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Dalit Politics and Its Fragments in Punjab

Does Religion Hold the Key?

Santosh K Singh ( teaches sociology in the School of Liberal Studies at the Ambedkar University Delhi.


The enigmatic marginality of Dalit politics in Punjab, despite having the highest proportion of Scheduled Castes, partly exposes the limitation of numbers as indicators of social dynamics in a democracy. The key may lie in the critical role that multiple religious traditions play within the Dalit community across regions in Punjab, inhibiting a larger Dalit consolidation. Ethnographic profiles of three distinct, organic Dalit intellectuals in Punjab show their convergence in accepting B R Ambedkar as a political icon but divergence on the latter’s prescription of conversion to Buddhism.

The author would like to acknowledge the anonymous referee’s comments on the article, Mark Juergensmeyer for introducing the author to Manohar Lal Mahey, and Mahey himself for supporting and sharing his insights in the field. Thanks are also due to the Ambedkar University Delhi for a minor research grant to complete the author’s ongoing study in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.


Dalit politics in Punjab is an enigma. If numbers matter in a democracy, how does one make sense of the near total absence of Dalit politics in a state with the highest population of Scheduled Castes (SCs) in India, pegged at 32% (Government of Punjab nd)? Moreover, besides the numerical strength and substantial diaspora or non-resident Indian (NRI) support base, the region boasts of a formidable line-up of home-grown revolutionary Dalit ideologues, such as Babu Mangu Ram, Kanshi Ram and others.1 Dalits in the Doaba region of Punjab,2 especially in and around Jalandhar, with their strong economic standing courtesy the traditional leather business, have always had a high level of social awareness vis-à-vis the question of identity and politics.3 B R Ambedkar had visited this area after he resigned as the law minister in 1951, and enjoyed a huge following in the Bootan Mandi locality, which was the hub of the leather trade, including some of the prominent business families of the region. Many of Ambedkar’s associates during his Delhi stay, through the late 1940s and 1950s, were from this area.

There are standard reasons to explain this enigma. The most prominent being the dominance of the landed community of Jats and other castes.4 In other words, it is argued that because of the Jat Sikh dominance, the Dalit community was never able to chart its own independent, political journey. They continued to express themselves either through the Shiromani Akali Dal or the Indian National Congress, the two dominant political parties of the state, again largely led by the Jats. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), as the perceived face of Dalit politics, has been reduced to a mere footnote in the larger text of Punjab politics, with its vote share falling drastically from 16.32% in 1992 to 4.9% in 2012 and 1.55% in 2017 (I P Singh 2017). Economic and materialist explanations notwithstanding, the role of religion as a factor in determining the status of local Dalit politics has not been adequately addressed. Of late, the mushrooming of deras in the region, as a site of Dalit consolidation and propagation of Ambedkar’s ideology and thoughts, has once again brought the theme of religion into focus (Ram 2004, 2007; Singh 2011, 2017b; Juergensmeyer 2000).

Three Local Narratives

The critical point is that democracy may be about numbers, but people and cultures are not. There is enough work on the census, its politics of numerals, and how it has failed to reckon the fuzziness of our world, especially its caste-ridden religious landscape, since its beginning as a colonial tool in the mid-19th century India (Cohn 1987; Dirks 2001; Appadurai 1993; Samarendra 2008). Even now, in Punjab, the expression “32% SC population” fails to provide any indication of the marginality of Dalit politics in Punjab. In the absence of substantive ethnographic insights, the numbers produced by successive censuses and other such sources only serve as props for standard, almost clichéd, answers to questions: Do deras divide or unite? Why has the Doaba been unable, despite the intellectual and material wherewithal, to provide leadership to Dalit politics in Punjab? How does one unravel the mystery of the immense popularity of Ambedkar, but not his prescription of Buddhism as a model in Punjab? Did the local ideologues and leaders based in Doaba focus on its overseas bases at the cost of their poorer cousins in the Malwa and Majha regions?

Questions such as these, and several others, recur time and again as one visits the region, and meets Dalit sociopolitical activists/leaders, especially long-timers, in villages and towns. Based on my fieldwork in the region, largely around Jalandhar and among the Ravidassia in the Doaba region as also in other parts of Punjab for over half a decade, I zero in on three local narratives that, in my view, point to the critical role played by religion in the region and shed light on the complex dynamic that its interface with politics unleashes locally. The narratives, as detailed below, are based on extensive personal interviews conducted in December 2017. I maintain that the perspectives from the Ravidassia community matter significantly, especially when it comes to the question of forging larger Dalit (identity-based) politics in Punjab, given that they are the largest, more prosperous and vocal community among the Dalits in the state.

L R Balley, a Buddhist–Ambedkarite:

Balley, aged 88, a prominent Dalit thinker and ideologue of the region, resides in Jalandhar town. He last met Ambedkar on 30 September 1956 in Delhi. Finding Ambedkar critically ill, Balley pledged to “serve Ambedkar’s mission” for the rest of his life (Sandhu 2015). Upon Ambedkar’s death, he resigned from his permanent central government job and has ever since been a staunch Ambedkarite activist. Balley has been the editor of Bhim Patrika since 1958, and founder trustee of Ambedkar Bhawan in Jalandhar. A voracious reader and writer, Balley wrote more than 100 books in English, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and Marathi, besides translating the works of Ambedkar in these languages. As an activist–thinker, he visited countries around the world to establish Buddha viharas (temples) and Ambedkar centres.

Balley was associated with Dalit politics through the Scheduled Castes Federation and later, the Republican Party of India. He unsuccessfully contested two parliamentary elections in 1962 and 1967, and two assembly elections between 1970 and 1980. Balley attributed his electoral failures to the handiwork of the communal Hindu politics of those days which spread canards against him of being a beefeater:

The fact that I, as a true Ambedkarite, always sided with the progressive forces and never ever had any truck with religious or communal politics, went against me. But I do not care. (personal interview 2017)

Balley remained a committed Buddhist, doggedly following Ambedkar’s prescription of religious conversions out of Hinduism. However, Buddhism as an alternative religion did not quite work in Punjab. Balley hesitatingly and marginally concedes that there perhaps is some merit in the view that Ambedkar’s prescription of Buddhism as a pan-Indian framework is far too monolithic, even totalising, for the immense diversity of Dalit social and religio-cultural life, failing to strike a chord with local sensibilities. While on the personal front, there is no dilution in his own commitment to the Buddhist alternative as a political strategy, he reluctantly concedes the probability of a disconnect.

Nevertheless, Balley dismisses the whole politics and movement for a new religion centred on the Ravidassia identity led by the Dera Sachkhand at Ballan5 near Jalandhar. He believes that the movement has divided the community of Dalits and that Guru Ravidas was a sant–philosopher who never proposed any religious framework per se. Hence, Balley sees little merit in establishing a new religion in his name, as also in the proliferation of dera-based movements that have sprung up all over the region. He remains an ardent follower of Ambedkar’s prescription of a non-ritualised, pragmatic brand of Buddhism as a model path for Dalits to follow, for a larger and stable consolidation of the Dalit identity. The negligible numbers of people who converted to Buddhism, the stymied growth of the Buddhist project in Punjab in general, and the progressive decline in the popularity of Bhim Patrika, failed to arrest Balley’s steadfast commitment to his lifelong mission.

Manohar Lal Mahey, a Ravidassia–Ambedkarite: Manohar Lal Mahey, aged 68, is a prominent businessman in the Bootan Mandi area of Jalandhar. Mahey is the grandson of Seth Sundar Das, who had donated ₹11,000—a princely sum in those days—to Ambedkar on behalf of his community at a public function in Bootan Mandi in 1952. Mahey, like others in the area, was always interested in higher studies and Ambedkar’s works inspired him. He earned a postgraduate degree in political science and later, joined a bank as an officer. But his engagement with academic life and activities centred on Ambedkar continued. He assisted American sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer when the latter was conducting his fieldwork in Punjab in the 1970s and early 1980s on the phenomenon of deras. Juergensmeyer published this work under the title, Religious Rebels in the Punjab: The Ad Dharm Challenge to Caste (1982/2009), which remains a key text on the subject, over three decades post its publication.

Mahey has actively espoused and supported the cause of consolidating the larger Dalit community in Punjab. As a long-serving secretary of the Dera Ballan Trust for the Shri Guru Ravidass Janam Asthan Mandir at Seer Goverdhanpur, Varanasi6 from 1984–92, the politics surrounding the dera and its internal squabbles and splinters worry him to no end. However, unlike Balley, Mahey foregrounds his Ravidassia identity and invests in it. He disagrees with Balley and believes that

The reason Balley could not be successful politically is because he did not take into account local sentiment built around the Chamar identity and Guru Ravidas. Buddhism had no place here. The affluent community of Chamars of the region always revered their guru, besides many others. (personal interview 2017)

Mahey, like most others of his community, is a staunch follower of Ambedkar. The drawing room of his palatial house has Ambedkar’s portraits, and the top exterior of the building has “har,” the sign of Ravidassia, prominently inscribed on a marble plate. What comes as routine is the seamless coalescing of these two identities—Ravidassia and Ambedkarite. Mahey explains:

Why should there be any confusion? Like other contemporary Bhakti poets and saints, Guru Ravidas was as revered. It is true Baba Saheb (Ambedkar) advocated Buddhism, but one has to be flexible enough to accommodate and rework his prescriptions, including the model of religious conversion to Buddhism. His larger messages on education and struggle are far more important for us. He is our political guru, but Guru Ravidas is our spiritual guru. Why look elsewhere when we have one of our own to guide us spiritually? (personal interview 2017)

Mahey underlines the significance of Dalit unity and values coexistence, not confrontation as a matter of strategy. In the aftermath of Vienna 2009 (Singh 2011), Mahey actively worked on the ground to calm the flared sentiments of his community. But later as the Dera Ballan and its leadership aggressively pursued a separatist path,7 Mahey did not quite approve of it. He distanced himself from the Ballan activities. He reasons:

our community, whether in business or not, is part of the local interdependent economic networks and hence, to talk of a combative and independent path is a strategic mistake. (personal interview 2017)

To introduce me to his religious world view, Mahey took me to the puja ghar (prayer alter) in his house. There were statues of Guru Ravidas in the centre surrounded by little statues of Shirdi Sai Baba, goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati, Guru Nanak, and the saints of Dera Ballan, among others. But, then he poses an important question:

You will find in our homes respect for all others, but we don’t get back what we give to others. If you see a picture of Guru Ravidas in any home then you can be sure that it must be a Chamar’s home. Why is our sant so exclusively ours alone? (personal interview 2017)

Mahey’s question highlights the inbuilt exclusion even in apparently syncretic spaces, and unravels how, understandably so, these largely camouflaged but powerful and evocative pointers of exclusion become part of, and contribute to the larger identity assertion movements.

Mahey never had any political aspirations. He resigned from his bank job to pursue his own export–import leather business and travelled across the globe. Half of his family, like Balley, is in Canada and other overseas destinations. Mahey, however, remains active through his organisation, Vigilant Brotherhood (International), Jalandhar. He keeps his activism alive by organising conferences and seminars in small and big towns in Punjab and elsewhere.

Paramjit Singh Kainth, a Sikh–Ambedkarite: Paramjit Singh Kainth hails from Patiala in the Malwa region. Much younger at 54, Kainth has contested and lost three state assembly elections (1992, 1997 and 2007) as a BSP candidate. He started his political journey as a close and young associate of Kanshi Ram, the iconic founder and leader of BSP, whose protégée Mayawati went on to become Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh for four terms. Kainth remembers his time with Kanshi Ram in Punjab and how he used to organise rallies where both he and his mentor used to ride cycles. Kainth comes across as a simple man with an easy demeanour but an aggressive and uncompromising political position: that of creating a united Dalit front, entirely based on issues from the ground such as land, employment, education, and health, not on religion or faith, claiming they distract and deviate the movement from its real goals. Kainth is the president of the National Scheduled Castes Alliance in Punjab and as per his visiting card, is also the president of the Chamar Mahan Sabha (grand alliance of the Chamars). The card prominently mentions: “Garv se kaho ham Chamar hain” (proclaim with pride, we are Chamars).

Kainth is bitter about the way religion has hijacked the agenda and more pragmatic priorities of Dalit politics in the state. He blames Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of the Dera Sacha Sauda for one of his defeats (Singh 2017b). He believes these deras use people and politics for their own narrow benefits and have no positive agenda except dividing the community. On the contribution of ideologues and leaders from the Doaba region, Kainth does not mince words:

What is their contribution to Dalit politics, other than writing books and collaborating with the rich diaspora settled in Canada, United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK)? Doaba Dalits could have used their affluence in unifying their people from the other less-privileged regions of Majha and Malwa in Punjab, but they never really bothered. They could reach Edmonton, but not Malwa. (personal interview 2017)

Kainth dismisses the Ravidassia movement at Ballan. He believes the Guru Granth Sahib, as a holy text, represents all and hence, to talk of a new religion or book is of no meaning. Sporting a turban, PSK respects all cultural sentiments. Yet, he is far too rooted in the materialist and pragmatic framework of Ambedkar. His fight is, as he puts it, against “Jattism,” and the way in which the Jats have completely “occupied” Sikhism and ushered in the ills of “Manuvaad” that had plagued Hinduism. He further clarifies,

Sikhism is a great religion, and there is nothing wrong with the religion, rather the Gurus have accorded honour to people of all faiths and castes. The Guru Granth Sahib has included vaanis or hymns of people and saints coming from other castes and religion such as Ravidas, Kabir and Baba Farid. (personal interview 2017)

“We are not against anyone, but in favour of humanism,” he concludes. Kainth now wants to start a social movement across Punjab to highlight the real issues of Dalits in the state. When quizzed about his loss in each of the hitherto-contested elections, he responds with a smile: “so what, even Ambedkar could never win an election.” Kainth comes across as a person with steely resolve. Following his exit from the BSP in 2010, Kainth has been organising a series of press conferences to raise the issue of atrocities against Dalits in the state.

An obvious question concerns the significance of these voices. The critical point is that these narratives are not stray, sundry cases; rather they represent the life journeys of three organic intellectuals from within the Dalit community with substantial public interface. They not only, in a sense, belong to three different generations, but also come from three different socio-economic and regional locations. All three of them are united by their unadulterated commitment to Ambedkar’s philosophy and zeal for a better and equal world for marginalised communities, including their own, that were treated shabbily and discriminated against by dominant groups in the caste hierarchy. It is this strong common ideological–political commitment intertwined with a deep sense of praxis and activism that marks out their journeys as reflective and representational of a larger struggle. These perspectives from practitioners on the ground, therefore, are crucial. It must, however, be underlined that the identifiers, namely Buddhist Ambedkarite, Ravidassia Ambedkarite and Sikh Ambedkarite for Balley, Mahey and Kainth respectively, have been used in this text by the author for purely analytical purposes.

Ambedkar as a Grand Constant

The prominence of deras and identity articulation around Guru Ravidas in the Doaba region is pretty visible. What is remarkable, however, is the emergence of Ambedkar as a major icon in all these deras. Not just in Dera Ballan, but even other deras that are not quite “activist-type,” such as the Sant Baba Phool Nath Dera which has huge portraits of Ambedkar in their premises and interiors. Interestingly, these deras reflect not just the ordinary existential anxieties and aspirations, such as dreams of an overseas job—typical of the region, manifested in the offerings of toy-planes at the sanctum sanctorum—but also an urge for a larger interwoven collective along composite narratives drawn from Ambedkar’s life stories and legends from Guru Ravidas’s and other saints’s lives. One of the paintings, for instance, at the Sant Baba Phool Nath Dera shows Ravidas, Valmiki and Kabir walking alongside Buddha, followed by Ambedkar and his band of followers. These images and visuals give expression to the collective urge of the community for a grand alliance subsuming all fissiparous narratives and ideologies within the community.

The rise of Ambedkar as a constant among Dalits, cutting across all regional and community differences throughout Punjab, symbolises a certain level of political awareness among Dalit groups, especially the youth. While religious formulations vary across the three regions, Ambedkar remains a constant. The above three narratives broadly describe the fractured Dalit narrative which gives vital clues to the limitations of a monolithic discourse around any particular religious identity, including the Ravidassia. Given the relevance of religion in people’s lives, what seems important is not to undermine these movements, but rather to create strategies to unify them through the shared allegiance to Ambedkar.

There is no doubt that there is an overwhelming support for the Ravidassia identity (instead of Ad-Dharmi) in the Doaba region, but the intensity gets diluted as one moves towards regions like Malwa. In fact, even in Jalandhar, support for the Ravidassia identity does not necessarily always mean the exclusion of other traditions, as seen in Mahey’s case. Similarly, Kainth does not belittle Guru Ravidas; in fact, he foregrounds his Chamar identity, exactly the way people in Doaba relish and frenetically dance to the tunes of “Danger Chamar” songs of Ginni Mahi (Singh 2017a). Just that, he sees no value in Doaba’s Ballan-led movement for a separate religious identity, as for him this only hampers the struggle for a combined Dalit politics in the state. Notably, unlike Balley and Mahey both of whom are from Doaba, Kainth is from the Malwa belt, where, along with some other poorer pockets of Punjab, there is a general sense that Dalit ideologues and Ambedkarite activists in the state focus more on rich NRIs based in the West rather than spreading its activities beyond Doaba.

The larger point is that discriminatory caste-based practices in religious practice, contrary to textual tenets, led to the mushrooming of separate gurudwaras and deras of all hues and inclinations in Punjab, punctuated by petty power games within. This common ground of injustice, inequity, and discrimination could possibly be the harbinger of a movement for a fairer society, provided Dalit leaders and ideologues of the state shun their straitjacketed-ness and look beyond their silos. It is amply evident that religion plays a critical role in the region as it creates multiple axes of alliance as also divisions along regional and class-based dimensions. Malwa and Majha will have a different take, as Kainth underlines, than the Doaba; but here again even though both Balley and Mahey come from the same region, they have contrary views and perspectives on Dalit politics and its prospective pathways in Punjab.

It is not without reason that Ambedkar underlined the significance of religion in our society. He knew caste has its source of sustenance from Hinduism. He wanted to replace the framework in quest for a better, more equitable world, and hence his decision to convert to Buddhism. In all this, Buddhism was only a means towards the end of a casteless society. The Dalit politics in Punjab will have to understand this and in doing so, its stakeholders will have to be sensitive to the nuances of local religious traditions and its diversity. What makes one optimistic is the omnipresence of Ambedkar’s portraits and libraries, and the Dalit scholars in these deras and Ravidassia gurudwaras. Surinder Baba, who was earlier with the Dera Ballan, now has his own separate abode by the name Ravidassia Dharam Parchar Asthan, near Kahanpur village in Jalandhar, where along with huge portraits of Ambedkar in both the assembly hall and the worship place, there is an impressive library that boasts of having in its possession the entire collected volumes of Ambedkar’s writings. The new Dalit leadership will have to build on this constant and navigate the maze of religious formations with sensitivity and care. In short, religion will remain relevant regardless of which angle one forges an entry point to Punjab politics. This is especially true for any aspiration of a consolidated Dalit political presence in the state.


1 Babu Mangu Ram was one of the founders of the Ad-Dharma Movement in Punjab in the 1920s (see Juergensmeyer 1982/2009: 35–54). Kanshi Ram founded the Bahujan Samaj
Party and was a native of the Doaba region of Punjab.

2 Punjab is divided into three main regions, namely Doaba, Majha and Malwa. The Doaba literally means “land of two rivers,” surrounded as it is by the Beas and Sutlej rivers, and is considered one of the most prosperous regions. While the Majha region mainly refers to the area between the Beas and Ravi rivers, the Malwa region is towards the left bank of the Sutlej river.

3 The economic standing of the community dealing with the leather business of this area has been well recognised. Better economic condition opened many channels of opportunities for them, including overseas migration and participation in local and national politics. This is unlike the poorer pockets of Punjab where the Scheduled Castes remained on the margin
for long.

4 The dominant caste status of the Jat Sikhs is a function of their numerical strength (one-third of the total population of the state), ownership of land (more than 80% of the available agricultural land), holding major stakes in agriculture, reputation of being a historically martial race, etc. In contrast, however, the Dalits of Punjab, despite their substantial numerical clout, are marginalised in terms of share in landownership. This rendered a large section of them agricultural labourers, working primarily on the land of the landed Jat Sikhs.

5 The Dera Sachkhand is based at Ballan village, approximately 10–12 kilometres away from the city of Jalandhar on the Pathankot road. It is one of the many deras that dot the landscape of Punjab and to some extent Haryana today, besides branches in other parts of the country and abroad. Deras have traditionally been offshoots of the mainstream religious tradition. The most common reason for their deviation from, and therefore conflict with, the Sikh panthic tradition has been the presence of a living guru in these deras, who may or may not follow the religious code of conduct as prescribed by Sikhism. In 2009, one of the sants of the dera was killed in Vienna, and another injured. This led to large-scale riots and protests in Punjab which gradually led to the Dera Sachkhand leading a movement for a separate religion of “Ravidassia Dharma” and the compilation of a holy book Amritbaani Ravidas Maharaj, exclusively containing the baanis or hymns of Guru Ravidas.

6 The Dera Sachkhand Ballan has built a majestic temple with a gold-plated dome-shaped top at Seer Goverdhanpur, near the Banaras Hindu University campus in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, believed to be the birthplace of Guru Ravidas. Every year on Ravidas Jayanti, in the month of January/February, the dera at Ballan organises an annual congregation at Varanasi to celebrate the guru’s birthday. A special Begampura Express train is hired by the dera from the Indian Railways, which begins its journey from Jalandhar station, carrying thousands of local and NRI passengers. The annual congregation has emerged over the years as a major event for the Ravidassia, not just from all over India, but also from Nepal, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and many European countries, especially Italy.

7 Post the Vienna 2009 incident, it was reported that the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, was removed from many Ravidassia Gurudwaras in Europe. Back in India, in Punjab, a few instances of desecration and displacement came to light, aggravating the law and order situation. As a follow up, the dera followers announced a new religion, Ravidassia Dharma, in 2010 and launched a book exclusively containing the shabads (hymns) of Guru Ravidas in the following year.


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Updated On : 1st Sep, 2018


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