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.


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)

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