Dalit-Sikh? The sociology of caste in Punjab

Dalit-Sikh? The sociology of caste in Punjab

The Guru granted, society refused

Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi during his visit to Shaheed-e-Aazam Bhagat Singh's house on his 114th birth anniversary, at Khatkar Kalan village in Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar. Credit: PTI Photo

The hyphenated word Dalit-Sikh, being used in the media in the wake of the recent transfer of power from a dynast to a Dalit in Punjab, connotes a historical gap, an unfinished integration, a failed promise, or worse an unbridgeable divide. For many outside Punjab, this must have come as a big surprise, even shock, since Sikhism has been understood commonly as an equalitarian religious space.

Much of this shock emanates from being oblivious of the proverbial gap between the theory and the practice. Theoretically, Sikhism has been emphatically anti-caste. The Gurus, right since Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the first Guru and the founder of Sikhism, emphasised equality in public spaces. The much-talked-about tradition of Langar, for instance, that became globally known and appreciated, especially during the Covid-19 lockdown in recent times, is a powerful pointer to the faith’s scriptural endorsement of the idea of equal space, that too in the realm of food. This is revolutionary, given the hoary caste history of the subcontinent where cooking and partaking of food has remained a decisive item of distinction and discrimination.

In a highly caste-entrenched territory, the Gurus propagated a new, emancipatory alternative tradition. The Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, incorporated verses from other faiths and philosophies, including Bhakti Sants such as Sant Kabir and Sant Ravidas, who came from the lower strata of the caste hierarchy. More than 400 hymns and shlokas of Kabir and 40 hymns of Ravidas have been part of the Guru Granth Sahib. Besides these two, the holy book also borrows verses from at least 13 others, from Baba Farid, Namdev, and Ramanand to Surdas, Pipa and Dhanna. Arguably, there could not have been a better way to symbolise the dismantling of caste.

Yet, caste made inroads, surreptitiously and gradually. A large number of people from the lower segment of the caste pyramid who joined the new faith in anticipation of a caste-less, equal world with dignity, waited in the corridor of uncertainty for centuries for what was rightfully and scripturally granted to them by the Gurus. The emergence of a dominant caste from the landed agriculturist community of Jatt (or Jat Sikh) made a dent to that grand possibility. The upper caste status of Jatt is primarily a function of their land ownership profile, which is almost absolute in the state of Punjab.

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Over time, the desperation and search for autonomous identity resulted in the mushrooming of the Deras, where Dalits joined in large numbers. The existence of Dalit Gurudwaras and separate funeral sites observed in the villages of Punjab point towards the disillusionment among the subaltern class to their caste-ridden, albeit not so visible, “everyday” life and world, which was clearly in defiance of the theoretical promises. Away from the mainstream, a rather large and fluid terrain of autonomous space remained open to be explored by the Dalits. A large number of caste categories from the Dalit community — Mazhabi Sikhs, Valmiki, Rangreta, Ravidassia, Ramdassia, Ad-Dharmis, splintered around varied axis, from occupational profile to ritual uniqueness to some revered sacred Sant tradition — continue to crisscross the entire labyrinth of the caste landscape of Punjab.

The puzzle of the caste maze in Punjab can only be navigated through its nuances. Any standard broad-brush analysis will only add to the confusion.  The new Chief Minister of Punjab, Charanjit Singh Channi, for instance, is a Ramdassia Sikh. However, even though Ramdassia and Ravidassia belong to or have the same caste origin, there is a difference. Ramdassia vary from the Ravidassia in terms of their occupational profile as the former is associated with the weaving work, and it is believed that the group got initiated into Sikhism during the time of the fourth Sikh Guru, Guru Ramdas, and hence the name Ramdassia. Ravidassia, on the other hand, identify themselves as followers of Bhakti Sant Ravidas and, of late, have been asserting autonomous identity.

The late Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj party, BSP, was from Punjab and, like Channi, was from the Ramdassia community, but he was not turbaned. The intertwining of religion and caste in the subcontinent simply cannot be understood through a monolith template. Sikhism, too, is no exception. There are internal debates, arguments, questions, counter-processes and continuous intellectual churning within all traditions, making them quintessentially South-Asian. If one is looking for certainty and finality while navigating the sacred landscape of the region, it is a sheer waste of time. In other words, don’t jump to conclusions looking at the turban. By itself, it says nothing much.    

Punjab, with the highest proportion of Scheduled Caste population – 32% as per the 2011 Census – for any state in the country, a substantial and successful Dalit diaspora, and with prosperity and mobility brought about by the sheer hard work for decades in non-farm enterprises, was poised towards a more visible, representational and inclusive political spectacle. The new chief minister is that watershed moment, a coming of age. That hyphenated identity that he carries is a question for the larger society to answer. Not him. This symbolic is substantive. Everything else at this moment is quotidian and instrumental. And it should cheer up people who wish India’s democracy well.

(The writer is a Chandigarh-based sociologist and commentator)