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
in
Punjab following the Vienna attack on 24 May 2009 leading to
the death of a senior Ravi Dasi religious leader would appear
more
like a case of assertion of the Ravi Dasis’ political strength and a
statement of their united identity than a case of caste conflict, as it
has been popularly (mis)interpreted by the popular
media.
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
leadership,
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
.1
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.

Notes
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
(2001).
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.
nic.in/diaspora pdf/chapter10.pdf, 10 April 2009).
12 Personal interview in Jalandhar in October 2008.
13 See Charlene 2008.
14 See Ram 2008.
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Courtesy: Economic & Political Weekly EPW june 13, 2009 vol xliv no 24 79

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