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.

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