One-and-a-half months ahead of the Jalandhar Lok Sabha bypoll, on March 25, Punjab Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Bhagwant Mann, accompanied by Delhi CM and AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal, laid the foundation stone of the Guru Ravidass Bani Adhiyan (Research) Centre at Ballan village in Jalandhar district and handed over a cheque of Rs 25 crore to Sant Niranjan Dass – the head of Dera Sachkhand Ballan, the largest dera (religious place) of the Ravidassia community – as first instalment for construction of this research centre.
One day earlier, the Congress MLA from Jalandhar’s Phillaur, Vikramjit Chaudhary, held a press conference to highlight his party-led previous government’s notifications regarding its grant of Rs 50 crore for establishing a “state-of-the-art” Guru Ravidass Bani Adhiyan Centre at Dera Sachkhand Ballan and its move to constitute a 10-member committee under the chairmanship of Sant Niranjan Dass, along with releasing a cheque of Rs 25 crore as the first instalment for the research centre’s construction, in December 2021.
The Congress has accused the AAP government of taking “undue credit” over funding the Ravidass research facility, alleging that it “first stopped the fund for the project after coming to power, and now released it to claim all the credit”.
Although the Dera Sachkhand Ballan has never come out openly in favour of any political party, no party could afford to ignore it, especially in the time of elections, in their bids to woo the Ravidassia community, the followers of Guru Ravidass.
Senior leaders of the Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and BJP have always made a beeline at this Dera before every election.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had paid a visit to Banaras, Guru Ravidass’ birthplace, on the Guru’s birth anniversary a few years ago.
The Guru Ravidass memorial and temple in Banaras was also set up by Dera Sachkhand Ballan.
Less than a month before the Punjab Assembly elections, originally slated for February 14, 2022, then Congress CM Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit leader, had urged the Election Commission of India to defer the polls by six days in view of the Guru Ravidass birth anniversary scheduled for February 16.
In his letter to the EC then, Channi stated that some representatives of Punjab’s Scheduled Castes (SCs) have demanded that the polls be scheduled in such a way that they are able to visit Banaras during 10-16 February and also participate in the polls.
In a rare move, the EC subsequently agreed to defer the Punjab polls to Feb 20, noting the wide range of representations it got in this regard. In the run-up to the polls, besides Channi, Kejriwal, then Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) chief Sukhbir Badal and senior BJP leaders visited the Dera to meet Sant Niranjan Dass.
Ahead of the 2017 Punjab elections, then All India Congress Committee (AICC) vice-president Rahul Gandhi had also visited Dera Sachkhand Ballan and met its head.
Sant Niranjan Dass takes a “Begumpura” train full of the Ravidassia followers from Jalandhar to Banaras every year to celebrate Guru Ravidas Jayanti there for nearly a week.
The killing of Sant Ramanand, who was Dera Sachkhand Ballan’s second in command, and the attack on Sant Niranjan Dass in Vienna in May 2009, had triggered violence and riots in the Doaba region, whose epicenter was Jalandhar. The episode had caused fissures in the relations between Sikhs and Ravidassias.
The Dera had then severed its decades-old ties with Sikhism and announced a separate religion called “Ravidassia religion” in early 2010 in Banaras on Guru Ravidas Jayanti. They started replacing Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh religious book) with their own new Granth “Amritbani” carrying 200 hymns of Guru Ravidass in Ravidassia temples and gurudwaras, which led to several clashes between Sikhs and Ravidassias.
Since the 2009 Vienna incident, Dera Sachkhand Ballan has become not only religiously assertive but also politically significant, amid the growing influence of the Ravidassia community over the politics of Punjab, which accounts for about 32 per cent Dalit population – the highest in the country in percentage terms.
Dalits are concentrated more in Punjab’s Doaba region, where Dera Sachkhand Ballan is located. Of an estimated 20 lakh followers of this Dera worldwide, about 15 lakh are in Punjab, mostly from the Doaba region, which accounts for 23 of total 117 Assembly constituencies and two of the state’s 13 Lok Sabha seats.
According to the 2011 Census, of Doaba’s total 52.08 lakh population,19.48 lakh (around 37%) are Dalits. Doaba comprises of Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr and Kapurthala districts. Of Doaba’s Dalit population, about 11.88 lakh people (around 61%) belong to the Ravidassia community.
In the 2022 Asembly polls, when the Congress could win only 18 seats, 10 came to the party from Doaba itself.
Dera Sachkhand Ballan was established over 100 years ago, in early 20th century, by Sant Baba Pipal Dass, who hailed from Gill Patti village in Bathinda district and was well-versed in the Guru Granth Sahib bani and Punjabi language.
Sant Pipal Dass’ son Sant Sarwan Dass headed the Dera from 1928 to 1972, during which it grew significantly. Experts say that he set up the Guru Ravidass memorial at Banaras after identifying the Guru’s birthplace in Seer Goverdhanpur village near Banaras Hindu University.
Sant Niranjan Dass is the 5th head of the Dera, whose work was appreciated by Sant Sarwan Dass. He used to visit the Dera as a child, and his parents were its followers.
Marking a new phase in their political assertion, Ravidassias have demanded a separate column for their religion in the delayed 2021 Census. After the Vienna incident, the Ravidassia singers composed special songs centred on their caste and religion so that the people of the community could use them at their events instead of playing the songs composed by upper caste Jat Sikhs.
Significantly, in February 2021, during their protests against the Centre’s three now-repealed farm laws, farmer protesters from both the Ravidassia and the Jat Sikh communities commemorated Guru Ravidass Jayanti together for the first time.