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Via Vienna, Sikh caste war returns, sets Punjab aflame

india Updated: May 26, 2009 02:14 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times
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A bloody clash over gurdwara offerings in a Vienna street provoked a violent backlash by low-caste Sikhs in Punjab on Monday.

In Jalandhar, roughly 5,800 km east of the Austrian capital, two protestors were killed and 14 injured in police firing.

Thousands of passengers were stranded as protestors disrupted traffic on the Grand Trunk Road and the Ludhiana-Amritsar rail section. In Phagwara, the engine of the Jammu-bound Maurya-Dhawaj Express was damaged.

The army was called out and curfew imposed in Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Phagwara, Phillaur and Hoshiarpur.

The trans-continental tensions prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (76) to appeal for peace. “Invoking the teachings of the Gurus, I appeal to all sections of the people in Punjab to maintain peace,” he said in a statement. Also see: Battle over Gurdwara offerings

At the centre of the conflagration is a battle for the control of cash-rich overseas gurdwaras and an assertion of religious identity by Dalits who form roughly 29 per cent of Punjab’s three crore population — the highest density of Dalits in any Indian state.

Till a few months ago, Vienna had just one gurdwara on Rudolphsheim Street, controlled by radicals loyal to Khalistan, a separate Sikh homeland.

With the Dera Sach Akhand, a Jalandhar-based sect that follows the teachings of guru Ravidass (the 14th century founder of the Ravidassia sect) setting up a gurdwara on the same street, radicals saw red.

The new shrine took away a chunk of devotees and offerings. Tempers frayed when sect head Niranjan Das was attacked on Sunday, allegedly by pro-Khalistan Sikhs.

What ratcheted up tensions was the news of the death of Sant Ramanand, a senior disciple of Dera Sach Khand, which has a considerable following among Dalit Sikhs.

Ramanand was injured in an attack on the Dera followers in Vienna on Sunday.

Dera chief Sant Niranjan Das was also injured. Ramanand succumbed to his injuries on Monday.

In Jalandhar, Dera spokesman Sant Surinder appealed for an end to the violence saying that Sant Niranjan was now out of danger.

Hundreds of protestors went on a rampage, disrupting roads, torching vehicles and destroying public property.

With the body of Ramanand expected to arrive in Punjab on Tuesday, security is tight across the state.