What is the genesis of recent violence in Punjab and Haryana? Is it true that it all began in a Gurudwara (a Sikh temple) in Vienna?
Technically, the attack in Vienna was not in a gurudwara, but in a Gurdehera -- also commonly called a dera -- of the Dera Sachkand, a Ravidasi organisation. This is a new Ravidasi temple that has only recently been set-up on Rudolphsheim Street which also houses the only Gurudwara in the Austrian capital, which is said to be controlled by radicals loyal to Khalistan.
It is being suggested in some press versions, as in this Hindustan Times report, that "at the centre of the conflagration is a battle for the control of cash-rich overseas gurdwaras and an assertion of religious identity by Dalits who form roughly 29 per cent of Punjab’s three crore population. The new Ravidasi place of worship apparently took away a chunk of the offerings and the "tensions came to a head when visiting sect head Sant Niranjan Das was allegedly attacked by pro-Khalistani Sikhs" on Sunday, May 24. While Sant Niranjan Das, the sect-head, was injured, his second-in-command, Sant Ramanand, was fatally injured in the attack and the news of the latter's death on Monday ratcheted up the already inflamed passions of the Dera followers in Punjab and Haryana.
The ostensible reason for the attack in Vienna is said to be the alleged disrespect shown by the Dera leaders to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. But intelligence agencies are probing the possibilities of a larger conspiracy to stir up trouble between the Ravidasis and the Sikhs in India.
What exactly is Dera Sachkhand?
Dera Shri 108 Sant Sarwan Dass Ji Maharaj Sachkhand Ballan, in Distt Jalandhar, Punjab, or Dera Sachkhand Ballan, as it is commonly called, is one of the most important Ravidasi organisations and is seen as a powerful manifestation of Dalit assertion in Punjab. It was founded by Baba Pipal Dass in 1900. After his death in 1928, his son Sarwan Dass took over the dera. He was also influenced by B.R. Ambedkar
Its followers adhere to the teachings of the 14th century untouchable (Chamar) preacher Saint Ravidas. His devotional songs and verses made a lasting impact in the Bhakti movement. Many of his compositions were also included in the Sikh Holy Book Guru Granth Sahib by the Sikh Guru Arjun Dev. Which is why, the Ravidasis and the followers of this Dera Sachkhand revere and worship the Guru Granth sahib.
So the Ravidasis and the followers of this Dera are not all Sikhs?
No. Not all of them. But they do hold the Guru Granth Sahib in high-esteem, largely because it also contains the compositions of the Saint they worship. In fact, that is one of the reasons for the discord in recent days: The Sikhs view Ravidas as a Bhagat, who is not accorded the status of Guru. He is referred to as Guru Ravidass by followers of his beliefs who accord him the status of Guru. The Sikhs do not consider any living being as a Guru after Guru Gobind Singh and the Granth Sahib is accorded the status of the eternal Guru.
But why are the Dalits and Sikhs having a problem? Isn't Sikhism free from caste-discrimination?
Yes, in theory. The last Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, welcomed all castes - including the Dalits- into the Sikh fold. Many Ravidasis (mainly 'Chamars' or 'leather workers[) who were initiated into Sikihsm came to be called Ravidasi Sikhs, just as the ('Choorahs' or 'sweepers' and Balmikis) who converted to Sikhism came to be known as the Mazhabi Sikhs. The caste-discrimination should have ended with conversion, but in practice, it remained a fact of life and recent times have seen a rise in this discrimination.
As Vipin Pubby points out in the Indian Express today, "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."
It is reasons such as these that have led to the formation of Ravidas Gurdwaras in the 1930s and account for the popularity of various Deras
Recent articles of note:
In Kafila: Making Sense of the Ravi Dasis by Surinder S. Jodhka, which provides an excellent overview of the Ravi Dasis and caste-tensions in Punjab (It also made me look up two more very useful pieces by him in Seminar:
In the Indian Express: Pratap Bhanu Mehta on how Sikhism in recent times has become hostage to internal tolerance: Monopoly Religion