Reading about the violence at a Sikh Gurdwara in Vienna, Austria, last weekend, and now the subsequent, extremely dangerous riots in Punjab, leaves me feeling sad though not particularly surprised.
In Austria, the violence occurred at a Gurdwara founded by members of a sect called Dera Sach Khand, a group I hadn’t heard of before this incident occurred; they are followers of Ravidas, a religious teacher from roughly the same period as official Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak. Ravidas was from the Chamar caste, and as I understand it most Ravidasias in Punjab today are from that caste as well. (Wikipedia describes their places of worship as “Gurdeheras” rather than “Gurdwaras,” so perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the violence at the temple in Vienna took place at a Ravidasi Gurdehera, rather than a Sikh Gurdwara.)
It is not clear to me how many followers they have, though I have read estimates that Punjab has a disproportionately high Dalit population (nearly 30%), and it is possible that some of those rioting in places like Jalandhar are not specifically followers of this sect, but rather Dalits who are rioting against what they perceive as caste violence. (See pictures at the BBC)
There is also a second, properly orthodox Sikh Gurdwara in Vienna, which has been described as being controlled by hardliners who support the idea of an independent Sikh homeland (Khalistan).
Details from the news reports have been sketchy. I do not know in very much detail how the hostility between these two groups reached this level, though I can imagine a narrative that led to these events, based on what I’ve seen here in the U.S. The original Gurdwara was dominated by hardliners, which is not all that surprising: they were the ones who cared enough about the religion to invest the resources to open a temple in Austria to begin with. Most of the sangat (the congregation) were religiously moderate, and many would be clean-shaven, to fit in better in Austrian society. Some may not have come from orthodox backgrounds in India (i.e., Dera sects), and a few may not have identified publicly as Sikhs before they left India. Judging from the Sikhs I encountered on a visit to France a few years ago, most of the community would be working class, employed in service at restaurants, small businesses, and various kinds of “informal” labor. But despite the complexity of their background and fragility of their connection to the Sikh tradition, the people who were attending the kirtan and bhog (services) each week did not hear very much that related directly to their lives or backgrounds. They continued to attend because this weekly ritual constituted their only opportunity to experience a sense of community with other Indian immigrants.
Then, when a new temple opens, many of the heterodox members of the congregation jump at the chance for a different kind of experience. The new temple is run by heterodox Ravidasias, who do things slightly differently than in the orthodox Sikh Gurduwara. Some of the congegants at the new temple are themselves Ravidasias, but perhaps there are non-Ravidasias, who don’t care that much anyway that there are pictures of some unfamiliar people on the walls, or some lines changed in the prescribed prayers. At least here they do not feel marginal in the same way.
The loss of popularity infuriates the leadership of the first, orthodox Gurdwara, and when a prominent leader of the Dera Sach Khand sect in India comes to Vienna for a visit, they go to exact their revenge. The result is that the visiting leader is shot dead on the floor of the Gurdwara/Gurdehera, and more deaths in the riots in Punjab that follow. Also: several men are critically wounded in the melee, there are unforunate news headlines around the world, and finally, there is a fledgling, fragile Sikh community in Vienna that is left shattered. No one is probably going to be going to either of these Gurdwaras again for months — and more than a few will probably never go back.
As I say, some of what I have written above is speculative, though it is based on real facts from various news sources. It is also only a slight variation on the factionalism I’ve seen in many places in the U.S.
For example, when I lived in Durham, North Carolina, a place where there were very few Sikhs, I was shocked to learn that there were actually two Gurdwaras in the town — one, more moderate but also heterodox, and the other more “kattar” — founded by orthodox Sikhs, who encouraged orthodoxy in constituents. (They were good people — many are friends — but the point is that even in this small community the differences mattered enough that one house of worship could not contain them.) There are similar stories of factionalism in the Washington DC area, where I grew up, as well as in the Philadelphia area, where I live now — and indeed, all over the diaspora.
On a personal note, though I was aware of the factionalism as a child and teenager growing up in the DC area, I didn’t grow up knowing about the caste stuff, or the different Sikh sects that have been in the news in recent years. On caste, the Sikh community in Maryland that I knew were mainly non-Jats, though I didn’t really know that at the time, because no one talked about it. But I also realize now that the community I grew up around were also predominantly from upper caste and privileged backgrounds, which is why we never heard of the Dera sects, like Dera Sacha Sauda (see this blog post from May 2007), or now, Dera Sach Khand. In short, it may be that no one paid much attention to caste because everyone we knew were from privileged castes. Our privilege may have made it easier to adhere to the anti-caste rebellion that inspired the first Sikh Gurus, and that was re-kindled by the Singh Sabha movement in the latter years of the British Raj.
Incidentally, I would recommend curious readers to an interesting post up about this at the Sikh blog, The Langar Hall. Clearly, along with everything else that is happening in the Sikh community, there is now a serious contest for adherents roughly under the banner of the Sikh tradition running along caste lines. For orthodox Sikhs like Jodha at the Langar Hall, the answer is a form of sincere self-criticism something like this: “we need to be true to the real tradition of Sikhism since the Singh Sabha movement, which is anti-caste and anti-sect, and do a better job of being inclusive.” I admire that sentiment. But the SC/OBC followers of these Dera sects clearly have not been interested in joining that program, and have instead begun asserting their caste identity via the heterodox Dera sects, in ways that make orthodox Sikhs very uncomfortable (or angry).
It isn’t great, but it’s reality, and I don’t know if yet another call to be better about finally abolishing caste will stop caste-based movements from continuing to assert themselves against the dominant tradition. I do not claim to know how the Sikh community can solve this problem, but I do think that the old, familiar idealism is going to be less effective in the long run than a pragmatic willingness to negotiate and compromise with the people with whom one may disagree.
It may also be time to spend less energy worrying about injustices historically committed against Sikhs, and more time thinking about injustices committed by some Sikhs against other Sikhs — as well as injustices against non-Sikhs in the surrounding community (in this case, the lower caste groups in Punjab).