the efforts of an individual to establish a new panth (religious sect) of which he should be the instructor.... They professedly reject idolatry, and all reverence and respect for whatever is held sacred by Sikhs or Hindus, except Nanak and his Granth...They are called Nirankaris, from their belief in God, as a spirit without bodily form. The next great fundamental principle of their religion is that salvation is to be obtained by meditation of God. They regard Nanak as their saviour, in asmuch as he taught them the way of salvation. Of their peculiar practices only two things are learned. First, they assemble every morning for worship, which consists of bowing the head to the ground before the Granth, making offerings and in hearing the Granth read by one of their numbers, and explained also if their leader be present. Secondly, they do not burn their dead, because that would make them too much like Christians and Musalmans, but throw them into the river."
Many people at this time held the view that the British were trying to favour Sikhs by making sure that Sikhs were building institutions. The above comment by Ludhiana mission in 1853 discredits any such accusations since at that time British and Sikhs had just fought two lengthy wars. Also Nirankari movement was started four years after Anglo-Sikh war when relations between Sikhs and British were very bad. British only favoured Sikhs in early part of twentieth century when money and land for Khalsa college and other such institutions was granted by British (British also helped create institutions like Aligarh Muslim university and Benaras Hindu university, so Sikhs were not favoured on the expense of others).
The Nirankaris helped to bring the Anand Marriage Bill in 1908-9 to the attention of the Sikh populace. Their fifth leader Hara Singh (1877-1971) started to reorganise the sangat and was succeeded by his eldest son Baba Gurbakh Singh. However because their emphasis was largely upon Guru Nanak's message, and the times were dominated by Singh Sabha Sikhs emphasising Guru Gobind Singh's Khalsa, their voices went unheard. This was exacerbated by the shift from Sehajdhari (shaven) to Keshdhari (unshaven) Sikhs.
Finally with their inability to keep in step with the tumultuous social changes of the British Raj they were soon marginalised. Later they were divided into two groups, one the original Nirankari and the other Sant Nirankaris. In 1978 the second group Sant Nirankaris were excommunicated by the orthodox Akal Takht for their belief in a living Guru after the Guru Granth Sahib.
This Nirankari movement in late 20th century was hijacked by Arya Samajis and other neo Hindu fanatics who wanted Sikhs to drop all their symbols and assimiliate into hinduism. These New Neo Nirankaris who believed in "Living Gurus" confronted Sikhs at Amritsar in 1979 on the Vaisakhi day when their leader "Gurbachan" was trying to create Seven Stars just like Guru had created five beloved one's, obviously to prove to the Sikhs that he is more or less like Guru Gobind Singh (a very serious blasphamy for Sikhs, it is like telling christians or muslims that "I am christ" or "I am mohammad".
Sikhs under Akhand Kirtani Jatha started their march from Akal Takht to stop Gurbachan but were greeted by bullets. This whole incident was solely responsible for the turmoil in Punjab in 1980's. These new nirankaris have been aptly named "Naqli Nirankaris" or the "False Nirankaris"