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Faiths at war

Print edition : Jun 15, 2007 T+T-

The Sachcha Sauda controversy evokes memories of a dark period in Punjab's history.

PRAVEEN SWAMI AND AMAN SETHI

PAST the gates of the Sachcha Sauda complex at Bathinda, the bleak south Punjab landscape transforms into a world designed to appear as a peasant might imagine paradise: hundreds of acres of lush green fields, dotted by woods.

Sikh neoconservatives, though, insist that the complex is the devil's lair - and that its leader is Satan. The Khalistan Affairs Centre in Washington, D.C. has charged Sachcha Sauda founder Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh with crimes ranging from organising sex-orgies to running an organ-trade racket, all at the behest of India's secret services. The five high priests of the Sikh faith, who claim Vatican-like authority over their followers' temporal affairs, have threatened an "agitation to uproot the Sachcha Sauda sect". Deras - hermitages run by Sachcha Sauda and other liminal sects perched between Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism - have been attacked, and blood has been spilled. Most people believe the worst is yet to come.

Just what is the Sachcha Sauda sect, and what did it do to attract such controversy? Founded in 1948 by Shyam Mastana, a Partition refugee from Pakistan's Balochistan province, the sect now claims to have 160 branches in 13 States and an astounding 30 million followers nationwide. While these claims have never been independently audited, the sect is known to control several thousand acres of land across northern India as well as a network of social service institutions such as hospitals and blood-donation centres.

Sachcha Sauda insists that all gods are one and does not ask its followers to renounce their religious affiliations. Its doctrinal mandates are few. Each follower must abstain from alcohol, narcotics, meat and eggs. In addition, each premi, or sect follower, must spend half an hour each day meditating on a naam, or phrase from the Guru Granth Sahib. Followers are expected to participate in seva, or volunteer work, in its myriad charitable enterprises, which include hospitals, blood- and organ-donation camps, and tree-planting drives. Much of Sachcha Sauda doctrine consists of simple moralism: men, for instance, are encouraged to think of all women other than their wives as mothers, sisters or daughters.

As such, Sachcha Sauda's heretical belief system, as Sikh neoconservatives describe it, is nearly identical to dozens of similar sects that have emerged from the Indus valley's syncretic religious traditions. On both sides of the India-Pakistan border, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh peasants share both shrines and practices, notably the veneration of saints. Indeed, the term premi literally translates as "lover", a traditional metaphor for a devotee that peppers Sufi and Bhakti poetry.

Sikh neoconservatives took offence at a Sachcha Sauda advertisement showing Gurmeet Singh engaged in a ceremony called the Jaam-e-Insa, or essence of humanism. Alongside, the sect listed its 47 precepts, first among which is that followers renounce their caste names and instead adopt the term insa - short for insaniyat, or humanity. Gurmeet Singh wore attire of the kind the 10th Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, is often adorned with in calendar art - albeit in blue, not Sachcha Sauda pink. While the attire itself has no particular religious significance, its use by Sachcha Sauda was clearly addressed to an audience to whom the image has a particular resonance. Moreover, the ceremony involved the designation of seven insas, the first of a larger fellowship of equals, who sipped a metaphorical elixir - in reality, a mixture of milk and Rooh Afza sherbet. Again, the image drew on Sikh tradition, for the 10th guru raised the Panch Pyare, or the first five members of the Khalsa sect of the Sikh faith, in a similar baptismal ceremony.

Clerics have often been incensed by similar use of Sikh imagery. Bridegrooms, who traditionally wore a plume of the kind that features in iconography of the 10th guru, have dropped the practice in response to religious censure. One preacher, Onkar Singh Kara, was compelled to drop both the use of the plume and claims to personal godhood after strictures were passed against him by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC).

However, the religious Right has not itself been averse to using Sikh iconography for its own ends. Cards and posters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, released after Operation Bluestar, used the image of Guru Gobind Singh's falcon to propagate claims that the revanchist preacher was alive and would reappear to lead the war for Khalistan.

Sachcha Sauda, thus, was far from exceptional in its use of such imagery to reinforce its claims to represent the true traditions of the Sikh faith. Political circumstances, however, vested the act with inflammatory potential.

No one knows just why Sachcha Sauda chose to throw its weight behind the Congress in the just concluded Punjab Assembly elections. While the sect had linkages with almost every south Punjab and Haryana politician of consequence - both Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala and his Punjab counterpart Prakash Singh Badal visited Sachcha Sauda's Sirsa headquarters in pursuit of votes and appeared before Gurmeet Singh with folded hands - it had never formally asked its followers to support one party or the other before.

One explanation rests on the fact that Gurmeet Singh's daughter is related by marriage to both Bathinda's Congress legislator, Harminder Singh Jassi, and Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's adviser, Bharat Inder Singh Chahal. By some accounts, Gurmeet Singh hoped to leverage a Congress victory to gain protection against his possible indictment for the murder of Ram Chandra "Chhatrapati", a Sirsa-based journalist who was investigating alleged Sachcha Sauda criminality. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is probing allegations that Gurmeet Singh was involved in the murder as well as in other crimes such as sexual enslavement of women premis.

Another possibility is that the sect sensed an opportunity in the growing assertiveness of Dalits in Punjab. Gurmeet Singh himself is a Jat Sikh, of the Sidhu sub-caste, but the sect's egalitarian principles have proved attractive to both Hindu and Sikh Dalits alienated by the apartheid that pervades rural Punjab. Most villages have separate gurdwaras for Dalits and Jats. Although no formal census of Sachcha Sauda's caste composition has been conducted, sources in the Punjab Police said informal estimates indicated that over 70 per cent of its membership was Dalit.

What is known for certain is this: Sachcha Sauda's decision to support the Congress led to the Shiromani Akali Dal's (SAD) decimation in its south Punjab heartlands. Had urban Hindu voters not defected from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amarinder Singh would have most likely made his way back to power. After the SAD-BJP victory, Sikh neoconservatives were bent on exacting vengeance. On April 23, almost a month before the Jaam-e-Insa furore broke out, a Sachcha Sauda memorial in Mansa was attacked and destroyed.

It would be facile, though, to attribute the recent events to Punjab politics alone. Sikh neoconservatives believe that an existential religious struggle is under way. Both modernity, which is seen as seducing young Sikhs away from the principles advocated by the 10th guru, and apostasy are the adversaries.

For much of the last century, Sikh reaction has manifested itself in a number of struggles seeking to sharpen the fault lines between the two principal religious identities in Punjab. In 1998, for instance, clerics decided to abandon the Bikrami calendar, in which important Hindu and Sikh festivals fall on the same dates.

With their loose syncretistic practices, the new deras pose a formidable challenge to this project. Attacks on godmen began during the years of the Khalistan terror as part of an effort by the Sikh Right to eliminate religious heterodoxy. Indeed, many commentators have drawn parallels with the 1978 clashes between the Khalsa and the heterodox Nirankari sect, which marked the ascendance of Khalistani groups.

Folk religion, however, survived and grew. Punjab now has dozens of itinerant godmen of somewhat ambiguous denominational loyalty. Deras also function as centres for networking, attracting Dalit administrators and politicians. Baba Murad Shah of Nakodar commanded a constituency large enough to compel former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral to seek his electoral support. Ashutosh Maharaj's Divya Jyoti Sansthan, the Radha Swami sect, Saccha Sauda and other similar groupings are thought to have followings that far exceed that of the Golden Temple-based clerical establishment.

Part of the reason for the success of the deras lies in the relationship between Dalit resistance and religious rebellion. Among its first expressions in Punjab was the Ad-Dharam movement, which suggested that Dalits were a distinct qaum, or nation, distinct from Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. The movement gained momentum in 1923 with the return to India of Mangoo Ram, the son of a rich Chamar. Despite his wealth, Mangoo Ram had to live with social stigma. Ram spent much of his early life in the United States, where he was actively involved in the revolutionary Gadar movement.

Mangoo Ram succeeded in invigorating the Ad-Dharam movement because of a growing paradox in the Dalit class position.

On the one hand, Punjab Dalits prospered under British rule. British military bases in and around Jalandhar needed leather goods produced by members of the Chamar caste. Besides, Dalits were recruited into the colonial army, and during their tours of duty abroad, they gained access to new ideas of equality.

At the same time, the colonial state denied Dalits access to land. In 1901, the Punjab Land Alienation Act restricted the purchase of land to what it described as the "cultivating castes". Dalits were deemed as belonging to a non-agricultural caste and were therefore denied the right to own the land they toiled on as workers or tenants. The Act secured the interests of Jats, whom the British saw as a kind of oriental version of the landholding Yorkshire peasantry: propertied, hard working and, above all, deferential to authority.

Neoconservatives have fuelled Dalit alienation by decisively throwing their weight behind Jats in recent conflicts. For instance, the clerical establishment disenfranchised Sehajdhari Sikhs - those who do not observe some or all of its outward manifestations - from participation in elections to the SGPC. Dalit organisations, whose members make up the overwhelming majority of Sehajdhari Sikhs, understood this as an attack on their religious and community rights.

As the historian Bhai Harbans Lal pointed out in a 1999 essay, the neoconservative argument flies in the face of Sikh history, in which Sehajdhari Sikhs played a central role from the time of Guru Gobind Singh to the Singh Sabha movement. SAD-backed clerics, Dalit activists note, even refused to condemn a brutal economic boycott of Dalits who protested against the illegal usurpation of the Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh at Talhan, near Ludhiana, by upper-caste Sikhs in 2003. Dalits reacted by turning their back on clerics who appear to despise them.

What might lie ahead? Clerics at the Anandpur Sahib Gurdwara at Talwandi Sabo, whose flock is most hit by Sachcha Sauda's influence, have launched an energetic reconversion initiative. According to the Jathedar of the gurdwara, Balwant Singh Nandgarh, who is one of the five high priests of the Sikh faith, some 500 families have chosen to be readmitted to the religion, following public expressions of regret and a ritual of penitence. Sachcha Sauda followers, though, allege coercion. One SAD councillor in Bathinda is said to have told local premis to "come back to the gurdwara, for otherwise if the police were to pick you up tomorrow, I will not be able to help".

Possibilities more disturbing than such persecution are evident. In 2001, Dalit godman Piara Singh Bhaniarawala set off riots by releasing the Bhavsagar Granth, a 2,704-page religious text suffused with sakhis, or miracle stories, extolling his spiritual powers. According to the godman, the Bhavsagar Granth was written after upper-caste Sikhs in a neighbouring home refused to allow the display of the gurdwara's Guru Granth Sahib in a Dalit home.

When Sikh neoconservatives burned copies of the Bhavsagar Granth, Bhaniarawala's followers retaliated by setting alight Birs, or copies of the Guru Granth Sahib. SGPC President Jagdev Singh Talwandi insisted that Piara Singh be booked for murder, claiming that the Guru Granth Sahib is a "living guru". Punjab's government balked at this measure but did prosecute Bhaniarawala for inciting communal hatred. When it failed, the Babbar Khalsa International - the feared terror group responsible for the bombing of the Air India jet Kanishka and the assassination of Chief Minister Beant Singh - attempted to kill the godman.

For those familiar with Punjab's recent past, not suprisingly, the future is full of terror. Such fears may be excessive, for there is little sign that the clerics' position has any real mass constituency.

But Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, it bears noting, believed precisely the same thing when she first began patronising an obscure preacher named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.