Religion, or a prayer for identity

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, Har, 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.

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