Saturday, 7 November 2009


S. Jodhka

This long, informative and well-researched article analyzes the caste structure among Sikhs in Punjab and attempts by the Sikh Dalits to address caste oppression.

The Dera Sachkhand Ballan is one of the most important Guru Ravi Das Deras in Punjab today. Ravi Das was a 15th century saint of the Chamar caste whose message is constructed by his contemporary followers in a modern language that foregrounds questions of caste oppression and the fight against the prevailing structures of authority and the Brahmanical moral order. In his piece here, Surinder gives us a historical background to the emergence of this movement, and brings us to the point of the 1990s, when the “diasporic energy” of Ravi Dasis who had emigrated to the UK and Europe, gave a boost to the movement both at home as well as in the diaspora, where Ravi Dasis had found things to be no different. 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, says Surinder, but facing systematic discrimination from wealthy Jat Sikhs, were forced to set up their own autonomous organizations and their own gurudwaras.

The anger we see on the streets of Punjab today is no irrational madness. It is very much a modern political intervention against systematic discrimination.

Caste has often been viewed as a pan-Indian reality with a common hierarchical ordering structured around the idea of varna system. While this, to some extent, is true it tends to over-simplify things. The concrete empirical realities of caste vary significantly across regions, shaped by the local historical specificities and material conditions.

Of all the states of the Indian union, Punjab has the highest proportion of Scheduled Castes (SC) population. Against the national average of around 16 percent, Punjab, according to the 2001 Census, had nearly 29 percent of its population listed as SC. The SC population in Punjab has also been growing at a rate much higher than rest of the state population. In 1971 the proportion of SC population in the state was 24.7 percent. It went up to 26.9 percent in 1981 and further to 28.3 percent in 1991. However, in the following decade it grew at slower rate, adding only around 0.6 decimal points to the proportion of 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 sub-region, for example, their population is over 35 percent, much larger than the state average. In the district of Nawanshahr in Doaba region, the SC population during 2001 Census was 40.46 percent.

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

Beginning with early twentieth 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 nineteenth century. Though the British colonial rule came to Punjab late, its influence on the ground grew quite rapidly. They developed canal colonies which helped in growth of agriculture in the region. The British rule also led to the development of urban centres. Jallandhar was one such town which experienced significant growth during the period after it was chosen for setting-up of a military cantonment for recruiting soldiers from the region. Colonial army provided new opportunities of employment to the children of Punjabi peasants and also opened-up avenues for social mobility for a section of local Dalits, particularly the Chamars who worked with leather.

The cantonment raised demand for leather goods, particularly the 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 also ventured long distance travel to other parts of the subcontinent and abroad, to the United States, Canada and England. The social and economic mobility that some individual untouchables experienced during this period prepared grounds for political mobilizations 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 the 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 shudhi movement wherein they encouraged the “untouchables” to “purify” themselves and become part of the mainstream Hinduism. They also encouraged them 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 distinctiveness of Sikhs from the Hindus (see Jodhka 2000).

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 Muggowal of the Hoshiarpur district of Doaba sub-region 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 an enterprising person 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 being run by the Arya Samaj. Migration to 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 mobilized some money and sent him to the United States for better paying work. While in California, he was influenced by left-wing ideas of his contemporaries from Punjab and got involved with the Gadar movement. However, he came back to Punjab in 1925 with the motivation of working with his own people. On returning home, he set up a school for lower-caste children with the help of the Arya Samaj, but very soon he 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 Dharam 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 separate religious community. In the very first conference of the organization, 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 Dharam being a separate region, a qaum, was to undermine the identity of caste. As a separate qaum, Ad Dharmis were equal to other qaums recognized 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 418,789 persons reported themselves as Ad Dharmis in the 1931 Punjab census, almost equal to the Christian population of the province. They accounted for about 1.5 per cent of the total population of Punjab and around a tenth of the total low-caste population of the province. Nearly 80 per cent of the low castes of Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur districts reported themselves as Ad Dharmis (ibid: 77).

The Ad Dharam movement succeeded in mobilizing the Chamars of 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.

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 Dharam movement lay in its success. Its leaders joined mainstream politics. Manoo 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 Dharam Mandal began to see itself as a social and religious organization and in 1946 decided to change its name to the Ravi Das Mandal, ‘entrusting the political work to All India Scheduled Castes Federation in conformity with rest of India’ (see Juergensmeyer 1988:153).

From Ad Dharam to Ravi Dasi

A closer understanding of the Ad dharma 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 decline of Ad Dharam movement can perhaps be located in the famous Poona Pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar and the formation of Scheduled List in Government of India Act 1935. The clubbing of Scheduled Castes with the Hindus left no choice for the Ad Dharam 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 Dharam 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 a separate religion by the colonial Census but Act of 1935 we became one of the Scheduled Castes, among others in the same category. Communal Award had recognized our autonomy, which had to be surrendered by B.R. Ambedkar under the Poona Pact. Under the Poona Pact we were given reservations but only if accepted to be part of the Hindu religion. …..However, even though we legally became a part of Hinduism, it did not stop discrimination against us. Even now it continues though it is less pronounced and more subtle… ” (R.L Jassi).

Though most of our Dalit respondents remembered Ad Dharam movement with a sense of pride and some of them also felt bad about its decline, we did not observe any kind of strong feeling for the movement or resentment among the Ad Dharamis 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 Dharam movement and its leaders were perhaps also swayed by the mainstream or dominant politics of time, i.e. freedom movement its hegemonic influence. As one of our respondent, who us currently president of the Ravi Das Trust, said to us:

“…at one time Ad Dharam movement was very popular in Punjab. However, slowly, with growing influence of Congress politics, its leaders started leaving. Master Balwanta Sing was the first to leave Ad Dharam 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”. (Heer)

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 Schedule Caste Federation, both setup by B.R. Ambedkar. Some of them eventually turned to Buddhism for spiritual autonomy and religious identity. Equally important is perhaps the fact that though Ad Dharam 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 places pilgrimage, in sacred symbols…. How could it have survived as a religion?” (L.R. Bali).

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 Ravi Dasis.

As mentioned it was, in fact, during the Ad Dharam movement that identity the Ravi Dasi identity had begun to take shape. Leaders of the movement also saw Ravi Dassi identity as their own resource. Long after dissolving the Ad Dharam Mandal and having been in retirement for many years, Mangoo Ram summed-up the achievement of Ad Dharam Movement in an interview with Mark Juergensmeyer in 1971 where his focus is 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 realized 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 Dharam 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 Scheduled Castes 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 acceptable4.

While it is true that the Ad Dharam 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, the Ravi Dasi religious had already begun to take shape, independently of the Ad Dharam 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 Dharamis. Mangoo Ram often visited the Ravi Dasi Deras during his campaign. It was a leader of a Ravi Dasi Dera who offered him a glass of fruit juice when he broke his fast unto death kept in support of B.R. Ambedkar’s struggle against Gandhi on the question of the so-called Communal Award in 1932 (Juergensmeyer 1988:85).

Interestingly, even when the community reconciled itself to the idea of being clubbed with Hindu Scheduled Castes for census enumerations, the identity of being Ad Dharmis continued to be important with them. As many as 14.9 percent (532129) of the 70,28,723 Scheduled Castes of Punjab were listed as Ad Dharmis in the 2001 Census, substantially more than those registered themselves as belonging to the Ad Dharmi qaum in 1931. In religious terms, as many as 59.9 percent of the Punjab Scheduled Castes enumerated themselves as Sikhs and 39.6 percent Hindus. The 0.5 percent declared their religion 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, Dalits of Punjab, and elsewhere in India, have also developed urge for autonomous faith identities, particularly of 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 Dharam movement of 1920s (discussed above) was a clear example of this.

Historically Dalits have chosen two different paths to this moving away from Hindusim. First of these was conversion to other religions such as Christianity, Islam or Sikhism, which do not support caste based inequalities and divisions. The second path has been to look for indigenous traditions of egalitarian faith traditions that emerged in opposition to the system of caste hierarchy. The two stories of Dalit religious movements, viz. Buddhism and Ravi Dasi movement, subject of this study could be seen as examples of the second path.

Guru Ravi Das: Ravi Das was born sometime in 1450 A.D. in the north Indian town of Banaras in the present day Uttar Pradesh in an “untouchable” caste, the Chamars (traditionally identified with leather work) 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, which included Kabir and Nanak. His claims to religious authority were obviously challenged by the local Brahmins but every time they complained against his “sacrilegious behaviour” to the local rulers, Ravi Das was able to convince the political authorities of his genuine “spiritual powers” through various miraculous acts. He is believed to have also visited Punjab region and met with Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith, at least thrice. He also gave most of his writings to Guru Nanak, which were eventually included in the Sikh holy book Guru Granth .

Though historians of Indian religion club tend to club Ravi Das with 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 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, 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 of 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 moral order is fore-grounded. 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 3000 years (Jassi 2001:24).

It was in this “degenerated environment” that Ravidas was born. What did he preach and propagate? Jassi continues: “He was 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 a towering spiritual figure… He was pioneer of socialistic thought and strengthened noble values” (ibid 25).

Ravi Das’s utopia was also significantly different from some of the later writings on “a desirable India” produced by people like Mahatma 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 Rajya…. (Omvedt 208:7).

Though born in a Dalit family, Ravi Das indeed became a part of the larger movement of protest against the Brahmanical control over social and religious life of the people and was accepted as a leader across the entire region. His identification with Guru Nanak, who was from an upper caste, clearly proves this point. As mentioned above, Guru Nanak added 40 of his hymns and one couplet into his collection of important writings of the times, which were eventually compiled into Adi Granth by the fifth Sikh Guru. It is perhaps this connection with Guru Nanak and Sikhism that explains the emergence of major centre of Ravi Das in Punjab, and not in Uttar Pradesh, where he was born.

Ravi Dasis Today

Though the message of Ravi Das had been integrated into the Sikh holy book and was routinely read and sung at the Sikh Gurudwaras as part of gurbani (religious singing), it was only in early years of the twentieth 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 cantonment in Jallandhar (see above). Reform movements among the major religious communities of the, 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 kilometers from the town of Jallandhar. It is locally known as Dera Sach Khand Ballan. Though the Dera was set-up by Sant Pipal Dass sometime during the early twentieth century5, 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 also found in published leaflets, 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. Elder brother of Sarwan Das, 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 Das 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 Sant Sarwan Dass was doing in the village, a local landlord gifted him one canal of land close to the hut, where the Dera building was eventually constructed. Sarwan Dass remained head of the Dera from October 11, 1928 until he died in June 1972. He was followed by Sant Hari Dass and Sant Garib Dass. The Dera is currently headed by Sant Niranjan Dass.

Though the Dera Ballan is a religious centre with a focus on preaching universalistic values and spirituality, it actively identifies itself with the local Dalit issues and Dalit politics. Not only do they foreground Ravi Dass’s message of building a caste less society, they have also been actively identified with Dalit activism. Sant Sarwan Dass kept in active touch with Mangoo Ram during the Ad Dharam movement and Mangoo Ram too visited the Dera to communicate his message to Dalit masses of the region. When Mangoo Ram ended his fast-unto-death in 1932, which he had kept in support of B.R. Ambedkar’s position on Poona Pact and against Gandhi’s fast on the Communal Award, it was Sant Sarwan Dass who offered him a glass of fruit juice6. During one of his visit to Delhi, he also met B.R. Ambedkar, who “showed great respect to Sant Sarwan Dass Ji”. Sant Sarwan Dass also wrote a letter to Ambedkar in which he described him as “a great son of community”

In the emerging national context, 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 efforts of religious gurus like Sant Sarwan Dass.

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

Having established a separate religious centre in Punjab he 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 Ravidas in the holy city of Banaras. He took 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 outskirt of Banaras where on the 16th of June 1965 he himself laid the foundation stone of the Ravi Das temple. The first phase of this temple was completed in the year 1972.

Though the leaders were excited about building Ravi Das temple in Banaras, the disciples, who are mostly from Punjab, were apprehensive. How are we 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 Jallandhar to Banaras once every year, at the time of the birth anniversary of Ravi Dass. This train will be called Begampura Express” (in notes source?).

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 the strategies with other leaders of the community for making Dalit politics more effective.

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 globalization.

Along with other Punjabis, a large number of Chamars of the Doaba region had migrated to the 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 ‘percentage of Scheduled Castes within the total Punjabi community was as high as 10 percent. The rest were largely Jat Sikhs’ (Juergenmeyer 1988: 246).

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 work place 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. (Juergenmeyer 1988: 247-8).

The migrant Dalits felt this bias in the Gurudwaras which were mostly controlled by the Jats and other upper caste Sikhs. Given their numbers and the position in local economy the 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 to come-up were in Britain, in Birmingham and Wolverhampton, in 1956 (ibid 248). While initially, over the first 20 or 25 years of their migration, they simply built their own community organization and separate Gurudwaras wherever they could, over the years they also began to influence the “home-land”. The growing availability of new communication channels such as internet and satellite television during the early 1990s made it easier for them to renew active relationship with Punjab and the Ravi Dasi community at home. By the early 1990s, the diaspora Dalits had also experienced considerable economic mobility, which made it easier for them to travel home and they began to do so more frequently. When they came to visit home, they brought money with them for the religious Deras and this new money and diasporic energy played a very important role in further growth of the movement. This was summed-up well by a Dalit businessman who has been involved with mobilizing the Ravi Dasi sants into a pan-Indian association.

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

Over the last 15 years or so, the Dera at Ballan has expanded significantly. A new building was inaugurated in the year 2007 where nearly twenty thousand people could be accommodated to listen to the teachings of Guru Ravidas. It has a langar hall where two thousand people can eat together. Among other things, this Hall has the technology for live telecast and recording of VCDs. In collaboration with Jallandhar channel of Doordarshan (an Indian television channel run by the Government of India) it telecasts a programme called ‘Amrit Bani’ every Friday and Saturday morning

Not only has Dera Ballan expanded, over the years, Deras, Gurudwaras and temples on the name Guru Ravi Das have flourished in Punjab, particularly in Doaba region where Ad Dharmis and Chamars have been numerically predominant among the Dalits. We were told that there are some 6 or 7 major Sants who can be considered as leaders of the community and more than 250 Deras/Gurudwaras 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 Dharmis

Putting Caste on Notice

Putting Caste on Notice


Navi Pillay, the South African judge who became the United Nations high commissioner for human rights last year, is moving to the forefront of a campaign to free more than 250 million people from the indignities and horrors of caste discrimination. No previous commissioner has dared to openly take on this pernicious system, the majority of whose miserable victims live in India.

"This is the year 2009, and people have been talking about caste oppression for more than a hundred years," Pillay says. "It's time to move on this issue."

For Pillay, who is of Indian descent, the subject of caste has been hidden too long by obfuscation on the part of governments, not only in India, that have successfully argued in UN conferences that existing international conventions against human rights abuses do not apply. Caste did not figure in the official conclusions of a conference on racism and other forms of intolerance in Durban in 2001, after intense lobbying by India, and remained on the periphery of a review of that conference earlier this year.

That being the case, Pillay said in an interview in her New York office on a visit from her headquarters in Geneva, there may well have to be a new international convention written to apply directly to caste.

The campaign is gathering momentum among a wide range of global nongovernmental organizations, religious groups and, lately, a few governments working from a draft document on eliminating discrimination based on work or descent--in other words, being born into predestined deprivation, assigned to the most menial of jobs and segregated socially from the better born.

Pillay would like to see this draft endorsed by the member nations of the Human Rights Council and by all governments, many of which are in denial over the harmful effects of the caste system.

She relayed a story about a group of women who came to her in Geneva recently with a brick from a latrine they had torn down in protest against being forced to carry away human excrement in their bare hands. They wanted to make the point that despite India's frequent assertions that "untouchables," who call themselves Dalits ("broken people"), were no longer condemned by birth to do this job, there were still tens of thousands of such latrines in the country, and the filthy, soul-destroying work continues.

"They have good laws in India, and they have media; they have well developed civil society organizations," Pillay said. "So how come there is no implementation of these good laws, these good intentions?" Discrimination by caste is unconstitutional in India, which also has affirmative action programs for Dalits and others at the bottom of society. Dalits have risen to high office through politics, though even democracy has not helped most of them.

It was, ironically, Nepal that broke ranks with India in September and publicly joined the campaign against caste discrimination. Nepal, a majority Hindu nation like India, is home to 4.5 million Dalits, according to the Feminist Dalit Organization of Nepal. Women among the Dalits everywhere are especially vulnerable to victimization of all kinds, most often sexual abuse.

Women of lowly birth are also sometimes accused of witchcraft, and not only in Asia. Pillay said that in a country in Africa girls and women have been jailed, and officials say they cannot release them or they would be killed. Recently in India's Jharkhand state, village women, apparently Muslims who were labeled witches by accusers, were beaten, stripped naked and forced to eat excrement, the BBC reported.

The Times of India described Nepal's unanticipated decision to align with the campaign against caste discrimination as an "embarrassment" to India, saying that it contradicts India's "stated aversion to the internationalization of the caste problem." The newspaper noted that Sweden then piled on an endorsement from the European Union, "adding to India's discomfiture."

The influence of the Hindu caste system has seeped across other borders in South Asia, into Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, sometimes affecting even Muslims based on their birth or ancestry. Converts to Christianity or Buddhism who flee Hinduism to escape caste often remain branded for life nonetheless.

Dalits, regarded widely as unclean or polluted, can, and have, faced death at the hands of upper caste people for infractions such as taking water from a forbidden well or entering a Brahmin temple. There have been lynchings for intermarriage with higher castes. In some places, particularly in north India, Dalits vote at segregated polling stations. At roadside cafes they often get separate utensils, if they are served at all.

It need not be that way, Pillay, 68, notes from her own experience. Indians in South Africa, a minority in a suppressed black majority under apartheid, soon abandoned caste consciousness, she said. "I know that in the early days they did practice that, because my parents told us," she said. "I think it would be my grandparents' generation. But it broke down by force of social pressures."

As high commissioner for human rights, Pillay takes a broad view of her responsibilities, and that applies to causes she is willing to take up as well as to her definition of human rights. She focuses not only on political or civil rights but also societal shortcomings and abuses. On caste, she said she looks for other forms of similar discrimination globally, anywhere people are held in forms of slavery based on birth, for example, or are relegated to second-class citizenship for other reasons.

"What alerted me to it is that a Bolivian woman minister who addressed the Durban review conference spoke about slavery in Bolivia and described the conditions. In Mauritania [there is] slavery as well."

Pillay has also made three public speeches on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and produced a video on the subject to encourage governments to frame a declaration on LGBT rights.

When we spoke, Pillay had just come from a UN panel where victims of human trafficking presented powerful testimonies. She was struck by a fact thrown out by the panel's moderator: that there are more people being trafficked today than in the entire historical slave trade.

Caste and new forms of slavery are not unrelated, she argued in a recent op-ed article for the Huffington Post, where she wrote that landlessness, debt bondage and labor bondage, involving millions of young children, are the lot of the lowest castes.

"As high commissioner I promised to be evenhanded and raise all issues affecting all human beings," Pillay said. "I can't flow with the political concerns of anyone who doesn't want one or another issue addressed because it embarrasses them or because they are dealing with it in their own way."

Caste is now on notice: the UN has failed, she said, to educate people and change mindsets to combat the taint of caste. "How long is the cycle going to go on where those who can do something about it say, We can't, because it's the people, it's their tradition; we have to go slowly.
"Slavery and apartheid could be removed, so now [caste] can be removed through an international expression of outrage."