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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 13

Dera Controversy in Punjab:

A Grim Reminder of the Past

Sunday 16 March 2008, by Kavaljit Singh

“Choon kar az hamaan heelte dar guzashat, halaal ast burden ba shamshir dast (When all the modes of redressing a wrong have failed, raising the sword is pious and just),” Akal Takht Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti quoted Guru Gobind Singh, while making a major shift in his stance on the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda.1 The recall of the militant face of the Khalsa and the changed attitude of the Jathedar of Shri Akal Takht Sahib (the head cleric of the highest temporal seat of the Sikh religion) indicates that the Dera and Sikh dispute can take a catastrophic turn if the issues between the Sikhs and Dera followers are not resolved comprehensively. Three precious lives have already been lost and hundreds got injured in the confrontations between the Sikhs and Dera followers. The last several months have been witnessing an serious political situation in Punjab and its surrounding States where the Sikhs and Dera followers are in considerable numbers. The ex-communication of the Dera followers by the Akal Takht and the defiant attitude of the Dera chief against apologising to the Sikh Panth over his alleged blasphemous act, further added to the anxieties for peace. What is ominous for the future of Punjab is the creation of a gulf between the communities across Punjab over the Dera issue.

The whole episode started in mid-May, when the media reported that the Dera followers came down heavily on the Sikhs over the issue of burning the effigies of the Dera chief. The Sikhs were protesting against the Dera chief, Sant Ram Rahim Singh, over his alleged act of imitating the tenth Guru of the Sikhs while performing a religious ceremony (Jaam-e-Insaan) at the Slabatpura branch of the Dera Sacha Sauda. The advertisement of the alleged act of Ram Rahim Singh in the local and national newspapers caused deep concern among the Sikhs.

The immediate decision of the Sikh bodies, including the SGPC, and Sikh radicals was to hold protest marches and burning the effigies of the Baba and demand the registration of a criminal case against the Baba for hurting their religious sentiments. The situation, however, took an ugly turn when the protesting Sikhs in Bathinda and Ludhiana were challenged and squarely rebuffed by the followers of the Baba. The picures on the front pages of the leading newspapers showed the Sikhs at the mercy of the Dera followers in Bathinda, where a small number of Sikh protesters were surrounded by a crowd of Baba followers and were beaten black and blue. While their turbans were lying on the ground then hairs were open.2

This sad plight of the Sikhs, as seen in those pictures, while protesting for the religious cause in a Sikh majority State, created a Statewide furore. All the Sikh organisations, irrespective of their differences and party allegiances, collectively condemned the Dera action and called for action against the Dera Sacha Sauda, under the aegis of Shri Akal Takht Sahib. The immediate reaction was to cordon the Dera and teach a lesson to its followers if they dare confront the Sikhs again. The situation turned more volatile in Slabatpura when a Sikh (Kanwaljit Singh) became victim to bullets of the Dera men, who fired upon the Sikh protesters. It led to the communalisation and manipulation of the Punjab polity by the lumpen elements along side the sectarian party politics in Punjab. Brandishing of swords and taking part in the sectarian protests along party lines became a routine affair. The State administration, with the help of the Central paramilitary forces, was somehow able to ensure law and order in the State. However, the divisive nature of frenetic violence along with party politics and communalisation of social relations by the lumpen elements continued without a pause.

THE roots of the Dera and Sikh confrontation can be traced to the Punjab elections of February 2007. During these elections the Dera chief, Sant Ram Rahim Singh, against whom a CBI inquiry on rape and murder charges is going on, openly supported the Congress in his areas of influence. The support of the Baba to the Congress party, particularly in the Malwa region where the Baba has a huge following, influenced the electoral outcome in that region. Secondly, the recent elections also proved to be a bane for the Sikh radical parties; they, including the Akali Dal (Amritsar), fared very badly. The outright rejection of identity politics and the emergence of the BJP as a major force in Punjab as an alliance partner of the Akali Dal created a different situation in Punjab not only for the radical Sikhs and Congress but also the BJP’s alliance partner, the Akali Dal, whose very formation is rooted in identity politics.

In this kind of a situation the Dera and Sikh clashes need to be viewed in the broader perspective of electoral politics in Punjab. On sensing the opportunity the Congress fell back on its old tactics to weaken the hold of the Akali Dal on the SGPC and Sikh affairs by reviving Sikh fundamentalism and simultaneously supporting the Dera under the guise of religious freedom. The radicals and Congress, however, could not reap any dividend from the issue as the Akali Dal is holding power in the SGPC and is the ruling party in the State. The expected gains of the Congress and radicals went to the Akali fold as the office of the SGPC and the government machinery were used by the Akali Dal to manipulate the situation. Secondly, the conditions were also not favourable for the radicals because the people have a bitter memory of the fall-out of the Nirankari and Sikh conflict in the 1980s. Although the Sikhs are full of grievances over the blasphemous act of the Dera chief, they do not want violence anymore. This was brought home by a huge demonstration as the people marched shoulder to shoulder and did not allow the hooligans to disturb the peace.

The failure of the radicals to revive fundamentalism and the Congress’ inability to exploit the situation to its advantage do not mean that the issues of discord between the Sikhs and Dera followers have been resolved or will not lead to the worsening of relations between the Sikhs and Dera followers across the villages and towns in Punjab in the coming days. The so-called ex-communication of the Dera followers and the call of the Akal Takht to the Sikhs to let the Dera join the Sikh fold again if they want to be part of them, could not, however, be questioned because of the religious and spiritual meanings inherent in those acts. But this does not mean that these don’t have any impact on the electoral politics in Punjab. In this caste-ridden society politics is always connected with caste. The call of the Akal Takht and the return of a large number of Jat Sikhs into the Sikh fold in the ceremonies which were organised in the different gurdwaras across Punjab to mark the protest of the community, have their own significance. The Akali Dal is gaining from the overall scenario that has developed after the Dera-Sikh clashes, the entry of a large number of Sikhs from the Dera would mean the strengthening of the Akali Dal in the region of Malwa. However, the use of religious sentiments for political gains can pose a disaster for Punjab. As of now the ex-communication of the Dera followers and the indifferent attitude of the government towards amicably solving the issue, have created an environment of suspicion and hate. Egoism and a sense of rivalry are prevailing across the villages where a sense of sharing the joys and sorrows used to dominate. It is a grim reminder of the bitter days of Nirankari and Sikh conflict, which led to two decades of violence in Punjab. The need of the hour is to solve the Dera issue comprehensively beyond narrow political calculations, so that Punjab does not suffer from the smouldering fire of the Dera-Sikh hostilities.

FOOTNOTES

1. “Moderate Vedanti turns a radical leaf”, The Indian Express, July 20, 2007.

2. “SGPC, dera men clash : 12 injured”, The Tribune, May 15, 2007, front page.
“Admn was a mute spectator”, The Indian Express, May 15, 2007.

The author is a Lecturer in HRD, DAV College for Girls, Yamuna Nagar.

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