Inflamed passions

Print edition : June 19, 2009

Protesters on the rampage in Amritsar on May 25.-ALTAF QADRI/AP

VIOLENCE in the name of religion returned to Punjab in the last week of May after Sant Rama Nand, the deputy chief of a Sikh sect called Dera Sachkhand Ballan, succumbed to injuries inflicted on him by a rival Sikh group, in Vienna, Austria. It was almost like a re-enactment of the scenes of 2007, when passions were inflamed following clashes between Dera Sacha Sauda supporters and the Akalis in the State. Trains were stopped and their coaches burnt, police stations were attacked, and public property was damaged. Thousands of passengers were stranded at railway stations. The Doaba region of Punjab, which falls between the rivers Beas and Sutlej, with a significant Dalit presence, was the most hit.

The scale of violence prompted the Punjab government to request the Centre to deploy the army. Curfews were imposed in at least five towns, including Jalandhar, Phagwara and Hoshiarpur. By the end of the week, an uneasy calm prevailed over the State even as resentment among Dalits and other economically backward classes simmered.

The riots were sparked off by an attack on Sant Niranjan Dass, the head of the Jalandhar-based Dera Sachkhand, and his deputy Rama Nand on May 24 at the Shri Guru Ravidass Gurdwara in Vienna where they had gone to attend a religious function. A group of Sikhs armed with firearms and swords attacked them at the gurdwara, injuring both; Rama Nand later died. The Austrian police said the attack that left some 15 others injured had clearly been planned.

The reason for the clash between the two rival groups Dera followers and upper-caste Sikhs is said to be the presentation of siropas (the Sikh robe of honour supposed to be the highest reward for ones temporal and spiritual endeavour) to the sant and his followers. Since the act is generally seen as a Sikh ritual, the attack was meant to be a reaction to the Deras heresy and violation of Sikh maryada (code of conduct). Tension was brewing in Vienna as the Ravidassi sect had been operating from a separate gurdwara there, thus challenging the orthodox Sikh religion.

The importance of deras (sects) in Punjab and their resistance to the monopolistic authority of the Sikh religion has become a talking point in the aftermath of the Vienna attack. In the Doaba region, the increasing numbers of Ravidassi deras, which advocate social equality and education and resist discrimination against the backward castes, have been a rallying point for Dalits. The percentage of population of Dalits in Punjab, at 29, is the highest in any State. Dalit consciousness across the State is fairly high because of a long tradition of social reforms brought about by the Ad Dharam Movement, the Arya Samaj, the Ambedkarite Movement, and so on.

Despite this, upper-caste Jat Sikhs dominate almost every area of governance and business in Punjab. Dalits share among themselves only 2.34 per cent of the total cultivable land and around 4 per cent of other businesses. Though the Sikh reformers of the late 19th century and early 20th century preached abolition of untouchability and the caste system, in reality Sikh shrines are controlled by the Jat Sikh-dominated Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Sikh deras.

Almost all villages have separate gurdwaras and cremation grounds for Jats and backward castes. It is for this reason that the non-Sikh deras have become popular as alternative spiritual centres for the backward castes. According to a survey conducted by Desh Sewak, a Punjabi daily published from Chandigarh, there are more than 9,000 non-Sikh and Sikh deras in nearly 12,000 Punjab villages.

The rising popularity of non-Sikh deras has been the cause of many cases of Dalit-Sikh violence such as the clashes in Talhan and Mahem villages in 2003 and 2006. In Talhan, which has a 72 per cent Dalit population, the conflict was triggered when Dalits were denied membership in the Jat-dominated management committee of the disputed shrine-turned-gurdwara of Shaheed Nihal Singh. In Meham, violence ensued when Jats forcibly took control of the Dera of Khazan Singh Udasi, which was being looked after by the Ad Dharmis (a sect dominated mostly by untouchables) of the village for the past six decades.

A Dalit follower in front of a portrait of Rama Nand near the Austrian embassy in New Delhi during a demonstration on May 26.-ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

In 2007, Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Singh, posing as the 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, triggered violent clashes between his followers and the Akalis. Similarly, the Vienna incident followed when Sikhs apparently resisted the Dera Sachkhand chiefs offering to the local Ravidassi gurdwara.

The whole episode has deep sociological roots, Prof. Ronki Ram of Panjab University, an expert in dera politics, told Frontline. The violence can be understood only when we see the non-Sikh deras as independent sects and not as part of the mainstream Sikh religion. Most of such attacks happen when the mainstream religion thinks that the deras are not adhering to Sikh maryada. But if the dera followers do not identify themselves as Sikhs, where is the question of maryada?

He said most of the Dalits in Punjab, especially in the Doaba region, were socially mobile. A large number of them, having lived abroad, know the privileges of a democratic set-up and an egalitarian society. When they come back, the discrimination that they see around provokes a strong reaction. Despite their population of around 50 per cent in the Doaba region, most Dalits are pushed to the western side of the villages and are robbed of all privileges. As deras take up social issues such as infanticides, dowry, suicides and education, the backward castes are drawn towards them, he said.

Dalit consciousness in Punjab emerged against the context of the teachings of Ravidass, a popular Bhakti Movement saint of low origins, who protested against discrimination without giving up his traditional cobblers job. He preached a middle path between assimilation and radical separatism, in order to build up a separate Dalit identity. Dera Sachkhand Ballan, the first and the most popular Ravidassi Dera, played a similar role in concretising this path.

Ronki Ram, who has visited the dera for five years, said: Sachkhand charts an identity and a course of action for the deras to shape the contours of Dalit assertion within Indian society without following the Ambedkarite model of religious conversion or adopting the strategy of assimilation, as advocated by the protagonists of upper-caste movements such as the Arya Samaj and chief Khalsa Diwan in Punjab. If Ravidass is considered the prophet of Dalit consciousness during the medieval North Indian Bhakti Movement, the saints of Dera Ballan can be credited with the task of relocating and invigorating Dalit consciousness and a separate Dalit identity in contemporary times.

At another level, the Dera is also influenced by the Ad Dharam Movement of the 1920s and was very close to its leader Bapu Mangoo Ram. The Ad Dharam Movement crystallised the we/they dichotomy further, creating a different sect among the Sikh backward castes. It helped the backward castes to seek social recognition through the process of cultural transformation on the one hand and spiritual regeneration on the other. It gave them a new name, Ad Dharmi, which became popular, particularly in the Doaba region.

Dera Sachkhand has its headquarters at Ballan village and has branches in various parts of India and in all the continents, especially North America, Australia and Europe, which has been witnessing large-scale migration from Punjab over the years. Sachkhand was started by Sant Pipal Dass in the early 20th century. The fact that Pipal Dass was himself an untouchable became a huge attraction for the backward castes to join the Sachkhand Movement.

After Pipal Dass, his son Sarwan Dass took over and he popularised the dera by focussing on issues such as primary education and health care. Thus, it also became a political movement.

To propagate its faith, the dera has also been publishing a trilingual weekly, Begumpura Shaher, and has been organising national Dalit conferences where commonalities among prominent Dalit leaders of India are discussed.

The root cause of the violence that has shaken Punjab now perhaps lies in the perception of the Dalits about the incompatibility between the egalitarian social ethos of Sikhism and the manifestation of the social exclusion that is widely prevalent. Prof. Ashutosh Kumar of Panjab University said: Dalits espoused Sikhism in the beginning for three main reasons: First, it didnt believe in the caste system; secondly, it allowed everyone to wear arms, which was perceived as a matter of pride; and thirdly and more importantly, it glorified manual labour unlike Hinduism. But in reality, the caste system still prevails, leading to disillusionment among the Dalits. Perhaps, it is this contradiction between the perceived and the actual that is making the Dalits drift towards the deras.

An injured person being taken out of the gurdwara in Vienna on May 24.-FRED REISER/REUTERS

In the 19th century, Sikh religion was largely pluralistic in nature and identified with many traditions such as Khalsa, Udasi, Nanak-Panthi and Nirmala. But as it began to be controlled by the upper castes, there seemed to be a drive to standardise Sikh identity and it resulted in violent clashes between different communities. Deras, which have their own iconography, idols, gurus and preaching, counter the standardised formats of the Sikh religion that ban any form of idol worship and consider the Guru Granth Sahib as their last guru.

The Jat-Dalit confrontation or other forms of protests such as the present one is only a form of Dalit assertion against the status quo and it, in a way, voices the resentment of Dalits, which has been brooding for many years. The death of Sant Rama Nand in Vienna was just a trigger.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor