Friday, December 4

Xenophibic Punjabis versus rioting migrants




An eyewitness account of the happenings in Ludhiana on Friday, December 4 as migrants went on rampage and police assisted by locals retaliated with vengeance. The spine-chilling violence unleashed by the police aided by locals went entirely unreported in the mainstream media. Here is what I saw...


We were told migrant labourers, pejoratively called Bhaiyas here, were rioting in the industrial area in Focal Point.

At around 11.30 we reached there.

A burnt car at the Dhandari flyover and some buses and trucks smouldering with dying out fire further up, stood out as burning testimonies of what had gone there earlier in the morning. Stones lay splattered all around.

It was supposed to be a curfew clamped there. But people roamed around openly wielding lathis, axes and swords. The migrants who were supposed to be the riotous mobs were on the other side of the railway track in the thickly populated Dhandari Khurd area.

The bhaiyas were in attacking mode and local populace was holding them up, we were told.

We soon learnt what was actually going on.

It was plain and simple xenophobia manifesting itself in its ugliest form.

It was started by migrant labourers but they didn’t know what they had bargained for.

Local youth from nearby areas, with police backing them up in background, unleashed a fury, repercussions of which would be felt for long time to come.

Cornered in the village, the unarmed labourers in substantial numbers, came from different sides to pelt stones. The policemen including the officers were the first ones to run. The armed locals withstood the onslaught and retaliated. They picked those they could lay their hands upon, raining blows and lathis mercilessly. Police took over after that. Continuing with the thrashing they dragged the bleeding labourers piling them up in their vehicles.

As the beating continued media was threatened openly not to shoot or click pictures. Media, incidentally, was more than obliging.

By evening the outnumbered and outmaneuvered migrants had retreated into background.


video


-Jatinder Preet

Friday, September 11

What kind of government is this?

Here is a strange spectacle of a state finance minister telling people in media interviews about what needs to be done to revive state economy but pleads helplessness in doing it.


Yes. I am not having my way (...as Finance Minister)” he said explicitly in the interview to Ramesh Vinayak in Hindustan Times.


But what the hell is he doing in the ministry then?


The interviewer asked him that a bit more politely. “Why not opt out of the government in which you have no say?”


I don't know if that will serve any purpose,” he responded as he carried on:


  • We are short of 32,000 school teachers. (don't have Rs 300 crore to pay their salary for a year)
  • Spending Rs 4,600 crore a year on subsidies
  • A farmer is getting power for six to eight hours a day. He ends up spending Rs 2,400 a month on running a diesel pumpset.
  • Village school has no teacher and hospital has no medicine or doctor because we have no money for that.


Besides these figures reeled out by the Finmin himself here are some more to ponder:

  • 89% of farmers in state are under heavy debt.
  • In the period 2000-08, there were 2890 suicides in Sangrur andBathinda (1757 farmers and 1133 agricultural labourers)
  • Mandi Gobindgarh followed by Ludhiana are the most polluted cities in the country
  • Subsoil water of 108 blocks has been declared grey
  • Punjab farmers use 184 kg/ha of chemical fertilizers
  • State Infant mortality rate is 42 per 1000 live births
  • high prevalence of anemia among children between 6-35 months - 80.2% and pregnant women -41.6%
  • Sex ratio of only 874 (in 2001, the state ranked 27th among the 28 states of India)
  • Ranks 16th in terms of literacy among Indian States and Union Territories
  • Out of 100 children enrolled in class I, only 22 reach senior secondary level


So what do you do?

Admire the minister for his “plain-speak”?

Or, ask him to get working?

Friday, August 21

A Dalit's Car



A car parked outside Indus Groceries in Berkeley, USA, on June 25, 2009, according to Insight Young Voices Blog, a dalit youth magazine, from which this picture was taken. It is credited to Prof Shiva Shankar who forwarded this photo clicked by SK Dutt.

Tuesday, July 21

Password

After a long wait, Shameel has come up with new poetry book O Miyan, being hailed as watershed book as far as the growth of new Punjabi poetry is concerned. Though Punjabi poetry started showing new trends of thought and expression in the early years of this century, this is the first book which clearly defines the new face of Punjabi poetry. This is poetry of cosmic consciousness, different colours of divine love, philosophical questions and quest for beyond written in a refreshingly contemporary idiom. Here is one of his poems translated by Jatinder Preet


He sends every Being

With a locked heart

And leaves it's password

With someone, only One


And then

He gets them to play a game

People call it love.


One whose password is found

Is liberated

Rest keep wandering
Keep on taking births
To find their passwords

You can listen to the footsteps

Of the One, who has your password
From afar

Thousands of colourful birds
In the universe of body
Start chirping
When you come to know of his arrival


Before he arrives
His invisible being comes to you
That can be seen by birds

That One
Remains with you forever
Like spirit in body
Like sweetness in words
Like moisture in eyes

This One has mathematics of its own
Your One added with it
Doesn’t make it Two
Like zero added to a zero
Infinite with infinite

This One
Is never lost
Lives forever
Like a memory in mind
Like relaxation in the body
Like mother tongue in your voice
Like the grind of breath

Friday, June 26

East Punjab, wild west?

With a brutal forthrightness that has never been seen in the media in the region, Ramesh Vinayak, Resident Editor of Hindustan Times, takes on the issue of misgovernance in Punjab. In a crackling take on the lumpenisation of power politics in Punjab, the senior journalist dares to call the bluff of the Badals, something the obsequious media has failed to do for long.

Jis Ke Sir Upar Tun Swami, So Dukh Kaisa Pave
This divine caller tune on the mobile phone of Sarabjit Singh Makkar apparently rings aloud about his political godfathers. Otherwise, it’s inconceivable for the controversial Shiromani Akali Dal MLA to have got away with a grudging apology for his thuggish act of publicly abusing senior BJP Cabinet Minister Manoranjan Kalia that instantly plunged the ruling alliance partners into a fresh round of Tom and Jerry sparring
Having orchestrated a kiss-and-make-up ges- ture with the estranged saffron ally, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal would have the people believe that the crisis has blown over. But, this political patch-up coupled with Badal’s much-delayed piece-meal action against the Akali perpetrators of an assault on Ludhiana revenue official Major G.S. Benipal has in no way mitigated the public outrage and opprobrium that these shocking incidents on the trot have evoked across Punjab
Ironically,a huge wave of sympathy and solidarity pouring in for the Tehsildar and his credentials as an upright officer have come as the most scathing indictment of the SAD-BJP Government for its singular failure on its most basic duty: to enforce the rule of law. By their superfluous damage-control protestations,both SAD and BJP have conveniently glossed over the serious issue starkly driven home last week — lumpenisation of power politics in Punjab
While the Kalia-Makkar spat is symptomatic of the bad blood between the coalition partners despite their made-for-each-other pretensions, the strip-and-savage episode in Ludhiana has exposed the brazen audacity of rogue Akali elements, widely perceived to be cohorts and cronies of SAD president-Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. Incidentally, both incidents stemmed from the same mindset in the ruling class — indulge in lawlessness with impunity and get away with it
More shocking was the Chief Minister’s trademark procrastination. Far from taking a swift and stern action against the unruly Akalis, he came across as an indecisive ruler absolutely blasé to the gravity to both episodes. The same pusillanimity was on display during the Dera Sach Akhand blow-up last month when the state shamelessly abdicated its responsibility on enforcing the writ of law,while allowing the hordes of goons to hold the state to ransom with their wanton vandalism. That was the state government’s weird trade-off — turn a blind eye to lawlessness for the sake of peace! That it took Badal a good five days and a curt ‘sort-it-out-on-your-own’advice by the BJP high command to paper over the Kalia-Makkar spat has only bared the deepening discord between the alliance partners.The least that was expected of Badal was to suspend the wayward MLA and order an inquiry into his murky mall project in which he was armtwisting the BJP minister to extract favours
Worse,Badal put up a namby pamby response to the reprehensible Ludhiana incident,which also brought out the new depth of politicisation of the administration. Scared of taking even a normal punitive action against what they perceived as “Sukhbir’s men”, the local authorities delayed, dithered and even extended VIP treatment to the Akali attackers, waiting for instructions from the top. Which came only when the public outcry reached a crescendo. If Sukhbir, currently vacationing abroad, has come to be associated with a less than glorious brand of politics, the reasons are not far to seek. It all started in the face of Capt Amarinder Singh’s pioneering politics of vendetta in the garb of exposing the opponents’ corruption.Sukhbir only perpetuated this overly tribal politics
Desperate to fight off the Amarinder offen- sive and establish control over SAD, Sukhbir raised a phalanx of street-fighters and drumbeaters, roping in many a lupmen element.He did all this by systematically sidelining the traditional Akali stock and in the name of inducting young blood into the party. His brigade, motivated by the ‘power-at-any-cost’ credo, tasted first blood during the panchayat and civic polls,marred by blatant muscle power. Clearly, the chickens have now come home to roost
Today, Punjab’s power politics has become the first refuge of scoundrels, law-breakers and power brokers. The moneyed, the merrier
Not surprisingly, the episodic lawlessness has made it look like ‘jungle raj’in Punjab.And, the SAD-BJP government’s actions hardly inspire confidence. Instead, the alliance partners are seen to be fighting for the spoils of power. Good governance seems to be a forgotten priority
The Badal-brokered rapprochement is the beginning of new power struggle between the squabbling partners whose mutual distrust and disharmony has only become more pronounced after the Lok Sabha poll debacle.While SAD increasingly views the saffron party as a liability, the state BJP has a litany of grievances — “we are part of the government but not governance,” is the standard sulk
The BJP is no more willing to play second fiddle to SAD, which has so far treated the state BJP leadership with cavalier disdain due to Badal’s direct equation with the party high command.This,despite SAD being in power on the BJP prop.BJP’s tough stand in the Kalia episode is only a pointer to the party’s new-found assertion to extract its pound of flesh. In reality, the ruse of being “powerless”has become a fig leaf for the BJP ministers’ poor performance
Clearly, while correcting the imbalances in their power-sharing deal, both SAD and BJP have a more pressing task on hand. That is to rein in the law-breakers in their ranks.Punjab is not the wild west.The gory photograph of a stripped,horrified and bloodied Major Benipal has become the defining — and disconcerting — image of this government.It would certainly return to haunt the rulers. Sukhbir’s promise of ‘zero tolerance’ for law-breakers will on a test in the coming days. People’s patience is wearing thin faster than he could imagine from his holidaying resort abroad.

Monday, June 22

The Ravi Dasis of Punjab: Global contours of Caste and Religious Strife

Based on an empirical study of the Punjabi Ravi Dasis, the paper by Surinder S Jodhka of the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, tries to provide a historical perspective on caste and religion in Punjab today

The recent attack on two visiting religious leaders of Ravi Dasis in Vienna presumably by a group of local militant Sikhs sparked off widespread violence in towns of Punjab. Though most of the violence by Ravi Dasi dalits was directed against public property and reflected their general anger at the Vienna incident, the popular media in India was quick to interpret it as yet another instance of caste conflict within Sikhism, viz, between dalit Sikhs and upper caste Sikhs. This was not only a wrong interpretation of the unfortunate incidents of violence in Vienna and Punjab, it also misrepresented the complex realities of caste and religious identity in contemporary Punjab. Though the Ravi Dasi dalits of Punjab treat the Sikh holy book Guru Granth with reverence and their temples are also often called Gurdwaras, a large majority of them do not identify with the Sikh religion. Ravi Dasis have emerged as a strong and autonomous caste-religious community, an outcome of vibrant dalit identity movements in Punjab over the last (more than) eight decades.

Their reverence for the Guru Granth is primarily because it also contains the writings of Guru Ravi Das. Over the years Ravi Dasis have also evolved their own symbols and practices of worship, which distinguish them from the Sikhs of Punjab. While caste is certainly an important source of social dissension in Punjab and a reason for the Ravi Dasis to evolve an autonomous religious identity, they do not see their faith as being in an antagonistic relationship with contemporary Sikhism.

Drawing from my ongoing work on dalit religious movements, this paper attempts to provide a brief historical introduction to the Ravi Dasi community of Punjab and their evolving caste- religious identity. Seen in this historical context, the street violence in Punjab following the Vienna attack on 24 May 2009 leading to the death of a senior Ravi Dasi religious leader would appear more like a case of assertion of the Ravi Dasis’ political strength and a statement of their united identity than a case of caste conflict, as it has been popularly (mis)interpreted by the popular media.


Caste Numbers in colonial punjab

The religious demography of Punjab has always been very different from the country as a whole. A majority of its population (nearly 60%) identifies with Sikhism, a religion that theologically decries caste. Prior to the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947, more than half of the Punjab identified with Islam, which similarly decries caste. However, caste-based divisions and differences have been quite prominent in the region. More than one-fourth of its population has been treated as “outcaste” by the historically dominant sections of the Punjabi society. Caste was not simply an ideological reality. It also shaped land relations and conditioned entitlements and rights of communities. Dalits were invariably among the most deprived, materially, and excluded, socially and culturally.

Interestingly, of all the states of the Indian union, Punjab has the highest proportion of scheduled castes (SCs). Against the national average of around 16%, Punjab, according to the 2001 Census, had nearly 29% of its population listed as SC. The SC population in Punjab has also been growing at a rate much higher than the rest of the population. In 1971 the proportion of the SC population in the state was 24.7%. It went up to 26.9% in 1981 and further to 28.3% in 1991. However, in the following decade it grew at slower rate, adding only around 0.6 percentage points to the proportion of the SC population of the state. Another interesting feature of the SC population of the state is that its concentration is much higher in some pockets/districts of the state. In the prosperous Doaba subregion, for example, their population is over 35%, much larger than the state average. In the district of Nawanshahr in Doaba region, the SC population during the 2001Census was 40.46%.

Beginning with the early 20th century, the Punjab, particularly the eastern, or the Indian Punjab, has also been a witness to active dalit politics. The trajectory of dalit politics in Punjab can be located in the changing socio-economic and political scenario of the region after the establishment of colonial rule at the middle of the 19th century. Though British colonial rule came to Punjab late, its influence on the ground grew quite rapidly. The British established canal colonies which helped in the growth of agriculture in the region. Colonial rule also led to the development of urban centres. Jalandhar was one such town which experienced significant growth during the period after it was chosen for the setting up of a military cantonment for recruiting soldiers from the region. The colonial army provided new opportunities of employment to the children of Punjabi peasants and also opened up avenues for social mobility for a section of local dalits, particularly the Chamars who worked with leather.

The cantonment raised demand for leather goods, particularly boots and shoes for the British army. As elsewhere in the subcontinent, much of the leather trade in the region was controlled by Muslim traders. However, at the local or village level, it was the “untouchable” Chamars who supplied the raw animal skin. Some enterprising members of the caste also tried to move to the towns. Some of them were quick to exploit the new opportunities being offered to them by the changing world. Not only did they move out of the village but they also ventured out to other parts of the subcontinent and abroad, to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The social and economic mobility that some individual untouchables experienced during this period prepared grounds for political mobilisations of dalits in the region.

The introduction of representational politics by the colonial rulers also produced a new grammar of communities in India. The colonial administrative structure deployed new categories of social aggregation and classification. The British thought of their populace in terms of religious communities and looked at them accordingly in the process of governance. They “encouraged the members of each community to present their case in communitarian terms” (Grewal 1989). As is well known to students of Indian history, the colonial census and classifications of population into categories that made sense to the alien rulers played a critical role in converting the fuzzy boundaries of difference into well defined communities (Cohn 1996; Dirks 2001; Breckenridge and van der Veer 1993). Though the British came to Punjab only around the middle of 19th century, this process of new identity formations and restructuring of communities became pronounced in the region fairly early through social reform movements among the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims (Fox 1985; Oberoi 1994).

The anxiety about numbers among the neo-religious elite of the Hindus and Sikhs also had important implications for the Punjabi dalits. Through the newly launched social reform movements, the Hindu and Sikh leaders began to work with dalits. The Arya Samaj in Punjab started the shudhi movement wherein they encouraged the “untouchables” to “purify” themselves and become part of the mainstream Hinduism. It also encouraged dalits to send their children to schools being run by the Samaj. Similarly, the Sikh reformers began to decry caste publicly and it was mainly through a claim to castelessness that they argued for a distinctiveness of Sikhs from the Hindus.


Ad Dharm Movement

It was in this context that the Ad Dharm movement emerged in Punjab. Though the idea had already begun to take shape during the early 1920s, it took off only with the arrival of Mangoo Ram on the scene. Mangoo Ram was the son of an enterprising Chamar of village Mangowal of the Hoshiarpur district of Doaba subregion of Punjab. As was the case with dalits in rural Punjab during the early 19th century, his family had to bear the stigma of untouchability and social exclusion. However, his father was very enterprising and had been able to make some money through leather trade.

Like some others of his caste community, Mangoo Ram a cquired secular education in a school run by the Arya Samaj. Migrationto the west had already begun to be seen in the Doaba sub-region of Punjab as a desirable source of social and cultural mobility. His father mobilised some money and sent him to the US for better paying work. While in California, Mangoo Ram was influenced by left-wing ideas of his contemporaries from Punjab

and got involved with the Gadar movement. He came back to Punjab in 1925, motivated to work with his people. On returning home, he set up a school for lower caste children with the help of the Arya Samaj, but very soon distanced himself from the Samaj and joined hands with some other members of his community who were trying to initiate an autonomous identity movement among the local dalits.


The Ad Dharm movement saw itself as a religious movement.

Its proponents advocated that the “untouchables” were a separate qaum, a distinct religious community similar to the Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, and should be treated as such by the rulers.Invoking the then popular “racial-origin” theories of caste, they argued that Ad Dharm has always been the religion of the dalits and that the qaum had existed from time immemorial. Despite stiff opposition from the local Hindu leadership, the colonial Census of 1931 listed the Ad Dharmis as a separate religious community. In the very first conference of the organisation, they declared:

We are not Hindus. We strongly request the government not to list us as such in the census. Our faith is not Hindu but Ad Dharm. We are not a part of Hinduism, and Hindus are not a part of us.

The emphasis on Ad Dharm being a separate religion, a qaum, was to undermine the identity of caste. As a separate qaum, Ad Dharmis were equal to other qaums recognised by the colonial state, the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Mangoo Ram also expected to bring other untouchable communities into the fold of Ad Dharm and emerge as a viable community at the regional level.

A total of 4,18,789 persons reported themselves as Ad Dharmis in the 1931 Punjab Census, almost equal to the Christian populace of the province. They accounted for about 1.5% of the total population of Punjab and around a tenth of the total low-caste population of the province. Nearly 80% of the low castes of Jallandhar and Hoshiarpur districts reported themselves as Ad Dharmis.

The Ad Dharm movement succeeded in mobilising the Chamars of the Doaba region and in instilling a new sense of confidence in them. The Ad Dharmis are today among the most prosperous and educated of the dalit communities of the country and far ahead of other dalit communities of Punjab.

However, despite its success, the movement could not maintain its momentum for very long and began to dissipate soon after its grand success in 1931. According to the popular understanding, the causes of the decline of Ad Dharm movement lay in its success. Its leaders joined mainstream politics.Mangoo Ram himself, along with some of his close comrades, became members of the Punjab Legislative Assembly. The caste issue was gradually taken over by the emerging pan-Indian movement of the dalits and it

finally merged with it. The Ad Dharm Mandal began to see itself as a social and religious organisation and in 1946 decided to change its name to Ravi Das Mandal, “entrusting the political work to All India Scheduled Castes Federation in conformity with rest of India”.


From ad Dharm to Ravi Dasi

A closer understanding of the Ad Dharm case would require a critical look at the evolution of Indian state, and the manner in which it dealt with caste and religion. The beginning of the decline of the Ad Dharm movement can perhaps be located in the famous Poona Pact of 1932 between Gandhi and Ambedkar and the formation of Scheduled List in the Government of India Act 1935. The clubbing of the SCs with the Hindus left no choice for the Ad Dharm movement in Punjab but to accept the nationalist and official mode of classification. They had to either forgo the benefits of “reservations” or claim a separate religious identity. Given the socio-economic status of the community at that time they chose the former and reconciled to a softer approach to the latter. As a senior dalit activist explained to us:

Ad Dharm lost its meaning after we got eight seats reserved for us when the elections were first held in the province. Our candidates won from seven of the eight seats. Mangoo Ram too was elected to the Assembly during the next election in the year 1945-46.

Another activist put it more emphatically:

In 1931 we were recognised as a separate religion by the colonial census but by the Act of 1935 we became one of the scheduled castes, one among others in the same category. Communal award had recognized our autonomy, which had to be surrendered by B R Ambedkar under the Poona Pact. Under the Poona Pact we were given reservations but only if accepted to be part of the Hindu religion. ...However, even though we legally became a part of Hinduism, it did not stop discrimination against us. Even now it continues though it is less pronounced and more subtle.

Though most of our dalit respondents remembered the Ad Dharm movement with a sense of pride and some of them also regretted its decline, we did not observe any kind of strong feeling for the movement or resentment among the Ad Dharmis at being clubbed with the Hindu religion. Neither could we locate any writings by its erstwhile leaders expressing distress/anger at its decline or attributing it to conspiracies. The Ad Dharm movement and its leaders were perhaps also swayed by the mainstream or dominant politics of the time, ie, the freedom movement and its hegemonic influence. As one of our respondents, who is currently president of the Ravi Dasi Trust, said to us:

…at one time Ad Dharm movement was very popular in Punjab. However, slowly, with growing influence of Congress politics, its leaders started leaving. Master Balwanta Sing was the first to leave Ad Dharm Mandal. He joined the Congress Party. Similarly some other leaders also left the movement to become part of the mainstream national politics. Eventually even Mangoo Ram joined the Congress Party. The movement was over.

Those with more radical views on the dalit question were swayed by B R Ambedkar and joined the Republican Party of India (RPI) and the Scheduled Castes Federation, both set up by B R Ambedkar. Some of them eventually turned to Buddhism for spiritual autonomy and religious identity.

Equally important for its decline is perhaps the fact that though Ad Dharm articulated itself as a religious identity and demanded official recognition as a religious movement, it was essentially a political movement. As a prominent member of the community told us during an interview:

It had no holy book or scripture of its own, it had no rituals of its own, it had no pilgrimage places, or sacred symbols…. How could it have survived as a religion?

While the identity of Ad Dharmi simply became a designation of a Hindu caste group for official classification, the Chamars of Doaba did not really go back to Hinduism. They began to develop their autonomous religious resources under the identity of Ravi Dasis.

Ravi Dasi identity s mentioned earlier, it was, in fact, during the Ad Dharm movement that the Ravi Dasi identity had begun to take shape. Leaders of the movement also saw Ravi Dasi identity as their own resource. Long after dissolving the Ad Dharm Mandal and being in retirement for many years, Mangoo Ram summed up the achievement of the Ad Dharm movement in an interview with Mark Juergensmeyer in 1971 where his focus was more on having given the local dalits a new community and religious identity than their political empowerment:

We helped give them a better life and made them into a qaum. We gave them gurus to believe in and something to hope for.

After having changed its name to Ravi Das Mandal in 1946, the movement activists shifted their focus to social and religious matters. They had realised long ago that in order to consolidate themselves as a separate qaum, they needed a religious system of their own, which was different from the Hindus and Sikhs. However, in order to do that they chose a caste-based religious identity:

Chamar = Ad Dharmi = Ravi Dasi.

Even though during its early days the Ad Dharm movement had aspired to bring all the “ex-untouchable” communities together into the new faith, their appeal had remained confined mostly to the Chamars of Doaba. After its listing as one of the SCs in the Scheduled List, it became obvious and official that Ad Dharmis were a section of the Chamars. Guru Ravi Das appeared to be an obvious choice for the Ad Dharmis as a religious symbol for the community. Though he was born in Uttar Pradesh, he belonged to the Chamar caste. The fact that his writings were included in the Sikh holy book, Adi Granth, which had been compiled in Punjab and was written in the local language, made Ravi Das even more effective and acceptable.

Thus the Ad Dharm movement played a very important role in developing an autonomous political identity and consciousness among the Chamar dalits of Punjab and its renaming itself as a religious body, Ravi Das Mandal in 1946, was an important turning point in the history of dalit movements of Punjab. However, it is important to mention here that the Ravi Dasi religious identity had already begun to take shape, independently of the Ad Dharm movement in the region. In fact, some of the Ravi Dasi deras had, in fact, played an active role in the late 1920 when Mangoo Ram was campaigning for separate religious status for Ad Dharmis. Mangoo Ram often visited the Ravi Dasi deras during his campaign.

Interestingly, even when the community reconciled itself to the idea of being clubbed with Hindu SCs for census enumerations, the identity of being Ad Dharmis continued to be important for them. As many as 14.9% (5,32,129) of the 70,28,723 SCs of Punjab were listed as Ad Dharmis in the 2001 Census, substantially more than those who registered themselves as belonging to the Ad Dharmi qaum in 1931. In religious terms, as many as 59.9% of the Punjab SCs enumerated themselves as Sikhs and 39.6% Hindus. Only 0.5% declared their religion as Buddhism.

However, notwithstanding this official classification of all SCs into the mainstream religions of the region, everyday religious life of the Punjab dalits is marked by enormous diversity and plurality. Apart from the popular syncretic religious traditions that have been in existence for a long time in the region, the dalits of Punjab, and elsewhere in India, have also developed an urge for autonomous faith identities, particularly for getting out of Hinduism. They view Hinduism as the source of their humiliating social position in the caste system. This urge became much stronger with the emergence of a nascent educated middle class among them during the later phase of British colonial rule. The Ad Dharm movement of 1920s (discussed above) was a clear example of this.

Historically, dalits have chosen two different paths to this move away from Hindusim. The first of these was conversion to other religions such as Christianity, Islam or Sikhism, which do not theologically support caste-based inequalities and divisions.

The second path has been to look for indigenous egalitarian faith traditions that emerged in opposition to the system of caste hierarchy. The Ravi Dasi movement can be seen as an example of this path.


Guru Ravi Das

Ravi Das was born sometime in 1450 AD in the north Indian town of Banaras in an “untouchable” caste, the Chamars and died in 1520 according to Omvedt. Like many of his contemporaries, he travelled extensively and had religious dialogues with saint poets in different parts of the north India. Over time he acquired the status of a saint. However, his claims to religious authority were frequently challenged by the local brahmins who complained against his “sacrilegious behaviour” to the local rulers.

His followers believe that every time the king summoned Ravi Das, he managed to convince the political authorities about his genuine “spiritual powers” through various miraculous acts. He is believed to have also visited Punjab and met with Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith, at least thrice. He also gave most of his writings to Guru Nanak, which eventually became part of the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth.

Though historians of Indian religions tend to club Ravi Das with the Bhakti movement, a pan Indian devotional cult, his ideas appear to be quite radical. He built his own utopia, a vision of an alternative society, articulated in his hymn “Begumpura”, a city without sorrows, “where there will be no distress, no tax, no restriction from going and coming, no fear”. It is worth presenting the English translation of the poem:

The regal realm with the sorrowless name:

they call it Begumpura, a place with no pain,

No taxes or cares, nor own property there,

no wrongdoing, worry, terror or torture.

Oh my brother, I have come to take it as my own,

my distant home, where everything is right.

That imperial kingdom is rich and secure,

where none are third or second – all are one;

Its food and drink are famous, and those who live there

dwell in satisfaction and in wealth.

They do this or that, they walk where they wish,

they stroll through fabled places unchallenged.

Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,

those who walk beside me are my friends.

– (Hawley and Juergensmeyer 1988: 32)

As is evident from the poem he is not simply talking about his love for god and his limitless devotion. His utopia is quite “this worldly”, aspiring for a life without pain and not emphasising on “other worldly” peace or moksha. Equally important is the fact that his message is constructed by his contemporary followers in quite a modernist language where question of caste oppression and his fight against the prevailing structures of authority and brahmanical modal order is foregrounded. Writing on the social milieu in which he was born, his biographer Sat Pal Jassi writes:

Since the advent of Vedic Age, caste system and untouchability have been prevalent in India. In passage of time, the socio-religious inhibitions became more strict and cruel. The untouchables were given an ignoble place. They were debarred from acquiring knowledge, own property and worship of God…. These conditions prevailed in India for more than 3,000 years.

It was in this “degenerated environment” that Ravi Das was born. What did he preach and propagate? Jassi continues:

He was a protagonist of equality, oneness of God, human rights and universal brotherhood….He was a suave socio-religious reformer, a thinker, a theosophist, a humanist, a poet, a traveller, a pacifist and above all a towering spiritual figure… He was a pioneer of socialistic thought and strengthened noble values.

Ravi Das’ utopia was also significantly different from some of the later writings on “a desirable India” produced by people like Gandhi. As Gail Omvedt rightly comments, Ravi Das…was the first to formulate an Indian version of utopia in his song “Begumpura”. Begumpura, the ‘city without sorrow’, is a casteless, classless society; a modern society, one without a mention of temples; an urban society as contrasted with Gandhi’s village utopia of Ram Rjaya…..

Though born in a dalit family, Ravi Das indeed became a part of the larger movement of protest against the brahmanical control over the social and religious life of the people and was a ccepted as a leader across the entire region. His identification with Guru Nanak, who was from an upper caste, clearly proves this point. As mentioned above, Guru Nanak added 40 of his hymns and one couplet into his collection of important writings of the times, which were eventually compiled into the Adi Granth by the fifth Sikh Guru.

It is perhaps this connection with Guru Nanak and Sikhism that explains the emergence of major centres of Ravi Das in Punjab, and not in Uttar Pradesh, where he was born.

Ravi Dasis Today

Though the message of Ravi Das had been integrated into the Sikh holy book and was routinely read and sung at the Sikh Gurdwaras as part of the gurbani (religious singing), it was only in the early years of the 20th century that separate Ravi Dasi deras began to emerge in Punjab. The reason for this sudden mushrooming of Ravi Dasi deras can perhaps be found in the growing prosperity of Chamars in the region after the British set up a cantonment in Jalandhar. Reform movements among the majorreligious communities of the Muslims, Hindus and the Sikhs would have also played a role in opening-up of opportunities for secular education among them.

Perhaps the most important of the Guru Ravi Das deras in Punjab today is the dera located in village Ballan, around 10 km from the town of Jalandhar. It is locally known as Dera Sachkhand Ballan. Though the Dera was set up by Sant Pipal Dass sometime during the early 20th century, it is identified more with his son, Sant Sarwan Dass. In fact, among its followers, it is also known as

Dera Sant Sarwan Dass. As per the popular myth narrated to us by various respondents during the field work, which we also found in published leaflets, the history of the dera goes like this:

Sant Sarwan Dass was born in a village called Gill Patti in Bhatinda district of Punjab. He lost his mother when he was five years old. To help his son overcome the loss, his father, Pipal Dass, decided to travel with him. After visiting a few places, they came to village Ballan. The elder brother of Sarwan Dass had earlier lived in the same village. On the outskirts of the village Ballan, they found a Pipal tree that was completely dry and dead. However, when Pipal Dass watered the tree, life returned to it and its leaves turned green. This, for him, was an indication of the place being spiritually blessed. The tree also made the child Sarwan Dass happy. The father and son decided to build a hut close to the tree and began to live there.

After the death of his father in 1928, Sant Sarwan Dass expanded his activities. He opened a school and started teaching Gurumukhi and the message of Guru Granth to young children. He also persuaded his followers to send their children to the school. “Parents who did not educate their children were their enemies”, he used to tell to

his followers.

Impressed with the work that Sant Sarwan Dass was doing in the village, a local landlord gifted him one kanal (about one-fifthof an acre) of land close to the hut, where the dera building was eventually constructed. Sarwan Dass remained head of the dera from 11 October 1928 until he died in June 1972. He was succeded by Sant Hari Dass and Sant Garib Dass. The dera is currently headed by Sant Niranjan Dass.

Though Dera Ballan is a religious centre with a focus on preaching universalistic values and spirituality, it actively identifies itself with local dalit issues and dalit politics. Not only do they foreground Ravi Das’ message of building a casteless society, they have also been actively identified with dalit activism.

Sant Sarwan Dass kept in active touch with Mangoo Ram during the Ad Dharm movement and Mangoo Ram too visited the dera to communicate his message to dalit masses of the region.

During one of his visit to Delhi, he also met B R Ambedkar, who “showed great respect to Sant Sarwan Dass Ji”. In one of his letters to Ambedkar, Sant Sarwan Dass described him as “a great son of the community”.

In the emerging national context, the dalit political leadership had begun to connect itself across regions. This ambition was not confined to dalit political activists but could be also seen in the efforts of religious gurus like Sant Sarwan Dass.

The message of Ravi Das had thus far reached the Punjabi dalits primarily through the Sikh Holy Scripture, the Guru Granth. However, the religious institutions of Sikhism were mostly controlled by “upper castes” among them. The continued presence of caste differences and hierarchy in the region made Sant Sarwan Dass look for internal resources, within the caste community, for further expansion of the dera activities. Ravi Das was the obvious symbol for the Chamar dalits for building a community of believers.

Having established a separate religious centre in Punjab Sant Sarwan Dass decided to travel to Banaras in 1950, hoping to visit the shrine at the birth place of his Guru, Guru Ravi Das. However, to his surprise and disappointment, he could not find any shrine or place in his name. Nothing existed in the name Guru Ravi Das in the holy city of Banaras. He took it upon himself the task of building a temple in the name of Ravi Das in the city. With the help of his followers at the Dera Ballan, he purchased a piece of land on the outskirts of Banaras where on 16 June 1965 he laid the foundation stone of the Ravi Das temple. The first phase of construction of this temple was completed in the year 1972.

Though the leaders were excited about building the Ravi Das temple in Banaras, the disciples, who are mostly from Punjab, were apprehensive. How were they going to visit Banaras?

“When the subject came up for discussion with the Sant Sarwan Das Ji, he said we will hire a special train which will go all the way from Jalandhar to Banaras once every year, at the time of the birth anniversary of Ravi Das. This train will be called Begampura Express.”

Dera Ballan has continued to be an important centre of dalit political activity in Punjab. Leaders, writers and intellectuals of the community often meet at the dera and discuss emerging political and cultural challenges before the community of Ravi Dasis. Kanshi Ram, another leader of dalits of north India, who belonged to Punjab and was born in a Ravi Dasi family was a frequent visitor to the dera. He did so not only to pay his respect to the dera chief but also to discuss strategies with other leaders of the community for making dalit politics more effective.

The Diaspora effect

The second, and perhaps more important and interesting, phase in the history of Ravi Das movement in Punjab begins during the 1990s, with the phase of globalisation. Along with other Punjabis, a large number of Chamars of the Doaba region had migrated to countries of the western hemisphere during the 1950s and 1960s.

Though there are no exact figures available, but quoting the Indian consular office, Juergenmeyer claims that in the United Kingdom “the percentage of scheduled castes within the total Punjabi community was as high as 10%. The rest were largely Jat Sikhs”.

In the alien context, with no systemic justification for caste ideology, the Punjabi dalits did not expect to be reminded of their “low” status in the caste hierarchy. While they did not have any such problem at the workplace and in the urban public sphere in UK, they often experienced caste prejudice when they tried to be part of the local Punjabi community in the diaspora.

Juergensmeyer sums this up quite well in the following words:

The Chamars, who came to Britain expecting to find life different, take offence at the upper caste Sikhs’ attitude towards them. They earn as much as the Jat Sikhs, sometimes more, and occasionally find themselves placed by the British in command over them – a Chamar foreman superintending a Jat Sikh work crew – much to the displeasure of the latter…The scheduled castes can afford to act more bravely in Britain since they have now entered a new context for competing with the Jat Sikhs. In the Punjab the cards were stacked against them, but in Britain they have a fresh start, and the ideology of Ad Dharm has prepared them to take advantage of it.

The migrant dalits felt this bias in the gurdwaras which were mostly controlled by the Jats and other upper caste Sikhs. Given their numbers and position in the local economy dalits did not find it difficult to assert for equal status and dignity. They began to set up their own autonomous associations in the name of Guru Ravi Das. The first two came up in the UK, in Birmingham and Wolverhampton, in 1956 (ibid: 248). While initially, over the first 20-25 years of their migration, they simply built their own community organisations and separate gurdwaras wherever they could, over the years they also began to influence the “homeland”.

The growing availability of new communication channels such as internet and satellite television during the early/mid-1990s made it easier for them to renew an active relationship with Punjab and the Ravi Dasi community at home.

By the early 1990s, diaspora dalits had also experienced considerable economic mobility, which made it easier for them to travel back home and they began to do so more frequently. When they came, they also brought with them money for the religious deras and this new money and diasporic energy played a very important role in the further growth of the movement. This was summed up well by a dalit businessman who has been involved in mobilising the Ravi Dasi sants into a pan-Indian association:

It is the brethren from the west who first understood the value of our deras and the need to strengthen them. They gave huge donations when they came to pay a visit. The number of visitors from abroad and frequency of their visits also increased during the 1990s. They invited the local Sants to their countries. All this gave a boost to the Ravi Dasi movement.

Over the last 15 years or so, the dera at Ballan has expanded significantly. A new building was inaugurated in 2007 where nearly 20,000 people could be accommodated to listen to the teachings of Guru Ravi Das. It has a langar hall where 2,000 people can eat together. Among other things, this hall has the technology for live telecast and recording of VCDs. In collaboration with the Jalandhar channel of Doordarshan it telecasts a programme called Amrit Bani every Friday and Saturday morning.

Not only has Dera Ballan expanded over the years, deras, gurdwaras and temples in the name of Guru Ravi Das have flourished in Punjab, particularly in the Doaba region where Ad Dharmis and Chamars have been numerically predominant among the dalits. We were told that there are some six or seven major sants who can be considered as leaders of the community and more than 250 deras/gurdwaras in the name of Guru Ravi Das in the state of Punjab. Some of these deras have become quite affluent and influential. However, they are all patronised exclusively by the local Chamars and Ad Dharmis.


Conclusions

Despite the cultural influence of Islam and Sikhism, caste has survived in Punjab and has worked as a disabling institution for those located at the margins of Punjabi society, the dalits. However, over the years caste relations have undergone some major changes. Not only has the ideological hold of caste nearly disappeared, structurally also dalits have moved away from tradition-based caste occupations, and in some regions, even from the local agrarian economy. Their growing economic autonomy also finds its expression in their urge for cultural and religious autonomy.

Though as a religious system Sikhism is opposed to caste-based divisions and denials, its social and religious institutions have come to be dominated by the traditionally and economically dominant caste groups. It is in opposition to this dominance that Ravi Dasis have tried to carve out an autonomous identity for themselves. Though nearly half of all the dalits of Punjab enumerate themselves as Sikhs and some of them have risen to positions of power within the religious establishment, the Ravi Dasis prefer to be outside. However, Ravi Dasi gurus maintain cordial relations with the Sikh religious leadership and some would even claim to be Sahajdari Sikhs. A large majority of the Ravi Dasis of Doaba region identify with Dera Sachkhand Ballan. To them the Guru Granth is sacred but they equally respect their living guru.

Their places of worship look like the Sikh gurdwaras and are sometimes also called as such but there are subtle differences. Their prayers, rituals and slogans too sound quite similar to those of the Sikhs but with subtle changes to distinguish themselves from mainstream Sikhism, which is by now a well-codified religious system in itself. A large majority of Ravi Dasis in Punjab also list themselves as Ad Dharmis, technically Hindu SCs who always wanted to organise themselves as a separate religious community.

The contemporary realities of caste and religion also raise some other, perhaps more fundamental, questions about the way we have understood and conceptualised the processes of social change in modern times. Historians have been emphasizing that the fuzzy boundaries that existed across communities in south Asia were made more concrete during the later years of colonial rule. However, on the ground, at the popular level, religious practice continues to be characterised by syncretic fuzziness and diversity. It is perhaps the failure to comprehend and accept this fluidity and diversity that on the one hand leads to violent conflicts as it happened in Vienna, and on the other hand to misleading interpretations of public action, as the popular media did after the violence in Punjab during the second half of May 2009.

(The paper has emerged out of the work being done for the Religions and Development Research Programme of the University of Birmingham, funded by Department for International Development)

Saturday, June 20

Dalits and the Emancipatory Sikh Religion

Theoretically and theologically characterized as ‘emancipatory’ Sikhism has failed in practice to do away with the caste prejudices. Raj Kumar Hans from History department of MS University of Baroda examines

Dalits constitute about 30 per cent of Punjab population that happens to be largest propor¬tion in the country, when compared with other provinces, but they occupy the lowest share in the ownership of land (2.34 per cent of the cultivated area). Mazhbis and Ramdasias, the two dalit castes among the Sikhs, particularly the Mazhbis, remain the most deprived. Evidence of untouchability against dalit Sikhs is well established. They have been forced to live in separate settlements, contemptuously called ‘thhathhis’ or ‘chamarlees’, located on the western side and away from the main body of the villages. All the Sikh organisations from Sikh temples to the political party are under the control of the Jatt Sikhs. The Jatt Sikhs refuse to consider them equals even after death, by disallowing cremation of their dead in the main cremation ground of the village. Over the years such harsh caste attitude has forced the dalits to es¬tablish separate gurdwaras, marriage places and cremation grounds. This seems to be the biggest paradox of Sikhism which theoretically and theologically has been characterized as ‘emancipatory’ and even sociologically as ‘revolutionary’. In its true egalitarian spirit, Sikhism had succeeded in integrating the lowliest of the low, the former untouchables, the dalits, into its fold.
From dalits’ perspective the evolution of Sikhism can be seen in two phases: a) from seventeenth century to Ranjit Singh’s rule, when dalits played remarkable role in Sikh political struggles and religious movements; b) post-Ranjit Singh phase, when Brahmanical values and attitudes resurfaced with caste and untouchability afflicting the Sikh body politic in such a way that there was danger of its re-absorption into Hinduism. Though dominant literary tradition has denied the significance of ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ in Sikhism, it has also ignored and neglected the dalit contribution to the flourishing of Sikhism in the first phase. The rise in consciousness in the twentieth century has enabled the Dalits to raise questions on the dominant historigraphical praxis by attempting to recover the lost ground. The paper would first look at the modern moment, the rise in the dalit consciousness as manifest in Dalit creative writings. In seeking an answer to as to what made the powerful Sikh movement drift the paper would look at the ‘brahmanisation’ of Sikhism in the nineteenth century with ominous implications for dalits as well as for Sikhism.

I
Dalit consciousness begins with the cerebral activities and is best reflected in the literary expressions. It is important how in the dalit literary writings, ‘being a Sikh’ has taken a precedent over ‘being a dalit’ till the mid-twentieth century. It is only when the caste discrimination and untouchability within Sikhism came to be seen by Dalits from either the socialist angle or from Ambedkar’s perspective that a new process of looking at the self begins. Our first three dalit poets had subsumed their dalit identity in the broader ‘Sikh’ identity.

Bhai Jaita (d. 1705), who was rechristened by Guru Gobind Singh as Jeevan Singh in 1699, happens to be the first dalit poet from Punjab. Earlier, young Gobind Singh was overwhelmed with emotions and had embraced Bhai Jaita when the latter had brought the severed head of Guru Tegh Bahadar under the most violent circumstances from Delhi to Anandpur in 1675 and called him ‘Ranghrete Guru ke Bete’ (Ranghrete, the untouchables, are guru’s own sons). Jaita had turned out to be a fearless and daring Sikh warrior who had endeared himself so much to the Tenth Guru that he was declared as the ‘Panjwan Sahibjada’ (Fifth Son) in addition to his own four sahibjadas. He was killed in a fierce battle with Mughal armies in 1705. Even though he is now given some space in the Sikh iconography, it is hardly known or acknowledged that he was also a scholar poet. He had composed a long poem ‘Sri Gur Katha’ which is an eyewitness account of important events surrounding Guru Gobind Singh. It is worth noting that this composition has eluded the notice of scholars of Sikh literature and history whose efforts to unearth the literature and materials pertaining to the Sikh tradition is otherwise remarkable. The way Bhai Jaita had been integrated not only in Sikh religion but also in the family of Guru Gobind Singh, it is understandable any other identity would have been meaningless to him. His identity as Ranghreta has been subsumed by his identity as a Sikh as he says:
Jayayte taranhar gur, taar diye ranghretde
Gur paras ne kar diye, ranghrete gur betde
(O! Jaite the savior guru has saved the ranghretas
The pure guru has adopted ranghretas as his sons)

Our second dalit poet and writer is Ditt Singh Giani (1852-1901). About the age of 17, he shifted to the main Gulabdasi centre at Chathianwala, near Kasur, in Lahore district. It was here that he composed his first two books of poetry; the love-lore Shirin Farhad in the established Punjabi genre kissa and Abla Nind. Not long afterwards, under the influence of Jawahir Singh, formerly a follower of Gulabdasi sect, he joined the Arya Samaj. But after entering into dialogue with Swami Daya Nand on his visit to Lahore in 1877, he was drawn into the Sikh fold by Bhai Gurmukh Singh, then an active figure in the Singh Sabha movement. Ditt Singh’s scholarly talents came in handy for the Sikh movement. Lahore Singh Sabha floated a weekly newspaper, the Khalsa Akhbar in 1886. He assumed editorship of the paper in 1887 that he continued till his death in 1901. Meanwhile, he was also appointed as a professor of Punjabi at the Oriental College. To Bhagat Lakshman Singh, erudite Sikh educationist and reformer, “Bhai Dit Singh Gyani wielded a powerful pen and was a literary giant.” He wrote more than fifty books and pamphlets on wide-ranging subjects, from love-lore to Sikh traditions, from history to ethics, from heroes to charlatans as he also produced polemics. Even being a leader in the limelight he could not escape the overt and covert assault of untouchability from his fellow and follower Sikhs. And it seems despite being reminded that he belonged to an untouchable family he was suffused with Sikh consciousnesses.

Our third such dalit poet Sadhu Daya Singh Arif (1894-1946) was born in a landless Mazhbi Sikh family of Firozepur district. Contrary to the material as well as cultural condition, Daya Singh developed a keen interest in learning letters as a child for which his father Santa Singh threw him out of family on former’s persistence against several warnings by the latter. Living independently, Daya Singh was absorbed in reading and contemplation. After learning Gurmukhi and studying the Adi Granth, he learnt Urdu from a local teacher in his village madrassa Maulvi Ibrahim and Persian from Sunder Singh Patwari and Master Munshi Ram Khatri. The desire to learn about Islam led him to the local Sufi scholar Shadi Khan who laid a condition of accepting Islam if he wanted to learn the Quran. Daya Singh agreed on the condition that he would do so after the education if he finds Islam superior to Sikhism in principles and ideas. The result was that Daya Singh emerged as a sound scholar of Arabic, Persian and the Quran. Learning Sanskrit from Baba Sawan Das who lived at Dharamkot was not very difficult as the Sanskritist was bowled over by Daya Singh’s knowledge in religious studies. He studied Vedanta from Baba Sawan Das’ younger brother Baba Prabhati Das who had studied Vedas at Kashi for 10 years. After gaining insights into the theological aspects of religion, he turned to the secular literature of Punjab especially the kissas. Passionate readings of series of works on traditional Punjabi love-lore seem to have ignited his creative potential. His first poetical work Fanah-dar-Makan was published when he was 20. The work which made Daya Singh a household name through the width and breadth of Punjab was Zindagi Bilas completed when he turned 22. It is in this work where his vast religious, spiritual and secular knowledge is manifest. It is moving didactic poetry that caught imagination of masses which became the most read or heard poetic creation next only to Waris Shah’s ‘Heer’. Sadhu Daya Singh wrote his next major published poetic work Sputtar Bilas in 1922. Written in the same genre, this is also a didactic work of great aesthetic value addressed as it is to his eldest son Kultar Singh. This is also said to have been printed in hundreds of thousands of copies.

Daya Singh succeeds in reinforcing the moral thrust of the medieval spiritual saints in a fast changing objective reality when there was a rise in the acquisitive tendencies irrespective of the means adopted. His introverted self made him seek answers in the subjective human makeup rather than in the objective material conditions. He was well grounded in the philosophy of Advaita-Vedanta. He moves from particular to the general, quintessential human life. Daya Singh’s poetry is free from any kind of sectarianism and is thoroughly secular in the prevailing communal environment. He not only produces good poetry but emerges as an intellectual of his age. But soon after he turned to composing poetic material for the Sikh traditions, legends and anecdotes which he would render as a kavishar in a jatha (band) that he had formed for this purpose. This was also his material need; after settling down as a family person, with five sons and a daughter, to run the family unit he found the vocation that he was best at, composing and singing at religious and other popular festivals. He excelled in this art as well; travelling across Punjab with his band earned him so much popularity that he was invited by Sikhs settled in Malaya and other parts of South-East Asia in 1929. After his coming back to Punjab, he is said to have played some role in the political developments as a representative of Mazhbi Sikhs. At the time of 1937 formation of provincial ministries, the untouchables were to be enlisted separately in the voters’ lists but Sadhu Daya Singh along with other Mazhbi Sikh leaders had refused this separation saying they were Sikhs and there was no ‘caste’ in Sikhism.
Gurdas Ram Aalam (1912-1989), who was born in a poor Dalit family of Bundala village in Jallandhar district, happens to be the first Punjabi poet with dalit consciousness. Aalam was not able to go to school and learnt basic Gurmukhi letters from his friends. Even though illiterate, Aalam had emerged as one of popular folk-poets of stage before the partition. All the four books of his poems were full of social and economic issues of the deprived and oppressed caste-communities. On political and social issues, Aalam wrote like a revolutionary. No wonder, even Pash (who has become symbol of Punjabi revolutionary poetry) considered Aalam the first revolutionary poet of Punjab. A few lines from his poem ‘Achchut’ where the untouchable cries about his chronic ailment to which the Pandit, Maulavi, Bhai (Sikh preacher), pastor and Congressman prescribe for him their respective religious and political solutions and finally the poet offers his:
O! the untouchable, open your eyes and see
I will write a prescription that I have stolen
Possess three things: strength, unity and education
And don’t bother about anyone else
Faith here is made of SHOES and religion of STAVES
Caste too is of SHOES, of force
None is high nor is one low here
Untouchability is nothing but your weakness
You are as human as others are
Differences are because of vested interests
Temples and mosques are traps, O! Alam
Fools like you are trapped

In his poem ‘Ulahma’ (Complain) he gives a call to his ‘dalit brother’:
Rise, O Dalit brother, why are you wasting your time
Only you have to do your work, whether today or tomorrow
Your neighbours have moved ahead while you are happy left behind
You are human like them, if you are one, be ashamed

Alam had his poems ‘Inqlabi Aagu’ (Revolutionary Leader) on Bhagat Ravi Das, ‘Dr Ambedkar’, ‘Mandi’ (Market) and several others which directly address the dalit issues.


Hazara Singh Mushtaq (1917-1981) was different from his predecessor dalit poets. He was an ardent nationalist, flag-bearer of Indian National Congress and was also jailed a few times during the late-colonial rule for his nationalism. Of his seven books published, Kissa Mazhbi Sikh Jodha (1955) directly reflected his dalit concerns. Though he does not chide ‘Independence’ in the context of the poor dalits like Aalam, he expresses his disillusionment with the post-Independence developments, brings in socialist ideology to disparage the social and economic disparities, and calls the dalits for a revolutionary rise in his 1977 Noori Gazal.

The revolutionary rise that Punjab witnessed in the form of Naxalism in the late 1960s produced two dalit poets with revolutionary as well as dalit consciousness. These were Sant Ram Udasi (1939-1986) and Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007). Sant Ram Udasi was born in a dalit Mazhbi Sikh landless labour family. He grew up with a strong dalit consciousness and had tried to see dignity in Sikh religion, but soon he experienced how caste discrimination and untouchability present in the Sikh religion. During 1970s he emerged as one of the powerful radical poets and published three books of poetry, viz. Lahu Bhije Bol (Blood-soaked Word), Saintan (Gestures) and Chounukrian (the Four-edged). Another dalit Naxalite poet Lal Singh Dil was born in a Ramdasia Sikh (Chamar) family in 1943. He was training to be a basic school teacher when Naxalbari sucked him in. In the dream of a society free of caste and class, Dil saw a new dawn for the oppressed. Dil was a sensitive poet and his poetry was true to life and the experience of poverty, injustice and oppression was so real and told so well that he was hailed as the bard of the Naxalite movement in Punjab. A great poet he was undoubtedly, and his collection of poetry Satluj di Hava (1971), Bahut Saare Suraj (1982), and Sathar (1997) as well as his autobiography, Dastaan (1998), enjoy an exalted place in Punjabi letters. It is remarkable that Dil’s Dalit consciousness and identity was free from feelings of hatred, vengeance and malice. Dil has come to be acknowledged as the one of the few best poets of last half a century. Both of them were arrested, incarcerated and tortured, more tortured because they came from dalit families while thier tormentors belonged to the dominant high castes.

The two powerful revolutionary dalit poets were an upsurge on the Punjabi literary stage which had remained dominated by the upper-caste, upper-class litterateurs and they became a major source for the bursting of dalit literary energy in 1990s. If their poetry was looking for a revolutionary class change, it had the vivacity of dalit identity which was capable of challenging the hegemonic discourses. Sukhdev Singh Sirsa puts this change in perspective:
The question of dalit identity has given a new ideological context to the contemporary Punjabi literature. The new Punjabi poetry has given a new expression to the dalit concerns of existential and social identity. This new perspective disentangles itself from the class-conflict approach to the understanding of dalit identity in the varna system and looks at the changing dalit philosophy. Hence, this poetry does not only reject the established assumptions and hypotheses but also produces an alternative.

Contemporary poets include Balbir Madhopuri, Siri Ram Arsh, Sulakhan Mit, Gurmeet Kalarmajri, Madan Vira, Manjit Kadar, Bhagwan Dhilon, Buta Singh Ashant, Dr Manmohan, Mohan Tyagi, Mohan Matialvi, Jaipal, Iqbal Gharu, Harnek Kaler, Sadhu Singh Shudrak. They are no-more shy in accepting their dalit identity as the dalit political assertion in the past few decades empowered them to re-read historical traditions and situate themselves by providing a pride of space in the otherwise historical trajectory denied to them. This is obvious from the following lines of two contemporary dalit poets.

Dr Manmohan raises his voice:
It is said to me
The colour of my poem is black
Flat features
Tattered dress
Full of patches
Asymmetrical rhythm....
Sorrow appears before pleasure does
Pains peaks before peace....
Tell me now
If I don’t write poems like this
What should I do?

Listen what Balbir Madhopuri has to offer in his ‘Bhakhda Patal’ (Smouldering Netherworld):
For smoked skinned people like me
I do want
My poems
Should be part of that anthology
That contains
Stories of Eklavaya and Banda Bahadur
Struggle of Pir Buddhu Shah
Sensitivity of Pablo Neruda

It is interesting that while the first three eminent dalit poets foreground their Sikh identity, the rest of the poets assert their dalit identity but do not necessarily deny their Sikh identity. They are proud of their both or multiple identities. They seem to be aware that Sikhism had/has played important role in their ancestors’ as well as their lives though there is disenchantment with the turn Sikhism has taken. This should take us to that turn to see the contours of the Sikh movement.


II
The regional history of Punjab in general and of Sikh tradition in particular seems to be richest in the Indian subcontinent. The Punjab attracted the scholarly attention for a variety of reasons but also because of the rise, growth and survival of Sikh religion despite having been under the danger of being absorbed by Hinduism. If Kahn Singh Nabha had to assert in his polemical treatise Hum Hindu Nahin [We are not Hindus] in 1898 as an answer to a publication by a Sanatan Sikh, Thakur Das, entitled Sikh Hindu Hain (Sikhs are Hindus), Khushwant Singh in 1953 was still apprehensive of its survival beyond the twentieth century. Also being a ‘religion of the book’ from within the Indian tradition, it has been able to multiply books about itself whether produced by its followers or by others. A strong and sturdy body of knowledge about Sikh religion, history, polity and society has been produced in the last fifty years. Religion being an emotive issue this knowledge has not been free of controversies and contestation. Besides academic historians, social scientists, and litterateurs a large number of scientists, doctors, engineers, bureaucrats, retired army officials and others have entered the fray and enriched the knowledge on Sikhism. Yet another factor that has contributed to the vast built of literature on various facets of Punjabi life and Sikh religion is the strong Punjabi and Sikh diaspora especially in the west.

As the sociological and other empirical studies have highlighted the presence of ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ among Sikhs, it is no-more possible to avoid or hide this ‘embarrassing question’ from the historical discourses as had been the case in the last 50 years’ production of historical knowledge. W. H. McLeod, who has been engaged in the study of Sikh religion for half a century, recently admitted such a tendency:
To understand Sikh history and religion adequately, one must first grasp the true nature of Sikh society. It is here that caste becomes significant. To understand Sikh society, one must comprehend the nature of caste as it affects the Panth. An understanding of the future development of the Sikh religion makes an understanding of caste as practised by Sikhs absolutely imperative. Social scientists already recognize this, although some of their books or articles may skate round it or omit all mention completely. For those of us who are historians, it is likewise imperative. Without it our understanding of both the Panth and its religion must inevitably be flawed.

As most of the literature on Sikh history and religion has failed to take account of dalits, John C. B. Webster’s formulation on the ‘dalit history approach’ as a pioneer in the field is quite instructive. Ever since he wrote his book entitled The Dalit Christians: A History in 1992 he has been deepening his thought on the concept and has recently come to see its validity for the Sikh history in an important article. To him:
The Dalit history approach is based on two assumptions. The first is that of Dalit agency. In this case, Dalit Sikhs move to centre-stage to become the chief actors in and shapers of their own history; the historian will therefore focus upon them, their views, their struggles, their actions. The second is that a conflict model of society, with caste as not the only but the most important contradiction in Indian society, provides the most appropriate paradigm for understanding their history.

There is no work on Sikh history and tradition in English which has been produced from the dalit history approach. Major historical works by W. H. McLeod, J. S. Grewal, Ganda Singh, Khushwant Singh, Pashaura Singh, Harjot Oberoi, Jagjit Singh, Indu Banga, Gurinder Singh Mann, Jeevan Deol, Arvidpal Singh Mandair and Louis Fenech reflect what Webster call the ‘Sikh history approach’. Only a few books available, not necessarily by the ‘professional historians’, written in Punjabi could be seen as written from the ‘Dalit Sikh approach’. While denouncing the established histories as nothing but high-caste histories, S. L. Virdi emphasises the need of dalit history when he says:
India needs such a history that generates revolutionary consciousness for a social change as history plays very significant role. The society assumes such character and shape as moulded by its history. From this perspective dalit history can play an important role. The ‘revolution’ for Indian society has another name only in the ‘dalit history’.

While Shamsher Singh Ashok wrote his History of Mazhbis as commissioned by a dalit Sikh K. S. Neiyyer, settled in London, Naranjan Arifi who was a dalit officer in a central government department wrote a bulky first volume of the ‘History of Ranghretas’ after a great deal of research. He gives us a comprehensive account of Ranghretas/Mazhbis joining the Sikh fold as early as during the period of the Sixth Guru, Hargobind (1606-1645). Arifi very diligently filters the dalit information from the Sikh writings available since the mid-eighteenth century. In this volume he brings very fascinating details about Ranghretas till mid-nineteenth century by giving them names and voices by highlighting their individual and collective participation in the growth of Khalsa. They had offered numerically critical support in the Guru Gobind Singh’s battles. So much so that by the mid-eighteenth century when amidst sustained persecutions by the Mughals, the Sikhs organised themselves into five dals (warrior bands) one of these was composed entirely of Mazhbi/Ranghreta dal under the command of Bir Singh Ranghreta who had a force of 1300-horsemen. The ‘dalit reinterpretation’ of the eighteenth century argues in detail how the rising power of Bir Singh Ranghreta who had become an influential commander was put a stop to by the treachery of the Jatt commanders. According to Naranjan Arfi the Sikhs had succeeded in establishing their independence by early 1760s and some of the commanders aspired for their individual rules in different parts, which Bir Singh was opposed to. Bir Singh insisted following Guru’s injunction that the power shall lie in the Panth (the Khalsa collectivity). Charat Singh, father of Ranjit Singh and Baba Aala Singh, founder of Patiala State, hatched a conspiracy to invite Bir Singh from Peshawar to Amritsar, treacherously disarmed Bir Singh’s soldiers that they should not pay obeisance at the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) with arms and then slaughtering them inside the sacred place in batches of five in which they were advised to move. They also wounded Bir Singh in such a way that taken as dead, his body was put in a wooden box and thrown into river Beas. Thereafter Mazbhis were not allowed any commanding position but their military prowess was used under different Misals as subordinates.

Though substantially diminished in their power yet the dalit Sikhs continued as soldiers and fighters. They were still in such a position during Ranjit Singh’s rule to get constructed ‘Mazhbi Singhan da Bunga’ quite close to ‘Ramgarhia Bunga’, near ‘Dukh Bhanjan Beri’ in Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple) Complex in 1826 by raising twenty-one thousand rupees. Later on it was demolished and incorporated in the ‘Guru Ramdas Langar’ building. Mazhbis had their bunga at Taran Taran Darbar Sahib as well. The kind of status and prestige the dalits came to raise for themselves in the tumultuous times of the eighteenth century was quite enviable for any upper-caste Sikhs. Hence, concerted efforts were made to reduce them after the establishment of Ranjit Singh’s rule. Thereafter, one sees a gradual hold of brahmanical Sanatan Sikhs over religious institutions of Sikhs that they had come to purge the egalitarian traditions of gurus from the Sikh religion by the last quarter of the nineteenth century in such a way that what started emerging as printed record then, thanks to the just emerged press, was taken for the entire history of Sikhs which, in fact, had clearly been an ‘invented tradition’.

If the Sikh tradition started failing the dalits’ warrior skills, they found some opportunities in the British imperial services. The 1857 Revolt offered them an opportunity to be enrolled in great number in the British Indian Army and the Mazbhis formed the First Pioneer Sikh Regiment. And soon there were three such ‘pioneer units’ and they were also deployed in China, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Despite the generally favourable commentary on their quality, low-caste units were gradually reduced in size and number between 1870 and 1914-18. Besides the fact of relatively peace times, “they were the unwilling victims of the theory of the “martial races” which had become a dominant discourse in the British administrative circles. They came to be recruited once again heavily during World War I but were later ‘retrenched’ and gradually reduced in numbers until in 1932 the last unit was disbanded. The greater intensity and scale of combat in World War II had the effect of drawing even larger number of dalits into the conflict. Over 10,000 Mahars and 33,000 Mazhbi and Ramdasia Sikhs were taken into the combatant forces. On the basis of these figures Stephen Cohen makes an interesting inference that “High intensity demands greater number, and lower castes eventually get an opportunity to serve in the military which is denied to them during peacetime.” They continued to be treated as underdogs even in their units where officers generally came from the upper-castes breaking the confidence of dalits. In his testimony, a Mazhbi Sikh MP put the caste position in perspective in 1964:
We are discriminated against both in and out of the army; there are no Mazbhi generals or even colonels.... I would not want the Mazbhi Sikh unit to be broken up, or the Jats mixed in with us or we with the Jats. It is good to have separate units of Scheduled Caste Sikhs together, this way we can show our martial qualities to the Jats and to the rest even better.

What had happened to that Sikhism that had provided a dignified space to the lower castes and especially to the dalit communities that the dalit MP had to lament their treatment by the dominant Sikh castes? What had happened was the ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ had come to afflict the Sikhs, and afflict them badly in the nineteenth-twentieth centuries. There was a slow rise of Sanatan Sikhism, a fine admixture of Brahmanism and Sikhism, in the early nineteenth century which by the close of the century had assumed a vicious form. This is best reflected in an authoritative manual Khalsa Dharam Sastar (1914) of Sanatan Sikhism as quoted below:
From Braman to Nai, including Chhippe and Jhivara, all those belong to the fourfold caste system are not allowed to partake food cooked or touched by outcastes. This implies that just as the four Hindu castes can be polluted by the untouchables, similarly in the Sikh Khalsa religion all persons belonging to the four castes can be polluted too. Those Sikhs who belong to the untouchable groups (like the Mazhbi, Rahita and Ramdasia Sikhs) constitute a separate caste. These untouchable castes do not have the right to proceed beyond the fourth step in Sri Amritsar [at the Golden Temple]. Members of the high castes should take care not to mix with persons belonging to the lower castes. If someone seeks to do so he forfeits his claim of belonging to the high castes.

But such attitudes had already started showing reverse returns. I have some accounts from the Sikh/Akali papers in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The Sikh Dalits started moving either to Arya Samaj or to Christianity forcing the Sikh reformers to step up efforts to stem the tide. Singh Sabhas had initiated the process and yet the castist attitudes were so deep-seated to make any difference. The Sikh Press started pushing the cause forcefully. In the editorial entitled “Isaai hon de Karan” [Reasons for becoming Christian] of Punjab Darpan of 10th October 1917, the Sikhs were warned to mend their ways:
In the last eight months 1600 hundred Hindus have become Christians… For this mission, the pastors have relinquished professorships in the Mission colleges as they have also abandoned the comforts of Churches. Compare this with the Sikh community; there are thousands of those baptized Sikhs rendering Gurbani with musical instruments that are called Mazhbis, Ramdasias or Bishth. But high caste Sikhs always oppress these who simply labour for their sustenance…Because these illiterate Sikhs hate them more than they hate Muslims, it is necessary to inspire the Sikh Sardars, Numberdars and Zaildars in the villages to embrace their brethren-in-faith rather than making them the enemies of their religion by rebuking them all the times.

The growing anxiety about the virus of untouchability among the educated Sikhs is reflected in most of the community oriented newspapers and magazines. One Sewa Singh BA wrote a letter to Khalsa in 1923 under the title ‘One most necessary Duty: for the attention of Chief Khalsa Diwan’ in which he drew attention towards the problem of ‘untouchability’. While referring to Arya Samaj he urged the Diwan to shoulder ‘the improvement of untouchable castes’. We get a graphic picture of the concern in Jagat Singh Pardesi’s news filed from Khashab in Shahpur district (now in Pakistan). He writes:
Rahitiyas, Mazhbis and Ramdasias in northern Sargodha have become pray to our practicing untouchability. The rest are also not allowed to drink water from wells…it is strange that the Sikhs allow Muslims to draw water from the wells but these amritdhari Sikhs with 5 Ks are thrown out. Moving from village to village the writer on asking the Sikh brothers the reason of their hatred answered that (i) their ancestors smoke hukkas (tobacco pipes) and ate carrion. (ii) These people carry our garbage on their heads as also they carry away the dead animals. That’s why we hate them….

The Khalsa of 24th June 1923 published a report on a divan (assembly) about shudhi (purification) at Jallianwala bagh held on 21st June 1923 which was devoted only to discuss the agenda of removal of untouchability. Teja Singh Samundari presided over the session. The report says:
Sardar Dalip Singh, the Secretary of Divan, while introducing the purpose of the divan said that even now Guru Gobind Singh’s baptised Sikhs who are called Ramdasia, Mazhbis and Chuhras, are thrown out of langars (community kitchen) and their Prasad is not accepted in the gurdwaras. That’s why today’s divan is organised to find out remedy of this malaise....
Later on Bhai Mehtab Singh ‘Bir’ lamented how due to our indifference hundreds of our so-called untouchable brothers are being swallowed by other religions. He told that twenty-five Rahitiyas became Aryas in 1903 and after that 10,000 Rahitiyas joined the Arya Samaj.

The Khalsa of 2nd July 1923 reported ‘A Divan in Gurdaspur’ held on 27th June of the same year when thousands of Mazhbis had marched as led by Pastor Gordon Sahib to a big ground to listen to the Christian discourses. Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) had despatched its own band of missionaries to the site to counter the Christians. Interestingly one high caste Sikh, Sardar Khazan Singh was facilitating the Mazhbi Sikhs towards conversion. On observing the Christian enthusiasm, the SGPC monitors sent an SOS telegram to the headquarters. Accordingly Mehtab Singh, Teja Singh, Bhag Singh, Secreatry SGPC, and Bhai Labh Singh, Granthi Darbar Sahib swooped on the Christian conference. They forced time to speak from the organisers and promised the assembled Mazhbis to remove their objections. The next day Gurmukh Singh Musafir extracted time to address the gathering but the audience soon started leaving the venue. The report concludes with a lament:
Dear Khalsaji, this is the reason of Mazhbis’ moving to Christianity. The untouchability that has drowned Hinduism for such a result and you also don’t allow your brothers to touch your wells. Let us learn a lesson and not allow them to be devoured by these vultures…If you want freedom for yourself, free the others.

The Sikhs by that time got so lost in the struggle to liberate gurdwaras that the agenda to liberating the minds from brahminical attitudes was set aside. Moreover, the minds were not ready to accept social equality in reality, otherwise who would work for them for free. No wonder, the helpless situation on this count made Bhai Pratap Singh, the Head Granthi of Drabar Sahib (Golden Temple) to write a treatise on the issue. Besides looking into the theological and practical high points against untouchability in the Sikh tradition, Giani summarises the efforts of SGPC for the removal of untouchability between 1921 and 1933.

What becomes clear is that the efforts to remove untouchability by the Sikh reformers were not just the result of inner calls. A number of factors resulting from objective conditions were making them think if they had to survive as respectable option for the much harangued Dalits. One of these factors was Dr Ambedkar’s powerful moves to see a dignified life for Dalits. In 1936, when Dr Ambedkar was trying to see the religious alternative for Dalits of India in Sikhism, the Akali papers became more sensitive to the issue. Sardar Amar Singh, Secretary, Shri Guru Singh Sabha Shillong (Assam) wrote two articles on ‘The Need of Sikhi Preaching among the Untouchables and Some Suggestions for that’ in the Khalsa Sewak of 17th and 22nd March 1936. Master Mota Singh wrote a scathing article ‘Khalsa Brotherhood and Gurdwara Elections: Existence of Caste as the bigger cause of Community’s Death’. On the scenes of elections he wrote rather with anger:
There was vanity, jealousy and ego clashes all around. Vote-seeking agents did not have anything to sell except the commodity of caste. Caste names as Saini, Jutt, Rore(for Aroras), Tarkhan (carpenter), Chamar etc were being used quite derogatorily. How can you expect a social and community reform from Shrimoni Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee whose recruitment is on the caste lines?

In the editorial of ‘Khalsa Sewak’ of 7th March 1936, it is mentioned that it is known that Dr. Baba Sahib Ambedkar had been writing letters to SGPC but the Committee was not replying with any satisfaction. It wrote with sarcasm that “With all this the Sikhs are so indifferent that they would not lag behind boasting of their reforms on paper, it is just a show, but in practice not a single step forward has been made.” The charge was not without substance. All the big talks were just being used for the vested interests of the powerful power brokers. The Khalsa Sewak reported in its 26 March 1936 edition that a conference was organised at village Bham in Gurdaspur district under the aegis of Baba Jeeon Singh Dal where SGPC members had reached and seventy people were baptised. Among several lectures against untouchability, Bhai Teja Singh Akarpuri also spoke forcefully. After the conference, a dalit boy was asked to serve a glass of milk to Teja Singh. He got very angry and said that “I have been insulted for being served milk in Chuhra’s glass.” The fellow retorted: “You say something and do something else.” Teja Singh immediately fled the scene.

The discussion in this section fairly highlights the gravity of the situation among Sikhs as for as the question of untouchability is concerned and even in the moderating twentieth century. It has been a structural malaise whether determined by economy or society; the power relations defined the relations of domination and subjugation. The command over resources had been so dear to the high castes and upper classes that they did not want to give any relaxation to the people at their mercy. Demoralising the Dalits by constant insults, humiliations and deprivation ensured almost free labour supply. The Sikh mind was not ready for the egalitarianism to act as an agent of change to thwart its own class interests. So, in the face of mounting pressures in the first half of the twentieth century, half-hearted measures at the level of rhetoric were shown to be taken but in reality the situation remained as grim for Dalits as it was in the nineteenth century.

As ‘caste’ and its resultant inhuman practice ‘untouchability’ have been the cardinal principle of Brahmanical ideology, and the central pillar of social order any individual, organisation or ideology, questioning it was always seen as enemy and all efforts were made to finish the challenge. Barstow put it pithily:
Hinduism, to its wonderfully assimilative character, had thus reabsorbed a good part of Sikhism, as it had absorbed Buddhism before it, notwithstanding that much of these religions is opposed to caste and the supremacy of the Brahmans.

Bhagat Lakshman Singh (1863-1944), a Sikh scholar and intellectual, who was the newly convert to Sikhism believed that the Sikh creed was ‘Hinduised’ after the establishment of Sikh rule. The high caste Hindus had made advances for reconciliation with the new power and a compromise was effected by which the Sikhs abandoned their ‘revolutionary programme’. Sikhism began to lose its distinct identity. He especially talks of the Brahmans’ ‘peculiar aptitude for adapting themselves to changed conditions’. In the days of Buddhism they had become its Bhikshus (Buddhist monks) only to leave when Buddhism declined.
In more recent times in our own province, when political power passed into the hands of the Sikhs, they did not find it difficult to discard their temples and idols, their yagyopavit and other paraphernalia, wore Keshas [uncut hair] and dastars (turbans) and became custodians of Sikh places of worship and interpreters of Sikh scriptures.

Khushwant Singh is also objective on this central question:
Sikhism did not succeed in breaking the caste system.... The untouchable converted to Sikhism remained an outcaste for purposes of matrimonial alliances... and Sikhs of higher castes refused to eat with untouchable Sikhs and in villages separate wells were provided for them.
Within a hundred years of Guru Gobind Singh’s death, ritual in Sikh gurdwaras was almost like that in Hindu temples, and more often than not was presided over by priests who were usually Hindu rather than Sikh. Sikhs began to wear caste marks; Sikh weddings and funerals followed Hindu patterns; ashes of the dead were carried to the Ganges and offerings were made to ancestors.

The dalit voices are more clear and vociferous about ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ in Sikhism. Pandit Bakshi Ram who was born in a Balmiki family towards the close of the 19th century recalls in his autobiography how untouchability was rampant and how because of this the dalits could neither seek education nor were acceptable for a public service. It was only on his father’s approaching the Lahore court that schools were opened for dalits in 1905. He narrates two incidents from his village how the dalit Sikhs were treated by the dominant Jatt Sikhs. Once, a Rahitia (dalit Sikh) boy on drawing water from the school well was beaten up by the Jatt boys. Another time, when the Rahitia marriage party used the village pond for cleaning their backs in the morning they were thoroughly beaten up by the Jatts. “Untouchability has become deep-rooted in the Jatt-dominated villages. Isn’t practicing caste and untouchability against gurmat (Gurus’ message)? In fact, the Guru says “Khalsa is my image as I reside in the Khalsa”. Saying that how after Independence the Jatts have come to completely control the politics and economy in Punjab and oppose the dalits’ demands he argues:
If Jatt Sikhs demand higher prices for their produce don’t the labourers have right to demand higher wages? And if the latter struggle for their right the former boycott them. Isn’t it a height of injustice? If Akalis have their morchas (pickets) for their demands why can’t dalits exercise their right to raise their demands?

Balbir Madhopuri “gives a graphic account of the situation of the Dalit community living on the periphery of the village called ‘Chamarali’ vis-à-vis the interaction with the upper caste ‘Jatt’ community. The scene of the distribution of ‘Prashad’ in the Gurdwara made a mockery of all the subtle teachings and the tall claims of the practice of equality among the Sikhs in a Punjab village. The author has exactly reproduced the piercing degrading remarks laced with un-uttered abuses hurled at the low caste children by the Sikh priest.”

Prem Gorkhi, an eminent Punjabi short-story writer, who graduated from a day-labourer to peon to a ‘respectable journalist’, has bitter experiences. He says:
I have seen that if Punjabi writers are intimate friends they also carry deep casteist ideas within... I have close relations from high to the low...they respect as well...I go to everyone’s house, eat and sleep there...but over taking sides on any vital issue, the cobra within would spread its fangs.... There is no drastic change in the caste situation from what it was a hundred year ago...only the ways of untouchability have changed. Today if you eat in the same plate, you also kill the same person—and whom you call dalit today is not a century-old thoughtless, egoless, without identity. He has reached a stage to decide for himself what is of good to him.

Gurnam Aqida, Punjabi writer, is forthright about the hegemony of Jatts though he says it with pun:
Jatts control the organisations and institutions which decide about the fate of society. They dominate the bureaucracy. They have replaced the traditional minstrels, the Mirasis, in the field of singing; the traditional thieves, the Sahnsis; the Jatts have replaced even the famous woman brigand Phoolan Devi in pillages. The Jatts are responsible for dalitism in villages, they are the police officers, professors and principles and even the ruling politicians. So much so, that a crime committed by them becomes an entertainment.

Hazara Ram Bodhi, former General Secretary of Punjab Unit of Republican Party of India and editor of ‘Bhim Patrika’, says
Caste discrimination in Punjab is of dangerous nature. While in other provinces, dalits face physical torture but here torment is psychological. A normal person is reduced to a pigmy because of caste. Psychological oppression is unbearable.... ‘Caste’ is so important in Sikhism that there are caste-based gurdwaras. Nihangs are different, Ravidasias, Mazhbis and Julaha (weavers) Sikhs are different; the question of inter-marriages in Sikhism does not arise. The minds are full of differences. Even when the sapling of Sikhi [Sikh religion] was watered by dalit perspiration, they had to carry their own utensils to the gurdwara langar earlier. And if by mistake a dalit would eat in gurdwara utensils, they were purified in fire. Now it is over. But in several gurdwaras dalits cannot cook.

III
If Sikhism, which was the finest religious force and movement with ideas of emancipation for the downtrodden especially for the outcaste untouchables after Buddhism, was failing in its mission what alternative courses were open to dalits of Punjab? Finding solutions within the religious paradigm, one course that was tried with great success was the Ad Dharam movement in 1920s. Asserting that dalits and adivasis were the original inhabitants of the subcontinent, it drew its inspiration from Saint Valmiki, Ravidas, Kabir and Namdev. The movement aimed at securing a respectable place for dalits through cultural transformation, spiritual regeneration and political assertion, rather than seeking patronage from above. Its founder, Mangoo Ram Mugowalia’s appeal that the Dalits were the real inhabitants of this land made an enormous psychological impact on the untouchables of Punjab. The appeal inspired them to come out of their slumber and fight for their freedom and liberty. It laid stress on distinct Dalit identity independent of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians. Within a short time it became a Dalit mass struggle for their separate Dalit identity. In the 1931 Census, 418,789 dalits recorded themselves as Ad Dharmis. Though after the Independence it slowly petered down but its success lies in the fact that those who continued identifying themselves as Ad Dharmis have made far greater progress in all fields as compared to those dalits who continued following the established religions including Sikhism. The non-religious course open to the emancipation was a socialist revolution. The communists had a few successful movements in Punjab since 1920s but never addressed the dalit question explicitly. The only exception happens to be young revolutionary Bhagat Singh who wrote a lengthy article “Achhut da Sawal” [The Question of Untouchability] in 1928 when he was 20 years’ old. Pointing out at the current competition between different religions to pull the untouchable in their respective folds for just political ends and vested interests, he gives a clarion call to dalits to unite:
We clearly say! ‘Rise’. O real servants and brothers- otherwise called untouchable, Rise. See, your history. You were the real army of Guru Gobind Singh. Shivaji became unforgotten because of you. Your sacrifices are written in golden letters... You stand on your feet by organising yourself and challenge the entire social set-up. Then see, who would deny your rights. Don’t become others’ fodder and don’t look up to others... You are the root of the country, the real power. Rise! O sleeping lions; start rebellion or social revolution.

But we hardly see Bhagat Singh’s approach followed after him. Assuming that the end of class rule would automatically resolve the cultural issues, the communists failed to see the significance and relevance of caste and untouchability. Even the best dalit poets and activists in the Naxalite movements had to undergo the casteist insults as we found in the pages above.

It is beyond doubt that Sikhism emerged as an emancipator for the lowest of the low. Nanak, the first Guru, was clear on this as he says:
Neechan andar neech jati, Neechi hun ati neech
Nanak tin ke sang sath, Vadian siyon kya rees
Jithe neech sanmalian, Tithe nadr teri bakhshish
(I am the lowest of the low castes; low, absolutely low;
I am with the lowest in companionship, not with the so-called high.
Blessing of god is where the lowly are cared for.)

The same spirit was maintained by his successors and we have seen above how dalits came to play an important role in Guru Gobind Singh’s battles and throughout the eighteenth century till they came to be once again subjugated and excluded economically, socially, politically and even religiously in the nineteenth century. Sikh religion carried a great promise and succeeded in igniting dalits’ imaginations and aspirations in practice but with the rise of Jatts as political and economic power, the powerful emancipatory message of the gurus have come to be drowned, and it looks, beyond recovery as far as dalits are concerned. What dalits of Punjab gained in religion, socially lost it in the long run because of denial of their participation in the economic power by the dominant castes. But despite this setback with diminishing returns in the last hundred-fifty years, the Sikh dalits have not ceased to entertain hope in the religion. As slowly they improve their life conditions they are ready to reclaim their lost past, the past when they enjoyed social equality and dignified space in the religious institutions. This aspiration is best voiced by Naranjan Arifi, the dalit Sikh historian:
Only those people can construct their histories who remember their history. In other words, those who forget their history cannot create history. It is rightly said; if you want to kill a people destroy their history. This is what has been done to Ranghretas… The two-volume work is intended to raise the psychological strength and self-respect among all the inheritors of Sikhism.

(Based on a Draft Paper presented at University of Pennsylvania at the Conference on Dalit Challenges toAcademic Knowledge: The Great Paradoxes)