Friday, 5 February 2010

Ravidasia Religion, or a prayer for identity

Amrita Chaudhry Posted online: Wednesday, Feb 03, 2010 at 0130 hrs

Ludhiana: Dera politics and rows in Punjab got another twist last Saturday when Dera Sachkhand Ballan took one step further and announced the setting up of a separate religion, Ravidassia, with a religious book, Amrit Bani Guru Ravidass, a separate symbol, Hari, and a separate motto, Jai Gurudev.
It was another indicator that Dalit assertion has come to stay in a state that has long suppressed the community despite it making up almost 29 per cent of the population. Till recently a struggle for equality, the Punjab Dalit movement has now changed its character. Dalits are no longer asking for an equal space in society, they are claiming their own personal space. They are also no longer shy of their identity, with announcement of a “new religion”, showering of shobha yatras with flowers from a chopper, and the deluge of music albums in the market celebrating Dalithood pointers of the same.
The social change is expected to impact Punjab politics too, with experts afraid that the Dalit assertion — seen by some as more reactionary than rational — could be both creative and violent.
It was late on Saturday that Dera Sachkhand Ballan announced the “Ravidassia religion”, at Seer Gowardhanpur in Benaras, the birthplace of Guru Ravidass. It was the 633rd birth anniversary of Ravidass, a saint of the Bhakti movement. The call for a separate religious identity for Ravidassias came eight months after the killing of Sant Ramananad, the deputy of dera head Sant Niranjan Dass, in Vienna by alleged “radical Sikhs”.
Well-known academic on Dalit issues and the chairman of Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Dr Ronki Ram, sees the development as “an assertion of identity” and not as a “separate religion”. “The manner in which the process is unfolding is not new. The Dalits of Punjab have always laid claim to a separate religion called the ‘Adh dharma’ and this Dera has a registered symbol. The Dalits are doing well economically and this has given them an upward mobility. They are now asserting,” says Ram.
Dr Harish Puri, a Dalit who retired as Head Professor of Dr B R Ambedkar Chair, Department of Political Science, Guru Nanak Dev University, warns against dismissing the developments as mere “reactionary”. “Radical Sikhs killed the Dera head in Vienna and in reaction the Dera decided to assert a separate identity. The manner in which our political bosses handled the murder and the protests that erupted later was to convert the same into a law and order situation and suppress it. No one addressed the anguish of a community, and now we have the results which will have a bad impact on our politics.”
Puri feels that this kind of assertion arising from anger is “destructive”. “No one is talking about upliftment of Dalits. These things are the handiwork of a very small section of Dalits who are either settled abroad and are doing well or those Dalits who come from Doaba where NRI population is high. These people can afford to assert. But no one is addressing the problems of a large section of Dalits who continue to live in highly condemnable conditions.” Dr Puri is also apprehensive of politics getting into the debate, with a large section of political leaders from Doaba followers of one or the other Dera. “How these politicians use these changes will script the future of our politics,” he points out.
Balbir Madhopuri, well-known Dalit writer whose novel Chhangeya Rukh was translated into English by Oxford University Press recently, has another objection. “I do not agree to what Dera Ballan has done, for this is no assertion. This action limits the preaching of Guru Ravidass to a very limited section. Adh dharam, which was established in 1925 and recognised by the British in 1930, incorporated the teaching of 36 gurus belonging to lower castes. Ravidaassia or the Amrit Bani Ravi Das (containing 240 hymns of Guru Ravidass) is very limiting.”
A literary critic and known Dalit scholar, Dr Sarabjit Singh, also cautions against taking the development lightly: “This change is dangerous and disturbs the socio-political fabric of Punjab.”

Dera Sachkhand Ballan is one of the most powerful and famous Deras of the Ravidass sect in Punjab situated some 10 km from Jalandhar. Other equally famous Ravidass deras include Temple Ravidass Chak Hakim near Phagwara and Dera of Sant Jagatjit Giri near Pathankot. These two Deras are said to have been instrumental in bringing social consciousness among the Dalits of Punjab.
Mangoo Ram, founder of the ‘Adh dharam movement’, is said to have visited the Dera Ballan and sought its support to popularise the image of Ravidass among the Dalits of Punjab.
The Dera Sachkhand Ballan was founded by Sant Pipal Dass, father of Sant Sarwan Dass, and is popularly known as Dera Sant Sarwan Das or simply Dera Ballan.
The Dera shot into fame June last year when Sant Ramanand, deputy of Dera head Sant Niranjan Dass, was killed in Vienna, Austria, allegedly by some radical Sikhs. The Dera head was grievously injured in the attack. The incident led to arson in certain parts of Punjab with dera heads announcing shifting of the Guru Granth Sahib from its temples.
While Dera Ballan is not a Sikh institution, as part of tradition, its deras install and worship Guru Granth Sahib. Some of the followers sport Sikh appearances while others could be clean shaven, though the latter are not necessarily Hindus.
Since the Vienna incident, the sect has been since asserting itself, though quietly.

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