A godman and a political storm

Print edition : October 27, 2001

A violent political storm is sweeping through Punjab, and at the centre of it is a godman with a substantial following, mainly among Dalit Sikhs.

SOMEONE has gouged the eyes off the framed photograph that used to greet pilgrims arriving at the inner retreat of Piara Singh's 100-acre religious complex at Bhaniara. Outside stand the charred ruins of shops and barracks that served the godman's vast flock; they were set on fire by an angry mob backed by the police. The usually apolitical pop singer Daler Mehndi broke down at a press conference in Chandigarh and wished that the controversial godman "die a dog's death". Suicide squads have been set up to inflict "justice" on the jailed religious leader, with the public approval of politicians seeking to cash in on the public outrage. A murder convict joined the cause, attempting to throw acid on Piara Singh after his September 26 incarceration.

It is hard to think of a single person more hated in Punjab today than Piara Singh who is charged with being responsible for a series of burnings of the Guru Granth Sahib in September and October. Except, that is, down the dusty tracks that lead to the Dalit hamlets hidden away in the corners of Punjab villages.

A poster of godman Piara Singh at the Bhaniara Dera.-

Harbhajan Kaur of Kotla Nihangan village began visiting Piara Singh's Dera at Bhaniara after doctors failed to find a cure for her son's psychiatric ailment.

"We spent Rs.70,000 on medicines and more on visiting gurdwaras, " she said. "Then we turned to Piara Singh, who gave us medicines. They did not help, it is true, but he did not charge anything either. The government failed us, and so did the gurdwaras. Piara Singh at least treated us with respect."

With an estimated 600,000 followers, mainly Dalit Sikhs, Piara Singh stands at the centre of the most violent storm in Punjab politics in several years. The crisis began in April when the godman authored a religious treatise, the Bhavsagar Samundar Amar Bani Granth, and asked his followers to worship the book just as they did the Guru Granth Sahib.

Piara Singh's claim to be an incarnation of God and his authorship of the new book led to complaints being filed with the Akal Takht. The godman had been excommunicated in 1998 on the orders of the then Jathedar of the Akal Takht, Ranjit Singh. This time, the new Jathedar, Joginder Singh Vedanti, decided to review his predecessor's order and asked Piara Singh to explain his position. The Bhaniara godman refused to do so, and was again excommunicated.

On September 16, the right-wing Mehta faction of the All India Sikh Students' Federation broke into the home of one of Piara Singh's disciples and set the Bhavsagar Granth on fire. The next day Piara Singh's followers retaliated by setting a Bir, or a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, on fire at Ratangarh near Ropar. The Punjab Police say Piara Singh ordered his driver and two associates to carry out the outrage, a charge the godman's supporters deny.

Whatever the truth, Piara Singh was arrested and his book banned. Dozens of Dalits associated with the sect were also jailed, often for mere possession of the book or association with the Bhaniara Dera. But six more Birs were set on fire on September 30 at Tarkhan Majra near Fatehgarh, and one at Gharuan near Kharar on October 4.

Piara Singh claims he wrote the Bhavsagar Granth after a Dalit Sikh was denied permission to take home a Bir from an upper-caste-run Gurdwara. It is possible the story is apocryphal but illustrates the bitterness that divides the landowning Jat Sikh community and the Mazhabi agricultural workers. Despite the Sikh faith's express prohibition of caste discrimination, insidious forms of exclusion and oppression continue to exist. Jat Gurdwaras are often closed to Dalits, and most villages have separate houses of worship run on caste lines. Wage-related strikes are often met with punishment from upper castes. One form of punishment is denying Dalits the right to defecate in Jat-owned fields.

Not surprisingly, this subterranean caste struggle has political manifestations. Although Dalits make up over 33 per cent of the State's population, both the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) are overwhelmingly Jat in character. Piara Singh's rise was backed by top Dalit politicians seeking to expand their constituency. A one-time labourer with the Punjab Sericulture Department, the godman started out by dispensing medicines. His big break came in 1986, when the then Union Home Minister, Buta Singh, began visiting Bhaniara seeking treatment for his asthmatic wife. In return, Buta Singh helped sponsor new buildings at Bhaniara. Although Buta Singh's wife died of the ailment in 1995, Piara Singh's fame had spread by then; he even gained followers overseas.

In time, the Bhaniara godman's followers came to include Punjab Agriculture Minister Gurdev Singh Badal, his son and SGPC junior wing vice-president Kewal Singh Badal, and the Shiromani Akali Dal(Mann) faction's Bhag Singh and Surjit Singh. Following protests from the Right, the Akal Takht excommunicated the Agriculture Minister and other politicians associated with Piara Singh on October 13, making their re-entry into the faith contingent on their performing ritual penance. The politicians' decision to do so has not endeared them to Piara Singh's Dalit followers. "These so-called leaders are traitors," says Kotla Nihangan resident Dalvir Singh. "In our villages, boys are arrested and beaten up for having visited Bhaniara. But the politicians who flocked to Bhaniara have managed to buy their way out of trouble."

Similar sentiments are not hard to come across in the areas where the cult of Piara Singh has followers. "The Baba had nothing to do with the burning of the Birs," insists Luddo Ram, the sarpanch of Bhaniara. "This is a conspiracy by those who were jealous of his success." At Dhamana, where Piara Singh built his home, support for the godman runs high. "He never spoke against anyone's religion," says local resident Kashmir Singh. "Every year we used to have a reading of the Guru Granth Sahib and the Gita together. A lot of people did not like that. It is true he wrote the Bhavsagar Granth, but that was not to belittle anyone else's faith. Tell me, if the police are interested in justice, why don't they arrest the people who burned our Granth, or looted the Bhaniara Dera?"

It is not hard to understand why the 2,704-page Bhavsagar Granth incenses orthodox Sikhs. Piara Singh describes himself as a Mahabali Avatar in the text, an incarnation of God. The word Sat Guru, or true Guru, is littered through his teachings. The Sikh religious establishment has been in a state of constant war with sects that believe in a living Guru, like the Nirankaris. Several of the photographs used to illustrate the Bhavsagar Granth show a halo around Piara Singh's head, drawing on calendar art iconography of the Gurus. And the Bhavsagar Granth liberally draws on Sikh metaphor and images, for example the plume worn by Guru Gobind Singh on his turban and the metaphor of the Panj Piaras, the five disciples of the Guru.

Sakhis, or miracle stories, make up much of the Bhavsagar Granth, often drawing on images and ideas in the Guru Granth Sahib itself. "One day," reads a passage in it, "an Akhand Path (a complete reading of the Guru Granth Sahib) was under way at a house in a village. The granthi did not pay any respect to the Bhavsagar Granth. Soon, the Chandni (the canopy under which the Guru Granth Sahib is housed) caught fire. The residents of the house then saw Sat Guru Piara Singh descend from the Sis Ganj Gurudwara along with five of his disciples. He extinguished the fire, and said, 'the Granthi did not pay his respects to our Granth and that is why the fire broke out. Respect this Granth too, or the Akhand Path will not be complete'."

Several passages in the Bhavsagar Granth assault the institution and rituals of the Gurdwara. "An Amritdhari (baptised) Sikh came to the Dera and asked why the Guru Granth Sahib was not installed there," goes one sakhi. "Baba Piara Singh said it was not necessary for him to do so. Some days later, the Amritdhari Sikh's legs broke. God took the form of Piara Singh, brought him to Bhaniara, and cured the Amritdhari. Why did the baptism not protect this man's legs?"

Another story tells of Karamjit Singh, whom Piara Singh claims to have cured of blindness. The Bhavsagar Granth records Piara Singh's disapproval of Karamjit Singh's desire to attend the tercentennial of the Khalsa sect: "Those who celebrate the tercentennial are caught in the 84-lakh cycles of rebirth. If there was anything to gurdwaras, would not your illness have been cured there?"

The Sikh Right's opposition to the Bhavsagar Granth raises several issues. First, the religious Right has not itself been averse to using central images of 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 in the near future. Second, images like the plumes have been common elements in popular Sikh culture, religious and profane. Until a few years ago, bridegrooms traditionally wore the plume. On October 13, the SGPC censured a preacher, Onkar Singh Kara, for wearing the plume and proclaiming that he had superhuman powers. Kara removed his plume, fearing SGPC censure and excommunication.

THE most important issues raised by the Piara Singh controversy, however, lie outside the realm of theological debate. Sadly, there has been little debate in Punjab on the legitimacy of the Punjab Government's decision to ban the Bhavsagar Granth. While the book is, beyond dispute, offensive to conservative Sikhs, it is far from clear whether this is reason enough to curtail Piara Singh's right to freedom of worship. The Bhavsagar Granth does indeed attack the Sikh religious establishment, but at no point demeans the tenets or practice of the Sikh faith. Although badly written and replete with supernatural chicanery, on this issue the Bhavsagar Granth falls within a long tradition of insurgent folk religion. The Guru Granth Sahib itself, after all, took on Brahmanism in no certain terms.

In a larger sense, the rise of godmen across Punjab reflects a wide loss of faith in religious establishments, which are perceived as being venal and corrupt. The State's decade of terror saw a spate of attacks on godmen, part of an effort by the Sikh Right to eliminate religious heterodoxy. Folk religion, however, survived and grew. Punjab has dozens of itinerant Babas, godmen of somewhat ambiguous denominational loyalty, peddling charms and predicting fortunes. Some make it big. Baba Murad Shah of Nakodar commands a following of hundreds of thousands of Sikhs and Hindus, a constituency large enough to have compelled former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral to seek his support at election time. Non-political sects like the Radha Soamis and the Saccha Sauda cult, too, have registered dramatic growth.

Part of Piara Singh's success seems to have been the special Dalit character of his organisation. Godmen are key sources of patronage; they use their influence with politicians to secure the interests of their followers. The close association of Gurdev Badal and Buta Singh with the Bhaniara Dera made the institution of obvious importance to Dalit officers and businessmen. Local leaders of Satnam Singh Kainth's Bahujan Samaj Morcha continue to support Piara Singh despite their leadership's affiliation with the SAD government that has incarcerated him. "People," says Dhamana Lambardar Karan Singh, the head of the local Morcha unit, "just don't like the fact that a Dalit has cars, horses and land. Who are these crooks in the SGPC to judge who is a Sikh or who is not a Sikh?"

Such questions, perhaps, will prove to be the most abiding legacy of the Piara Singh controversy. For the moment, the religious Right has been seeking to cash in on public passion, claiming Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal has failed to protect the Sikh Panth. SGPC President Jagdev Singh Talwandi has been insisting that Piara Singh be booked for murder, claiming the Guru Granth Sahib is a "living Guru". Member of Parliament Simranjit Singh Mann, a leading light of the religious Right, used the issue to push his own agenda, demanding among other things that the Indian Army withdraw from Jammu and Kashmir.

But the Right could soon stand exposed. On October 17, the Punjabi-language newspaper Desh Sewak front-paged letters from Mann, thanking Piara Singh for his support in local elections.

Once the fury has died down, the real issues will have to be addressed. Punjab's hide-bound and obscurantist religious establishment is unlikely to have meaningful answers.

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