Friday, July 27

Mismanaged State of Punjab

The Punjab story is one of mismanagement and an ostrich-like attitude towards problems, writes Ravinder Kaur, Associate Professor at IIT, New Delhi in The Times of India.
The recent Punjab election verdict clearly shows that to most ordinary citizens, there isn't much difference between various political parties. In Punjab, the politicians appear to be singularly insensitive to the problems plaguing the state. They remain busy in one-upmanship, in mudslinging and trading the same old charges and abuses. What is it that plagues the highest per capita income state of India, the green revolution's miracle state and its hard working, forever optimistic, if native people? The slowest growing economy, plateauing agricultural yields, ruined ecology, farmer suicides, unemployment, low sex ratios, dowry deaths, smack addiction. the list could go on. Whatever happened to the golden state? No doubt, two decades of disturbances and militancy took its toll. But can we lay the blame for the lack of sustainable growth on those decades? The Punjab story is one of mismanagement and an ostrich-like attitude towards problems. If we do not acknowledge our problems, they will go away, seems to be the attitude. The disaster in Punjab has been a long time in the making. For one, this is a state where economic development has not travelled hand in hand with social development. While per capita incomes rose and poverty declined and many Punjabis became obscenely rich, literacy, education and health care did not spread at the same rate. Literacy remains far below that of Kerala and even neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, which was once a part of it; there is a gap of about 15 percentage points between male and female literacy. Punjab is one of the few rich states to continue to have relatively high maternal mortality rates (178 per 1,000)- worse than Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Haryana and Gujarat. Infant mortality rates are also higher than those of many other less prosperous states. The sex ratio, abysmal for a century, declined further from 882 in 1991 to 874 in 2001. The child sex ratio fell even more. Given these dismal statistics, does anyone care whether the Akalis or the Congress rule? If politicians were genuinely interested, they should have had a very sound idea of what ails Punjab, Farmers find themselves indebted. The inputs into agriculture grow more expensive leading to shallow profits when yields don't go sky-high anymore. Diversification never took off so farmers remain trapped in a wheat-rice cycle and hence at the mercy of government minimum support prices (MSPs) and subsidies. The land on which the majority of Punjabis are still dependent for a living can no longer support even two sons - hence many prosperous families are choosing to have only one child, a son.The years of the green revolution had made people smell prosperity and, for some, real luxury. People got used to living standards and ostentatious lifestyles that eventually became unsustainable. The younger generations got themselves some education but this education was not the sort that led to lucrative jobs or entrepreneurial skills. What it did achieve was to make them unfit for agriculture. The young educated man wishes to pontificate and not get out there early in the morning to supervise the farm. His old father still does that while the bhaiyyas from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar do the actual work. The young man lounges in the courtyard, developing dangerous habits such as addiction to smack or other drugs.The drug addiction problem has reached alarming proportion in the state. The warning bells have been ringing for a while but not many have paid attention. Local newspapers are full of such reports but the national media turns a blind eye to it. Why? Perhaps because this is seen as a rich state's problem. Starvation deaths and farmer suicides evoke much more empathy and central government assistance when they take place in Andhra Pradesh or in Orissa. Shouldn't a rich state be able to handle such problems its own?There is little realisation that whole generations are going to waste, caught in the poor education, unemployment, land needing even fewer people to work on it syndrome. In villages, a majority of young boys and men are affected. Parents talk about the sons of others being addicted while refusing to accept that their own sons are in the same trap. It is always some one else's son. Boys who do not get money from parents to feed their habit threaten to commit suicide.Punjab needs to take bold and revolutionary steps. It needs to shed its 'agriculture' , 'wheat bowl' image and take a few steps for its own well-being. First, it needs to drastically revamp it education system, both public and private, and go all out for top quality education. This will make its sons and daughters see that there are other ways of making a living than begging for paltry army or public sector jobs or sending people off to foreign lands. Second, it needs to reduce gender bias so that it can make better use of its intelligent, talented and hardworking women. It needs to lower maternal and infant mortality rates and to allow its girl children to be born. It needs to create (not provide) employment through diversification, even id diversification takes place within agriculture.Let the young men and women decide whether they went to set up factories or sell tulips from their laptops. The politician needs to sell education and jobs to the Punjab peasant's sons and daughters.

Thursday, July 26

'Dalit' Gurdwara

Dalits have separate Gurdwaras in most of the Punjab villages. Here is one, in the name of Guru Ravidas, at village Narangwal in Ludhiana district.(pic: jaypee)

The threat from within

The caste-ridden Sikhs face greatest threat from within, writes Dipankar Gupta in Hindustan Times, tracing their journey from a community confident of its faith to one feeling threatened by the likes of Sacha Sauda head
Sikhs may be just 2 per cent of the population but in their self-image and deportment, it is as if they constitute 200 per cent of India's one billion. As the saying goes: "Ek Sikh barabar sava lakh." Even during the worst days of the Partition, Sikhs never felt insecure about their religion as their Hindu counterparts did, and continue to do.Why then does a small, insignificant sect like the Dera Sacha Sauda, that does not even claim to be Sikh, get mainstream Akalis and a large number of everyday Sikhs so hot and bothered? This Baba is no medieval tyrant and martyrdom of any kind would be thoroughly wasted on him. He is a minor figure whose demonising by the Akalis raised his stature and downgraded their gurus who gave up their lives in far more glorious battlefields.The question then is: How did the Sikhs suddenly turn so insecure? When did it happen and where were we all looking? Or did the lights suddenly go off in the changing room?The original Panthic Party, which later morphed into the Akali Dal after 1947, never evinced such worries either, and those were very difficult times. They regularly participated with the Congress before Independence. The party even supplied the congress with a stable of leaders from Pratap Singh Kairon to Swaran Singh. On election campaigns in undivided Punjab, the Panthic Party frequently displayed the Congress symbol along with its own. On no occasion did any of this to-and-fro movement from Panthic Party and back threaten Sikhism. Nor did the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee declare Kairon or Swaran Singh, or any of the others who took their political blood lines to the Congress, apostates or `tankhaiyas'. Sikhism had that much confidence.In 1899, when Sardar Kahn Singh Nabha wrote "Hum Hindu Nahin (We are not Hindus)," he did not castigate any other religion but just said the plain truth. The Sikhs were not Hindus and let the record state the facts. It was not as if he was prompted to write this tract because of the perceived fear that Hinduism was eating up Sikhism. In this sense he was not the mirror opposite of Swami Dayanand who took every other religion, including Sikhism, as a threat to the Hindu faith.Nabha's interjection was to remind his readers of the symbolic energies at the heart of his faith without deriding non-Sikhs, nor, even for a moment, hoping to proselytise other religions to his own. Even the Singh Sabhas and Chief Khalsa Diwan of that period were intent on crafting a separate Sikh identity and not in impressing their own thought prints on their immediate religious neighbours. Interestingly, in the 60 years after Independence, the Akali Dal has never used the Partition to evoke partisanship the way Hindu parties, and sadly, the Congress even, have done from time to time. This is indeed quite remarkable. Sikhs too had suffered along with Hindus in their migration to east Punjab and beyond. And yet, unlike Hindus, the Partition is history for Sikhs, and not a source of political energies.When I was working with re-settled rural Sikh refugees in Punjab and Haryana, what struck me the most was that they found my questions, which recalled the Partition, quite stupid. So many of these Sikhs told me to move on and not keep looking over my shoulder for monsters and chimeras of the past.That was such a relief. Hindu refugees, in general, were still agonising over the Partition and related stirring tales of their experiences during those times. Most of this recall was highly adorned as my Hindu respondents in the early 1990s were either babies or playing in the mud in knickers when 1947 happened. Some post-Partition Hindu families even held prayer meetings to solemnly remember the day they were ousted from their homes. I found none of this among Sikh refugees. It is no surprise then that even a sectarian party like the Akali Dal has no use for the Partition as a leavening political agent.Later, during the bad days of Khalistan, a large number of Sikhs felt that they were humiliated by the Indian state, but on no account did they believe that their religion was under threat. Khalistanis were, of course, baying to the contrary from the margins, but an overwhelming majority of Sikhs did not politically side with these secessionists though they were widely admired for giving the hated agents of the government a tough time. This is not an `a-ha' moment for, in spite of the trauma post-Bluestar, Sikhs were willing to look ahead the moment Prime Minister V.P. Singh visited Punjab with a healing balm.The Khalistani years, if one may call them that, however demonstrated that in times of crisis, it was not as if there were Sikhs and Sikhs. Regardless of caste and origin, all Sikhs came together. This is where the difference lies when we come to the Sikh over-reaction to Dera Sacha Sauda. There are now Sikhs and Sikhs and the lines are drawn along the grooves of caste.Most of the animus against Baba Ram Rahim came from the Malwa region of Punjab where Jat Sikhs are politically dominant. It does not matter really if Jats vote Congress today and Akali tomorrow, it would always be a fight between `lions'. Dera Sacha Sauda trampled on this territory by bringing in non-Jats to kick up dust and spoil the Jat versus Jat slugfest. This is why Baba Ram Rahim was so profoundly despised in Jat-dominated Akali circles. It was not because he was undermining Sikhism so much as using his "low caste" followers to defeat Jats in their own lair that made Baba Ram Rahim such a hated poster-boy for the Akalis. If the Congress had won without his support, that would still have been acceptable. It is not true, as the Akalis allege, that in the advertisement put out by Baba Ram Rahim he dressed like Guru Gobind. His turban did not have a `kalgi (or plume)', he was stirring Rooh Afza (or something pink) with a ladle and not with a sword (which is Khalsa tradition), and further, he was wearing pink and not blue, not even white. No icon of Guru Gobind can ever be depicted in that colour. Chhatrapati Shivaji's popular imagery looks closer to Guru Gobind than this pink spectacle. And yet many Sikhs blindly believed the Akalis when they said that Baba Ram Rahim was imitating Guru Gobind and thus mocking Sikhism. The majority of such Sikhs did not bother to verify the facts as they were primed to believe anything against him. It was their Jatness, not their Sikhness, that Baba Ram Rahim deeply hurt. In the 1980s, Hindus too eagerly believed the tale that the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was secessionist. The drive to hate always numbs the better senses.At the end of the day what is most depressing is that Sikhs are becoming caste-ridden, and more and more like Hindus. If this trend continues then Sikhism will probably find its greatest threat from within and not from figures clad in baby pink.

Monday, July 23

The dera way for Punjabis

It’s an eclectic mix of Babas offering anything from solace to miracle cures, reports Vijaya Pushkarna in The Week after visiting few deras in Punjab
With her eyes on a door 30 feet away, she rests her head against the wall of the darbar sahib of Dera Sant Baba Ram Singh Ganduanwale. Along with half a dozen sisters-in-faith, who are asleep, she awaits Puran Brahm Maharaj to open that door and give darshan to the sangat (congregation) on a hot Sunday afternoon. A couple of granthis are reading softly from the Granth Sahib in the centre of the hall. "You can sit or lie down. Nobody knows when the door will open. Are you visiting this place for the first time?" the woman from Mohali asks enthusiastically. High walls enclose the dera on the Chandigarh-Sirhind road, and after a number of questions from sevadars, one is able to enter the courtyard.Some people are lying on the grass, with their children playing nearby. There are all kinds of vehicles parked inside. A number of people are working in the langar (community kitchen), and we are asked to partake of it as we wait. The woman from Mohali says that the Baba's family has been with the Sikh gurus from the days of Guru Nanak. "Maharajji's brother, Sant Baba Ajit Singhji Hansaliwale, also has a dera, a few kilometres away. You can go there and visit the highly enlightened soul," she says. She shows posters and calendars of the two brothers who provide spiritual sustenance to thousands like her. "Even before I tell him my problem or pain, he knows it. And if he suggests a way out, you can be rest assured it will work," she says. "Though I visit a gurdwara in Mohali, everyone needs a maharaj for solving small and big problems," she adds, as she offers me a glass of lassi in the langar, where half a dozen men are waiting. When I tell them that I want to write about their devotion to the Maharaj, they clam up. One of them raises his voice and says: "Maharajji is a learned man. He has the world at his feet, and does not believe in publicity. And he has told us not to publicise our faith either. Journalists write whatever they want to. So please excuse us." The woman's tone, too, changes, but she has a suggestion. "You start coming here, and in a few weeks you will experience the miracles of Maharajji. Then you write."Tens of thousands of devotees like her flock to deras looking for a maharaj or sant baba for spiritual guidance and a magical panacea for their woes. Apart from devotees, the babas get sewa-voluntary service. Sewa can be anything from sweeping and cooking, to offerings like an air-conditioner or a few sacks of wheat. Each dera, which means a place, sports a darbar sahib, with the continuous reading of the Granth Sahib, and a langar. Most gurus interpret the Granth Sahib and preach respect for all religions. There is nothing like conversion. Alongside the Granth Sahib, people place the portrait of their Maharajji.Sant Ram Singh's dera at Neelon Bridge in Ludhiana is simply called Guru ka Langar. He quotes Guru Nanak to the faithful, who touch his feet, make an offering, and pour their hearts out. Credited with travelling across the country to propagate the teachings of Guru Nanak, the 90-year-old seer has only one message: "Only your God is real. Everything else like money, friends and family will be left behind. Do all the good you can."Joginder Singh, in his 40s, could never think of doing anything other than serving at the dera. "If people want to reach God, they need a teacher. For me that teacher is Sant Ram Singhji," he says. Ram Singh visits the dera only occasionally. Those who want to meet him go to his house a couple of kilometres away.Surjit Kaur, a little over 60, lays her infant grandson at Ram Singhji's white socks-covered feet, and tells him that he has not stopped crying for the past two days. He strokes the baby's head and tells Surjit that all will be well. "This grandson is Babaji's gift to us, to my daughter who has two daughters. We don't go to any doctor for the children as he is our doctor," she says.Why do people flock to deras, I ask Ram Singh. "People have to be guided to the Guru. It is kaliyug, and more and more people will go with the frauds, who will exploit them. I am a man of Guru Nanak and I tell people to consume neither liquor nor meat and to work hard. I tell them that apart from God, everything else will be left behind," he replies.I ask him to comment on the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda's Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh. Ram Singh replies: "I want to know what his religion is. Who is he, an udasi, a jogi, a sanyasi, a nath, a sant or a Sikh? And whose preaching is he teaching? A real mahatma never fights."As I leave, some say Ram Singhji did a 25-year-long penance before setting up the dera. I drive along the meandering roads to reach Dera Dhakki Sahib at Maksudra village of Payal tehsil in Ludhiana. Baba Darshan Singh, 43, a resident of Gharuan village in Ropar district, founded the dera in 1987, and has remained controversial all along. Three years ago the CBI indicted him and 18 followers for opening fire and attacking the villagers, who resisted the dera's encroachment on public land.Darshan Singh's supporters used to carry arms and flaunt their political connections. He himself flew in a helicopter to preach all over Punjab. And in the political battle between Akali stalwarts Parkash Singh Badal and the late Gurcharan Singh Tohra a few years ago, he is said to have sided with Tohra. An angry Badal jailed him when he became chief minister last time. Once mobs torched his dera.The starting point of Dhakki Wale Baba [Darshan Singh] may have had a lot to do with the forest land on which the dera has come up. The dera is lush with trees and scores of devotees visit the eco-friendly huts, which house the darbar sahib, the langar, and a guest house. Darshan Singh's aide Gurdeep Singh explains that Dhakki comes from the dhak tree that grows abundantly in this forest. The dera's private areas are sealed off with a grille fence. Built in the centre of an enormous earthen mound, the two-storeyed house has a cave-like entrance, which gives it the look of a sadhu's abode. Notices on trees exhort people to respect all religions. Darshan Singh does social work by helping poor girls get married, conducting de-addiction programmes and teaching Gurbani. Says Gurdeep: "Baba tells his devotees to be honest and to serve the poor. His is the role of a teacher. People are not allowed to touch his feet, or bow before him. They can do so at the darbar sahib." The controversies surrounding Darshan Singh have apparently not affected his followers. Many have travelled from distant places, unmindful of the scorching heat. Apparently many deras are unsure whether the Akal Takht wants their closure or just the winding up of Dera Sacha Sauda of Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh. At Dhakki Sahib, there is an undercurrent of fear as they are not on good terms with Chief Minister Badal.My next destination is the Dera Baba Mastanaji Maharaj near Mandi Ahmedgarh. Its Sant Baba Karnail Singh, 31, assumed the gaddi of the 18-year-old dera one and a half years ago. For 14 years, Karnail Singh was the general secretary of the Youth Shiromani Akali Dal and a trusted lieutenant of the Badals, particularly Shiromani Akali Dal working president Sukhbir Singh Badal. "My family in Canada was very devoted to Baba Mastanaji Maharaj and I used to visit this place from childhood. Eighteen months ago, he took me to the bank and made me the nominee of his assets. That night he told the sangat that I would be the spiritual inheritor of his teachings, his dera, and he passed away," says Karnail Singh as he supervises the kar seva (voluntary work) of his devotees. Karnail Singh, clad in a white pyjama-kurta, tells the sangat to stop kar seva for a while because of the heat. The doors are opened, and the people rush in. They are told not to touch his feet. After listening to their burden of woes, he comforts them and hands out prasad-a small plastic pouch of puffed rice and a tablet. "These tablets help these people a lot," says Karnail Singh showing a plastic basket full of strips of Avil and Duragesic. One is an anti-allergy pill and the other is a combo of diclofenac sodium and paracetamol. The prasad and his comforting words seem to work wonders on the devotees.Says Vimala Rani, who is in her 50s: "I had a severe eye ailment and had to undergo two surgeries in Ludhiana. But the pain continued. Three months ago, my daughter's mother-in-law told me to come here. I have been coming ever since and now I have much relief."Jasmeet Kaur, another devotee, says: "The old Maharajji knew our problems on his own. Even when doctors gave up, his cures worked. That jyot is with this young Baba, he's a true inheritor," she says

Thursday, July 19

Caste and Religion in Punjab

Case of the Bhaniarawala Phenomenon

The recent violence between Akali groups and the Dera Sacha Sauda in Punjab underscores the existence of a number of ‘deras’ in various parts of the state, which are but a manifestation of prevailing caste divisions and tensions. Dalits and other marginalised groups adhere to such deras for it promises them an alternative to mainstream, and in many respects, exclusionary Sikhism. Yet deras, especially in recent decades, have acquired strategic political overtones. This article by Meeta and Rajiv Lochan in Economic & Political Weekly looks at one such episode in Punjab’s recent religious history.

The recent clash between the followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda and various Sikh organisations brought Punjab to a grinding halt for five days. Matters continue to simmer and tempers have been little alleviated even after the dera chief, bearing the multireligious name of “Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh”, was forced to offer an apology of sorts for hurting Sikh sentiments. Various Sikh organisations led by the Akal Takht, the chief temporal seat of the Sikhs, have asked the state government to take appropriate punitive action against the dera chief for having shown gross irreverence to the Sikh gurus, as the Akalis claimed. A call for the social boycott of all the followers of the dera too was issued. The dera chief was called to present himself before the Akal Takht and apologise for his sacrilegious behaviour. The dera chief, for his part, initially refused to apologise, or to present himself before the Sikhs, as he claimed that he had done no wrong. His followers went on to use the visual media to argue publicly with representatives of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), even quoting from the Sikh scriptures on live TV, in support of their sect leader. After much violence across the state of Punjab, punctuated by some extremist Sikh organisations laying a price on the head of the dera chief, the latter issued a clarification of sorts wherein he said that a misunderstanding appeared to be at the root of the hurt evinced by the Sikhs for neither had he dishonoured any Sikh guru nor had he the intentions to do so. Throughout this public face-off between the Dera Sacha Sauda and the Sikhs one thing became clear: that the dera, its leaders and followers, would not hesitate in publicly proclaiming and practising their version of a religion. The sect’s followers have been doing so for several years now, occasionally even obtaining the support of the state government, especially when the Congress was in power. The Dera Sacha Sauda had been instrumental in the vidhan sabha elections earlier this year, as most newspapers have reported, in helping garner 20 seats for the Congress from the Malwa region. This area had hitherto been an Akali stronghold. How far the dera was responsible for Congress “victories” remains, however, a matter of speculation; what is clear, though, is that the Akalis held the dera answerable for the defeat of some of its candidates.
Once the Akalis came to form a government of their own in Punjab in 2007, they lost little time in taking umbrage at the public posturing of the dera and asserted, in the name of all Sikhs, that the dera chief had hurt their religious sentiments and should apologise for the hurt that he had caused the Sikh psyche. Beginning from May 14, thousands of Sikhs were mobilised all over Punjab and neighbouring states demanding appropriate punishment for the dera and its chief. All the while the state authorities provided tacit support to the agitated and armed mobs by not making any serious effort at crowd control. Later, after the dera chief had tendered his explanation, the chief of the state police claimed, in a press interview on May 19, that the police was perfectly capable of taking strong steps against those carrying weapons in public, violating prohibitory orders and destroying property. However, he added that inaction was the bestaction possible for crowd control in that surcharged atmosphere. On the fourth day of the face-off, a dera follower even approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court with a Public Interest Litigation requesting that the court intervene and direct the state government to provide protection to the life and properties of the followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda. Many commentators noted with concern that an analogous conflict between another dera and the Sikhs in the late 1970s, with the tacit support of political parties to both sides in the conflict, had sown the seeds of terrorism in Punjab during the 1980s. Such conflicts between sects and dominant Sikhism seem to be rather very commonplace in the recent history of Punjab and their significance goes far beyond the short-term politics of revenge. Some receive more public attention than others, some are more complicated, but the basic story behind the conflict remains the same. This article concerns one such conflict that did not draw as much public attention but which, for that very reason, is so much the easier to understand.

One of the more lasting ironies of most successful religions is that they address themselves to universal values and goodness. Yet, there is a strong element of exclusionism within them that separates one religion from the other. This is especially in the practice of the adherents of the religion who, ironically, may be actually going against its tenets in the name of upholding the core ideas of the religion. But what happens when those excluded too claim to be adherents of the religion? Something of this problem has been facing Sikhism in the recent past. At least from among the dalits and other marginalised people of Punjab, a strand of thought has begun to emerge that rebels against the exclusionist and reactionary tendencies within mainstream Sikhism in Punjab, tendencies that have continued to linger contrary to the mission and ideas of the gurus. One such strand engendered a major drama recently. This concerned the emergence of a new sect led by one who was born a dalit Sikh but who even went on to, it is alleged, craft a new ‘granth’ for his followers. This was the socalled sect of Bhaniarawala. His actions touched a raw nerve in Sikh polity and society but did not seem to spark off much thought or debate. In this paper we document this “episode” in Punjab’s recent religious history and suggest that it is imperative for the Sikhs, rather than Sikhism, to address the social turmoil reflected by, what we call, the Bhaniarawala phenomenon. Until a constructive solution is found, a commitment to the idea of ‘sarbat da bhala’ (well-being of all humanity), as the main teaching of the Sikhs believes, remains problematic in public domain and would be confined to the practices of individuals alone. We concern ourselves in this paper with this episode that generated much noise and resulted in the suppression, at least for the moment, of what was seen as an alternate guru movement in Punjab. This one was mostly made up of dalits, most of them were of the mazhabi caste and claimed adherence to Sikhism. What made this one different was its vigorous conflict with the Sikh establishment in Punjab. The mazhabis are the most numerous among scheduled caste groups in Punjab according to the census of 2001. Their population in 2001 was recorded at just a little over 22 lakhs. They constituted some 31 per cent of the total SC population of the state. They are the ones with the lowest literacy rate (42.3 per cent) among the SCs in Punjab, more than one-third among them have an educational level below the primary level and only 15 per cent have more than a middle school education. More than half (55.2 per cent) of the mazhabis work as agricultural labourers. Most of them (60 per cent) were recorded by the census of 2001 as belonging to the Sikh religion and the remaining as Hindus. Only a negligible numbernumber (0.5 per cent) was reported as Buddhists. Obviously, Sikhism plays an important role in their lives. Yet, they seemed to have problems with it, especially with the domination of Sikhism by the upper castes.

A number of other guru panths already exist in Punjab. Some of the more well known ones include the Radha Soamis, the Namdharis, the Nirankaris, the Handalis, the Minas and the Udasis. Of these which ones which are classified as “Sikh sects” remains a matter of debate and personal feeling. Some of these evoke far stronger feelings of rejection as Sikhs. These include the Dera Sacha Sauda and the Divya Jyoti Sansthan. In the early 1980s there was much controversy caused by the burning of the texts called Avtar Bani and Yug Purush that were attributed to the Nirankari baba. Some historians have even attributed the clash between the Nirankaris and the Sikhs, as important in the creation of terrorism in Punjab. Apart from these well known sects there are also hundreds of deras that dot the present day Punjab and Haryana countryside. Perhaps, as Dipankar Gupta puts it, since the 1980s all this has been a part of creating a “Sikh” identity.2 In this story of the deras and babas the one of Bhaniara was actually too small and moreover too narrow in its geographical spread. Yet it had an impressive following and was quick in throwing up a challenge to the dominant Sikh groups. The number of followers of Baba Bhaniara was put at anything from 20,000 to 6,00,000. It was alleged that the guru had penned a granth of his own for the benefit of his followers and had adopted the accoutrements of the gurus of Sikhism. Moreover, this was the only guru movement that excited statewide protests and was suppressed by the government machinery. It concerned a number of issues: the protest by at least one group of dalits against the domination of the present day SGPC and upper castes over the gurdwaras and by implication the Akal Takht, the ability of the dominant groups to mobilise state support for their control over the gurdwaras and expressions of religion and the strong response from the people of Punjab to the perceived threat to religion, especially from those adopting the iconic emblems of the Sikh gurus. For secular threats by dalits mounted within the mainstream Sikh tradition such as happened in the Talhan case, it is interesting to note that the mainstream Sikhs felt far more helpless in responding. Evidently the accoutrements of religion lend much needed legitimacy to the parties in a secular conflict.

By now it is well recognised that there is a thick line dividing Sikh studies. Perhaps there is a similar one dividing Sikhs as well. On one side are the western trained and located scholars and on the other are those trained and located in India. Or perhaps the line that divides is not of the east and the west but of those who reside in Punjab and remain proximate to it and those outside of it. There is a little bit of grey area between the two caused by a certain overlap, but on the whole the geographical divide remains. The discussions in at least one of the seminars, mainly attended by the western trained and situated scholars which had identified one such divide also noticed that much of the difference emanates from the location of the SGPC and Akal Takht at Amritsar and the negative influence that the politicking within them has on any thinking on Sikh history and understanding the practice of Sikhism and the various streams that go into its making.4 We might also recall that for some time now the SGPC and the Akal Takht routinely issue edicts prohibiting any discussion of the Adi Granth and other texts of the Sikh religion that does not resonate with the dominant interpretation of Sikhism. Religious texts need to be believed in and not interpreted, is the broad instruction issued on such occasions. Similar was the contention of one of the leading Sikh scholars from India. Speaking at the Centre for South Asia Studies at the University of California, on the meaning of inter-religious dialogue, he laid down what he thought were the ground rules for understanding a religious tradition. “The point is that a religious tradition must be approached in terms of its own self-definition, in terms of its self-defined identity”, he said. And went on to add that “This requires an unmediated, experiential insight (through socio-religious osmosis) which is not possible in the case of the ‘outsiders’, whatever be their cerebral brilliance”. The fact that this scholar was also the vice chancellor of one of the major universities devoted to the Punjabi language and Sikh studies is enough for us to take such remarks seriously. An implication of such a situation is that a number of issues that need discussion simply get swept under the carpet in the name of being unimportant or too controversial. The dalits of Punjab, the largest body of dalits in the country and collectively, the most prosperous ones, are simply sidelined. Their concerns too are brushed aside. In the recent past, though, the dalits have refused to take things lying down. One such episode concerned the adoption of guru-like diacritical marks by a local religious leader, one Piara Singh Bhaniara.
Piara Singh, one of the seven children of a mason Tulsi Ram from the village Dhamiana in Ropar district had been working as a class IV employee with the state horticulture department at a sericulture farm in Asmanpur village. His father had been the caretaker of two mazaars on the outskirts of the village Dhamiana. At the death of his father, Piara Singh became the caretaker of the mazaars. Soon he also came to be known as a healer, providing medicines for various ailments. His reputation grew since people believed that he did have healing powers. He soon came to be addressed as a ‘baba’, a local holy man. In course of time even the then union home minister, Buta Singh, who subsequently went on to become the governor of Bihar, solicited his advice in treating his wife’s illness. As Baba Bhaniara’s reputation grew, so did his number of followers. It was said by the newspapers at one time that he had 20,000 followers across the state. Most of them were mazhabis. But the large number of politicians who flocked to him for help during the elections and offered the Baba help in constructing his dera over 100 acres at Dhamiana suggests that the police estimate of 6,00,000 followers was also held as true, at least by some of the significant political parties in Punjab. In 1998, the jathedar of the Akal Takht even excommunicated Baba Bhaniara for being anti-Sikh for Bhaniara was prone to say “nasty” things about the Sikh religion and its contemporary leaders. This would have ironic consequences later in 2001 when Baba Bhaniara would refuse to obey summons from the Akal Takht when that august body wanted to chastise Bhaniara for having too large a following. On that occasion Baba Bhaniara excused himself from the paying court to the Akal Takht saying that he was still excommunicated and therefore not liable to obey to commands of the Sikh leaders.
During the summer of 2000, it is said, one of the followers of the Baba Bhaniara was denied permission to carry the Guru Granth Sahib from the local gurdwara for some religious ceremony at home. The practice of carrying home the holy book from a nearby gurdwara with due ceremony is a common one. Equally common are refusals to allow the holy book into the hands of those who are disapproved of by the upper caste custodians and management of the gurdwaras. This in turn sparked off a movement among the followers of the Baba to have a granth of their own over which the dominant sections of society did not have any control. In the next few months the baba along with some of his close followers began to create this new granth. The resultant granth was given the name of Bhavsagar Samundar Amrit Vani. It is said that it was mostly written by one Pritam Singh of Dudhike village in Moga district with the help of some 20 other followers including six women. The frontispiece of the completed granth had a picture of Baba Bhaniara sitting beside his wife Surjit Kaur and writing the granth. The date given for the commencement of writing was June 20, 2000. After his arrest, though, the baba denied having penned the granth and that he had merely dictated it to his followers. On Baisakhi day in 2001, Baba Bhaniara “released” the granth, all of 2,704 pages, at a function in his dera. It was an impressive text, written on large sheets of paper with an expensive binding. Physically, it was big in size and heavy to hold. It contained a number of photographs of various politicians visiting the Baba. The typewritten text was photocopied and distributed among followers. A printer in Chandigarh was assigned the task of printing it.
The followers of the baba even began to hold religious ceremonies with the Bhavsagar granth at the centre. At one such ceremony in Ludhiana, in September 2001, the recently formed Khalsa Action Force, one of the numerous fly-by-night organisations that emerge in Punjab for a brief while, attacked the function, snatched the granth and set it on fire. It was said that the granth had copied a number of portions from the Guru Granth Sahib. In one of the photographs it showed Baba Bhaniara, wearing a shining coat and headdress in a style similar to that made familiar through the popular posters of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru of the Sikhs. In another Baba Bhaniara is shown riding a horse in the manner of Guru Gobind Singh. Not only this, Baba Bhaniara insisted that his sons be addressed as ‘sahibzadas’ in the manner of title used to address the sonsof the gurus. The Bhavsagar granth itself narrated a number of stories about the greatness of the baba, the good luck that he brought to those who believed in him and the punishments that befell those who criticised or taunted him.
The attack on an assembly of Baba Bhaniara’s followers and the burning of the Bhavsagar granth was immediately followed by a number of instances of the burning of the Guru Granth Sahib in various rural gurdwaras. The police was quick to arrest a few young men from different villages and even presented them before the media. In front of the media they accepted that they had burnt the Guru Granth Sahib at the instance of Baba Bhaniara. That in turn sparked off a cycle of violence against the baba and his followers who were accused of dishonouring the Sikh holy book. Soon enough the baba was arrested under the National Security Act and a number of criminal cases slapped against him. Many of his followers were put in jail. In the prison they were attacked with acid and knives by other inmates claiming adherence to Sikhism. The Bhavsagar granth was banned by the government. The copies under circulation were confiscated. Any one found in possession of a copy was arrested. The print ready copy was taken away by the police and perhaps destroyed. Baba Bhaniara’s various deras across the state were destroyed. At least in a few places the deras were forcibly converted into Sikh gurdwaras and brought under the administration of the SGPC. No action was taken against those who had perpetrated these attacks.
Politicians who had been “close” to Baba Bhaniara were castigated by the Akal Takht and made to undergo punishment for their misdeeds. Many of them refuted any closeness to the baba, pleaded their innocence, underwent the punishment and gave public statements asking for even greater punishment by the government to Baba Bhaniara and his followers. The Akali government in power then, with Prakash Singh Badal as chief minister, was accused of being soft on such renegade babas who threatened Sikhism. Various factions of the Akali Dal, and there are almost innumerable of them, began to vie for the mantle of being the true protectors of Sikhism while accusing all others of having encouraged Baba Bhaniara and his renegade religion.
The SGPC set up a three member factfinding committee on the phenomenon of Bhaniarawale. Their report, a 48 page document, listed the various acts of sacrilege that had been committed by the followers of the baba. All this information in the SGPC report had been culled from the newspapers. It indicted several politicians, including the union minister Buta Singh, his nephew Joginder Singh Mann, former Akali MP Amrik Singh Aliwal, former Punjab minister, Gurdev Singh Badal and his son Kewal Badal and others of being responsible directly or indirectly for encouraging, patronising and popularising Bhaniarawala. Besides, it also blamed a number of Nihang leaders and police officers for helping Bhaniarawala in propagating his cult.
After two years in jail, the hearings in the various cases against Baba Bhaniara were still not over. His presence in court was always marked by heavy police arrangement since there were many who still professed the desire of eliminating him for his sacrilegious behaviour towards Sikhism. After his release in 2003 the district magistrate of Ropar under whose jurisdiction Baba Bhaniara’s dera at Dhamiana lay, banned his entry into the district of Ropar. The baba and his followers approached the state high court pleading for the restitution of their fundamental rights. Subsequently that ban was rescinded by the court. Then the baba was asked by the local administration to desist from celebrating his birthday which falls on August 23. He promised to make it a low key affair, but went on to have a large gathering of his followers at the dera. By now the ban on his birthday celebrations have almost become a ritual. The government bans it, yet people assemble in great numbers. The next day newspapers report that the birthday celebrations passed off peacefully. Not much notice is taken by the dominant Sikhs of the activities of Baba Bhaniara. There was one exception, though. This happened when a local gurdwara in Ropar allowed the followers of Baba Bhaniara to take the Guru Granth Sahib for a private ceremony in 2004. That sparked off yet another round of protests from the SGPC and many Sikh organisations.
However, by now a different party, the Congress had formed a government in the state. The controversy over the baba and the relationship that he and his followers have with Sikhism remains unresolved but at least he has desisted from taking public postures, for the time being at least.
It is easy to see the above episode as another instance of political wheelingdealing in the name of religion. But such an interpretation denies us two important issues. One, that the symbiosis that has evolved in Punjab between political power and religious authority has become the creator of a variegated drama in which political machinations dominate in the name of religion. Two, that the dalits of Punjab (and also many other marginal groups) have begun to assert themselves in ways that demonstrate the limits of control by the dominant groups and challenge their domineering claims to represent true Sikhism. Thus far and no further, seems to be the message that they are sending. This could easily, as in the Baba Bhaniara case, lead to the assertion of a different religious identity altogether. But the closeness that any new religious identity has with the emblems and iconic practices of Sikhism creates a drama of its own whereby routinely edicts are passed as to who has the right to interpret religion and preach it and who has not. The list of those who cannot goes on lengthening day by day.
In a rather ironic sort of way then, what this means in effect is that contemporary Sikhism, insofar as it has been defined by the politically dominant factions, is able to reiterate its distinctive identity mostly through exclusionism. In the past two decades or so this has amounted to creating a new phenomenon: that of declaring people renegade from the panth and demanding that a return to the fold will be possible only through the acceptance of some punishment. Declaring people ‘tankhaiya’ (renegades from religion) and asking them to present themselves before the Akal Takht has become routine and driven by political exigencies. All the space for debate, discussion, consultation with the people, qualities that had marked the growth of Sikhism, seems to have vanished. So much so that recently, as seen in the case of the launching of the journal The Spokesman by its owner Joginder Singh, a well known dissident, it was possible for those declared tankhaiya to publicly ignore the orders from the Sikh priests and assert that they were not scared of such ungodly orders from a suspect clergy.
The phenomenon of the deras has two implications: one for the larger Sikh tradition and the other for the social fabric in the state of Punjab. Firstly in any religious tradition, no individual or body of individuals can or should lay claim to a superior truth for there is really nothing to say why any one’s claim is better than that of another. To do so damages the body of belief from which individual opinions emerge by the simple act of seeking to restrict its boundaries. If a religious tradition is to be approached only in terms of its own self-definition, as some insiders assert, then the definition needs to be as broad as possible if it wishes to avoid being determined by an oligopoly. Perhaps the Sikhs need to remind themselves that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Secondly, as a social phenomenon, the various religious sects of Punjab are part of the time-tested tradition of the dispossessed in India seeking a sense of personal worth through dissent. One of the greatest religions of the world, Buddhism, began in precisely such a fashion. To suppress social dissent through the use of the state machinery or other forms of violence does not mean that the dissent would disappear. Rather as long as it is allowed to find religious expression, dissent remains harmless. Its suppression through secular means could well transform it into a force of a different kind and the recent history of Punjab does not offer much scope for optimism in this respect.

Friday, July 6

A conflict of new assertions

The violence triggered by Dera Sacha Sauda has its roots in the simmering anger among Punjab’s Dalits and the Sikh-Khalsa anxiety at lower class mobilization, asserts Dr. Ronki Ram in Tehelka
The recent violent clashes between followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda (established in 1948 with its headquarters in Sirsa, Haryana) and different groups of Akalis, and another spate of conflicts between Jats and Dalits in the state, mark a crucial turn in the political history of Punjab. The importance of these conflicts surpasses the much talked about “short-term politics of revenge” and shows up the deep socio-religious hierarchies in the so-called casteless Sikh society in Punjab. On the one hand, they lay bare the dormant structures of social discrimination that permeate the fabric of Sikh society, and on the other, point towards the neo-conservative Sikhs’ anxiety about the Sikh-Khalsa identity.
The Akalis-Dera Sacha Sauda row over the Dera’s Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s mimicking of the iconography of Guru Gobind Singh, seems much to do with the prevalence of the doctrinally-rejected system of caste hierarchy among the Sikhs. The majority of the followers of various Sacha Sauda-type Deras come from dispossessed sections of society, who at one point of time had embraced Sikhism in the hope of elevating their social and material status. This near-exodus from Sikhism towards the alternative socio-spiritual space provided by the Deras invites the hostility of clerics of the established mainstream religious order, who see it as a serious challenge to the Sikh-Khalsa identity. Moreover, the frequent politicisation of the Deras and the accompanying pontifications further complicate the issue. Persistent attempts by various Sikh organisations to win over disgruntled Dalit Sikh followers of various Deras during the recent Akalis-Dera crisis is a clear example of this.
Punjab has the distinction of being home to the largest proportion of the country’s Scheduled Caste (SCs) population (29 percent). The scs in Punjab belong to different religions and castes, and have the lowest share in the ownership of land (2.4 percent of the cultivated area). The Dalit Sikhs (Mazhabi and Ramdasis or Ramdasia Sikhs) are the most deprived of the lot. They embraced Sikhism in the hope of gaining social equality, but even in the new religion untouchability continued to be practised against them. Social opprobrium continues to afflict them and other Dalits. Some of them feel that Jat Sikhs treat them as badly in the gurdwaras as they do in their farmlands. This has forced them to establish separate gurdwaras, marriage places and cremation grounds. It is against this backdrop of blatant social exclusion that a large number of Dalits have been veering away from the mainstream Sikh religion and enrolling themselves into various forms of Deras in Punjab. Another probable cause behind the large-scale Dalit following of the Deras could be the absence of a strong Dalit movement in the state.
However, the phenomenon of Deras/sects is not new to Punjab. Rather, it is as old as the Sikh faith. During the period of the historic Gurus, different Deras of Udasis, Meene, Dhirmaliye, Ramraiyas and Handali sects cropped up. All these earlier sects and Deras were primarily the outcome of disgruntled and unsuccessful attempts of fake claimants to the title of Guru. Apart from these, there were many more sects and Deras that came up at different intervals on the long and tortuous consolidation of the Sikh religion. Some of the most prominent among them were the Nanakpanthis, Sewapanthis, Bhaktpanthi, Suthrashahi, Gulabdasi, Nirmalas, and the Nihangs who are also known as Akalis or Shahids. But what distinguished these earlier Deras from the contemporary ones is that they could not become centres of Dalit mobilisation. That could be because of the fact that during its early phase of consolidation the Sikh religion was completely egalitarian in precept as well as practice. Dalits were given equal respect and status. They were not discriminated against at all. It was only later on that the monster of casteism raised its head within Sikh institutions and enraged the dispossessed sections. But one factor that draws comparisons between the earlier and the contemporary Deras is the presence of Gurus in all of them, a practice that goes against the basic spirit and tenets of mainstream Sikhism.
According to a latest study conducted by the Desh Sevak, a daily published from Chandigarh, there are around nine thousand Deras in the 12 thousand villages of Punjab. Among them, the most popular are of the Radha Soamis, Sacha Sauda, Nirankaris, Namdharis, Divya Jyoti Sansthan, Bhaniarawala and Ravidasis. Almost all of them have branches in all the districts of the state as well as in other parts of the country. Some of them are very popular among the Punjabi Diaspora and have overseas branches in almost all the continents of the world. Despite their non-sectarian claims, some of these Deras are adhered along caste lines. Though Gurubani from the Guru Granth Sahib is recited in these Deras, other sacred texts are also referred to. For them, idol worship and devotion towards a human Guru is not the anathema it is in Sikh theology. It is due to the presence of such non-Sikh traditions as Human Guruship in these Deras that the phenomenon of non-Sikh Deras has been described by the scholars Meeta and Rajivlochan as the “alternate Guru movement in Punjab”.
This alternate movement in Punjab with its “loose syncretistic practices” throws a formidable challenge to the Sikh-Khalsa identity. Though Bhindranwale tried to assert the Sikh-Khalsa identity by taking up the cudgels for a dissident sect of the Nirankaris and preaching hatred against the Hindus, he could not prevent the movement of Dalits towards non-Sikh Deras. These Deras, in fact, pose an even more serious challenge to mainstream Sikhism. The number of followers of these Deras seems to far exceed that of the Golden Temple-based clerical establishment. It is in this context that the confrontation between the Deras and mainstream Sikhism assumes a critical importance with serious implications for the relationship between Dalits and Jat Sikhs. The confrontation between the Akalis and the premis of the Dera Sacha Sauda is only the most recent case in point. Some of the most prominent conflicts in the past include the Nirankari crisis of 1978, the Bhaniarawala phenomenon of 2001, and the Talhan crisis of 2003. These clashes were, in fact, more about identity politics between Jat Sikhs and Dalits than a row over religion. However, given the religious milieu of the social sphere in Punjab, such conflicts often assumed a communal posture. The Jats of Punjab are primarily an agriculture community. Since the Dalits in the state were deprived of land, in the absence of other job avenues they were forced to depend for their livelihood on the land of the Jat Sikhs. That brought the Dalits in direct confrontation with the Jat Sikhs. Dalits’ relationship with the Jats is that of landless agricultural labour versus the landlords. The two communities are engaged in a power struggle.
However, there are many Dalits in Punjab who have improved their economic conditions by dissociating themselves from their caste occupations as well as distancing themselves from agriculture. They have strengthened their economic position through sheer hard work, enterprise and ventures outside the state. Some of them have established their own small-scale servicing units, and work as carpenters, barbers, blacksmiths and so on. In addition, they have also been politicised to a large extent by the famous Ad-Dharm movement. Thus, they have not only improved their economic status but have also liberated themselves from the subordination of the Jat landowners. With an improved economic position and a sharpened social consciousness, Dalits in Punjab started demanding a concomitant rise in their social status. In the process, they also challenged the dominant caste and its claims to represent true Sikhism. The Jat Sikhs, however, interpreted it as a challenge to the Sikh-Khalsa identity, which further deepened the existing contradictions between them and the Dalits. That is what has led to a series of violent caste clashes between Dalits and Jats in Punjab in the past few years, as also the repeated confrontations between the Akalis and followers of one or the other non-Sikh Deras. Such conflicts are in no way a manifestation of communalism in the state. They, in fact, are signs of an emerging Dalit assertion against social exclusion that have all the possibility of snowballing into violent conflicts if left unresolved.