Kids Corner


The Great Betrayal II - How The Curse Of Hindu Casteism has Corrupted Today’s Punjab -
The Roundtable Open Forum # 140-B





Continued from yesterday …





Hazara Singh Mushtaq (1917-1981) was different from his predecessor dalit poets. He was an ardent nationalist, flag-bearer of the Indian National Congress and was also jailed a few times during the late-colonial rule for his nationalism.

Of his seven books published, ‘Kissa Mazhbi Sikh Jodha’ (1955) directly reflected his dalit concerns. Though he does not chide ‘Independence’ in the context of the poor dalits like Aalam, he expresses his disillusionment with the post-Independence developments, brings in socialist ideology to disparage the social and economic disparities, and calls the dalits for a revolutionary rise in his 1977 ‘Noori Gazal‘.


The revolutionary rise that Punjab witnessed in the form of Naxalism in the late 1960s produced two dalit poets with revolutionary as well as dalit consciousness. These were Sant Ram Udasi (1939-1986) and Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007).

Sant Ram Udasi was born in a dalit Mazhbi Sikh landless labour family. He grew up with a strong dalit consciousness and had tried to see dignity in the Sikh religion, but soon he experienced how caste discrimination and untouchability had crept present into the community.

During 1970s he emerged as one of the powerful radical poets and published three books of poetry: Lahu Bhije Bol (Blood-soaked Word), Saintan (Gestures) and Chounukrian (the Four-edged).


Naxalite poet Lal Singh Dil was born in a Ramdasia Sikh (Chamaar - Cobbler) family in 1943. He was training to be a basic school teacher when Naxalbari sucked him in.

In the dream of a society free of caste and class, Lal Singh saw a new dawn for the oppressed. He was a sensitive poet and his poetry was true to life and the experience of poverty, injustice and oppression was so real and told so well that he was hailed as the bard of the Naxalite movement in Punjab.

A great poet he was undoubtedly, and his collections of poetry: Satluj di Hava (1971), Bahut Saare Suraj (1982), and Sathar (1997); as well as his autobiography, Dastaan (1998), enjoy an exalted place in Punjabi letters.

It is remarkable that Lal Singh’s Dalit consciousness and identity was free from feelings of hatred, vengeance and malice. He has come to be acknowledged as  one of the best poets of the last half a century.

Both Sant Ram and Lal Singh were arrested, incarcerated and tortured. Their torture was particularly severe because they came from dalit families while thier tormentors belonged to the dominant high castes.

The two powerful revolutionary dalit poets were an upsurge on the Punjabi literary stage which had remained dominated by the upper-caste, upper-class litterateurs and they became a major source for the bursting of dalit literary energy in 1990s. If their poetry was looking for a revolutionary class change, it had the vivacity of dalit identity which was capable of challenging the hegemonic discourses.

Sukhdev Singh Sirsa puts this change in perspective:

The question of dalit identity has given a new ideological context to the contemporary Punjabi literature. The new Punjabi poetry has given a new expression to the dalit concerns of existential and social identity. This new perspective disentangles itself from the class-conflict approach to the understanding of dalit identity in the varna system and looks at the changing dalit philosophy. Hence, this poetry does not only reject the established assumptions and hypotheses but also produces an alternative.


Contemporary poets include Balbir Madhopuri, Siri Ram Arsh, Sulakhan Mit, Gurmeet Kalarmajri, Madan Vira, Manjit Kadar, Bhagwan Dhillon, Buta Singh Ashant, Manmohan, Mohan Tyagi, Mohan Matialvi, Jaipal, Iqbal Gharu, Harnek Kaler, Sadhu Singh Shudrak. They are no more shy in accepting their dalit identity as the dalit political assertion in the past few decades empowered them to re-read historical traditions and situate themselves by providing a pride of space in the otherwise historical trajectory denied to them.

This is obvious from the following lines of two contemporary dalit poets.

Manmohan raises his voice thus:

It is said to me
The colour of my poem is black
Flat features
Tattered dress
Full of patches
Asymmetrical rhythm ...

Sorrow appears before pleasure does
Pains peaks before peace

Tell me now
If I don’t write poems like this
What should I do?

Then listen to what Balbir Madhopuri has to offer in his ‘Bhakhda Patal’ (Smouldering Netherworld):

For smoked skinned people like me
I do want
My poems
Should be part of that anthology
That contains
Stories of Eklavaya and Banda Bahadar
Struggle of Pir Buddhu Shah
Sensitivity of Pablo Neruda

It is interesting that while the first three eminent dalit poets foreground their Sikh identity, the rest of the poets assert their dalit identity but do not necessarily deny their Sikh identity. They are proud of their multiple identities. They seem to be aware that Sikhism had/has played important role in their ancestors’ as well as their own lives though there is disenchantment with the turn the some segments of the current Sikh community seem to have taken. This should take us to that turn to see the contours of the Sikh movement.

*   *   *   *   *

The regional history of Punjab in general and of Sikh tradition in particular seems to be richest in the subcontinent.

The Punjab attracted scholarly attention for a variety of reasons but also because of the rise, growth and survival of the Sikh religion despite having been under the danger of being absorbed by Hinduism.

If Kahn Singh Nabha had to assert in his polemical treatise ‘Hum Hindu Nahin’ [We are not Hindus] in 1898 as an answer to a publication by a Sanatan Sikh, Thakur Das, entitled ‘Sikh Hindu Hain’ (Sikhs are Hindus), Khushwant Singh in 1953 was still apprehensive of its survival beyond the twentieth century.

Also being a ‘religion of the book’ from within the subcontinental tradition, it has been able to multiply books about itself whether produced by its followers or by others. A strong and sturdy body of knowledge about Sikh religion, history, polity and society has been produced in the last fifty years. Religion being an emotive issue, this knowledge has not been free of controversies and contestation.

Besides academic historians, social scientists, and litterateurs a large number of scientists, doctors, engineers, bureaucrats, retired army officials and others have entered the fray and enriched the knowledge on Sikhism. Yet another factor that has contributed to the vast built of literature on various facets of Punjabi life and Sikh religion is the strong Punjabi and Sikh diaspora, especially in the West.

As the sociological and other empirical studies have highlighted the presence of ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ among Sikhs, it is no more possible to avoid or hide this ‘embarrassing question’ from the historical discourses as had been the case in the last 50 years’ production of historical knowledge.

W. H. McLeod, who has been engaged in the study of Sikh religion for half a century, recently admitted such a tendency:

To understand Sikh history and religion adequately, one must first grasp the true nature of Sikh society. It is here that caste becomes significant. To understand Sikh society, one must comprehend the nature of caste as it affects the Panth. An understanding of the future development of the Sikh religion makes an understanding of caste as practised by Sikhs absolutely imperative. Social scientists already recognize this, although some of their books or articles may skate round it or omit all mention completely. For those of us who are historians, it is likewise imperative. Without it our understanding of both the Panth and its religion must inevitably be flawed.

As most of the literature on Sikh history and religion has failed to take account of dalits, John C. B. Webster’s formulation on the ‘dalit history approach’ as a pioneer in the field is quite instructive. Ever since he wrote his book entitled ‘The Dalit Christians: A History‘ in 1992, he has been deepening his thought on the concept and has recently come to see its validity for the Sikh history in an important article. To him:

The Dalit history approach is based on two assumptions. The first is that of Dalit agency. In this case, Dalit Sikhs move to centre-stage to become the chief actors in and shapers of their own history; the historian will therefore focus upon them, their views, their struggles, their actions. The second is that a conflict model of society, with caste as not the only but the most important contradiction in Indian society, provides the most appropriate paradigm for understanding their history.

There is no work on Sikh history and tradition in English which has been produced from the dalit history approach. Major historical works by W. H. McLeod, J. S. Grewal, Ganda Singh, Khushwant Singh, Pashaura Singh, Harjot Singh Oberoi, Jagjit Singh, Indu Banga, Gurinder Singh Mann, Jeevan Singh Deol, Arvidpal Singh Mandair and Louis Fenech reflect what Webster call the ‘Sikh history approach’. Only a few books available, not necessarily by the ‘professional historians’, written in Punjabi could be seen as written from the ‘Dalit Sikh approach’.

While denouncing the established histories as nothing but high-caste histories, S. L. Virdi emphasises the need of dalit history when he says:

India needs such a history that generates revolutionary consciousness for a social change as history plays very significant role. The society assumes such character and shape as moulded by its history. From this perspective dalit history can play an important role. The ‘revolution’ for Indian society has another name only in the ‘dalit history’.

While Shamsher Singh Ashok wrote his ‘History of Mazhbis’ as commissioned by a dalit Sikh K. S. Neiyyer, settled in London, Naranjan Arifi who was a dalit officer in a central government department wrote a bulky first volume of the ‘History of Ranghretas’ after a great deal of research.

He gives us a comprehensive account of Ranghretas / Mazhbis joining the Sikh fold as early as during the period of the Sixth Master, Guru Hargobind (1606-1645).

Arifi very diligently filters the dalit information from the Sikh writings available since the mid-eighteenth century. In this volume he brings very fascinating details about Ranghretas till mid-nineteenth century by giving them names and voices by highlighting their individual and collective participation in the growth of the Khalsa.

They had offered numerically critical support in Guru Gobind Singh’s battles. So much so that by the mid-eighteenth century when amidst sustained persecutions by the Mughals, the Sikhs organised themselves into five dals (warrior bands), one of these was composed entirely of Mazhbi / Ranghreta dal under the command of Bir Singh Ranghreta who had a force of 1300 horsemen.

The ‘dalit reinterpretation’ of the eighteenth century argues in detail how the rising power of Bir Singh Ranghreta who had become an influential commander was put to a stop by the treachery of the Jatt commanders. According to Naranjan Arfi, the Sikhs had succeeded in establishing their independence by early 1760s and some of the commanders aspired for their individual rules in different parts, which Bir Singh was opposed to.

Bir Singh insisted on following Guru’s injunction that the power shall lie in the Panth (the Khalsa collectivity). Charat Singh, father of Ranjit Singh and Baba Aala Singh, founder of Patiala State, hatched a conspiracy to invite Bir Singh from Peshawar to Amritsar, treacherously disarmed Bir Singh’s soldiers on the pretext that they should not pay obeisance at the Darbar Sahib with arms, and then slaughtering them inside the sacred place in batches of five in which they were advised to move.

They also wounded Bir Singh in such a way that taken as dead, his body was put in a wooden box and thrown into River Beas.

Thereafter Mazbhis were not allowed any commanding position but their military prowess was used under different Misals as subordinates.

Though substantially diminished in their power, yet the dalit Sikhs continued as soldiers and fighters. They were still in such a position during Ranjit Singh’s rule to get constructed ‘Mazhbi Singhaan da Bunga’ quite close to ‘Ramgarhia Bunga’, near ‘Dukh Bhanjan Beri’ in the Harimandar Sahib complex in 1826 by raising Rs 20,000.

Later on, it was demolished and incorporated in the ‘Guru Ramdas Langar’ building.

Mazhbis had their bunga at Taran Taaran Darbar Sahib as well.

The kind of status and prestige the dalits came to raise for themselves in the tumultuous times of the eighteenth century was quite enviable for any upper-caste Sikhs. Hence, concerted efforts were made to reduce them after the establishment of Ranjit Singh’s rule.

Thereafter, one sees a gradual hold of brahmanical Sanatan Sikhs over the religious institutions of Sikhs that they had come to purge the egalitarian traditions of Gurus from the Sikh religion by the last quarter of the nineteenth century in such a way that what started emerging as printed record then, thanks to the just emerged press, was taken for the entire history of Sikhs which, in fact, had clearly been an ‘invented tradition’.


Though this is a continuing feature, divided into three parts over three days, we invite your comments on the issues raised in this ongoing article.


[Extract from ‘Dalits and the Emancipatory Sikh Religion’. Courtesy: Dalit. Edited for]

January 20, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 20, 2015, 5:55 PM.

Highly disturbing stuff! If you are not going to understand the simple, basic language of Guru Nanak and the Ten Gurus that followed, and the 30 Bhagats, and live, breathe and exalt them, then you are NOT a Sikh. Period.

2: Kaala Singh (Punjab), January 22, 2015, 3:05 AM.

Very disturbing stuff indeed. That Ranjit Singh resorted to the evil Hindu caste system to control the populace is highly despicable. In reality, his Empire was a joint effort of the whole Sikh society, the various "misls" were comprised of all "castes" - Jatt, Khatri, Ramgarhia, Mazhbi, etc. who all acted in unison, but it is a matter of great shame that it fell because of casteism and parochial attitudes. What is happening in present day Punjab is no different and, if left unabated, will lead to further weakening of the community.

3: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, USA), January 23, 2015, 2:03 AM.

I detest the attitude of the farmers towards landless Mazhbi Sikhs. This is against Sikh teachings. Coming to Sant Ram Udasi, I should point out that the author forgot to mention the glowing tributes paid by Udasi to Sikh resistance fighters facing state terrorism in the 1980s. His party (Communist) was cursing him but Udasi insisted that what he wrote was the truth.

Comment on "The Great Betrayal II - How The Curse Of Hindu Casteism has Corrupted Today’s Punjab -
The Roundtable Open Forum # 140-B"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.