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Day after, Punjab limps to normalcy

Punjab continued to be on the edge on Tuesday, two days after Dera Sachakhand chief Niranjan Dass and his disciple Sant Ramanand were shot at. The violence that shook Punjab may have receded a little, but the complex mix of socio-religious tensions that lies at the bottom of it all has come under greater strain. Punjab burns over Vienna | The Sikh sects

india Updated: May 27, 2009 09:48 IST

Punjab continued to be on the edge on Tuesday, two days after Dera Sachakhand chief Niranjan Dass and his disciple Sant Ramanand were shot at.

Curfew was in place in Jalandhar, Phagwara, Kapurthala and Ludhiana but the government allowed a four-hour relaxation for residents to buy household essentials.

<b1>The violence that shook Punjab may have receded a little, but the complex mix of socio-religious tensions that lies at the bottom of it all has come under greater strain.

The immediate provocation for the backlash among the largely Dalit members of the Ravidass community — or Ravidassias, as they are called in Punjab — was the attack on their leaders at a Vienna gurdwara.

Religion, however, was only a small element in the build-up — there’s caste, economics and, above all, assertion by a community kept at the fringes.

Such is the complex background that even the term gurdwara would need examination. Assumed generally to mean the place of worship of Sikhs, the word is also used by followers of Guru Ravidass - mostly Dalits - for their temples.

It is a sect that is entirely independent of the Sikh religion, with its own holy book. However, certain elements overlap - like the preachings of Guru Ravidass that are included in the "granths" of both.

More confusion comes in from the fact that Dalits at various stages have also taken spiritual guidance from Sikhism, a religion that does not recognise the concept of caste, at least in theory. (In fact, a large number of Dalits are also Sikhs). But with the "lower castes" now beginning to find economic prosperity, they have come to assert their identity too. The upper castes do not appreciate that and that is the provocation for the latest upheaval.

In the West, most Sikh gurdwaras over the past two decades have come to be dominated by upper caste (Jat) religious leaders aligned with the "Khalistan" ideology. Massive donations to these institutions are common.

For many decades, migrants from Punjab, both Sikh and Dalit, have built communities around Sikh gurdwaras, which would welcome any immigrant in need of shelter, irrespective of caste or religion. All was well till Dalits grew in numbers as well as financially. Already members of Sikh gurdwaras, they wanted a say in the management too, but that was where the "tolerance" of the upper caste stakeholders ended.

Realising they had not truly been accepted, the Ravidass community, by now fairly affluent, set about establishing their own gurdwaras, with their separate "granth".

While similar "assertion" has led to many Ravidass gurdwaras being built in Punjab too, there is greater tension involved in the West because of the far greater donations there.

According to Surinder Mahey, president of the Satguru Ravidass Dharam Management Committee, the community today has around 75 gurdwaras outside India - 12 in the UK, eight each in the US and Italy, six in Canada, and two each in France and Australia. "We believe Guru Ravidass's message of peace and harmony can be delivered only through these gurdwaras," he says.

A follower in Birmingham, UK, who does not want to be identified, says: "Ravidass gurdwaras given distinct identity to the lower castes, and the donations are used for the propagation of Guru Ravidass' ideology alone. It's a fight for equality and social justice."