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




Continued from yesterday …


If the Sikh tradition started failing the dalits’ warrior skills, they found some opportunities in the British imperial services. The 1857 Mutiny offered them an opportunity to be enrolled in great numbers in the British Indian Army and the Mazbhis formed the First Pioneer Sikh Regiment.

And soon there were three such ‘pioneer units’ and they were also deployed in China, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Despite the generally favourable commentary on their quality, these units were gradually reduced in size and number between 1870 and 1914-18.

Also, they became “unwilling victims of the theory of the “martial races” which had become a dominant discourse in the British administrative circles. They came to be recruited heavily once again during World War I but were later ‘retrenched’ and gradually reduced in numbers until in 1932 when the last unit was disbanded.

The greater intensity and scale of combat in World War II had the effect of drawing even larger number of dalits into the conflict. Over 10,000 Mahars and 33,000 Mazhbi and Ramdasia Sikhs were taken into the combatant forces.

On the basis of these figures, Stephen Cohen makes an interesting inference that “high intensity demands greater number, and lower castes eventually get an opportunity to serve in the military which is denied to them during peacetime.”

They continued to be treated as underdogs even in their units where officers generally came from the upper-castes, breaking the confidence of dalits. In his testimony, a Mazhbi Sikh MP put the caste position in perspective in 1964:

We are discriminated against both in and out of the army; there are no Mazbhi generals or even colonels ... I would not want the Mazbhi Sikh unit to be broken up, or the Jatts mixed in with us or we with the Jatts. It is good to have separate units of Scheduled Caste Sikhs together, this way we can show our martial qualities to the Jatts and to the rest even better.

What had happened to that Sikhism that had provided a dignified space to the lower castes and especially to the dalit communities that the dalit MP had to lament their treatment by the dominant Sikh castes?

What had happened was that the Hindu diseases of ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ had come to afflict the Sikhs, and afflict them badly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There was a slow rise of Sanatan Sikhism, a admixture of Brahmanism and Sikhism, in the early nineteenth century which by the close of the century had assumed a vicious form. This is best reflected in an authoritative manual ‘Khalsa Dharam Sastar’ (1914) of Sanatan Sikhism as quoted below:

From Brahman to Naa-ee, including Chhippe and Jhivara, all those belong to the fourfold caste system are not allowed to partake food cooked or touched by outcastes. This implies that just as the four Hindu castes can be polluted by the untouchables, similarly in the Sikh Khalsa religion all persons belonging to the four castes can be polluted too. Those Sikhs who belong to the untouchable groups (like the Mazhbi, Rahita and Ramdasia Sikhs) constitute a separate caste. These untouchable castes do not have the right to proceed beyond the fourth step in Sri Amritsar [at the Golden Temple]. Members of the high castes should take care not to mix with persons belonging to the lower castes. If someone seeks to do so he forfeits his claim of belonging to the high castes.

But such attitudes had already started showing reverse returns. I have some accounts from the Sikh/Akali papers in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The Sikh Dalits started moving either to Arya Samaj or to Christianity, forcing the Sikh reformers to step up efforts to stem the tide. Singh Sabhas had initiated the process and yet the casteist attitudes were too deep-rooted by this time to be able to make any difference.

The Sikh press started pushing the cause forcefully. In the editorial entitled “Isaaee Hon de Kaaran” [Reasons for becoming Christian] of Punjab Darpan of 10 October 1917, the Sikhs were cautioned to mend their ways:

In the last eight months 1600 hundred Hindus have become Christians … For this mission, the pastors have relinquished professorships in the Mission colleges as they have also abandoned the comforts of Churches. Compare this with the Sikh community; there are thousands of those baptized Sikhs rendering Gurbani with musical instruments that are called Mazhbis, Ramdasias or Bishth. But high caste Sikhs always oppress these who simply labour for their sustenance … Because these illiterate Sikhs hate them more than they hate Muslims, it is necessary to inspire the Sikh Sardars, Numberdars and Zaildars in the villages to embrace their brethren-in-faith rather than making them the enemies of their religion by rebuking them all the times.

The growing anxiety about the virus of untouchability among the educated Sikhs is reflected in most of the community oriented newspapers and magazines. One Sewa Singh, BA wrote a letter to the ‘Khalsa’ in 1923 under the title, ‘One Most Necessary Duty: For The Attention of Chief Khalsa Diwan,’ in which he drew attention towards the problem of ‘untouchability’.

While referring to Arya Samaj he urged the Diwan to shoulder ‘the improvement of untouchable castes’. We get a graphic picture of the concern in Jagat Singh Pardesi’s news filed from Khashab in Shahpur district (now in Pakistan). He writes:

Rahitiyas, Mazhbis and Ramdasias in northern Sargodha have become pray to our practicing untouchability. The rest are also not allowed to drink water from wells … it is strange that the Sikhs allow Muslims to draw water from the wells but these amritdhari Sikhs with 5 Ks are thrown out. Moving from village to village the writer on asking the Sikh brothers the reason of their hatred answered that (i) their ancestors smoke hukkas (tobacco pipes) and ate carrion. (ii) These people carry our garbage on their heads as also they carry away the dead animals. That’s why we hate them …

The ‘Khalsa’ of 24 June 1923 published a report on a divan (assembly) about shudhi (purification) at Jallianwala bagh held on 21 June 1923 which was devoted only to discuss the agenda of removal of untouchability. Teja Singh Samundari presided over the session. The report says:

Sardar Dalip Singh, the Secretary of the divan, while introducing the purpose of the divan said that even now Guru Gobind Singh’s baptised Sikhs who are called Ramdasia, Mazhbis and Chuhras, are thrown out of langars (community kitchen) and their parshad is not accepted in the gurdwaras. That’s why today’s divan is organised to find out a remedy of this malaise ...

Later on Bhai Mehtab Singh Bir lamented how due to our indifference hundreds of our so-called untouchable brothers are being swallowed by other religions. He stated that 25 Rahitiyas became Aryas in 1903 and after that 10,000 Rahitiyas joined the Arya Samaj.

The ‘Khalsa’ of 2 July 1923 reported ‘A Divan in Gurdaspur’ held on 27 June of the same year when thousands of Mazhbis had marched as led by Pastor Gordon Sahib to a big ground to listen to Christian discourses.

Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) had despatched its own band of missionaries to the site to counter the Christians. Interestingly one ‘high caste’ Sikh, Sardar Khazan Singh was facilitating the Mazhbi Sikhs towards conversion. On observing the Christian enthusiasm, the SGPC monitors sent an SOS telegram to the headquarters. Accordingly Mehtab Singh, Teja Singh, Bhag Singh, Secretary, SGPC, and Bhai Labh Singh, Granthi, Darbar Sahib, swooped on the Christian conference. They demanded time to speak from the organisers and promised the assembled Mazhbis to remove their objections.

The next day Gurmukh Singh Musafir extracted time to address the gathering but the audience soon started leaving the venue. The report concludes with a lament:

Dear Khalsa ji, this is the reason of Mazhbis’ moving to Christianity. The untouchability has drowned Hinduism for such a result and you also don’t allow your brothers to touch your wells. Let us learn a lesson and not allow them to be devoured by these vultures … If you want freedom for yourself, free the others.

The Sikhs by that time got so lost in the struggle to liberate gurdwaras that the agenda to liberating the minds from brahminical attitudes was set aside. Moreover, the minds were not ready to accept social equality in reality, otherwise who would work for them for free. No wonder, the helpless situation on this count made Bhai Pratap Singh, the Head Granthi of Darbar Sahib to write a treatise on the issue.

Besides looking into the theological and practical high points against untouchability in the Sikh tradition, Giani summarises the efforts of SGPC for the removal of untouchability between 1921 and 1933.

What becomes clear is that the efforts to remove untouchability by the Sikh reformers were not just the result of inner calls. A number of factors resulting from objective conditions were making them think if they had to survive as a respectable option for the much harangued Dalits.

One of these factors was Dr Ambedkar’s powerful moves to see a dignified life for Dalits. In 1936, when Dr Ambedkar was trying to see the religious alternative for Dalits of India in Sikhism, the Akali papers became more sensitive to the issue. Sardar Amar Singh, Secretary, Shri Guru Singh Sabha Shillong (Assam) wrote two articles on ‘The Need of Sikhi Preaching among the Untouchables and Some Suggestions’ in the ‘Khalsa Sewak’ of 17 and 22 March 1936.

Master Mota Singh wrote a scathing article ‘Khalsa Brotherhood and Gurdwara Elections: Existence of Caste as the Bigger Cause of Community’s Death’. On the election scene he wrote rather with anger:

There was vanity, jealousy and ego clashes all around. Vote-seeking agents did not have anything to sell except the commodity of caste. Caste names as Saini, Jutt, Rore (for Aroras), Tarkhan (carpenter), Chamaar, etc., were being used quite derogatorily. How can you expect a social and community reform from Shrimoni Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee whose recruitment is on caste lines?


Though this is a continuing feature, divided into four parts over four 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 21, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Karamjeet Kaur (Amritsar, Punjab), January 21, 2015, 8:11 AM.

Personally, I've been withholding my judgement on the title to this series - "The Great Betrayal". Today, with this segment, I understand -- and agree that it is indeed a horrendous betrayal. Of all that our Gurus have taught us unambiguously! Reading today's piece in particular, my head hangs in shame. Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists, we've come to expect all of this from them, but Sikhs doing it? It is the ultimate betrayal! What're we going to do about it? Each one of us, that is.

2: R Singh (Canada), January 21, 2015, 2:23 PM.

It is time we check those around us, those who pose as Sikhs but are actually the enemies of humanity and Sikhi, using terns like sanatani, etc. Those are the ones we should boycott. If we, each one of us, became aware and stood against anti-Sikh rituals and practices, this anti-social behaviour would not be able to sustain itself. We cannot keep waiting for infiltrated institutions and organisations to do it. Every Sikh has to embrace his/her Sikhi in the spirit in which it was propounded.

3: Ajay Singh (Rockville, Maryland, USA), January 21, 2015, 3:13 PM.

No doubt caste in Sikhism is shameful and I have known about its prevalence all my life. My parents have told me of separate caste gurdwaras when they were children. I have seen the creation of separate cremation grounds in Sikh villages in my life time, even though I don't remember them when I was a child. Is it getting worse with time? Sure seems like it. And perhaps that is what I find more troubling, the up-tick in trend, not that there are divisions, whether caste or class. Our religion is different, to say the least, but we are humans just like Muslims who preach Universal Brotherhood but are at the present at each other's throat, or Christians with all their denominations or Jews and their factions or Hindus with their millions of idols and superstitions. Let us take stock of the issues that are threatening Sikhi, just from the top: we have lost access to the birthplace of Sikhism for which we pray everyday for free access (to take but one example). I think that is because Sikhs are acting more like Hindus by practising caste. Thereon it gets worse: what about Sikhs being labeled as Hindus in the Indian Constitution, Punjab's river rights, economic freedom, not to mention our being killed as Muslims because ... well, thanks to Osama. My God, the list of issues facing us is exhausting, we are at crossroads, not a simple intersection of two roads but a polygon of untold sides. Which one to take? We have not had a minute to sit and take stock, to develop our institutions, history in peace. What little we have has been built with a lot of blood and hard work and we still walk this earth with a swagger as if we are the majority, like we own this place. We believe we are entitled to a good life and we work hard for it. It is said that Guru Gobind Singh refused to give jagirs (estates) to his Sikhs, He said I have given them the tools and they need to get the jagirs by themselves. I agree caste has no place in Sikhism, I don't practice it, but am I still guilty of supporting it? Absolutely. But I am at the crossroads with the majority of Sikhs. If some Gursikh wants to address an issue, make a case, fight for the cause and the rest of us will stand with him shoulder to shoulder. This is how it has been, Guru Gobind Singh and the 40 Muktey, Baba Deep Singh, Jaito, Nankana Sahib ... nothing was given to Sikhs on a platter. Do majority of Sikhs intentionally support caste or class? I don't think so. What we are guilty of is following the herd, not knowing where we are headed and we take all the strays along the way. Feed them, share with them, some of them are downright nasty. Every once in a while we need someone to get out of the herd, scout, and lead us in the right direction.

4: Charan Kaur (Oregon, USA), January 21, 2015, 3:52 PM.

Those who have thus betrayed Sikhi and basic human decency by mistreating their fellow-man thus are literally the lowest of the low -- but not in the sense that Guru Nanak uses the term for himself in deep-felt humility. No self-designation as a backward class can possibly capture their real decadence and their descent into the very realm of hell ...

5: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), January 21, 2015, 4:00 PM.

It is really quite hard to not feel pessimistic about what is happening in Punjab. We are losing our brothers and sisters to the Deras and Christianity. The thing that bothers me the most is that none of the Sikh organizations are doing anything about re-educating these individuals, empowering them and welcoming them back into Sikhi. The RSS has done a better job of this than Sikhs. This is absolutely pitiful and disgusting. Why can't Sikhs go into the villages and bring back those lost to other religions, why are we relying on a group of people who want to steal our heritage? Maybe it's because the people that control the Sikh institutions, the Jatts, just don't care.

6: Roop Singh (Dhillon) (Reigate, United Kingdom), January 21, 2015, 5:36 PM.

The true test is, will a so called Jatt or Khatri Sikh allow his daughter to marry a so-called Dalit Sikh? Until that happens without bowing to social pressures, nothing will change. It's pure racism. By the way, I only use the name 'Dhillon,' as I've done here, for consistency, so it is obvious I am the one who posted on the previous thread.

7: R Singh (Canada), January 21, 2015, 7:00 PM.

The fact is that all of us are responsible for the discrimination in Punjab and Punjabi society today, when we do not acknowledge the equality of all. Why are we tolerating racism, even it is practised by one who otherwise appears to be, or claims to be, a pooran Sikh? Why do we tolerate the existence of any gurdwara which operates on caste lines, no matter which caste it is ... jutt, ramgharia, whatever? If we cannot even hone in on the crux of the matter, that we are all guilty, we will just be wringing our hands and complaining about various types of gurdwaras and awaiting a messiah to help us out. It is only us - not any others -- who are responsible!

8: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), January 21, 2015, 7:13 PM.

@#6 Roop Singh Dhillion ji: Agreed. Once the matrimonial lines break down the tribal walls, only then will we Sikhs truly be able to call ourselves a quom. If I have children in the future, I do not care whom they choose to marry, so long as they are Sikh and educated.

9: Kaala Singh (Punjab), January 22, 2015, 7:37 AM.

It is hard to digest the hypocrisy that pervades amongst us today. We ill-treat our own people and push them towards the "deras" and other faiths and then look at the ways that are being adopted to stop the spread of these deras - through violent confrontations which is having the opposite effect. It is the new "normal" to see our girls marrying outside the Sikh community but "inter-caste" marriages are unacceptable! The result of all this is that the Sikh population which stood at more than 65% in Punjab has now fallen below 60% in the recent years. If this caste nonsense is not stopped we may see a "Delhi 1984" being replicated right here in the "Sikh homeland" and we will not be able to blame the Sajjan Kumars and Tytlers as we alone would have brought it upon overselves. It is high time to make amends vis-a-vis hollow and meaningless "Jatt pride" attitudes!

10: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), January 22, 2015, 2:53 PM.

Going through the comments, I delve into the basic principles of Sikhi. Oneness of 'life' and Oneness of 'God'. The Sikh Gurus wanted to solve the social, economic and political problems of mankind on the basis of equality, in order to harmonize, achieve, and pinpoint the presence of God within all creation. However, belief in Oneness of creation is a far cry in this strife-torn world.

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The Roundtable Open Forum # 140-C"

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