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India Punjab Riots Expose Sikh Caste Fault Lines

Punjab Riots Expose Sikh Caste Fault Lines

The widespread violence in Punjab over the slaying of a Sikh religious sect leader in Vienna exemplifies the mushrooming of sects and the caste fault lines in the predominantly Sikh state.

Mr Sant Rama Nand was killed by fellow Sikhs in a temple in the Austrian capital on Sunday (May 24) as he addressed 200 worshippers.

As news of his murder reached Punjab, angry followers - largely low-caste Sikhs, took to the streets in Jalandhar - where the sect's headquarters is located. Angry mobs torched a dozen trains, smashed bus windows and blocked roads, bringing much of Punjab - a key trading crossroads - to a standstill.

The Punjab police said two people were killed and 10 injured when they opened fire at two places to disperse the rioting mobs which defied curfew and indulged in large-scale violence.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, invoked the preachings of the Sikh gurus as he appealed for peace and urged people to go home and allow the security forces to restore law and order.

Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Hoshiarpur and Phagwara towns remained under curfew yesterday (May 26) though it was relaxed with no fresh incidents reported.

"The situation remains tense but under control," R K Jaiswal, a senior police official in Jalandhar, said.

Sikhism was founded five centuries ago to counter Hinduism's oppressive caste system. Yet differences between the upper caste or Jat Sikhs, and the Dalit Sikhs, former Hindu untouchables who converted to Sikhism, remain a major flashpoint in Punjab's social and political life.

"Social interaction levels between the Jat Sikhs and the Dalits may have improved, but there is little change in the social hierarchy," said Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute of Development and Communication, a Punjab-based NGO.

With the Sikhs having a large presence in Europe, Britain and Canada, these differences have spilled over to the community in those countries.

There are nearly a dozen influential sects, called 'deras', in Punjab, and each is estimated to command a considerable following in the state, especially among the Dalit Sikhs and Dalit Hindus.

And their numbers are growing, a development that is viewed with growing concern by the upper-caste Sikhs.

The caste divide has led to the creation of two or more separate 'gurdwaras' or places of worship in most villages, affecting the revenue collection of the gurdwaras of the upper castes. Sources say the genesis of the Vienna clash was a fight over offerings in cash-rich gurdwaras. They say that till a few months ago, the Austrian capital had just one gurdwara, controlled by radical Sikhs.

The decision by Dera Sacchkhand Ballan to set up a new shrine on the same street angered those already there.

Many of the mainstream Sikhs, especially in the clergy, are deeply resentful of the deras, claiming that they are distorting the faith by worshipping living gurus, their photographs and idols.

Observers say the Dalit Sikhs were among the earliest migrants from India to Europe and Canada. Most toiled in menial jobs in their adopted countries, but over the decades improved their lot and became prosperous.

Several European countries also provided political asylum to radical Sikhs in the 1980s after New Delhi crushed the Sikh insurgency in Punjab.

Some say it was these radical elements which were behind the Vienna attack.


1947-2014 (Archived)
Re: history of rai sikh caste

ramesh rai badwal ji

Your questions is someone off the topic of this thread. However, I did a little searching and the Rai people have a fascinating history in northern India. Rais seem to have been members of an urban, sophisticated, cultural group found throughout India. Some searching indicates that the bhats (poets who sang praises of Guru Ram Das were of the Rai caste. Let me do a little more and get back to you. We may need to start a separate thread. Let's try to keep the discussion about the starter article. Thanks.