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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 914

Caste System Among Sikhs In Punjab

Caste System Among Sikhs In Punjab

By Ratan Saldi - Political Analyst

The fury of violence in Punjab and to some extent in adjoining Haryana as a fall–out of the Vienna incident of 24 May, 2009 has once again brought to focus the inequalities and the strong caste system prevailing among the Sikhs. To an average Indian outside Punjab, all turbaned people look alike, and for them there are only two classes of people in Punjab- the Hindus and the Sikhs. The Sikhs are predominantly agricultural class and the Hindus a primarily business class.

If one looks closer at the ground realities, interesting facts come to light. There are clear divisions among Sikhs of upper castes called Jats and the lowly, inequality ridden, oppressed class of untouchables among them and among the Hindus. The Jat Sikhs constitute the majority and own over ninety five percent of agricultural land in the state.

The other section, which is generally, clustered in a separate habitation, a little away from the households of the Jats and the upper caste Hindus constitute the Balmikis and the Ramdasias, depending upon the occupation of their ancestors. They constitute less than 30 per cent of the state’s population with higher concentration in Doab region, particularly in Jullundhur, Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur, and Taran Taran. In these districts they account for 35 to 40 percent of the Sikhs, and this gives them an assertive strength. Though nearly one third in numbers population-wise they hold less than three per cent of total agricultural land in the state. And make a living mostly as cobblers, barbers, and farm labour besides some odd jobs.

The Sikh Gurus between 14th to 17th centuries tried to give a new meaning to the prevalent caste system based on occupation. They created the social convention of ‘Sangat te Pangat’ (fraternity and equality) and ‘Langar’ (community kitchen) to remove the social stigma for the oppressed and the down trodden. The Gurus did not discriminate against anyone on the basis of caste or occupation.

In fact, the Tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, the creator of the Khalsa, selected his Panj Piaras (the five most trusted ardent followers) from different castes. The first one to offer himself to the Guru was Bhai Daya Ram, a Khatri from Lahore. The second one was Bhai Dharam Das, a Jat from Delhi. They were the only two who belonged to the upper castes. The remaining three were from the lower castes - Bhai Mohkam Chand was a washer man from Dwarka, Bhai Sahib Chand from a barber family and Bhai Himmat Rai was the son of a water carrier (Bhishti). All of them had Hindu names and were baptized as ‘Singh’ by the Guru at a large gathering on the Baisakhi festival day on 13 April, 1699 at Anandpur Sahib. Guru Gobind Singh bowed before them and initiated him into the Khalsa. Thus the Guru had given expression to his desire to include all castes into the Khalsa, without discrimination. The Panj Piaras lived and travelled with the Guru and fought wars against the Moghuls with him.

Guru Granth Sahib, the Holy Book of the Sikhs, contains 41 verses of Guru Ravi Dass and 500 verses of Kabir, who gave the message of universal brotherhood, love and compassion. It also contains the aesthetic poetry of many other low caste Bhakti movement saints like Namdev and Sadhna alongside the contributions of the Gurus and some upper caste Sufi saints. Thus, the Gurus created the Holy Book as the most secular one containing their own works as well as the works of the contemporary Sufis and saints without discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or race.

Over time, the low castes have set up their own religious places called Deras or Gurdwaras. There are mainly three reasons. First they were denied their religious activity at the upper caste gurudwaras and temples. Second, their own economic standards have improved with the opening of the economy; many of these families have NRIs who have gifted affluence to them.

In the Doab region, for instance, many low caste youth from Ludhiana, Jullundhur, Hoshiarpur and Taran Taran have gone to Europe, the United States, and Britain to earn the big buck. Third social awakening and consciousness brought about by education and sojourn to new lands. The NRI Punjabis from these communities have built gurudwaras and temples all over the world, including Vancouver and Houston in the United States, Montreal in Canada and the most recent one and also the most magnificent Guru Ravi Dass Gurudwara in Vienna to satisfy their religious cravings. And within

The reasons for the resentment and the tension between the upper caste Jats and the Dalits could be traced to (i) the dwindling influence of the Jat Sikhs over the new generations of the Dalits, (ii) the economic affluence of the Dalit NRIs and the growing desire for equality in society and (iii) the loss in monetary and other offerings at the traditional Gurudwaras as with the coming into being of the Ramdasias and other community Gurudwaras and temples, the offerings from the Dalits started going to their Gurudwaras, and not to the old Gurudwaras.

The radicals are opposed to the opening of Balmiki or Ravi Dass Gurudwaras the world over fearing that their hefty donations will get diverted. Today there are about 9,000 Gurudwaras and Deras of prominent classes sidelined by the Jat Sikhs in Punjab

Balbir Madhopuri, a prolific Punjabi writer of Dalit literature, observes that it is a false notion that there are no caste divisions in Punjab. "The Sikh Gurus proclaimed equality; they said all men are born equal and that there should be no divisions amongst them. Like-wise Sufi saints also pronounced that there should be universal brotherhood rising above distinctions of religion, caste, race and regionalism. Yet, the sad truth is that caste-based distinctions prevail in Punjab till today," Balbir said in an interview with the noted Tamil Writer Sivasankri. The interview forms part of her latest tome, ‘Knit India through Literature (Vol- IV), a Central Sahitya Academy publication.

While the Sikhs are predominantly Jat Sikhs, among them are different sects like Nirankaris, Namdharis or Kukas, and Sehajdharis. The Sikhs as a whole do not have faith in any living god and revere Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib as their Guru; but Nirankaris and the Namdharis have their living spiritual heads.

The Sehajdharis do not follow strict rituals. The Deras and Gurudwaras of the Dalits belong to the Balmikis, Sach Khand of Ravidasias, Sacha Sauda of Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, Deras of Radha Soamis, Gurdwaras of Nirankaris, Namdharis and Baba Bhindranwale sect and temples of Divya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan. Some of them are very popular among the Punjabis settled abroad and have branches in many countries. Almost all of them have branches in all districts in Punjab and in neighbouring states and Delhi. One thing is common among them – belief the Holy Guru Granth Sahib which at times becomes a bone of contention.

Dalits in Punjab are also divided into different castes. They are found amongst Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and even Buddhists; they have their own Gurdwaras or temples. But they are all united after the recent attack in a Vienna Gurudwara in which two religious heads of Dera Sach Khand (at Ballan near Jullunder) were shot at by the miscreants during a discourse. The incident has highlighted two things – unity among low castes in the search for identity and equality, and the Punjabi Diaspora’s inability to overgrow sectarian and caste conflict back home. For India, which swears by its secular credentials, the Vienna bloodshed mars its image.

Sad reality in Punjab is the Deras and Gurudwaras have become the vote bank of politicians. The Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) set up in the early twentieth century to manage the affairs of the Gurudwaras is slowly becoming the political arena of different factions of the Sikhs. There are almost two Gurudwaras in every Punjab village today. Though these places of worship are set up with a religious motive, they tend to become pockets of influence of their powerful heads.

If the spirit of the institution of the Gurudwaras as propounded by Guru Gobind Singh is truly upheld, Punjab’s growing divide on caste lines will end. It is not a tall order for the Punjabis. Because, despite visible divisions, Punjab never witnessed violence on caste lines till very recently.

- Asian Tribune -

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