Saturday, June 02, 2007

The amrit incident

"Dhan Dhan Satguru, Tera Hee Aasra"

This was the slogan that greeted me when I first set foot out of the State Transport bus in Kotda, a village in Rajasthan that was to be my home for a couple of years. Boldly painted on the boundary wall of the PHC (primary health center), the slogan had a prominent place on the market square which also doubled as the bus-stop. This was in 2002, and for the next couple of years, this slogan and what it stood for was a constant, even if insignificant, presence in my life and work. After wandering away from Kotda, those memories were packed away in the box labeled 'trivia' in the back of my mind.

But that was only until about a month ago, when the feud in Punjab over a sect called the Dera Sachcha Sauda blew over. The slogan that greeted me on the PHC wall was propaganda for the Dera Sachcha Sauda, which had a huge presence in the area. Most news reports about the issue have painted the sect of the Dera as a Haryana/Punjab-specific phenomenon, but my own experience with it in Rajasthan says otherwise.

A background to the Dera Sachchha Sauda, and a recap of the recent storm in Punjab is in order:

The Dera was founded in 1948 as a spiritual institution that eschewed the teachings of established religions and placed 'humanity' before everything else. While its philosophy certainly seems to dip into that of other religions for influences, it is a stand-alone faith (the Falun Gong comes to mind as an analogy) and certainly not a "Sikh sect" as some news outlets reported. My friend RJ who is from Punjab informs me that the Dera's popularity in Punjab is a manifestation of the "caste divide" within Sikhs, and between Sikhs and non-Sikhs. Oddly, very few authoritative commentators in the mainstream media have pointed this out, one rare find was this well-researched article which claims that the Dera's following is largely Dalit Sikhs who are pushed to the fringes by the hegemonious Jat Sikhs.

The spiritual leader of the Dera goes by the name of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh (notice the heterodoxy in the name?) and is relatively young at 40. With his impressive beard, colorful turbans and grand gestures, he comes across as a showman in the same vein as Osho Rajneesh or Sri Satya Sai Baba. The recent trouble started when he appeared in a newspaper advertisement dressed like Guru Gobind Singh (the revered tenth and last Sikh guru) doing what seemed to be administering amrit (nectar), an act reminiscent of the Sikh baptism ceremony established by Guru Gobind Singh. This act ticked off the Sikhs, and the the actions that followed earned the 'amrit incident' a place in the editorials.

Sikh protesters took to the streets on May 15, demanding that the head of the Dera be brought to book for hurting their religious feelings. Dera supporters followed suit, asking for those who insulted Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh (by burning him in effigy) be arrested. These demonstrations were, of course, violent ,with the two groups battling each other as well as indulging in the good old destruction of public property. It also spread to other states - Delhi, UP, Rajasthan, Haryana, J&K - underlining the widespread following of the Dera. Three days after the violence started, companies of RAF, BSF, and CRPF were deployed in Punjab, and the violence hobbled to an end towards the end of the week.

But this tale of Dera-related violence is nothing compared to the politics associated with the story. I was not lying when I said that the Dera is a "stand-alone faith", because that is how it is spiritually; but it is far from standing alone politically. In the Punjab Assembly Elections of February 2007, the Congress won an impressive number of seats (37 of 65) in the Malwa region of Punjab (which has a huge Dera following) inspite of the region being a traditional stronghold of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). There seems to be no contention about the fact that this sweep was because the Dera Sachcha Sauda has actively campaigned on behalf of the Congress, urging its supporters to go out and vote (for the Congress). The record turnout of 76 per cent in the election was partly attributed to the Dera's influence. Indeed, in the days following the violence, the Congress actually came to the defence of the Dera chief's attempt at fancy dressing as a case of misinterpretation, characterizing the violent situation a "break-down of law and order" in SAD-governed Punjab.

What I hear about the Dera-Congress bhaibandi now helps me put together pieces of the puzzle from seeing the Dera in action in Rajasthan in 2002. The Dera's 'mission' in Kotda had been set up in a large tented camp located in, of all places, the compound of the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) or tehsildar's (the administrative head of the tehsil) office. I simply could not grasp the idea...the government had actually allowed a loony cult to set up shop on a functional official property? I was told by hacks that the Dera had a lot of influence with higher-up on the political food-chain, and the SDO had "gotten orders" to allow the Dera in his backyard. Now it all makes sense -Rajasthan had, at that time, the Congress in power led by CM Ashok Gehlot, and allowing the Dera a foothold in the state was probably an attempt at recreating the boost that the Dera gave to the Congress in Punjab.

Another interesting angle to the Congress' hand in this affair is the Nirankari-analogy. Students of the history of the 1980s Punjab sessesionist violence will have cocked an ear on reading that word. The Sant Nirankari Mission, another spiritual sect with a large following in Punjab, was patronized by the Congress in the 1970s, and the political clout that the Nirankari's got as a result of this patronage is believed to have played a big role in the so-called "1978 Massacare" when the Nirankaris' shot and killed 13 sikhs who tried to break up a demonstration of the former. This incident catapulted the Sikh fundamentalist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to national fame, and is supposed to be one of the more distinct triggers to Punjab's long period of sessesionist violence. The once-banned pro-Khalistan group Dal Khalsa was quick to point out the similarity the very next day of the amrit incident.

The political charade continued long after the violence died down. The BJP was quick to side with the Sikhs and call foul on the Congress party. The VHP went a step further, and claimed that the Dera Sachcha Sauda had links with Maoists. Sikh groups all around called for an apology from the Dera, and when the Dera chief did offer an apology, it was shredded apart on the base of technicalities; when the Sikh clergy officially rejected the apology they claimed to have "found fault with the tenor of the apology" (To digress a bit, I strongly recommend budding law students to specialize as "apology counsels" who will help draft and analyze the minutiae of apologies. There would be great demand for their services, given the phenomenal rise of apology politics in India in recent years).

The Sikhs clergy has since wanted the Dera to be banned and their centres dismantled, but that doesnt seem to be happening given the political clout the latter enjoys. In the face of an Akal Takht (the apex of the Sikh institution) ultimatum for its closing down, the Dera applied to the Supreme Court for protection, but wasnt granted a hearing. As this is being written, the tail of the issue keeps on flailing through verbal skirmishes in the press.

Lets go back to my experience with the Dera in Rajasthan. The area of south Rajasthan where I worked is particularly impoverished because of its difficult terrain and the lack of a substantial economic base. The population is dominantly tribal, mostly of the Bhil tribe. Impoverishment and the fringe position of the Bhils in the Hindu caste system (as far as I understand, the 'Scheduled Tribes' dont figure at all in the four main Hindu varnas) makes them ideal targets for missionary efforts. Along with the VHP (through its tribal arm, the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad) and Christian missionaries, the Dera was also making hay while the sun shone.

The Dera had opened a permanent mission in Kotda's neighboring tehsil of Jhadol but were still in a temporary encampment (in the SDO's compound) in Kotda while I was there. It did a variety of crowd-pleasing activities, distributing free food, blankets, cots and such, and asked in return that beneficiaries come under the fold of the Dera. Villages where the Dera had a good hold used to have some kind of satsang in the evenings when Dera followers and new recruits would get together and discuss the Dera's principles. These followers would greet each other with "Dhan dhan Satguru, tera hi aasra!" (the slogan painted on the wall), sometimes truncated to simply "Dhan Dhan!".

But opinion in Kotda about the Dera was distinctly polarized. I knew some people who had been taken on tours of the Dera headquarters in Sirsa, Haryana, and all of them came back awed by the grandeur of the infrastructure there and the discipline of the premis (followers). Some days I would find some missing faces in our routine community meetings, and would be told that those people have gone over to the Dera and are busy with other activities. But others found the Dera a nuisance and a useless distraction for farmers who should rather be doing other things. One of my friends, a local, actually wrote a letter to the District Collector complaining about what he perceived to be the bad influence of the Dera's activities. I havent keep myself abreast with how the Dera is doing in that area now. Concievably, the recent incident will have a tangible effect on the Dera's standing in Kotda, even if it exists there at all.

One commentator has concluded that the amrit incident has acquired utmost importance in the current political history of Punjab. How exactly it is molding history remains to be seen.

[I started off writing a little piece on the Dera in Rajasthan, but finding an acute lack of a comprehensive analysis of the situation anywhere, I was compelled to do it myself. Sorry for the long post.]

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