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Dera Sacha Sauda: Clash of Symbols


The Times of India, May 29, 2007

Photo: Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh

Make no mistake. When Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh distributed amrit, dressed as Guru Gobind Singh, he knew that he was invoking one of the most powerful and revered symbols in Sikh history. The Sacha Sauda leader understands the role of symbols in the collective psyche. If Guru Nanak symbolises pacifist teachings, Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh symbolise valour and martyrdom.

For any new sect or religious order simplicity and a passionate idea or symbol are what attract a following. By all accounts the Baba already has made huge inroads amongst lower and backward caste Sikhs. But, this was not the only reason why Punjab burned for over 72 hours. When the Baba appropriated the potent symbolism of Guru Gobind Singh, the embattled Akali Jat Sikh leadership realised a crisis looming within the Sikh faith.

The Baba had challenged the grip of the Akali leadership over Sikh affairs in Punjab. This couldn't have come at a worse time for the Akalis. Not a day passes without some Sikh youth refusing to wear their hair long. The slow erosion in the basic tenets of the faith is made worse by economic misery. The Green Revolution plateaued off a long time ago and the conversion from traditional crops to new farming technologies and crops is still not complete. Industrial development is slow and migration to the West is a double-edged weapon.

Sikh fears of being a small minority within the country and prospects of being reduced to a minority within Punjab itself are not exaggerated. Various reform movements and quasi religious orders have been denuding the Sikh base in Punjab. To a great extent the earlier Arya Samaj movement, the Nirankari and now the Sacha Sauda movements, instead of concealing ostensibly hidden agendas are voicing aspirations of the dispossessed, marginal farmers and lower castes.

The stage is set for a clash between the relatively prosperous Jat peasantry and a clutch of politically aware lower castes. The tension might have spilled over, but the pot is on the boil. If there is a fight to claim the legacy of Guru Gobind Singh, we can ignore the symbolism of the past only to our peril.

When Punjab was convulsed with terrorist violence two highly symbolic incidents pushed Sikh youth on a separatist path. The first was the clash with the Nirankaris that left 13 Sikh youth dead. The second was the humiliation and harassment suffered by Sikhs coming to the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi at the hands of Haryana cops. It wasn't so much the river waters dispute or lack of employment opportunities that pushed the youth towards insurgency. It was the loss of self-respect that became the trigger.

Even today in the Sikh diaspora here and abroad, there exists a small and fanatical fringe group wedded to the cause of separation. Like the family secret no one wants to talk about, this fringe element has always regarded Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the likeness of Guru Gobind Singh. There are very few takers today for that kind of symbolism, but recent events have fuelled rage amongst large sections of the Sikhs and Akali supporters.

Live televised scenes from the Akal Takht clearly showed raw anger quickly give way to separatist slogans. Herein lies the danger. Like any other minority, the Sikhs are also exposed to bouts of a siege mentality. For the ordinary Sikh, Guru Gobind Singh symbolises purity of thought and action to which he can only aspire in a lifetime. A slur on this symbolism would always be perceived as a threat to the reason for existence to the Sikh identity and mobilise them towards confrontation.

Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has now tendered an apology to Guru Gobind Singh. It must be accepted by those he offended and the issue must be buried. Remember, in insurgency-hit Punjab political leadership on all sides had collapsed. And in a savage twist, Bhindranwale was the only one around then, providing his own brand of leadership. The past always holds up a mirror. It would be a good idea to look at it once in a while.