Fear and Loathing in Dera Ballan – Abroo11 minutes read

Originally published by Abroo: https://web.archive.org/web/20170307021101/http:/abroo.in/blog/fear-and-loathing-in-dera-sach-khand-ballan/.

[Written in a rickety bus on my way back from Dera Ballan. Typographical and other errors may please be notified or excused. Read the Punjabi translation of this article, ‘ਸਿਖ ਧਰਮ ਅਤੇ ਦਲਿਤਾਂ ਦਾ ਹਾਲ: ਡੇਰਾ ਸਚਖੰਡ ਬੱਲਾਂ ਤੋਂ ਇਕ ਰਿਪੋਰਟ.’]

The most striking aspect of the social upheaval being fomented at Dera Sach Khand, Ballan, is the pervasive inconspicuousness; quite obviously so, as it is now the home to the newest religion in Punjab, or probably the whole of India – Ravidassia Dharam – a symbolic act of defiance by the angst-ridden Dalit community that witnessed the assassination of one of its religious leaders, Rama Nand.

The environs of this place exude an uneasy calm, further heightened by the presence of security personnel and unnecessary restrictions like the ban on photography, thus giving a cult-like feel to it. At the prayer hall in the sanctum sanctorum where devotional hymns are being sung, the living guru, Niranjan Dass, is sitting unassumingly on a chair, leading the devout congregation. Just below his level, right at the center of this spacious hall, lies the holy scripture placed on an ornate wooden pedestal, Amritbani Satguru Ravidass Maharaj Ji — the bone of contention between the mainstream Sikh clergy and the Ravidassia community.

A stark dichotomy creeps into the mind as one gets used to the vibes of this place. The militant zeal of an assertive, emotional and undermined Dalit community is being tempered with the mystical sublimity of a religion founded on the precepts of Ravidass Maharaj. A sociopolitical and spiritual conundrum too complex to fathom, even for its followers. But how many amongst us have been a witness to the birth of a religion so as to pass judgments on a movement that has such spontaneous and endearing origins?

Almost like an undertone to the raga of hymns being sung, one can hear the murmur of revolt and disillusionment. The whiff of subversion in the air is subtle yet noticeable. A balding, old man — quite representing the urbane and educated middle-class caste minority that forms the Dera’s backbone (apart from the really poor and downtrodden of Punjab) — is talking casually to two others of his type:

“Ki Khalsa? Ae ki Khalsa-Khalsa kari jaande ne!”

In essence, this oversimplified, rustic exhortation sums-up the shortcomings of Sikhism and the sociopolitical fault-lines that lie at the heart of this divisive issue.

During the four-hour long bus journey to village Ballan, I re-read some of the chapters from “Sikh Separatism: The Politics of Faith”, authored by Rajiv A. Kapur. It is probably the most insightful and definitive primer on understanding the evolution and temperament of the Sikh body politic. A product of Cornell and Oxford, Rajiv was an international civil-servant with the United Nations but also an under-recognized authority on Sikh history and culture. I read this book for the first time in 2003 and since then, every page has been underlined and dog-eared for the rarest and incisive references that it provides. In fact, it left me so impressed that I was adamant to invite Rajiv for the inaugural Punjabi Subaltern Summit. As I found out to my dismay, the scholar par-excellence met an untimely demise in 2005 (More should be documented on the man and his family as he was also the great-grandson of a venerated Punjabi nuclear scientist and social reformer, Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni – founder Trustee of The Tribune, founding member of Dyal Singh College, a tireless Hindu activist who spent his life defending Sikhism and a historian of the Gurudwara Reform Movement).

Coming back to that rather candid remark on Khalsa by the Dera follower, the Panth was never in danger but always in a state of flux. The naysayers had started writing-off Tat Khalsa as early as 1853, after the annexation of Punjab by the British (the genesis of “Panth khattre wich” can be attributed to this period of decline). Decades before that, when the Sikh kingdom was at its glory, the essential ritualism being followed by the rulers was majorly influenced by Hinduism, and quite deliberately at that, as their primary motive was to imbue a sense of secularism. A majority of the followers had even refused to distinguish themselves as Sikhs. However, rather surprisingly, after a decade or two under the British rule, the Sikh identity strengthened itself and the number of conversions increased dramatically. One of the reasons being the economic advantages of opting Sikhism, as the British were most favorable to recruiting them in government positions and the army. But the advent of proselytizing missions left the Sikh intellectuals and elites fearing for their identity. The deathly blow came when the royalty, including Maharaja Dalip Singh and Kanwar Harnam Singh, adopted Christianity that lead to a spate of reversions to Hinduism. Furthermore, the community also stood factionalized due to the various orders, schools of ideology and sects within the religion itself. It is at this juncture that Singh Sabha emerged not as an overarching body but as independent regional chapters having varying and sometimes disparate mandates (leading me to a revelation that the first-ever agitation against the proclaimed superiority of the upper-caste Sikhs was launched by Bhai Ditt Singh, who founded Lahore Singh Sabha). In general as well, the impact of centuries-old Bhakti movements had resulted in the culmination of a huge reformist wave that swept the national consciousness. It was decided, although not unanimously, that Khalsa was to be the cornerstone of a true or Kesdhari Sikh. A note must be made here that the elite who exercised influence over the Sabhas were equally concerned about their political representation in the provincial legislature and thus a separate identity was the only way they could rein the majority Hindus and Muslims — one of the reasons why religio-communitarian politics is so firmly enmeshed within Sikhism till now.

Amidst all this chaos and fumbling for sociopolitical distinctiveness that continued right from the days of Nanak, it must be kept in mind that the genesis of Khalsa was directly influenced by the vociferous and loyal following of Jatts, whose cravings for upward social mobility were handled fairly sympathetically by every Sikh guru including and after Amar Das. Even the five symbols of Khalsa bore the lineage of this community. While rummaging through the Archaeological Survey of India’s Library at the National Archives in Delhi, I stumbled on a gem of a book titled “Essays in Honour of Dr. Ganda Singh”, an anthology published in 1976 (only 1100 copies were printed) to mark the legacy of this celebrated historian. One of the essays penned by Irfan Habib, “Jats of Punjab and Sind”, noted pretty explicitly the romancing of Nanak with this community, at the cost of risking the caste-free nature of his teachings, to make them the exemplar of this fledgling faith. One must be careful in ascribing this bias as communal since Jatts were lowly Sudras but with their zest, vitality and spirit of entrepreneurship could become bastion of Sikh progressiveness. However, the influence exerted by them all across the line of ten gurus led to a gradual militarization of the faith, though it was certainly not the sole reason.

The lower-caste converts from various groupings could not boast the same martial instincts and as such, always felt a little alienated from the boisterous Khalsa brotherhood, although numerous attempts were made to assimilate them by the likes of Gobind Singh. Notably as well, the discrimination against these converts never ceased even after coming to the fold of Sikhism and during the formative years, they were not allowed to enter Harmandir Sahib. The remnants of this bitter divide and discrimination, that wasn’t spoken-of but practiced, still exists in their collective consciousness. What confidence would it bring to the downtrodden when the very individuals who control the supreme and temporal authority, Akal Takht, are getting jailed for criminal acts?

Allow me to pose a question at this juncture – Does the Sikh community living in India, under the auspices of the temporal authority of Akal Takht that is administered by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, needs to reassess its social contract with the State? Should the inherently militant symbology and ritualism, which challenges the foundational thread that binds this multicultural Union, give way to spiritual-democratic avenues of expression, since such orthodoxy has become outmoded in the times we live in?

Puritans have also been appalled at the modification of scriptures. Let me risk the loyalty of my patient reader by beginning this interjection with a somewhat incendiary remark. The first-ever translation of Granth Sahib to English by Dr. Ernest Trump in 1877 was preceded with the following quip by him, “The greatest part of the Granth contains a sort of devotional hymn, rather poor in conception, clumsy in style, and wearisome to read…The writings of the old Hindu bhagats (or devotees) are on the whole far superior to those of the Sikh Gurus themselves as regards contents and style, especially those of Kabir from whom Nanak and his successors have borrowed all they know and preach.” We should treat this slightly denigrating statement as a nuanced but dispassionate assessment of an outsider in times when little was known about Sikhism and India. I will furnish some support for the analytical part of this opinion with an authoritative resource, “The History of Punjabi Literature” by Sant Singh Sekhon, in which even this celebrated Sikh scholar enunciates very humbly that the ingenuity and brilliance of Nanak’s poetry and compilation remained unmatched when compared to the contributions of the gurus who followed. So why such a squabble over a holy book that so heavily promoted revisions, additions and deletions as per the tunes of time and quality? Why should an anthological and diverse scripture — whose essential genius lies in the fact that it was written in the peoples’ vernacular and conformed to the syntax and rhyme of Vars, which allowed even the simple-minded village folks to memorize and understand the underlying message – be treated as inviolable? There is no exegetical finality to Granth Sahib.

Lastly, why does an ordinary Sikh look at the deras with denigration, as if something really perverse happens there? It is true that most of the sect leaders are taking the uneducated and poor converts for a ride. One must remember that just about a century ago even the gurudwaras were rife with licentious mahants who committed all sorts of acts sacrilegious to the faith. Remembering the lovelorn Bulleh Shah who had this to say on the prevailing state of affairs in the religious institutions, “Dharamsaal vich dharvi rahinde, thakur dware thug. Wich maseet kusatti rahinde, aashiq rahin alag.” And we must be wary in attributing these expedient followers who dared to challenge the status quo as fools, especially when they are numbered in lakhs and were previously part of the same faith on whose pedestal the apologists are basing their counter-argument.

All that being said, let me end this veiled diatribe with an anecdote. After the prayers at Dera Sach Khand, the congregation gathered in the langar hall for the sacred repast. While the food was being served, the flock had to wait for another ardas to be over, which lasted for almost fifteen minutes, before they could actually bite a nibble. The hungry faces clearly expressed their bemusement over such fancy ritualism. The sarcastic comments being passed under the breath also reminded me that this social group is very mobile and opportunistic in nature, due to their ardent desire of breaking free from the manacles of caste and inequality at any cost. A well-intentioned, humane and empathic effort like that of Singh Sabha may also bring them back to the comforting womb of Sikhism. Or otherwise, a parallel institutionalization and reform of the deras can lead to the establishment of a unified, umbrella body like SGPC that can streamline the movement and make things transparent.

It is my inkling that an average Sikh is craving for a little mystic ritualism and esoteric obscurantism in life. Sometimes, too straitlaced an approach can put the entire metaphysical burden on the shoulders of a devout. An other-worldly, afterlife-based externalization of the spiritual experience does help one to forget the nihilistic aspects of organized religion! Nanak’s unforgiving attitude towards orthodoxy becomes clear when he outgunned and outmaneuvered obscurantism and esotericism in his precedent-setting debate with Naths and Tantrics as recorded in “Sidh Gosht”. It is this cleavage between the existential affirmation of life and the transcendental obscurity of Spirit that the deras have used well to their purpose, almost 85% of whose following is the gullible and backward Punjabi poor. Time is ripe for the Sikh clergy to shed its hegemonic and dogmatic traits; the society is clamoring for a “Protestant Reformation”. Absolutism should give way to an argumentative tradition like that in Buddhism; dissenters (remembering Gurbax Singh Kala Afghana here) should not be maimed or chased away but encouraged to defend their findings in a neutral and meritocratic forum.