Tuesday, 8 July 2008
Harish K. Puri
Dr. Harish K. Puri - Retired as B R Ambedkar Chair, Professor of Political Science, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. He has published five books, prominent being “Ghadar Movement: Ideology Organization and Strategy”, “Terrorism in Punjab: Understanding Grass Root Reality”.
An understanding of the distinctive caste hierarchy in Sikhism and the new pattern of competing hierarchies, parallel to that of the Hindus, calls for insights into the dynamics of political power and economic relations both at the local and regional levels. This paper aims at exploring the trade-off between the doctrinal principles of Sikh religion and the ruling social and political interests in the context of changes in the society and economy of Punjab.
Punjab is a Sikh majority state in India. The Sikhs constitute 63 per cent of the state’s population at present. Their share in the rural population is higher; about 72 per cent. The dalits or the scheduled castes constitute a high proportion of population in the state, 28.3 per cent in 1991 which is projected to have increased to over 30 per cent in 2001, the highest among the states in India. Over 80 per cent of them live in the rural areas. Punjab’s villages are, therefore, predominantly Sikh and dalit. An understanding of the status of the scheduled castes in the Sikh community in particular, and the impact of Sikhism on dalits in Punjab in general, should help us appreciate the regional specificity of the status and conditions of life of the scheduled castes in the state as also the limitations of the book view of caste.
Sikhism appears to have exercised a significant liberating influence on the dalits (former untouchable castes) in the Punjab. The teachings of the Sikh Gurus, the religious institutions of ‘sangat’ and ‘langar’, the absence of a caste-based priesthood, and the respect for manual labor, all these were together aimed at creating a caste-free Khalsa Brotherhood. When the Singh Sabha leadership chose to assert a separate and distinct identity to underline their boundary demarcation from the Hindus – ‘Hum Hindu Nahin’ – at the beginning of the 20th century, the key differentiating factor they referred to, was rejection of ‘varnashram’ and purity-pollution syndrome which were central to Hinduism. The people of the untouchable castes in the region converted to Sikh religion in large numbers with a view to improve their status. Their gain was not small. However, there was a wide gap between the doctrinal principles and social practice.
The evolution of the Sikh community proceeded through a complex dynamics of interaction between religious principles, tribal cultural patterns of the dominant caste of jats and their power interests. This resulted in the evolution of a Sikh caste hierarchy, distinct from and parallel to that of the Hindu caste system. It is important to understand the form in which casteism has continued to survive in the Sikh community and the reasons thereof. Two episodes may be of particular relevance in this context. Babasaheb Ambedkar had in 1936 seriously considered en masse conversion of the ‘Depressed Classes’ to Sikhism with a view to liberate them from the shackles of ‘manuvadi’ caste system. It remains to be adequately probed how and why the project came to be dropped and never pursued thereafter; persuading Ambedkar to lead his people to convert to Buddhism instead, after a period of 20 years. The other relates to Sikh political struggle for constitutional recognition of the Sikh scheduled castes after the independence of India. This amounted to seeking the grant of the same constitutional status and special safeguards for the Sikh scheduled castes as were provided for the Hindu scheduled castes. This paper aims at exploring the trade-off between the doctrinal principles of Sikh religion and the ruling social and political interests in the context of the changes in society and economy of Punjab.
Caste as Colonial Construction
After the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, when the British administrators and anthropologists started looking closely at the social hierarchy in the province they discovered that the Punjab represented ‘a notable exception’ to the caste system in India. It appeared that the continual influx of foreign people of diverse stocks made the people of this region extraordinarily mixed. Buddha Prakash depicted, in a way, the special quality of the region, when he described it as “The socio-cultural panmixia of Punjab”. He also noticed that this region was ‘practically abandoned’ by the orthodoxy (brahmins), most of whom had quite early shifted to the Indo-Gangetic region [Buddha Prakash 1976:8]. The British administrators noticed, during the 19th century that, by religion, Punjab ‘is more Muhammedan than Hindu’, and that ‘Islam in the Punjab is as a rule, free from fanaticism’. In the western part of Punjab where there was a larger concentration of Muslims and the society was organized on tribal basis, it was found that ‘caste hardly exists’. Part of the reason for such a characteristic of Muslim social life in the region was the Sufi influence which was brought from Persia by ‘the early Sultans of Ghor’ (Imperial Gazetteer of India -1, 1908:48-50). Historians noticed a significant mobilization among the artisan castes/classes during the period of Turkish rule. The teachings of the Bhakti poets, particularly the ridicule of the brahmin by Kabir and Ravidas, were perhaps as much an evidence of a challenge to the structure of social deference, as a reflection of a shifting structure of social hierarchy. However, in central Punjab, broadly the area of present Punjab, it was the emergence of Sikh Panth which was believed to have made a definitive influence with respect to caste. Arnold Toynbee took note of evidence that the Hindu society had, by the time of the Turkish invasions, started to break down under ‘the morbid social growth’ of caste system, resulting in revolts of the proletariat led by Kabir and Nanak. According to J S Grewal, “Toynbee sees the rise of Sikhism, thus, as an act of secession on the part of the internal proletariat of the Hindu society in its disintegrating stage” [Grewal 1972:141].
The rejection of the caste system by Guru Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikhs, appeared categorical. One of the widely quoted of his ‘sabads is’: Fakar jati phakar nau, Sabhana jia ika chau (Worthless is caste and worthless an exalted name; For all mankind there is but single refuge). Another composition is reproduced below:
Neechan andar neechjati, Neechi hun ati neechNanak 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.)
Guru Nanak’s primary quest is for salvation; union with god. In front of god; caste is irrelevant. God bestows greatness irrespective of caste. One’s association with one’s caste or pride of caste is a positive hurdle. “There is no caste in next world”. Apparently Guru Nanak’s rejection of caste, as also his conception of equality, is in terms of religious criterion. As Grewal explained “Guru Nanak does not conceive of equality in social and economic terms”. However, its social implications were evident. “Just as every human being was equal before God so every individual who accepted the path of Guru Nanak was equal before the Guru and all his followers were equal before one another” [ibid:8].
A major impact was made through the institutions of ‘sangat’ and ‘langar’, equality in religious gatherings, and eating of food together. Another innovation was the practice of offering ‘karah prasad’ by any one including from the low castes, which is then deposited in a single dish, and out of which thereafter, a portion of the holy ‘prasad’ is distributed to each one in the gathering. According to W H McLeod, this custom was observed as early as the time of the fifth Guru. “This ensures that high castes consume food received in effect from the hands of the lower castes or even outcastes and that they do so from a common dish” [McLeod 1975:87]. Further, when Guru Gobind Singh established the institution of Khalsa brotherhood in 1699, a distinct ceremony of baptism ridiculed caste distinctions. All the first five initiates came from the lower castes (though none from the outcastes). It was required that all the candidates drink from a common bowl of ‘amrit’ (sweetened sacred water). All these rituals gave a striking blow to the notion of ritual purity, in contrast to the ritual rigidity in the Hindu religious places. Violations were not ruled out. But the holy injunctions and intentions were clear. There was neither a religious support for caste distinctions, nor for caste/birth based priesthood. As for wearing of arms, caste made no difference.
After the 10th Guru, as per his command, there was to be no living guru. Hereafter the holy book containing the word of the Gurus – Guru Granth Sahib – was to be followed as the Guru: “ye whose hearts are pure, seek Him in the Word”. The Granth also included the compositions of a number of saints such as Sheikh Farid and the Bhagats, such as Kabir, a julaha (weaver) and Ravidas, a chamar (leather worker); both considered to be from the outcastes. Their compositions in fact appeared to be more radical in condemnation and rejection of caste. Their sayings as part of the holy scripture of the Sikh Panth appeared to have given to even outcastes a welcome feeling of affinity with and honor in belonging to the new religion.
More fundamental, however, was the question of survival of caste and of what treatment members of lower castes or outcastes entering the Sikh Panth received at the hands of the dominant section of the people composing the panth. All the 10 Gurus came from khatri families and in the early years it was largely the khatris who were the followers and who exercised influence in the panth. One who entered the panth, entered with his caste intact. He was neither required nor expected to discard caste-belonging. All the Gurus married their sons and daughters in khatri families. The followers were not expected to not follow the customary practice of endogamy. They were considered equal in several respects and yet were separate in kinship. There is no evidence, however that the outcastes in general ceased to be outcastes after joining the panth.
The large-scale entry of the jats from the time of the sixth Guru, tended to alter the caste equation in the panth. The jats constituted the rural elite who dominated rural Punjab. By the 18th century the jat constituency was preponderant among constituent groups in the panth [McLeod 1975:10]. The precise proportion became clear only when the British conducted the 1881 Census, which took stock of the caste variable. At that time it was found that among 1,706,909 persons who returned themselves as Sikh, about 63 per cent were jats. The proportion has, more or less remained in the range of 60-66 per cent.
The jats were sturdy owners and cultivators of land. Their pride in manual labor – dabb ke vaah, te rajj ke khah (till the land deep and eat to your fill) – tended to erase the distinction between non-manual and manual labor which was a significant marker of the high-pure and the polluting-low in the Hindu caste system. In the varna order, the jats (cultivator jati) were classed as shudra. Guru Nanak, after his settlement at Kartarpur, following his Udasis (travels), is known to have taken to cultivation of land. In his teachings, God came to be conceptualized as Sacha Wud kirsan (The True Great Cultivator) (M-1, Sri, 13(19). Guru Angad is believed to have earned his living by making ropes through twisting dry grass. Kirat Karo (do labor) was a part of the three fold holy injunction: Kirat Karo, Vand Chhako, Naam Japo (do labour, eat by sharing and recite god’s name)
Irfan Habib traced the jats to the pastoral people first noticed in Punjab during 7th to 9th centuries and suggested that they may have been attracted to the Gurus because of their inherited egalitarian traditions. The jats were known for their indifference to brahminical social stratification and the Gurus “willingly raised jats to positions of high authority in the new panth”. “The inevitable result was development along lines dictated by the influence of jat cultural patterns” [McLeod 1975:10]. Whereas the Hindu varna order was altered, it did not end caste distinction. More significantly, the change did not seem to affect the attitude and treatment towards the outcastes. The burden of tradition appeared to have been heavy among the rising number of the followers of Sikh faith. The Sikh Misals (militias) were organized along caste lines [Marenco 1977:38]. We do not know the number of the outcastes who entered the panth at that stage. It is clear, however, that their number was small until large-scale conversion to Sikhism which began towards the end of the 19th century.
During the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839), Sikh jats emerged as a major part of the nobility or the ruling class. In the overall population of his vast kingdom the Sikhs formed 6-7 per cent of the total population of his kingdom. Muslims constituted about 70 per cent of the total, and the Hindus 24 per cent. But in the area of their greatest concentration, the districts of Lahore and Amritsar, the Sikhs formed around one third of the population [Grewal 1994:113]. The Sikh jats constituted a major part of Ranjit Singh’s army; they constituted nearly 30 per cent of the total nobility and they were the major recipients of jagirs. The largest share of religious grants went to the Sikhs [Sagar 1993:9]. Social status was determined by the size of one’s landholding. Ideologically, as Grewal noted, the doctrine of Guru-Panth had given place to that of Guru-Granth, in recognition of the prevalent social inequality. “Every Sikh was equal in the presence of the Granth Sahib, in the sangat and the langar, but in the life outside, social differences were legitimized” [Grewal 1994:118]. The contemporary literature noticed a wide gap between the Sikh nobility and the common Sikhs. Slavery was prevalent in the society, and so was beggary. “Poor parents used to sell their children. At times grown up girls were sold” [Sagar 1993:95]. Some of contemporary British observers thought that the difference between Sikh nobles and the Sikh poor was greater than similar differences elsewhere in India [Grewal 1994:116]. More uninhibited prevalence of caste hierarchy and discrimination against the untouchables was reflected in denial of access to villages, public wells and Gurdwaras [Pratap Singh 1933:146]. Religious morality is not known to be safe in the context of power and wealth. “With the rise of Sikh power the panth exhausted its dynamic character” [Sagar 1993:118-19].
Creating Merit and Complexity
The ‘British colonial embrace’, following the annexation of Punjab in 1849, had ‘an overriding significance’ in shaping a new kind of Sikhism and in changing the social structure and caste relations in the Sikh community. Understanding the hatred of men of substance for the new rulers, the administrators of Punjab tradition went about constituting ‘natural leaders’, who would be loyal to the British while holding sway over the peasantry. After the disbanding of the Sikh soldiery, confiscation of the estates of most prominent chiefs, ‘lowering and crushing’ the priestly class of Sodhis and Bedis, and reconstitution of the Sikh aristocracy and the army (by the end of ‘mutiny’, Sikhs constituted 28 per cent of the army in Punjab) had paid dividends to the British during the Indian rebellion of 1857. The British administrators in Punjab understood that those who stood firmly loyal and served as ‘breakwaters of the storm’ – ‘natural leaders’ of the community – ‘deserved support and encouragement’ [Narang 1998:16-24, passim].
The course taken in pursuit of the objectives included not only a construction of Sikh as singh but also a new construction of caste for a civil order based on privilege and exclusion. This construction flowed from the lessons the British chose to learn from the rebellion of 1857. Nicholas Dirks, in his recent work, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, 2002, indicates how through colonial ethnology and ‘colonization of the archive’, caste emerged as the dominant trope for the British in making sense of India and how India should be ruled. Caste had become a specifically colonial form of (that is substitute for) civil society that both justified and maintained an orientalist vision [Dirks 2002:60].
The reorganization of the British Indian army after 1858 was based on a theory of ‘martial races’. Dirks cites from recruiting handbooks of the Indian army that the ‘martial races’ were distinguished by loyalty, military fidelity and ‘manly independence’, in contrast to the other groups (races) which were effiminate, cowardly or inclined to crime [Dirks 2002:179]. George McMinn, who became a quartermaster general in the Indian army in 1920 noted in his book , The Martial Races of India, that it was only in India that “we speak of the martial races as a thing apart…because the mass of the people have neither martial aptitude nor physical courage” (cited in ibid:180). MacMunn presented the ruling idea among the British administrators, that the martial races were “largely the product of the original white (Aryan) races” who invented the caste system, as a ‘protection’ for the purity of races, “against the devastating effect on morals and ethics”, through mixing of blood with aboriginal peoples. Like H H Risley earlier and Louis Dumont later, he stressed on the need to appreciate the caste rigidity as a primary source of keeping the Indian society intact against forces of disintegration for a thousand years under the Muslim invaders. Accordingly, caste was upheld as “a regulatory form of civil society appropriate for India under the circumstances of its limited political and social development” [ibid: 180].
The Sikhs were recognized as one of the most prominent martial races of India for their loyal support in suppressing the rebellion. However, though Sikhism was noted to have drawn its adherents from all classes, it were the jats who carried such weight in the formation of the (Sikh) national character that the Sikh, “whatever his origin, may now be considered as practically identical with” the Punjabi jat [Bingley 1985:112]. It was recognized that in the matter of caste, the Sikh, like the orthodox Hindu, “holds aloof from the unclean classes, and even the Mazhabi Sikhs are excluded from the religious shrines and are left to the religious administration of granthies of their own caste” [ibid:72]. Recognition of that regulatory form of hierarchy as crucial for ruling India, not tinkering with it, became a part of colonial wisdom and statecraft.
One of the significant instances of that regulatory principle as the basis of policy related to the development of the nine canal colonies during 1885-1940, which involved allocation of over 40, 00,000 acres of freshly developed virgin land for ownership and cultivation. Given its commitment to the ‘sound principle’ – “not to upset the existing social and economic order” – the British government ensured that “tenants, laborers and other landless men should not, as a rule be chosen”. The land was allocated to the ‘dominant castes’, as per the scale of already existing landholding status [Imran Ali 1989:95, emphasis added]. In the customary scheme, outcastes such as mazhabis (Churah Sikh), balmikis and ramdasias (chamar Sikh)/ravidasias were not allowed to own land. In fact even access to village commons – shamlaat land – could be shared only among hereditary landowning communities. ‘Consequently’, as Ambedkar told the Rajya Sabha in 1954, “the ‘untouchables’ or kamins were not entitled to build their houses in a ‘pucca’ form on the land on which they stayed. They are always afraid lest the zamindars of Punjab may, at any time, turn them out” [Moon 1997 vol 15:927]. Another instance, more significant in its import, was the Punjab Land Alienation Act 1901. According to this law (which was enacted primarily to save the indebted farmers from the rapacious money-lenders of the khatri, arora or brahmin castes), agricultural land could be purchased or acquired only by people belonging to the defined ‘agricultural castes’. All those belonging to the lower castes, not included among the ‘agricultural tribes’, were debarred from owning land even if a few had the means to purchase land for cultivation. (It was only after independence that B R Ambedkar, as law minister, moved to repeal the Act in 1952 to remove the invidious disability). This extraordinary privileging of the jat agriculturalist (80 per cent of whom turned to Sikhism in central Punjab districts by 1921) contributed further to their caste domination and arrogance of privilege.
A difference was, on the other hand, made to the status of the mazhabis by opening their recruitment in separate regiments of the imperial army. They were first raised as a 12,000 man strong mazhabi corps for the siege of Delhi during the 1857 revolt. In 1911 there were 1,626 mazhabi Sikhs soldiers (in fact reduced to 16 per cent of their number in 1857), out of a total of 10,866 Sikhs in the imperial army; the number of Jats being 6,626 [Marenco 1976:260]. Since the mazhabis had earlier raised their status by discarding traditional occupations like scavenging and sweeping, they were considered suitable enough for recruitment as soldiers. Apparently, the British considered the mazhabis to be good soldiers. “They (mazhabis) make capital soldiers”, it was noted, and that “some of our pioneer regiments are wholly composed of mazhabis” [Rose 1970:75]. Bingley recorded, that “As a mazhabi Sikh, despised as chuhra or sweeper, at once becomes valiant and valued soldier, and, imbued with the spirit of his martial faith, loses all memory of his former degrading calling” [Bingley 1985:117]. The latter part was, of course, an exaggeration. mazhabis constituted exclusively mazhabi regiments – the Sikh Pioneers 23, 32,and 34, later named ‘Sikh Light Infantry’ – separate and distinguished from the exclusively jat – Sikh regiments. No Sikh jat or any other caste man could be recruited in the Sikh light infantry. Conversely, in the Sikh regiments, as an old retired brigadier explained to the author, “not even a labana Sikh could be recruited to the Sikh regiments”. The fear of pollution of the high castes could compromise their loyalty. However, association with the army gave a boost to the mazhabi’s sense of dignity, marking them out in distinction to the other untouchable castes.
It was, however, the collateral gain from some of the developmental measures undertaken in the Punjab which promoted noticeable change in the status and living conditions of the then untouchable castes people through occupational and social mobility. One of these was the large-scale migration for labour during the development of the canal colonies prompting change from traditional occupations. After the jats and the arians, the chuhras and chamars constituted the largest groups of migrants to the colonies. Among the total migrants to the chenab colony, for example, there were 41,944 chuhras and 26,934 chamars besides 1,502 mazhabis [Marenco 1976:261]. The migrations to the irrigation projects or canal colonies were based on corporate decisions through the caste panchayats, and became the basis for corporate caste mobility and a rise in status.
A small number of mazhabi retired soldiers were also allotted land in two mazhabi settlements. It was found that more than half of these allottees became landowners and tenants and another 13 per cent worked as landless laborers. In a few selected areas, such mazhabis came to be classed among the ‘agricultural castes’. Their recruitment as soldiers in the imperial army had already helped in their corporate rise in status, as against Hindus chuhras. It was believed that “for the most part, their advance in Sikh society was due to the special favor they held with the British, on whose side they had fought during the Sepoy Mutiny” (ibid: 285).
Among the immigrant chamars, only 26 per cent continued with their traditional occupation: others worked as field laborers, weavers, agricultural tenants and laborers. The number of ‘general labour’ required for work on the canals which was 3,71,940 in 1891 increased to 8,32,689 in 1901. Most of these came from the ‘outcastes’. Findings of H A Rose show that “in 1901 the chuhras and chamars in Punjab were quite often working as general laborers rather than as sweepers or scavengers or leatherworkers” (ibid: 254).
Establishment of these colonies and trade centers also contributed to development of new towns and mandis in adjoining towns. A section of the outcaste, largely chamars, moved to towns, working in mandis or in the municipal service. As against corporate mobility, individual members of the untouchable castes moved to cities and towns in pursuit of earning in cash, changed their occupations, became skilled workers or in some cases graduated to professional classes. In such cases the upward social mobility was a result of individual choice and initiative (ibid: 288-89). The introduction of the market economy and wages in cash for labour in urban areas made a tremendous difference to their living and self perception. There were improvements in the provision for education and new opportunities for jobs to fill government service positions. The establishment of factories provided opportunities for skilled and unskilled labour, as also managerial jobs to untouchable castes. The 1911 Census recorded 13,200 chamar Sikhs and 2,150 chuhra Sikhs working in traditional industries like leather manufacturing [Joginder Singh 1997:40]. The social dynamics of economic change promoted both corporate and individual mobilization, occupational change and change in material conditions of caste relations in the Sikh community.
Ethne Marenco believed that British rulers deplored the caste system in general and looked upon the socio-economic change as an instrument for weakening the edifice of caste oppression. One may agree that these changes, to use Andre Beteille’s picturesque phrase, “loosened the soil in which caste had been rooted for centuries” [Beteille 2003]. However, in the ‘contradictory bequest’ of colonial rule in Punjab, the British underwriting of the centrality of caste in both continuity and change, had a far reaching impact. One may refer to a note recorded by M L Middleton, ICS, in the census 1911 Report for Punjab and Delhi (Vol 15, Part I, p 343):
These castes have been largely manufactured and almost entirely preserved as separate castes by the British government. Our land records and official documents have added iron bands to the old rigidity of caste. We pigeonholed everyone by castes, and if we could not find a true caste for them, we labeled them with the name of the hereditary occupation. We deplore the caste system and its effects on social and economic problems, but we are largely responsible for the system we deplore (cited from Pratap Singh 1933:178-179).
Perhaps, more far reaching in its impact was the underwriting of a new conception of ‘merit’ attached to the class/caste owning large landed property, belonging to military (martial race) strata and ‘pride’ of unflinching loyalty to the British. In most of the pleas for privileges or share in representation made by the leading sections of the Sikh community to the British government, the ‘merit’ was spelled out, broadly, as under:
We own a very large portion of land in the province and pay more than one-third of the revenue of the state. The record of our military services is unparalleled in the history of British India. Our claim, therefore, for special consideration, is justified by our stake in the country, by our solidarity and sacrifices which we have made for the state.
(Chief Khalsa Diwan memorandum to the Simon Commission, cited from Narang 1998:119).
In another memorandum, reacting to the Communal Award, it was argued that;
Establishment of Muslim majority may lead to transferring the large interests of the landowning classes to their tenants (Kamins) and others who have no stake and pay no direct taxes [Narang 1998: 125].
Such internalization of special merit tended to underline the well deserved and natural social domination of the jat zamindar in their relations with the lower castes in their local village situations. It was this logic which the British appreciated and institutionalized.
Consolidation of Caste Power
When the Singh Sabha movement – the most powerful movement for reform in the Sikh community – was launched during the 1880s, one of the ‘classic’ expositions was made by Bhai Kahn Singh in his ‘Hum Hindu Nahin’ (we (Sikhs) are not Hindus). One of the major arguments, as referred to above, was the total rejection of caste in Sikh religion. But that was explained, “with references from the Sikh religious-books.” Just about the time of publication of that book, one of the most prominent ideologues of the Lahore Singh Sabha was Giani Ditt Singh. Ditt Singh, came from an untouchable caste and had become a baptized Sikh, changing his name from Ditt Ram to Ditt Singh. He was influenced by the Arya Samaj which had launched a vigorous movement for the end of untouchability in the Hindu community of Punjab but later he joined the Singh Sabha. Having experienced the reality in Sikh village very intimately, he was distressed that a baptized ‘amritdhari’ Sikh was identified primarily by his caste and treated accordingly. In his book entitled Naqli Sikh Prabodh, he castigated the so-called high caste Sikhs as Naqli Sikhs (counterfeit Sikhs). “Caste, at that time, was a dominant feature of social life in Sikh society. Those baptized as Singhs from low castes were treated as untouchables. Every individual was spoken of by his caste” [Badungar 2002:11].
However, it was the political logic of Hum Hindu Nahin, which swayed the minds of the Sikh political class. Judge points to the dialectics of Sikhism becoming a key factor in elevation of jats to a higher caste status and the social and political domination of the jats in Sikh community contributing to the consolidation and expansion of Sikhism. “Each reinforced the other. It is this dialectics of social change that significantly contributed to the emergence of communalism in Punjab” [Judge 2002: 179].
The social universe of the Sikhs at that time was defined by, what was described as ‘Sanatan Sikh tradition’ – primarily a priestly religion. Giani Pratap Singh, later the head priest at the Golden Temple, noted that the mazhabis were forbidden to enter the Golden Temple for worship; their offering of karah prasad was not accepted and the Sikhs denied them access to public wells and other utilities [Pratap Singh 1933:146-47, 156-57]. When a group of Rahtia Sikhs tried to enter the Temple in the summer of the year 1900, “the manager of the sacred establishment, Sardar Jawala Singh, ordered their arrest. The reformist Sikhs who accompanied them were abused and finally beaten up... Because one of the defining characteristics of a sacred precinct, in the eyes of the Sanatan Sikhs, was its ritual purity” [cf Oberoi:1994:107].
Harjot Oberoi cites from an ‘authoritative manual’ – Khalsa Dharam Sastrar of 1914 – which laid down that the members of the untouchable groups (like the Mazhabi, Rahtia and Ramdasia Sikhs) did not have the right to go beyond the fourth step in the Golden Temple and the members of the fourfold varnas including Nai, chippe (sic), jhivar, (sudra sub-castes) were instructed not to mix with persons belonging to the untouchable castes. Those who were guilty of breaking caste rules were classified as ‘patit’ and shunned by civil society (ibid.106-107). The organization of Khalsa Brotherhood was very active in converting the untouchable castes to Sikhism through ritual baptism. Matters came to a head when a group of newly baptized Sikhs from the low castes went to the Golden Temple to make their offering of karah prasad at the beginning of the Gurdwara Reform Movement in 1920. According to Pratap Singh, thousands of enthusiasts, including professors and students of Khalsa College Amritsar, joined in a clash with the pujaris (priests) who had refused to accept their offering, forcing the latter to flee. However, it did not seem to bring any noticeable change. Overall the Singh Sabha Movement devoted more attention to bringing more and more numbers of the low castes into the Khalsa Sikh fold and opening of schools and colleges. “Though removal of untouchability was also a part of this movement, but the (same) amount of attention which was paid to the opening of schools and colleges, was not given to this aspect” [Pratap Singh 1933: 145]. Thereafter, engagements relating to the Akali struggle for liberation of Gurdwaras 1920-25, “did not leave the time for removal of untouchability” (Ibid: 151). It was not surprising. For the jats, who composed 70 per cent of the Akalis, and other high castes, caste equality or removal of untouchability was contrary to their disposition for social domination and hierarchy.
After the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) was constituted in 1926, care was taken to co-opt three members from the low caste communities. By 1933 there were over 200 persons belonging to the low castes who were recruited as religious priests, pathis, ragis and sewadars. Giani Pratap Singh cited a number of resolutions (gurmatas) adopted by the SGPC from 1926 to 1933, expressing ‘shock’ and ‘regret’ over the prevalence of discrimination against amritdhari low castes, and instructing or ‘praying’ the upper caste Sikhs not to deny to the Sikhs of the lower castes, access to temples and wells. Notice was taken of reports of concerted obstruction in the recruitment of mazhabis to the army and instructions were issued against such obstruction. However, as he wrote with regret, “because of the foolishness of common people and the activism of some selfish people, this (practice of untouchability) is present until the present” (ibid: 178).
The growth of communal competition and politics in Punjab since the beginning of 20th century made removal of untouchability, and conversion or reconversion (‘Shuddhi’) politically significant to the political classes of each religious community. It facilitated a phenomenal and fast rise in the population of the Sikh community and assertion of distinct identity. However, this became, in fact a masked struggle for protecting and strengthening the special rights and domination of the high castes, both within the community and in the domain of political power in the province [Judge 2002b].
A Parallel Caste Hierarchy
Sikhism did not lead to the creation of an egalitarian community or end of caste hierarchy and discrimination. But the caste pattern had undergone a change. Scholars have pointed to the construction of a Sikh caste hierarchy, parallel to that of the Hindu caste hierarchy. Prominent among these are W H McLeod (The Evolution of Sikh Community 1976), Ethne K Marenco (The Transformation of Sikhism 1976), and Inder Paul Singh (‘Caste in a Sikh Village’ 1977). The emergent comparative picture may be described as under:
In the Hindu caste system, the hierarchy of the actually functioning jatis is ordered with reference to the varnashram – the traditional four varnas order – and attributable to scriptural sanction. As Ambedkar underlined in one of his exchanges with Gandhi, in Hinduism it was not the practice you disapproved of, but the ideals. In Sikhism, there is no scriptural sanction for caste distinctions. The emphasis has been on the brotherhood of all under one god – equality among all human beings. The problem is with the practice, not the ideals.
Brahmins are at the top in Hindu caste hierarchy. Among the Sikhs, on the other hand, jats who had graduated to the position of a ruling class under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, remained on top of the hierarchy. Generally speaking, khatris, aroras and lobanas came after them, followed by the artisan castes among which ramgarhias (Sikh carpenter caste) enjoy higher status than Ahluwalias (kalals). The menial or untouchable castes are at the bottom, just as among the Hindus. However, the perceptions regarding which caste is placed second, third and fourth varied both by the village and the caste one belonged to.
The structure of caste discrimination in the Sikh community was considerably liberated from the purity-pollution frame of relations, as against the Hindu community in which that consideration is relatively more prominent.
Sikhism altered the principle that knowledge is acquired and produced only by priestly class (such as brahmins). There is no permanent class of priests or producers of religious knowledge in Sikhism. Even the initial advantage enjoyed by the Bedis and Sodhis on that score was obliterated after the Gurdwara Reform Movement. Priests and ragis and sewadars (as employees) now largely come from the lower castes, including a noticeable number from the scheduled castes; and, it may be surprising, very few from the jat caste. Jat Sikhs would rather control the SGPC.
Castes are endogamous both in the Hindu and Sikh caste systems. But going by the field studies, (mentioned below) the endogamy was a little weaker, and hypergamy a little stronger among Sikhs than Hindus.
Ambedkar’s Move for en masse Conversion of Depressed Classes to Sikhism
There has been a lack of clarity about why Ambedkar’s resolution for conversion of India’s scheduled castes to Sikhism in 1936 was quietly dropped. Sikhism was considered to be the best available option for moving out of the oppressive stranglehold of Hinduism. Understanding the reasons for rejection of this option and his conversion to Buddhism instead, 20 years later, is important to help make sense of the position of lower caste people in the Sikh community. A part of the suggestive explanation comes from Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer, M S Gore and L R Bally. Perhaps another significant part of the explanation lies in a disclosure made by Sardar Kapur Singh in his Saachi Sakhi.
On October 13, 1935 Ambedkar made a solemn statement at the Yeola conference of depressed classes that whereas unfortunately he was born a Hindu untouchable, “I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu”. This rightly came as ‘a thunderbolt’, for it rocked political parties and social institutions in India. It was not simply a question of Ambedkar’s personal choice because of spiritual or religious reasons. He exhorted his followers to change their religion en masse: “you have nothing to lose except your chains, and everything to gain by changing your religion”. This made it a political question. The leading figures from all other religions, approached Ambedkar separately, inviting him to convert to their religion, promising different rewards.
After serious thinking and consultations with a large number of people, Ambedkar had decided by June 1936 to embrace Sikhism along with his followers. This had the approval of the leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha and of Shankracharya Kurtakoti. Conversion to Sikhism was, as Ambedkar argued, the best choice from the standpoint of the Hindus [Keer 1971:279-80]. After participating in the Sikh Missionary conference at Amritsar in April Ambedkar sent his son, Yashwant Rao, and nephew to the Golden Temple in May, where they stayed for one month and a half, to observe the situation and meet with leaders of the community. On September 18 a group of 13 followers was deputed to visit Amritsar to meet the ‘Sikh Mission’. There was already an understanding that the Sikh Mission was going to start a college in Bombay in the interest of those Depressed Classes who would convert to Sikhism.
One of the reasons for the change in Ambedkar’s programme may have related to his anxiety about the ‘chinks in the untouchable unity’. According to M S Gore “Ambedkar had always been conscious of the Mang community’s coolness towards his movement. Ambedkar responded by leaving the final decision on conversion to the future” [Gore 1993: 145]. Keer tends to suggest that the reason for postponing the idea of conversions related to his anxiety about the fate of the Depressed Classes’ share in political power after conversion to Sikhism [Keer: 286-89]. Bally, who has been a leading Ambedkarite activist, writer and editor of Bhim Patrika, provided another explanation. According to him, the untouchables of Punjab had conveyed to Ambedkar the atrocities they suffered at the hands of the dominant community of jat Sikhs and appealed to him to ensure that the untouchables never become Sikhs [Bally 1997:155, Ahir 1992:12].
However, a part of the reason why they failed to hit it off may well be related to a rethinking and opposition to the move among the Sikh political class. It was inevitable that the leading men would consider the fate of their leadership and position in the SGPC and Gurdwaras, after six crore (60 million) untouchables became Sikhs. Such is the evidence offered by Sardar Kapur Singh in his well known but controversial book, Saachi Sakhi. According to him there was an apprehension that once Ambedkar became a Sikh with all his followers, no one from the existing Sikh leaders like Baldev Singh would be nominated to the Viceroy’s executive council as a representative of the Sikh community. Master Tara Singh and his supporters had to consider their position and that of other leaders in the Sikh community and the Shiromani Akali Dal , the SGPC and control of gurdwaras. Kapur Singh recounted a story told by Sardar Inder Singh Karwal, an advocate and Akali leader to a small gathering of advocates in the bar room of Punjab High Court at Chandigarh in September 1964. He stated that when, because of differences between Akali leaders and Ambedkar, the six crore untouchables publicly dropped the idea of adopting Sikh religion, he asked his neighbor in Lahore, Sardar Harnam Singh Jhalla, MA, LLB, advocate, (judge of the high court), who was at that time a prominent Akali leader, the real reason or cause of this ‘tragedy’. Sardar Harnam Singh then replied “O you don’t have an understanding of these matters. By making six crore of untouchables, Sikhs, should we hand over the Darbar Sahib to Chuhras”?. ‘This way’, says Kapur Singh, “six crore of Rangretas – Guru Ka-Betas, who had come to the door of the Guru were pushed out; the same way as Guru Tegh Bahadur was not allowed to enter Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple)”. But, according to him, the actual truth of the matter is even “more crude and despicable”. His argument is that when the ‘Akali party’ understood the full implications of six crores untouchables entering the Sikh community, they unanimously devised a strategy to deal with this ‘emergency’. Then “they unanimously decided that Ambedkar and his follower untouchables must be dissuaded and stopped from becoming Sikhs for all time”. Master Tara Singh, whose leadership of the Sikh community was threatened by Ambedkar’s entry, sent Sardar Sujan Singh to Bombay, ‘with specific instructions’ to tell Ambedkar ‘clearly’ the mind of the Akali leaders, so that he dropped the idea [Kapur Singh 1972: 72-75]. The logic of power and personal political interest of leaders may more often be a more decisive factor than ideology.
Struggle for Legal Recognition of Sikh Scheduled Castes
After independence, one of the major demands put forward unanimously by all the 22 Sikh members of the East Punjab legislative assembly in 1948 related to securing for the former untouchable castes converted to Sikhism the same recognition and rights as would have been available to them if they had not become Sikhs. In the memorandum given to the advisory committee on fundamental rights, minorities, etc, of the constituent assembly of India it was pleaded that the lower castes in the Sikh community – namely, mazhabis, ramdasias, kabirpanthis, baurias, sareras and sikligars – who suffered the same disabilities as the members of the (Hindu) scheduled castes, should be included in the list of the scheduled castes. Moving the report of the committee in the constituent assembly, its chairman Vallabhbhai Patel explained:
Really as a matter of fact, these converts are not scheduled castes or ought not to be scheduled castes; because, in Sikh religion there is no such thing as untouchability or any classification or difference of classes…
And so when these proposals were brought to us, in fact, I urged upon them strongly not to lower their religion to such a pitch as to really fall to a level where for a mess of pottage you really give up the substance of religion. But they did not agree.
The committee recommended the acceptance of the plea made by the leaders of the Sikh community to include mazhabis, ramdasias, bazigars and sikligars in the list of the scheduled castes. Patel, further explained:
I concede that this is a concession. It is not a good thing in the interest of the Sikhs themselves. But till the Sikhs are convinced that this is wrong, I would allow them the latitude.
(Rao 1965, Vol IV, 594-603, passim)
In 1953, after the demand for Punjabi Suba had been raised, Master Tara Singh and Shiromani Akali Dal asked for inclusion of all the ‘untouchable castes’ converted to Sikhism in the list of scheduled castes. Observers viewed it as “a part of larger political game” [Nayar 1966: 239-40]. That only four major castes (covering 85 per cent of all Sikh untouchable/backward classes) were included in the list was condemned as highly discriminatory – “a conspiracy to crush our religion”. Master Tara Singh threatened to go on a fast unto death if all the “Acchuts who had become Sikhs were not given the same rights as were given to Hindu Achhuts’ [Jaswant Singh 1972: 243]. He led a march of 25 Sikhs to Delhi on October 1, 1953. The government conceded the demand and Master Tara Singh hailed the victory: ‘morcha fateh ho gaya’ (the battle was won) (ibid 253). It was no problem that the Sikhs who were distinguished from Hindus (Hum Hindu Nahin), largely because they did not believe in Hindu caste system, now considered that such a distinction between the two religious communities was itself a discrimination against the Sikhs. The Sikh leaders “promoted constitutional provisions for the Sikh society which were an insult to Guru Nanak’s egalitarian principles… It may sound ironical, but this was the main contribution of the Akali leaders to the framing of India’s Constitution: reverting the Sikhs to the caste hierarchy of Hindu society by giving up the first principle that sets them apart as a distinct religious community” [Kumar 1997: 410, 412].
Reservation in Management of Religious Shrines
The ‘practical consideration’ for reservation for the Sikh scheduled castes was not confined to the secular domain. By an amendment made in 1953 to the (Punjab) Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925, a provision was made for reservation of 20 seats for scheduled castes Sikhs out of a total of 140 elected seats in the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Further, a convention was adopted that the junior vice-president in the executive committee of the SGPC would be chosen from the scheduled castes. In the case of notified Sikh gurdwaras, not managed directly by the SGPC board, it was provided that in the five-member local managing committees, one member in each case will be chosen from the scheduled castes [Kashmir Singh 1989: 176, 182 and 188]. Representation to the scheduled castes in the management of Sikh shrines appeared to follow an affirmative principle. It also institutionalized the recognition of the lower castes in Sikh religion and in the management of religious affairs of the Sikh community. Paramjit Singh Judge, who is making a detailed study of the tape-recorded speeches delivered by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, brings to light one of the Sant’s important observations. He said, “All castes are present among the Sikhs. This makes the Sikhs a separate religion/nation”. [Judge 2002: 189-90].
Present Status of Dalits in Sikh Community
The green revolution added to the economic and political clout of the jat landowning class in general, while further widening social inequalities. Things could have improved had land reforms been allowed. The political clout of the richer landowning jat Sikhs ensured that the policy was squarely defeated. The jat control of leadership in Shiromani Akali Dal since 1962 added to fear and apprehension among the lower caste Sikhs. While a lot of change under the impact of dalit political assertion, social welfare measures and spread of education is visible, it has also led to more tension and conflict. The sexual exploitation of dalit women, which was considered more or less common until ten years ago is more often challenged.
A number of field studies (by Inder Pal Singh, Abbi and Kesar Singh, Saberwal, Jodhka, Judge, Jammu, Gill, Sukhdev Singh, and McMullen,) and surveys and interviews conducted by the author, broadly corroborate some of the above observations relating to the present status and conditions of life of the scheduled castes in the Sikh community.
Inder Pal Singh, in the first anthropological study of a Sikh village, found that “most of the Sikh values are jat values and the jats assert that they occupy the highest position among the Sikhs castes” [Inder Pal Singh 1977:70]. Ownership of land was, according to him the chief criterion for determining the status of various people in Indian villages and “it becomes more important in Sikh villages as most of its adherents are agriculturalists” (ibid.) This gets reflected at the village level in various ways. A chamar respondent gave a very simple explanation for lack of support for the communists among the low castes : “They (the communists) are our class enemies’’. The Communist Party was regarded as a party of the jat Sikhs [Juergensmeyer 1982:198]. One of the most frequently encountered expression among dalits is “When some one says ‘I am a jat’, his chest expands. But when we say ‘chamar’, we contract to nothing” (cited Jodhka 2000:381).
Markedly different from the practice in Hindu religious temples, there is a noticeable number of mazhabi and ramdasi granthies (priests or professional readers of the holy scripture) among the Sikhs. Such a transformation started quite early, as Giani Pratap Singh referred to in 1933. There is no overt restriction on the entry of the lowest caste people to the gurdwaras. However, whereas 80 to 90 per cent of the Sikhs, in general, believed that there was no discrimination, at least 30-35 per cent of the scheduled caste Sikhs felt a sense of humiliation, that the upper caste Sikhs did not like their presence in their gurdwaras. Respondents among the latter cited instances of contempt or ridicule, instructions to sit at the end of the rows, to come for the langar at the end; to keep out of the service of cooking or serving food at the langar and occasionally not allowed to carry the Granth Sahib from the jat gurdwara to a dalit home for akhand path, etc, etc. In a recent interview with Ajit Singh Poohla, the chief of Taruna Dal of the Nihangs, many of whose adherents came from the lower castes, he explained “There is no (caste) discrimination. Mazhabis and chamars performed sewa of looking after the horses and milch cattle. “Of course, you understand, they do not work in the kitchen or serve food in langar...It is part of ‘duniadari’ Nihangs are no exception”. You cannot ignore the sentiments of the Sangat, he suggested [Judge and Sekhon, March 4, 2001].
A more significant marker of the resistance against a sense of discrimination among the scheduled caste Sikhs is the large scale construction of separate gurdwaras by the mazhabis, Ravidasias Kabirpanthis and other caste groups, parallel to the ones controlled by the jats. In our survey of 116 villages in one tehsil of Amritsar districts 68 villages (during 2001) had separate gurdwaras of the dalits and there were separate cremation grounds for dalits in 72 villages. Jodhka, in his study of 51 villages, spread over all the three regions, reported that dalits had separate gurdwaras in as many as 41 villages and “nearly two-thirds of the villages had separate cremation grounds for upper castes and dalits” [Jodhka 2002: 1818, 1819]. This kind of divide has been sensitively voiced by a famous dalit Punjabi poet, Lal Singh Dil:
Mainun pyar kardiye, parjat kuriyeSaade sakey, murde vee ik thaan te nahin jalaunde
(O’ loving me girl of the other caste, (remember) our kinsmen don’t even cremate their dead at one place)
The construction of separate gurdwaras was so normal a practice that, Jodhka concluded that such constructions have “never been met with resistance either from the dominant castes in the village or from the religious establishment of the Sikh community” (ibid: 1818). The contention may, however, be qualified. A number of cases of resistance and conflict have been reported from Punjab’s villages during the last few years. Such construction of a separate gurdwara was invariably symbolic of the assertion of the dalit communities, which became a cause for resentment among jat zamindars and the SGPC. For example, the mazhabis of village Heran in Ludhiana district who had eight years ago constructed a separate gurdwara in collaboration with the ramdasias of the village, resolved last year (2002) to construct another one exclusively their own. They were reportedly incensed over the incidents of humiliation of mazhabi women by the Ramdasia women who had threatened violence if the former entered their gurdwara. The practice of untouchability by the upper caste women against dalit women was found to be higher in every respect [Jodhka 2002a]. In this case, it was division of high-low among the dalit jatis. The inspectors sent by the SGPC to dissuade the mazhabis from constructing their gurdwara failed. Reacting to the resistance by the others and the pressure put by the SGPC, the mazhabis warned that, “if not allowed to construct our own gurdwara, we would convert to Islam”. Then the inspectors relented [Bhatia 2002]. This was only one of several similar cases. Perhaps an indication of mobility of mazhabis. Kirpal Singh Badungar, the chief of the SGPC, warned in a press statement:
The trend of constructing separate gurdwaras by jat and mazhabi singhs in villages of Punjab has witnessed a sharp increase in the recent years, thus creating a rift among the Sikhs which could have far reaching social implications in times to come (Times of India, December 9, 2002).
Ravi Dasi temples in some cases, had pictures of ‘Guru Ravi Das’ and occasionally also of Babasaheb Ambedkar installed within the precincts. The presence of an idol of Guru Ravidas, close to the Guru Granth Sahib (which is considered improper according to Sikh tenets) became, for example, a cause for jat-dalit tension in basti Jodhewal of Ludhiana (The Indian Express, November 11, 2001).
Another significant dimension of dalit search for alternative cultural spaces to overcome the experience of indignity and humiliation is reflected in large scale movement of Sikh dalits towards a large number of deras and sects such as Radhasoami, Sacha Sauda, Dera Wadbhag Singh, Piara Singh Bhaniarawala, etc, or their turning to various other Sants, and dargahs of Muslim Pirs. This was highly resented by the SGPC and other Sikh organizations. The rise of a dalit holy man, Baba Bhaniara, as the head of a dera and the alleged publication of his own separate holy book for worship, which led to violent clashes reflected the urge to reject the conventional religious spaces. Observers attribute this rebellion of the weak, to the arrogant and crude behavior of the jats with the lower caste people [Ajmer Singh 2003: 292-97]. A radical dalit Sikh, observed, however, “But all these deras, spread all over Punjab areas are controlled by the jats and other upper castes… Everywhere these Sikhs (SC/BC followers) are mere worshippers, high and low sewadars. Every religious sphere is managed and manipulated on caste basis”. It was described as ‘Slow Death of Sikhism’ [Muktsar 1999].
The rising incidence of atrocities on the dalits in Sikh villages is another dimension of the caste divide within the community. A survey of the press reports of atrocities on dalits in the Punjab during the last five years [Puri 2003] brought up over a dozen cases of rape, gang rape, stripping naked, stripping and walking dalit women by jat zamindars in the villages, invariably with covert support from policemen, in order to punish the dalits for non-payment of loans taken by male members and to avenge felt insults. The underlying purpose, stated or unstated, remains one of ‘teaching a lesson to the dalits’. Social boycott of the dalits in the village is another method which has, of late, been reported more frequently than earlier, leading inevitably to intervention by district administration for ‘razinama’ (compromise). Six serious cases of that kind have been reported during the last three years. Despite the very stringent provisions under Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) 1989 Act and directions given to the state governments and police, convictions are rare. The details of the public nature of the caste atrocities are illustrative. One such case of the local power dynamics may well be related.
This year the lowly Sikhs On January 4, 2000 jat zamindars of the village Bhail, near Taran Tarn, Amritsar did not allow a mazhbi Sikh Hazara Singh to cremate his 22-year old daughter in the village. The helpless 60-year old father was forced to lug the dead body on a trolley and dump it inside the river three miles away.
The provocation, as reported, was that in Bhail, a ‘jat-ruled village’ near the Beas 24 km from Tarn Taran, a 1,000 strong mazhabi Sikh community decided to take mustered Rs 10,000 for the holy purpose. ‘This seemed to be an open challenge to the jat supremacy’.
Retaliation was swift. Armed with sticks, a party of jat Sikhs encircled the village for three days and prevented the mazhbis from entering their fields even for daily Gurpurb procession in the village against the wishes of the ruling community.
A farmer Kartar Singh declared with contempt, “it is all their mistake. We are superior to them”. A jat Sikh woman adds, “The mazhbis never had enough money to organize such a function. I don’t know how they did it this time”.
The police intervened to affect a razinama (compromise). No complaint was lodged because the police viewed it as ‘paartibazi’ (groupism). The mazhbis say they were forced by the police: “We are oppressed by both the police and the zamindars, both are one‘.
More than a month thereafter, when one mazhbi Sikh woman Pritam Kaur died, her son was prohibited from cremating her at the village cremation ground.
According to the latest report the mazhbis have been asked to create their separate site for cremation [Bal 2000].
Harinder Singh Khalsa, a member of the National Commission for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, observed, evidently with some pain, “Punjab has no untouchability, probably because of Sikhism, but I am ashamed to say that in committing atrocities on dalits, we do not lag behind” (Indian Express, August 21, 2000).
An understanding of the distinctive pattern of caste hierarchy in Sikhism which points to a new pattern of competing hierarchies, parallel to that of the Hindus, calls for deeper insight into the dynamics of political power and economic relations both at the local and regional levels. Not looking closely at the ground level social reality may leave the impression that overall the Sikh community represents a homogeneity of castes rather than division (e g, Gurharpal Singh 2000: 85). In the explanations rooted in the primacy of ideology or culture, on the other hand, the survival of casteism (“it is very clear and open truth that the Sikh society is as casteist and racist as the Hindu society”), is sometimes regarded as a consequence of incomplete liberation of Sikhism from the stranglehold of brahminism, emphasizing greater distancing of Sikhs from the Hindus [Muktsar 1999]. Interactions with the dalit in Punjab, however, reveal a pervasive tendency to view the interests of economic and political domination as the force behind caste-based humiliation, rather than ideology as the primary reality. Yet it did not mean proximity to Marxian framework of class conflict. Their solidarity and resistance against social oppression is rooted in a discreet caste category. There is need to further interrogate caste in varied settings of religion and region.
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Of the roughly 3 million officially classified ‘Hindu’ population of Pakistan, some 80 per cent are Dalits. There are 42 different Dalits castes in the country, the most numerous being Bhils, Meghwals, Odhs and Kohlis. Most Pakistani Dalits live in Sindh, with smaller numbers in southern Punjab and Baluchistan. Like their Indian counterparts, they are pathetically poor and largely illiterate and eke out a miserable existence mainly as agricultural laborers, menials and petty artisans.
A recent visit to Pakistan took me to lower Sindh, home to a large number of Dalits. Land ownership patterns are enormously skewed in this part of Pakistan. A small class of landlords, or waderas, own most of the land, and some estates run into tens of thousands of acres. The conditions of the Sindhi peasantry or haris, who include both Muslims as well as Dalits, are pathetic. Many haris do not even own the mud huts in which they live. One can travel for miles at a stretch in rural Sindh without seeing a single habitation. The reason: much of the land is owned by absentee landlords who live in mansions in Hyderabad and Karachi, Sindh’s largest cities.
In much of lower Sindh, Dalits constitute up to 70 per cent of the agricultural workforce. According to Khurshid Kaimkhani, a leftist activist from Sindh, and author of what is probably the only book on the Pakistani Dalits, local landlords prefer to employ Dalits instead of Muslim haris because the former are less vocal and more docile. Hardly any Dalits own any land, he says, and they are entirely dependent on the landlords for their survival. Women earn a pathetic 60 rupees a day and men twenty rupees more than that.
As in some parts of India, in parts of Sindh Dalits work as bonded labourers, prevented from escaping by private armies of powerful landlords. There are no special government development schemes for Dalits. This is hardly surprising, for the only significant presence of the state in large parts of rural Sindh appears to be roads, electricity poles and tall minaret-like police stations named after various ‘martyrs’, these being mainly policemen gunned down by dacoits.
Dalits in rural Sindh face other forms of oppression similar to their counterparts in India. Village eateries have separate utensils for Dalits, and small towns have separate Dalit restaurants. Generally, ‘upper’ caste Hindus and Muslims do not eat food prepared by Dalits and cases of Dalit women being kidnapped by landlords are common. Often this results in the women being converted to Islam against their will.
Dalit students routinely complain of being taunted in school by their classmates, which, in addition to their poverty, forces most of them to soon drop out. The perception that they would be discriminated against in the job market makes higher education too expensive a choice for many Dalit parents to consider. In the wake of the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the consequent massacre of Muslims in India, the conditions of Pakistan’s Dalits have become even more precarious. Some Dalits, as well as caste Hindus, were killed by mobs in Sindh and numerous temples were destroyed. To add to this is the influence of radical Islamist groups who are vehemently anti-Hindu and anti-India.
All this has made Dalits even more scared to speak out. Says Himmat Solanki, a Dalit from Moenjodaro, ‘Our future here depends critically on how Muslims are treated in India. Each time there is an attack on Muslims there, we Pakistani Dalits and Hindus have to face the brunt. Our future critically depends on harmonious relations between India and Pakistan and Hindus and Muslims in south Asia as a whole’. Solanki tells me of how growing insecurity among Pakistani Dalits has led to an increase in migration to India. ‘Many Pakistani Dalits are originally from Rajasthan, having migrated to what is now Pakistan before 1947. So, naturally they want to join their relatives in India, and the growing fears among the minorities here has further exacerbated this trend’.
In Pakistan’s only Hindu majority district of Thar Parkar, bordering Rajasthan and Gujarat, the conditions of Dalits are equally pathetic. According to Pirbhu Lal Satyani, a local social activist, ‘upper’ caste Hindu Rajput landlords, Brahmins and Banias routinely subject the Dalits, who form the overwhelming majority of the population, to various forms of discrimination. They are not allowed to enter Hindu temples, and, as in other parts of Sindh, are also often used as bonded laborers. At election time, Dalits who have dared to contest against caste Hindu candidates are routinely harassed and some have even been killed. As a protest against continuing discrimination, a number of Dalits have converted to Christianity, foreign-funded missionary groups being active in the area. Interestingly, there are no Islamic missionary organizations working among the Dalits.
Organizing the Pakistani Dalits for their rights is an uphill task, says Satyani. He attributes this to fear of reprisal, the fact of abysmal levels of Dalit literacy, the small Dalit middle-class and the difficulty of bringing the various Dalit castes together.
‘They have internalized the Brahminical logic of hierarchy’, he says, ‘as a result of which each caste considers itself superior to other castes’. Thus, in Tando Allah Yar, where I spent a week, the snake-catching Jogis have no contact with the Gurgulas, a caste that earns its livelihood by hawking cosmetic items to women. Says Sadhu Mal Jogi about the Gurgulas, whose sprawling settlement, hutments made of twigs and plastic sheets, lies just adjacent to his Jogi colony, ‘The Gurgulas are lower than us. We have nothing to do with them’. Another difficulty that Pakistani Dalits face in voicing their demands is the process of Hinduisation. Says Sonu Lal, a Meghwal from Tando Allah Yar, who identifies himself as one of the few radical Ambedkarites in Pakistan, ‘Before 1947, caste Hindus dominated the economy of Sindh, and we Dalits could readily identify them as well as the Brahminical religious as the principal source of our oppression. After the Partition, most caste Hindus left for India, so now the direct oppressors are the local Muslim landlords. But instead of mobilizing on the basis of our Dalit identity, many Dalits seek to deny that identity by passing off as super-Hindus. In this context, how can we retain our identity as Dalits, take pride in it and organize on that basis?’.
‘Hinduisation’, he says, ‘is not the answer to our problems because, inevitably, it will strengthen upper caste hegemony and weaken the Dalit struggle by making Dalits deny, rather than stress, their Dalit identity’. In this regard, he cites the case of Pakistan’s largest Dalit temple, a shrine in Tando Allah Yar, dedicated to Rama Pir, a Meghwal convert to the Ismaili Shia faith. Every year, during the annual mela of the Pir, several hundred thousand Dalits from all over Pakistan assemble at the shrine. ‘The shrine has been captured by a Brahmin priest now’, says Sonu Lal. ‘All the money that the Dalits give to them temple is taken by the priest and the Banias who dominate the management committee. Dalits have no role to play now in the shrine, which has been converted into a Brahminical temple, with idols of various Hindu gods, alien to the Rama Pir tradition, being installed therein’. Copyright©2006 Yoginder Sikand. About the author
Thursday, 3 July 2008
Lal Singh Dil
Social injustice, mental agony and physical torture have all become part of my poetry. In spite of this my friend and contemporary poet, Amarjit Chandan, wants me to write my story. So let it be written.
The atmosphere in school was not very congenial. I was kept away from sports and cultural activities. Some teachers would treat me as an equal, but by and large, I was made to feel like an outcast. I belonged to a caste which evoked hatred in both teachers and students.
When I graduated to the higher classes, I started picking up some skills which thrilled me. I especially liked to trace out a picture and then shade it. I traced a picture of Ravidas Bhagat which showed him standing. Below the image was a pair of shoes and some cobbler’s tools. The teacher in charge of the class looked at the drawing strangely and then laughed at it with some hatred, which was shared by the students. I brought the picture home with me from school.
In the lower classes, students would stage skits in which they played the part of upper-caste Jats. I, too, longed to do those roles, and once I got a chance. I just had to be on stage as one of three policemen who drag a person from one side to the other. But the day the play was to be staged, I was thrown out of the cast. It was felt that two policemen would suffice. There was no need for a third.
The poet (right) in his teashop
I never won a prize for cleanliness, though I would go to school on inspection day after scrubbing my face hard with laundry soap and tucking my kurta neatly into my khaki shorts. Never did I, or any other boy from a lower caste, get a chance to lead the prayers at the morning assembly. We went to a school meant for all, but students from the lower castes were always made to feel inferior.
Once, a teacher was preparing three or four of us for a poetry recitation. I still remember the poem, Kangali deshon kadhni hai; Bekari di jadh wadhani hai ('We have to drive poverty from our country; We have to cut at the roots of unemployment'). But finally, the teacher said: "Not this boy. His voice breaks." A healthy, good-looking boy was taken in my place.
I found the Raasdhariyas (itinerant folk theatre artistes) most interesting. The characters seemed to be real sadhus, carrying their strange world with them. The dance by the boys would create a fine mood for the performance. The plays that were staged included Roop Basant, Kiranmayi, Puran Bhagat and Harish Chandar. One had heard all these stories, but there was something different about drama. One day, commenting on the role of Harish Chandar, a boy from my mohalla said "You have become a choorha (sweeper), so must you weep? Those who are sweepers…"
No other play had depicted the lives of the sweepers so well. Watching it, I felt that the saga was set in the present. Harish Chandar was shown tending the pigs, working with a basket and broom, cremating corpses for a fee, and finally breaking down when his wife would not let him touch her for fear of being defiled. The play succeeded in conveying the sorrows of the worker and the wife was a symbol of a culture of hatred. The play even had a love-duet by a dandy sweeper couple, singing and playing hide-and-seek, basket, broom and all. These Rasdhariyas became my subject of study. I would watch them rehearsing and going about their chores all day. At night, when they put on their make-up for the performance, I would join the crowds that gathered around them.
I was very keen to go to college, though everyone was against it. What use would it be to send a chamar boy to college? The money-lender refused to give money for my admission fees. But my mother was determined to send me to college. She sold her ear-rings, paid my fees and even bought me a bicycle. I started attending classes.
I used to be good-looking. One day, a girl studying for the BA placed her hand on her heart on seeing me and said to her friends, "I think something’s dropped out of here." Another day, I found another girl of the BA course staring at me. She wore her hair in two plaits. In those days, girls wore their hair like that. She had a very sharp, very pretty nose. One day, I was cycling to my friend Charan Singh’s village when I saw the lovely girl with two plaits cycling the other way. Two girls working in the fields stopped her. She got off her bicycle and started laughing and talking with them. She was a daughter of the sardars of Charan’s village.
Then one day, the college seemed to be in mourning. Charan told me that she had died. The lovely girl with two plaits was no more. She had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. "She was studying when it happened, up on the terrace. She died at the hospital."
I started taking my writing more seriously. I wrote a rubai on the uncertainty of life and read it at the weekly meeting of the college’s literary club. I did not think it was much of a poem, but it became very popular and led to much jealousy.
News of Naxalbari spread like wildfire. I was working as a daily-wage labourer then. Carrying loads up and down the stairs, I felt strangely energised. It was like a great opportunity. What I had not been able to go and do in Vietnam, I would achieve here…
Before that, my experience of college had been very different from that of the school. I found that the professors teaching me English, Punjabi and economics treated me just as they did anyone else. They did not belittle me in any way. Our English professor used to say that even if his students did not pass the examination, they would definitely learn the English language. He used to be very particular about the pronunciation of the letter ‘H’. I did well in the tests. But the success of my rubai annoyed other students, and after that I was excluded from poets’ meets.
There was a turning point in my life when I started tutoring a young boy studying in class eight. A cup of tea every day and a rupee every third day was my remuneration. But I was happy teaching Sitha, and really worked hard. In turn, he paid heed to everything I said and had a lot of regard for me.
But my classmates had not quite forgiven me that rubai, written to that lovely girl with two plaits. They could not bring her back from the dead so that she might mock me. Instead, there came another Sikh girl with two plaits. Her face was pockmarked, but to me she looked just a wee bit like the girl I had fancied in college. One day, while I was teaching Sitha, she came in with her notebook and started drawing attention to herself. While she was there, the electricity failed. It was dark, and I had a radium ring on my finger. "What a beautiful ring," she said and leaned over me. I could smell the pungent mustard oil in her hair. She asked me to come to her house to teach her. Since I was already a Marxist by ideology, I thought it my responsibility to teach. So I went there.
Then came the terrible insult. She gave me tea in a steel tumbler. After I had finished, her mother picked it up with a pair of tongs and threw it into the stove to purify it by fire. Then she picked it up with the tongs again and dipped it into water. The clatter of the tumbler being thrown about echoed in my ears. About that time, I recall having lost my mental balance somewhat. My parents had found a girl from my caste for me in Bahilolpur and an engagement was agreed upon, but the girl’s family broke it off later.
My poems made me many friends; Harjit Mangat was one of them. He was very attached to me but would often run me down. But when Preetlarhi, a leading literary Punjabi journal of those times, published my poem, he was silenced. He would often say: "No matter how hard we try, we can never be Lal Singh Dil." He would try very hard to purge my mind of my romantic stories about upper-caste girls. And it was on his suggestion that I went to Bahilolpur to do my Basic Teacher’s Training course. It was there that I wrote the poems on the wretched of the earth amidst whom I had grown up — the bonded labourers, the daily-wagers, the roving tribes and the poorest of the poor. In my poem Evening Tide, they seem to be Indian martyrs who refused to be crushed by the Aryans and continue their struggle even today.
In Bahilolpur, I had to read a lot of rubbish. Thousands of pages on Leninist thought. And an equal weight of And quiet flows the Don, which ran into four thick volumes. It was literary, but I couldn’t quite comprehend the writer’s philosophy. I had read many such books; the Russians had found a fine way of selling their scrap paper to Indian buyers. But I kept writing poetry and became active at literary meetings. I remember a rather influential member of the Likhari Sabha, Pandit Om Prakash, who was also a member of the Communist Party of India. He wanted a resolution passed against the events in China. "All that is happening there is wrong. They are evacuating all religious buildings." I said, "Let them." Anyway, no meeting was called and no resolution passed by the Likhari Sabha.
At that time, I had written a poem called Pests in which I compared Mao’s chairmanship — without naming him, of course — to a weeding tool in the hands of a gardener in the rainy season. I was happy when Lakeer published this poem. Mao was then the subject of hot debate on campus.
I was invited to read my poems at Gurusar Sudhar College. The mood was charged, like at a wrestling match. When my name was announced, I got up and said that I would read my poem, Evening Tide. The students in the audience laughed affectionately. I told them that Evening Tide could well be read in the afternoon. Afterwards, everyone turned serious. The principal gave a little speech on creating the right mood for serious poetry. The hottest question of the period was whether the Cultural Revolution would precede the political revolution, or vice versa.
News of Naxalbari spread like wildfire. I was working as a daily-wage labourer then. Carrying loads up and down the stairs, I felt strangely energised. It was like a great opportunity. What I had not been able to go and do in Vietnam, I would achieve here…
Introduction • The poems
The Little Magazine,Vol I, issue 5
Lal Singh Dil was the first member of his low-caste family to finish school. At university, he turned activist and joined the far left Naxalite movement. He now runs a highway tea-stall at Samrala, Punjab, and writes one-line poems to be painted on the back of long-haul trucks
Tuesday, 1 July 2008
CALAMITY AND PREJUDICE !THE LONG FORGOTTEN BATTLE AGAINST UNTOUCHABILITY
by Subhash Gatade
[January 18, 2005]
There's something even an earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale and a tsunami that kills over 1 lakh people can't crack : the walls between caste. ..That's why at Ground Zero in Nagapattinam, Murugeshan and his family of four have been living on the streets in Nambiarnagar. That's why like 31 other families, they have been thrown out of relief camps. Š( Indian Express - 7 Jan 2005)There are some protagonists of Hinduism who say that Hinduism is a very adaptable religion, that it can adjust itself to everything and absorb anything. I do not think many people would regard such a capacity in a religion as a virtue to be proud of, just as no one would think highly of a child because it has developed the capacity to eat dung, and digest it. But that is another matter. It is quite true that Hinduism can adjust itself... can absorb many things. The beef-eating Hinduism (or strictly speaking Brahminism which is the proper name of Hinduism in its earlier stage) absorbed the non-violence theory of Buddhism and became a religion of vegetarianism. But there is one thing which Hinduism has never been able to do - namely to adjust itself to absorb the Untouchables or to remove the bar of Untouchability.- BR Ambedkar(Quoted in 'Holy Cow and Unholy Dalit' Siriyavan Anand, Himal, Nov 2002)I'Tsunami can't wash this away : hatred for Dalits : In Ground Zero, Dalits thrown out of relief camps, cut out of food, water supplies, toilets, Š'.The main news in one of the leading newspapers revealed it all. The centuries old prejudice against the 'lower communities' was perfectly intact despite an unprecedented tragedy called Tsunami. The report had details of the way Nagapattinam, one of the worst affected district in Tamilnadu, was coping with the changed situation.Apart from the regular information about the relief work undertaken and graphic details about the plight of the victims the reporter had presented the flip side of relief which normally remains out of focus in any such coverage of natural calamity. It described the way in which dalits were discriminated even during relief distribution after the infamous Tsunami. It told how 'doors were being slammed in the face of the Dalit survivors here.' The role of the government which 'instead of 'ensuring justice, was reinforcing the divide' had also come under scanner.It had details of how Dalits from 63 affected villages from Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu were facing the brunt of the powerful Meenavar fishermen (a Most Backward Class): being thrown out of relief camps, pushed to the rear of food and water lines, not being allowed to take water from UNICEF facilities and in some cases not even being allowed to use the toilet. ( Indian Express January 8, 2005)It does not need an expert's grassrootbased study to know that Nagapattinam is an exception. A roundup of the various relief camps can reveal to any concerned observer that the division between the dalits and the rest of the populace sanctified by religion and legitimised by the graded hierarchy masquerading as tradition despite more than half century of living as a republic, runs quite deep. And the treatment meted out to the dalits was a 'logical outcome' of this.Interestingly while the said paper continued with its exclusive story and even wrote an edit on the same theme asking the government to take action against the perpetrators of injustice to the dalits, the rest of the national media preferred to gloss over this aspect. Possibly the silence maintained by the others was in tune with the understanding expressed by the local district collector who 'did not want to disturb the social equilibrium' at this crucial juncture. A social activist present there indignantly told the reporter ,"..No one is willing to take up the matter at the field level as this could complicate things." It appeared that they did not want to precipitate friction between the two castes by trying to address it during this crisis. OfcourseIt could be also be said that when an unprecedented tragedy was unfolding before their own eyes these 'wathchdogs of democracy' did not want to add to the emotional burden of their already anguished readers / viewers with a routine matter like caste discrimination. Perhaps they were true to an extent that the inbuilt caste and gender based discrimination with its incessant violence in our society has become so common that it has started appearing 'normal and routine.'And this despite the fact that the dalits in Tamilnadu as in rest of the country were facing the brunt of caste oppression never seen before.It is only in recent times that we have been witness to some of the worst atrocities against them. Ranging from the killing of five dalits in Jhajjar, Haryana supposedly for skinning a dead cow to the forcible consumption of urine to three dalit youths in the recent incident in Abohar, Punjab; ranging from the killing of two dalit youths in Saharanpur, U.P. last year for winning a cricket match against the upper caste people to the branding of two dalits Murugesan and Ramasamy with hot iron rods and forcing them to feed dried human excreta to each other in Thinniam, Tiruchi district, Tamilnadu we have been witness to incidents after incidents wherein the people who consider themselves above the dalits in caste hierarchy have tried to wreak havoc on them to reinforce and perpetuate their ageold dominance in a brutal manner.Ofcourse it need be underlined at this juncture that the growing atrocities against the dalits in recent times should not be construed as their continued submission to the dictats of the varna people in any manner. Rather it is an indicator of the fact that they have risen in rebellion at various levels and have challenged their dominance in all fields of life. For an outsider the revolt may appear disorganised and suffering from clearcut direction, 'experts from the academia' may castigate these subalterns for their 'opportunist leadership' which has turned them into 'vote banks', but all this criticism notwithstanding it is a fact as clear as sunlight that Dalits at various levels have refused to take it lying down. They have decided to chart a new path under the guidance of the thoughts of Dr B.R. Ambedkar or for that matter Marxism-Leninism. And this assertion has a long history.Anyone familiar with the social history of Tamilnadu must be aware that the first massacre of Dalits in post independence times took place in Tamilnadu only (village Killevanamani, district Thanjavur) wherein more than 35 people mostly women and children were burnt alive by the marauders belonging to the locally powerful upper caste gentry way back in 1969. The pretext for the massacre is worth emphasising. The dalits and other oppressed people from adjoining areas had waged a powerful struggle for better wages and the upper caste landlords found it impossible to break the unity and solidarity of these people. And they preferred the shortest route of killing them and compelling them to surrender before their might.The way judiciary responded to this heinous massacre also shows how the various institutions of state have connived in the maintenance of the varna statusquo. The session court had then set all the accused free with a specious argument that since they belonged to upper caste it was not expected that they would have gone walking to the dalit hamlette.An incident from the same Tamilnadu which happened two years ago is also indicative of the changed ambience. As Siriyavan Anand elaborates in his article ( Himal, November 2002) :"On 7 September, Sankan, a dalit, was drinking tea with a friend at a shop in Goundampatti, Nilakottai taluq, Dindigul district when he was attacked by six caste Hindus. He was verbally abused and beaten up, after which an off-duty constable urinated in his mouth. Sankan had earned the wrath of the caste Hindu gounder community because he had aggressively pursued his right to a piece of land of which he had been cheated.."It is true that repression breeds revolt and it engenders further repression. Same can be said of the forward march of the dalits interspersed with brutal atrocities as a last ditch attempt by the priviledged sections of our society to put the clock back. Ofcourse it is a marker of the 'insensitivity' and 'inhumanity' which gets ingrained in everyone's minds vis-à-vis this supposedly great institution called caste that even a collosal human tragedy precipitated by a natural calamity does not compel them to rethink their archaic notions.2. "[U]ntouchability, is a kind of disease of the Hindus..it is a mental twist.. I do not know how my friend is going to untwist the twist which the Hindus have got for thousands of years unless they are all sent to some kind of hospital.' Dr B.R.Ambedkar , 1954 (Quoted in Bhagwan Das, 95 :53).The plight of the dalits trying to come to terms with life alongwith other sections of reminded one of a few of the headlines which appeared in the mainstream newspapers around three years ago. These reports communicated to the layreader how post Gujarat quake relief and rehabilitation work had at places bypassed the dalits and the Muslims. There were reports about the siphoning of the relief material to the relief camps inhabited by the non dalit or upper caste hindus and how consciously these sections were left out of its ambit in many cases.One thing is very clear in all such cases. Giving the exigencies of the situation no action would have been taken against neither those Gujarat people involved in discriminating against the dalits and Muslims nor one can expect any action against the Nagapattinam gentry which humiliated the dalits. It would once again vindicate what the n number of reports brought out by the National Commission of SC and STs or the National Human Rights Commission or independent groups committed to the defence of human rights have been repeating ad infinitum. Their has been no divergence of opinion among them about the fact that the different institutions of the state ranging from the police to the judiciary have rather preferred to look the other way or have connived with the powers that be in saving the guilty when dalits and other oppressed sections were humiliated or were subjected to violence.It is clear that whereas the state has formally abolished 'Untouchability' vide article 17 of the Constitution and has forbidden its practice in any form and made it punishable and despite its providing number of safeguards to protect it from all types of exploitation and ensure its allround development, the situation on the ground keeps reminding one of the bygone era. All of us are aware that Article 15 the constitution has mandated that no citizen shall on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of general public. But one has no other option but to concurr with the view of the ex justice of the Supreme Court Mr V.K. Krishna Aiyar that the laws formulated for the protection of the dalits have been effetively been turned into 'paper tigers'.The 'Report on Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes' (NHRC, 2004,Delhi) rightly underlined the way the 'state has failed in this respect' on 'several fronts'. According to the conclusions of the report the state has failed on 'several fronts'. These are 'failure to effectively implement the laws relating to atrocities against SCs and STs' which is 'reflected both in respect of preventing violence from taking place' as well as in the 'inability to punish perpetrators of violence after the crime is committed'; 'failure to act against its own agencies involved in the commission of violence ;' failure to strengthen the watchdog institutions' etc. 'The failure of the state vis-à-vis mobilization of caste Hindus in favour of social democracy embedded in the constitution and various laws and state policies' can also be considered palpable which has 'created ambivalence in its intentions and contradictions in its actions' ..The Sixth Report of the National Commission for SCs and STs (1999-2000 and 2000-2001) had expressed its deep sense of dissatisfaction over the way all these measures are implemented. While commenting that "..the number of cases registered under Prevention of Civil Rights act and SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) act has been showing downward trend.. as a healthy development "it exposes the way this reduction in no of cases is achieved . According to the preface, " But from its reviews with various state governments the commission is of the view that a large number of cases go unregistered, mainly because of the reluctance on part of the police officers to register the cases and also because of lack of awareness among the members of these communities about the provisions of these acts.In addition, there are delays in investigation, collusion with offenders and manipulation of witnesses and evidence which all contribute to reduce the effectiveness of these protective legislations." (See Preface Page II) In the same vein it tells us that in most of the states neither the meetings of the monitoring and vigilace committees are held regularly nor any special courts are set up to deal with cases of dalit atrocities.It also adds: " The question of setting up exclusive special courts, particularly in the states having large pendency, needs serious consideration of the government. The rate of convictions in various states ranges from 5 to 10 percent and it is necessary to examine the reasons for such low convictions rates and for taking urgent corrective action."(ibid) According to the commission ," The apex court has held that the Special courts cannot directly entertain the cases under these acts, without following commital proceedings. It is, therefore, necessary to amend these acts suitably to authorise the special courts to admit cases under these acts directly."(ibid).One can go on mentioning the various schemes or the affirmative action programmes run by the government supposedly for the empowerment of the dalits and also give details about the systematic manner in which a conscious attempt is on to deny what is due to them. One would be surprised to know that not only thousands of posts which are meant for them especially from the upper class category have been lying vacant for years together but there are thousands and thousands of people belonging to the non dalit category who have manipulated jobs meant for these sections by procurring 'false certificates' and the concerned authorities are sitting over this despite repeated complaints by the aggrieved people. The seriousness of the phenomenon of false certificates can be gauged from the fact that the last two annual reports of the National SC and ST Commission ( since bifurcated) have devoted a chapter each to discuss the gravity of the situation arising out of this.This makes it crystalclear that the state has to show firm political will , get ready to make amends to ameliorate the situation and move beyond pious rhetoric if it is serious about the commitments it made with the 'other people' exactly 54 years back while promulgating the constitution. But one cannot expect that their would be any radical departure from the way in which the state has been functioning.The question naturally arises what is the way out for the dalits and all those forces who are fighting for the human rights dalits ? How does one address this typical situation where we have before us a state which has decorated its statue books with many a dalit friendly laws to showcase it to the civilized world and effectively sitting over them.The message is clear that unless and until there is pressure from the people to implement the laws or correct the infirmities inherent even 'hundred Tsunamis cannot the break the wall of prejudice' between the communities. But whether the much trumpetted 'civil society' is ready for it !3".. you were born where you were born and faced a future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society, which spelt out with a brutal clarity, in as many ways as possible, that you are a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence ; you were expected to make peace with mediocrity."-James Baldwin, the African-Amercian writer, "Letter to My Nephew On the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation"( Quoted in 'We, the other People" K.G.Kannabiran, The Hindu)For an outsider it may appear surprising how the 'social nausea' ( to quote Ambedkar) refuses to subside even in times of calamity also. But for someone who is familiar with the Indian social fabric the ageold doctrine of exclusion legitimised and sanctified by the Brahminical ideology culminating in such behaviour is a 'routine matter'. There is need to understand that incidents of such nature (as witnessed in Nagapattinam) demonstrate how this ideology of purity and pollution has permeated deep down the social fabric our society. Discrimination on the basis of caste even while faced with a calamity is a logical outcome of the common sense which gets built up in such an ambience.Ofcourse many people when confronted with such incidents of denial of basic human rights to the dalits and the institutionalisation of such practices prefer to comfirt themselves with a feeling that it is basically a 'rural phenomenon' They churn out statistics or give examples to demonstrate that how villages have become cesspools of backwardness and how they are the prime perpetrators of atrocities against them. A closer look at the situation makes us clear that this formulation is not true. Even a layperson can understand that a particular social phenomenon with a centuries old history does not seize to operate on physical boundaries. Even our Metropolies exhibit this discrimination in myriad ways. A leading social thinker rightly underlines the fact that the prevalence of untouchability which impacts the dalits in its most brutal manner can be considered an added proof of the much much tommed 'unity in diversity' theme of our 'great nation'.The fact is that a large majority of the people who have not yet shed their varna mindset do not want to concede this simple fact. They do not want to recognise that the doctrine of exclusion is an all pervasive phenomenon simply because they themselves are 'beneficiaries of the caste based order.' They have an interest in ( to quote the Report on Prevention of Atrocities against SCs and STs ) perpetuating "[t]he existing unequal social relations" and have "[f]rustrated attempts to democratize the society because through the customary arrangements the dominant castes are assured of 'access to cheap labour' ; 'social control over people'; 'priviledged position with regard to development resources'. Obviously they are not bothered with the clear exposure of the the deep contradictions in social values which are for everyone to see wherein while they are ready 'to enjoy all rights and privileges which a democratic liberal society has given them' but deny the 'same very rights and privileges to the SCs'.The benefits accruing to them for not recognising this reality are palpable. May it be the denial of seats to the dalits in academic institutions or the deliberate attempts to deny the benefits due to them vis-v-vis the programmes of affirmative actions or the refusal of the police to even register cases against their perpetrators etc they are the sole beneficiaries from this. If the behaviour of the state leaves much to be desired the 'civil society' loaded with its varna mindset does not at all come out in flying colours. It is part and parcel of the conscious attempts to exclude them from all seats of power or privilege.We are repeatedly told that the Indian society has been quite forthcoming in imbibing new ideas and new technologies and assessing opportunities resulting from the same. Our being the third largest humanpower of scientific and technological personnel is also trumpetted from rooftops. Rulers of this country in recent times have also been clamouring for 'superpower status' on the basis of these strengths.But the alleged readiness our society to accept liberal or progressive ideas from all corners of the world to shape its own lives does not get reflected in its conscious attempts to weed itself of the structured hierarchy which is in existence since ancient times. Our intelligentsia may sing paens to our 'glorious past' and but has never been forthcoming in addressing the real problems faced by the disprivileged. Infact a close look at the social composition of our educational and different academic institutions or for that matter the different media houses which are inhabited by them makes it evident how they have remained inegalitarian till date.We can call ourselves modern but with the continuance and perpetuation of outdated customs, traditions and the ever widening gap between our personal and social lives we have demonstrated once again that we have yet to come out of this ambivalence between modernity and tradition.The wee hours of the 21 st century have presented before us a difficult task, the task of reordering our society which denies social equality to others and which exercises control over bodies and lives of other people.All of us have been witness as well participant in the campaign to help the victims of Tsunami at some level or the other. We have demonstrated how people not only belonging to different faiths or denominations but also wearing their atheism or agnosticism on their sleeves came together to help affected people. But it is a moot question why 'Tsunami faced by the dalits daily' has escaped our attention till date.
( Subhash Gatade, M.Tech from BHU (1981) is a writer by profession and social activist by choice. Regularly writes for Hindi, English and Marathi newspapers and magazines. Edits a Hindi journal 'Sandhan')