Monday, 22 June 2009

The Ravi Dasis of Punjab: Global Contours Of Caste and Religious Strife

Surinder S Jodhka

The attack in May on two visiting religious leaders of Ravi
Dasis in Vienna, presumably by a group of local militant
Sikhs, sparked off widespread violence in Punjab.
Though most of the violence by Ravi Dasi dalits was
directed against public property and reflected their
general anger at the Vienna incident, the mainstream
media was quick to interpret it as yet another instance of
caste conflict within Sikhism, viz, between dalit Sikhs
and upper caste Sikhs. Such misrepresentations of caste
and religious realities of Punjab today could lead to a
communal divide between dalits and mainstream
Sikhism. Based on an empirical study of the Punjabi Ravi
Dasis, the paper tries to provide a historical perspective
on caste and religion in Punjab today.

The recent attack on two visiting religious leaders of Ravi
Dasis in Vienna presumably by a group of local militant
Sikhs sparked off widespread violence in towns of Punjab.
Though most of the violence by Ravi Dasi dalits was directed
against public property and reflected their general anger at the
Vienna incident, the popular media in India was quick to interpret
it as yet another instance of caste conflict within Sikhism, viz,
between dalit Sikhs and upper caste Sikhs. This was not only a
wrong interpretation of the unfortunate incidents of violence in
Vienna and Punjab, it also misrepresented the complex realities
of caste and religious identity in contemporary Punjab. Though
the Ravi Dasi dalits of Punjab treat the Sikh holy book Guru
Granth with reverence and their temples are also often called
Gurdwaras, a large majority of them do not identify with the Sikh
religion. Ravi Dasis have emerged as a strong and autonomous
caste-religious community, an outcome of vibrant dalit identity
movements in Punjab over the last (more than) eight decades.
Their reverence for the Guru Granth is primarily because it also
contains the writings of Guru Ravi Das. Over the years Ravi Dasis
have also evolved their own symbols and practices of worship,
which distinguish them from the Sikhs of Punjab. While caste is
certainly an important source of social dissension in Punjab and
a reason for the Ravi Dasis to evolve an autonomous religious
identity, they do not see their faith as being in an antagonistic
relationship with contemporary Sikhism.
Drawing from my ongoing work on dalit religious movements,
this paper attempts to provide a brief historical introduction to the
Ravi Dasi community of Punjab and their evolving caste-religious
identity. Seen in this historical context, the street violence
Punjab following the Vienna attack on 24 May 2009 leading to
the death of a senior Ravi Dasi religious leader would appear
like a case of assertion of the Ravi Dasis’ political strength and a
statement of their united identity than a case of caste conflict, as it
has been popularly (mis)interpreted by the popular
1 Caste Numbers in Colonial Punjab
The religious demography of Punjab has always been very different
from the country as a whole. A majority of its population
(nearly 60%) identifies with Sikhism, a religion that theologically
decries caste. Prior to the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947,
more than half of the Punjab identified with Islam, which similarly
decries caste. However, caste-based divisions and differences
have been quite prominent in the region. More than one-fourth of
its population has been treated as “outcaste” by the historically
dominant sections of the Punjabi society. Caste was not simply
an ideological reality. It also shaped land relations and conditioned
entitlements and rights of communities. Dalits wereinvariably among
the most deprived, materially, and excluded,
socially and culturally.

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

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

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

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

The anxiety about numbers among the neo-religious elite of
the Hindus and Sikhs also had important implications for the
Punjabi dalits. Through the newly launched social reform movements,
the Hindu and Sikh leaders began to work with dalits. The
Arya Samaj in Punjab started the shudhi movement wherein
they encouraged the “untouchables” to “purify” themselves and
become part of the mainstream Hinduism. It also encouraged
dalits to send their children to schools being run by the Samaj.
Similarly, the Sikh reformers began to decry caste publicly and it
was mainly through a claim to castelessness that they argued for
a distinctiveness of Sikhs from the Hindus (Jodhka 2000).

Ad Dharm Movement

It was in this context that the Ad Dharm movement emerged in
Punjab. Though the idea had already begun to take shape during
the early 1920s, it took off only with the arrival of Mangoo Ram
on the scene. Mangoo Ram was the son of an enterprising Chamar
of village Mangowal of the Hoshiarpur district of Doaba subregion
of Punjab. As was the case with dalits in rural Punjab during
the early 19th century, his family had to bear the stigma of
untouchability and social exclusion. However, his father was very
enterprising and had been able to make some money through
leather trade
Like some others of his caste community, Mangoo Ram acquired
secular education in a school run by the Arya Samaj.
Migrationto the west had already begun to be seen in the Doaba
sub-region of Punjab as a desirable source of social and cultural
mobility. His father mobilised some money and sent him to the US
for better paying work. While in California, Mangoo Ram was
influenced by left-wing ideas of his contemporaries from Punjab
and got involved with the Gadar movement. He came back to
Punjab in 1925, motivated to work with his people. On returning
home, he set up a school for lower caste children with the help of
the Arya Samaj, but very soon distanced himself from the Samaj
and joined hands with some other members of his community
who were trying to initiate an autonomous identity movement
among the local dalits (for details see Juergensmeyer 1988).

The Ad Dharm movement saw itself as a religious movement.
Its proponents advocated that the “untouchables” were a separate
qaum, a distinct religious community similar to the Muslims,
Hindus, and Sikhs, and should be treated as such by the rulers.
Invoking the then popular “racial-origin” theories of caste, they
argued that Ad Dharm has always been the religion of the
dalits and that the qaum had existed from time immemorial
(ibid: 45). Despite stiff opposition from the local Hindu
the colonial Census of 1931 listed the Ad Dharmis as a
LP_SA_SSJodhka5June09_PC3.indd 80 06/11/2009 11:24:41 AM
separate religious community. In the very first conference of the
organisation, they declared:

We are not Hindus. We strongly request the government not to list us
as such in the census. Our faith is not Hindu but Ad Dharm. We are not
a part of Hinduism, and Hindus are not a part of us (cited in ibid: 74).

The emphasis on Ad Dharm being a separate religion, a qaum,
was to undermine the identity of caste. As a separate qaum, Ad
Dharmis were equal to other qaums recognised by the colonial
state, the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Mangoo Ram also expected
to bring other untouchable communities into the fold of Ad
Dharm and emerge as a viable community at the regional level.
A total of 4,18,789 persons reported themselves as Ad Dharmis
in the 1931 Punjab Census, almost equal to the Christian populace
of the province. They accounted for about 1.5% of the total
population of Punjab and around a tenth of the total low-caste
population of the province. Nearly 80% of the low castes of
Jallandhar and Hoshiarpur districts reported themselves as
Ad Dharmis (ibid: 77).

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

However, despite its success, the movement could not maintain
its momentum for very long and began to dissipate soon after
its grand success in 1931. According to the popular understanding,
the causes of the decline of Ad Dharm movement lay in its success.
Its leaders joined mainstream politics. Mangoo Ram himself,
along with some of his close comrades, became members of the
Punjab Legislative Assembly. The caste issue was gradually taken
over by the emerging pan-Indian movement of the dalits and it
finally merged with it. The Ad Dharm Mandal began to see itself
as a social and religious organisation and in 1946 decided to
change its name to Ravi Das Mandal, “entrusting the political
work to All India Scheduled Castes Federation in conformity with
rest of India” (Juergensmeyer 1988:153)
2 From Ad Dharm to Ravi Dasi

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

Ad Dharm lost its meaning after we got eight seats reserved for us
when the elections were first held in the province. Our candidates won
from seven of the eight seats. Mangoo Ram too was elected to the
Assembly during the next election in the year 1945-46
Another activist put it more emphatically
In 1931 we were recognised as a separate religion by the colonial census
but by the Act of 1935 we became one of the scheduled castes, one
among others in the same category. Communal award had recognised
our autonomy, which had to be surrendered by B R Ambedkar under
the Poona Pact. Under the Poona Pact we were given reservations but
only if accepted to be part of the Hindu religion. ...However, even
though we legally became a part of Hinduism, it did not stop discrimination
against us. Even now it continues though it is less pronounced
and more subtle.2

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

…at one time Ad Dharm movement was very popular in Punjab. However,
slowly, with growing influence of Congress politics, its leaders
started leaving. Master Gurbanta Sing was the first to leave Ad
Dharm Mandal. He joined the Congress Party. Similarly some other
leaders also left the movement to become part of the mainstream
national politics. Eventually even Mangoo Ram joined the Congress
Party. The movement was over.3

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

Equally important for its decline is perhaps the fact that though
Ad Dharm articulated itself as a religious identity and demanded
official recognition as a religious movement, it was essentially a
political movement. As a prominent member of the community
told us during an interview:
It had no holy book or scripture of its own, it had no rituals of its own,
it had no pilgrimage places, or sacred symbols…. How could it have
survived as a religion?4

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

Ravi Dasi Identity

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

We helped give them a better life and made them into a qaum.
We gave them gurus to believe in and something to hope for (as in
Juergensmeyer 1988: 155 emphasis added).

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

Even though during its early days the Ad Dharm movement
had aspired to bring all the “ex-untouchable” communities together
into the new faith, their appeal had remained confined
mostly to the Chamars of Doaba. After its listing as one of the SCs
in the Scheduled List, it became obvious and official that Ad
Dharmis were a section of the Chamars. Guru Ravi Das appeared
to be an obvious choice for the Ad Dharmis as a religious symbol
for the community. Though he was born in Uttar Pradesh, he belonged
to the Chamar caste. The fact that his writings were included
in the Sikh holy book, Adi Granth, which had been compiled
in Punjab and was written in the local language, made Ravi
Das even more effective and acceptable.5

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

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

However, notwithstanding this official classification of all SCs
into the mainstream religions of the region, everyday religious
life of the Punjab dalits is marked by enormous diversity and
plurality. Apart from the popular syncretic religious traditions
that have been in existence for a long time in the region, the
dalitsof Punjab, and elsewhere in India, have also developed an
urge for autonomous faith identities, particularly for getting out
of Hinduism. They view Hinduism as the source of their humiliating
social position in the caste system. This urge became much
stronger with the emergence of a nascent educated middle class
among them during the later phase of British colonial rule. The
Ad Dharm movement of 1920s (discussed above) was a clear
example of this
Historically, dalits have chosen two different paths to this
move away from Hindusim. The first of these was conversion to
other religions such as Christianity, Islam or Sikhism, which do
not theologically support caste-based inequalities and divisions.
The second path has been to look for indigenous egalitarian
faith traditions that emerged in opposition to the system of
caste hierarchy. The Ravi Dasi movement can be seen as an
exampleof this path.

Guru Ravi Das

Ravi Das was born sometime in 1450 AD in the north Indian town
of Banaras in an “untouchable” caste, the Chamars and died in
1520 (Omvedt 2008:7). Like many of his contemporaries, he
travelled extensively and had religious dialogues with saint
poets in different parts of the north India. Over time he acquired
the status of a saint. However, his claims to religious authority
were frequently challenged by the local brahmins who complained
against his “sacrilegious behaviour” to the local rulers.
His followers believe that every time the king summoned Ravi
Das, he managed to convince the political authorities about his
genuine “spiritual powers” through various miraculous acts. He
is believed to have also visited Punjab and met with Guru Nanak,
founder of the Sikh faith, at least thrice. He also gave most of his
writings to Guru Nanak, which eventually became part of the
Sikh holy book, Guru Granth.6

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

The regal realm with the sorrowless name:
they call it Begumpura, a place with no pain,
No taxes or cares, nor own property there,
no wrongdoing, worry, terror or torture.
Oh my brother, I have come to take it as my own,
my distant home, where everything is right.
That imperial kingdom is rich and secure,
where none are third or second – all are one;
Its food and drink are famous, and those who live there
dwell in satisfaction and in wealth.
They do this or that, they walk where they wish,
they stroll through fabled places unchallenged.
Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
those who walk beside me are my friends.
– (Hawley and Juergensmeyer 1988: 32)

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

Since the advent of Vedic Age, caste system and untouchability have
been prevalent in India. In passage of time, the socio-religious inhibitions
became more strict and cruel. The untouchables were given an
ignoble place. They were debarred from acquiring knowledge, own
property and worship of God…. These conditions prevailed in India
for more than 3,000 years (Jassi 2001:24).

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

He was a protagonist of equality, oneness of God, human rights and
universal brotherhood….He was a suave socio-religious reformer, a
thinker, a theosophist, a humanist, a poet, a traveller, a pacifist and
above all a towering spiritual figure… He was a pioneer of socialistic
thought and strengthened noble values (ibid: 25).

Ravi Das’ utopia was also significantly different from some of
the later writings on “a desirable India” produced by people like
Gandhi. As Gail Omvedt rightly comments, Ravi Das

…was the first to formulate an Indian version of utopia in his song
“Begumpura”. Begumpura, the ‘city without sorrow’, is a casteless,
classless society; a modern society, one without a mention of temples;
an urban society as contrasted with Gandhi’s village utopia of Ram
Rjaya…. (Omvedt 2008:7).

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

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

3 R avi Dasis Today

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

Perhaps the most important of the Guru Ravi Das deras in
Punjab today is the dera located in village Ballan, around 10 km
from the town of Jalandhar. It is locally known as Dera Sachkhand
Ballan. Though the Dera was set up by Sant Pipal Dass sometime
during the early 20th century,7 it is identified more with his son,
Sant Sarwan Dass. In fact, among its followers, it is also known as
Dera Sant Sarwan Dass. As per the popular myth narrated to us
by various respondents during the field work, which we also
found in published leaflets, the history of the dera goes like this:

Sant Sarwan Dass was born in a village called Gill Patti in Bhatinda
district of Punjab. He lost his mother when he was five years old. To
help his son overcome the loss, his father, Pipal Dass, decided to travel
with him. After visiting a few places, they came to village Ballan. The
elder brother of Sarwan Dass had earlier lived in the same village. On
the outskirts of the village Ballan, they found a Pipal tree that was
completely dry and dead. However, when Pipal Dass watered the tree,
life returned to it and its leaves turned green. This, for him, was an
indication of the place being spiritually blessed. The tree also made
the child Sarwan Dass happy. The father and son decided to build a
hut close to the tree and began to live there.
After the death of his father in 1928, Sant Sarwan Dass expanded his
activities. He opened a school and started teaching Gurumukhi and
the message of Guru Granth to young children. He also persuaded
his followers to send their children to the school. “Parents who
did not educate their children were their enemies”, he used to tell to
his followers.

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

Though Dera Ballan is a religious centre with a focus on
preaching universalistic values and spirituality, it actively identifies
itself with local dalit issues and dalit politics. Not only do they
foreground Ravi Das’ message of building a casteless society,
they have also been actively identified with dalit activism.
Sant Sarwan Dass kept in active touch with Mangoo Ram
during the Ad Dharm movement and Mangoo Ram too visited
the dera to communicate his message to dalit masses of the region.
During one of his visit to Delhi, he also met B R Ambedkar, who
“showed great respect to Sant Sarwan Dass Ji”. In one of his
letters to Ambedkar, Sant Sarwan Dass described him as “a great
son of the community”.8

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

The message of Ravi Das had thus far reached the Punjabi dalits
primarily through the Sikh Holy Scripture, the Guru Granth.
However, the religious institutions of Sikhism were mostly controlled
by “upper castes” among them.9 The continued presence
of caste differences and hierarchy in the region made Sant Sarwan
Dass look for internal resources, within the caste community,
for further expansion of the dera activities. Ravi Das was the
obvious symbol for the Chamar dalits for building a community
of believers.

Having established a separate religious centre in Punjab Sant
Sarwan Dass decided to travel to Banaras in 1950, hoping to visit
the shrine at the birth place of his Guru, Guru Ravi Das. However,
to his surprise and disappointment, he could not find any shrine
or place in his name. Nothing existed in the name Guru Ravi Das
in the holy city of Banaras. He took it upon himself the task of
building a temple in the name of Ravi Das in the city. With the
help of his followers at the Dera Ballan, he purchased a piece of
land on the outskirts of Banaras where on 16 June 1965 he laid
the foundation stone of the Ravi Das temple. The first phase of
construction of this temple was completed in the year 1972.
Though the leaders were excited about building the Ravi Das
temple in Banaras, the disciples, who are mostly from Punjab,
were apprehensive. How were they going to visit Banaras?
“When the subject came up for discussion with the Sant Sarwan
Das Ji, he said we will hire a special train which will go all the
way from Jalandhar to Banaras once every year, at the time of
the birth anniversary of Ravi Das. This train will be called
Begampura Express.” 10

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

4 The Diaspora Effect
The second, and perhaps more important and interesting, phase
in the history of Ravi Das movement in Punjab begins during the
1990s, with the phase of globalisation. Along with other Punjabis,
a large number of Chamars of the Doaba region had migrated to
countries of the western hemisphere during the 1950s and 1960s.
Though there are no exact figures available, but quoting the
Indian consular office, Juergenmeyer claims that in the United
Kingdom “the percentage of scheduled castes within the total
Punjabi community was as high as 10%. The rest were largely Jat
Sikhs” (Juergenmeyer 1988: 246).11

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

The Chamars, who came to Britain expecting to find life different,
take offence at the upper caste Sikhs’ attitude towards them. They
earn as much as the Jat Sikhs, sometimes more, and occasionally find
themselves placed by the British in command over them – a Chamar
foreman superintending a Jat Sikh work crew – much to the displeasure
of the latter…The scheduled castes can afford to act more bravely
in Britain since they have now entered a new context for competing
with the Jat Sikhs. In the Punjab the cards were stacked against them,
but in Britain they have a fresh start, and the ideology of Ad Dharm has
prepared them to take advantage of it (Juergensmeyer 1988: 247-48).

The migrant dalits felt this bias in the gurdwaras which were
mostly controlled by the Jats and other upper caste Sikhs. Given
their numbers and position in the local economy dalits did not
find it difficult to assert for equal status and dignity. They began
to set up their own autonomous associations in the name of Guru
Ravi Das. The first two came up in the UK, in Birmingham and
Wolverhampton, in 1956 (ibid: 248). While initially, over the first
20-25 years of their migration, they simply built their own community
organisations and separate gurdwaras wherever they
could, over the years they also began to influence the “homeland”.
The growing availability of new communication channels
such as internet and satellite television during the early/mid-1990s
made it easier for them to renew an active relationship with
Punjab and the Ravi Dasi community at home.

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

It is the brethren from the west who first understood the value of our
deras and the need to strengthen them. They gave huge donations
when they came to pay a visit. The number of visitors from abroad and
frequency of their visits also increased during the 1990s. They invited
the local Sants to their countries. All this gave a boost to the Ravi
Dasi movement.12

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

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

5 Conclusions

As I have argued elsewhere (Jodhka 2002, 2004), despite the
cultural influence of Islam and Sikhism, caste has survived in
Punjab and has worked as a disabling institution for those located
at the margins of Punjabi society, the dalits. However, over the
years caste relations have undergone some major changes. Not
only has the ideological hold of caste nearly disappeared, structurally
also dalits have moved away from tradition-based caste
occupations, and in some regions, even from the local agrarian
economy. Their growing economic autonomy also finds its expression
in their urge for cultural and religious autonomy.
Though as a religious system Sikhism is opposed to caste-based
divisions and denials, its social and religious institutions have
come to be dominated by the traditionally and economically
dominant caste groups. It is in opposition to this dominance that
Ravi Dasis have tried to carve out an autonomous identity for
themselves. Though nearly half of all the dalits of Punjab enumerate
themselves as Sikhs and some of them have risen to positions
of power within the religious establishment, the Ravi Dasis
prefer to be outside. However, Ravi Dasi gurus maintain cordial
relations with the Sikh religious leadership and some would even
claim to be Sahajdari Sikhs.13 A large majority of the Ravi Dasis of
Doaba region identify with Dera Sachkhand Ballan. To them the
Guru Granth is sacred but they equally respect their living guru.
Their places of worship look like the Sikh gurdwaras and are
sometimes also called as such but there are subtle differences.14
Their prayers, rituals and slogans too sound quite similar to those
of the Sikhs but with subtle changes to distinguish themselves from
mainstream Sikhism, which is by now a well-codified religious
system in itself. A large majority of Ravi Dasis in Punjab also list
themselves as Ad Dharmis, technically Hindu SCs who always
wanted to organise themselves as a separate religious community.
The contemporary realities of caste and religion also raise
some other, perhaps more fundamental, questions about the
way we have understood and conceptualised the processes of
social change in modern times. Historians have been emphasising
that the fuzzy boundaries that existed across communities in
south Asia were made more concrete during the later years of
colonial rule (Oberoi 1994). However, on the ground, at the popular
level, religious practice continues to be characterised by
syncretic fuzziness and diversity. It is perhaps the failure to comprehend
and accept this fluidity and diversity that on the one
hand leads to violent conflicts as it happened in Vienna, and on
the other hand to misleading interpretations of public action, as
the popular media did after the violence in Punjab during the
second half of May 2009.

1 Personal interview in December 2008 with a leading
dalit activist in Jalandhar in Punjab.
2 Personal interview, March 2009.
3 Personal interview in Ballan, Jalandhar in
December 2008.
4 Personal interview in Ballan, Jalandhar in
December 2008.
5 Some of the local dalit leaders also believe that it
was the Hindu nationalists who suggested Ravi
Das as a possible religious symbol to the Chamars.
“In order to make sure that untouchables did not
convert to Sikhism, Islam or Christianity, the
Arya Samajis propagated the symbol of Ravi Das
among Chamars, Valmiki among the Chuhras and
Kabir among the Meghs. That’s how they made
sure that dalit stayed within the Hindu fold”.
While this may be true, the image of Ravi Das as a
Chamar had already been made available to the
people of Punjab by the Sikh Gurus.
6 This discussion is based on Sat Pal Jassi’s book
7 Mark Juergensmeyer in his pioneering work on
the Ad Dharm movement mentions that “When he
(Sant Hiran Das) established his Ravi Das Sabha,
in 1907, in village Hakim… several other deras
including that of Sant Pipal Das, were founded
soon afterward…(Juergensmeyer 1988:87)”.
8 As in a leaflet “Sant Sarwan Dass Ji: A Great Visionary
Sant”, published by Sant Surinder Dass Bawa (nd).
9 Even though Sikhism decries caste, caste-based
divisions and hierarchies have continued to survive
among the Sikhs in Punjab (Jodhka 2002, 2004;
Puri 2004; Judge and Bal 2008).
10 Personal interview at Dera Ballan, December 2008.
11 The total number of Punjabis in United Kingdom
is roughly half a million, (http://indiandiaspora. pdf/chapter10.pdf, 10 April 2009).
12 Personal interview in Jalandhar in October 2008.
13 See Charlene 2008.
14 See Ram 2008.
Breckenridge, C A and Peter van der Veer, ed. (1993):
Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives
on South Asia (Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press).
Charlene, S (2008): “Dalits-Sikhs’ Relation: A Contrasted
Approach”, an unpublished paper.
Cohn, B (1996): Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge:
The British in India (Princeton: Princeton
University Press).
Dirks, N B (2001): Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the
Making of Modern India (Princeton: Princeton
University Press).
Fox, R (1985): The Lions of Punjab: Culture in the Making
(Berkeley: University of California Press).
Grewal, J S (1989): “Changing Sikh Self-image before
Independence” in P C Chatterjee, Self-Images
Identity and Nationalism (Shimla: Indian Institution
of Advanced Studies), pp 187-200.
Hawley, J S and M Juergensmeyer (1988): Songs of
the Saints of India (Delhi: Oxford University
Jassi, Sat Pal (2001): Holy Hymns and Miracles of Guru
Ravi Das Ji (Jalandhar: Shri Guru Ravi Dass Janam
Asthan Public Charitable Trust).
Jodhka, S S (2000): “Prejudice without Pollution?:
Scheduled Castes in Contemporary Punjab”, Journal
of Indian School of Political Economy (special
issue on Scheduled Castes edited by Andre
Beteille), Vol XII (3 and 4), pp 381-402.
– (2004): “Sikhism and the Caste Question: Dalits
and Their Politics in Contemporary Punjab” in
Contributions to Indian Sociology (ns), Volume 23:
– (2002): “Caste and Untouchability in Rural Punjab”,
Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 37 (19), 11 May,
pp 1813-23.
Judge, P and G Bal (2008): “Understanding the Paradox
of Changes among Dalits in Punjab”, Economic
& Political Weekly, Vol 43 (41), pp 49-55.
Juergensmeyer, M (1988): Religious Rebels in the
Punjab: The Social Vision of Untouchables (Delhi:
Ajanta Publications).
Oberoi, H (1994): The Construction of Religious Boundaries:
Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh
Tradition (Delhi: Oxford University Press).
Omvedt, Gail (2008): Seeking Begumpura: The Social
Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals (New Delhi:
Puri, Harish (2004): “The Scheduled Castes in the Sikh
Community: A Historical Perspective” in Harish
Puri (ed.), Dalits in Regional Context (Jaipur: Rawat
Publications), pp 190-224.
Ram, Ronki (2008): “Ravidass Deras and Social Protest
Making Sense of Dalit Consciousness in Punjab
(India)”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol 67,
No 4:1341-64.
Courtesy: Economic & Political Weekly EPW june 13, 2009 vol xliv no 24 79

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Harish K. Puri,

Diversities--religious, cultural, linguistic, economic and
political-- are a known hallmark of Indian society. These
diversities are not confined to the upper castes, since diversities
relating to the position of Dalits in India are enormous. These
cover a wide range of local and regional differences in the
historical evolution of caste hierarchies; in the differential impact
of socio-economic changes and the state's affirmative actions; in
individual and collective Dalit aspirations and coping strategies;
and in the experiences of Dalit political resistance and mobilization
within different regions of India. One simply cannot ignore the fact
that the structure and evolution of caste and untouchability are
socio-historical phenomena which are going to vary and change
according to specific conditions and circumstances.

Weak Brahmanic Influence

The state of Punjab has been, for example, known as a "notable
exception" to the widely prevalent Brahmanic view of caste and
untouchability in India. Denzil Ibbetson, who conducted the first
serious study of Punjab castes in 1881, discovered that Brahmanic
influence was "probably never so strong in Punjab as in most other
parts of India". Scholars of ancient history noticed that Brahmanic
orthodoxy had "practically abandoned" the Punjab region, probably
because of a continuous influx of aggressive people of diverse racial
and cultural characteristics, and shifted quite early in history to
the Indo-Gangetic region. Ibbetson thought that the influence of
Islam in the Punjab may also have weakened Brahmanic influence. He
observed that by religion the Punjab was "more Mohammedan than
Hindu" and that "the people of Punjab are bound by social and tribal
custom far more than by any rules of religion" such as ritual purity.
The different material conditions of life may also have been part of
the reason why the knowledge generated from the experience of life
associated with the Sant tradition of North India was able to
strongly contest the Brahmanic sources of knowledge (Dharamsastras,
Smritis and Puranas) in this region. The teachings of Sufi saints,
Kabir, Ravidas and the Sikh Gurus, who ridiculed Brahminic knowledge
and ritual, appear to have exercised noticeable influence on the
thinking of the people of this region. Later, the struggle for
removal of untouchability, started by the Arya Samaj and the Singh
Sabhas in the last quarter of 19th century, and the provision for
education and upliftment of Dalits all contributed to weakening the
ideological hold of the purity-pollution syndrome. Whereas
untouchability has been less of a problem in Punjab than elsewhere in
India, the material base of caste division and the vested interests
of the dominating landowning caste have proven to be more significant
grounds for discrimination, exploitation and oppression of Dalits.

Another significant feature of Dalit life in this region has been
their use of the weapons of the weak to resist oppression. This is
noticeable in the few Dalit autobiographies and literature in the
Punjabi language, but more importantly in the distinctly Dalit-led
and organized Ad Dharm movement launched in 1925. Confined almost
exclusively to the more progressive segment of the Chamar caste, the
Ad Dharm (i.e., original or ancient religion) developed a proud and
distinct religio-political identity of pride around Ravidas as the
chief deity; the use of new symbols, prayers, rituals, flag, dress,
salutations; and claims for a communal share in political
representation. " We are not Hindus . . . We are the original
people of this country", it was asserted. "There was a time when we
ruled India, . . . The Hindu qaum came from outside and enslaved
us." It was a tremendous boost to their claims when the Commissioner
for the 1931 Census allowed them to record their religious identity
as 'Ad Dharm' in place of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian. As many
as 418,789 Dalits registered themselves as Ad Dharmis in that census.
In the 1937 elections Ad Dharmis captured seven of the eight seats
reserved for Scheduled Castes in the Punjab Legislative Council.
Although the movement declined after the mid -1940s, it is believed
that the early beginnings of the violent conflict that took place
recently in village Talhan of Jalandhar district can be traced to
the radicalization of Dalit consciousness and to the resulting
conflict and confrontation with the Arya Samajist and Sikh leadership
pf the 1930s.

The Religious Factor

The Punjab state has, at present, the largest proportion of the
Scheduled Caste population, 28.3% according to the 1991 Census as
compared to the all-India average of 16.4%. When the classified data
for the 2001 Census becomes available, the proportion may have risen
to above 30%. More than one-fourth of Punjab's villages have an
average Dalit population of over 40% and in some villages such as
Talhan, mentioned above, it is above 65%.

The fact that Punjab is the home of Sikhism has also made a
significant difference in the prevalence of caste and untouchability
in the region. Following the partition of the province in 1947 and
the re-organization of the Indian Punjab in 1966, it became a Sikh
majority state; 63% of its present population are Sikhs. Sikhism is
known for the egalitarian teachings of the Gurus, the institutions of
sangat (congregation for worship) and langar (partaking of free
meals), and the absence of a caste-based priestly class (unlike the
pervasive presence of Brahmins in Hindu religion). It also offers no
religious sanction for caste hierarchy. Caste discrimination and
oppression against Dalits in the Punjab is less marked than in other
parts of India.

Over the centuries the Punjab has been witness to large scale Dalit
conversions to Islam, Sikhism and later to Christianity. Conversion
divided Chuhras and Chamars into different religious categories and
even different names were used for Chuhras belonging to different
religions (i.e., Mussalli for the Muslims, Mazhabi for the Sikhs,
Isai for the Christians, and Balmiki for those who kept to the
distinctive Chuhra religion.) Only Hindu and Sikh Dalits were
included in the list of Scheduled Castes prepared by the Government
of India after independence. Around 40% of the Dalits are Sikh by
religion and practically all the Christians in Punjab are also
Dalits. Christian Dalits were, however, kept out of the list of
Scheduled Castes and were later included in the Backward Class
category, creating a ground for discrimination against Christian
Dalits. A good number of Dalits in the Punjab have converted to
Buddhism in recent years.

The boundary between Dalits who follow Hindu and Sikh religions is
quite flexible and may be crossed inconspicuously. Their religious
identification with Hinduism or Sikhism has been generally weak.
Ramdasias are a Sikh Scheduled Caste. A section of the Ad Dharmis
followed Sikh ways of worship and ritual. However, most of them
remain clean-shaven and regard Ravidas as their Guru. Kabirpanthis
are both Hindu and Sikh, but the caste fellowship is more important
to them than is the religion. Of late, Kabir temples and distinct
rituals of worship have been developed to support a new religious
identity. Dalits are mostly opposed to notions of Hindu or Sikh
communal identity. The growth of religious communalism in Punjab from
the last quarter of the 19th century was directly related to the
extension of upper caste domination over the lower castes and the
promotion of the economic and political interests of the elite in
each community. Communalism thus blocked rather than furthered the
Dalit search for equality.

The Economic Factor

The British rulers had strengthened the economic order based on caste
hierarchy through measures, like the Punjab Land Alienation Act 1901,
which debarred the lower castes from owning land. This bolstered the
social and political domination of the Jat landlord and condemned
the Dalits to live as a reservoir of cheap bonded labor for
cultivation and other forms of menial service to the ruling castes.

The Dalit share in cultivable land in Punjab today is abysmally
marginal, just 2.4% of the total. The state's efforts to bring about
land reforms were defeated. The Green Revolution changed the face of
Punjab, but widened economic differences, increasing the economic and
political clout of the Jat landowning class. Jat control of
leadership in the Shiromani Akali Dal since 1962 that made it
virtually a Jat political party has further increased fear and
insecurity among the lower castes. The forcible appropriation of
village common lands which traditionally had provided a little
cushion for Dalit survival has become a major cause of violent
conflicts in Punjab's villages. The Dalit struggle for dignity in the
rural areas also involves resistance against social symbols of Jat
hegemony. A recent field study of 5I villages spread over the three
regions of the Punjab found separate Mazhabi (i.e., Dalit Sikh)
gurdwaras in 41 of these villages. As many villages also had separate
cremation grounds. The dominating influence of Sikh religion in
Punjab has not meant an end to caste discrimination or atrocities
against Dalits. Incidents of anti-Dalit violence and social boycott
of Dalits or the stripping and rape of Dalit women by those dominant
in the village community have been common. Harinder Singh Khalsa, a
Sikh member of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and
Scheduled Tribes, recorded with some pain that "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."

Poverty, which is a well known distinguishing mark of Dalit life in
general, is prevalent among Dalits of Punjab, especially among those
living in the Malwa area. However, the character of poverty is
qualitatively different from what poverty is generally understood to
be in states like Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, and Orissa. Jean Dreze and
Amartya Sen noted that in the Punjab 21% of the general population
lived below the poverty line (BPL) in 1994, less than half of India's
45% average. However, according to Government of Punjab records, 68%
of the Scheduled Caste [Dalit] population belonged to the BPL
category in 1991. It was rightly remarked, therefore, that "The poor
(in Punjab) are the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Castes are the
poor". Nearly half of the total Scheduled Caste population still
live in unhygienic conditions in colonies on the edge of the village.
Yet it is not unimportant to note that, as the National Sample Survey
Report 1990-91 showed, "there was no rural household in Punjab whose
members were not able to eat two square meals a day on all the 365
days in a year."

A significant factor that made a difference in the status and
self-perception of the Dalits in Punjab has been their large scale
migration to foreign countries for work. It is estimated that on an
average one member in every second Dalit family in the Doaba region
of the Punjab had gone abroad. The remittances sent home by these
migrants contribute to fine houses and other visible signs of
prosperity. Migrant remittances have also contributed to the
enlargement of the Dalits' religio-cultural autonomy, as some of it
goes to the development of, e.g., the Ravidassi Sachkhand dera of
Sant Sarwan Dass at Ballan near Jalandhar.

The prosperity of a section of Dalits has not, however, raised their
social or caste status in the village. Instead it has made them not
only more apprehensive about insults and humiliation but also more
inclined to retaliate violently to maltreatment and uncomplimentary
remarks or body language by the upper castes in general and by Jats
in particular. A major reason for the violent public clash between
the Dalits and Jats of village Talhan was the resentment born of the
disparity between Dalit economic and social status. Economic
disparities have also affected relationships between rich and poor
Dalits. More serious are the hierarchies and walls dividing one
Dalit caste from another, a formidable obstruction to Dalit political
solidarity. The appeal of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has
registered a significant rise in Punjab's politics for over the past
decade, has remained largely limited to the Chamar community.


The dynamics of change has enabled Dalits of Punjab, despite
handicaps, to acquire a sense of autonomy, pointing to a "community
in movement and not mired in helplessness." There is a marked
tendency among the Dalits towards conscious dissociation from
stigmatized occupations and practices which are humiliating to them.
A field study by S. S. Jodhka shows that in the year 2000 not more
than 10% of Dalits followed their traditional occupations and most
have also moved away from agricultural labor which made them
dependent upon Jat landlords. Although it was rather restricted and
half-hearted, the spread of education, affirmative action by the
state, and Dalit political participation have contributed to the
first flush of awakening and empowerment of Dalits. Now, with the
rising tide of market rationality under liberalization, privatization
and globalization, as well as the state's decreasing inclination to
protect their interests, it is feared that Dalits may be affected
more adversely than other sections of society by market forces.

Dr. Harish K. Puri is Retired B. R. Ambedkar Chair Professor,
Department of Political Science, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar,

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Caste Out, Yet Again

The official Indian delegation again blocked all mention of caste at the UN conference against racism.The recently concluded Durban Review Conference organised by the United Nations in Geneva to assess the work done to implement the decisions of the 2001 World Conference against Racism held in Durban has been a largely staid affair. Except for the predictable walkout and tumult over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s statements against Israel, the entire conference was almost entirely unreported in the mainstream media. Most readers would remember the intense public debates and acrimony over the terms and outcomes of the Durban conference. In that context, it was a bit surprising that the first such global conference on the issue of racism and other related discriminations in eight years should be such a quiet affair.
In September 2001, the most contentious issue for Indians was the demand for the inclusion of caste discrimination as a specific form of racism. The National Democratic Alliance government of that time, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), blocked any reference to caste in the documents of the Durban conference using a combination of legal and academic arguments and the diplomatic power of the “emerging superpower”. It was obvious that behind these official positions lurked the deep resistance of Indian official nationalism to stand up to global scrutiny, a resistance which often cloaks itself under some form of anti-imperialism. As dalit activists and others who campaigned for the inclusion of caste in the conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance argued, caste discrimination is among the most obvious and significant of discriminations based on descent, work, and social grouping in the contemporary world. Caste discrimination did not only affect people in India, despite all the constitutional guarantees and policy measures, it also had a considerable presence in other south Asian countries as well as some others.
It was obvious that a government led by the Hindu nationalist BJP would be loathe to allow any international scrutiny of Hindu social practices. But eight and more years later, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government has shown a similar inflexibility in allowing any discussion of caste discrimination at the Durban Review Conference. The Indian official delegation blocked 33 out of the 40 non-governmental organisations (mostly dalit bodies and organisations representing smaller nationalities) who wanted to officially participate in the proceedings and kept intact the unremitting opposition of the previous BJP-led government to inclusion of caste references in the documents of the conference. There is no denying the fact that the Indian Constitution has banned caste discrimination and put in place a slew of measures to help those who face such discrimination. Despite all its acts of omission, the record of the Indian State on this matter is perhaps better than any other state faced with the same issue. Yet it cannot be denied that the state and its institutions have also been complicit in blunting the impact of anti-caste legislation and policies, while personnel in positions of authority are often given to caste prejudice. Caste discrimination remains so deep in our society that it colours everything, including supposedly impartial state institutions. The charge that the obstinate blocking by the Indian government of all discussions on caste in international fora is merely a symptom of the proclivity of upper caste India to deny the very existence of caste discrimination may, therefore, have a fair element of accuracy to it.
It does no one any good by denying this obvious social reality. International pressures, and grandstanding by western powers that may use this to browbeat India for other agendas, cannot be met by such denial. An honest acceptance of shortcomings and mistakes is the first and necessary step to taking corrective measures and turning present opponents into allies, thus preventing the possibility of diplomatic arm-twisting by western powers. It would also strengthen the anti-caste movement domestically and provide support to dalit populations in other countries. While the continuation of the BJP stand by the Congress government is noteworthy, what is particularly surprising is the lack of any domestic debate on this matter given that the country is passing through a general election to choose its next government.
Where the Durban conference failed to stand up on the issue of caste discrimination, it did finally manage to take a somewhat watered down stand on the discrimination and exclusions faced by Palestinians. This led to the walkout by Israel and the United States and their continued boycott of the proceedings of the present review conference. Other countries like Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands and Poland joined the boycott this time. It appears that the condemnation of Zionism as racism provided these governments, specially the US, with a fig-leaf to escape scrutiny over their track record on combating racism, discrimination and xenophobia. While the diplomatic
Courtesy: May 16, 2009 vol xliv no 20 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

Monday, 15 June 2009

Deras, Caste Conflicts and Recent Violence in Punjab

by Surinder Singh, 13 June 2009

The recent violence in Punjab has taken place as a repercussion of the shootings in a Ravidass temple in Vienna in which the Dera Sachkhand head, Saint Niranjan Dass, was injured and his second- in-command, Saint Ramanand, was killed. This hurt the feelings of the followers of the Dera all over world. The Doaba region in particular was in flames for almost two days before the situation came under control following the appeal by the sants of the Dera.

The present article is divided into three parts: the first part deals historically with the emergence of the Deras in Punjab; the second part deals with the role of these Deras in creating a consciousness among the lower-caste people in the region; and the third part deals with conflicts between the dominant Jat Sikh landed peasantry and the Deras‘ followers at different periods of times.

Emergence of Deras

Punjab has been witness to the emergence of a large number of Deras due to the continued social exclusion and pervading inequality in the social and economic order that refuses to go away despite the rise of Sikhism which in normative terms is opposed to caste based discrimination and glorifies manual labour. There has been another factor that explains the marginal position of the Dalits in the region and that is the concentration of land in the hands of a minority. Thus the ever increasing number of Deras all over the Doaba, Majha and Malwa regions of Punjab is widely attributed to the denial of a respectable place to the Dalits and Backward Caste people in religious places and the Sikh Panth. [Manak, 2007]

In Punjab, the number of Deras are not in hundreds but in thousands. A study conducted by the Desh Sewak, a Punjabi newspaper published from Chandigarh, gives figures that there are more than 9000 Sikh as well as non-Sikh Deras in the 12,000 villages of Punjab. [Ram, 2007, 4067; see also Tehna et al., 2007] There are about 300 major Deras across Punjab and the neighbouring State of Haryana, and these are popular in both States. Out of these a dozen have over one lakh devotees each. [Pubby et al., 2009] There are some prominent Deras like Radha Soami (Beas), Sacha Sauda (Sirsa), Nirankaris, Namdharis, Divya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan (Nurmahal), Dera Sant Bhaniarawalla, Dera Sachkhand (Ballan), Dera Sant Phuriwala, Dera Baba Budha Dal, Dera Begowal, Nanaksarwale. Almost all of them have branches in every district of the State and even outside Punjab in the neighbouring States. Some of them have popularity among the Punjabi Diaspora. Though all these Deras have following among every caste, however, most of the followers of these Deras are Dalits and Backward Caste people who are often economically marginal also.

The history of the Deras in Punjab is older than the Sikh Panth. The Deras in Punjab before the Sikh Panth belong to the Muslim Peer and Yog Nath’s Dera. With the emergence of the Sikh Panth, some prominent Sikh and non-Sikh Deras came into existence as like Udasi Deras, Dera Baba Ram Thaman, Namdhari, Nanaksar. In the twentieth century most Deras came into existence, which are popular today, as Radha Soami, Sacha Sauda, Nirankari, Dera Sachkhand Ballan and Dera Bhaniarawalla.

Deras and Dalit Consciousness

These Deras have their egalitarian ideology, which is strictly followed by the devotees of these Deras. There is no place for caste or religion based discrimination. These Deras present simple but sharp elements of social protest in their teachings that have gone a long way in providing a basis for the rise of radical consciousness. [Ram, 2008, 1341] Some of these Deras have established their schools and health care centres. They encourage the lower-caste poor children to study and help them financially, so that they could earn their livelihood in a respectful way and help their community to lead a dignified life.

Dera Sachkhand Ballan, one of the most popular Ravidass Deras in Punjab, has played an important role in raising Dalit consciousness. The Ad Dharm movement of 1920 and Ravidass Deras played a historical role in the formation of Dalit consciousness in Punjab. The Ad Dharm movement has carved a separate religious identity for these lower-caste people. The movement projects Ravidass as their spiritual Guru, a sacred book Ad Parkash, their own separate ritual traditions; they salute each other in the name of Jai Guru Dev and respond with Dhan Guru Dev. In this way they create a separate religious identity. [Ram, 2004, 335-36] These Ad Dharmi people have followers of the Dera Sachkhand Ballan. The Deras provide education and health care, which further strengthen the surging popularity of the Deras among the Dalits. One of the Dera’s Sant Sarwan Dass encouraged the Dalit children to study and helped them financially. He urged the poor people to educate their children so that they could earn their livelihood in a respectful way and help their families and community to lead a dignified life. Thus these schools are not only providing quality of education in a Dalit friendly environment but also act as an agency for generating Dalit consciousness. [Ram, 2008, 1342]

Since its beginning, the Ad Dharm movement led by Babu Mangoo Ram and the Ravidass Deras have been giving stress on having education and health. Education provides them both social consciousness and makes them financially well-off. Today the Ad Dharmis and followers of this Dera have been far more conscious and are also financially well-off as compared to other Dalit communities in Punjab. As a whole the Dalit community in Punjab and especially in the Doaba region has gained by acquiring non-agricultural occupation and also by going abroad in big numbers.

Deras and Caste Conflicts in Punjab

The recent violence that has taken place in Punjab has its genesis in the lopsided polity of Punjab and its closed nature of land-property relationship. The Dalits and backward classes in Punjab feel excluded from making the political and economic choices for the State as Jat Sikhs, constituting 20 per cent of the population, own 60 per cent of the land and control the politics and economy of Punjab. The recently awakened and economically empowered marginal classes have been moving out of the villages and even when they live in the villages they are increasingly taking on non-agricultural activities. One also finds separate Gurudwaras and community centres for the Dalits in the villages of Punjab. There has also been struggle over the common property resources (Shamlat Land) in rural Punjab where land is scarce. The newfound assertion of their identity and demand for political and economic space along with social respectability have often met with the violence by the dominant Jat Sikh peasantry. [Thakural, 2009] Significantly the Dalits constitute almost one-third of the population of Punjab which is the highest in the country as a whole.

The recent attack on the two sants and their followers is also due to the fundamentalist Sikh organisations’ objection to treating the Dera Gurus at par with the ten Sikh Gurus and for keeping the Guru Granth Sahib along with the idols of Sant Ravidass.

The recent Dera conflict in Punjab is incidentally not a new phenomenon. Before this, many conflicts between the radical or fundamentalist Sikhs and Dera followers have taken place in Punjab. Mention can be made of the Sikh-Nirankari conflict (1978), Sikh-Bhaniarawalla follower’s conflict (2001), Sikh-Sacha Sauda followers conflict (2007).

Summing Up

The emergence of Deras all over Punjab is indicative of the assertion of the Dalits in the State trying to discover and consolidate their distinct identity to attain self-respect and also asking for their autonomous space in the social, economic and political life of the State. The recent conflict is yet another illustration, though an unfortunate one, of the community’s anguish over their historic denial in the land of the Sikh Gurus who vehemently opposed caste based discrimination, nay, rejected the caste system outright.

[The author is grateful to Dr Ronki Ram and Dr Ashutosh Kumar for reading the earlier drafts and giving valuable comments.]


Manak, Satnam Singh (2007): ‘Sikh Panth Ajoye Sankatt Da Sahmna Kiye Karye’, Rojana Ajit, May 22.

Tehna, Avtar Singh (2007): ‘Kyon Banday Hann Deras?’, Desh Sewak magazine, June 3.

Pubby, Vipin (2009): ‘Deciphering Deras’, The Indian Express, May 26.

Ram, Ronki (2008): ‘Ravidass Deras and Social Protest: Making Sense of Dalit Consciousness in Punjab’, Asian Studies, Vol. 67, November.

Ram, Ronki (2004): ‘Untouchability, Dalit Consciousness, and the Ad Dharm movement in Punjab’, Contribution to Indian Sociology, Sage Publication, New Delhi, September-December.

Ram, Ronki (2007): ‘Social Exclusion, Resistance and Deras’, Economic and Political Weekly, October 6.

Thakural, Gobind (2009): ‘Sikh Baicharye Anderly Takraw Da Mukh Karn Ke Ha?’, Rojana Ajit, Jalandhar, May 29.

Mishra, Vandita (2009): ‘Inside Dera Sachkhand’, The Indian Express, May 31.

The author is a Research Fellow, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh.
Courtesy: Mainstream

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Of Babas and Deras

The phenomenon of Deras, in centerstage following the Vienna killings, is fascinating for the space occupied by these in the socio-cultural and religious milieu. Eminent sociologist Surinder S Jodhka in this piece edited from a longer article in the Seminar writes on the peculiar institution of Babas and Deras in Punjab

The satsang hall at village Ballan near Jalandhar, the headquarter of Dera Sachkhand
Babas, sants, gurus, peers and their deras have been an important part of the religious landscape of Punjab for a long time. As institutions of popular or folk religion outside the more organized structures such as mosques and temples, they represented the enchanted universe of pre-modern religiosity. It was perhaps through these rather loose and open structures of faith traditions that the Sikh Gurus were able to communicate their message to the wider society of the region. The inherent plurality of Sikh tradition, and of the times, is clearly reflected in the holy Granth compiled by the Sikh Gurus.

The religious geography of Punjab has seen many changes over the last century. It saw the emergence of new institutions of religious authority and crystallization and construction of newer boundaries across communities. The partition of Punjab in 1947 and its reorganization into a Sikh majority state in 1966 further sharpened the sense of difference, or even antagonism, across communities. However, notwithstanding this sharpening of religious and political identities, or well worked out academic formulations in terms of epistemic shifts, deras and babas have continued to survive and, some would venture to say, thrive in Punjab. Though many deras are old, not all of them are ancient. Newer deras and babas keep emerging even today.

There are considerable differences of form and substance among the different deras. A large majority of deras are simply Sikh gurdwaras being run by an individual baba/sant or have been built in memory of a baba/sant and run by his descendents and/or followers. Many of these deras adhere to the conventions of Sikh preaching as they have evolved over the years. The SGPC recognizes them as gurdwaras without any hesitation. Some of the prominent Sikh personalities of the recent past have come from these deras. Bhindranwale, who became a symbol of Sikh militancy during the 1980s, came from one such dera. Similarly Bibi Jagir Kaur, who was previously president of SGPC, heads a dera of her own.

In the second category would be those deras that continue to practice Sikhism but do not follow the model evolved by the SGPC in its entirety. They are closer to what has been called Sanatan Sikhism by historians of Sikh religion. A third category of deras would be those where the institution of a living Guru is still practised. Though invariably locating their origin in Sikh history, they can be described as having evolved into separate sects. These include the deras of the Namdhari Sikhs and Nirankaris. Some Dalit Sikhs also have separate deras of their own where centrality is given to the Guru Granth. For example, though Ravidasi Dalits are listed as Sikhs, they have their own separate deras. Ad-Dharmis and Ravidasis worship Guru Granth because it contains the writings of Ravidas. Finally, there are also deras which have nothing to do with Sikhism. These include Sufi shrines, many of which are managed by local Sikhs and/or Hindus. Similarly, some of the deras closely resemble Hindu temples and have Hindu gurus and managers running them.

Why do people go to the dera? Without undermining the spiritual value that a visit to a dera has for a devotee, some of the more mundane reasons too are by no means insignificant. The most frequently stated reason for going to the dera is the fact that it fulfils one’s mannat, literally meaning a wish or desire. ‘If you have pura vishwash (complete faith and trust), your wish will certainly be fulfilled.’ The most important of these mannats is the desire to have a male child. The patriarchal ethos of agrarian Punjab not only helps prenatal sex determination clinics to flourish, but also seems to sustain the babas and deras.

An equally important reason is the code of conduct that the gurus at deras insist upon for their followers, the most attractive of these being the insistence on giving up consumption of liquor and other drugs.6 It is invariably the women of the house who insist on visiting the dera and given the spiritual sanctity of the act, they manage to take their husbands and other male members of the family along. However, once they are sufficiently motivated, the men are encouraged to take naam from the guru. Taking of naam would require a pledge from the devotee to a life of discipline, which may include giving up consumption of alcohol and, in some cases, even caste identity. Incidentally, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the growing popularity of such babas has made any difference to the alcohol and drug culture of rural Punjab.

Apart from the mythic value and the personal charismatic appeal of the babas, the deras also offer a sense of security to their followers, a personal touch, something completely missing in the mainstream gurdwaras or temples where one feels anonymous, a part of the crowd. As Professor Jagroop Singh, a scholar who has been working on deras, mentioned: ‘Deras give their followers a sense of security and belonging. Once you are inside the dera you feel like you belong to the community. Somehow they feel that the dera is a secure space. It belongs to everyone. No one will bother us here. This is particularly important in the context of growing insecurity all around.’7

Deras are invariably non-sectarian in nature. Even when they have acquired the status of a sect, they do not insist on being part of an exclusive normative system for the adherents. Dera identity has traditionally been more like an ‘add-on’ identity. One continues to be a Sikh or a Hindu or a Muslim and still gets blessings or naam from the guru or the pir at the dera. Not only would a typical devotee of a dera continue to visit the more ‘mainstream’ shrines of their respective faith systems, s/he would invariably visit more than one dera and could in fact have multiple gurus.

Notwithstanding the spiritual self-image and identity of the babas and their deras, they are not free from more mundane concerns, such as land, money and power. Some of the deras own substantial amounts of land. One of the deras I visited in a village called Dhianpur in Gurdaspur district owned nearly 600 acres of land, the entire land of the village. Local cultivators were all tenants of the dera. Another dera in the same district reportedly owned nearly 4000 acres of land. One of the residents there said, ‘This dera is like a mini empire. All the land that you can see from here belongs to the dera. Land was given to us first by some Mughal rulers and later by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.’ Bigger deras such as the Radhasoamis and Sacha Sauda would have even more land. The land ceiling laws do not apply on dera lands.8 The Radhasoami Dera actually has a land acquisition officer. And given their spread across the country, these assets are indeed substantial.

Apart from the fixed assets, deras also get regular income in the form of offerings and contributions from visitors. ‘Once a dera acquires a name, money comes without much effort. Though the followers are invariably poor, the deras are mostly rich’, reported Professor Sohal, a historian at the Guru Nanak Dev University. Even a relatively unknown dera could attract substantial donations. Devinder Kaur, a student of political science at the Guru Nanak Dev University who is writing her dissertation on one such dera of a sufi pir called Dera Baba Shekh Phatta, estimated that the daily remuneration of the dera is around one lakh rupees. The dera is being managed by a group of local entrepreneurs who pay an annual sum of Rs 80 lakh to the Wakf Board as contract money. The right to manage the dera is auctioned every year by the Wakf Board and the highest bidder gets the contract.

Given their material resources and persuasive power, deras have begun to influence the political process in the state as well. Bhupinder Singh Thakur, another scholar working on the deras in Gurdaspur district reported that, ‘Though most of them do not openly support any political party, they indeed convey their preferences to their followers.’ It has become almost mandatory for the political elite of the state to visit prominent deras at regular intervals and seek ‘blessings’ from the babas. This obviously gives the babas a sense of power and influence.

It is this growing influence of the babas that worries the mainstream Sikh leadership which identifies with the SGPC.

The rise of the Singh Sabha movement during the late nineteenth century and the gurdwara reform movement in the 1920s marked an important turning point in the religious history of Sikhs and contemporary Punjab. The formation of SGPC not only brought the historic gurdwaras of the region under the control of one body, it also codified what it meant to be a Sikh. In his well-known, though controversial book, The Construction of Religious Boundaries, Harjot Oberoi describes this as an epistemic shift.9

The new Sikh elite that emerged under colonial patronage transformed a rather loose faith tradition into a well-structured religious system and rewrote the social grammar of Sikhism. The peasants and common people in Punjab practised an ‘inherently contaminated and plural’ way of life which was undermined and a new identity emerged where the Sikhs began to see themselves as a religious community endowed with their specific history, sign, space and tradition. Through different sets of activities, this elite succeeded in injecting a new definition into ‘the everyday life of the faithful.’

Oberoi’s book was widely criticised for presenting an exaggerated view on the historical shift during the colonial period. Some took it as an insult to the faith and Sikh sensibilities and criticized Oberoi for being anti-Sikh.

How does one look at the contemporary reality of popular religiosity in Punjab in the context of the rather impressionistic ethnography of the babas and the deras that I have presented above? Does one see it as a reality that always existed? Were the historians wrong in their formulation about the change in religious geography of Punjab during the colonial period? Did the pluralistic traditions disappear or even decline substantially? Or should we look at the current popularity of the babas and deras as reflecting a resurgence of popular religiosity in post-modern times, where deras become attractive and fashionable in a context where community life is fast disintegrating? Should we look at deras as open and casteless spaces where Dalits and the marginalized peasantry experience a sense of security and relief, away from the hostile realities of caste violence and agrarian crisis?

The secular institutions and social movements that once articulated the discontent and aspirations of the marginals have simply disappeared from the soil of Punjab. The civil society of Punjab has still not come out of the deleterious effects of the Khalistan movement of the 1980s and the state’s violent response to it. There are virtually no civil society organizations or NGOs active anywhere in Punjab! It is possible that some or all of these processes have been in operation to produce the current state of affairs.

In the absence of any serious engagement with ground realities, these formulations remain at best loose hypotheses. The attempt of the three Sikh organizations to reach out to the people of Punjab through cooperation of the sants, babas and the deras certainly reflects a growing recognition of the plural and complex religiosity of the common people of contemporary Punjab. However, without the backing of serious anthropological engagements with everyday religion and the rapidly changing cultural life, such activist posturing could end up becoming mere sloganeering and sermonizing.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Exploring the Myth of Casteless Sikh Society in Punjab
By Ronki Ram
The recent violent conflicts in Punjab represent a typical case of a marginal community’s (dalits) fight against social exclusion and the resistance that it encounters from a dominant caste. Despite improvement in economic position over the years, there has not been a commensurate improvement in the social status of dalits even after their conversion to Sikhism as caste iniquities, in the form of dominant cultural patterns, still persist in Punjab. The emergence of a large number of deras as alternate spiritual sites for the oppressed is linked to this phenomenon.

The recent violent clashes (May 2007) between followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda (syncretic religious centre established in 1948 with its headquarters in Sirsa, Haryana) and different groups of Sikhs, and also other kinds of social conflicts between jat1 Sikhs and dalits2 in the state, mark a crucial turn in the political history of Punjab. The raison d’ĂȘtre of these conflicts surpasses the much talked about “short-term politics of revenge” and shows up the deep socio-religious hierarchies in the so-called casteless Sikh society in Punjab. On the one hand, they lay bare the dormant structures of social discrimination that permeate the fabric of Sikh society, and on the other, point towards the neoconservative Sikhs’ anxiety about the Sikh-Khalsa identity. They pose a serious challenge not only to the political stability in the state but also to the institutions of democracy in India.

The Akalis-Dera Sacha Sauda row over the dera’s chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s mimicking of the iconography of Guru Gobind Singh, seems much to do with the prevalence of the doctrinally-rejected system of caste hierarchy among the Sikhs. The rising salience of caste hierarchy within the Sikh panth (society) has disillusioned the dalit Sikhs, who at one point of time had embraced Sikhism in the hope of escaping social exclusion imposed on them by the Hindu ‘varna vyavastha’ (social order). This seems to push them towards the deras and other non-Sikh socio-religious organisations that promise dignity and social equality. The majority of the followers of various Sacha Sauda-type deras come from the dalit families. This near-exodus of dalits from Sikhism towards the alternative socio-spiritual space provided by the deras invite the hostility of clerics of the established mainstream religious order, who see it as a serious challenge to the Sikh-Khalsa identity. Moreover, the politicisation of the deras and the accompanying pontifications further complicate the issue. Persistent attempts by various Sikh organisations to win over disgruntled dalit Sikh followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda during the recent Akalis-Dera crisis is a case in point.

This paper is divided into four sections. The first section problematises the Sikhs-Deras crisis in the larger context of dalit assertion and its implications for religion-based politics in Punjab. The second section deals with the phenomenon of caste and caste hierarchy within the Sikh panth, and the place it assigned to dalit Sikhs. The patterns of jat Sikh domination in Punjab and how it forced the dalits to seek a separate caste identity is discussed in the third section. The fourth section, based on ethnographic research in rural Punjab, documents some of the recent jat-dalit conflicts in the state.

I Sikhs-Deras Crisis in a Larger Context

Punjab has the distinction of being home to the largest proportion (29 per cent) of scheduled castes (SCs) population in the country with the lowest share in the ownership of land ( 2.34 per cent of the cultivated area). The SCs in Punjab belong to different religions and castes. Mazhabis and ramdasias, the two dalit castes among the Sikhs, particularly the mazhabis, are the most deprived. They embraced Sikhism in the hope of gaining social equality, but even in the new religion untouchability continued to be practised against them. Evidence of untouchability against dalit Sikhs is vividly reflected in the Khalsa Dharam Sastra of 1914 [Oberoi 1994: 106] and also in a number of resolutions adopted by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) from 1926 to 1933 [Singh 1933 as quoted in Puri 2003: 2697]. Although the Sikh reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries preached in favour of removing untouchability, no concerted efforts were made in practice in that direction. Social opprobrium continues to afflict them and other dalits. Some of them feel that jat Sikhs treat them as badly in the gurdwaras as they do in their farmlands [Tehna et al 2007]. They have been forced to live in separate settlements, contemptuously called ‘thhattis’ or ‘chamarlees’, located on the western side and away from the main body of the villages. They carry no “say” in the local structures of power. All the Sikh organisations like gurdwaras, Sikh deras, SGPC, and Shiromani Akali Dal are under the control of the jat Sikhs. In a recent empirical study of the caste background of the members of the SGPC, conducted by Narinderpal Singh, it is found that 80 per cent of its administrative posts are under the control of the jat Sikhs, 15 per cent under other castes and only 5 per cent are with the dalit Sikhs (mazhabis and ramdasias). All the three current secretaries of the Shiromani Committee are jat Sikhs. Out of its six current additional secretaries three are jat Sikhs, one is Labana Sikh and two belonged to Other Backward Castes [Singh N 2007a]. Dalits are often heard complaining that the jat Sikhs refused to consider them equal even after death by disallowing cremation of their dead in the main cremation ground of the village. This has forced them to establish separate gurdwaras, 3 ‘janjghars’ (marriage centres) and cremation grounds. It is against this backdrop of social exclusion that a large number of dalits have been veering away from the mainstream Sikh religion and enrolling themselves into various forms of non-Sikh deras in Punjab. Another probable cause behind the large-scale dalit following of the deras could be the absence of a strong dalit movement in the state.

However, the phenomenon of deras is not new to Punjab. Rather it is as old as the Sikh faith. During the period of the historic gurus, different deras of udasis, minas, dhirmalias, ramraiyas, handali, and that of massandis cropped up. All these earlier deras were primarily the outcome of the disgruntled and unsuccessful attempts of the “fake” claimants to the title of guru [for details see: Chaturvedi 1951:360-69; Marenco1976: 28-30; Bingley 1970: 85-93; Archer 1946: 221-226; Grewal 1996:39-46]. Apart from these, there were many more deras that came up at different intervals on the long and tortuous consolidation of the Sikh religion. Some of the most prominent among them were Bandei Khalsa (Bandapanthis), Nanakpanthis, Sewapanthis, Bhaktpanthi, Suthrashahi, Gulabdasi, Nirmalas and the Nihangs [Chaturvedi 1951:361-69; Mcleod 1984:121-33]. But what distinguished these earlier deras from the contemporary ones is that they could not become the centres of dalit mobilisation.

Proliferation of Deras

According to a latest study conducted by the Desh Sewak, a Punjabi daily published from Chandigarh, there are more than 9,000 Sikh as well as non-Sikh Deras in the 12,000 villages of Punjab [Tehna et al 2007]. In Sikh deras, Sikh rahit (code of conduct) is observed strictly. Whereas in the non-Sikh deras, different ritual practices are followed. The Radha Soamis, Sacha Sauda, Nirankaris, Namdharis, Divya Jyoti Sansthan, Bhaniarawala and Ravidasis are among the most popular non-Sikh deras. Almost all of them have branches in all the districts of the state as well as in other parts of the country. Some of them are very popular among the Punjabi diaspora and have overseas branches in almost all the continents of the world. The composition of these deras is along caste lines. Though majority of the followings in every case comes from dalits, backward castes and poor Jat Sikh peasantry, their command is still in the hands of the upper castes [Muktsar 2007]. Among them the chief of the Nirankari deras belonged to the khatri caste, and that of the Sacha Sauda and Radha Soamis come from the jat Sikhs of the Sidhu and Dhillon sub-castes respectively. In the case of Sikh Deras, a large majority of their following comes from jat Sikh community and they are invariably run by jat Sikhs. It is rare that the head of a Sikh dera would be a non-jat Sikh. Even if there would be one he could never be a dalit. At the most dalit Sikhs’ participation in Sikh deras is confined only to various kinds of menial services as well as the narration of the sacred text (Guru Granth Sahib) and performing of kirtan (musical rendering of sacred hymns) [for detail see: Ram 2004a: 5-7]. Those who perform kirtan are known as raagis, the professional narrators are designated as granthis and others who render menial service are called sewadars. Majority of the raagis, granthis and sewadars are dalit Sikhs. Very few jat Sikhs take up such professions (based on field conversations). In the Sikh deras, only gurubani of Guru Granth Sahib is recited. But in the non-Sikh deras along with the recitation of gurubani from Guru Granth Sahib, other sacred texts are also referred to. Idol worship and devotion towards a human guru is also not an anathema in non-Sikh deras. It is due to the presence of such non-Sikh practices that the phenomenon of non-Sikh deras has been described by Meeta and Rajivlochan as the “alternate guru movement in Punjab” [Meeta and Rajivlochan 2007:1910].
Challenge to Khalsa Identity

This alternate movement in Punjab with its “loose syncretistic practices” throws a formidable challenge to Sikh-Khalsa identity. Modernity and apostasy are its two other main adversaries [Swami and Sethi 2007; see also Singh Madanjeet 2007]. Modernity is considered to be corrupting the young Sikhs who become lackadaisical in their observance of the Khalsa principles advocated by the 10th master. Though Bhindranwala tried to assert the Sikh-Khalsa identity by taking up the cudgel with a dissident sect of the Nirankaris and preaching hatred against the Hindus [Singh K 2007b], he could not prevent the movement of dalits towards non-Sikh deras. These deras, in fact, pose an even more serious challenge to mainstream Sikhism. The number of followers of these deras seems to “far exceed that of the Golden temple-based clerical establishment” [Swami and Sethi 2007]. It is in this context that confrontation between the deras and the mainstream Sikhism assumes a critical importance with farreaching implications for the relationships between dalits and jat Sikhs in Punjab. The jat Sikhs of Punjab are primarily an agricultural community, the dominant caste in the state. The Sikh empire of Ranjit Singh and the subsequent British rule over Punjab helped them considerably in that regard by establishing their hold over the land in the state [Marenco 1976: Chps IV-VII; see also Liu 1982: 387-95]. Dalits, on the other hand, were deprived the ownership of land under the Punjab Alienation of Land Act (1900). This along with the absence of alternate job avenues forced them to work on the land of the jat Sikhs for their livelihood. Dalits’ relationship with the jats, thus, is that of landless agricultural workers versus landlords, which in turn led to contradictions between them. The two communities are engaged in a power struggle.

However, there are many dalits in Punjab who have improved their economic conditions by dissociating themselves from their caste occupations as well as distancing themselves from agriculture [Jodhka 2004]. They have strengthened their economic position through sheer hard work, enterprise, and ventures abroad. Some of them have also established their own small-scale servicing units, and work as carpenters, barbers, blacksmiths, masons and so on [for details see: Ram 2004a: 5-7]. In addition, they have also been politicised to a large extent by the socio-political activities of the famous Ad Dharm movement [for details see: Juergensmeyer 1988; Ram 2004], and the various Ravidass Deras [Qadian 2003]. Thus, they have not only improved their economic status but have also liberated themselves from the subordination of the jat landowners.

With an improved economic position and a sharpened sense of social consciousness, dalits in Punjab started demanding a concomitant rise in their social status that has also probably pushed them closer to the alternate religious bodies promising dignity and social equality. In the process, they also challenged the dominant caste and its claims to represent true Sikhism. The jat Sikhs, however, interpreted it as a challenge to the Sikh-Khalsa identity, which further deepened the existing contradictions between them and the dalits. That is what has led to a series of violent caste clashes between dalits and jats in Punjab in the past few years, as also the repeated confrontation (1978 Nirankaris crisis, 2001 Bhaniarawala crisis and 2003 Talhan crisis) between the Akalis and followers of one or the other non-Sikh deras. The confrontation between the Akalis and the premis of the Dera Sacha Sauda is the most recent case in point. These clashes seem to be more about identity politics between jat Sikhs and dalits than a row over religion. They are in no way a manifestation of communalism in the state. However, given the religious milieu of the social sphere in Punjab they often assume a communal posture. They, in fact, are signs of an emerging dalit assertion against social exclusion that have all the possibilities of snowballing into violent conflicts if left unresolved.

What we have argued above is that the root cause of various jat-dalit conflicts lies in the structures of social exclusion, and the rising process of dalit assertion and the resistance it encounters. Why the dalits, despite their conversion to Sikhism and better economic conditions, failed to overcome their lower social status and how does that push them towards deras and also fomented confrontation with them and jat Sikhs is what we are going to delineate in the next sections.

II Sikhs, Caste Hierarchy and Dalits

Punjab is a Sikh (63 per cent) majority state. However, around 60 per cent of the Sikh population consists of jat Sikh caste [Singh Joginder 1997: 178-9; Puri 2003: 2693]. Moreover, jat Sikhs as a single largest caste constitute roughly 1/3 (30 to 33 per cent) of the total population of the state (based on conversation with scholars, knowledgeables, and political activists). They also wield control over land, religion and politics in the state [Pettigrew 1978; Singh Gobinder1982; Muktsar 2007; Subhash 2004]. Being agriculturalists, almost all of them live in villages (over 90 per cent). Dalits, who constitute as much as 29 per cent of the total population of the state, which comes close to the number of the jat Sikhs, is another major community heavily concentrated (over 80 per cent) in the villages. Moreover, in districts like Nawan Shahr, Muktsar, Jalandhar, Faridkot, and Hoshiarpur the proportion of dalits in the total population tends to be as high as 40.46, 37.75, 37.69, 36.17, and 34.28 per cent, respectively [Census of India 2001]. In many villages the population of dalits exceeds 50 per cent, particularly in the Doaba region of Punjab consisting of Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Nawan Shahr and Hoshiarpur districts. From this, it can be inferred that villages in Punjab are predominantly jat and dalit [cf Taylor, Singh M and Booth 2007: 331; Puri 2004: 90]. Caste constitutes an integral part of the routine village life [Kaur 1986: 229]. In an agrarian society like Punjab where the two major communities of jat Sikhs and dalits live in extreme contrast of affluence and deprivation, caste seems to assume critical importance. Although Sikh doctrine does not assign any place to the institution of caste and laid stress on the brotherhood of all irrespective of caste, religion, gender and occupation, it must not be inferred, as argued by Paramjit S Judge, “that Sikhism was able to transform the caste structure into an egalitarian moral community of the Sikhs. Sikhism remained far from a casteless society” [Judge 2002: 184; see also: Marenco 1976; Mcleod 1996; Puri 2003]. In the Punjab censuses between 1881 and 1931, more than 25 castes were recorded within the Sikh community, including jats, khatris, aroras, ramgarhias, ahluwalias, bhattras, sainis, labanas, lohars, kambohs, mahatam, chhimbas, nais, ramdasias, jheers, mazhbis, and rangretas [Verma 2002: 33]. Out of these, 11 – two agrarian castes (jat and kamboh), two mercantile castes (khatri and arora), four artisan castes (tarkhan, lohar, nai, and chhimba), two outcaste groups (chamar and chuhra), and one distiller (kalal, also termed as an artisan caste in Marrenco 1976: 176) are considered to form the core of the “caste constituency” of the Sikh panth [McLeod 1996: 93-94]. Except the mercantile caste of khatri all other castes including the jats fall in the shudra (artisans) and the ati-shudra (untouchables) categories of the Hindu social order. In other words, Sikhism has primarily been the religion of the dispossessed and plebeians [Singh 1989: 288; Grewal 1998: 205].

Practice of Caste Endogamy

The issue of caste within the Sikh panth has also been affected by the attitude/behaviour patterns of the coverts [Mcleod 1996 84; see also Grewal 1998: 197]. The converts continue to follow their previous caste practices regarding connubium and commensality even after receiving the ‘pahul’ (Sikh form of baptism) [for details see: Cunningham 1849; Mcleod 1996; Marenco 1976; Singh 1977; Singh 1976]. They strictly follow the principle of caste endogamy. As Sewa Singh Kalsi argues, “Inter-caste marriages are strongly disapproved by the sikhs” [Kalsi 1999:260]. In a content analysis study of the caste endogamy among the Sikhs in India and abroad, it is found that marriage alliances are sought from the same caste communities. In India, it is found that 94 advertisements in the column of jat Sikh and 120 in other non-jat Sikh category sought marriage alliances from within their own respective caste communities. Similarly, in UK out of 35 matrimonial advertisements taken up for content analysis, it is found that 24 jat Sikh, three khatri Sikh, two ramgarhia Sikh, two arora/khatri Sikh, one saini Sikh, and three others invited marriage alliances also from their own respective caste communities [Kalsi 1999: 261]. The wide prevalence of intra-caste endogamy among Sikhs in India as well as in the diaspora is further stressed in a recently concluded ethnographic study covering the jat Sikh community spread over in Newcastle (UK) and Doaba region of Punjab [Taylor, Manjit and Booth 2007: 341].

However, there are some scholars who argued that in comparison to the orthodox Hindu caste system, the principle of caste endogamy is “a little weaker” among the Sikhs [Puri 2003:2698; Singh 1989: 293]. This is fine, but given the class and caste background of the Sikh families involved in intermarriages, it can be argued that they are more common among the marginalised jat Sikh peasants. Even in such cases, the normal practice is that “the jats willingly accepted women from the lower castes, but showed no inclination to give their daughters to them” [Judge 2002: 180; see also: Singh I 1977: 72; Walia 1993: 220]. Still what distinguished the phenomenon of caste within the Sikh society from that of its counterpart in the Hindu religion, argues Jagjit Singh, is that intercaste marriages are neither considered sacrilegious nor are “…visited by penalties such as those imposed by the caste ideology” [Singh J 1989: 293]. On the contrary, the opposition in that regard, if any, is more to do with the “prejudice”/”honour” than the “pollution”. To quote him further, “… intermarriages are prevented by sentiment and not by hard and fast rules” [Singh Jagjit 1989: 293]. Prejudice versus pollution apart, the point, however, is that the phenomenon of caste, irrespective of its form, is very much alive within the Sikh society. Even in matters of commensality within the panth, the picture is not that bright either, particularly in the case of mazhabi Sikhs. Reflecting on the distinction between the “caste” and “outcaste” members of the panth, Joyce Pettigrew observed: “The only custom in which any solidarity was expressed among the jats on a caste basis was that in the village they did not visit the houses of mazhabis, take food from them, eat with them or intermarry with them” [1978: 44; see also: Grewal 1998: 210; Bains and Johnston 1995:48]. Although the jajmani/sepidari mode of production – the prominent socio-economic structure in Punjab based on traditional patron-client relationship – ceased to exist of late, the dominant castes still considered the artisan and menial Sikh castes as chhotian-jatan/nikia-minia-jatan (low castes). In this regard, it is appropriate to quote Izmirlian: “Master [teacher] Gurdial Singh was born a Ramgarhia in 1915. The reality of his caste identification surrounds him like a shroud because Ramgarhias are carpenters and viewed as menials by jat Sikh agriculturists” [as quoted in Kalsi 1999:259, emphasis in original].

Caste Hierarchy in Sikh Faith

Thus, in addition to the covergence of “caste constituency” and “attitude”, a sort of distinct caste hierarchy has also cropped up within the panth [Marenco 1976; McLeold 1996; Murray 1970; cf Singh Gurdev (ed) 1986; Singh Jagjit 1981; Singh Jagjit 1985; Singh Jagjit 1989; Grewal 1998]. In the Sikh caste hierarchy, the jats who were otherwise assigned the lower status in the Hindu social order claim to occupy the top position [Singh I 1977:70; see also Judge 2002:178-85]. Next to jat Sikhs comes the khatri Sikhs who belonged to the mercantile caste to which also belonged all the 10 historic gurus of the panth [Marenco 1976: 296; Singh Bhagat 1982a: 146-47; Alam 1982:103-07]. The ramgarhia (former tarkhan/carpenter) and ahluwalia (former Kalal/distiller) Sikhs are placed next or even equal to the khatri Sikhs due to their military adventures during the ‘misl’ period [Mcleod 2000: 216-34]. In the similar descending order, Marenco argues that [t]he other agricultural Sikh castes, like the kamboh, mali and saini Sikhs, and the other trading Sikh castes, like the arora Sikhs, and the other artisan Sikh castes, like the lohar or sunar Sikhs, came somewhere after the aforementioned castes in the hierarchy. Then there were the Sikh menial castes (jhinwars, kahars, banjaras, labanas, bahrupias, batwals and barwalas), and, last of all, there were the Sikh untouchables, the ramdasias and mazhabis, who ranked lowest despite the many advances they had made since conversion to Sikhism [Marenco 1976: 296, emphasis in parenthesis added; see also: Puri 2003:2698].

Dalit Sikhs are further divided among themselves along caste lines. Ramdasia Sikhs considered themselves superior to the mazhabi and rangreta Sikhs.

Another dimension of the Sikh caste hierarchy is the distinction between the sahajdhari (non-baptised) and the keshdhari (baptised) orders of the panth. Sahajdhari-keshdhari dichotomy, in fact, makes the Sikh caste hierarchy rather more complex. The keshdhari Sikhs, also known as Khalsa, are generally considered superior to the sahajdharis. But this does not come true in the case of the mazhabi Sikhs who, despite their being khalsa, are still considered inferior to that of sahajdhari. The practices of endogamy and commensality are also considered to be more closely observed by the sahajdhari Sikhs in comparison to that of the Khalsa [Marenco 1976: 43, 50, 63, 64-65, 153 and 157; Judge 2002: 180 and 184]. But this viewpoint seems to be contested by Rashpal Walia who observed that “nihangs (saint-soldier/immortal) with upper caste background don’t partake of food cooked for those with mazhabi Sikh origin… Most important, the ‘amritpan’ ceremony for the mazhabi Sikhs among the nihang is also separately performed [Walia 1993:219 and 250, emphasis in parenthesis added].

However, scholarship is sharply divided over the patterns of caste hierarchy within the panth. Some scholars are of the opinion that the practices of brahminic ritual purity do not hold any ground in Punjab [Ibbetson 1883, rpt 1970:1-87; Singh Jagjit 1989: 291-97]. In Punjab the defining principles of caste hierarchy are different from that of the brahminical. They are based on hard manual labour on one’s own land, caste homogeneity, martial strength, numerical preponderance in the mainstream Sikh religion, and hold over the politics in the state. Furthermore, it is the complex combination of all these different sources of power (social, ethnological, economic, political, religious, and numerical) that determines the status of the inmates of the Punjabi society. The only caste in which all these multiple identities coalesce is that of jats in Punjab. Jats are jat Sikhs by caste, khalsa or Singh by religion, martial4 by virtue of their being sturdy and an important part of the armed forces in the past and even present, and landowners by virtue of their hold on cultivation.

All these different identities reinforce each other and thus help jat Sikhs, who constitute roughly one-third of the total population of the state, to become the dominant caste in Punjab. Such a rare combination of powerful multiple identities and their concentration in a single caste as well as religion is conspicuous by its absence among the dalits, who, interestingly enough, are almost equal to the jat Sikhs in terms of their numerical proportion in the total population of the state. But unlike jat Sikhs, dalits are sharply divided into 38 castes, scattered in different religions (Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity and Buddhism), mostly landless, economically marginalised, socially oppressed and politically neglected. It is in this context of extreme disparity between the otherwise numerically comparable communities of jat Sikhs and dalits that the distinct pattern of caste hierarchy assumes critical importance in Punjab. This unique but often overlooked phenomenon of numerical near parity and extreme socio-economic disparity is what brought these two communities in open confrontation with each other, on the one hand, and also forced the dalits to seek refuge in various deras in the state, on the other.

On the other side of the debate, there are some scholars [Singh Jagjit 1989; Singh Gurdev 1986] for whom caste hierarchy within the panth is a misnomer. Jagjit Singh was of the opinion that the phenomenon of caste hierarchy stands on three pillars (i e, caste ideology, brahmins, and the caste-society) of the brahminic orthodoxy. Since none of them is found within Sikhism, it is absurd to talk about caste and caste hierarchy in the panth [Singh Jagjit 1989:281]. Moreover, almost all the castes of the “Sikh caste constituency” have been able to enhance their social status [Singh Jagjit 1981; Judge 2002:184]. The mazhabi and the ramdasia Sikhs are the only exception. Despite their lowest rank in the Sikh caste hierarchy, even mazhabis and ramdasias consider themselves superior to their counterpart in the Hindu caste system. Although ramdasias have originated from chamars, they considered themselves superior to the latter [Ibettson (1883) 1970: 297, 302; Bingley 1970: 62; Marenco1978: 130 and 285-86; Singh Jagjit 1989:296]. Similarly, mazhabis too consider themselves socially superior to their erstwhile community fellows (balmikis) with whom they would not fix marriages [Walia 1993: 226].

Though social mobility among the caste constituency of the panth is often referred to as one of the greatest achievements of the new religion, which facilitated some of the shudra castes even to acquire the status of dominant castes in the state, but that was not the sole aim of the panth of Nanak and his nine predecessors, who provided a clear vision and also worked meticulously for the creation of an egalitarian social order completely free from the structures of caste and caste hierarchy. But soon after the end of the gurus period, some sort of caste hierarchy emerged within the panth with the jat Sikhs occupying the top position and the dalit Sikhs sitting at the base. Intermarriages and interdinings are among the prime tests as to the annihilation of caste system. But on both these accounts the Sikh society has failed miserably, particularly in the context of the dalit Sikhs. As far as interdinings among the jat, khatri, ramgarhia, ahluwalia, and other artisan Sikh castes are concerned, one can definitely talk about the phenomenon of the social mobility among them all. However, barring khatris, there was not much difference between the social positions of the jats (dominant castes) and that of the other artisan castes even before their conversion to Sikhism. They were all clubbed together in the category of the shudras and commensality was not a taboo for them. In fact, what matters the most in this context is the change in the status of the dalit Sikhs and their relations with the dominant castes within the panth. They really present a tough problem [Mcleod 2000; Grewal 1998:208]. In matters of commensality clear distinctions are made between the “caste” and “outcaste” members of the panth [Grewal 1998: 210; Walia 1993: 203 and 233]. The dominant castes (jats, khatris and ramgharias) continued to identify the ramdasia, rangreta and mazhabi Sikhs (the outcaste) by their earlier titles – chamars and chuhars [Ibettson (1883) 1970:268-69]. “They are still not tolerated within the main halls, and are forced to sit separately in a corner at the entrance of the gurdwaras. Among them also sat even the baptised mazhabi and ramdasia Sikhs”[Bhullar 2007] In her field based doctoral study of the “Problem of Untouchability among Sikhs in Punjab”, Rashpal Walia found that “mazhabi Sikhs feel that their status in Sikh society is still lowest… though, they are not removers of night soil” [Walia 1993: 264, 266-67]. What we have argued so far is that caste hierarchy does exist within the panth. Mazhabis and ramdasias are continuing to face discrimination on grounds of caste. This is probably one of the major reasons behind their move towards the deras as well as confrontation between them and jat Sikhs.

III Patterns of Dalit Subordination

Power in Punjab revolves around the axle of land. Much of the available agricultural land (more than 80 per cent) is owned by the jat Sikhs, and a very large majority of the scheduled castes (SCs) population (over 95 per cent) is landless. They just shared only 4.82 per cent of the number of operational holdings and 2.34 per cent of the total area under cultivation (1991 Census). In other words, despite the fact of their being in highest proportion in the population of the Punjab in the country, a very small number of them (less than 5 per cent) are cultivators (lowest in India, 1991 Census). Nowhere in India, dalits are so extensively deprived of agricultural land as in the case of Punjab. This rendered a large majority of them (60 per cent, 1991 Census) into agricultural labourers and made them subservient to the landowners, who invariably happen to be jat Sikhs. The hold of the jats on the land was so strong that dalits were never considered part of villages.

Their residences were located outside the main premises of the villages. So much so that the land on which the dalit houses were built were also considered to have belonged to the jats [Virdi 2003: 2 and 11]. This used to keep the dalits always in fear lest the jat landowners ordered them to vacate the land. The abysmally low share of the dalits in the land seems to be the major cause of their hardships and social exclusion. It is also an indication of the historical denial of human rights to them [Thorat 2006:2432]. The slightest sign of protest by the dalits for the betterment of their living conditions often provoked the jats to impose social boycott on them [for an excellent account of social boycott see Bharti 2007:5-21; Judge 2006:12].

Green Revolution and Jat-Dalit Confrontation

The existing division between the jats and dalits got further deepened during the course of green revolution in the post-1960 Punjab. The process of green revolution transformed the traditional subsistence character of the agriculture into commercial farming. The market-oriented agriculture favoured the landowners and further marginalised the dalits [Gill 2004:225-40]. Interestingly, it was also during this phase that a new middle class of educated dalits emerged in Punjab. The advent of this new class among the dalits coupled with the rise of the Ambedkarite movement in the region led to the formation of dalit consciousness in the state. The emergence o f the dalit consciousness induced the dalit agricultural labourers to ask for higher wages in the rural settings of Punjab, especially in its Doaba sub-region. The dalit struggle for higher wages often employed pressure tactics of refusal to work unless the landowners increase the wages. In fact, it was during this very phase of transition in the agrarian economy of Punjab that the process of dalit immigration to Europe, North America, and the Gulf assumed great importance. However, it may be pointed out in the passing that the emergence of the process of dalit immigration from Punjab coincided with the phenomenon of the influx of migrant labour from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh into Punjab [Sidhu et al 1997]. The influx of migrant labour has further sharpened the contradiction between the dominant peasant castes and the landless dalits in that it provided the former cheaper labour compared to the local ones. Moreover, the changed cropping system under the green revolution squeezed the extent of farm labour to a few peak periods – paddy transplantation, paddy harvesting-cum-threshing, and wheat harvesting [Bhalla 1987]. The traditional agriculture system, capable of providing almost round the year regular work, was changed into a commercial agriculture set-up that did not offer more than 75 days work annually (based on fieldwork calculations). In turn, dalits have to seek employment in other sectors for the rest of the year. Thus, the dalit labourers, sandwiched between the influxes of cheap migrant labour on the one hand and mechanised farming on the other, began to look for job in different sectors other than the agriculture. The alternative job opportunities reduced the dependence of the dalits on landowners. The social mobility of the new middle class dalits based on their relative emancipation from the dependence on the agricultural labour along with their subsequent diversification into the service sector facilitated the emergence of dalit assertion in Punjab that brought them in open confrontation with the dominant caste in the state. The phenomenon of dalit-dominant caste confrontation draws heavily on the prevalent structures of social discriminations and the politicisation of caste in the state [Judge 2006:11]. The next section deals with the phenomenon of dalit contestation of social exclusion and the resistance it received from the dominant caste in the state.

IV Social Exclusion and Resistance in Punjab
The recent cases of dalit social exclusion in the form of publicly announced social boycotts are, in fact, not a new phenomenon in Punjab. Dalits had been subjected to such cruelties for a long time now. Social boycotts were imposed on them during their heroic Ad Dharm struggle in Punjab in the early decades of the 20th century [for details see Ram 2004: 332-35]. Social exclusion continued to afflict them even after India became independent.

The frequency and intensity of atrocities against them increased manifolds during the green revolution as a reaction to the growing dalit assertion for better working conditions and higher wages [Singh 1980; Sidhu 1991; Gill 2000]. It is generally seen that whenever the dispossessed raise voice for their human rights, they have been greeted with severe hardships.

Rarely a day passes in Punjab when dalits are spared of a social boycott by the jat Sikhs in the villages over the last few years. After the much-publicised violent conflict in the village Talhan, Punjab is witnessed to a series of similar cases. The pattern of conflicts in all such cases often remained the same as it was during the green revolution phase. In almost all the conflicts, social boycott was imposed on the dalits who were asserting for a share in the local structures of power such as partnership in the village common lands, membership in the management committees of the religious bodies, entry into the panchayati raj institutions, etc. Pandori Khajoor village in Hoshiarpur district, village Bhattian Bet in Ludhiana district, Talhan, Meham and Athaula villages in Jalandhar district, Patteraiwal village in Abhor district, Jethumajra and Chahal village in Nawan Shahr district, Aligarh village near Jagraon in Ludhiana district, Domaeli and Chak Saboo villages in Kapurthala district, Dhamiana in Ropar district, Abuul Khurana village near Malout in Mukitsar district, and Dallel Singh wala, Kamalpur and Hasanpur villages in Sangrur, and Jhabbar village in district of Mansa are among the prominent cases of jat-dalit conflicts in the state. The most recent one is about the clashes between the various groups of Sikhs and the premis of the Dera Sacha Sauda in different parts of Punjab.

However, the Sacha Sauda row is not the only one of its kind. An almost similar crisis has also rocked the state in 2001, when another baba, popularly known as Piara Singh Bhaniara, imitated the 10th guru not only by wearing a shining coat and headgear but also by riding a horse in the similar style. Furthermore, Bhaniara of the Dhamiana village in Ropar district of Punjab “insisted that his sons be addressed as ’sahibzadas’ in the manner of title used to address the sons of the gurus” [Meeta and Rajivlochan 2007:1191]. He also managed a separate granth (Bhavsagar Samundar) running into 2,704 pages parallel to that of the sacred text of the established mainstream religion in the state. All this was enough to spark off a series of violent clashes between the followers of the mainstream religion and that of the sect of the Bhaniarawala. Bhaniara, himself a mazhabi Sikh, draws a large majority of his following from the mazhabis. Almost all the bigwigs in the political corridors of Punjab, particularly union minister Buta Singh, his nephew and former legislator Joginder Singh Mann, former Akali MP Amrik Singh Aliwal, six time legislator and former Punjab minister, Gurdev Singh Badal and his son Kewal Badal, who supported his sect also belonged to the mazhabi caste. Since the majority of the followers of Bhaniara belonged to the mazhabi caste, and that of the mainstream Sikh religion to the jat Sikhs, the crisis turned out to be an identity conflict between the dalits and the dominant caste in the state of Punjab.

Bhaniarawala Phenomenon vs Sacha Sauda Row

Though “the Bhaniarawala phenomenon” and the Sacha Sauda row look similar in many ways, in the volatile territory of the realpolitik in Punjab they seem to attribute different meanings to the sharpening contradictions between the dalits and the dominant castes. During “the Bhaniarawala phenomenon” there was almost a consensus among the various factions of the Akali Dal over the course of action to be taken against the indicted Bhaniara.

Whereas in the case of Sacha Sauda there is a difference of opinion among the various groups of the Akalis as to the nature of agitation for the arrest of its chief as well as the form of punishment. It is, perhaps, for the first time in the history of the Akalis
that such a difference of opinion emerged among them. It also indicates that the moderates and some of the redical groups within the Akalis as well are concerned more with the hard earned peace in the state than to bargain it with any cost or sort of some long-term political gain. Another unique aspect of the present crisis is that the Hindu population of the state played a very positive role in condemning the sacrilegious act of the head of the Sacha Sauda. But still, the dalit-jat Sikh equation remains the focal point of the crisis. In fact, it is this equation with which the real question of peace in Punjab is taged. Unless and until an amicable and a durable solution to this fast emerging jat-dalit confrontation is located, Punjab is probably bound to plunge into a deep crisis at a time when the Sikh religion “evinces the need for a reassertion”,5 and the dalits assertion goes global.

The following sub-sections briefly explore the probable underlying causes of the recent caste-based conflicts in Punjab. For paucity of space, only Talhan and Meham conflicts are taken up as two ethnographic case studies. In both the cases, the bone of contention has been the management of the local deras. In the case of Talhan, dalits were denied participation in the managing committee of the ’smadh’ (grave) turned gurdwara, whereas in Meham dalits were forced to surrender their control over the Udasi Dera of Baba Khazan Singh.


The Talhan conflict was based on the issue of dalit representation in the jat Sikh-dominated management committee of the smadh-turned-gurdwara named after Shaheed (martyr) Nihal Singh, a local carpenter (backward caste) who died while laying Gandd (wooden wheel) at the base of a well in Talhan village. The primary motive behind the conversion of the smadh into a gurdwara was widely seen as an effort to grab the large amount of money (approximately Rs 50 million [$ 1.1 million] offered at its alter by the jats of the village and the adjoining areas) [Philip 2003]. The jats of Talhan (25 per cent), who control most of the agricultural land in the village and until recently enjoyed unquestioned domination in the social and political life of the village,
established their control over this gurdwara through the office of the gurdwara management committee. Despite being a majority in the village, the dalits of Talhan (72 per cent) were kept out of the membership on the gurdwara management committee because of their lowly caste (conversation with Ram Talhan, Banga, April 16, 2006). They employed every possible method to seek entry into the committee peacefully. But the dispute remained unresolved. This ultimately led to a fight between the jats and the dalits in January 2003. Subsequently, the jat Sikhs publicly announced a social boycott of the dalits. They stopped visiting their shops and also banned their entry into the fields owned by them even for answering the call of the nature (conversation with L R Balley, Banga, April 16, 2006).

To fight back the social oppression, dalits organised a dalit action committee (DAC) under the leadership of L R Balley, a prominent Ambedkarite of the region. The DAC organised dharnas and hunger strikes in the village and Jalandhar city. Repeated appeals by the DAC failed to move the administration [Singh 2003]. On June 5, 2003, the conflict took a violent turn. And soon it snowballed into the adjoining areas. Boota Mandi, a suburb of Jalandhar city, became the epicentre of the violence. It was here that an Ad Dharmi, Vijay Kumar Kala, fell victim to the police firing, an event that suddenly propelled Talhan and Boota Mandi onto the national scene. Talhan and Boota Mandi were virtually converted into a garrison. And the village was sealed off for a couple of days. Although the violence was controlled by the district administration, it took the contending parties 18 days to reach a compromise, and another two months for the agreement to come into effect.

Whatever be the cause of the violence, it is clear that by the time it erupted, the dalits had achieved a state of consciousness that not only empowered them to say a firm “no” to their tormentors but also encouraged them to ask assertively for an equal share in the structures of power at the village level. In contrast, the jat Sikhs, who have thrived amidst a meek silence of the dalits, are finding it hard to resist the mounting dalit assertion against the centuries old system of social exclusion [for more details see Ram 2004b: 906-12].


Meham conflict is another case of recent jat-dalit confrontation, and a vindication of the presence of caste hierarchy among the Sikhs. The village Meham has total population of 1967 out of which 893 (45 per cent) belong to the dalits. Most of the dalits belong to the balmiki caste. The Ad Dharmi, another dalit caste, constitutes 20 per cent of the total population [Judge 2006:14]. The jat Sikhs are about 20 per cent of the total population of the village. Jats, balmikis and the Ad Dharmis each have their own gurdwara in addition to the disputed dera of Khazan Singh Udasi in Meham. Dalits in Meham are diversified into various non-cultivation professions that has not only helped them abandon their customary caste-based occupations but also liberated them from the subordination of the jat Sikhs. However, despite the dissociation of the dalits from their hereditary professions and distancing from the agriculture, they failed to raise their social status in the eyes of the jats, who still consider them unequal. This has led to tensions between the jat Sikhs and the dalits in the village.

Though the context of the Meham conflict is different from that of the Talhan, the patterns and the forms of social oppression are same in both of them. In Talhan, the dalits were denied membership in the jat-dominated management committee of the disputed shrine turned gurdwara of Shaheed Nihal Singh. Whereas in Meham, the jat Sikhs forcibly took over the control of the dera of Khazan Singh Udasi that was being looked after by the Ad Dharmis of the village for the last six decades. They replaced all the udasi symbols with that of the Khalsa, and also objected to the offerings of liquor and the distribution of the same as a prasad (sacramental food) among the devotees at the dera as it violates the Sikh code of conduct (conversation with Darshan Nahar, Nurmahal, October 25, 2006).

The Ad Dharmi argued that the tradition of offering liquor at the smadh in the dera is in no way an act of sacrilege as the dera was never a site of Sikhism. They further reiterated that the jat Sikhs brought the question of Sikh rahit into the picture in 2003 when they placed Guru Granth Sahib on the premises of the dera. Moreover, the very presence of the mazaars (graves) in the precincts of the dera ruled out the possibility of its being a gurdwara (conversation with C L Chumber, Jalandhar, October 25, 2006). Probably, the rising cost of the land in the state and the tremendous increase in the offerings at the dera over the last few years due to rich remittance from the Punjabi diaspora, especially from the doaba sub-region, could have prompted the jat Sikhs of the village to assert their claim on the dera [Kali 2003]. However, unlike in Talhan, the timely intervention of the police brought the Meham conflict under the control for the time being and the dispute has been referred to the court. Currently, the dera is placed under a government receiver who has been assigned the task of the management of the shrine.

The conflicts in Talhan and Meham, thus, reflect the underlying layers of tensions between the hitherto all powerful and dominant jat Sikhs, and the newly emerging assertive class of dalits. Given the rising level of social consciousness among dalits, the dominant caste has been finding it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore their demands for a share in the local structures of power.


This paper argues is that the jat-dalit confrontation is an offshoot of the socio-religious and economic chemistry of Punjab. The root cause, perhaps, lies in the perception of dalits about the incompatibility between the egalitarian social ethos of Sikhism and the manifestation of social exclusion in the dealings of the dominant jat Sikh community in the state. The dalit Sikhs find that they are still considered as “other”. The domination of jat Sikhs, however, does not compare at all with the graded system of brahminical caste hierarchy. They became dominant because of their “patient vigorous labour” as cultivator par excellence, caste homogeneity, martial status, control over the land, numerical preponderance in the Sikh community, and their hold over the power structures in the state. Dalits, equally sturdy and hard-working as well as numerically quite close to the proportion of the jat Sikhs in the state, continue to face social exclusion in spite of their conversion to Sikhism and relative improvement in their economic conditions. Their social exclusion coupled with landlessness and political marginalisation appears to be the major factor behind their move towards various deras promising dignity and social equality. However, the increasing level of dalit assertion, benefits of affirmative action, remittances and diversification in the realms of economy have given them a strong sense of equality inspiring to assert for share in the local and state power structures albeit met with stiff resistance put up by the dominant caste. This has created a sort of fault line indicative of violent confrontation between the dominant and the downtrodden in the state, long boasted of as a casteless society.


[This paper, presented at different international and national seminars, is primarily
based on my field observations and a large number of conversations with dalit activists and writers, followers of various deras, scholars and political
personalities. I wish to sincerely thank them all, particularly Paramjit Singh Judge, Amarjit Grewal, K C Sulekh, L R Balley, Balwant Singh, and Sadhu Ram Talhan, for their critical inputs. I also thank P S Verma and Harish K Puri for meticulously going through the various drafts. Their scholarly
comments and critical observations helped me in improving the arguments
presented in the paper. To Seema Goel, for taking care of the household
during my long visits in the field as well as extended hours in the study, I owe a special debt. The views expressed herein are, of course, my own.]
1 Jats are the landowning and dominant peasant caste in Punjab. For details see [Bingley 1899; Habib 1996; Ibbetson 1970 (1883): 97-131; Marenco 1976; Pettigrew 1978].
2 The ‘dalit’ is a broad term that incorporates the scheduled castes, the scheduled tribes and the backward castes. However, in the current political discourse, it is mainly confined to the scheduled castes and covers only those dalits who are classified as Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists
but excludes Muslim and Christian dalits.
3 Dalits have separate gurdwaras in about 10,000 villages out of a total of 12,780 villages in Punjab (Dalit Voice, Vol 22, No 17, September 1-15, 2003: 20). A survey of 116 villages in one tehsil of Amritsar district showed that dalits had separate gurdwaras in 68 villages [Puri 2003: 2700]. Yet another field study of 51 villages selected from the three sub-regions of Punjab found that dalits had separate gurdwaras in as many as 41 villages [Jodhka 2004:79].
4 The rise of militancy in Sikhism in the 16th century was generally attributed to the martial nature of the jats [Habib 1996:100; see also Mcleod 1996:12; Pettigrew 1978:26]. For counter arguments on this theme see [Grewal 1998; Singh (ed) 1986, especially the sixth part; and Singh 1985].
5 EPW (editorials ‘Punjab: ‘Protecting’ Religion’), May 26, 2007:1884.

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