It was on the day of Baisakhi in 1936 that Bhaskaran from Kerela converted to Sikhism. For the rest of his life, he was known to everyone as Bhupinder Singh. Sardar Bhupinder Singh was one among the first 300 families from backward castes in the region who adopted Sikhi as their way forward in life. A 2006 story published in Hindustan Times gives a brief historical background to the said conversion. In 1924, during the Vaikom Satyagraha (an anti-caste movement), the Ezhava community mobilised and assertively reclaimed their basic humanity by contesting the denial to use of public roads surrounding the Sri Mahadeva Temple in Travancore. The Satyagraha, orchestrated by leaders from different folds, later evolved into a movement for entries into temples. A number of Akalis reached the site and offered to prepare langar for the satyagrahis. Despite the movement having ended, some Akalis decided to stay back. The discipline of these Akalis left an inspirational mark on some of the local youth who turned to the Sikh religion in hope of transcending the discriminatory caste apparatus, in which they encountered only impossibilities and limitations.
For Bhupinder Singh, however, the context was slightly different. The anti-caste struggle had introduced a new energy in the local backward castes. As Singh put it, they ‘basked in a renewed vigour’ produced by the movement. In 1935, Ambedkar delivered his landmark speech in Yeola, where he emphatically declared: “I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable. However, it is not my fault; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power.” For Bhaskaran, this was a cue. To remain within a religion that had systematically oppressed and dehumanised his existence, now became an immediate matter of dignity and self-respect. He decided to convert to Sikhism, a religion which promised him the prospects of equality with his fellow brethren. But more significantly, it gave him hope for humanising his existence.
Caste in Sikhism
It is a known fact that the Brahmanical institutions in India enjoy a position of social/ritual domination, backed by scriptural authorities. Indian society is marked by dehumanising caste hierarchy and is deeply intertwined with the notion of purity, acting as the essential guard keeper of the caste system. In the words of Dr BR Ambedkar, “The idea of pollution has been attached to the institution of caste, only because the caste that enjoys the highest rank is the priestly caste; while we know that priest and purity are old associates. We may therefore conclude that the idea of pollution is a characteristic of caste only in so far as caste has a religious flavour.”
The Brahmins are not revered by the Sikhs as they are elsewhere in India, but that didn’t stop untouchability/purity complex from seeping within the Sikh society. The Brahamanical structure sustains itself in Punjab today, not through the Brahmins but through other castes that sought to emulate the oppressor.
Sikh scriptural sources vehemently oppose the practice of caste and there is an entire theological tradition of backing the ‘reformative’ zealousness espoused during the Bhakti period. Yet, the contrary remains the sociological truth in Punjab today. Caste persists and is openly practiced within the Sikh community. From the ‘artificial chopping’ of the Sikh qaum into hierarchical sub groups (Jat, Saini, Khatri) to seeking matrimonial alliances within one’s own zat (but in a different got; endogamy superimposed on exogamy), an active repudiation and defiance of the egalitarian ontological foundations of Sikh tradition constantly takes place. Such endogamous marriages are simply an attempt to retain the purity of upper caste Sikhs, like elsewhere in India, in which mechanisms of excessive control are devised and imposed over women bodies.
Uma Chakravarty states that “the safeguarding of the caste structure is achieved through a highly restricted movement of women or even through female seclusion. Women are regarded as gateways, literally points of entrance, into the caste system. The lower caste male whose sexuality is a threat to upper caste purity has to be institutionally prevented from having sexual access to women of the higher castes so women must be carefully guarded.”
Calling attention to this contradiction on any platform often results in attracting the ire of Khalsa Sikhs who claim that the faith in itself needs no critical overturn due to the embedded anti-caste philosophy. However, on the level of praxis, such doctrines are more so often an unrealised myth. This claim can only be seen as a refusal to engage with the social problem persisting in our society. Caste exists. The lived experiences of Mazhabi Sikhs is entrenched with the fate of an establishment which is solely furthering misery of their lot. For Ambedkar, any attempt at social reform cannot escape a critical engagement with the religion, which aids that social system’s existence. In other words, a true social change campaign involves looking at the moral norms and conduct that are encouraged by the said religion. He announces that religion/morality share an intimate and natural bond: “Both religion and morality are connected with the same elemental facts of human existence—namely life, death, birth and marriage. Religion consecrates these life processes while morality furnishes rules for their preservation.” The Sikh scriptures— which are the best source to determine the proposed morality—look at the social world as being composed of egalitarian bodies that lie on the same horizontal plane, having no graded differences across their moral worthiness as a human.
However, this proposed theological equality falls short on ground. The Sikh community has failed to live up to the enshrined moral philosophy of Sikhism. This is reflected in the failure to provide space for social fusion, which should have ideally accompanied the religious conversion of Avarna people from different social-regional backgrounds. Even the religious fusion has been unsuccessful in some rural places where Mazahabi Sikhs are strictly prohibited from praying in the local Gurudwaras. This denial of access to spaces of worship and the caste-based segregation of Gurudwaras is nothing short of heresy against the fundamental moral values of Sikhi, and is in direct violation of the Rehat Maryada (rules pertaining to the code of conduct for Sikhs). The Dalit man who converts to Sikhism in the hope of reclaiming his dignity, which is violently denied to him in other religious spaces, finds himself subjected to the same dehumanising treatment. His caste again becomes a source for his oppression.
Throughout his life, Guru Nanak tried to uplift people from the ignorance in the hope of liberating the masses. A number of current secular everyday practices which find their origin in the sacred temporal period of the gurus such as langar, sangat, karah prasad, amrit sanchar are rooted in the egalitarian philosophy of Sikhism seeking to challenge the caste structure. The ideal of social equality and justice cannot be allowed to remain a utopia; revolution for realisation of same is the duty of the qaum.
Hence the annihilation of caste is mandatory. Annihilation of any remnants of upper caste pride that is valourised through popular culture is necessary. Any excuse or shying away from the discourse is being in complicity with the institutionalised social trauma-machine. The need of the hour is to critically engage with the Sikh cultural and social system; and to reclaim the anti-caste, anti-hierarchical and egalitarian foundations on which Sikhism was laid. This can only be done when the religion is reinterpreted and reaffirmed from a Dalit perspective.
The exclusion of Dalit Sikhs from academic spaces
The aforementioned reinterpretation is necessary not only in the social sphere; the academic and intellectual spaces have to be reclaimed as well. For this, we ought to take inspiration from the Dalit struggles across temporal-spatial stretch. We must seek to locate multiple sites of Dalit assertion in Colonial and Independent India, where people from underprivileged sections have sought to challenge the established hierarchies in unique ways. To that end, the recent incident at Bhima-Koregaon should be seen as an attempt to contest hegemonic histories. Construction of anti-Vedic gods can be seen as another such example.
There are numerous Punjabi Dalit scholars who have written on subjects ranging from religious-didactic thought to auto-ethnographies with a present and assertive Dalit consciousness. However, there is a marked silence and exclusion of this scholarship in the Punjabi literary tradition. The Punjabi literary and historiographical tradition dominated by the upper castes has silenced the rich and diverse Dalit intellectual thought by keeping it on the margins. Hegemonic histories again have to be contested, spaces carved out, neglects re-looked at, exclusions and silences questioned and abolished, alternative histories created.
Sikhism should assert its potential as a theology with a framework of liberation — liberation of the oppressed from the political-social servitude, from the inhumane treatment meted out, from the exclusions that are imposed daily, from violent enslavement. Sikhism needs to be reclaimed from its deep slumber to allow more Bhaskarans to emerge and lean with hope on a faith that empowers them to live a life of self-respect and dignity.
Conclusion: Jattism and pop culture of Punjab is also not helping. Sikhi being a beacon of hope for humanity must not be over shadowed by the fog of caste system. Once we went to this village in Punjab where “dalits” where mostly Gursikh but people who controlled the management of Gurudwara was controlled by Jatts or others who were mostly not Gursikh. The people who weren’t in control really wanted to do a Sikh samagam but they really had hard time making their voice heard. That was a complete shocker to me.