Sacha Sauda has a special significance in Sikh history. It is believed that Guru Nanak, the legendary founder of the faith, spent his father's seed capital of twenty rupees on feeding starving sadhus instead of starting a business in the 15th century.
The 'pure deal' or the sachha sauda, inspired free kitchen (langar) for the deprived, a tradition still followed faithfully in all Sikh temples. The spot where Guru Nanak fed the mendicants is now a Sikh pilgrimage centre in Pakistan called gurdwara Sacha Sauda.
The Sikhs have not been small-minded about sharing their legacy; they never objected to the use of the title "Sacha Sauda" by the Sirsa-based sect founded in 1948. Why then the use of a mere dress by its chief has now generated so much resentment? Does this anger once again raise the spectre of senseless violence that took over 20,000 lives since the eighties?
By now the stated positions are well known. Akal Takht head Jogender Singh Vedanti tells HT that the Sikhs are troubled because by baptising his followers with "amrit" (nectar), Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh falsely equated himself with the tenth Guru, something no one has dared before.
The Dera chief retorts that his dress and the ritual were routine. Both sides are under pressure to compromise. Many feel that an apology may not temper the Sikh anger at a time when many disbanded extremist outfits are trying to regain a foothold in Punjab.
Two of Amritsar's senior politicians, BJP's Satpal Mahajan and Darbari Lal of the Congress warn that a delay in resolving the crisis would harm common people and benefit the extremists. Lal says one day's Punjab bandh has cost the state close to Rs 650 crore. CPI veteran Satpal Dang is a worried man because slogans like "Khalistan Zindabad" and "Bhindranwale Zindabad" are back in Punjab. Dang says crises like these give the extremists the mass base they lost in the eighties after widespread murders, rapes and extortions.
The first signs of confrontation emerged on May 17 when Jathedar Balwant Singh Nandgarh of Takht Damdama Sahab gave a clarion call for a mass meeting. Media in Punjab widely reported his sensational announcement of a reward for reprisal after a Sikh protestor was killed in Bhatinda. For now, everyone is backing the Akal Takht's appeal for calm but things are bound to get messier if a misguided individual decides to take up the Jathedar's challenge.
The situation is nowhere close to the gloomy eighties but the controversy has clearly fired up Punjab's faction-ridden extremists. The most active players are the two factions of the Damdami Taksal (the Sikh seminary once headed by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale), Dal Khalsa, All Indian Sikh Students' Federation (AISSF) and some radical jathedars like Nandgarh. All these organisations have adopted tough line on the Dera controversy.
The former chief of the dreaded Panthic Committee, and now a Damdami Taksal leader, Bhai Mohkam Singh says he wants to give the government and the legal system one last chance to punish the Dera chief. "Bhindranwale also acted after the courts failed," he says. Ram Singh, who heads the rival Taksal faction, goes a step further by demanding a ban on Punjab's biggest Radhasoami Dera.
Kunwarpal Singh Bittoo of Dal Khalsa and Manjit Singh Bhoma of AISSF say they would not accept anything short of Dera chief's arrest. Bhoma discredits Swami Agnivesh as a mediator because, "he has written anti-Sikh books." Bittoo, sitting in front of a computer in his well-appointed office named Freedom House, outlines his "ideological struggle." He says, "Alag hone ki tamanna aaj bhee hai magar kuchh karne se pahle sau bar sochenge (Separatist desire is still there but would think a hundred times before doing something)."
Every politician, hardliner or religious leader this correspondent met in Amritsar drew a parallel between this month's Akal Takht edict against Dera Sacha Sauda and the one against the Nirankari chief Baba Gurbachan Singh in 1978, also for allegedly copying Sikh rituals during another Akali-BJP rule. It is now part of Punjab's bloodied history that the Nirankari chief's killing in 1980 altered the course of Punjab's politics forever.
Amritsar occupies a special place in Sikh history. Akal Takht or the holy Darbar has generally been at loggerheads with 'Dilli Darbar' and most extremist outfits here thrive on the fault lines. The view from Amritsar today is that the disagreement over Dera Sacha Sauda is unlikely to die down with a simple apology even if the common Sikhs are not with those who have stakes in continuing the crisis.