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Faith and conflict

Print edition : Jul 27, 2007 T+T-

Deras are as much a part of the norm as they are a challenge to spiritual hegemony in Punjab.

ANNIE ZAIDI in Jalandhar

ORIGINALLY a place of belonging - spiritual, temporal or literal - Dera Sacha Sauda is now something that causes fear and anxiety among many people in Punjab. A sect that has a huge following, Dera Sacha Sauda is now facing stiff opposition from mainstream Sikhism.

The latest round of controversy began in May this year when Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was accused of blasphemy after he donned robes that were allegedly similar to the one worn by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru of Sikhs, and conducted a ritual that was very much like baptism. Soon clashes broke out between orthodox Sikhs and the Dera's followers, who call themselves "premis", and 12 people were injured in the violence in Bhatinda.

Since then, apologies have been offered and rejected, petitions filed, an arrest warrant issued and anticipatory bail granted to Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. However, the worst is far from over; there is every indication that the conflict will escalate.

Two premis died, having set themselves on fire, while 25 were hurt in clashes in Ferozepur on July 8. Yet, the Khalsa Action Committee (KAC), comprising several smaller, radical Sikh organisations, continues to demand the immediate arrest of the Dera chief. On July 9, KAC representatives attempted to lead a march from Amb Sahib Gurdwara, just outside Chandigarh, to the city but were not permitted to enter it. Surrounded by police in riot gear, and barricaded all around, they had to content themselves with issuing a memorandum to the press. They refuse to acknowledge the Dera chief as a Sikh; in fact, they refer to him as `Gurmeet Ram Rahim', dropping the `Singh' surname. The Dera, too, is referred to as only `Dera Sauda', since `Sacha Sauda' is a reference to a legend about Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism. One of the placards proclaimed "The Sikh nation will not tolerate interference in religious affairs" while others displayed fake photos of the Dera chief behind bars.

Kunwar Pal Singh, KAC spokesman, told Frontline that they intend to "counter the anti-Sikh activity of Dera Sirsa, and other such deras". Dera Sacha Sauda has its headquarters in Sirsa, Haryana. He alleged that Gurmeet Ram Rahim was trying to equate himself with Guru Gobind Singh by using the symbols traditionally associated with the latter. "This hurts our sentiments. There are other deras, but none of them has dared to do what this man did. They are within the fold of mainstream Sikhism as long as they follow the Granth Sahib."

Deras or sects are synonymous with Punjab's history. Before Sikhism was founded, there were Sufi or Bhakti deras. Maharaja Ranjit Singh actively supported the deras of several Sikh preachers, especially of the Udasi and Nirmal sects. Over time, many different sects emerged, Namdhari, Nirankari, Nurmahaliye, Ramraiya, Bairagi, Radhasoami, Ravidasi, Garibdasi, Nihang, Nath, and so on.

Smaller ones continue to come up even now. Some deras trace their lineage to the Qadris and Kalandhars while others have emerged from nowhere. If one dera does not allow its followers to drink even tea lest it should cause an addiction, at another, liquor is offered on Fridays. Yet another dera insists that its followers wear only white. At another, the sparkling glitter on deep, lush hues forms the backdrop of the gaddi. The Ravidass dera treats the Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs, with respect, but its preaching and singing is often restricted to the verses of Guru Ravidass.

It was only in the 1870s, after the Singh Sabha movement gathered steam, that Sikhism moved primarily into gurdwaras; and not until 1920 did the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) appear on the horizon and start to assume control of the faith.

The main difference between mainstream Sikhism and the sub-streams is the `living god' concept. In mainstream Sikhism, the only accepted guru is the Granth. The tenth guru had declared that there would be no more living gurus.

One of the uniting factors for most of the deras is, indeed, the presence of one major leader, who is referred to as `satguru' or `bhagwan'. The Akal Takht, the highest political institution of Sikhs, finds this unacceptable. But it is not able to take any action on it. If it was simply a question of theology, it could have excommunicated those who treat babas on a par with the Sikh gurus. But religious excommunication would not serve the purpose when there are tens of millions of dera followers around.

According to Professor Seva Singh, who held the Kabir Chair at the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, the various deras have one essential difference. "A dera can be orthodox or heterodox. The latter will break with tradition. The orthodox clergy has a problem, because they want to retain their hegemony - religious, political, cultural and economic. They are not worried about the small Sufi deras because Muslims have all left Punjab and pose no real threat to upper-caste Jat hegemony. But the newer, larger deras do, since the bulk of their following is lower-caste and poor. If you do not have a political revolution, people must turn elsewhere."

Professor Jagrup Singh Sekhon of Guru Nanak Dev University agrees. He is currently researching deras in the State and is interested in the political sociology of the tradition. "Deras have begun to influence politics at both State and [village] level. The babas are powerful, well connected and rich. Some are techno-savvy. Besides, there is land at stake. Several thousand acres of land brings its own power."

Some dera heads have been legislators themselves; others have politicians in the family; and some, like Bibi Jagir Kaur, have been very powerful amongst the Sikh clergy, even though they have their own deras.

Besides, there are other factors that bring people closer to the deras. Almost all the deras, including Sacha Sauda, Ashutosh's ashram at Nurmahal and Namdhari, claim that they help people recover from alcoholism and drug abuse. Addiction to alcohol and drugs has been a rising problem throughout the State, and many families approach the babas for help. Outside Dera Sacha Sauda, in fact, there are many posters warning people about the dangers of tobacco consumption, and also scary photos of oral cancer.

Most deras also insist on vegetarianism; most forbid female foeticide. Many of them invest large sums of money in hospitals, schools, charitable trusts, adoption of orphans, and increasingly, organic farming.

People go to the deras mainly for the sense of community and belonging they provide; there is very little discrimination too. Sacha Sauda, in particular, has won a lot of followers because of its policy of not accepting any donations from its followers.

Saudagar Singh, a premi at Sirsa, told Frontline that he went to many deras before he settled on Sacha Sauda. "The Gurbani said, you should have a guru. So I went looking. And here, I found a spiritual college. Don't ask me why. When the wind blows, can you tell which colour it assumes?"

Another follower, Vidya, said that she had been a `sevak' for about 16 years, and her husband had been cured of his alcoholism and gambling habit. But what is most important is that she feels loved at the dera. "When they sing, I feel like dancing. Just like the mastana guru, who founded this dera."

On an evening, when the Jaam-e-Insaan programme was scheduled, Frontline saw tens of thousands of people waiting to drink the `jaam', a cool drink of rose-flavoured milk, through which a follower is baptised as an `insaan'. The follower drops the caste surname in the process, and becomes, quite simply, a human being. This ceremony is very popular amongst the Dalits in the State, since caste continues to play an oppressive role in their day-to-day lives.

The KAC says that it is against six deras in particular - Radhasoami, Nirankari, Namdhari, Nurmahali, Bhaniarawale and Sacha Sauda - because they are "misleading Sikhs" or "adopting the outward symbols of Sikh identity". The living guru concept especially strikes at the root of mainstream Sikhism. As for the `mainstream', it refers to those who have managed to capture the gurdwara management, predominantly those from the upper castes. In this race, the Dalits found themselves on the margins.

The deras with the largest number of followers, a large percentage of whom are Dalit, are the ones that worry the KAC the most. Even though many deras do not hold religious conversions and have a mixed following, the appropriation of the Sikh identity bothers the hardliners. Some in the KAC even object to Baba Ashutosh's beard, though he wears saffron robes like a Hindu sadhu.

In the past, those who have run foul of the Sikh hardliners have had to face violence and harassment. The attacks against the Nirankari sect in the 1970s are well documented since they coincided with the demand for Khalistan and the rise of militancy in Punjab. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the most popular icon of the pro-Khalistan movement, was charged with the murder of Gurbachan Singh, the leader of the Nirankaris.

In 1975, the Namdhari sect landed in trouble with the Sikh clergy, when its followers were found to be reading the Granth Sahib off separate sheets of paper. Hardliners insisted that separating the leaves of the Granth was tantamount to unbinding and, therefore, constituted an insult to the holy book.

Namdhari spokesperson Sant Harpal Singh says: "Then too, they used to threaten that they'd blacken the faces of the kookas [Namdharis]. And it had never been about the Granth. It was just that the Namdharis had decided to vote for the Congress. However, the issue was settled when our leader Jagat Singhji stopped that particular reading session."

In recent times, the leader of the Bhaniarawala dera in Dhamana village, Piara Singh Bhaniarawala, was targeted. He was the star saint of a new text, commonly called the Bhavsagar Granth, which was immediately banned by the State. He was sent to jail in 2001, following allegations that he had had copies of the Granth Sahib burnt. There were several attempts on his life, his ashram was bombed, and he continues to need Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) security. One of the points of conflict, even then, was that he wore a plume in his turban, and was photographed riding a horse, like the tenth guru.

The problem, then, is not one of faith, but one of identity. That is the predicament of orthodox Sikhs, who are unwilling to let go of the reins of religion. On the one hand, they fear the dilution of what they recognise as the Sikh identity. On the other, a strict enforcement of the `maryada' (Sikh code of conduct) would mean that nearly everybody is thrown out of the `mainstream' fold.

In the words of Sant Harpal Singh, religion is like a tree. It may have one main stalk when it is young, but inevitably it grows branches or sects. He told Frontline: "The Radhasoamis used to bow before the Granth Sahib earlier. This `mainstream' created a fuss about that and that tradition stopped. This mainstream is weakening the religion; we will lose all those who want to worship the Guru Granth in their own way."

The SGPC and the Akal Takht would do well to remember what the 15th century mystic poet Kabir, who is believed to have had an influence on Guru Nanak, said: Religion, without love, is heresy.