Sikh clash in Vienna highlights caste divisions


Christian and community leaders in India have warned that world governments and international human rights organizations have failed to understand the significance and implications of a recent clash at a temple in the Austrian capital, Vienna, between rival Sikh groups.

In the incident on May 24 six men armed with knives and a pistol attacked a temple run by devotees of Shri Guru Ravidass, who founded a sect called Dera Sach Khand. One preacher, Sant Rama Nand, died after the attack. Another preacher, Sant Nirajnan Das, was among 15 others injured. The two preachers, who belong to a group representing low-caste Sikhs, were visiting Austria from India.

Following the incident in Vienna, three people have been killed in violent clashes across the Indian state of Punjab. Several towns were placed under military curfew, and billions of rupees worth of public property was destroyed. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and Punjab Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal, have appealed for peace. It is estimated that fewer than 3,000 Sikhs live in Austria and 25 million worldwide, most of them in northern India.

The International President of the Dalit Freedom Network says, “This is not the first time caste tensions in India burst into bloody violence in Europe. Similar incidents happened in the United Kingdom and even in the United States.”

Guru Ravidass, the sect founder, was a key figure in India’s Sufi movement which rebelled against upper caste tyranny. A leather worker, Sant Ravidass was deemed to be an untouchable by the high castes. Though his hymns find a place in the Sikh holy book Guru Granth Sahib, Ravidass himself is revered by many downtrodden and former untouchable castes.

Dr. Rami Ranger, Chairman of the British Sikh Association, has condemned those responsible for the violence in Vienna. He said, “ The attack goes against the teachings of every Sikh Guru. Sikhism was established to abolish the caste system and bring about social reform.”

John Dayal, secretary seneral of the All India Christian Council says, “Although it appears prosperous, Punjab has deep caste chasms and class conflicts. The upper caste Jat Sikhs command the bulk of the land resources, and upper caste Hindus run the bulk of business and trade. The Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, have less than 5 percent of the state’s resources.”

Mr. Dayal adds, “Dalits are often kept out of the management of the Gurdwaras and other places of worship. Lower caste Sikhs have set up their own parallel places of worship in almost every village in Punjab. They have also evolved their own social customs and liturgy, which is an anathema to the upper castes.

According to Joseph D’Souza, “Expatriate Sikh populations seem to have carried these divisions to Europe and to North America, as have other Indian groups. In the liberal environment of the West, the Dalits prospered, and their prosperity added to jealousies back in India.”

Mr. Dayal said, “It is a tragedy that the Indian government is in denial about the contemporary ramifications of caste on India. Although there are exceptions, the Indian government’s resistance and high-octane diplomatic pressures stalled honest discussions on caste discrimination and birth-based inequity in international fora such as the UN Durban conference on racism in 2001 and recent meetings in Geneva.”

Mr. D’Souza urged India to assist in an honest, international discourse on the implications of caste and to help devise systems to root out the 3,000 year old evil once and for all. He said, “The measures contained in the Indian Constitution are laudable, but, for want of other reforms or perhaps political will, they have not delivered full human dignity to the Indian Dalits of any religious faith. The Dalit Christians and Muslims remain the most deprived, shorn even of the token affirmative action programs of the government.”

The All India Christian Council was set up in 1998 to protect and serve the Christian community, minorities, and the oppressed castes. It is a coalition of thousands of Indian denominations, organizations, and lay leaders. The Dalit Freedom Network, founded in the United States in 2003, partners with the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organizations and the All India Christian Council to support Dalits in their emancipation movement through education, health care, economic advancement, and human rights advocacy.

Rita Payne is the current chair of the Commonwealth Journalists Association. She can be reached via email at: