Blood flows in India after Vienna shootings
YOUNG militants who stormed into a temple in Austria and shot and killed one of the leaders of a Sikh sect sparked widespread rioting in northern India.
Several towns were placed under curfew as violent protests followed the slaying in Vienna on Sunday May 24. Two people died in the outbreaks in which police and army were said to have opened fire on mobs.
There were reports that up to 30 people had been injured in the attack in Vienna, several of them seriously. They included six intruders, all said to be in a critical condition after the congregation – variously sized at between 200 and 400 people – subdued them and took away a handgun and knives.
The attack occurred at around 1.30pm. Within hours Indian TV stations were running images of sect supporters milling through streets in Punjab towns and cities brandishing swords, steel rods and sticks. The rioters smashed cars and motorcycles, set fire to empty trains and also destroyed buses and bank machines.
The army moved in to support police and try to quell the disturbances and newly re-elected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, reminded Sikhs that the faith preached tolerance and harmony. “Deeply distressed” he appealed to all sections of the Punjab community to “abjure violence and maintain peace”.
The man who was shot in Vienna was Guru Sant Rama Nand, 57, who died after an emergency operation. He was described as the head of the Dera Sachkhand sect founded by the late Shri Guru Ravidas.
Another sect leader, Guru Sant Niranjan Dass, 68, also shot in the attack, was reported to be in a stable condition following surgery.
News agencies reported that Guru Sant Rama Nand had travelled from India to conduct a service and members of rival temples had threatened violence if he appeared.
Word of the attack spread quickly around the world.
Rural Dalits held down
The New York Times described the temple community as members of the Ravidass sect – Sikhs who revere a saint of the same name believed to have been born in the 15th century to a family of leather workers, who were considered ‘untouchables’ or outcastes, and are known today at Dalits.
Sikhs are taught to reject caste divisions in favour of equality among all believers and many Dalits have successfully integrated themselves into Sikh society, by leaving their villages to climb the ladder of opportunity in towns and cities.
But in the countryside there is still discrimination against Dalits even though violent incidents are rare.
There is a theological divide between Ravidass followers, who worship their own saints, and mainstream Sikhs who revere only the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib.
Devotees of the Ravidass sect started migrating to Europe in the 1960s, setting up temples which now welcome preachers from Punjab and raise funds for the sect’s activities in India.
Around 3,000 Sikhs live in Austria, about half of whom hold Austrian citizenship.
The Times of India reported that in the Indian skirmishes one person was killed and four others injured as soldiers opened fire in Lambra village, 30 kilometres from Jalandhar, and another person died after police fired on protesters at Jalandhar Cantt railway station.
Other places caught up in the turmoil included Phagwara, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahar, Banga, Ludhiana, Moga, Patiala, Amritsar and Hoshiarpur in Punjab and Ambala in Haryana.
Activists from the powerful political party the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which draws its support mainly from Dalits, joined the protests.
The Press Trust of India news agency reported that caste discrimination has been outlawed in India for more than half a century and a quota system set up to give Dalits a fair share of government jobs and school places. But rural Dalits still experience poverty and repression from ancient prejudice and caste-based politics.
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