The “deras”, which have been serving religious cause for so many years, are the latest trouble spots in Punjab.
Coming close on the heels of the tension generated by dera Sacha Sauda, the trouble sparked by dera Sachkhand has sent alarm signals about the simmering tension in deras. Emerging as an off-shoot of mainstream Sikhism over the years, deras are largely identified with castes and communities. The Sachkhand Ballan dera, whose chief Niranjan Singh was shot at in Vienna on Sunday, represented the dalits.
Of the estimated 350 deras in Punjab, over 85 are identified exclusively with backward classes, who represent a strong deviation from mainstream Sikhism and often invite the wrath of the Sikhs.
“In times of peace, political parties patronise and exploit deras for votes. They pay obeisance to dera chiefs for this,” said Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute of Communications and Rural Development. “But when radical Sikhs come into the picture, there is an outburst of tension and violence because they apparently object to variations introduced in the Sikh tenets,” he said.
The tension between the deras and the Sikhs is a reflection of intra-religion conflict and unless the Sikhs learn to absorb this variation, the situation in Punjab would remain impregnated with violence, Kumar said.
Harish Puri, former professor of political science at the Guru Nanak Dev University, said the conflict arose because deras, more or less, dilute Sikh institutions like the Akal Takht and the SGPC.
Deras are not just a reflection of religious variations, but also of a class divide. It is more pronounced where NRI money has enriched deras. He said the fact that deras were coming up on foreign land, on caste lines, indicates the involvement of NRIs in intensifying the class divide.
In the recent past, apart from dera Sacha Sauda and dera Sachkhand, the Sikhs were also embroiled in a confrontation with followers of dera Bhaniarewala in Ropar.
Sikh sentiments were inflamed because the dera chief allegedly started proclaiming himself a descendant of Guru Gobind Singh. While followers of the dera burnt copies of Guru Granth Sahib at some places, radical Sikhs were up in arms against them, leading to a volatile situation at over a dozen places.
Another dera chief, Ashutosh Maharaj, who has his headquarters at Noormahal in Jalandhar, had stirred a hornet’s nest when he reportedly fiddled with Sikh tenets in his preachings. Radical Sikhs threatened to blow up the dera, and later disrupted religious meetings organised by them at various places.
A former Punjab DGP, PC Dogra, said the social conflict reflected through the dera culture in Punjab, had persisted and thrived on foreign lands as well. In the UK, Canada and the US recurrent clashes take place between followers of various deras and Sikhs. The Vienna incident was part of that series only, he said.