Austrian Murder Sparks Protests in India

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Altaf Qadri / AP

Followers of Dalit leader Guru Ravi Das Sabha brandish swords, steel rods and bamboo sticks during a protest in Amritsar, India, on May 25, 2009

Caste rivalries and a fight over offerings at a cash-rich Sikh temple in Vienna echoed far and wide on Monday as sectarian violence once again erupted in India's Sikh-majority state of Punjab. At least two people have been killed and 14 injured since news reached Punjab yesterday via text messages and mobile phones that a Sikh preacher of a lower-caste sect, 57-year-old Sant Rama Nand, had been shot dead in a clash in a temple in Austria. Thousands of lower-caste Sikhs took to Punjab's streets armed with swords and batons, burning buses and blocking trains. A curfew was imposed in five Punjab towns, and military and paramilitary forces have been called into the state. The situation remains tense today as the authorities try to arrange to have the slain preacher's body flown directly to his village for cremation.

Over the years, the quaint little gurdwara on the Rudolfsheim Street on the outskirts of Vienna has become a hub of Sikh separatists who supported an insurgency in Punjab during the 1980s and 1990s. The insurgency was eventually stamped down by an iron-fisted state, and many of its supporters sought and received political asylum in Europe. As Austria's legal South Asian community has become more established, thousands of illegal Sikh migrants from all over Europe have gravitated there. "The gurdwara was lush with offerings from a nostalgic and large-hearted diaspora," says Ramesh Vinayak, who heads the Punjab edition of the national daily Hindustan Times, and who visited the Vienna gurdwara in 2005. (See photos of India's Nehru dynasty.)

Around the same time, the Ravidasias, a lower-caste community who are not considered Sikhs though the groups share some similarities, including worship in gurdwaras, swelled in numbers among Austria's Indian diaspora. Disgruntled lower-caste youths from an increasingly prosperous Punjab — where the landed castes have been reaping the benefits of the Green Revolution since the 1950s and 1960s — were making their way to Europe in droves. "What we see now is a result of rising Dalit assertion," says Vinayak. "The lower castes set up their own gurdwara, splitting the congregation and the [revenue from the] offerings. The pro-Khalistanis (those supporting a separate Sikh nation) at the older gurdwara felt threatened." Those tensions came to a head this Sunday when management of the new gurdwara invited some preachers of Dera Sach Khand, a Ravidasia sect, to address the congregation. A violent clash ensued, in which Baba Rama Nand was shot and 15 people were injured. Baba Rama Nand later died in hospital. (Read "Five Challenges Facing India's Election Victors.")

When news of the killing began to trickle into Punjab, state authorities went on alert. Although there is no specific history of Ravidasia-Sikh violence in Punjab, violence has taken place between followers of various sects across the state, mostly with support of lower castes among both the Sikhs and non-Sikhs. By Monday afternoon, large-scale rioting spread to six districts, leading Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, to issue a televised appeal. "Invoking the teachings of the Gurus, I appeal to all sections of people in Punjab to maintain peace," he said. The situation has spun out of control before. In May 2007, a prominent sect leader with significant political links, Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh of Dera Sacha Sauda, had invited the ire of the Sikh masses when he addressed a congregation dressed as the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, which is against Sikh tenets. Ram Raheem Singh's support base is primarily among the lower castes. At least one person was killed and over a hundred injured in the six days of violence that followed.

The events in Punjab — and thousands of miles away in Austria — point to a broader problem: the dangerous mix of inequitable development and enduring caste-based resentment. The northern state has a higher than national average population of Scheduled Castes, an umbrella term for various lower castes, with 28.95% in Punjab against India's average of 16%. "Dalit Sikhs and Ravidasias, especially in the fertile Doaba belt which sends out a large number of immigrants, have seen immense prosperity lately, and with it, a rising Dalit consciousness and assertion," says Dr. Ronki Ram, reader in the Department of Political Science at Panjab University in Chandigarh, who has recently authored a paper on the topic. This assertion has found a voice in hundreds of little sects that have sprung up all over the state, enmeshing socio-economic struggle with religion in a lethal combination. It is ironic that Sikhism, the dominant religion of the state, was born in the 15th century with a promise of equality for all genders, classes and castes, since a growing inequality among its followers is causing so much unrest. "The social milieu is lacking equality," says Ram. "That is the root of the problem." (See photos of India's slumdog entrepreneurs.)

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