Jag Venugopal's Blog

May 26, 2009

India’s aspirations to greatness, and Sikh-on-Sikh violence in Punjab

Filed under: India — Jag @ 2:24 pm
Tags: ,

Over the weekend, a group of Sikhs attacked another group of Sikhs in a gurudwara in Vienna. From what I could discern from newspaper accounts, a group of upper-caste Sikhs assaulted a group of lower-caste Sikhs (from a sect called the Dera Sachkand Ballan), resulting in one fatality and another person suffering injuries.

  The reverberations of this Sikh-on-Sikh violence were felt in Punjab, where followers of the Dera vented their rage on public property, including buses and trains. Curfew was imposed, the army called out, and an appeal for calm ensued from the Prime Minister.

The Times of India duly reported all the news, but added its own twist, headlining that the “Vienna clash may put caste in global spotlight”. Now it appears that in a meeting of NGOs in South Africa in 2001, caste-based discrimination was treated on par with race-based discrimination. The Times reported that “India fought back a determined and coordinated bid by NGOs to recognise casteism as racism”, and stated that there could be “renewed international pressure for recognition of caste-based discrimination as a global concern”.

I take issue with the action, counter-action and reporting.

My concerns are first with the Sikh-on-Sikh violence due to caste. Religions such as Sikhism were founded on the basis of repudiation of the caste system. The ten gurus of the faith must be turning in their graves to see their followers perpetrate fratricide on the very basis they sought to eliminate! And by no means is this restricted to the Sikh faith alone. A Catholic friend of mine once remarked on the seating arrangements in his church in Mangalore (south India). It seems that the converts to Christianity from the upper castes got to sit in the chairs to celebrate mass, while converts from lower castes (even if they were Christians for many generations) were made to sit on the floor. Like a blogger on the the Times of India noted: “you can take people out of the caste system, but you can’t take the caste system out of people”. Apparently, we Indians haven’t yet gotten to an egalitarian society that our founding fathers dreamed of, and the gurus of our various religions (Sikhism, Buddhism, etc) envisioned when the broke away from mainstream Hinduism.

My second concern is with how the followers of the Dera sect took umbrage at the injustice that was perpetuated on them. They turned around, and in a display of violent catharsis, inflicted damage on public property in Punjab. Now, their use of violence to settle scores put them in the same league as the agressors. What is stupefying though is why they chose to burn trains and buses. By ruining public property, in effect, they are hurting themselves! The Government of India was not the wrong-doer. Heck, they couldn’t have done much to prevent something that happened in far-away Austria. It is incomprehsible, therefore that they had to damage public property. Additionally, it is reported that a Hyundai showroom was completely burned by the protestors. What sin the South Koreans had committed to deserve this, I do not know. Again it will be the state-owned insurance companies (or in other words, the people) that will have to make good on the losses.

Yet a third level of concern manifests itself in the opinions of the Times of India. To any neutral observer it is patently obvious that the violence was caused by discrimination of one group by another based on accident of birth, or lineage. If this is not racism, then what is? Yet the Times is concerned that this would equate casteism to racism. My response to that is — it’s about time. Caste-based discrimination is the first cousin of race-based discrimination, and ought to be condemned as such in a civilized society. The attendees at the NGO meeting in 2001 that opposed equating the two forms of discrimination were flat out wrong — instead they should have vehemently argued the opposite point — that the two forms of discrimination are identical.

How does this all tie into the Superpower-status aspirations of sections of Indian intelligensia? Very simple — I think that a society where people are discriminated against on the basis of caste (racism by another name), where people decide to address their frustrations and disagreements through violence (and that too, perpetrated on unrelated third parties), and where apologists for casteism try to sweep the problems under the rug instead of forthrightly acknowledging and condemning it, has a long way to go before it can be a superpower. Mere possession of a few nuclear bombs and space vehicles does not make a country a Superpower (whatever the word means). We’ll have a stronger claim to it when we address the societal ills that plague us.


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