Accepted Paper:

Adjusting the image: "traditional" and "modern" in Punjab Deras' representation  


Anna Bochkovskaya (Institute of Asian and African Studies, Lomonosov Moscow State University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper discusses the use of traditional symbols and images by Dalits in Punjab (India) in their quest for identity with special reference to the multifaceted activities of controversial religious/pseudo-religious communities (deras).

Paper long abstract:

Dramatic growth of various religious/pseudo-religious communities (deras) in the Indian state of Punjab became a matter of great concern for the state authorities in the past decade. Being extremely popular with Dalits residing in rural areas, the deras represent a serious threat as not only religious, but also influential economic and political agents. Mostly proclaiming the universal character of their ideology, dera leaders/neo-gurus tend to exploit various symbols of religious (predominantly, Sikh) identity for self-advertising and mobilization of new followers. These actions include mimicry of the Ten Gurus, appropriation of Sikh public rituals, compilation of own scriptures/"spiritual books" that imitate the Adi Granth, etc.

Mainstream Sikh leaders persistently vote for banning all communities whose leaders adhere to the living guru principle (Dera Sacha Sauda, Dera Nurmahali, Dera Bhaniarawala, etc.). In view of constant confrontation with orthodox Sikhs, a majority of controversial neo-gurus have been emphasizing the deras' commitment to comprehensive social work. At the same time, the "improvement" of ideology remains an integral part of their public self-representation. The paper will focus on recent activities of controversial deras - with special reference to Dera Sacha Sauda - aimed at adjusting their image to the needs of the day.

Panel P08
Dalit communities in India and diaspora: agency and activism, research and representation