On Tuesday, as Aam Aadmi P arty (AAP) convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal joins the list of politicians wooing sects or deras in Punjab, his first big stop is Dera Sachkhand Ballan near here. But, long before Kejriwal or even state Congress chief Capt Amarinder Singh, in the caste equation of Punjab’s religio-politics, Dera Ballan has been known as the Mecca of the Ravidassia Dalits dominant in Doaba region.
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 mere 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.
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 who is particularly 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 as advantage to the SAD-BJP since opposition votes are divided.
The AAP, pitching itself as a party of the oppressed and outsider, 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 too 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 this year.
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.
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.”
From Sikh ambit to separate Ravidassia Dharam
For decades since the dera was established in 1895 by Harnam Dass, a native of Bathinda’s Gill Patti village who came to be known as Sant Pipal Dass, its preaching was based on the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib. Guru
Ravidass’s religious-reformatory verses are part of the Granth. Even up to the 1990s, some jathedars of Sikhism’s temporal seat Akal Takht, visited the dera at its headquarters in Ballan village near Jalandhar.
But the transformation had started in the ’70s and ’80s with Dalits too turning non-resident Indians (NRIs) and sending in big donations. By the ’90s, during the period of Mandal Commission and heightened caste politics, the sect started concentrating primarily on Ravidass’ verses in the Guru Granth Sahib, and made these into its chants as well.
The chasm came out as clashes between the dera’s followers and Sikh communities broke out after the killing of dera preacher Ramanand Dass in Vienna. Soon after, the dera Guru Granth Sahib with ‘Amrit Bani: Satguru Ravidass Granth’ and founded the ‘Ravidassia Dharam’. Though many believe the separate religion has not managed any wholesale ‘conversion’ and many followers continue to identify as Sikh or even Hindu, this move did make the dera stand out.
The announcement of the new religion was made by present sect head Niranjan Dass in January 2010 from the birthplace temple of Guru Ravidass in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. That temple is considered a physical milestone in the sect’s journey to its present-day stature and significance.
A delegation deputed by Sarwan Dass, the second gaddi-nashin (head) of the dera, had traced the birthplace; and the foundation was laid on June 14, 1965.
The construction took three decades, though. Completed in 1994, this temple was seen as having re-established the glory of Guru Ravidass. The temple is looked after by the Dera Ballan Trust, and is termed the Mukti Dham (salvation destination).
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.
January 2010: Dera declares ‘Amrit Bani’ as the holy book of new Ravidassia Dharam (religion); breaks away from Sikhism umbrella
Meet Niranjan Dass, the sect’s present head
The fifth and current head of Dera Sachkhand Ballan is Niranjan Dass, who was offered by his parents to the dera as per its ‘Chadhava’ convention. As per the dera rules, only those get the chance to be Gaddi-Nashin (holders of the chair) who come through the convention in childhood. He grew up under the guidance of the second sect head, Sarwan Dass.
After the fourth Gaddi-Nashin, Garib Dass, died on July 23, 1994, Niranjan Dass was installed the leader on August 9, 1994. Compared to his predecessors, he is considered to be “not very rigid”, and inclined more towards spiritual activities than politics. He is relatively reclusive as compared to leaders of not only his own sect but also those of other deras.