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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 26, June 13, 2009

Deras, Caste Conflicts and Recent Violence in Punjab

Saturday 13 June 2009, by Surinder Singh

The recent violence in Punjab has taken place as a repercussion of the shootings in a Ravidass temple in Vienna in which the Dera Sachkhand head, Saint Niranjan Dass, was injured and his second- in-command, Saint Ramanand, was killed. This hurt the feelings of the followers of the Dera all over world. The Doaba region in particular was in flames for almost two days before the situation came under control following the appeal by the sants of the Dera.

The present article is divided into three parts: the first part deals historically with the emergence of the Deras in Punjab; the second part deals with the role of these Deras in creating a consciousness among the lower-caste people in the region; and the third part deals with conflicts between the dominant Jat Sikh landed peasantry and the Deras‘ followers at different periods of times.

Emergence of Deras

Punjab has been witness to the emergence of a large number of Deras due to the continued social exclusion and pervading inequality in the social and economic order that refuses to go away despite the rise of Sikhism which in normative terms is opposed to caste based discrimination and glorifies manual labour. There has been another factor that explains the marginal position of the Dalits in the region and that is the concentration of land in the hands of a minority. Thus the ever increasing number of Deras all over the Doaba, Majha and Malwa regions of Punjab is widely attributed to the denial of a respectable place to the Dalits and Backward Caste people in religious places and the Sikh Panth. [Manak, 2007]

In Punjab, the number of Deras are not in hundreds but in thousands. A study conducted by the Desh Sewak, a Punjabi newspaper published from Chandigarh, gives figures that there are more than 9000 Sikh as well as non-Sikh Deras in the 12,000 villages of Punjab. [Ram, 2007, 4067; see also Tehna et al., 2007] There are about 300 major Deras across Punjab and the neighbouring State of Haryana, and these are popular in both States. Out of these a dozen have over one lakh devotees each. [Pubby et al., 2009] There are some prominent Deras like Radha Soami (Beas), Sacha Sauda (Sirsa), Nirankaris, Namdharis, Divya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan (Nurmahal), Dera Sant Bhaniarawalla, Dera Sachkhand (Ballan), Dera Sant Phuriwala, Dera Baba Budha Dal, Dera Begowal, Nanaksarwale. Almost all of them have branches in every district of the State and even outside Punjab in the neighbouring States. Some of them have popularity among the Punjabi Diaspora. Though all these Deras have following among every caste, however, most of the followers of these Deras are Dalits and Backward Caste people who are often economically marginal also.

The history of the Deras in Punjab is older than the Sikh Panth. The Deras in Punjab before the Sikh Panth belong to the Muslim Peer and Yog Nath’s Dera. With the emergence of the Sikh Panth, some prominent Sikh and non-Sikh Deras came into existence as like Udasi Deras, Dera Baba Ram Thaman, Namdhari, Nanaksar. In the twentieth century most Deras came into existence, which are popular today, as Radha Soami, Sacha Sauda, Nirankari, Dera Sachkhand Ballan and Dera Bhaniarawalla.

Deras and Dalit Consciousness

These Deras have their egalitarian ideology, which is strictly followed by the devotees of these Deras. There is no place for caste or religion based discrimination. These Deras present simple but sharp elements of social protest in their teachings that have gone a long way in providing a basis for the rise of radical consciousness. [Ram, 2008, 1341] Some of these Deras have established their schools and health care centres. They encourage the lower-caste poor children to study and help them financially, so that they could earn their livelihood in a respectful way and help their community to lead a dignified life.

Dera Sachkhand Ballan, one of the most popular Ravidass Deras in Punjab, has played an important role in raising Dalit consciousness. The Ad Dharm movement of 1920 and Ravidass Deras played a historical role in the formation of Dalit consciousness in Punjab. The Ad Dharm movement has carved a separate religious identity for these lower-caste people. The movement projects Ravidass as their spiritual Guru, a sacred book Ad Parkash, their own separate ritual traditions; they salute each other in the name of Jai Guru Dev and respond with Dhan Guru Dev. In this way they create a separate religious identity. [Ram, 2004, 335-36] These Ad Dharmi people have followers of the Dera Sachkhand Ballan. The Deras provide education and health care, which further strengthen the surging popularity of the Deras among the Dalits. One of the Dera’s Sant Sarwan Dass encouraged the Dalit children to study and helped them financially. He urged the poor people to educate their children so that they could earn their livelihood in a respectful way and help their families and community to lead a dignified life. Thus these schools are not only providing quality of education in a Dalit friendly environment but also act as an agency for generating Dalit consciousness. [Ram, 2008, 1342]

Since its beginning, the Ad Dharm movement led by Babu Mangoo Ram and the Ravidass Deras have been giving stress on having education and health. Education provides them both social consciousness and makes them financially well-off. Today the Ad Dharmis and followers of this Dera have been far more conscious and are also financially well-off as compared to other Dalit communities in Punjab. As a whole the Dalit community in Punjab and especially in the Doaba region has gained by acquiring non-agricultural occupation and also by going abroad in big numbers.

Deras and Caste Conflicts in Punjab

The recent violence that has taken place in Punjab has its genesis in the lopsided polity of Punjab and its closed nature of land-property relationship. The Dalits and backward classes in Punjab feel excluded from making the political and economic choices for the State as Jat Sikhs, constituting 20 per cent of the population, own 60 per cent of the land and control the politics and economy of Punjab. The recently awakened and economically empowered marginal classes have been moving out of the villages and even when they live in the villages they are increasingly taking on non-agricultural activities. One also finds separate Gurudwaras and community centres for the Dalits in the villages of Punjab. There has also been struggle over the common property resources (Shamlat Land) in rural Punjab where land is scarce. The newfound assertion of their identity and demand for political and economic space along with social respectability have often met with the violence by the dominant Jat Sikh peasantry. [Thakural, 2009] Significantly the Dalits constitute almost one-third of the population of Punjab which is the highest in the country as a whole.

The recent attack on the two sants and their followers is also due to the fundamentalist Sikh organisations’ objection to treating the Dera Gurus at par with the ten Sikh Gurus and for keeping the Guru Granth Sahib along with the idols of Sant Ravidass.

The recent Dera conflict in Punjab is incidentally not a new phenomenon. Before this, many conflicts between the radical or fundamentalist Sikhs and Dera followers have taken place in Punjab. Mention can be made of the Sikh-Nirankari conflict (1978), Sikh-Bhaniarawalla follower’s conflict (2001), Sikh-Sacha Sauda followers conflict (2007).

Summing Up

The emergence of Deras all over Punjab is indicative of the assertion of the Dalits in the State trying to discover and consolidate their distinct identity to attain self-respect and also asking for their autonomous space in the social, economic and political life of the State. The recent conflict is yet another illustration, though an unfortunate one, of the community’s anguish over their historic denial in the land of the Sikh Gurus who vehemently opposed caste based discrimination, nay, rejected the caste system outright.

[The author is grateful to Dr Ronki Ram and Dr Ashutosh Kumar for reading the earlier drafts and giving valuable comments.]


Manak, Satnam Singh (2007): ‘Sikh Panth Ajoye Sankatt Da Sahmna Kiye Karye’, Rojana Ajit, May 22.

Tehna, Avtar Singh (2007): ‘Kyon Banday Hann Deras?’, Desh Sewak magazine, June 3.

Pubby, Vipin (2009): ‘Deciphering Deras’, The Indian Express, May 26.

Ram, Ronki (2008): ‘Ravidass Deras and Social Protest: Making Sense of Dalit Consciousness in Punjab’, Asian Studies, Vol. 67, November.

Ram, Ronki (2004): ‘Untouchability, Dalit Consciousness, and the Ad Dharm movement in Punjab’, Contribution to Indian Sociology, Sage Publication, New Delhi, September-December.

Ram, Ronki (2007): ‘Social Exclusion, Resistance and Deras’, Economic and Political Weekly, October 6.

Thakural, Gobind (2009): ‘Sikh Baicharye Anderly Takraw Da Mukh Karn Ke Ha?’, Rojana Ajit, Jalandhar, May 29.

Mishra, Vandita (2009): ‘Inside Dera Sachkhand’, The Indian Express, May 31.

The author is a Research Fellow, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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