Presented at UPenn Dec 3-5, 2008 Conference Dalit Challenges to Academic Knowledge: The Great Paradoxes
Dalits and the Emancipatory Sikh Religion
Raj Kumar Hans
M. S. University of Baroda
Hinduism has always been hostile to Sikhism, whose Gurus successfully attacked the principle of caste, which is the foundation on which the fabric of Brahminical religion has been reared. The activities of Hinduism have, therefore, been constantly directed to the undermining of Sikhism... Hinduism has strangled Buddhism, once a formidable rival to it, and it made serious inroads on the domains of Sikhism.
A. E. Barstow (1928)
The ‘Dalit history’ approach, a particularly germane form of social history ‘from below’, seeks to bring caste conflict out in the open by making it a central theme in the writing of Sikh history. It thus provides a rather different, potentially stimulating, and realistic lens through which to take a closer look at Sikh history as a whole.
John C. B. Webster
Today’s Untouchables are stronger than they have ever been. The progress they have made over the last century is quite remarkable. Many of the discriminations that once affected them have been seriously attenuated. Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, the great majority remain poor, powerless, and indeed without a voice.
Dalits constitute about 30 per cent of Punjab population that happens to be largest proportion in the country, when compared with other provinces, but they occupy the lowest share in the ownership of land (2.34 per cent of the cultivated area). Mazhbis and Ramdasias, the two dalit castes among the Sikhs, particularly the Mazhbis, remain the most deprived. Evidence of untouchability against dalit Sikhs is well established. They have been forced to live in separate settlements, contemptuously called ‘thhattis’ or ‘chamarlees’, located on the western side and away from the main body of the villages. All the Sikh organisations from Sikh temples to the political party are under the control of the Jatt Sikhs. The Jatt Sikhs refuse to consider them equals even after death, by disallowing cremation of their dead in the main cremation ground of the village. Over the years such harsh caste attitude has forced the dalits to establish separate gurdwaras, marriage places and cremation grounds. This seems to be the biggest paradox of Sikhism which theoretically and theologically has been characterized as ‘emancipatory’ and even sociologically as ‘revolutionary’. In its true egalitarian spirit, Sikhism had succeeded in integrating the lowliest of the low, the former untouchables, the dalits, into its fold. From dalits’ perspective the evolution of Sikhism can be seen in two phases: a) from seventeenth century to Ranjit Singh’s rule, when dalits played remarkable role in Sikh political struggles and religious movements; b) post-Ranjit Singh phase, when Brahmanical values and attitudes resurfaced with caste and untouchability afflicting the Sikh body politic in such a way that there was danger of its re-absorption into Hinduism. Though dominant literary tradition has denied the significance of ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ in Sikhism, it has also ignored and neglected the dalit contribution to the flourishing of Sikhism in the first phase. The rise in consciousness in the twentieth century has enabled the Dalits to raise questions on the dominant historigraphical praxis by attempting to recover the lost ground. The paper would first look at the modern moment, the rise in the dalit consciousness as manifest in Dalit creative writings. In seeking an answer to as to what made the powerful Sikh movement drift the paper would look at the ‘brahmanisation’ of Sikhism in the nineteenth century with ominous implications for dalits as well as for Sikhism.