Is caste behind the killing in Vienna and riots in Punjab?
The root cause may lie in India’s caste system that Sikhism officially rejects, but that still grips swathes of India’s billion-plus people, including in Sikh-dominated Punjab state in northwestern India.
“Via Vienna, Sikh caste war returns, sets Punjab aflame” ran the headline of the Hindustan Times.
The preacher, Guru Sant Rama Nand, 57, was killed in a gurdwara in the Austrian capital in an attack by six men armed with knives and a gun.
He was from the Dera Sach Khand, a religious sect separate from mainstream Sikhism that has a large support base of Indian Dalits, or “untouchables”, and other lower castes.
The thousands who went on the rampage in Punjab on Monday were mainly Dalits. Authorities have imposed a curfew in parts of the state, in which three protesters died on Monday in clashes with security forces.
The Dera Sach Khand sect was inspired by the 15th century spiritual leader Ravidas, himself from a lower caste. It differs from mainstream Sikhism, for example, in that it reveres living gurus such as Sant Niranjan Das. Some pious Sikhs find this concept offensive.
Traditional Sikhism recognises 10 gurus who led the community from the founding of the faith by Guru Nanak in the late 15th century. The 10th guru named the religion’s holy book, known as the Guru Granth Sahib, as his successor.
Sikhism does not recognise caste, but “the clash in a Vienna gurdwara and the mob fury are yet another manifestation of simmering discontent that Dalits in Punjab feel due to increasing social inequality and oppression in a society that was supposed to be free of it,” writes the Times of India.
In such a context, the appeal of sects such as the Dera Sach Khand is easy to understand.
“The legitimacy given to these deras and the steady weaning away of the faithful from the gurdwaras has often rattled the Sikh clergy and its more hardline followers pitting them against the deras,” writes the Indian Express.
The caste conflict may have been the cause of the Vienna attack as well.
“Caste has moved beyond India with Indian diaspora as the latter does not move as individuals but takes its cultural baggage along,” Vivek Kumar, who teaches sociology in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told the Times of India.
According to some reports, the attackers objected to the temple allowing a living guru to speak in the presence of the holy book.
But Vienna police say they are still unclear on what motivated the kiling.
The temple which was attacked is newer than Vienna’s two other Sikh temples and had been gaining popularity, but so far there had been no hostilities between the different groups in Vienna, said Bernhard Fuchs, an ethnologist at Vienna university.
And the city’s two other Sikh temples have distanced themselves from the attack and condemned it as against the basic tenets of the Sikh faith.
“The foundation of Sikhism besides brotherly love and care for others, is also the principle of non-violence,” they said in an open message.
“Based on these principles, the Sikh religious community in Austria therefore reject all act of fanaticism and condemned this outrageous attack in the strongest term.”