Source AP ©

Sikhs protest bitter clashes in India's Punjab

After a week of clashes with a quasi-religious sect that have left one person dead Sikh leaders called for a general strike Tuesday. So streets have become quite and shops have closed across the northern Indian state of Punjab.

Thousands of police officers deployed in full force across the Punjab, India's only Sikh-majority state, maintaining an uneasy calm.

The clashes erupted after the leader of the sect, known as Dera Sacha Sauda, dressed up as a 17th century Sikh guru at a public function and posed for newspaper advertisements in costume - an act many Sikhs considered blasphemous.

In the eight days since, Sikh protesters have repeatedly blocked roads, clashed with Dera supporters and marched through the streets of Punjab's cities brandishing traditional swords and daggers, blades that Sikhism dictates all its followers carry. At least one person has been killed and hundreds injured in the clashes, although details of how the man was slain remain sketchy.

There were no reports of violence Tuesday, said senior police official R.N. Bhagad.

The state's top elected official, Parkash Singh Badal, a Sikh, has joined Sikh hard-liners in calling for an apology from Dera leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, also a Sikh. Giani Joginder Singh, a Sikh high priest, has also demanded all Dera branches in the Punjab be shut down.

The Dera sect is a nonprofit spiritual organization that works on social issues across the region and is comprised of people of several religions but led by Sikhs. The group has hundreds of branches, called deras, across the Punjab region. Sikhs make up less than 2 percent of India's 1.1 billion people, the vast majority of whom are Hindus.

Dera spokesman Aditya Insaan said the Dera leader did not mean to cause offense by dressing up as the 10th and final Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, considered a forefather in the religion. Still, Insaan stopped short of issuing an apology, arguing that Dera leaders have done nothing wrong.

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