On May 13, advertisements appeared in leading newspapers showing the head of Dera Sacha Sauda from Sirsa, Haryana, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh re-enacting Guru Gobind Singh’s baptism of the first Khalsa in April 1699. Here was an eccentric — with a large following from the Dalit and lower middle-classes — looking pompous. The ad promoted 30 moral lessons like avoiding intoxicants, adopting vegetarianism and leading a life of purity.
Perhaps, he wished to take a high moral position in view of the CBI probe into charges of murder and rape against him. Even then, someone trying to imitate the Great Guru in such a farcical manner should have provoked some wry humour. It did not, and the political class saw in it an opportunity for consolidation of their respective political bases. Consequently, there were armed clashes that left scores of Dera followers and Sikhs injured and one young man dead. For the first three days, the police were mere spectators as sword and lathi-swinging mobs clashed in and around Bhatinda, the heart of Punjab’s prosperous Malwa. At the behest of the ruling Akali Dal and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the Sikh clerics occupying the five Takhts arbitrated, but their harshly-worded edicts only fuelled more hatred.
For the first time, the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, not only ordered Sikhs to sever all relations — social, economic and political — with the ‘Premis’, the followers of Sacha Sauda, but also called for a Punjab bandh on May 27. They also called for closure of all the Deras in Punjab and the arrest of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. One of the high priests, Balwant Singh Nandgarh, who heads the Takht Damdama Sahib at Talwandi Sabo in the Malwa, publicly declared, Khomeini-style, that anyone who kills the Sacha Sauda head would be weighed in gold.
Fortunately, the bandh passed off peacefully, though it left a fear psychosis among the public. It looked as if Punjab was being pushed back to its gory days. Investors in power and other sectors postponed their meeting with the government. The Akali and BJP coalition government came under strain within just three months of its existence as BJP leaders publicly reprimanded Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and threatened to revise their sharing of power with the Akalis.
The Sikh high priests over the past many years have been handmaidens of the political class, particularly the Akali Dal, selectively issuing edicts and awarding punishments. Leaders like Surjit Singh Barnala and Buta Singh and eminent scholars like Professor Piar Singh underwent punishment. Others like Badal escaped, despite stalwarts like the late Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who was president of the SGPC for over a quarter of century bringing charges against them.
This immoderation has been undermining the true nature of Sikhism. From the 16th century onwards, Guru Nanak declared that there were neither Hindus nor Muslims and all mankind was one. He urged fellow human beings in simple language to meditate, work honestly and share whatever is earned (Naam japo, kirt karo; wand chhako). Sikhism has been against any ritualism, penance or caste system. Guru Nanak’s idea of Sangat and Pangat brought in the concept of equality as he urged his followers to sit in one row to eat together. His egalitarian concepts and practices attracted people from all faiths. Only Guru Nanak had the courage to demonstrate that rituals on the banks of the Ganga or in Mecca marking God’s presence in only one direction were hollow. The oneness of God and no idolatry were the cornerstones of his philosophy.
All this is being abandoned now. Ritualism and idolatry are becoming commonplace. Sikhs who organise recitations of the Guru Granth Sahib rarely listen to them. In fact, recited paths are available in some gurdwaras. Since there is a large queue of the faithful, recommendation and money work their way. A caste pecking order is no longer anathema to Sikh practices. There are Jat Sikhs, Bhapa Sikh, Khatri Sikh, Arora Sikhs, Sehjdhari Sikhs, Mazhabi Sikhs, Ramdasia and what not. There are some separate gurdwaras too, with preachers (read: appointees of the SGPC) who would like to spread Sikhism through edicts, pronouncements and social boycotts. They are like a state within a state, holding court and awarding punishments.
It is this nature of Sikhism that perpetrates the domination of one particular caste, both in religious and politicfal affairs, causing people from lower castes to seek solace elsewhere. Whenever an organised religion gets regimented with the help of rituals and rites, people seek succour elsewhere. India has a hoary tradition of maths, deras and akharas of sadhus for ages. Over 500 years ago, when Guru Nanak laid the foundation of Sikhism, he was essentially revolting against the caste strangulation, exploitation and ritualism. Currently, Punjab is home to scores of Deras.
Thirty-five per cent of Punjab’s population comprises members of the Scheduled Castes, the highest percentage in the country. It is also witness to the caste apartheid that gave birth to the politics of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s founder, Kanshi Ram, who hailed from Ropar. In matters spiritual, Dalits have increasingly been turning away from established faiths to new spiritual leaders who could provide a kind of identity. Two years ago, upper-caste villagers seized a shrine at Talhan in Doaba where Dalit immigrants ploughed back funds. Ever since there had been a string of violent attacks on both Sikh and Hindu Dalits.
In case of the Sacha Sauda, the faultline was drawn when politicians prompted the Dera chief to start playing politics. It is rumoured that Akali Chief Minister Badal helped him gain precious land from the panchayat at Slabatpur in Bhatinda. Om Parkash Chautala, a close ally of the Badals and former Haryana Chief Minister, helped him in numerous ways. But he ditched them all and asked his followers to vote for the Congress. The Akali Dal suffered badly in Malwa. Though Badal gained power with the help of the BJP, he felt humiliated in his old bastion. Some Akalis were seeking revenge and wanted the Dera chief replaced by a more pliable person.
The Dera chief had his own problems. He faces two murder charges besides rape and the CBI has been asked by the Punjab and Haryana High Court to file the challan by July 31. Feeling the heat, he begged something in return from the Congress for his support. He was keen to thwart this probe by demonstrating his large following. What followed were clashes between Dera followers and the Akalis. Badal could have waited to let the noose tighten around the Dera chief’s neck, but instead he found an opportunity for Sikh consolidation for the Akalis.
There is a disturbing calm at the surface, while daily clashes occur in the villages and towns where Dera followers are forced to return to their fold or face ex-communication and expulsion from their homes and businesses. This could undo Badal’s plan and push Punjab into a morass of hatred and violence.
Gobind Thukral is a senior freelance journalist based in Chandigarh