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Dera Sacha Sauda: Sikh Schisms


The Times of India, May 23, 2007

Photo: Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh

Even though the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, who is at the centre of a violent controversy for reportedly dressing up as Guru Gobind Singh at a public function, has already said he didn't mean any disrespect to Sikhs, passions haven't cooled in Punjab. The Akal Takht, the highest religious authority of the Sikhs, has demanded that all the Dera centres in Punjab be sealed; the Punjab chief minister has asked the Dera chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, to apologise.

Such a hardline stance sits uneasily with the catholicity of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, and the eclectic nature of his teachings. It is well known that Nanak's closest associate was Mardana, the Muslim rabab player who accompanied the Sikh guru during his travels. Steeped in the Bhakti and Sufi traditions, Nanak was a great believer in interfaith harmony and borrowed liberally from different religious traditions. This is evident from an incident that is said to have occurred at the time of Nanak's death. At his deathbed, Nanak's Hindu followers wanted to cremate him while the Muslims wanted to bury him. Nanak apparently asked the Hindus to place flowers on his right, and Muslims on his left - those whose flowers remained fresh the next day would have their way.

The next day, Nanak's body wasn't there but only the flowers remained, all of which were fresh. Both the Hindus and Muslims had their way: Hindus cremated their flowers and Muslims buried theirs.

Such tolerance is sadly missing from the political discourse in Punjab. The Akal Takht is pressuring the Punjab government to stamp out the Dera Sacha Sauda. The Akali Dal government and the Punjab C.M. are unfortunately bending over backward to please hardliners. The call to shut down the Dera is unconstitutional. In a country where all religions and sects are permitted to practise and preach their faith, the Sikh clergy cannot force any sect to shut shop. There is, however, more to the present controversy than religious animosity.

Many of the Dera followers belong to lower castes, who have been increasingly marginalised by the Sikh mainstream. The Akali Dal has been quick to react because the Dera had taken a pro-Congress stance during the assembly elections held earlier this year. There have also been accusations against the sect and its chief for transgressing the law. If the Dera has indeed broken the law, its leaders should be tried. But no sect can be cowed into submission. That would be patently against the Constitution as well as Nanak's teachings.