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When Sikhs attack Sikhs

May 31, 2009


THE Indian state of Punjab is a volatile, violence-prone region. Most of its inhabitants are Sikhs. The exuberant, joy-filled bhangra often follows a vicious fight. Being a Sikh myself, I should know.

Some days ago, Punjab exploded into a series of riots. A couple of people were killed and scores injured when the police fired on the rioters. Road and rail traffic was completely disrupted in the state. Almost 3,000 Indian troops had to be deployed to control the mobs.

Trains and buses going through Punjab ground to a halt, stranding thousands of passengers. The route of the Delhi-Lahore bus had to be changed. The agitation spread to the adjoining state of Haryana. But just as quickly as the anger had started, it subsided.

What was the fuss all about?

In faraway Vienna, the capital of Austria, some Sikhs in a gurudwara had been attacked by — yes, you guessed it — rival Sikhs! One of those attacked had been killed, another seriously injured. That caused the riots in Punjab.

Frankly, though I was in Vienna only a few months ago, I had no idea that a gurudwara existed there. I should have known better. Sikhs are ubiquitous. You find them everywhere, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. Once, I found them even in the heart of the Amazon jungle, in a Brazilian town called Manaus, doing thriving business. With their distinctive appearance, they seem larger in number than they actually are.

In fact, Sikhs number only about 15 million Sikhs, less than two per cent of the Indian population, of which perhaps around a million live outside India, mostly in the UK, US and Canada. But wherever they go, they prosper, thanks to their enterprise and hard work. You never see a Sikh beggar. To return to Vienna, it turned out that two leaders of a Sikh sect called Dera Sachkhand Balan were attacked while addressing their followers in the gurudwara. Why should Sikhs attack Sikhs? Good question.

The simplistic answer to that is a rhetorical question don't Muslims often attack other Muslims and Christians other Christians? There are — and always will be — people within the same religion who think they are the repositories of the true faith while the rest are heretics who should be exterminated. Remember the long Iran-Iraq war that killed millions?

But it is a little more complex with the Sikhs. Among the Sikhs, a number of deras, or sects, have sprung up in recent years which have attracted a huge following. This has alarmed the more orthodox, or mainstream, Sikhs who have seen their own adherents dwindling. The followers of these deras have mainly been lower-caste Sikhs, Sikhs who have cut their hair (who are not accepted by the orthodox elements, like myself) and non-Sikhs.

Lower-caste Sikhs? Isn't that a contradiction? It certainly is. Guru Nanak, the gentle founder of the Sikh faith, the man who tried to combine the best of Hinduism and Islam, rejected caste and the practice of untouchability, two of Hinduism's worst features. Indeed, that was part of his immense appeal.

But he did not fully succeed. To this day, there are Sikh 'dalits' (the more politically acceptable term for untouchables) and Sikh lower-castes, who are looked down upon by the higher-caste Sikhs. The late Giani Zail Singh, former president of India, was a 'dalit' Sikh. In Punjab villages, there are also separate gurudwaras and wells for the higher-caste and the lower-caste Sikhs. If a 'dalit' Sikh tries to enter a high-caste gurudwara, there is usually trouble. Orthodox, or mainstream, Sikhs don't like to admit this, yet it is true. It remains a blot on a religion that likes to pride itself on its egalitarianism.

Two years ago, the leader of the most popular Sikh sect, Dera Sacha Sauda, provoked the ire of orthodox Sikhs by imitating a ceremony sanctified by the tenth and last Sikh guru, Gobind Singh. Riots broke out and several people were killed.

I was asked to appear on a popular news TV programme, anchored by the famous Barkha Dutt. I took the side of the dera, pointing out that the popularity of these Sikh sects was on account of the utter short-sightedness of the orthodox Sikhs.

When the programme ended, I was set upon by a bunch of crazed Sikhs, all of them turbaned and bearded, needless to say, who wanted to lynch me! Barkha Dutt, had to call the police to escort me home. I relate this personal experience only to show how intolerant and violent some followers of a religion that once prided itself on tolerance and peace can become.

The recent Punjab riots, following the Vienna gurudwara episode, caused a loss of some Rs7000 crore. The Indian prime minister, who is a devout and practising Sikh, must have been closely following the Punjab disturbances with great dismay.

At the just-concluded general election, the Indian electorate gave a thumbs-down to the Hindu nationalist BJP. We want good governance and a secular polity, they said, not a religious agenda. That message has somehow not got through to some Sikhs.