Holier than Thou

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Sikhism is facing an urgent and violent sectarian crisis. Why?

Kanwar SandhuSenior Journalist

Furious again Dalit Sikhs in Amritsar hold pictures of Guru Sant Ramanand, protesting the Vienna attack
Photo: Reuters

IN A LITTLE over two years, sectarian violence has engulfed Punjab and certain areas of Haryana for the second time. Hopefully, like the previous incident, this one too will be brought under control. Yet, this once again underlines the explosive nature of the caste divide that permeates Punjab. Recurrence of such incidents at frequent intervals brings back horrendous memories of the late 1970s, when sectarian violence concerning Nirankari sect spiraled a bloody phase of terrorism in the border state.

While two years ago, it was the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda which was at the centre of the controversy, this time it is the 109-year old Dera Sachkhand Ballan. The provocation for the violence in Punjab was the armed attack on the dera head, Sant Niranjan Dass and his deputy, Sant Ramanand in Vienna, Austria on Sunday (May 24, 2009). The two leaders, who were in Austria to conduct a special service, were attacked by people reportedly affiliated to another Sikh gurdwara in Austria. While Ramanand succumbed to his injuries the following day, Niranjan Dass is recuperating from gunshot wounds in a Vienna hospital.

Though full details of the incident and identity of the attackers is not known, the attack reflects the failure of the Indian diplomatic mission in Austria, which should have been more alive to the simmering differences between Sikh groups in that area. Moreover, in the wake of the possible fallout in Punjab, it should have sounded an alarm back home as soon as the incident took place. Had the government in Punjab been alerted well in time, a curfew could have been imposed in the affected areas on Monday morning. Failure to do so resulted in damage to government property running into several crores.

Although the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, who founded the Khalsa, had included all sections of society, including dalits, into the Sikh fold, sectarian divide is most pronounced in Sikhism today. There are more than two dozen sects and nearly a hundred deras who owe allegiance to Sikhism in some form or another, but have their own distinguishing characteristics. Many of them have living Gurus, which is anathema to mainstream Sikhs, who consider the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib as the Guru ordained.

One such sect is Dera Sachkhand, which was originally called Dera Shri 108 Sant Sarwan Dass Ji Maharaj Sachkhand. Its followers (Ravidasi Sikhs) adhere to the teachings of Sant Ravidas, a 15th century untouchable preacher, whose bani(teachings), like that of many other preachers across different religions at the time, form a part of the Guru Granth Sahib. Yet, when discrimination against the dalits continued in gurdwaras, separate Ravidas gurdwaras started surfacing in the middle of the 20th century, where portraits of Guru Ravidas are also displayed. According to one estimate, there are 75 gurdwaras of Ravidasias abroad.

Mainstream Sikhs, especially the radical elements among them, are piqued with the Dera Sachkhand on a number of counts. For instance, most Ravidasias, who do not sport a turban, insist on referring to their places of worship as ‘gurdwaras’, where the Guru Granth Sahib is worshipped. Soon, ideological differences too cropped up when dera followers started believing in a living Guru — Sant Niranjan Dass enjoys that status now — an issue on which Sikhs are extremely touchy. Earlier, differences with Dera Sacha Sauda came to the fore when its head, Ram Rahim Singh was accused by Sikh groups of trying to copy Guru Gobind Singh in dress and form.

Incidentally, the mainstay of most other Sikh deras and sects are either the dalits or the poor. Among the reasons for their mass appeal are the dera-run charitable institutions like hospitals and schools. Since these deras also emphasise education and condemn child marriage and drug abuse, they are seen by the poor as a panacea for their misfortunes. Properties of these sects dot not just Punjab but almost all states in north India. Moreover, they are liberal in the form of Sikhism they practice.

Many of the two dozen sects and hundreds of deras have living Gurus, anathema to mainstream Sikhs

Political observers in Punjab feel that the recent incident should act as a wake-up call to the government and religious organizations like the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) to start the process of social reconstruction in the state. Late Prof Teja Singh, in his treatise Essays on Sikhism, argued for the need to take all sects into the wider fold of Sikhism. However, this advice had few takers. In the late 1970s, when the Nirankari sect clashed with the Sikh groups, reconciliation efforts were initiated. But they did not fructify.

SGPC has been cagey on initiating reforms for fear of drawing flak from orthodox elements. Also, SGPC leaders feel that any relaxation of the norms on Sikh identity could weaken the Khalsa identity and would result in more people opting out of the form of Sikhism as ordained by the tenth Guru. In fact, a decision on the issue of the Shahajdhari Sikhs being given the same rights as the Keshadhari Sikhs (baptised Sikhs) is pending in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. A girl student, who was denied admission in an SGPC-run medical college for having trimmed her hair, had moved the court.

Widening the schism is the still prevalent separatist tendency among the Sikh diaspora abroad

Another underlying reason for the SGPC’s reluctance to introduce reforms and provide acceptability to other sects is the fear that it could drastically alter the power equation within the SGPC, which acts as a handmaiden of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) in Punjab. They worry that power would slip out of their grip. SGPC is already out of reckoning in Delhi’s gurdwara politics and the demand to have a separate gurdwara body in Haryana too is growing. As Sikhs move to different parts of the world, independent streaks are becoming more pronounced. For example, a gurdwara in Europe has decided to modify the ardas (daily Sikh prayer), which the SGPC leaders resent.

Widening the schism is the continuing separatist tendency among powerful sections of the Sikh diaspora abroad. In many places abroad, especially Canada, gurdwaras are controlled by radical Sikhs. Many left Punjab at the height of militancy when there was a crackdown by the security forces, forcing them to seek political asylum abroad. This includes Canada and a number of European countries. This has a great destabilising factor, especially when there is comparative peace back home in Punjab, as in the recent case.

Fortunately, Punjab has come a long way since its earlier violent phase when politics, both at the Centre and in the state, added fuel to the fire, unmindful of the suicidal repercussions. Now, the UPA government at the Centre and the SAD-BJP government in Punjab appear to have wisened to the fact that if they play with fire, the consequences are dangerous.

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