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  The phenomenon of Deras  
  Violence for the sacred is absurd  
  THE recent incident of violence in Vienna, the capital of Austria, where a group of assailants entered a religious place during a meeting and killed Sant Ramanand of Dera Sachkhand while seriously injuring others, has once again brought the phenomenon of 'dera' to the forefront.

The deras have been in the eye of storms, especially since the controversy surrounding Dera Sachcha Sauda came to light when its chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was alleged of blasphemy for impersonating the tenth Sikh Guru. The controversy had, likewise, threatened to throw the entire region, many feared, into the dark days of Punjab militancy.

Deras are basically places of religious congregation, generally formed around a revered person and engaged in community welfare works with emphasis on 'sadachar' or good deeds and conducts of its believers.

Contrary to what many believe, especially those not familiar with the ground realities in Punjab, the deras are of considerable antiquity in the region -- in many cases, they existed for centuries. By one estimate, there are more than 9,000 deras of all formations in the 12,000 villages of Punjab.

However, the reason why deras have suddenly become so assertive is two fold. First, most of these deras have its major chunk of followers in the Dalit community.

Punjab as a state with the largest Scheduled Caste population in the country may have a marginalised Dalit political mobilisation, but in terms of its social and economic ascendance and with a substantial diaspora base, the Dalits of the region have acquired enough muscle now to fight for respectable position and identity in the society.

The instantaneity and aggression with which the followers of Dera Sachkhand responded to the event in Vienna is a reflection of that subaltern desperation to display its new-found confidence and clout. Indeed, it also revealed the extent of globalisation of an issue of local nature and the frightening potency of media networks in augmenting it.

Second, the inability of the mainstream religious stream to accommodate the aspirations of the traditionally marginalised sections into its fold has driven the latter to these deras. It is hardly any surprise that as per one rough estimate, the Dalits make for about 70 per cent of the Dera Sacha Sauda followowers.

The popularity of these deras is also reflective of the increasing crystallisation of Dalit consciousness in the region. Post green revolution there has been withering away of agriculture and with the influx of cheap farm labour from other states, Dalits have been further pushed outside the village.

They have taken to all kinds of non-farm work, which has actually helped them in liberating themselves from the repressive old arrangement and making the most of the new-found economic opportunities. The quest for an independent identity through a separate place of worship gets reflected in increasing instances of Dalit gurdwaras in rural Punjab.

In the context of regional religious configurations, deras are also seen as counter movements. The notion of a living guru-like figure at the centre and the tendency to accommodate newer interpretations in terms of its practices have been cited as reasons behind deras being perceived as subversive institutions by the mainstream.

However, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about this scenario. It follows the quintessentially Indic-tradition of dissent, critical enquiry and questioning; something that has been so perceptively phrased as the argumentative tradition of Indians by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

This has been the hallmark of our syncretic socio-cultural ethos. Hence, there is nothing pathological about this phenomenon. What is, however, a matter of deep concern, is the propensity, of late, to indulge in violence in the name of the sacred. This has tarnished our reputation of a land of great traditions of Gurus and Saints.

Most importantly, Punjab cannot afford such periodic recurrence of violence damaging property and trade to the tune of thousands of crore. In an age and time where perception is more vital than the real, such instances get generally inflated and act as major deterrence for prospective investors.

The latest ASSOCHAM reports for 2008-09 place Punjab at the sixth place, below even Uttar Pradesh in terms of investments that the state has received. In the background of the chilling revelation that about 67 per cent of households in Punjab have at least one drug addict, the State today needs to generate employment for its youth to protect and rehabilitate its young blood.

With global economy in a down swing, the possibilities overseas, major fascination among the youths of the region, look increasingly gloomy. Making it worse are the instances of hate crimes reported from everywhere, the latest being from Australia.

With agriculture on the wane, industrial development in Punjab is of paramount concern. The land of super-entrepreneurs is in dire need of stricter and more vigilant law-and-order enforcement bandobast. The fact that hoodlums and anti-social elements had a field day in the large scale riot and arson that we witnessed recently in parts of Punjab only point in the direction of a serious enforcement and intelligence failure.

As for fighting for the sanctity of the sacred, one doesn't have to be a theologian to tell that there is no place for such acts of hooliganism and violence in the premises of the revered. Violence can only be an integral part of the realm of profanity.

The participation of top political leadership across the board in the funeral of Sant Ramanand, who have hitherto been ambivalent and clandestine in their engagement with the deras, may be seen by many as an act of political opportunism with an eye on vote bank. However, it may well prove to be a new dawn for the region, heralding a phase of lasting harmony, peace and coexistence.
The writer is a Chandigarh-based sociologist and writer.
  By  Santosh Kr. Singh  
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