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Detail from painting (1650-58) depicts imagined confluence of 'low-caste' saints gathered at Ajmer, including Bhagats Ravidas, Pipa, Namdev, Sain and Kabir ... all, though rejected by Hinduism, are honoured in Sikhi by inclusion in the Guru Granth Sahib.

Roundtable

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

RAJ KUMAR HANS

 

 

PART I

 

Hinduism has always been hostile to Sikhism, whose Gurus successfully attacked the principle of caste, which is the foundation on which the fabric of Brahminical religion has been reared. The activities of Hinduism have, therefore, been constantly directed to the undermining of Sikhism ... Hinduism has strangled Buddhism, once a formidable rival to it, and it made serious inroads on the domains of Sikhism. [A. E. Barstow]


The ‘Dalit history’ approach, a particularly germane form of social history ‘from below’, seeks to bring caste conflict out in the open by making it a central theme in the writing of Sikh history. It thus provides a rather different, potentially stimulating, and realistic lens through which to take a closer look at Sikh history as a whole. [John C. B. Webster]

 
Today’s Untouchables are stronger than they have ever been. The progress they have made over the last century is quite remarkable. Many of the discriminations that once affected them have been seriously attenuated. Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, the great majority remain poor, powerless, and indeed without a voice. [Robert Diliege]


 

Dalits constitute about 30 per cent of the population of Punjab, which happens to be the largest proportion in the country, when compared with other provinces. However, they occupy the lowest share in the ownership of land (2.34 per cent of the cultivated area). Mazhbis and Ramdasias, the two dalit castes among the Sikhs, particularly the Mazhbis, remain the most deprived.

Evidence of untouchability against dalit Sikhs is well established. They have been forced to live in separate settlements, contemptuously called ‘thhattis’ or ‘chamarlees’, located on the western side and away from the main body of the villages.

All the Sikh organisations from Sikh temples to the political party are under the control of the Jatt Sikhs. The Jatt Sikhs refuse to consider them equals even after death, by disallowing cremation of their dead in the main cremation ground of the village.

Over the years such harsh caste attitude has forced the dalits to es­tablish separate gurdwaras, marriage places and cremation grounds. This seems to be the biggest paradox of present-day Sikhdom which theoretically and theologically has been characterized as ‘emancipatory’ and even sociologically as ‘revolutionary’.

In its true egalitarian spirit, Sikhism had succeeded in integrating the lowliest of the low, the former untouchables, the dalits, into its fold.

From dalits’ perspective the evolution of Sikhism can be seen in two phases: a) from seventeenth century to Ranjit Singh’s rule, when dalits played remarkable role in Sikh political struggles and religious movements; b) post-Ranjit Singh phase, when Brahmanical values and attitudes resurfaced with caste and untouchability afflicting the Sikh body politic in such a way that there was danger of its re-absorption into Hinduism.

Though dominant literary tradition has denied the significance of ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ in Sikh practice, it has also ignored and neglected the dalit contribution to the flourishing of Sikhism in the first phase.

The rise in consciousness in the twentieth century has enabled the Dalits to raise questions on the dominant historigraphical praxis by attempting to recover the lost ground. The paper would first look at the modern moment, the rise in the dalit consciousness as manifest in Dalit creative writings.

In seeking an answer to as to what made the powerful Sikh movement drift the paper would look at the ‘brahmanisation’ of Sikhism in the nineteenth century with ominous implications for dalits as well as for Sikhism.

Dalit consciousness begins with the cerebral activities and is best reflected in the literary expressions. It is important how in the dalit literary writings, ‘being a Sikh’ has taken a precedent over ‘being a dalit’ till the mid-twentieth century.

It is only when the caste discrimination and untouchability within Sikhism came to be seen by Dalits from either the socialist angle or from Ambedkar’s perspective that a new process of looking at the self begins. Our first three dalit poets had subsumed their dalit identity in the broader ‘Sikh’ identity.

BHAI JAITA / JEEVAN SINGH

Bhai Jaita (d. 1705), who was rechristened by Guru Gobind Singh as Jeevan Singh in 1699, happens to be the first dalit poet from Punjab. Earlier, young Guru Gobind was overwhelmed with emotions and had embraced Bhai Jaita when the latter had brought the severed head of Guru Tegh Bahadar under the most violent circumstances from Delhi to Anandpur in 1675 and called him ‘Ranghrete Guru ke Bete’ (Ranghrete, the untouchables, are Guru’s own sons).

Jaita had turned out to be a fearless and daring Sikh warrior who had endeared himself so much to the Tenth Guru that he was declared as the ‘Panjwaan Sahibzada’ (Fifth Son) in addition to his own four sahibzadas.

He was killed in a fierce battle with Mughal armies in 1705. Even though he is now given some space in the Sikh iconography, it is hardly known or acknowledged that he was also a scholar poet.

He had composed a long poem ‘Sri Gur Katha’ which is an eyewitness account of important events surrounding Guru Gobind Singh. It is worth noting that this composition has eluded the notice of scholars of Sikh literature and history whose efforts to unearth the literature and materials pertaining to the Sikh tradition is otherwise remarkable.

The way Bhai Jaita had been integrated not only in Sikh religion but also in the family of Guru Gobind Singh, it is understandable any other identity would have been meaningless to him. His identity as Ranghreta has been subsumed by his identity as a Sikh as he says:

O Jaite! the savior Guru has saved the ranghretas
The pure Guru has adopted ranghretas as his sons



DITT SINGH

Our second dalit poet and writer is Giani Ditt Singh (1852-1901).

About the age of 17, he shifted to the main Gulabdasi centre at Chathianwala, near Kasur, in Lahore district. It was here that he composed his first two books of poetry; the love-lore ‘Shirin Farhad’ in the established Punjabi ‘kissa’ genre and ‘Abla Nind‘.

Not long afterwards, under the influence of Jawahir Singh, formerly a follower of Gulabdasi sect, he joined the Arya Samaj. But after entering into dialogue with Swami Daya Nand on his visit to Lahore in 1877, he was drawn into the Sikh fold by Bhai Gurmukh Singh, then an active figure in the Singh Sabha movement.

Ditt Singh’s scholarly talents came in handy for the Sikh movement. Lahore Singh Sabha floated a weekly newspaper, the ‘Khalsa Akhbar’ in 1886. He assumed editorship of the paper in 1887, which he continued till his death in 1901.

Meanwhile, he was also appointed as a professor of Punjabi at the Oriental College. To Bhagat Lakshman Singh, erudite Sikh educationist and reformer, “Bhai Ditt Singh Gyani wielded a powerful pen and was a literary giant.”

Ditt Singh wrote more than fifty books and pamphlets on wide-ranging subjects, from love-lore to Sikh traditions, from history to ethics, from heroes to charlatans as he also produced polemics.

Even being a leader in the limelight he could not escape the overt and covert assault of untouchability from his fellow and follower Sikhs. And it seems despite being reminded that he belonged to an untouchable family he was suffused with Sikh consciousnesses.

DAYA SINGH ARIF

Our third such dalit poet, Sadhu Daya Singh Arif (1894-1946) was born in a landless Mazhbi Sikh family of Firozepur district. Contrary to the material as well as cultural condition, Daya Singh developed a keen interest in learning letters as a child for which his father Santa Singh threw him out of family on former’s persistence against several warnings by the latter.

Living independently, Daya Singh was absorbed in reading and contemplation. After learning Gurmukhi and studying the Guru Granth, he learnt Urdu from a local teacher in his village madrassa Maulvi Ibrahim and Persian from Sunder Singh Patwari and Master Munshi Ram Khatri.

The desire to learn about Islam led him to the local Sufi scholar Shadi Khan who laid a condition of accepting Islam if he wanted to learn the Quran. Daya Singh agreed on the condition that he would do so after the education if he finds Islam superior to Sikhism in principles and ideas.

The result was that Daya Singh emerged as a sound scholar of Arabic, Persian and the Quran. Learning Sanskrit from Baba Sawan Das who lived at Dharamkot was not very difficult as the Sanskritist was bowled over by Daya Singh’s knowledge in religious studies. He studied Vedanta from Baba Sawan Das’ younger brother Baba Prabhati Das who had studied Vedas at Kashi for 10 years.

After gaining insights into the theological aspects of religion, he turned to the secular literature of Punjab, especially the kissas.

Passionate readings of series of works on traditional Punjabi love-lore seem to have ignited his creative potential. His first poetical work ‘Fanah-dar-Makan’ was published when he was 20.

The work which made Daya Singh a household name through the length and breadth of Punjab was ‘Zindagi Bilas’ completed when he turned 22. It is in this work where his vast religious, spiritual and secular knowledge is manifest. It is moving didactic poetry that caught imagination of masses which became the most read or heard poetic creation next only to Waris Shah’s ‘Heer’.

Sadhu Daya Singh wrote his next major published poetic work ‘Sputtar Bilas’ in 1922. Written in the same genre, this is also a didactic work of great aesthetic value addressed as it is to his eldest son Kultar Singh. This is also said to have been printed in hundreds of thousands of copies.

Daya Singh succeeds in reinforcing the moral thrust of the medieval spiritual saints in a fast changing objective reality when there was a rise in the acquisitive tendencies irrespective of the means adopted. His introverted self made him seek answers in the subjective human makeup rather than in the objective material conditions.

He was well grounded in the philosophy of Advaita-Vedanta. He moves from the particular to the general, quintessential human life. Daya Singh’s poetry is free from any kind of sectarianism and is thoroughly secular in the prevailing communal environment.

He not only produces good poetry but emerges as an intellectual of his age. But soon after he turned to composing poetic material for the Sikh traditions, legends and anecdotes which he would render as a kavishar in a jatha (band) that he had formed for this purpose. This was also his material need; after settling down as a family person, with five sons and a daughter, to run the family unit he found the vocation that he was best at, composing and singing at religious and other popular festivals.

He excelled in this art as well; travelling across Punjab with his band earned him so much popularity that he was invited by Sikhs settled in Malaya and other parts of South-East Asia in 1929.

After his return to Punjab, he is said to have played some role in the political developments as a representative of Mazhbi Sikhs. At the time of 1937 formation of provincial ministries, the untouchables were to be enlisted separately in the voters’ lists but Sadhu Daya Singh along with other Mazhbi Sikh leaders had refused this separation saying they were Sikhs and there was no ‘caste’ in Sikhism.


GURDAS RAM AALAM

Gurdas Ram Aalam (1912-1989), who was born in a poor Dalit family of Bundala village in Jallandhar district, happens to be the first Punjabi poet with dalit consciousness.

Aalam was not able to go to school and learnt basic Gurmukhi letters from his friends. Even though illiterate, Aalam had emerged as one of popular folk-poets of stage before the Partition.

All the four books of his poems were full of social and economic issues of the deprived and oppressed caste-communities. On political and social issues, Aalam wrote like a revolutionary. No wonder, even Pash (who has become symbol of Punjabi revolutionary poetry) considered Aalam the first revolutionary poet of modern Punjab.

A few lines from his poem ‘Achchut’ (Untouchable) where the untouchable cries about his chronic ailment to which the Pandit, Maulavi, Bhai (Sikh preacher), pastor and Congressman prescribe for him their respective religious and political solutions and finally the poet offers his:

O untouchable, open your eyes and see
I will write a prescription that I have stolen
Possess three things: strength, unity and education
And don’t bother about anyone else

Faith here is made of shoes and religion of staves
Caste too is of shoes, of force


None is high nor is one low here
Untouchability is nothing but your weakness
You are as human as others are
Differences are because of vested interests

Temples and mosques are traps, O Alam!
Fools like you are trapped



In his poem ‘Ulahma’ (Complaint) he gives a call to his ‘dalit brother’:

Rise, O Dalit brother, why are you wasting your time
Only you have to do your work, whether today or tomorrow
Your neighbours have moved ahead while you are happy left behind
You are human like them, if you are one, be ashamed


Alam had his poems ‘Inqlabi Aagu’ (Revolutionary Leader) on Bhagat Ravi Das, ‘Dr Ambedkar’, ‘Mandi’ (Market) and several others which directly address the dalit issues.


THE ROUNDTABLE OPEN FORUM # 140-A

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




CONTINUED TOMORROW …

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

January 19, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Shanghara Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), January 19, 2015, 5:12 AM.

Having attained full power and sway over this land, we silly Jatts have now used our influence to have ourselves declared Scheduled Castes (untouchables) so as to usurp any programs, though already meagre, currently available to the historically downtrodden classes. Before you jump up and demand political correctness, I need to tell you that I unfortunately hail from this moronic community and am exercising my right to self-criticism.

2: Gobinder Singh (USA), January 19, 2015, 8:40 AM.

Shangara Singh ji: Herein lies the problem! These 'programs' and reservations are bases of promoting casteism and not eliminating it. The original idea was to bring about equality but the results are opposite. So absurd are these programs that even Sikh institutions like SGPC have quotas for 'Majhabi Sikhs'. How does one become a 'Scheduled Caste' Sikh? This was a great ploy. Now if Sikhs won't have any reservations in their institutions, they may lose their 'Scheduled Castes' to Hinduism because of economic advantages provided for the lower castes. And if they do adopt them, then they eventually cease to exist as a new spiritual path or become strong enough to challenge the Brahmin-cursed caste-based society. We have a lot to learn!

3: Kaala Singh (Punjab), January 19, 2015, 8:54 AM.

Caste-based discrimination is the real reason why people belonging to the weaker sections of the society in rural Punjab are getting drawn to the various "deras" and even Christian churches, thereby dividing and weakening Sikh society.

4: Roop Dhillon (Reigate, United Kingdom), January 19, 2015, 1:17 PM.

In short, casteism is racism and anti-Sikh. So many Sikhs have begun to put caste first and being from a Jatt background myself, I admit we are the worst and have allowed ourselves to have Hinduism taint our faith and have allowed it since 1947 to make us anti-Muslim and pro-Hindu (religious habits not people) which has led us to behave like Hindus without realizing it. I agree with the writer of this article ... we have chopped our own foot off with an axe and are responsible for going against what Sikhism was designed to be. If you are a Sikh, you cannot approve of, or practice casteism. Period.

5: R Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), January 19, 2015, 1:27 PM.

The mistaken belief that vegetarianism is a Sikh principle also leads to the continued practice of untouchability in the Sikh community. The concept, formulated by Hinduism, comes as a bundle of practices and attitudes which are anathema to Sikhi.

6: R Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), January 19, 2015, 1:43 PM.

"Fools argue over meat, not knowing what knowledge is or what to focus on, what is meat and what is saag ..." [Guru Nanak]

7: Gurpal Singh (Sutton Coldfield, United Kingdom), January 19, 2015, 3:41 PM.

I had a great opportunity to meet the distinguished, warm and humble Prof. Raj Kumar Hans recently at an international conference. He is right to expose the contradictions within Sikh society. I am also from a Jatt background and have been exposed to the caste mentality from childhood, through parents and older relatives. Indeed the village mentioned above, Bundala, is the village of my maternal cousins and India's renowned Communist Leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who is related. There are interesting features of the caste angle in Punjab, based on the three main areas. In Doaba, the Ravidassias and Ramdassias have risen above their landlessness and gained from reservation, business and industry and remittances from the very large diaspora abroad. They are a proud people, often very critical of Sikhs in general, Jatts in particular (sometimes deserved, sometimes in a harsh and stereotypical way) and some of them follow their own Ravidassia religion. Around 50% of Doaba's population is Dalit and they are politically powerful with several MPs over the years. In Malwa, the Dalits tend to follow Deras, e.g., Ram Rahim's. In Majha, they have converted in huge numbers to Christianity. A recent survey put 40% of Punjab's Mazhabis as Christian, as the SGPC does nothing for the community inspite of it's budget of billions. The Sikhs have failed to hold the SGPC to account. What does the SGPC really do?

8: Bir Kaur (New Jersey, USA), January 19, 2015, 4:09 PM.

It's amazing how quickly we avoid personal responsibility by pointing fingers at others, doling out blame left and right. Dear Gurpal ji: since you've admitted having inherited some of the caste practices, let's start there. If we correct ourselves, the solution will have begun. If we wait for others to fix the problem, it'll only get worse -- which is exactly what's been happening for the last few decades. We are ALL to blame for the mess we are in, each one of us. Every time you (that is, each one of us!) think we have a serious problem in the community, stand before a mirror and look at yourself: Y-O-U are the problem. Through action or omission, we are all guilty.

9: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 19, 2015, 5:14 PM.

My blood boils at any notion of any Sikh even thinking of caste or any Hindu and Muslim practices and superstitions, let alone using or wearing them as a 'badge of honour.'

10: Taran (London, United Kingdom), January 19, 2015, 6:10 PM.

This article hits the bull's eye! The fact is all those Sikhs who have been discriminated against because of this evil caste system have found solace in the culrs such as Ashutosh / Ram Rahim / Radha Soami / Nirankari, etc. It's a shame that our SGPC and Akal Takht Jathedars, who are all now servants of Badal, could have stopped all this and done what is required of them to serve these Sikhs on an equal basis. This is not the practice of Sikhi by any stretch.

11: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 19, 2015, 7:43 PM.

In my own household we have no caste, and we don't even have it in our psyche! Being Sikhs, why would we?

12: Harman Singh (California, USA), January 19, 2015, 11:21 PM.

@ Roop Dhillon. Wouldn't Roop Singh be more in line with your comments? After all, the Tenth Master had a point. We have to start somewhere! Why not ourselves?

13: Parmjit Singh (Canada), January 20, 2015, 1:51 AM.

A so called Sikh can't have caste/race pride deeply ingrained in him/her, yet continue to call it an "outside" force. That person is in fact a Hindu. But don't associate that with our good Hindu brothers and sisters that oppose caste racism. Perhaps one can't even associate that with hostile racist Hindus, because they are racist, but less hypocritical. We are a one of a kind enemy of Sikhs, racist and yet claiming Sikhi, thereby rotting it from the inside. The seemingly worldly amongst us rationalize and speak against caste, yet have not really dealt with what is etched into our psyche from birth. If we had the courage to look inward and live Guru Nanak's and Guru Gobind Singh's Sikhi in relation to race, the Sikh nation would flourish as never before.

14: Gurpal Singh (Sutton Coldfield, United Kingdom), January 20, 2015, 5:28 AM.

Bir Kaur ji: If I may correct you - I haven't inherited any caste practices. I merely listened to my parents and then challenged them. I actively go out of my way to engage with Dalits such as visiting their distinct gurdwaras or meeting people like Prof Hans to see what can be done to move the community forward. I agree the problem needs to be tackled on both an individual and a collective level. My vision of Punjabi society is a great inclusive civilization without caste or creed discrimination, where the land truly becomes a 'VishwaGuru'.

15: Kaala Singh (Punjab), January 20, 2015, 9:53 AM.

The real question here is, did the Hindus force us to practice their caste system? - and the answer is NO. Some of us practice this evil for their own narrow interests just as the Hindus do. Why can't the landed "upper castes" treat the "Dalits" with dignity and employ them in their fields instead of importing people from outside who are gradually buying up the land and reducing us to a minority even in Punjab? Casteism in Punjab has major implications for the future of Sikhs; on the one hand the Dalits are moving away from Sikhism and on the other hand there is an influx of outsiders who are settling here permanently. And let me put this on record if it can create some awareness, the Jatts are no more than 25% of the total population of Punjab and the only reason they dominate is that they own most of the land. The primitive agriculture they practice with the help of massive subsidies not only harms the economy of Punjab but makes agriculture increasingly unviable. With increasing urbanization and the massive inflow of outsiders, things will become very complicated for everyone in Punjab. Does it ring a bell when Badal announces the construction of "Ram Tirath" in Amritsar with money from the state treasury?

16: Roop Dhillon (Reigate, United Kingdom), January 20, 2015, 12:58 PM.

@ #12 - Yes, Roop Singh would. My name is actually Rupinderpal Singh, but I use Roop Dhillon as it is my professional writer's name to distinguish me from several other Rupinderpal Singhs! I am not a Khalsa yet. I do not use my surname in a caste context, just as a Western practice of family name. Perhaps one day when I feel I live up to Sikhi ideals and deserve the name Singh, i may use it more openly.

17: Dalip Kaur (San Francisco, California, USA), January 20, 2015, 2:57 PM.

@ #16 - Sorry, Roop ji, but your convoluted justification for doing something against your own, self-stated principles, is not only sad but pathetically weak-kneed. Especially since you say you're a writer! A writer needs to be, above all, honest to himself. And a Sikh writer? You have, however, intentionally or unwittingly, highlighted for us that our problems indeed lie at our own doorsteps. The SGPC and the Badals are mere manifestations of our own weaknesses, our own spineless approach to things that require us, each one of us -- if we are to at all overcome our challenges -- to stand up and be counted, instead of coming up with such creative but nevertheless lame excuses.

18: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 21, 2015, 7:12 AM.

Commentator #17 Dalip Kaur ji ... Absolutely awesome response. Guru Gobind Singh was man enough to take on errant Hindus and Muslims at great personal cost. Marad Aggumrrah!

19: Roop Dhillon (Reigate, United Kingdom), January 21, 2015, 5:22 PM.

Dalip Kaur ji and Baldev Singh ji: Not that this is offered as a full answer to your posts, but I do wish you to know that: 1) I am the one who suggested to sikhchic.com to put this article up and anyone familiar with my writings knows I write about 1984 and Sikhi's anti-caste values. 2) Readers and publishers complain that too many writers out there are called Rupinderpal Singh Dhillon, so to distinguish us in our profession we are all made to change our names slightly when publishing books. This is no reflection of our real names or identities. That is no betrayal or kowtowing to anti-Sikh behaviour on my part, I assure you. For example, many famous people you know have had to change their names because someone came before them with the same name and was thus established ... that was the point I was making. A simple example: Actor Michael Keaton's real name is Michael Douglas, but he can't use that because another man in the same profession has already been established! It's like if a new Bhinderanwale came up, society will always think of the original. So I think focusing on the name I have become accustomed to is moving off the point of articles before us. Re me wanting to work my way to a true Khalsa Sikh I think is the same as many in the community. Many call themselves Sikh but are not. I recall how in 1984, out of protest, one boy's father made him take Amrit and within one year this boy was smoking whilst wearing the kakaars. That put me off there and then and I decided that one does not, should not, take Amrit unless one is old enough to understand what one is undertaking and why, and making a firm commitment to it. One who does become a Khalsa, from then on represents the faith. I meant that in my own mind I am not good enough for that yet. I disagree with nothing you have said ... perhaps I was unclear.

20: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 21, 2015, 6:26 PM.

The greatest fact and education to the world by Guru Nanak is that we are one race from One Creator! If we can't share this or even mention this because of Hindu corruption then what was the point of Sikhism in the first place?

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