Seven hundred years after a Dalit mystic began preaching the oneness of God’s creation, Punjab has been set on fire by mobs fighting in his name. Earlier this week in Vienna, Khalistan Zindabad Force terrorists attempted to assassinate Dera Sach Khand chief Niranjan Dass, who heads an order of followers of the poet-saint Ravidass. Punjab’s Dalits — who make up a third of the State’s population — responded by unleashing the most violent protests the State has seen in years. Behind their rage lies a century-old struggle for political rights. As in the case of many other new religious movements in Punjab, the rise of Dera Sach Khand was driven by Dalit deprivation. Born into the family of a poor leather merchant, Ravidass is widely venerated; many of his hymns are included in the Guru Granth Sahib. But where orthodox Sikhs consider him to be a follower of Guru Nanak, Punjab’s Ravidassiya order considers him to be a Guru in his own right. Back in the 1920s, the revolutionary activist Mangoo Ram tapped Ravidassiya traditions to found the Ad-Dharam movement. Dalits were, at the time, deemed a non-agricultural caste, and denied the right to own land, the currency of power in a rural society. Mangoo Ram saw in Ravidass’ teaching the intellectual tools for liberation.

Heirs to Mangoo Ram’s movement, Dalit orders like Sach Khand have grown dramatically in recent years. In comparison with their counterparts elsewhere in India, Dalits in Punjab are well off. However, they continue to suffer social discrimination. Both the state and the clergy have, for the most part, sided with upper-caste Sikhs — pushing Dalits towards religious movements that voice their concerns. Sikh neoconservatives have been attempting to stamp out the new orders, which they insist are heretical. In 2007, tensions between the clerical establishment and Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh almost precipitated large-scale violence. Worryingly, Khalistan terror groups have been acting as the neoconservatives’ sword-arm. Last year, the Delhi Police made four arrests in connection with a Babbar Khalsa International plot to assassinate Dalit godman Piara Singh Bhaniarawala. In June, 2008, the Punjab Police arrested alleged Khalistan Zindabad Force operative Bibi Ranjit Kaur on charges of planning to assassinate Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. Unless a serious political effort is made to address the causes of the bitter caste-struggle in Punjab, the end of the rioting seen this week is unlikely to herald the return of peace. Politicians have so far sought to defuse tensions by pandering to godmen representing the warring castes. But the real challenge is to build a society founded on respect for democratic rights.