The undercurrents of sectarian tensions are like a dormant volcano. They, in the case of Punjab, have an uncanny way to erupt episodically and strike a jarring note to its peaceful moorings.
Last week witnessed yet another violent flare-up of the long-simmering conflict between Sikhs and Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda. While street clashes and curfew kept the Haryana town on the edge for three days before a semblance of normalcy was restored, the latest conflagration had its reverberations in Punjab as well.
Predictably, Sikh bodies' protests for the arrest of sect followers are growing shriller by the day. What, however, has spiked the tempers is the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC)'s fresh charge of sacrilege against the dera for allegedly distorting Sikh hymns of Bhai Gurdas. With both sides stridently sticking to their guns and showing no signs of reconciliation, the specter of a renewed Sikh-dera confrontation that began in 2007 ominously looms large again.
Against this tense build-up has emerged a heart-warming gesture of another sect, Dera Radha Soami Satsang Beas, showing the way on how a potentially divisive religious dispute can be resolved amicably without letting it simmer and spawn a wider social discord. On December 1, the avowedly publicity-shy Radha Soamis issued a rare press release on its decision to rebuild a gurdwara at Beas, whose demolition in September after the dera had acquired the land of neighbouring village Waraich, had raised the hackles of Sikh radical bodies.
Equally novel was the dera's humble call to all sections to participate in the 'sewa' to reconstruct the shrine. The hardliners, on their part, drove home the closure by collectively offering a thanksgiving prayer at Harmandar Sahib for a peaceful resolution of the dispute that at one time had threatened to snowball into yet another dera-versus-Sikh imbroglio. This is the first time in Punjab's living memory that a religious controversy has been put to an end through the most potent weapon that any civilised society has dialogue.
Though both the Akal Takht and the SGPC had cleared the dera of the charge of sacrilege, saying that the razed shrine was not a historical one, the hardliners refused to budge, stating that the demolition had hurt Sikh sentiments. To its credit, the pacifist sect with an enormous following among all communities across the country didn't take the Sikh clergy's endorsement for granted, and rather set out to prepare the ground to engage the fundamentalist fringe.
Not only did dera's Sanawar-educated spiritual head Gurinder Singh Dhillon pay a quiet pilgrimage to the Golden Temple - an unprecedented goodwill gesture to underline Radha Soamis' abiding "respect-all-religions" philosophy - but he also directly broke bread with radical leaders. All through a series of secret parleys, the dera kept out political intermediaries in keeping with its time-old tradition of staying politically aloof. Such a pragmatic approach - graciously shown in equal measure by both sides paid off in burying the row before it was too late.
Clearly, hardliners, too, have learnt the lessons from the not-so-distant past. After all, it was the Sikh- Nirankari confrontation in the 1980s that had pushed Punjab into a prolonged vortex of religious extremism and violence that consumed more than 25,000 lives and led to cataclysmic events which changed the course of the nation's history. Even after peace returned two decades ago, some of the most influential deras continue to run into conflict with Sikh orthodoxy, which perceives their growing sway in Punjab as a threat to the Sikh identity. The alarming trend, as exemplified by the recent violent flashpoints related to the Dera Sacha Sauda (2007), Dera Ballan (2009) and Dera Noormahal (2010) has led to the emergence of new caste and sectarian faultlines in Punjab's volatile social milieu.
While the proliferation of the dera culture is a social reality, what has complicated matters is the politicisation of deras. Political parties on both sides of the spectrum assiduously court and patronise the deras as a "captive vote bank". A rising polarisation of deras on political lines is, in part, a reaction to the SGPC reducing itself to a religious wing of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal rather than living up to its original lofty ideal of being a repository of the Sikh Panth.
Not surprisingly, the Dera Beas-radical rapprochement augurs well for Punjab. For, it is an instructive lesson, both for the deras caught in unsavoury rows and the Sikh clergy, on how an open-minded and sincere dialogue can disarm even fundamentalists and reconcile irritants on religious terrain. It's about time that the sides concerned take initiatives to open dialogue and resolve the dangerously divisive confrontations rather than allowing them to fester and keep Punjab on a short fuse. Doing nothing on such emotive issues is not an option.