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Thursday, October 28, 2021

The fearless at prayer

Deras mushroom in Punjab because of entrenched discrimination

Written by Vipin Pubby |
May 27, 2009 12:57:43 am

Ours is a battle,not a battle for wealth or for power; it is a battle for freedom.” These are the words of the father of our Constitution,Dalit icon Dr B.R. Ambedkar. It is this urge for freedom and the reassertion of Dalit identity that is manifest in the proliferation of deras in Punjab,and in the political fallout of that growth.

Dalits,and other under-privileged sections of society,have shared in the growth and development of one of India’s most prosperous states — schemes like subsidised atta-dal and NREG have few takers here in Punjab. But what is still elusive is social assimilation and respect. Despite conversions to Sikhism,Buddhism and even Christianity,all aimed at gaining social acceptability and freedom from caste-based Hindu society,their lot has remained much the same. This in a state with the largest proportion of Dalits — 29 per cent — and which is the birthplace of another top Dalit leader,the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party,Kanshi Ram. (It is another story that he shifted elsewhere,virtually neglecting his home state.)

His BSP never made massive inroads in Punjab mainly because extreme social malaises,such as untouchability,didn’t exist. Sikhism and the Arya Samaj ensured that the concept of hereditary “purity-pollution” was eliminated. But there is still discrimination,and with a rise in awareness levels and incomes,comes identity-based assertion.

This discrimination is evident in any typical Punjab village. Besides separate gurdwaras,Dalits are made to live in a separate cluster,generally towards the west; they are denied birs,or the holy granth,for marriages and other functions. It may shock those not aware of ground realities in Punjab that the “lower castes” even have separate cremation grounds. “The discrimination does not end even after death,” in the words of Ramdev,a local Dalit leader. Studies of local centres of power — local gurdwara committees,the SGPC,Sikh deras and the Shiromani Akali Dal — turn up further evidence. One study found out that over 80 per cent of administrative posts are with the Jat Sikhs,15 per cent with the other castes and only five per cent with the Dalit Sikhs.

Social exclusion and lack of respect have weaned away large numbers from the mainstream and towards the deras across the state. A desire to imitate cultural patterns and aspire for a better lifestyle causes them to assert demands for social and political status. The situation is growing more volatile,as even moderate Sikhs say they are threatened by the “dilution” of Sikh traditions and tenets; many are increasingly intolerant of criticism and self-assertion.

The only way a serious situation can be avoided is if the Sikh clergy becomes more tolerant and liberal while the others remain sensitive to the feelings and beliefs of the Sikhs. The clergy has reasons for concern. Some of its followers are creating their own gurdwaras,taking away lucrative “charavah” or offerings over which they earlier had sole claim. Even more important is the loss of followers. This concern can become manifest in the issuance of strict guidelines,and the warning of those who have anything to do with “non-believers” such as members of Dera Sacha Sauda or the Dera Guru Ravidass Sachkhand Balan. (An earlier spat with the Nirankaris led to untold miseries and bloodbaths for more than a decade.) The apparently unprovoked attack on the head of Dera Guru Ravidass Sachkhand Balan,Sant Niranjan Das,and his second-in-command Sant Ramanand,touched a raw nerve. The two spiritual leaders had refrained from controversial statements or firm political stands; neither they nor any of their supporters spoke in derogatory terms about Sikhism. All that they did was preach a middle path between radicalism and assimilation,and the number of their followers had been swelling.

The spark lit by the Vienna attack was part of a reassertion of identity and freedom. The widespread participation,particularly of the youth,took even intelligence agencies by surprise. (Of course,the participation of lumpen elements in such kind of frenzy can never be ruled out.)

The craving for social freedom,about which Dr Ambedkar spoke so tellingly,is evident from the growing number of dera followers. It is,therefore,not without significance that while the Sikh prayer ends with “bole so nihal” (blessed he who prays),the prayer of Ravidassis concludes with “bole so

nirbhay” (fearless he who prays). Thus their prayers aim at making them “bhay mukt”,free from fear.

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