Thursday, June 21, 2007

Casteism Has NO Place in SIKHI

Dr. Ronki Ram makes a good point in this article and it is a shame that people who call themselves Sikh, take positions along casteist lines. Anyone who is a Sikh, should NOT be seen as anything other than as a Sikh first and foremost. People often make excuses for their own casteist behaviour by blaming the other party for thinking along caste lines when saying, "they don't see themselves as Sikhs first!"

You need to make the point in your own homes and circles that casteism (and gender bias for that matter) doesn't fly and that all Sikhs are equal and have equal rights whether in regards to marriage, death, birth, etc... and particularly in performing any and every function in the propagation and performance of religious duties.

If members of the Sangat think that Dalits are lacking in knowledge of Sikhi then why not start programs on the correct application of Sikh principles and do parchar amongst them to explain Sikhi fully and satisfactorily?

If its a question of Dalits not being the 'same', then that's your problem NOT theirs. As Sikhs we are all equal and should only look at a person's character and actions, not their 'caste', in deciding if we want to associate with someone or not.

Casteism is a poison and Sikhi is the antidote. However, like any medicine, balm or ointment, it will only work if the patient is willing to 'use as directed'. Being a cultural Sikh isn't the same as being an actual Sikh. Sikhism isn't a social club, it's a way of life to be a better human being and be put on the road to enlightenment and union with Waheguru, aka God.

Perhaps if SGPC, Akal Takht, and DSGMC and other Panthic bodies would get their act together and engage in meaningful parchar (education, proselytizing) of Sikh values, principles, beliefs and prayers, there wouldn't be a need for 'Deras' and pakhandi Babas (fake preachers).

Social Catastrophe in the Making: Religion, Deras, and Dalits in Punjab
Written by Dr. Ronki Ram
Friday, June 15, 2007

The recent violent clashes between the followers of Dera Sacha Sauda and Sikhs seem to have acquired an utmost importance in the current political history of Punjab. The importance of such conflicts surpases the much talked about ‘short-term politics of revenge’ and throws a critical light on their much deeper socio-religious roots steeped into the so-called casteless Sikh society in Punjab. On the one hand, it lay bare the dormant structures of social discrimination that permeates the fabric of the Sikh society and on the other, points towards the neo-conservative Sikhs’ anxiety of dwindling Sikh-Khalsa identity in the state. In fact, the recent Akalis-Dera Sacha Sauda row over the mimicking of iconography of the tenth Master of the Sikhs by Gurmeet Ram Raheem, the Dera head, seems much to do with the prevalence of the doctrinally rejected system of caste hierarchy among the Sikhs. Since majority of the followers of various Sacha Sauda type Deras come from the dispossessed sections of the society who at one point of time had embraced Sikhism in the hope of elevating their social status and fortune, their almost exodus from Sikhism towards alternative socio-spiritual space provided by such Deras invite the hostility of the clerics of the mainstream established religious order who interpret it as a serious challenge to the dwindling Sikh-Khalsa identity. Moreover, the frequent politicisation of the Deras makes the issue further complicated. The persistant attempts made by the various Sikh organizations during the recent Sikh-Dera crisis to win over their disgruntled Dalit Sikh followers is a clear case in point.

Punjab has the distinction of housing the country’s largest proportion of Scheduled Castes population (29 per cent), has 38 castes among the SCs in the state, of which two belong to Sikh religion, namely the Mazhabi and Ramdasis or Ramdasia Sikhs. Ramdasia Sikhs are mostly confined to the Doaba and Malwa sub-regions of the state. Kanshi Ram, founder of the Bhaujan Samaj Party (BSP), was a Ramdasia Sikh. Mazhabis, the devout Sikhs, are mostly concentrated in Majha and Malwa. In terms of numbers, Mazhabis are the most numerous Sikh caste among the SCs of Punjab (30.7 per cent of the total SC population) followed by Chamars (25.8 per cent), Ad Dharmis (15.9 per cent), Balmikis (11.1 per cent) to mention only the major castes. They are also the most deprived section of the SCs of Punjab with the lowest literacy rate (42.3 per cent) and majority of them are agricultural workers (52.2 per cent).

Jats, the dominant peasant caste in the state, has hegemonised all the Sikh organizations: Gurdwaras, Sikh Deras, SGPC, and SAD. Dalits have often complained of Jats even refusing the lower caste the right to the common cremation ground, forcing the Dalit Sikhs to even establishing separate Gurdwaras, thus solidifying existing caste divisions among the Sikhs.

It is against this backdrop of blatant social exclusion that a large number of Dalits have been veering away from the mainstream Sikh religion and enrolling themselves into various forms of Deras in Punjab whose success partly “lies in the relationship between Dalit resistance and religious rebellion”. It was the Mazhabis and Ramdasias who constituted the core of the ‘Bhaniarawala phenomenon’ and the ‘Talhan crisis’ respectively. Again it was the Mazhabis and Ramdasias Sikhs of the Malwa region of the Punjab who figured most in the Sacha Sauda crisis recently. Another probable cause behind the large-scale Dalit followings of the Deras in Punjab could be the absence of a strong Dalit movement of the sort of the famous Ad Dharm led by legendary Babu Mangoo Ram Mugowalia during the first half of the 20th century. Had the Ad Dharm movement continued in full swing, it could have curtailed the swift flow of the Dalits towards the mushrooming growth of the Deras in Punjab.

As far as Jats are concerned majority of them are the followers of Sikh Deras.It is generally believed that almost all the Sikh Deras are headed invariably by Jat Sikhs. It is rare that the head of a Sikh Dera would be a non-Jat Sikh. Even if there would be one he could not be a Dalit at all. At most Dalit Sikhs participation in Sikh Deras is confined only to the narration of the Sikhs’ sacred texts and performing of Kirtan (musical rendering of sacred hymns. Majority of the Raagis and Granthis are Dalit Sikhs. Very few Jat Sikhs take up such professions.

Deras represent the disillusions of the dispossessed who at one point of time in their life embraced Sikhism in order to escape the taint of untouchability that was adhered to them in the Hindu social order. However, since their conversion into Sikhism failed to liberate them from the scar of the untouchabilty, they turn towards non-Sikh Deras that offer them perhaps better place.

The violent clashes in Punjab are more about identity confrontation between Jats (a former marginal community that has successfully overcomed its lower social status) and Dalits (a contemporary marginal community that failed miserably to do the same). They, in fact, reveal what the Dalits seems to have been struggling for over the last few decades in the contemporary Punjab, probably used to bother the Jats also earlier in the state in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, what makes the case of the Jats as an ex-marginal community rather different from that of the Dalits was their being a clean Shudra and free from the taint of untouchability. On the contrary, Dalits were known as unclean shudras whose very touch and sigh were considered to be polluting precisely because of their occupational closeness to the polluting articles. Another factor that might have helped the Jats to overcome their lower status was their corporate social mobility affected through their group conversion into Sikh religion. Moreover yet another factor that might have helped them improve their social status was the absence of sharp contradictions between them and the then upper caste community of the Khatris in the state. Khatris, unlike Jats in the case of social mobility of Dalits, did not oppose the Jats in their attempts towards upward social mobility. On the contrary, the impoving socio-economic position of the Jats perhaps suited Khatris the most in their commercial interests.

However, there are many Dalits in the state who have improved their economic conditions by dissociating from their caste occupations and distancing them from the profession of agriculture. They have strengthened their economic position through sheer hard work and enterprise. Although the constitutional affirmative action played an important role in the upliftment of the Dalits in general, the monopoly of the Punjabi Dalits of the leather business in the famous Boota Mandi in the Doaba sub-region of the state and their ventures abroad turned out to be of crucial importance in overcoming their economic hardships. Some of them have established their own small-scale servicing units [carpentry, barber, blacksmith shops etc. In addition, they have also been politicized to a large extant by the socio-political activities of the famous Ad Dharm movementand of the various Ravidass Deras (religious centers dedicated to the teachings and philosophy of Guru Ravidass). In this case they have not only improved their economic status, but have also liberated themselves from the subordination of the Jat landowners. Consequently, their improved economic circumstances propelled them to aspire for a commensurate social status, which they seek through their memberships of the alternate non-Sikh Deras.

Thus armed with the weapon of improved economic conditions and sharpened social consciousness, the Dalits in Punjab mustered enough strength to ask for a concomitant rise in their social status. They also turn towards various Deras that help them in seeking new and respectable social identity they are terribaly in need of. However, the Jats interpreted such Dalit assertion as a challenge to their long established supremacy in the state and also to their Sikh-Khalsa identity that in turn sharpened the contradictions between them and the Dalits. This has led to a series of violent caste conflicts between the Dalits and the Jats in Punjab over the last few years. Such conflicts are in no way a manifestation of communalism in the state. They are, In fact, signs of emerging Dalit assertion, which has all the possibilities of snowballing into a serious violent conflict.

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