Dalits & 'emancipatory' Sikhism

The attack at Vienna on two preachers of a religious sect, Dera Sachkhand, and its angry reverberation on the streets of Punjab last week has once again highlighted the growing tensions among mainstream Sikhs and a growing tribe of sants and babas with committed armies of devotees.

The sect head, Sant Niranjan Dass who had gone to Vienna for delivering a sermon, survived the attack orchestrated by a group of radical Sikhs in a Ravidass gurdwara, while his deputy, Sant Rama Nand, succumbed to his injuries.

In a spontaneous outpouring of their wrath, dalit devotees in Punjab went about burning trains and buses, blocked rail and road traffic and destroyed several crores of government property over two days of uncontrolled frenzy. Five major Punjab cities were put under curfew and the Army had to be called at several places, including at Jalandhar where the headquarter of the Dera Sachkhand is located.

On the face of it, the venting of ire by the predominantly dalit followers of the sect on government property and transport system in Punjab made little sense especially since the incident took place in far-off Vienna. However, a scrape through the surface reveals a complex web of fault lines enmeshed in caste, economics and social status of a community kept on fringes for long where religion played only a superficial role in the eruption of emotions.

The Dera Sachkhand, which draws a huge following among the dalits, has over the years become a symbol of dalit religious assertion. The attack on the sect preachers was seen by the devotees as an affront to their religious freedom and social assertion. The community has set up its own temples/gurdwaras in Punjab and abroad, primarily for the reason that the upper caste Sikhs, mainly Jats, have invariably controlled gurdwaras and never allowed any say to dalits in the management of gurdwaras within and outside Punjab. An economically resurgent dalit community with the help of its large diaspora has set up nearly 75 gurdwaras abroad, including in the UK, USA, Canada and Austria besides hundreds in Punjab and other states.

Dera culture

The mushrooming of deras In Punjab, said to be over 8,000 big and small deras, is symptomatic of this social divide between caste Sikhs and the dalits and backward classes. Contrary to the beliefs of the Sikh gurus who had agitated against the caste system in Hinduism to form a separate religion 500 years ago, the caste system ironically dominates the social and religious life in Punjab. Revolting against the discrimination based on caste in Punjabi society, dalit and backward classes have set up their own gurdwaras in major villages in Punjab. Many of them follow the Sikh tenets and bow before the Granth Sahib while also going to different deras for spiritual fulfillment.
The growing financial clout of the dalit community in Punjab, nearly 30 per cent of whose three crore population constitutes the dalits (the highest density of dalits in any state in India), has often caused heartburn among caste Sikhs which often leads to tensions in villages.

Another contentious issue relates to financials. The setting up of separate gurdwaras by the dalits has meant split in the lucrative income to gurdwaras which is one of the reasons for simmering tensions between mainstream Sikhs and the deras. The top Sikh shrines management body, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), and the Sikh clergy while dissuading Sikhs from visiting the deras, regards deras as the greatest threat to the Sikh religion, though it is secretly worried about the weening away of large chunk of donations to the deras.

Some of the deras like Radha Soami, Dera Sacha Sauda, Dera Sachkhand, Dera Baba Bhaniarewala enjoy huge following of devotees. Interestingly, deras preach secularism and attract Hindus and Sikhs alike and in some cases Muslims and Christians have also become their devotees. The espousal of social issues by many deras like fight against dowry and female infanticide and culture of liquor and drugs has also made them popular.

 Core issue

Apparently, the provocation for the Vienna attack on the sect preachers was the non-observance of Sikh rehat maryada (religious code of conduct) in the Ravidass gurdwara. Sikh radicals had been warning the sect against the practice of keeping the Sikh holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, at the Ravidass gurdwaras where the sect head would let his devotees touch his feet.

The Sikhs regard the Granth Sahib as their guru and regard idolatry and the concept of a living guru practised by the deras as blasphemous.

In fact, this perception is at the core of tensions among the mainstream Sikhs and thousands of Deras in Punjab which are headed by sants and babas.  Interestingly, the deras headed by these sants and babas have their own religious tenets and symbols but they also take spiritual inspiration from the Guru Granth Sahib.

The tendency of certain Dera heads to follow the Sikh gurus in dress, mannerisms or teachings has outraged the Sikh community in Punjab and has often led to violent clashes.

The most infamous of such instances was the Dera Sacha Sauda based at Sirsa in Haryana, though majority of its devotees are based in Punjab. Sikhs in Punjab hit the streets two years ago  when the Dera head, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, allegedly wore a dress resembling the one worn by the Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Sikhs protested violently and ransacked branches of the Dera in Punjab forcing the dera to discontinue its discourses in Punjab.

In another instance, Baba Piara Singh Bhaniarewala proclaimed himself the descendant of guru Gobind Singh and wrote his own scripture. It caused outrage among Sikhs in Punjab.

Interestingly, deras and politicians thrive on each other in Punjab. While deras use politicians’ patronage to attract devotees, the politicians woo dera heads with an eye on their large army of devotees whom they regard as captive vote banks.

Dera Sacha Sauda played an influential role in Punjab assembly elections in 2007 when it supported the Congress in Malwa belt, which led to huge gains for the party in the Akali bastion. However, some deras like Radha Soami at Beas, the biggest dera in Punjab in terms of followers, assiduously avoid declaring support for any political party.

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