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Social Exclusion, Resistance and Deras

The recent violent conflicts in Punjab represent a typical case of a marginal community's (dalits) fight against social exclusion and the resistance that it encounters from a dominant caste. Despite improvement in economic position over the years, there has not been a commensurate improvement in the social status of dalits even after their conversion to Sikhism as caste iniquities, in the form of dominant cultural patterns, still persist in Punjab. The emergence of a large number of deras as alternate spiritual sites for the oppressed is linked to this phenomenon.

Social Exclusion, Resistance and Deras

Exploring the Myth of Casteless Sikh Society in Punjab

The recent violent conflicts in Punjab represent a typical case of a marginal community’s (dalits) fight against social exclusion and the resistance that it encounters from a dominant caste. Despite improvement in economic position over the years, there has not been a commensurate improvement in the social status of dalits even after their conversion to Sikhism as caste iniquities, in the form of dominant cultural patterns, still persist in Punjab. The emergence of a large number of deras as alternate spiritual sites for the oppressed is linked to this phenomenon.


he recent violent clashes (May 2007) between followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda (syncretic religious centre established in 1948 with its headquarters in Sirsa, Haryana) and different groups of Sikhs, and also other kinds of social conflicts between jat1 Sikhs and dalits2 in the state, mark a crucial turn in the political history of Punjab. The raison d’être of these conflicts surpasses the much talked about “short-term politics of revenge” and shows up the deep socio-religious hierarchies in the so-called casteless Sikh society in Punjab. On the one hand, they lay bare the dormant structures of social discrimination that permeate the fabric of Sikh society, and on the other, point towards the neoconservative Sikhs’ anxiety about the Sikh-Khalsa identity. They pose a serious challenge not only to the political stabi lity in the state but also to the institutions of democracy in India.

The Akalis-Dera Sacha Sauda row over the dera’s chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s mimicking of the iconography of Guru Gobind Singh, seems much to do with the prevalence of the doctrinally-rejected system of caste hierarchy among the Sikhs. The rising salience of caste hierarchy within the Sikh panth (society) has disillusioned the dalit Sikhs, who at one point of time had embraced Sikhism in the hope of escaping social exclusion imposed on them by the Hindu ‘varna vyavastha’ (social order). This seems to push them towards the deras and other non-Sikh socio-religious organisations that promise dignity and social equality. The majority of the followers of various Sacha Sauda-type deras come from the dalit families. This near-exodus of dalits from Sikhism towards the alternative socio-spiritual space provided by the deras invite the hostility of clerics of the established mainstream religious order, who see it as a serious challenge to the Sikh-Khalsa identity. Moreover, the politicisation of the deras and the accompanying pontifications further complicate the issue. Persistent attempts by various Sikh organisations to win over disgruntled dalit Sikh followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda during the recent Akalis-Dera crisis is a case in point.

This paper is divided into four sections. The first section problematises the Sikhs-Deras crisis in the larger context of dalit assertion and its implications for religion-based politics in Punjab. The second section deals with the phenomenon of caste and caste hierarchy within the Sikh panth, and the place it assigned to dalit Sikhs. The patterns of jat Sikh domination in Punjab and how it forced the dalits to seek a separate caste identity is discussed in the third section. The fourth section, based on ethnographic research in rural Punjab, documents some of the recent jat-dalit conflicts in the state.

I Sikhs-Deras Crisis in a Larger Context

Punjab has the distinction of being home to the largest proportion (29 per cent) of scheduled castes (SCs) population in the country with the lowest share in the ownership of land (2.34 per cent of the cultivated area). The SCs in Punjab belong to different religions and castes. Mazhabis and ramdasias, the two dalit castes among the Sikhs, particularly the mazhabis, are the most deprived. They embraced Sikhism in the hope of gaining social equality, but even in the new religion untouchability continued to be practised against them. Evidence of untouchability against dalit Sikhs is vividly reflected in the Khalsa Dharam Sastra of 1914 [Oberoi 1994: 106] and also in a number of resolutions adopted by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) from 1926 to 1933 [Singh 1933 as quoted in Puri 2003: 2697]. Although the Sikh reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries preached in favour of removing untouchability, no concerted efforts were made in practice in that direction. Social opprobrium continues to afflict them and other dalits. Some of them feel that jat Sikhs treat them as badly in the gurdwaras as they do in their farmlands [Tehna et al 2007]. 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. They carry no “say” in the local structures of power. All the Sikh organisations like gurdwaras, Sikh deras, SGPC, and Shiromani Akali Dal are under the control of the jat Sikhs. In a recent empirical study of the caste background of the members of the SGPC, conducted by Narinderpal Singh, it is found that 80 per cent of its administrative posts are under the control of the jat Sikhs, 15 per cent under other castes and only 5 per cent are with the dalit Sikhs (mazhabis and ramdasias). All the three current secretaries of the Shiromani Committee are jat Sikhs. Out of its six current additional secretaries three are jat Sikhs, one is Labana Sikh and two belonged to Other Backward Castes [Singh N 2007a]. Dalits are often heard complaining that the jat Sikhs refused to consider them equal even after death by disallowing cremation of their dead in the main cremation ground of the village. This has forced them to establish separate gurd waras,3 ‘janjghars’ (marriage centres) and cremation grounds. It is against this backdrop of social exclusion that a large number of dalits have been veering away from the mainstream Sikh religion and enrolling themselves into various forms of non-Sikh deras in Punjab. Another probable cause behind the large-scale dalit follo wing of the deras could be the absence of a strong dalit movement in the state.

However, the phenomenon of deras is not new to Punjab. Rather it is as old as the Sikh faith. During the period of the historic gurus, different deras of udasis, minas, dhirmalias, ramraiyas, handali, and that of massandis cropped up. All these earlier deras were primarily the outcome of the disgruntled and unsuccessful attempts of the “fake” claimants to the title of guru [for details see: Chaturvedi 1951:360-69; Marenco1976: 28-30; Bingley 1970: 85-93; Archer 1946: 221-226; Grewal 1996:39-46]. Apart from these, there were many more deras that came up at different intervals on the long and tortuous consolidation of the Sikh religion. Some of the most prominent among them were Bandei Khalsa (Bandapanthis), Nanakpanthis, Sewapanthis, Bhaktpanthi, Suthrashahi, Gulabdasi, Nirmalas and the Nihangs [Chaturvedi 1951:361-69; Mcleod 1984:121-33]. But what distinguished these earlier deras from the contemporary ones is that they could not become the centres of dalit mobilisation.

Proliferation of Deras

According to a latest study conducted by the Desh Sewak, a Punjabi daily published from Chandigarh, there are more than 9,000 Sikh as well as non-Sikh Deras in the 12,000 villages of Punjab [Tehna et al 2007]. In Sikh deras, Sikh rahit (code of conduct) is observed strictly. Whereas in the non-Sikh deras, different ritual practices are followed. The Radha Soamis, Sacha Sauda, Nirankaris, Namdharis, Divya Jyoti Sansthan, Bhaniarawala and Ravidasis are among the most popular non-Sikh deras. Almost all of them have branches in all the districts of the state as well as in other parts of the country. Some of them are very popular among the Punjabi diaspora and have overseas branches in almost all the continents of the world. The composition of these deras is along caste lines. Though majority of the followings in every case comes from dalits, backward castes and poor Jat Sikh peasantry, their command is still in the hands of the upper castes [Muktsar 2007]. Among them the chief of the Nirankari deras belonged to the khatri caste, and that of the Sacha Sauda and Radha Soamis come from the jat Sikhs of the Sidhu and Dhillon sub-castes respectively. In the case of Sikh Deras, a large majority of their following comes from jat Sikh community and they are invariably run 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 never be a dalit. At the most dalit Sikhs’ participation in Sikh deras is confined only to various kinds of menial services as well as the narration of the sacred text (Guru Granth Sahib) and performing of kirtan (musical rendering of sacred hymns) [for detail see: Ram 2004a: 5-7]. Those who perform kirtan are known as raagis, the professional narrators are designated as granthis and others who render menial service are called sewadars. Majority of the raagis, granthis and sewadars are dalit Sikhs. Very few jat Sikhs take up such professions (based on field conversations). In the Sikh deras, only gurubani of Guru Granth Sahib is recited. But in the non-Sikh deras along with the recitation of gurubani from Guru Granth Sahib, other sacred texts are also referred to. Idol worship and devotion towards a human guru is also not an anathema in non-Sikh deras. It is due to the presence of such non-Sikh practices that the phenomenon of non-Sikh deras has been described by Meeta and Rajivlochan as the “alternate guru movement in Punjab” [Meeta and Rajivlochan 2007:1910].

Challenge to Khalsa Identity

This alternate movement in Punjab with its “loose syncretistic practices” throws a formidable challenge to Sikh-Khalsa identity. Modernity and apostasy are its two other main adversaries [Swami and Sethi 2007; see also Singh Madanjeet 2007]. Modernity is considered to be corrupting the young Sikhs who become lackadaisical in their observance of the Khalsa prin ciples advocated by the 10th master. Though Bhindranwala tried to assert the Sikh-Khalsa identity by taking up the cudgel with a dissident sect of the Nirankaris and preaching hatred against the Hindus [Singh K 2007b], he could not prevent the movement of dalits towards non-Sikh deras. These deras, in fact, pose an even more serious challenge to mainstream Sikhism. The number of followers of these deras seems to “far exceed that of the Golden templebased clerical establishment” [Swami and Sethi 2007]. It is in this context that confrontation between the deras and the mainstream Sikhism assumes a critical importance with farreaching implications for the relationships between dalits and jat Sikhs in Punjab. The jat Sikhs of Punjab are primarily an agri cultural community, the dominant caste in the state. The Sikh empire of Ranjit Singh and the subsequent British rule over Punjab helped them considerably in that regard by establishing their hold over the land in the state [Marenco 1976: Chps IV-VII; see also Liu 1982: 387-95]. Dalits, on the other hand, were deprived the ownership of land under the Punjab Alienation of Land Act (1900). This along with the absence of alternate job avenues forced them to work on the land of the jat Sikhs for their livelihood. Dalits’ relationship with the jats, thus, is that of landless agricultural workers versus landlords, which in turn led to contradictions between them. The two communities are engaged in a power struggle.

However, there are many dalits in Punjab who have improved their economic conditions by dissociating themselves from their caste occupations as well as distancing themselves from agriculture [Jodhka 2004]. They have strengthened their economic position through sheer hard work, enterprise, and ventures abroad. Some of them have also established their own small-scale servicing units, and work as carpenters, barbers, blacksmiths, masons and so on [for details see: Ram 2004a: 5-7]. In addition, they have also been politicised to a large extent by the socio-political activities of the famous Ad Dharm movement [for details see: Juergensmeyer 1988; Ram 2004], and the various Ravidass Deras [Qadian 2003]. Thus, they have not only improved their economic status but have also liberated themselves from the subordination of the jat landowners.

With an improved economic position and a sharpened sense of social consciousness, dalits in Punjab started demanding a concomitant rise in their social status that has also probably pushed them closer to the alternate religious bodies promising dignity and social equality. In the process, they also challenged the dominant caste and its claims to represent true Sikhism. The jat Sikhs, however, interpreted it as a challenge to the Sikh-Khalsa identity, which further deepened the existing contradictions between them and the dalits. That is what has led to a series of violent caste clashes between dalits and jats in Punjab in the past few years, as also the repeated confrontation (1978 Nirankaris crisis, 2001 Bhaniarawala crisis and 2003 Talhan crisis) between the Akalis and followers of one or the other non-Sikh deras. The confrontation between the Akalis and the premis of the Dera Sacha Sauda is the most recent case in point. These clashes seem to be more about identity politics between jat Sikhs and dalits than a row over religion. They are in no way a manifestation of communalism in the state. However, given the religious milieu of the social sphere in Punjab they often assume a communal posture. They, in fact, are signs of an emerging dalit assertion against social exclusion that have all the possibilities of snowballing into violent conflicts if left unresolved.

What we have argued above is that the root cause of various jat-dalit conflicts lies in the structures of social exclusion, and the rising process of dalit assertion and the resistance it encounters. Why the dalits, despite their conversion to Sikhism and better economic conditions, failed to overcome their lower social status and how does that push them towards deras and also fomented confrontation with them and jat Sikhs is what we are going to delineate in the next sections.

II Sikhs, Caste Hierarchy and Dalits

Punjab is a Sikh (63 per cent) majority state. However, around 60 per cent of the Sikh population consists of jat Sikh caste [Singh Joginder 1997: 178-9; Puri 2003: 2693]. Moreover, jat Sikhs as a single largest caste constitute roughly 1/3 (30 to 33 per cent) of the total population of the state (based on conversation with scholars, knowledgeables, and political activists). They also wield control over land, religion and politics in the state [Pettigrew 1978; Singh Gobinder1982; Muktsar 2007; Subhash 2004]. Being agriculturalists, almost all of them live in villages (over 90 per cent). Dalits, who constitute as much as 29 per cent of the total population of the state, which comes close to the number of the jat Sikhs, is another major community heavily concentrated (over 80 per cent) in the villages. Moreover, in districts like Nawan Shahr, Muktsar, Jalandhar, Faridkot, and Hoshiarpur the proportion of dalits in the total population tends to be as high as 40.46, 37.75, 37.69, 36.17, and 34.28 per cent, respectively [Census of India 2001]. In many villages the population of dalits exceeds 50 per cent, particularly in the Doaba region of Punjab consisting of Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Nawan Shahr and Hoshiarpur districts. From this, it can be inferred that villages in Punjab are predominantly jat and dalit [cf Taylor, Singh M and Booth 2007: 331; Puri 2004: 90]. Caste constitutes an integral part of the routine village life [Kaur 1986: 229]. In an agrarian society like Punjab where the two major communities of jat Sikhs and dalits live in extreme contrast of affluence and deprivation, caste seems to assume critical importance. Although Sikh doctrine does not assign any place to the institution of caste and laid stress on the brotherhood of all irrespective of caste, religion, gender and occupation, it must not be inferred, as argued by Paramjit S Judge, “that Sikhism was able to transform the caste structure into an egalitarian moral community of the Sikhs. Sikhism remained far from a casteless society” [Judge 2002: 184; see also: Marenco 1976; Mcleod 1996; Puri 2003]. In the Punjab censuses between 1881 and 1931, more than 25 castes were recorded within the Sikh community, including jats, khatris, aroras, ramgarhias, ahluwalias, bhattras, sainis, labanas, lohars, kambohs, mahatam, chhimbas, nais, ramdasias, jheers, mazhbis, and rangretas [Verma 2002: 33]. Out of these, 11 – two agrarian castes (jat and kamboh), two mercantile castes (khatri and arora), four artisan castes (tarkhan, lohar, nai, and chhimba), two outcaste groups (chamar and chuhra), and one distiller (kalal, also termed as an artisan caste in Marrenco 1976: 176) are considered to form the core of the “caste constituency” of the Sikh panth [McLeod 1996: 93-94]. Except the mercantile caste of khatri all other castes including the jats fall in the shudra (artisans) and the ati-shudra (untouchables) categories of the Hindu social order. In other words, Sikhism has primarily been the religion of the dispossessed and plebeians [Singh 1989: 288; Grewal 1998: 205].

Practice of Caste Endogamy

The issue of caste within the Sikh panth has also been affected by the attitude/behaviour patterns of the coverts [Mcleod 1996 84; see also Grewal 1998: 197]. The converts continue to follow their previous caste practices regarding connubium and commensality even after receiving the ‘pahul’ (Sikh form of baptism) [for details see: Cunningham 1849; Mcleod 1996; Marenco 1976; Singh 1977; Singh 1976]. They strictly follow the principle of caste endogamy. As Sewa Singh Kalsi argues, “Inter-caste marriages are strongly disapproved by the sikhs” [Kalsi 1999:260]. In a content analysis study of the caste endogamy among the Sikhs in India and abroad, it is found that marriage alliances are sought from the same caste communities. In India, it is found that 94 advertisements in the column of jat Sikh and 120 in other non-jat Sikh category sought marriage alliances from within their own respective caste communities. Similarly, in UK out of 35 matrimonial advertisements taken up for content analysis, it is found that 24 jat Sikh, three khatri Sikh, two ramgarhia Sikh, two arora/khatri Sikh, one saini Sikh, and three others invited marriage alliances also from their own respective caste communities [Kalsi 1999: 261]. The wide prevalence of intra-caste endogamy among Sikhs in India as well as in the diaspora is further stressed in a recently concluded ethnographic study covering the jat Sikh community spread over in Newcastle (UK) and Doaba region of Punjab [Taylor, Manjit and Booth 2007: 341].

However, there are some scholars who argued that in comparison to the orthodox Hindu caste system, the principle of caste endogamy is “a little weaker” among the Sikhs [Puri 2003:2698; Singh 1989: 293]. This is fine, but given the class and caste background of the Sikh families involved in intermarriages, it can be argued that they are more common among the marginalised jat Sikh peasants. Even in such cases, the normal practice is that “the jats willingly accepted women from the lower castes, but showed no inclination to give their daughters to them” [Judge 2002: 180; see also: Singh I 1977: 72; Walia 1993: 220]. Still what distinguished the phenomenon of caste within the Sikh society from that of its counterpart in the Hindu religion, argues Jagjit Singh, is that intercaste marriages are neither considered sacrilegious nor are “…visited by penalties such as those imposed by the caste ideology” [Singh J 1989: 293]. On the contrary, the opposition in that regard, if any, is more to do with the “prejudice”/“honour” than the “pollution”. To quote him further, “… intermarriages are prevented by sentiment and not by hard and fast rules” [Singh Jagjit 1989: 293]. Prejudice versus pollution apart, the point, however, is that the phenomenon of caste, irrespective of its form, is very much alive within the Sikh society. Even in matters of commensality within the panth, the picture is not that bright either, particularly in the case of mazhabi Sikhs. Reflecting on the distinction between the “caste” and “outcaste” members of the panth, Joyce Pettigrew observed: “The only custom in which any solidarity was expressed among the jats on a caste basis was that in the village they did not visit the houses of mazhabis, take food from them, eat with them or intermarry with them” [1978: 44; see also: Grewal 1998: 210; Bains and Johnston 1995:48]. Although the jajmani/sepidari mode of production – the prominent socio-economic structure in Punjab based on traditional patron-client relationship – ceased to exist of late, the dominant castes still considered the artisan and menial Sikh castes as chhotian-jatan/nikia-minia-jatan (low castes). In this regard, it is appropriate to quote Izmirlian: “Master [teacher] Gurdial Singh was born a Ramgarhia in 1915. The reality of his caste identification surrounds him like a shroud because Ramgarhias are carpenters and viewed as menials by jat Sikh agriculturists” [as quoted in Kalsi 1999:259, emphasis in original].

Caste Hierarchy in Sikh Faith

Thus, in addition to the covergence of “caste constituency” and “attitude”, a sort of distinct caste hierarchy has also cropped up within the panth [Marenco 1976; McLeold 1996; Murray 1970; cf Singh Gurdev (ed) 1986; Singh Jagjit 1981; Singh Jagjit 1985; Singh Jagjit 1989; Grewal 1998]. In the Sikh caste hierarchy, the jats who were otherwise assigned the lower status in the Hindu social order claim to occupy the top position [Singh I 1977:70; see also Judge 2002:178-85]. Next to jat Sikhs comes the khatri Sikhs who belonged to the mercantile caste to which also belonged all the 10 historic gurus of the panth [Marenco 1976: 296; Singh Bhagat 1982a: 146-47; Alam 1982:103-07]. The ramgarhia (former tarkhan/carpenter) and ahluwalia (former Kalal/distiller) Sikhs are placed next or even equal to the khatri Sikhs due to their military adventures during the ‘misl’ period [Mcleod 2000: 216-34]. In the similar descending order, Marenco argues that

[t]he other agricultural Sikh castes, like the kamboh, mali and saini Sikhs, and the other trading Sikh castes, like the arora Sikhs, and the other artisan Sikh castes, like the lohar or sunar Sikhs, came somewhere after the aforementioned castes in the hierarchy. Then there were the Sikh menial castes (jhinwars, kahars, banjaras, labanas, bahrupias, batwals and barwalas), and, last of all, there were the Sikh untouchables, the ramdasias and mazhabis, who ranked lowest despite the many advances they had made since conversion to Sikhism [Marenco 1976: 296, emphasis in parenthesis added; see also: Puri 2003:2698].

Dalit Sikhs are further divided among themselves along caste lines. Ramdasia Sikhs considered themselves superior to the mazhabi and rangreta Sikhs.

Another dimension of the Sikh caste hierarchy is the distinction between the sahajdhari (non-baptised) and the keshdhari (baptised) orders of the panth. Sahajdhari-keshdhari dichotomy, in fact, makes the Sikh caste hierarchy rather more complex. The keshdhari Sikhs, also known as Khalsa, are generally considered superior to the sahajdharis. But this does not come true in the case of the mazhabi Sikhs who, despite their being khalsa, are still considered inferior to that of sahajdhari. The practices of endogamy and commensality are also considered to be more closely observed by the sahajdhari Sikhs in comparison to that of the Khalsa [Marenco 1976: 43, 50, 63, 64-65, 153 and 157; Judge 2002: 180 and 184]. But this viewpoint seems to be contested by Rashpal Walia who observed that “nihangs (saint-soldier/immortal) with upper caste background don’t partake of food cooked for those with mazhabi Sikh origin... Most important, the ‘amritpan’ cere mony for the mazhabi Sikhs among the nihang is also separately performed [Walia 1993:219 and 250, emphasis in parenthesis added].

However, scholarship is sharply divided over the patterns of caste hierarchy within the panth. Some scholars are of the opinion that the practices of brahminic ritual purity do not hold any ground in Punjab [Ibbetson 1883, rpt 1970:1-87; Singh Jagjit 1989: 291-97]. In Punjab the defining principles of caste hierarchy are different from that of the brahminical. They are based on hard manual labour on one’s own land, caste homogeneity, martial strength, numerical preponderance in the mainstream Sikh religion, and hold over the politics in the state. Furthermore, it is the complex combination of all these different sources of power (social, ethnological, economic, political, religious, and numerical) that determines the status of the inmates of the Punjabi society. The only caste in which all these multiple identities coalesce is that of jats in Punjab. Jats are jat Sikhs by caste, khalsa or Singh by religion, martial4 by virtue of their being sturdy and an important part of the armed forces in the past and even present, and landowners by virtue of their hold on cultivation. All these diffe rent identities reinforce each other and thus help jat Sikhs, who constitute roughly one-third of the total population of the state, to become the dominant caste in Punjab. Such a rare combination of powerful multiple identities and their concentration in a single caste as well as religion is conspicuous by its absence among the dalits, who, interestingly enough, are almost equal to the jat Sikhs in terms of their numerical proportion in the total popu lation of the state. But unlike jat Sikhs, dalits are sharply divided into 38 castes, scattered in different religions (Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity and Buddhism), mostly landless, economically marginalised, socially oppressed and poli ti cally neglected. It is in this context of extreme disparity between the otherwise numerically comparable communities of jat Sikhs and dalits that the distinct pattern of caste hierarchy assumes critical importance in Punjab. This unique but often overlooked phenomenon of numerical near parity and extreme socio-economic disparity is what brought these two communities in open confrontation with each other, on the one hand, and also forced the dalits to seek refuge in various deras in the state, on the other.

On the other side of the debate, there are some scholars [Singh Jagjit 1989; Singh Gurdev 1986] for whom caste hierarchy within the panth is a misnomer. Jagjit Singh was of the opinion that the phenomenon of caste hierarchy stands on three pillars (i e, caste ideology, brahmins, and the caste-society) of the brahminic orthodoxy. Since none of them is found within Sikhism, it is absurd to talk about caste and caste hierarchy in the panth [Singh Jagjit 1989:281]. Moreover, almost all the castes of the “Sikh caste constituency” have been able to enhance their social status [Singh Jagjit 1981; Judge 2002:184]. The mazhabi and the ramdasia Sikhs are the only exception. Despite their lowest rank in the Sikh caste hierarchy, even mazhabis and ramdasias consider themselves superior to their counterpart in the Hindu caste system. Although ramdasias have originated from chamars, they considered themselves superior to the latter [Ibettson (1883) 1970: 297, 302; Bingley 1970: 62; Marenco1978: 130 and 285-86; Singh Jagjit 1989:296]. Similarly, mazhabis too consider themselves socially superior to their erstwhile community fellows (balmikis) with whom they would not fix marriages [Walia 1993: 226].

Though social mobility among the caste constituency of the panth is often referred to as one of the greatest achievements of the new religion, which facilitated some of the shudra castes even to acquire the status of dominant castes in the state, but that was not the sole aim of the panth of Nanak and his nine predecessors, who provided a clear vision and also worked meticulously for the creation of an egalitarian social order completely free from the structures of caste and caste hierarchy. But soon after the end of the gurus period, some sort of caste hierarchy emerged within the panth with the jat Sikhs occupying the top position and the dalit Sikhs sitting at the base. Intermarriages and interdinings are among the prime tests as to the annihilation of caste system. But on both these accounts the Sikh society has failed miserably, particularly in the context of the dalit Sikhs. As far as interdinings among the jat, khatri, ramgarhia, ahluwalia, and other artisan Sikh castes are concerned, one can definitely talk about the phenomenon of the social mobility among them all. However, barring khatris, there was not much difference between the social positions of the jats (dominant castes) and that of the other artisan castes even before their conversion to Sikhism. They were all clubbed together in the category of the shudras and commensality was not a taboo for them. In fact, what matters the most in this context is the change in the status of the dalit Sikhs and their relations with the dominant castes within the panth. They really present a tough problem [Mcleod 2000; Grewal 1998:208]. In matters of commensality clear distinctions are made between the “caste” and “outcaste” members of the panth [Grewal 1998: 210; Walia 1993: 203 and 233]. The dominant castes (jats, khatris and ramgharias) continued to identify the ramdasia, rangreta and mazhabi Sikhs (the outcaste) by their earlier titles – chamars and chuhars [Ibettson (1883) 1970:268-69]. “They are still not tolerated within the main halls, and are forced to sit separately in a corner at the entrance of the gurdwaras. Among them also sat even the baptised mazhabi and ramdasia Sikhs”[Bhullar 2007] In her field based doctoral study of the “Problem of Untouchability among Sikhs in Punjab”, Rashpal Walia found that “mazhabi Sikhs feel that their status in Sikh society is still lowest… though, they are not removers of night soil” [Walia 1993: 264, 266-67].

What we have argued so far is that caste hierarchy does exist within the panth. Mazhabis and ramdasias are continuing to face discrimination on grounds of caste. This is probably one of the major reasons behind their move towards the deras as well as confrontation between them and jat Sikhs.

III Patterns of Dalit Subordination

Power in Punjab revolves around the axle of land. Much of the available agricultural land (more than 80 per cent) is owned by the jat Sikhs, and a very large majority of the scheduled castes (SCs) population (over 95 per cent) is landless. They just shared only 4.82 per cent of the number of operational holdings and

2.34 per cent of the total area under cultivation (1991 Census). In other words, despite the fact of their being in highest proportion in the population of the Punjab in the country, a very small number of them (less than 5 per cent) are cultivators (lowest in India, 1991 Census). Nowhere in India, dalits are so extensively deprived of agricultural land as in the case of Punjab. This rendered a large majority of them (60 per cent, 1991 Census) into agri cultural labourers and made them subservient to the landowners, who invariably happen to be jat Sikhs. The hold of the jats on the land was so strong that dalits were never considered part of villa ges. Their residences were located outside the main premises of the villages. So much so that the land on which the dalit houses were built were also considered to have belonged to the jats [Virdi 2003: 2 and 11]. This used to keep the dalits always in fear lest the jat landowners ordered them to vacate the land. The abysmally low share of the dalits in the land seems to be the major cause of their hardships and social exclusion. It is also an indication of the historical denial of human rights to them [Thorat 2006:2432]. The slightest sign of protest by the dalits for the betterment of their living conditions often provoked the jats to impose social boycott on them [for an excellent account of social boycott see Bharti 2007:5-21; Judge 2006:12].

Green Revolution and Jat-Dalit Confrontation

The existing division between the jats and dalits got further deepened during the course of green revolution in the post-1960 Punjab. The process of green revolution transformed the traditional subsistence character of the agriculture into commercial farming. The market-oriented agriculture favoured the landowners and further marginalised the dalits [Gill 2004:225-40]. Inte restingly, it was also during this phase that a new middle class of educated dalits emerged in Punjab. The advent of this new class among the dalits coupled with the rise of the Ambedkarite movement in the region led to the formation of dalit consciousness in the state. The emergence of the dalit consciousness induced the dalit agricultural labourers to ask for higher wages in the rural settings of Punjab, especially in its Doaba sub-region. The dalit struggle for higher wages often employed pressure tactics of refusal to work unless the landowners increase the wages. In fact, it was during this very phase of transition in the agrarian economy of Punjab that the process of dalit immigration to Europe, North America, and the Gulf assumed great importance. However, it may be pointed out in the passing that the emergence of the process of dalit immigration from Punjab coincided with the phenomenon of the influx of migrant labour from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh into Punjab [Sidhu et al 1997]. The influx of migrant labour has further sharpened the contradiction between the dominant peasant castes and the landless dalits in that it provided the former cheaper labour compared to the local ones. Moreover, the changed cropping system under the green revolution squeezed the extent of farm labour to a few peak periods – paddy transplantation, paddy harvesting-cum-threshing, and wheat harvesting [Bhalla 1987]. The traditional agriculture system, capable of providing almost round the year regular work, was changed into a commercial agriculture set-up that did not offer more than 75 days work annually (based on fieldwork calculations). In turn, dalits have to seek employment in other sectors for the rest of the year.

Thus, the dalit labourers, sandwiched between the influxes of cheap migrant labour on the one hand and mechanised farming on the other, began to look for job in different sectors other than the agriculture. The alternative job opportunities reduced the dependence of the dalits on landowners. The social mobility of the new middle class dalits based on their relative emancipation from the dependence on the agricultural labour along with their subsequent diversification into the service sector facilitated the emergence of dalit assertion in Punjab that brought them in open confrontation with the dominant caste in the state. The phenomenon of dalit-dominant caste confrontation draws heavily on the prevalent structures of social discriminations and the politicisation of caste in the state [Judge 2006:11]. The next section deals with the phenomenon of dalit contestation of social exclusion and the resistance it received from the dominant caste in the state.

IV Social Exclusion and Resistance in Punjab

The recent cases of dalit social exclusion in the form of publicly announced social boycotts are, in fact, not a new phenomenon in Punjab. Dalits had been subjected to such cruelties for a long time now. Social boycotts were imposed on them during their heroic Ad Dharm struggle in Punjab in the early decades of the 20th century [for details see Ram 2004: 332-35]. Social exclusion continued to afflict them even after India became independent. The frequency and intensity of atrocities against them increased manifolds during the green revolution as a reaction to the growing dalit assertion for better working conditions and higher wages [Singh 1980; Sidhu 1991; Gill 2000]. It is generally seen that whenever the dispossessed raise voice for their human rights, they have been greeted with severe hardships.

Rarely a day passes in Punjab when dalits are spared of a social boycott by the jat Sikhs in the villages over the last few years. After the much-publicised violent conflict in the village Talhan, Punjab is witnessed to a series of similar cases. The pattern of conflicts in all such cases often remained the same as it was during the green revolution phase. In almost all the conflicts, social boycott was imposed on the dalits who were asserting for a share in the local structures of power such as partnership in the village common lands, membership in the management committees of the religious bodies, entry into the panchayati raj institutions, etc. Pandori Khajoor village in Hoshiarpur district, village Bhattian Bet in Ludhiana district, Talhan, Meham and Athaula villages in Jalandhar district, Patteraiwal village in Abhor district, Jethumajra and Chahal village in Nawan Shahr district, Aligarh village near Jagraon in Ludhiana district, Domaeli and Chak Saboo villages in Kapurthala district, Dhamiana in Ropar district, Abuul Khurana village near Malout in Mukitsar district, and Dallel Singh wala, Kamalpur and Hasanpur villages in Sangrur, and Jhabbar village in district of Mansa are among the prominent cases of jat-dalit conflicts in the state. The most recent one is about the clashes between the various groups of Sikhs and the premis of the Dera Sacha Sauda in different parts of Punjab.

However, the Sacha Sauda row is not the only one of its kind. An almost similar crisis has also rocked the state in 2001, when another baba, popularly known as Piara Singh Bhaniara, imitated the 10th guru not only by wearing a shining coat and headgear but also by riding a horse in the similar style. Furthermore, Bhaniara of the Dhamiana village in Ropar district of Punjab “insisted that his sons be addressed as ‘sahibzadas’ in the manner of title used to address the sons of the gurus” [Meeta and Rajivlochan 2007:1191]. He also managed a separate granth (Bhavsagar Samundar) running into 2,704 pages parallel to that of the sacred text of the established mainstream religion in the state. All this was enough to spark off a series of violent clashes between the followers of the mainstream religion and that of the sect of the Bhaniarawala. Bhaniara, himself a mazhabi Sikh, draws a large majority of his following from the mazhabis. Almost all the bigwigs in the political corridors of Punjab, particularly union minister Buta Singh, his nephew and former legislator Joginder Singh Mann, former Akali MPAmrik Singh Aliwal, six time legislator and former Punjab minister, Gurdev Singh Badal and his son Kewal Badal, who supported his sect also belonged to the mazhabi caste. Since the majority of the followers of Bhaniara belonged to the mazhabi caste, and that of the mainstream Sikh religion to the jat Sikhs, the crisis turned out to be an identity conflict between the dalits and the dominant caste in the state of Punjab.

Bhaniarawala Phenomenon vs Sacha Sauda Row

Though “the Bhaniarawala phenomenon” and the Sacha Sauda row look similar in many ways, in the volatile territory of the realpolitik in Punjab they seem to attribute different meanings to the sharpening contradictions between the dalits and the dominant castes. During “the Bhaniarawala phenomenon” there was almost a consensus among the various factions of the Akali Dal over the course of action to be taken against the indicted Bhaniara. Whereas in the case of Sacha Sauda there is a difference of opinion among the various groups of the Akalis as to the nature of agitation for the arrest of its chief as well as the form of punishment. It is, perhaps, for the first time in the history of the Akalis that such a difference of opinion emerged among them. It also indicates that the moderates and some of the redical groups within the Akalis as well are concerned more with the hard earned peace in the state than to bargain it with any cost or sort of some long-term political gain. Another unique aspect of the present crisis is that the Hindu population of the state played a very positive role in condemning the sacrilegious act of the head of the Sacha Sauda. But still, the dalit-jat Sikh equation remains the focal point of the crisis. In fact, it is this equation with which the real question of peace in Punjab is taged. Unless and until an amicable and a durable solution to this fast emerging jat-dalit confrontation is located, Punjab is probably bound to plunge into a deep crisis at a time when the Sikh religion “evinces the need for a reassertion”,5 and the dalits assertion goes global.

The following sub-sections briefly explore the probable underlying causes of the recent caste-based conflicts in Punjab. For paucity of space, only Talhan and Meham conflicts are taken up as two ethnographic case studies. In both the cases, the bone of contention has been the management of the local deras. In the case of Talhan, dalits were denied participation in the managing committee of the ‘smadh’ (grave) turned gurdwara, whereas in Meham dalits were forced to surrender their control over the Udasi Dera of Baba Khazan Singh.


The Talhan conflict was based on the issue of dalit representation in the jat Sikh-dominated management committee of the smadh-turned-gurdwara named after Shaheed (martyr) Nihal Singh, a local carpenter (backward caste) who died while laying Gandd (wooden wheel) at the base of a well in Talhan village. The primary motive behind the conversion of the smadh into a gurdwara was widely seen as an effort to grab the large amount of money (approximately Rs 50 million [$ 1.1 million] offered at its alter by the jats of the village and the adjoining areas) [Philip 2003]. The jats of Talhan (25 per cent), who control most of the agricultural land in the village and until recently enjoyed unquestioned domination in the social and political life of the village, established their control over this gurdwara through the office of the gurdwara management committee. Despite being a majority in the village, the dalits of Talhan (72 per cent) were kept out of the membership on the gurdwara management committee because of their lowly caste (conversation with Ram Talhan, Banga, April 16, 2006). They employed every possible method to seek entry into the committee peacefully. But the dispute remained unresolved. This ultimately led to a fight between the jats and the dalits in January 2003. Subsequently, the jat Sikhs publicly announced a social boycott of the dalits. They stopped visiting their shops and also banned their entry into the fields owned by them even for answering the call of the nature (conversation with L R Balley, Banga, April 16, 2006).

Tofight back the social oppression, dalits organised a dalit action committee (DAC) under the leadership of L R Balley, a prominent Ambedkarite of the region. The DAC organised dharnas and hunger strikes in the village and Jalandhar city. Repeated appeals by the DAC failed to move the administration [Singh 2003]. On June 5, 2003, the conflict took a violent turn. And soon it snowballed into the adjoining areas. Boota Mandi, a suburb of Jalandhar city, became the epicentre of the violence. It was here that an Ad Dharmi, Vijay Kumar Kala, fell victim to the police firing, an event that suddenly propelled Talhan and Boota Mandi onto the national scene. Talhan and Boota Mandi were virtually converted into a garrison. And the village was sealed off for a couple of days. Although the violence was controlled by the district administration, it took the contending parties 18 days to reach a compromise, and another two months for the agreement to come into effect.

Whatever be the cause of the violence, it is clear that by the time it erupted, the dalits had achieved a state of consciousness that not only empowered them to say a firm “no” to their tormentors but also encouraged them to ask assertively for an equal share in the structures of power at the village level. In contrast, the jat Sikhs, who have thrived amidst a meek silence of the dalits, are finding it hard to resist the mounting dalit assertion against the centuries old system of social exclusion [for more details see Ram 2004b: 906-12].


Meham conflict is another case of recent jat-dalit confrontation, and a vindication of the presence of caste hierarchy among the Sikhs. The village Meham has total population of 1967 out of which 893 (45 per cent) belong to the dalits. Most of the dalits belong to the balmiki caste. The Ad Dharmi, another dalit caste, constitutes 20 per cent of the total population [Judge 2006:14]. The jat Sikhs are about 20 per cent of the total population of the village. Jats, balmikis and the Ad Dharmis each have their own gurdwara in addition to the disputed dera of Khazan Singh Udasi in Meham. Dalits in Meham are diversified into various noncultivation professions that has not only helped them abandon their customary caste-based occupations but also liberated them from the subordination of the jat Sikhs. However, despite the dissociation of the dalits from their hereditary professions and distancing from the agriculture, they failed to raise their social status in the eyes of the jats, who still consider them unequal. This has led to tensions between the jat Sikhs and the dalits in the village.

Though the context of the Meham conflict is different from that of the Talhan, the patterns and the forms of social oppression are same in both of them. In Talhan, the dalits were denied membership in the jat-dominated management committee of the disputed shrine turned gurdwara of Shaheed Nihal Singh. Whereas in Meham, the jat Sikhs forcibly took over the control of the dera of Khazan Singh Udasi that was being looked after by the Ad Dharmis of the village for the last six decades. They replaced all the udasi symbols with that of the Khalsa, and also objected to the offerings of liquor and the distribution of the same as a prasad (sacramental food) among the devotees at the dera as it violates the Sikh code of conduct (conversation with Darshan Nahar, Nurmahal, October 25, 2006).

The Ad Dharmi argued that the tradition of offering liquor at the smadh in the dera is in no way an act of sacrilege as the dera was never a site of Sikhism. They further reiterated that the jat Sikhs brought the question of Sikh rahit into the picture in 2003 when they placed Guru Granth Sahib on the premises of the dera. Moreover, the very presence of the mazaars (graves) in the precincts of the dera ruled out the possibility of its being a gurdwara (conversation with C L Chumber, Jalandhar, October 25, 2006). Probably, the rising cost of the land in the state and the tremendous increase in the offerings at the dera over the last few years due to rich remittance from the Punjabi diaspora, especially from the doaba sub-region, could have prompted the jat Sikhs of the village to assert their claim on the dera [Kali 2003]. However, unlike in Talhan, the timely intervention of the police brought the Meham conflict under the control for the time being and the dispute has been referred to the court. Currently, the dera is placed under a government receiver who has been assigned the task of the management of the shrine.

The conflicts in Talhan and Meham, thus, reflect the underlying layers of tensions between the hitherto all powerful and dominant jat Sikhs, and the newly emerging assertive class of dalits. Given the rising level of social consciousness among dalits, the dominant caste has been finding it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore their demands for a share in the local structures of power.


This paper argues is that the jat-dalit confrontation is an offshoot of the socio-religious and economic chemistry of Punjab. The root cause, perhaps, lies in the perception of dalits about the incompatibility between the egalitarian social ethos of Sikhism and the manifestation of social exclusion in the dealings of the dominant jat Sikh community in the state. The dalit Sikhs find that they are still considered as “other”. The domination of jat Sikhs, however, does not compare at all with the graded system of brahminical caste hierarchy. They became dominant because of their “patient vigorous labour” as cultivator par excellence, caste homogeneity, martial status, control over the land, numerical preponderance in the Sikh community, and their hold over the power structures in the state. Dalits, equally sturdy and hardworking as well as numerically quite close to the proportion of the jat Sikhs in the state, continue to face social exclusion in spite of their conversion to Sikhism and relative improvement in their economic conditions. Their social exclusion coupled with landlessness and political marginalisation appears to be the major factor behind their move towards various deras promising dignity and social equality. However, the increasing level of dalit assertion, benefits of affirmative action, remittances and diversification in the realms of economy have given them a strong sense of equality inspiring to assert for share in the local and state power structures albeit met with stiff resistance put up by the dominant caste. This has created a sort of fault line indicative of violent confrontation between the dominant and the downtrodden in the state, long boasted of as a casteless society.




[This paper, presented at different international and national seminars, is primarily based on my field observations and a large number of conversations with dalit activists and writers, followers of various deras, scholars and political personalities. I wish to sincerely thank them all, particularly Paramjit Singh Judge, Amarjit Grewal, K C Sulekh, L R Balley, Balwant Singh, and Sadhu Ram Talhan, for their critical inputs. I also thank P S Verma and Harish K Puri for meticulously going through the various drafts. Their scholarly comments and critical observations helped me in improving the arguments presented in the paper. To Seema Goel, for taking care of the household during my long visits in the field as well as extended hours in the study, I owe a special debt. The views expressed herein are, of course, my own.]

1 Jats are the landowning and dominant peasant caste in Punjab. For details see [Bingley 1899; Habib 1996; Ibbetson 1970 (1883): 97-131; Marenco 1976; Pettigrew 1978].

2 The ‘dalit’ is a broad term that incorporates the scheduled castes, the scheduled tribes and the backward castes. However, in the current political discourse, it is mainly confined to the scheduled castes and covers only those dalits who are classified as Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists but excludes Muslim and Christian dalits.

3 Dalits have separate gurdwaras in about 10,000 villages out of a total of 12,780 villages in Punjab (Dalit Voice, Vol 22, No 17, September 1-15, 2003: 20). A survey of 116 villages in one tehsil of Amritsar district showed that dalits had separate gurdwaras in 68 villages [Puri 2003: 2700]. Yet another field study of 51 villages selected from the three sub-regions of Punjab found that dalits had separate gurdwaras in as many as 41 villages [Jodhka 2004:79].

4 The rise of militancy in Sikhism in the 16th century was generallyattributed to the martial nature of the jats [Habib 1996:100; see also Mcleod 1996:12; Pettigrew 1978:26]. For counter arguments on this theme see [Grewal 1998; Singh (ed) 1986, especially the sixth part; and Singh 1985].

5 EPW (editorials ‘Punjab: ‘Protecting’ Religion’), May 26, 2007:1884.


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