European Killing of Sikh Leader Leads to Violence in Punjab

New Delhi, India - Riots erupted across the Punjab region of India on Monday in response to the killing of a Sikh sect leader, who died following an attack on a temple in Vienna on Sunday.

At least one person was killed and four towns were under a curfew after a day of violent protest in the wake of the Austrian attack on the leaders of the sect, who were on a tour to Europe to visit the sprawling community of Sikhs there.

The two men were the leaders of the Ravidass sect of lower-caste, or Dalit, Sikhs who revere a saint believed to have been born in the 15th century to a family of leather workers, considered an “untouchable” caste.

S. R. Heer, a senior official at the sect’s hospital and school in Jalandhar, a large provincial town in the Punjab, said that in Vienna, six young Sikh men had stormed into the hall where hundreds of worshippers had gathered and shot at the leaders. Guru Sant Rama Nand died of his injuries, while the other leader, Sant Niranjan Dass, was in stable condition following emergency surgery, Mr. Heer said.

The bloodshed had happened an ocean and a continent away, but the news of the attack, carried by text messages and mobile phone calls sent from the vast community of Sikh émigrés in Europe and beyond, came to Punjab almost instantly.

Television stations beamed pictures of sect members parading through the streets with swords, metal rods and sharpened sticks aloft. Police officials said the rioters smashed cars and set fire to empty trains, snarling road and train traffic through one of the most prosperous provinces of India. Bank machines, car dealerships and buses were destroyed.

“We are dealing with a very tense situation,” said Kuldeep Singh, Deputy Inspector General of Police in Jalandhar, one of the worst hit towns.

The army fanned out to quell the violence, and top officials of the newly sworn in government, which was elected earlier this month, issued statements of dismay and called for calm.

“Sikhism preaches tolerance and harmony,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, said in a statement. “I appeal to all sections of the people in Punjab to abjure violence and maintain peace.”

In principle Sikhism rejects caste divisions; one of its main tenets is the equality of all believers. But the existence of caste-based sects within Sikhism illustrates how such divisions that have existed for millennia run deep.

The motive of the attack on the Vienna temple was unclear. Some mainstream Sikhs disapprove of the religious practices of the Ravidass members, who worship their saints. Mainstream Sikhism reveres only its holy book, known as the Guru Granth. But these theological disputes have rarely provoked violence between sects, experts say.

Though vastly diminished, untouchability remains a force in everyday life among Sikhs in the countryside, said Surinder Jodhka, a sociologist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi who studies caste in Punjab.

But, Mr. Jodhka said, Dalits have successfully integrated themselves into mainstream Sikh society, and violent caste conflicts are unusual. Punjab has one of the highest shares of Dalits, officially known as Scheduled Castes. And like Dalits from other Indian states, they have also climbed up the social ladder by venturing out of their villages to work, earn and remake themselves.

Many Dalit Sikhs, devotees of the Ravi Dass sect, started migratingto Europe in the 1960s, helped set up Ravi Dass temples, known as gurdwaras, and played host to preachers from Punjab, for whom Europe and North America became important fund-raising bases.