The Indian state of Punjab has been set alight by some of the worst rioting in a decade after a newspaper advert placed by the leader of a controversial religious sect sparked outrage in the region’s Sikh community.
One person was killed and more than 50 were injured after tens of thousands of angry Sikhs, many armed with their ceremonial kirpan daggers, went on the rampage across Punjab and the neighbouring state of Haryana.
India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, appealed for calm and put the army on standby as the central government sent thousands of police to the region.
The rioting broke out after the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, a non-profit group that combines social work with spirituality, placed an advert in a local newspaper showing its leader, Baba Gurmeet Singh, allegedly impersonating Sikhism’s 10th and last guru, an act most Sikhs would consider deeply offensive.
The advert appeared to show Gurmeet Singh administering a special nectar, known as Jaam-e-Insaan, to his followers while wearing the same long robes worn by the guru, Guru Gobind Singh – who was also known to baptise believers with nectar. Unlike Islam, where picturing the Prophet Mohamed is strictly forbidden, most Sikhs believe it is permissible to picture their gurus, and families often place a picture of the religion’s founding father, Guru Nanak Dev, somewhere in their homes. But pretending to be a guru is strictly forbidden.
“Impersonating a Sikh guru always runs the risk of outraging even the most moderate of sikhs,” says Jagtar Singh of the Sikh Federation’s UK branch. “Even if our schoolchildren were putting on a play about the gurus, we would never get anyone to actually play the role of one.
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“Most Sikh groups believe Guru Gobind Singh was the final guru. Some people have since claimed themselves to be living gurus, something which is deeply offensive to most Sikhs.”
Gurmeet Singh insists he has done nothing wrong and has refused to apologise for the advert. “I wear whatever my followers give me to wear,” he told the New Indian Express from his sect’s headquarters in Sirsa, Haryana. “My robes can match anybody’s. They don’t indicate my inclination towards any particular religion. All religions are the same.”
His supporters rejected accusations that he was trying to impersonate the guru. But yesterday police filed a complaint against the sect’s leader for hurting religious sentiment, a charge often used in a country where religious differences regularly set off violence.
The Central Bureau of Intelligence, India’s equivalent to the FBI, also says Gurmeet Singh is a prime suspect in the murder of an Indian journalist who accused the sect of brainwashing women and sexually assaulting them in 2002.
Many say the rapid response of India’s government to the crisis shows their fears that the riots have transformed into a wider protest against what many Sikhs say is the way they are discriminated against by the government.
“The recent protests really have mushroomed into something much bigger,” says Jagtar Singh, whose organisation campaigns for the creation of a Sikh homeland called Khalistan.
“There have already been incidents where protesters have been chanting the word ‘Khalistan’. The feeling is that now is a good time to protest against the government over Sikh human rights. As long as it remains a political agitation for Sikh rights, we support that. When there is violence, we’ll condemn it.”
The sect leader
- Whether he’s dressed in bright, flowing robes reminiscent of an ancient maharaja, or in the white cloth of a wandering aesthetic, Baba Gurmeet Singh Ram Raheem, who spends much of his time living in a cave on his ashram, has always been a controversial figure. Although his organisation says it discourages donations his favourite mode of transport is a fleet of Mercedes cars, protected by up to 25 bodyguards.
- In 2002, his sect was accused of brainwashing and sexually assaulting female followers. Gurmeet Singh, who prefers his acolytes to call him by his somewhat laborious full title Huzoor Maharaj Sant Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh Ji, is currently being investigated by police over rape and murder allegations.
- He recently clashed with the Punjab’s state government after urging followers to vote for the Congress party, which forms the opposition there. But supporters say his message that all religions are equal attracts hundreds of thousands of genuine followers from low-caste Hindu families as well as from the region’s Christian and Sikh communities.