Clashes between India’s long-established Sikh community and a religious sect in the northern Indian state of Punjab have left one person dead and dozens others injured. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has appealed for calm.
The group at the centre of the controversy is the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS), one of many religious sects operating in northern India.
These sects usually take root by offering community services and social welfare as well as spiritual leadership.
Over time, as their followings grow, they often start clamouring for political influence.
In religious terms, the DSS is hard to classify. And many experts argue that it is not, as some have said, an offshoot of Sikhism.
“Dera Sacha Sauda combines the core of different religions,” Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute of Development and Communication in Chandigarh, told the BBC.
Its followers are drawn mainly from low caste Hindus. But they also include Sikhs, Muslims and Christians. The group has a strong presence in southern Punjab and its influence spreads across some 12,000 villages of Punjab as well as the states of Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan.
The name of the DSS chief- Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh – pays tribute to revered Hindu and Muslim figures. This perhaps bears testimony to what the sect stands for.
Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has been a controversial figure and faces rape and murder charges. A report by the federal investigative agency, the CBI, into the charges against him is due to be filed later this month.
This latest tension between Sikh leaders and the DSS began when pictures of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh baptising his disciples appeared in newspapers.
Sikh leaders say he was dressed up as one of their revered 17th century gurus, Gobind Singh. This, they say, was an insult to their community.
The DSS leader has denied he was trying to emulate the Sikh guru and has refused to apologise for his actions, as demanded by the Sikh clergy.
“It took an ugly turn because the DSS leader touched a core of Sikhism by appropriating their symbols,” says Dr Kumar.
Analysts say the alleged action by the DSS has to be seen in the context of state elections held in Punjab in February.
The DSS issued a public appeal for people to vote for the Congress party. Most Sikhs in Punjab support the rival Akali Dal party.
According to Punjabi journalist, Jagtar Singh, religious sects have traditionally been very subtle about their support for political parties. They have usually issued internal appeals asking their followers to vote for the political party of their choice.
“This is the first time that a public appeal had been made to favour a political party,” Jagtar Singh says.
Sikh leaders, angry at the direct intervention by the DSS in the elections, seized the opportunity to whip up popular sentiments of their community against the DSS.
Observers say the latest conflict threatens to lead to a polarisation of the communities.
“The call for a social, political and religious boycott of the DSS followers by the Sikh clergy, would divide the Dalits and the peasant, Jat [Sikh farmer] community in the state,” says Jagtar Singh.
This week’s violence has raised the spectre of the violence between Sikhs and followers of the Nirankari sect in 1978 that left many dead.
The Nirankaris were then accused of polluting doctrinal purity and cultural traditions of Sikhs. The violence led to a divide between the Hindu and Sikh communities. It was a factor in the growing sense of Sikh identity and also Sikh militancy that led to an insurgency that took thousands of lives in the Indian Punjab.
“Though the latest incident is similar to the event in 1978 there is no parallel as that led to the movement for religious identity,” Dr Kumar says. “If the state government manages the post-conflict situation slightly more intelligently, normality could return to the state in the next few days.”
But sentiments are running high. Analysts say the Punjab government, headed by the Akali Dal, seems to be in no mood for reconciliation with the DSS.
The federal authorities have said they are taking no chances to prevent further trouble, hence the decision to deploy heavy security reinforcements in the region.
May 18, 2007
Jyotsna Singh, BBC News, Delhi