Politics and religion have always made for a volatile mix in Punjab. The Vienna violence — in which two spiritual leaders of the Ravidass sect, widely revered among the Dalits of Punjab, were attacked by Sikh radicals leading to the death of one — has provoked a backlash at home. But ominously, it has unleashed an element of caste in a state which has the country’s highest density of Dalits and yet no history of caste conflicts.
At one level, the Austrian attack and its violent repercussions are symptomatic of a complex social churning resulting from the upsurge in Sikh fundamentalism over two decades. To add to this, there was also the wave of migration from the predominantly-Dalit Doaba region in the same period. Sikh militancy, in recent times, has been fuelled by a sharpened religious divide between upper caste Sikhs and landless Dalits. This chasm, coupled with the near total dominance of Jat Sikhs over the control of gurudwaras abroad and in Punjab, lies at the root of a tectonic shift in caste equations in the state. It has propelled the economically-empowered Dalit community to assert and carve out a religious identity — a trend that has lent currency to Punjab’s fast proliferating dera culture which the Sikh orthodoxy characterises as a deviation from the tenets of Sikhism. This conflict is more pronounced overseas where the cash-rich gurudwaras, many of them controlled by Sikh radicals, are seen as centres of social and political clout. This could explain the Vienna attack as there has been no past history of conflict between the Sikhs and the Ravidass sect in India.
A redeeming feature of the ugly situation that held the state to ransom for 72 hours has been a prompt condemnation of the Vienna attack by the Akal Takht and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. The Sikh clergy even organised an ‘Akhand Path’ at the Golden Temple. Though the Badal government could have acted with greater alacrity, the state’s political class was quick to express solidarity with the outraged Dalits. These incidents don’t bode well for a religion widely revered as one of the most holistic and inclusive in India. Anyone who has visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar will testify to the fact that Sikhism does not believe in caste, class or creed. It must be hoped that the ugly events of the past few days are no more than an aberration.