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Punjab polls: Why politicians are making a beeline for Dera Ballan

Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal’s Tuesday visit to the Dera Sachkhand Ballan in Punjab is aimed at leveraging the legacy of one of the most important organisations for Dalits in the state for electoral benefit in the upcoming assembly polls.

india Updated: Mar 15, 2016 17:29 IST
Ravinder Vasudeva
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal addressing people at Dhilwan in Punjab.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal addressing people at Dhilwan in Punjab. (PTI File Photo)

Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal’s Tuesday visit to the Dera Sachkhand Ballan in Punjab is aimed at leveraging the legacy of one of the most important organisations for Dalits in the state for electoral benefit in the upcoming assembly polls.

With a year to go for the polls, the Aam Aadmi Party is locked in a fierce three-way race against the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine and the Congress. But widespread anti-incumbency and massive footfall at recent AAP rallies have given the rookie party hope of re-creating the landslide victory in the Delhi elections.

It is widely believed that the Dera — situated around 7km from Jalandhar — has emerged as the prime ‘protector’ of Ravidassias in recent times, particularly after the murder of its deputy leader at Vienna (Austria) in 2009 led to Sikh-Dalit violence that hit national and international headlines. Such is its heft that while other sects mostly call themselves propagators, Dera Ballan broke away from its Sikh umbrella credentials after Sant Ramanand’s murder by some radical Sikhs, and set up a separate religion, complete with its own holy book. It asserts that ages of exclusion from mainstream Sikhism led to this step.

Numbers count

The Dera derives its political clout from the sheer strength of numbers — Dalits constitute about 32% of the population in Punjab, which is the highest, percentage-wise, among all states. Of this, over one-third (12% of Punjab’s population) identify as Ravidassias, followers of Ravidass, a poet-saint of the Bhakti movement from the 15th century, revered as a Dalit icon.

Most of the Dalit or Scheduled Castes (SC) population is concentrated in Doaba region, taking the SC proportion here to around 45%. The region sends 23 representatives to the state assembly of 117, and the Dera has direct influence on at least 19 seats, where Ravidassia community’s vote-share ranges from 20% to 50%. Dera Ballan had a following among non-Ravidassia Dalits too, though that has declined after it made a separate religion. Also, unlike some other sects, Dera Ballan has not made its politics public so far.

Its followers, however, are largely seen as divided between the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), an arithmetic that has sometimes even given advantage to the SAD-BJP, since opposition votes are divided.

The AAP, pitching itself as a party of the oppressed and outsiders, is gunning for these votes now. More than votes and that too in Doaba alone, Kejriwal is looking at a larger Dalit consolidation, something that even the BSP has not managed to do in Punjab so far.

Tilts so far

When Kanshi Ram started a struggle which later became the BSP, the Dera grew close to its leaders, so much so that the foundation stone of Guru Ravidass Gate at Varanasi was laid by Kanshi Ram on May 25, 1997. It was inaugurated by the then President KR Narayanan on July 16, 1998.

In later years, however, it was largely seen as favouring the Congress as its leader Chaudhary Jagjit Singh, who died last year, remained close to the sect’s top leaders. Jagjit’s father Gurbanta Singh, a former minister, had played a vital role in the establishment of the campus of the Dera at Ballan.

During clashes with Sikh groups in 2009 after the Vienna murder, BSP leaders led the Ravidassia community groups. Before that, when the Congress won big in Doaba in 2002, it was believed that Dera Ballan had played a key role by secretly asking its followers to support its leader Captain Amarinder Singh. Amarinder, after again taking charge again as state Congress chief, has already held meetings with the Dera head.

Divide within

The separate religion (see box) has, however, also created some rifts within. “There are only 10% Ravidassia families who decided to adopt Amrit Bani (separate holy book) after the Dera diktat inn 2010. The rest still respect only Guru Granth Sahib,” claimed a sitting MLA from the Ravidassia community. A former leader of the Dera, Surinder Dass, has already established a different Dera in nearby village Kuthar; he also follows Guru Granth Sahib.

‘Mere illusion’

Further still, Paramjit Singh Judge, a dean at Guru Nanak Dev University, and an expert on Dalit issues, termed the whole Dera politics “an illusion”.

“The politics of Deras in Punjab has been there for very long. The credit goes to the Akalis who started the politics of religion first by exhorting people to vote in the name of Sikhism,” he said. “But it’s a big illusion created by politicians that Deras can earn them votes and make governments.”

As far as the influence of Dera Ballan was concerned, he said, “if they had voted for their community in Doaba during the 2012 assembly polls, many Ravidassia candidates would have won. But there are only three Ravidassia MLAs at present,” said Judge. “The illusion of political influence is created by those followers who want to use the might of a Dera for their personal rise.”

Charting the sect’s journey

1895: Dera established by Harnam Dass, who got the name ‘Sant Pipal Dass’, a Bathinda native, who eventually settled in Ballan village near Jalandhar

1965: Foundation of temple of Guru Ravidass laid with Dera efforts at the poet-saint’s birthplace in Varanasi, UP

1970: Dera’s first political activity as prominent faces of larger Ad-Dharmi (Dalit) movement from Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, J&K and Haryana congregate at Dera Sachkhand Ballan; resolutions concerning community passed; NRI backing also starts from this decade as Dalits chase and grab dreams abroad

1994: Construction of temple completed at Varanasi; becomes symbol of ‘re-establishment’ of the glory of Guru Ravidass; Dera gains traction too as caste re-emerges as prime political plank

2002: Dera gives call to celebrate Ravidass birth anniversary in big way; start made from Boota Mandi in Jalandhar at huge gathering

2009: Ramanand, deputy leader of the Dera, killed in Vienna (Austrai) by radical Sikh activists; followed by clashes in Doaba region between Dera followers and Sikhs.

2010: Dera declares ‘Amrit Bani’ as the holy book of new Ravidassia Dharam (religion); breaks away from Sikhism umbrella