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Dalit Sikhs – Who are they and what is their role in Punjab politics

Punjab has a deep-rooted problem of castes and contrary to popular belief it is practices among Sikhs too.

‘Dalit Sikh’, a technically and constitutionally correct term is baffling everyone since the name of the new Chief Minister of Punjab was announced. On September 19, Charanjit Singh Channi was elected as the new Chief Minister of Punjab after former CM Capt Amarinder Singh resigned from the post a day earlier.

All media houses mentioned that new Punjab CM Channi is a Dalit Sikh. While the term is technically correct, a majority of Indians who have a little bit of knowledge of Sikhism got confused as Sikh as a religion rejects the concept of caste and race. However, caste-based discrimination is still observed by the majority of Sikhs across the world.

Sections among Sikhs based on caste

With 63% Sikhs, Punjab is a Sikh-majority state. Notably, 72% of the Sikhs live in the rural areas of Punjab. In her paper titled “Jat Sikhs: A Question of Identity”, Ravinder Kaur, professor of sociology at IIT Delhi, said that “Caste as an occupational division of labour was, and is, very much a part of village life.” This is evident despite the fact that Sikh doctrine rejected the institution of caste. In reality, caste is very much part of Punjab’s rural as well as urban ethos.

If Sikhs go by the rules set by the Gurus, they should not use castes as surnames but use Singh or Kaur as per the gender. However, the census data showed a different picture. Sikhs have over 25 castes recorded in censuses from 1881 to 1921 named Jats, Khatris, Aroras, Ramgarhias, Ahluwalias, Bhapas, Bhattras, Rais, Sainis, Lobanas, Kambojs, Ramdasias, Ravidasias, Rahtias, Mazhbis, and Rangretas.

Jat Sikhs dominate the castes in Punjab, and the majority of them are concentrated in the rural regions. Most of the Jat-Sikhs are landlords and agriculturists. They are often termed as the backbone of the Punjab peasantry, which has enabled them to have a hold on the majority of the posts in Punjab politics as well. Notably, Channi’s appointment as CM of Punjab is termed as the first in history that someone from the Dalit community has become Chief Minister. Before CM Channi, only Giani Zail Singh was CM of Punjab from the non-Jat community.

Dalit Sikhs are further divided into two communities with first-named Mazhabis and Rangretas. They are also known as Ad-Dharmis. These were the scavengers or sweepers communities. These communities initially converted to Sikhism to get rid of their ‘caste’. Mazhabis and Rangretas have a glorious history as soldiers, but unfortunately, they never found a place equal to the upper castes in Sikhs. Several studies have suggested that Jat Sikhs and other upper castes often refuse to associate with them during religious ceremonies.

The second community in Dalit Sikhs consists of Ramdasias and Ravidasias. These Sikhs earlier belonged to cobblers and weavers communities who converted to Sikhism. Ramdasias are still indulged in weaving businesses, while Ravidasias are mostly engaged in the professions related to leatherwork.

The perspective of land ownership to show the power

Caste discrimination in the Sikh community is based majorly on land ownership rather than the general perceptions of caste discrimination. According to the 1991 Census, Dalits comprises 28.3% of the population in Punjab. The national average stands at 16.32%. Even though they are in a higher percentage in the state, the Dalit community does not have landowners. The majority of agricultural land in Punjab belongs to Jat Sikhs. Reports suggest Dalits own only 0.72% of the cultivated land in Punjab, and the inequality forces them to work either as labourers in the fields owned by Jat Sikhs or choose other professions.

Harish K. Puri, retired professor of political science and B.R. Ambedkar Chair, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar wrote that the settlements in rural Punjab are divided into upper and lower castes. The lower castes are supposed to live on the side where water flows when it rains and take dirt and debris with it. Dalits are often not allowed to build houses using concrete, often known as pucca houses, as the land where they live is often claimed by the Jat-Sikhs.

The unsaid but very visible division among Sikhs over caste

These days, Dalit Sikhs often interact with Jat Sikhs while working as labourers, the communities do not use utensils used by the upper caste Sikhs. There are separate cremation grounds for Dalit Sikhs. To add more pain to the whole unsaid but visible division, the Gurudwaras for upper caste Sikhs are often deemed not accessible for the Dalit Sikhs.

There have indeed been several attempts to remove the caste system from Sikh communities, the problem is still persisting, especially in the rural areas. There was a movement, the “Singh Sabha movement”, that was started in 1873 to revitalize Sikhism. One of the aims was to remove untouchability among Sikhs. However, after almost 150 years, caste inequality is still evident.

As a result, Dalit Sikhs were forced to establish separate Gurudwaras. The search for alternative cultural space forced Dalit Sikhs to form or associate with Deras and different religious denominations. While people do not see Sikhs as a community that can be divided based on the caste system, the truth cannot be ignored that the Dalit Sikhs are struggling to find their representation not only in government but in every aspect of society.

Effect of caste division on Punjab and political arena in the state

As there is a lack of representation of Dalit Sikhs in politics, their voice often gets suppressed. It is one of the reasons why giving representation to a Dalit has become an important turning point in the politics of Punjab. In May 2021, a video of a Pathi went viral in which he was seen praying for PM Modi’s long life and backed BJP’s reported decision to project a Dalit as CM candidate in the upcoming Punjab Assembly elections. The viral video led to his arrest for ‘hurting religious sentiments. A similar incident later happened in Bathinda, and the Pathi ended up losing his job. 

Another example of how deeply embedded the caste system in the Sikh community can be observed from the fact that the Sikhs from the Dalit community thanked the upper caste Sikhs for providing them food and other relief material during the Covid pandemic. According to a report, if they had not ‘helped’ the Dalit Sikh community, it would have been impossible for the community to survive. It was seen as a major turn of events as it is rare for the upper caste Sikhs to come forward to support Mazhabi Sikhs.

On the other hand, In May last year, Ghanauri Khurd village in Punjab’s Sangrur district was in the news for all the wrong reasons. The ‘dominant caste landowners’, which can be read as Jat Sikh landowners, passed a resolution to stop Dalits from going out of the village to work in fields unless they have completed sowing in the farms in the village. They also reduced the daily wage to Rs. 300 and sowing wage to merely Rs. 3,800 for sowing paddy. But why such resolutions happened across the state of Punjab? The reason was stated as the nationwide lockdown that stopped the labourers from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to come to Punjab for work. Interestingly, it shows how these landlords had exploited the immigrant workers for decades by paying them less.

Back in 2003, it was the time when the scuffle between Jat-Sikhs and Mazhabi Sikhs in Talhan, Punjab came to the limelight across the country. On June 5, 2003, Dalit Sikhs and the dominant Jat-Sikhs came face-to-face over the management of Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh shrine. Around a decade before the scuffle, donations started to flow in from overseas Punjabis for the Gurudwara. Dalits demanded their representation in the management of the shrine that was refused by the Jat Sikhs. The matter went to court, and the judgement came in favour of the Dalits, but it was again refused by the Jat Sikhs. The matter went to court again, and Dalits got another judgement in their favour resulting in the Jat Sikhs walking out from the management altogether.

The scuffle resulted in fights followed by an economic blockade of the Dalit community in Talhan. The situation was so tense that they were not even allowed to defecate in open areas in the region. On June 5, the two communities came face-to-face and the fight left one person dead, and dozens were injured. Both communities blamed each other, but reportedly Dalits faced maximum damage. Around ten houses were damaged, out of which maximum belonged to the Dalit community.

When Police intervened, it had to open fire, and one Dalit Sikh was killed. It irked the Dalit community that resulted in riots that continued for days. It took two months for the Amarinder Singh government to step in. It was one of the incidents that turned Punjab politics upside down and showed the world how divided the communities are in the “most prosperous state” of the country. Several such incidents prove how deep-rooted the problem is in the state.

Last two cents

I have lived in Punjab all my life. As I am not a Sikh and belong to an upper-caste family, it took me years to realize that how problematic the situation is in Punjab. During the first twenty years that I had spent in my home town in the Malwa region, for 15 years, I did not come across any atrocities against Dalit Sikhs, but it was only after an incident that took place near my house that changed my perspective. A Dalit Sikh was beaten up for drinking water from the table that was meant for the upper caste Sikhs at a wedding. That was the first time I came to know Sikhs do practice caste. Slowly, I came across several incidents where Dalit Sikhs were not paid equally, or they were mocked for being Dalits.

After shifting from my hometown, also in Punjab, I came across five different incidents where during commissioned projects, I was asked not to go to the popular Gurudwara but to visit another one in a village as the client was Dalit Sikh. When asked, he said that his community never visited the main Gurudwara. It was not told but assumed, as per him, that they should go to their Gurudwara only. On questioning the client’s mother, I found out that the Mazhabi Sikhs built the Gurudwara long before as they were not respected if they visited the main Gurudwara in the village.

I believe the discrimination of Dalit Sikhs in Punjab is one of the prominent reasons why these communities are again converting to a different religion. The aim of converting to Sikhism was to shed off the castes, but it lingered on with them. So much so that the government of India also recognize the Dalit community in Sikhs, and they are eligible for the benefits of reservation under different schemes. However, the pain of being mocked and ridiculed by the so-called upper caste in the Sikh community is now forcing the Dalit Sikhs to convert to Christianity as it promises to shed away the castes.

Sadly, Dalit Christians are also becoming a thing, and the Dalit community in Christianity is building their own churches as they are ridiculed by the “upper caste Christians”. Dalits in Christianity are also demanding rights to benefits under different schemes, but it has been denied. In Feb 2021, then-Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that Dalits who had shunned their faith and converted to Islam and Christianity would not be permitted to contest parliamentary or assembly elections from constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes (SC) and will not be allowed to claim other reservation benefits.

While Dalit Sikh as CM is a refreshing change for Punjab, no one can be sure if it will be a beneficial thing for the state or it will backfire and bite the politicians in coming Assembly elections.

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B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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