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Deras For Dummies

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Jun 1, 2004
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Sectarian divide in Punjab


At the root of the sudden violence in Punjab, following the attack on the leaders of the Dera Sachh Khand in Vienna, is a coalescence of the
issues of basic social inequalities, the consequent attempt by the under-privileged communities to seek an alternative space and agency as well as the latter becoming embroiled in the larger political matrix.

Just as the earlier fracas surrounding the Dera Sachha Sauda posited, one of the critical factors behind the mushrooming and growth of these Deras is the fact of social, religious and political space being monopolised by the ‘upper caste’ sections. And with the Deras gaining in presence and power as ‘alternative’ religio-political entities, a conflict with the established ones was almost inevitable.

The conflict is ostensibly provoked by the alleged sacrilegious acts, or even the theological framework, of the Deras. But the sheer speed with which the violence erupted in Punjab following the attack in Vienna shows the deep social fissures which shape this sectarian polarisation.

The fact is, most villages in Punjab now effectively have two gurdwaras — one frequented by the ‘upper caste’ Sikhs and the other by the ‘lower castes’ (Dalits, SCs and OBCs). That the latter should face issues of marginalisation is ironical given the strong anti-caste element that was part of the origins of Sikhism.

The question of religious reform is further complicated given that political parties like the Akali Dal and Congress have sought to gain from the schism. The Congress, for example, has been wont to seeing the various Dera followers, who comprise a dedicated voting bloc, as its preserve.

That apart, what the rapid spread and scale of the violence also presented was a sudden breakdown of the administrative machinery. Again, the Centre and state seemed, to some extent, to be at loggerheads over containing the events, what with home minister P Chidambaram suggesting that curfew was not being enforced properly in Punjab.

Given that law and order is a state subject, there are vexed questions involved in defining the point at which the Centre can step in to stop violence given a sluggish state response. But the Punjab eruption does again highlight the need to at least have better Centre-state co-ordination.
 

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