An understanding of the distinctive caste hierarchy in Sikhism and the new pattern of competing hierarchies, parallel to that of the Hindus, calls for insights into the dynamics of political power and economic relations both at the local and regional levels. This paper by Harish K. Puri aims at exploring the trade-off between the doctrinal principles of Sikh religion and the ruling social and political interests in the context of changes in the society and economy of Punjab.
Caste as Colonial Construction
After the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, when the British administrators and anthropologists started looking closely at the social hierarchy in the province they discovered that the Punjab represented 'a notable exception' to the caste system in India. It appeared that the continual influx of foreign people of diverse stocks made the people of this region extraordinarily mixed. Buddha Prakash depicted, in a way, the special quality of the region, when he described it as "The socio-cultural panmixia of Punjab". He also noticed that this region was 'practically abandoned' by the orthodoxy (brahmins), most of whom had quite early shifted to the Indo-Gangetic region [Buddha Prakash 1976:8]. The British administrators noticed, during the 19th century that, by religion, Punjab 'is more Muhammedan than Hindu', and that 'Islam in the Punjab is as a rule, free from fanaticism'. In the western part of Punjab where there was a larger concentration of Muslims and the society was organised on tribal basis, it was found that ?caste hardly exists?. Part of the reason for such a characteristic of Muslim social life in the region was the Sufi influence, which was brought from Persia by 'the early Sultans of Ghor' (Imperial Gazetteer of India -1, 1908:48-50). Historians noticed a significant mobilisation among the artisan castes/classes during the period of Turkish rule. The teachings of the Bhakti poets, particularly the ridicule of the brahmin by Kabir and Ravidas, were perhaps as much an evidence of a challenge to the structure of social deference, as a reflection of a shifting structure of social hierarchy. However, in central Punjab, broadly the area of present Punjab, it was the emergence of Sikh Panth which was believed to have made a definitive influence with respect to caste. Arnold Toynbee took note of evidence that the Hindu society had, by the time of the Turkish invasions, started to break down under 'the morbid social growth' of caste system, resulting in revolts of the proletariat led by Kabir and Nanak. According to J S Grewal, "Toynbee sees the rise of Sikhism, thus, as an act of secession on the part of the internal proletariat of the Hindu society in its disintegrating stage" [Grewal 1972:141].
The large-scale entry of the jats from the time of the sixth Guru, however, tended to alter the caste equation in the panth. The jats constituted the rural elite who dominated rural Punjab. By the 18th century the jat constituency was preponderant among constituent groups in the panth [McLeod 1975:10]. In the 1881 Census it was found that among 1,706,909 persons who returned themselves as Sikh, about 63 per cent were jats.
Irfan Habib traced the jats to the pastoral people first noticed in Punjab during 7th to 9th centuries and suggested that they may have been attracted to the Gurus because of their inherited egalitarian traditions. The jats were known for their indifference to brahminical social stratification and the Gurus "willingly raised jats to positions of high authority in the new panth". "The inevitable result was development along lines dictated by the influence of jat cultural patterns" [McLeod 1975:10]. Whereas the Hindu varna order was altered, it did not end caste distinction. More significantly, the change did not seem to affect the attitude and treatment towards the outcastes. The burden of tradition appeared to have been heavy among the rising number of the followers of Sikh faith. The Sikh Misals (militias) were organised along caste lines [Marenco 1977:38]. We do not know the number of the outcastes who entered the panth at that stage. It is clear, however, that their number was small until large-scale conversion to Sikhism, which began towards the end of the 19th century.
During the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839), Sikh jats emerged as a major part of the nobility or the ruling class. In the overall population of his vast kingdom the Sikhs formed 6-7 per cent of the total population of his kingdom. Muslims constituted about 70 per cent of the total, and the Hindus 24 per cent. But in the area of their greatest concentration, the districts of Lahore and Amritsar, the Sikhs formed around one third of the population [Grewal 1994:113]. The Sikh jats constituted a major part of Ranjit Singh's army; they constituted nearly 30 per cent of the total nobility and they were the major recipients of jagirs. The largest share of religious grants went to the Sikhs [Sagar 1993:9]. Social status was determined by the size of one's landholding. Ideologically, as Grewal noted, the doctrine of Guru-Panth had given place to that of Guru-Granth, in recognition of the prevalent social inequality. 'Every Sikh was equal in the presence of the Granth Sahib, in the sangat and the langar, but in the life outside, social differences were legitimised' [Grewal 1994:118]. The contemporary literature noticed a wide gap between the Sikh nobility and the common Sikhs. Slavery was prevalent in the society, and so was beggary. 'Poor parents used to sell their children. At times grown up girls were sold' [Sagar 1993:95]. Some of contemporary British observers thought that the difference between Sikh nobles and the Sikh poor was greater than similar differences elsewhere in India [Grewal 1994:116]. More uninhibited prevalence of caste hierarchy and discrimination against the untouchables was reflected in denial of access to villages, public wells and Gurdwaras [Pratap Singh 1933:146].
Creating Merit and Complexity
The 'British colonial embrace', following the annexation of Punjab in 1849, had 'an overriding significance' in shaping a new kind of Sikhism and in changing the social structure and caste relations in the Sikh community. Understanding the hatred of men of substance for then new rulers, the administrators of Punjab tradition went about constituting 'natural leaders', who would be loyal to the British while holding sway over the peasantry. After the disbanding of the Sikh soldiery, confiscation of the estates of most prominent chiefs, 'lowering and crushing' the priestly class of Sodhis and Bedis, and reconstitution of the Sikh aristocracy and the army (by the end of 'mutiny', Sikhs constituted 28 per cent of the army in Punjab) had paid dividends to the British during the Indian rebellion of 1857. The British administrators in Punjab understood that those who stood firmly loyal and served as 'breakwaters of the storm' - 'natural leaders' of the community ' 'deserved support and encouragement' [Narang 1998:16-24, passim].
The reorganisation of the British Indian army after 1858 was based on a theory of 'martial races'. The Sikhs were recognised as one of the most prominent martial races of India for their loyal support in suppressing the rebellion. However, though Sikhism was noted to have drawn its adherents from all classes, it were the jats who carried such weight in the formation of the (Sikh) national character that the Sikh, "whatever his origin, may now be considered as practically identical with" the Punjabi jat [Bingley 1985:112]. It was recognised that in the matter of caste, the Sikh, like the orthodox Hindu, 'holds aloof from the unclean classes, and even the Mazhabi Sikhs are excluded from the religious shrines and are left to the religious administration of granthies of their own caste' [ibid:72]. Recognition of that regulatory form of hierarchy as crucial for ruling India, not tinkering with it, became a part of colonial wisdom and statecraft.
One of the significant instances of that regulatory principle as the basis of policy related to the development of the nine canal colonies during 1885-1940, which involved allocation of over 40,00,000 acres of freshly developed virgin land for ownership and cultivation. Given its commitment to the 'sound principle' - 'not to upset the existing social and economic order' - the British government ensured that "tenants, labourers and other landless men should not, as a rule be chosen". The land was allocated to the 'dominant castes?, as per the scale of already existing landholding status [Imran Ali 1989:95, emphasis added]. In the customary scheme, outcastes such as mazhabis (Churah Sikh), balmikis and ramdasias (chamar Sikh)/ravidasias were not allowed to own land. In fact even access to village commons - shamlaat land - could be shared only among hereditary landowning communities. 'Consequently', as Ambedkar told the Rajya Sabha in 1954, "the 'untouchables' or kamins were not entitled to build their houses in a pucca form on the land on which they stayed. They are always afraid lest the zamindars of Punjab may, at any time, turn them out" [Moon 1997 vol 15:927]. Another instance, more significant in its import, was the Punjab Land Alienation Act 1901. According to this law (which was enacted primarily to save the indebted farmers from the rapacious money-lenders of the khatri, arora or brahmin castes), agricultural land could be purchased or acquired only by people belonging to the defined 'agricultural castes'. All those belonging to the lower castes, not included among the 'agricultural tribes', were debarred from owning land even if a few had the means to purchase land for cultivation. (It was only after independence that B R Ambedkar, as law minister, moved to repeal the Act in 1952 to remove the invidious disability). This extraordinary privileging of the jat agriculturalist (80 per cent of whom turned to Sikhism in central Punjab districts by 1921) contributed further to their caste domination and arrogance of privilege.
A difference was, on the other hand, made to the status of the mazhabis by opening their recruitment in separate regiments of the imperial army. They were first raised as a 12,000 man strong mazhabi corps for the seige of Delhi during the 1857 revolt. In 1911 there were 1,626 mazhabi Sikhs soldiers (in fact reduced to 16 per cent of their number in 1857), out of a total of 10,866 Sikhs in the imperial army; the number of Jats being 6,626 [Marenco 1976:260]. Since the mazhabis had earlier raised their status by discarding traditional occupations like scavenging and sweeping, they were considered suitable enough for recruitment as soldiers. Apparently, the British considered the mazhabis to be good soldiers. "They (mazhabis) make capital soldiers", it was noted, and that "some of our pioneer regiments are wholly composed of mazhabis" [Rose 1970:75]. Bingley recorded, that "As a mazhabi Sikh, despised as chuhra or sweeper, at once becomes valiant and valued soldier, and, imbued with the spirit of his martial faith, loses all memory of his former degrading calling" [Bingley 1985:117]. The latter part was, of course, an exaggeration. Mazhabis constituted exclusively mazhabi regiments - the Sikh Pioneers 23, 32,and 34, later named 'Sikh Light Infantry' - separate and distinguished from the exclusively jat - Sikh regiments. No Sikh jat or any other caste man could be recruited in the Sikh light infantry. Conversely, in the Sikh regiments, as an old retired brigadier explained to the author, "not even a labana Sikh could be recruited to the Sikh regiments". The fear of pollution of the high castes could compromise their loyalty. However, association with the army gave a boost to the mazhabi's sense of dignity, marking them out in distinction to the other untouchable castes.
It was, however, the collateral gain from some of the developmental measures undertaken in the Punjab which promoted noticeable change in the status and living conditions of the then untouchable castes people through occupational and social mobility. One of these was the large-scale migration for labour during the development of the canal colonies prompting change from traditional occupations. After the jats and the arians, the chuhras and chamars constituted the largest groups of migrants to the colonies. Among the total migrants to the Chenab colony, for example, there were 41,944 chuhras and 26,934 chamars besides 1,502 mazhabis [Marenco 1976:261]. The migrations to the irrigation projects or canal colonies were based on corporate decisions through the caste panchayats, and became the basis for corporate caste mobility and a rise in status.
A small number of mazhabi retired soldiers were also allotted land in two mazhabi settlements. It was found that more than half of these allottees became landowners and tenants and another 13 per cent worked as landless labourers. In a few selected areas, such mazhabis came to be classed among the 'agricutural castes'. Their recruitment as soldiers in the imperial army had already helped in their corporate rise in status, as against Hindus chuhras. It was believed that "for the most part, their advance in Sikh society was due to the special favour they held with the British, on whose side they had fought during the Sepoy Mutiny" (ibid: 285).
Among the immigrant chamars, only 26 per cent continued with their traditional occupation: others worked as field labourers, weavers, agricultural tenants and labourers. The number of 'general labour' required for work on the canals which was 3,71,940 in 1891 increased to 8,32,689 in 1901. Most of these came from the 'outcastes'. Findings of H A Rose show that "in 1901 the chuhras and chamars in Punjab were quite often working as general labourers rather than as sweepers or scavengers or leatherworkers" (ibid: 254).
Establishment of these colonies and trade centres also contributed to development of new towns and mandis in adjoining towns. A section of the outcaste, largely chamars, moved to towns, working in mandis or in the municipal service. As against corporate mobility, individual members of the untouchable castes moved to cities and towns in pursuit of earning in cash, changed their occupations, became skilled workers or in some cases graduated to professional classes.
Consolidation of Caste Power
When the Singh Sabha movement - the most powerful movement for reform in the Sikh community - was launched during the 1880s, one of the 'classic' expositions was made by Bhai Kahn Singh in his 'Hum Hindu Nahin' (we (Sikhs) are not Hindus). One of the major arguments, as referred to above, was the total rejection of caste in Sikh religion. It was the political logic of Hum Hindu Nahin, which swayed the minds of the Sikh political class. Judge points to the dialectics of Sikhism becoming a key factor in elevation of jats to a higher caste status and the social and political domination of the jats in Sikh community contributing to the consolidation and expansion of Sikhism. "Each reinforced the other. It is this dialectics of social change that significantly contributed to the emergence of communalism in Punjab" [Judge 2002: 179].
The social universe of the Sikhs at that time was defined by, what was described as 'Sanatan Sikh tradition' - primarily a priestly religion. Giani Pratap Singh, later the head priest at the Golden Temple, noted that the mazhabis were forbidden to enter the Golden Temple for worship; their offering of karah prasad was not accepted and the Sikhs denied them access to public wells and other utilities [Pratap Singh 1933:146-47, 156-57]. When a group of Rahtia Sikhs tried to enter the Temple in the summer of the year 1900, "the manager of the sacred establishment, Sardar Jawala Singh, ordered their arrest. The reformist Sikhs who accompanied them were abused and finally beaten up... Because one of the defining characteristics of a sacred precinct, in the eyes of the Sanatan Sikhs, was its ritual purity" [cf Oberoi:1994:107].
Harjot Oberoi cites from an 'authoritative manual' - Khalsa Dharam Sastrar of 1914 - which laid down that the members of the untouchable groups did not have the right to go beyond the fourth step in the Golden Temple (ibid.106-107).
A Parallel Caste Hierarchy
Sikhism did not lead to the creation of an egalitarian community or end of caste hierarchy and discrimination. But the caste pattern had undergone a change. Scholars have pointed to the construction of a Sikh caste hierarchy, parallel to that of the Hindu caste hierarchy. Prominent among these are W H McLeod (The Evolution of Sikh Community 1976), Ethne K Marenco (The Transformation of Sikhism 1976), and Indera Paul Singh ('Caste in a Sikh Village' 1977). Among the Sikhs jats had graduated to the position of a ruling class under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and remained on top of the hierarchy. Generally speaking, khatris, aroras and lobanas came after them, followed by the artisan castes among whom ramgarhias (Sikh carpenter caste) enjoy higher status than Ahluwalias (kalals). The menial or untouchable castes are at the bottom, just as among the Hindus. However, the perceptions regarding which caste is placed second, third and fourth varied both by the village and the caste one belonged to. The structure of caste discrimination in the Sikh community was considerably liberated from the purity-pollution frame of relations, as against the Hindu community in which that consideration is relatively more prominent. Sikhism altered the principle that knowledge is acquired and produced only by priestly class (such as brahmins). There is no permanent class of priests or producers of religious knowledge in Sikhism. Even the initial advantage enjoyed by the Bedis and Sodhis on that score was obliterated after the Gurdwara Reform Movement. Priests and ragis and sewadars (as employees) now largely come from the lower castes, including a noticeable number from the scheduled castes; and, it may be surprising, very few from the jat caste. Jat Sikhs would rather control the SGPC. Castes are endogamous both in the Hindu and Sikh caste systems. But going by the field studies, the endogamy was a little weaker, and hypergamy a little stronger among Sikhs than Hindus.
Struggle for Legal Recognition of Sikh Scheduled Castes
After independence, one of the major demands put forward unanimously by all the 22 Sikh members of the East Punjab legislative assembly in 1948 related to securing for the former untouchable castes converted to Sikhism the same recognition and rights as would have been available to them if they had not become Sikhs. In the memorandum given to the advisory committee on fundamental rights, minorities, etc, of the constituent assembly of India it was pleaded that the lower castes in the Sikh community - namely, mazhabis, ramdasias, kabirpanthis, baurias, sareras and sikligars should be included in the list of the scheduled castes. Moving the report of the committee in the constituent assembly, its chairman Vallabhbhai Patel explained:
"Really as a matter of fact, these converts are not scheduled castes or ought not to be scheduled castes; because, in Sikh religion there is no such thing as untouchability or any classification or difference of classes.. And so when these proposals were brought to us, in fact, I urged upon them strongly not to lower their religion to such a pitch as to really fall to a level where for a mess of pottage you really give up the substance of religion. But they did not agree."
The committee recommended the acceptance of the plea made by the leaders of the Sikh community.Patel, further explained, "I concede that this is a concession. It is not a good thing in the interest of the Sikhs themselves. But till the Sikhs are convinced that this is wrong, I would allow them the latitude." (Rao 1965, Vol IV, 594-603, passim)
In 1953, after the demand for Punjabi Suba had been raised, Master Tara Singh and Shiromani Akali Dal asked for inclusion of all the 'untouchable castes' converted to Sikhism in the list of scheduled castes. Observers viewed it as "a part of larger political game" [Nayar 1966: 239-40]. That only four major castes (covering 85 per cent of all Sikh untouchable/backward classes) were included in the list was condemned as highly discriminatory - "a conspiracy to crush our religion". Master Tara Singh threatened to go on a fast unto death if all the "Acchuts who had become Sikhs were not given the same rights as were given to Hindu Achhuts' [Jaswant Singh 1972: 243]. He led a march of 25 Sikhs to Delhi on October 1, 1953. The government conceded the demand and Master Tara Singh hailed the victory: morcha fateh ho gaya (the battle was won) (ibid 253). It was no problem that the Sikhs who were distinguished from Hindus (Hum Hindu Nahin), largely because they did not believe in Hindu caste system, now considered that such a distinction between the two religious communities was itself a discrimination against the Sikhs. "It may sound ironical, but this was the main contribution of the Akali leaders to the framing of India's Constitution: reverting the Sikhs to the caste hierarchy of Hindu society by giving up the first principle that sets them apart as a distinct religious community" [Kumar 1997: 410, 412].
Reservation in Management of Religious Shrines
The 'practical consideration' for reservation for the Sikh scheduled castes was not confined to the secular domain. By an amendment made in 1953 to the (Punjab) Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925, a provision was made for reservation of 20 seats for scheduled castes Sikhs out of a total of 140 elected seats in the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Further, a convention was adopted that the junior vice-president in the executive committee of the SGPC would be chosen from the scheduled castes. In the case of notified Sikh gurdwaras, not managed directly by the SGPC board, it was provided that in the five-member local managing committees, one member in each case will be chosen from the scheduled castes [Kashmir Singh 1989: 176, 182 and 188]. Representation to the scheduled castes in the management of Sikh shrines appeared to follow an affirmative principle. It also institutionalised the recognition of the lower castes in Sikh religion and in the management of religious affairs of the Sikh community. Paramjit Singh Judge, who is making a detailed study of the tape-recorded speeches delivered by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, brings to light one of the Sant's important observations. He said, "All castes are present among the Sikhs. This makes the Sikhs a separate religion/nation". [Judge 2002: 189-90].
Present Status of Dalits in Sikh Community
The green revolution added to the economic and political clout of the jat landowning class in general, while further widening social inequalities. Things could have improved had land reforms been allowed. The political clout of the richer landowning jat Sikhs ensured that the policy was squarely defeated. The jat control of leadership in Shiromani Akali Dal since 1962 added to fear and apprehension among the lower caste Sikhs. While a lot of change under the impact of dalit political assertion, social welfare measures and spread of education is visible, it has also led to more tension and conflict. The sexual exploitation of dalit women, which was considered more or less common until ten years ago is more often challenged.
Markedly different from the practice in Hindu religious temples, there is a noticeable number of mazhabi and ramdasi granthies (priests or professional readers of the holy scripture) among the Sikhs.
A more significant marker of the resistance against a sense of discrimination among the scheduled caste Sikhs is the large scale construction of separate gurdwaras by the mazhabis, Ravidasias Kabirpanthis and other caste groups, parallel to the ones controlled by the jats. In our survey of 116 villages in one tehsil of Amritsar districts 68 villages (during 2001) had separate gurdwaras of the dalits and there were separate cremation grounds for dalits in 72 villages. Jodhka, in his study of 51 villages, spread over all the three regions, reported that dalits had separate gurdwaras in as many as 41 villages and nearly two-thirds of the villages had separate cremation grounds for upper castes and dalits [Jodhka 2002: 1818, 1819]. This kind of divide has been sensitively voiced by a famous dalit Punjabi poet, Lal Singh Dil:
Mainun pyar kardiye, parjat kuriye
Saade sakey, murde vee ik thaan te nahin jalaunde
(O my beloved of the other caste, (remember) our kinsmen don't even cremate their dead at one place)
Another significant dimension of dalit search for alternative cultural spaces to overcome the experience of indiginity and humiliation is reflected in large scale movement of Sikh dalits towards a large number of deras and sects such as Radhasoami, Sacha Sauda, Dera Wadbhag Singh, Piara Singh Bhaniarawala, etc, or their turning to various other Sants, and dargahs of Muslim Pirs.
The rising incidence of atrocities on the dalits in Sikh villages is another dimension of the caste divide within the community. The underlying purpose, stated or unstated, remains one of 'teaching a lesson to the dalits'. Social boycott of the dalits in the village is another method which, has, of late, been reported more frequently than earlier.
An understanding of the distinctive pattern of caste hierarchy in Sikhism which points to a new pattern of competing hierarchies, parallel to that of the Hindus, calls for deeper insight into the dynamics of political power and economic relations both at the local and regional levels. Not looking closely at the ground level social reality may leave the impression that overall the Sikh community represents a homogeneity of castes rather than division (e g, Gurharpal Singh 2000: 85). In the explanations rooted in the primacy of ideology or culture, on the other hand, the survival of casteism ("it is very clear and open truth that the Sikh society is as casteist and racist as the Hindu society"), is sometimes regarded as a consequence of incomplete liberation of Sikhism from the stranglehold of brahminism, emphasising greater distancing of Sikhs from the Hindus [Muktsar 1999]. Interactions with the dalits in Punjab, however, reveal a pervasive tendency to view the interests of economic and political domination as the force behind caste-based humiliation, rather than ideology as the primary reality. Yet it did not mean proximity to Marxian framework of class conflict. Their solidarity and resistance against social oppression is rooted in a discreet caste category. There is need to further interrogate caste in varied settings of religion and region.