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





Continued from yesterday …


In the editorial of ‘Khalsa Sewak’ of 7 March 1936, it is acknowledged that Dr. Ambedkar had been writing letters to SGPC but the Committee was not replying with any satisfaction.

It wrote with sarcasm that “With all this the Sikhs are so indifferent that they would not lag behind boasting of their reforms on paper, it is just a show, but in practice not a single step forward has been made.”

The charge was not without substance. All the big talks were just being used for the vested interests of the powerful power brokers. The Khalsa Sewak reported in its 26 March 1936 edition that a conference was organised at village Bham in Gurdaspur district under the aegis of Baba Jeeon Singh Dal where SGPC members had arrived and seventy people were baptised into the Khalsa.

Among several lectures against untouchability, Bhai Teja Singh Akarpuri also spoke forcefully. After the conference, a dalit boy was asked to serve a glass of milk to Teja Singh. He got very angry and said that “I have been insulted for being served milk in a Chuhra’s glass.”

The fellow retorted: “You say something and do something else.”

Teja Singh immediately fled the scene.

The discussion in this section fairly highlights the gravity of the situation among Sikhs as for as the question of untouchability is concerned and even in the moderating twentieth century. It has been a structural malaise whether determined by economy or society; the power relations defined the relations of domination and subjugation.

The command over resources had been so dear to the ‘upper’ castes and classes that they did not want to give any relaxation to the people at their mercy. Demoralising the Dalits by constant insults, humiliations and deprivation ensured almost free labour supply. The Sikh mind was not ready for the egalitarianism to act as an agent of change to thwart its own class interests. So, in the face of mounting pressures in the first half of the twentieth century, half-hearted measures at the level of rhetoric were shown to be taken but in reality the situation remained as grim for Dalits as it was in the nineteenth century.

As ‘caste’ and its resultant inhuman practice ‘untouchability’ have been the cardinal principle of Brahmanical ideology, and the central pillar of Hindu social order, any individual, organisation or ideology questioning it was always seen as the enemy and all efforts were made to quash the challenge.

Barstow put it pithily:

Hinduism, to its wonderfully assimilative character, had thus reabsorbed a good part of Sikhism, as it had absorbed Buddhism before it, notwithstanding that much of these religions is opposed to caste and the supremacy of the Brahmans.

Bhagat Lakshman Singh (1863-1944), a Sikh scholar and intellectual, who was a convert to Sikhism, believed that the Sikh creed was ‘Hinduised’ after the establishment of Sikh rule. The high caste Hindus had made advances for reconciliation with the new power and a compromise was effected by which the Sikhs abandoned their ‘revolutionary programme’.

Sikhism began to lose its distinct identity. He especially talks of the Brahmans’ ‘peculiar aptitude for adapting themselves to changed conditions’. In the days of Buddhism they had become its bhikshus (Buddhist monks) only to leave when Buddhism declined.

In more recent times in our own province, when political power passed into the hands of the Sikhs, they did not find it difficult to discard their temples and idols, their yagyopavit and other paraphernalia, wore kesh [uncut hair] and dastaars (turbans) and became custodians of Sikh places of worship and interpreters of Sikh scriptures.

Khushwant Singh is also objective on this central question:

Sikhism did not succeed in breaking the caste system ... The untouchable converted to Sikhism remained an outcaste for purposes of matrimonial alliances ... and Sikhs of higher castes refused to eat with untouchable Sikhs and in villages separate wells were provided for them.

Within a hundred years of Guru Gobind Singh’s death, ritual in Sikh gurdwaras was almost like that in Hindu temples, and more often than not was presided over by priests who were usually Hindu rather than Sikh. Sikhs began to wear caste marks; Sikh weddings and funerals followed Hindu patterns; ashes of the dead were carried to the Ganges and offerings were made to ancestors.

The dalit voices are more clear and vociferous about ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ in Sikhism. Pandit Bakshi Ram who was born in a Balmiki family towards the close of the 19th century recalls in his autobiography how untouchability was rampant and how because of this the dalits could neither seek education nor were acceptable for a public service.

It was only on his father’s approaching the Lahore court that schools were opened for dalits in 1905. He narrates two incidents from his village how the dalit Sikhs were treated by the dominant Jatt Sikhs.

Once, a Rahitia (dalit Sikh) boy on drawing water from the school well was beaten up by the Jatt boys. Another time, when the Rahitia marriage party used the village pond for cleaning their backs in the morning they were thoroughly beaten up by the Jatts.

Untouchability has become deep-rooted in the Jatt-dominated villages. Isn’t practicing caste and untouchability against gurmat (Gurus’ message)? In fact, the Guru says “Khalsa is my image as I reside in the Khalsa”.

Saying that how after Independence the Jatts have come to completely control the politics and economy in Punjab and oppose the dalits’ demands, he argues:

If Jatt Sikhs demand higher prices for their produce, don’t the labourers have right to demand higher wages? And if the latter struggle for their right the former boycott them. Isn’t it a height of injustice? If Akalis have their morchas (pickets) for their demands, why can’t dalits exercise their right to raise their demands?

Balbir Madhopuri “gives a graphic account of the situation of the Dalit community living on the periphery of the village called ‘Chamarali’ vis-à-vis the interaction with the upper caste ‘Jatt’ community. The scene of the distribution of parshad in the gurdwara made a mockery of all the subtle teachings and the tall claims of the practice of equality among the Sikhs in a Punjab village. The author has exactly reproduced the piercing degrading remarks laced with un-uttered abuses hurled at the low caste children by the Sikh priest.”

Prem Gorkhi, an eminent Punjabi short-story writer, who graduated from a day-labourer to peon to a ‘respectable journalist’, has bitter experiences. He says:

I have seen that if Punjabi writers are intimate friends they also carry deep casteist ideas within ... I have close relations from high to the low ... they respect as well ... I go to everyone’s house, eat and sleep there ... but over taking sides on any vital issue, the cobra within would spread its fangs ... There is no drastic change in the caste situation from what it was a hundred year ago ... only the ways of untouchability have changed. Today if you eat in the same plate, you also kill the same person -- and whom you call dalit today is not a century-old thoughtless, egoless, without identity. He has reached a stage to decide for himself what is of good to him.

Gurnam Aqida, a Punjabi writer, is forthright about the hegemony of Jatts:

Jatts control the organisations and institutions which decide about the fate of society. They dominate the bureaucracy. They have replaced the traditional minstrels, the Mirasis, in the field of singing; the traditional thieves, the Sahnsis; the Jatts have replaced even the famous woman brigand Phoolan Devi in pillages. The Jatts are responsible for dalitism in villages, they are the police officers, professors and principles and even the ruling politicians. So much so, that a crime committed by them becomes an entertainment.

Hazara Ram Bodhi, former General Secretary of Punjab Unit of the Republican Party of India and editor of ‘Bhim Patrika’, says:

Caste discrimination in Punjab is of a dangerous nature. While in other provinces, dalits face physical torture but here torment is psychological. A normal person is reduced to a pigmy because of caste. Psychological oppression is unbearable ... ‘Caste’ is so important now that there are caste-based gurdwaras. Nihangs are different, Ravidasias, Mazhbis and Julaha (weaver) Sikhs are different; the question of inter-marriages in Sikhism does not arise. The minds are full of differences. Even when the sapling of Sikhi was watered by dalit perspiration, they had to carry their own utensils to the gurdwara langar earlier. And if by mistake a dalit would eat in gurdwara utensils, they were purified in fire. Now it is over. But in several gurdwaras dalits cannot cook.

*   *   *   *   *

If Sikhism, which was the finest religious force and movement with ideas of emancipation for the downtrodden especially for the outcaste untouchables after Buddhism, was failing in its mission, what alternative courses were open to dalits of Punjab?

Finding solutions within the religious paradigm, one course that was tried with great success was the Aad Dharam movement in 1920s. Asserting that dalits and adivasis were the original inhabitants of the subcontinent, it drew its inspiration from Valmiki, Ravidas, Kabir and Namdev.

The movement aimed at securing a respectable place for dalits through cultural transformation, spiritual regeneration and political assertion, rather than seeking patronage from above.

Its founder, Mangoo Ram Mugowalia’s appeal that the Dalits were the real inhabitants of this land made an enormous psychological impact on the untouchables of Punjab. The appeal inspired them to come out of their slumber and fight for their freedom and liberty. It laid stress on distinct Dalit identity independent of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.

Within a short time it became a Dalit mass struggle for their separate Dalit identity. In the 1931 Census, 418,789 dalits recorded themselves as Aad Dharmis. Though after Independence it slowly petered down but its success lies in the fact that those who continued identifying themselves as Aad Dharmis have made far greater progress in all fields as compared to those dalits who continued following the established religions, including Sikhism.

The non-religious course open to the emancipation was a socialist revolution. The communists had a few successful movements in Punjab since 1920s but never addressed the dalit question explicitly. The only exception happens to be young revolutionary Bhagat Singh who wrote a lengthy article “Achhut da Sawaal” [The Question of Untouchability] in 1928 when he was 20 years’ old.

Pointing at the current competition between different religions to pull the untouchable in their respective folds for just political ends and vested interests, he gives a clarion call to dalits to unite:

We clearly say, ‘Rise!’ O real servants and brothers -- otherwise called untouchable -- Rise. See, your history. You were the real army of Guru Gobind Singh. Shivaji became unforgotten because of you. Your sacrifices are written in golden letters ... You stand on your feet by organising yourself and challenge the entire social set-up. Then see who would deny your rights. Don’t become others’ fodder and don’t look up to others ... You are the root of the country, the real power. Rise! O sleeping lions; start rebellion or social revolution.

But we hardly see Bhagat Singh’s approach followed after him. Assuming that the end of class rule would automatically resolve the cultural issues, the communists failed to see the significance and relevance of caste and untouchability. Even the best dalit poets and activists in the Naxalite movements had to undergo the casteist insults as we found in the pages above.

It is beyond doubt that Sikhism emerged as an emancipator for the lowest of the low. Guru Nanak, the First Master, was clear on this as he says:

neechan andar neech jati / neechi hun ati neech
Nanak tin ke sang sath / vadian siyon kya rees
jithe neech sanmalian / tithe nadr teri bakhshish

"I am the lowest of the low castes; low, absolutely low;
I am with the lowest in companionship, not with the so-called high.
Blessing of God is where the lowly are cared for."

The same spirit was maintained by his successors and we have seen above how dalits came to play an important role in Guru Gobind Singh’s battles and throughout the eighteenth century till they came to be once again subjugated and excluded economically, socially, politically and even religiously in the nineteenth century.

The Sikh Religion carried a great promise and succeeded in igniting dalits’ imaginations and aspirations in practice but with the rise of Jatts as an political and economic power, the powerful emancipatory message of the Gurus have come to be drowned, and it looks beyond recovery as far as dalits are concerned.

What dalits of Punjab gained in religion, socially they lost it in the long run because of denial of their participation in the economic power by the dominant castes. But despite this setback with diminishing returns in the last 150 years, the Sikh dalits have not ceased to entertain hope in the religion.

As slowly they improve their life conditions they are ready to reclaim their lost past, the past when they enjoyed social equality and dignified space in the religious institutions.

This aspiration is best voiced by Naranjan Arifi, the dalit Sikh historian:

Only those people can construct their histories who remember their history. In other words, those who forget their history cannot create history. It is rightly said; if you want to kill a people destroy their history. This is what has been done to Ranghretas … The two-volume work is intended to raise the psychological strength and self-respect among all the inheritors of Sikhism …



We invite your comments on the issues raised in this four-part article, which has concluded today.

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

January 22, 2015


Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 22, 2015, 9:26 PM.

We who are extremely fortunate to be born or living thousands of miles away from the subcontinent have our work cut out for us: to spread the message of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh in its unadulterated, undiluted, fearless, and unwavering form ...

2: R P Singh (Palo Alto, California, USA), January 23, 2015, 12:28 AM.

Is there space to mention Khatri Sikh insularity? It certainly contributes to the caste problem transnationally.

3: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), January 23, 2015, 12:55 AM.

Very troubling to read about "The Great Betrayal." As a community we seem to have miserably failed to tread on the path our Gurus laid out for us, notwithstanding many acts of heroism and steadfast individuals in the spirit of Sikhi of whom we can be justly proud. In no small measure it is the failure of leadership. We have to be hopeful though, under the guiding principle and banner of Chardi Kala.

4: Gurdev Singh Hansra (Patiala, Punjab), January 23, 2015, 6:13 AM.

Dear R P Singh ji - @ #2 - I'm afraid it is way past the stage to be politically correct any more. We can no longer be in denial. I know you're trying to be 'fair' by spreading the blame, but that doesn't, it cannot, work here. When a group is in power, especially absolute power, it carries the responsibility for all the excesses committed against the smaller groups, even though others too (including the victims) may have contributed to the wrongs. The jatts in Punjab have manouvered a strangle-hold on the state and are squeezing the life out of it. Letting them off the hook is like blaming the Palestenians for the destruction being rained on them by their Israeli tormentors, or blaming the jihadists in Paris for their madness while we turn a blind eye to the horrendous excesses committed by the country against its minorities, not only for centuries past but continuing today. If we are to address the cataclysmic problems facing Punjab today, we need to begin by recognizing the true nature of the problem, and not shying away from the painful facts staring us in the face.

5: Kulvinder Jit Kaur (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada), January 23, 2015, 7:09 AM.

There is no denying that all Sikhs should treat each other with respect and as equals in Sikhi. Actually, Sikhi stands for "All Creation as One," each deserving of respect and equal opportunities. What needs to be changed ASAP is our attitude and behavior towards each other and a lot of work is cut out for all Sikhs. All of us.

6: Gurpal (United Kingdom), January 23, 2015, 8:13 AM.

Hansra ji, the problem involves jatts to a large extent yes, but not exclusively. I think all the 'dominant' castes have had a role to play.

7: Sarvjit Singh (Millis, Massachusetts, USA), January 23, 2015, 9:44 AM.

Hans Raj ji, you have convincingly elaborated on the plague of casteism that afflicts the Sikh and Punjabi communities today. convincingly. 60-70 years ago, it was the khatris who discriminated against everyone including jatts, and after the Partition, (when jatts became the majority in a shrunken Punjab), they have taken on the role of oppressor with a vengeance. As a result, we are witnessing a migration out of the Sikh fold by ramdasias, ravisdasias, chamaars, majhabis, and so forth. As I see it, Sikhs today are facing two big challenges: a) Casteism, which leads to segregation at all fronts, meaning inter-marriage, hiring, divisions, groupism, etc. ... eventually isolationism, leading to lack of self worth and demise of empowerment. b) preference of boys over girls. It is my opinion that, like other Indians, many Sikhs still show a preference for the male child. Even the raagis who sing Guru Nanak's shabads, and the Sikh 'leadership' yearn for sons, not daughters. Many amongst us have corrupted our minds so much so that even women want boys. Unless we address these issues, we will remain in trouble.

8: Kaala Singh (Punjab), January 23, 2015, 10:11 AM.

In my personal opinion, it is wrong to blame the Hindus for all our troubles. It is a well known fact that BR Ambedkar and his Dalit followers and many other Dalits all over India wanted to adopt the Sikh faith before considering other faiths, but due to the arrogance and short-sightedness of the illiterate people who control our religious institutions, this opportunity was lost. There may have been millions of more Sikhs in India alone and 1984 may never have happened. Also, it is worth mentioning here, during the times of the Sikh resistance movement in Punjab, the cunning Indian state exploited our differences and transformed it into a fight between the so-called "upper castes " and "low castes". It was then that the resistance was brutally crushed. And to tell the truth here, many jatts here used this opportunity to kill other jatts for land and money.

9: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 23, 2015, 7:49 PM.

To the Sikhs who are guilty of this treachery, I remind you: Gurbani tells us that if you sow poison, then don't expect nectar in return!

10: R Singh (Canada), January 23, 2015, 9:29 PM.

Totally agree with #7. If the problem is not analysed properly the solution is also skewered. Coming from a family where such discrimination was not just not condoned but was actively refuted and Sikh ethics upheld. The problem was evident even when Sikh institutions were in the hands of mahants with hindu clergy in power. This is an across the board problem.

11: R Singh (Canada), January 23, 2015, 9:40 PM.

To set the record straight the biggest reaction against Dalit conversion was from Mahatana Gandhi followed by prominent lawyer in the Sikh circles, not the illiterates who are blamed for everything. We all know it was these supposed illiterates that also provide cannon fodder for Sikh causes. Yes, we definitely cannot blame others for our shortcomings, it is entirely out lack of reading, contemplating and disseminating gurbani. Our focus on havan-like treatment of akhand paths and creeping ritualism coupled by delegating education to schools without any focus on imparting religion to our children at home has us twisting in the wind with merely langar-eating congregations.

12: Kaala Singh (Punjab), January 25, 2015, 10:11 AM.

@11: Despite Gandhi's opposition, the Dalits did convert in large numbers to Buddhism and Christianity ... all because of the illiterate Sikh leaders in 1947. Same reason we lost so much in 1947. Even after 1947 till now, I do not see any Sikh leader in Punjab who has a proper education; almost all of them are from a "pendu" background and know nothing else than greed and making noise and nuisance. It is my firmly held opinion that whoever seeks to lead us or control our institutions should be a well educated person, if we are to get anywhere. It is these uneducated buffoons who have led us it into this pit.

13: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), January 26, 2015, 7:36 AM.

To my understanding, gurbani teaches me two things: 1) Belief in Ik Oankaar; 2) We are all are His children. Furthermore, I feel the 'khande da pahul' was a formal seal of these two principles.

14: Ajay Singh (Rockville, Maryland, USA), January 26, 2015, 11:09 AM.

We expect a lot from the peasants and farmers, S. Kaala Singh ji. We expect them to come to the cities to educate themselves at great expense, we expect them to come to the cities for their seeds, fertilizer, diesel, medicines and on top of that we also want them to sacrifice their boys every time there is a morcha. I have seen the mandis (markets) during harvest season, I don't know if things have changed but how many of these farmers lost their limbs trying to get the wheat from the thrashers because they haven't slept in days and doze off and their hands get crushed in the Badal-made thrashers, how much grain is lost or stolen at the mandis. What have the "educated" done for the peasants that they will make them leaders? The educated doctors, teachers, engineers, BDO's, DC's, SSP's, all game the peasants, they only go to the pind to get paid ... you want these 'pendu' buffoons to give their votes. I suggest the "educated" walk in a farmer's jutti for a year before they denigrate them, they are the ones keeping Sikhi alive, it is their blood and sweat. Just because this division is caste neutral, it is still a division, I am pretty sure not marrying someone just because he/she is a pendu is just as bad.

15: Kaala Singh (Punjab), January 26, 2015, 12:00 PM.

@14: S. Ajay Singh ji- My comment about "pendus" was not out of contempt but out of concern. I too come from an agrarian background and understand the problems faced by our people in the villages. All I was trying to say is that when a person is not educated, he is easily misled.

16: Sewa Kaur (Jullundhur, Punjab), January 26, 2015, 12:18 PM.

Lord, we get distracted so easily ... is it in our genes, or is it in our swagger? The point of this 4-part article was that Sikhs have gone astray from their basic principles, hence our challenges today. And all that I see in the comments above is an attempt, over and over again in new and innovative ways to divert blame or spread it out thin. Why? So that we don't have to do anything to correct ourselves? And the idea that it is okay for farmers today to be uneducated is simply preposterous. Why? The only reason anyone in Punjab today is uneducated is because we have a whole lot of bufoons running the show, and a whole lot of morons willing to accept the status quo. And regardless of the wrongs committed by various segments of our community centuries and decades ago, the fact is that the state has been in the strangle-hold of the jatts (peasants) during the last six decades, and they are solely responsible for all that is being done TODAY in sabotaging Sikhi and in running the whole society into the ground. Period. Now, you can bury your heads in the sand, all of you -- all of you on this page who can't see the forest for the trees -- but there is only one person to blame for all our problems today, as far as each one of you is concerned. Look in the mirror!

17: Kaala Singh (Punjab), January 26, 2015, 4:17 PM.

@14: S. Ajay Singh ji: Adding to my comment above - The farmers of Israel, a country half the size of Punjab and half of which is a desert, export agricultural products worth 2 billion dollars a year by adopting modern technologies which they are able to employ and master since they are "educated". Now, what would you like to tell to our brethren in the villages of Punjab and the rest India, to stay how they are -- debt-ridden, caste-ridden, drug-addicted, illiterate, ignorant and backward, or something else?

18: Ajay Singh (Rockville, Maryland, USA), January 27, 2015, 7:47 AM.

@17: Not a fair comparison, Israel is a nation state whereas Punjab is a very small state in a hostile nation. But, I believe the achievements and productivity of Punjabi farmers is unparalleled. My main point is: I go by the assumption that all Sikhs, regardless of socio-economic status, caste, literacy level are very decent, upstanding and courageous, though by no means perfect.

19: Kaala Singh (Punjab), January 27, 2015, 3:18 PM.

@18: How does "being a small state in a hostile country" impact the agricultural output of the land that is totally in your control and when sufficient water and other resources are available. And, by the way, Israel being half the size of Punjab, is totally surrounded by hostile countries and is being constantly attacked and that does not impact their agriculture. Also, neighbouring Haryana has benefited by adopting Israeli technologies and has surged ahead in agriculture. I do not think your argument holds water. P.S. Punjab had the highest agricultural output in the mid 60s and 70s, how did it happen then while living in a "hostile environment"?

20: Dr Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 28, 2015, 5:12 AM.

Hmmmm.... I read lots and lots of blame being pranced around - how about majority of effort by everyone being spent on finding and implementing solutions to the problems that plague the community that are being discerned? ... or am I being too simplistic?

21: Kulvinder Jit Kaur (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada), January 28, 2015, 9:13 AM.

#20 I agree. Lots of blame and pointing fingers at others is a result of ignorance. Ignorance about the challenges faced by rural Sikhs. If Punjab was run by independent Punjabis without the interference of the Central Government, it would yield much better results in every sphere ... as it did not too long ago when it was the subcontinent's model state. Its farmers fed the whole country and made Punjab the bread basket of India and now due to the corrupt and evil policies controlled by the Central government these very hard working and capable peasants are in debt and their children lack education. We don't have the blessings and handout funds from U.S.A the way Israel does. The Israelis are all immigrants from Europe, already well versed in western technology. It took them a few thousand years to get to where they are. They were far behind the Sikh peasant of today. However they have been united where their survival and existence is concerned. Sikhs unfortunately are not there as yet.

22: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), January 28, 2015, 9:48 PM.

Our Gurus defined a person to be a 'true' Sikh if he/she disregards Kirt, Kul, Karam and Dharam. Kirat means profession. No profession is to be considered inferior. Labor is as noble as holding a pen in the office. Every work is noble if performed in the right way (GGS:568 - 'gurmukh sabh vaapaar --). Kul means family background. Caste should not determine status, as is the case in Hinduism. There's no basis for pride in so-called 'high birth' and no shame in so-called 'low' lineage. A true Sikh stays away from Karam, meaning empty rituals or ceremonies. Lastly, the Dharam of a true Sikh is not a belief in communal outlook but in the universality of Man and all creation. A true Sikh works for himself/herself honestly and does not treat others as untouchables or less in any way, and instead helps them wherever and however possible.

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