Tag Archives: Religion

Dr. Ambedkar: “Our very own Buddha”

Janhavi Acharekar reviews the autobiography by Dalit writer, Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke: The Autobiography of a Community, “a feminist critique … and sordid memoir of a cursed community.” The book was first published in Marathi in 1986 and is recently translated into English.
The Prisons We Broke is a graphic revelation of the inner world of the Mahar community in Maharashtra. “We were just like animals, but without tails,” she says, describing in lurid detail a world of lice-infested rags for saris, feasts comprising maggot-ridden innards of diseased carcasses, the tearing hunger of starving new mothers, babies cleaned with saliva instead of soap, and intestine-damaging cactus pods consumed to quell hunger.

Born to an entrepreneurial father, the author’s “privileged background” barely keeps her above the abject poverty suffered by her people. Her English-speaking aajas or grandfathers were butlers to European sahibs, far removed from their poverty-stricken and superstition-ridden Maharwada that lay on the fringes of society. However, for the author, it is a world of buffalo fairs and sacrifice, of people possessed by spirits and boys offered to the mother goddess as potrajas. She recounts vividly the people of Maharwada, their houses and customs, their joys and sorrows. Women, especially, occupy pride of place in the narrative.

Baby Kamble’s autobiography is unique because in critiquing Brahminical domination, it also speaks out for the women of her community, presenting an unflinching portrait of its women, subjugated by both caste and patriarchy (later, the same women become the driving force towards education). The younger women suffer the worst fate. Usually married off at the age of eight or nine, they are often physically chained or have their noses chopped off for incurring the displeasure of their husbands or in-laws. And it is in these circumstances that she embraces the teachings of Dr. Ambedkar, their saviour and messiah, their “very own Buddha”.

The Prisons We Broke is significant because it traces the evolution of the Mahar community from pre-Ambedkar days to its rapid transformation through education and mass conversion. It presents the seeds of a revolution through images of impromptu speeches and bold entries into temples, of poems in praise of the man who rescued them from the mire of Hinduism, their “Baliraja, Ravan, Buddha and Bhim”. However, she also contributes to the deification of Ambedkar (“…he is our God. Nay, he is even better; he is the god of gods…He is certainly superior to God.”) and is sharply critical of the current generation of educated Dalits that rejects its roots and drives Babasaheb out of its life.

Related Post: Namdeo Dhasal and the Fall of the Dalit Panthers

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Suharto- ‘Water will wear away the Stone’

Death, even of dreaded criminals like Suharto who died today, comes as a shock. It is also a reminder of events- in this case, the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians in the 1960s- mostly communists in a predominantly Muslim country. Outside the officially communist countries, Indonesia had the largest communist party in the world before Suharto brutally decimated it. (news report at npr)

Closer home, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr Modi- he brought ‘economic development’ and ‘stability’ to the country.

Here is a poem by the great Indonesian poet, WS Rendra written during the 1998 student demonstrations that brought down Suharto.

Because we have to eat roots
while grain piles up in your storeroom…
Because we live crowded together
and you have more space than you need…
Therefore we are not on the same side.Because we’re all creased and crumpled
and you’re immaculate…
Because we’re crowded and stifled
and you lock the door…
Therefore we are suspicious of you.

Because we’re abandoned in the street
and you own all the shelter…
Because we’re caught in floods
while you have parties on pleasure craft…
Therefore we do not like you.
Because we are silenced
and you never shut up…
Because we are threatened
and you impose your will by force…
therefore we say NO to you.

Because we are not allowed to choose
and you can do what you like…
Because we wear only sandals
and you use your rifles freely…
Because we have to be polite
and you have the prisons…
therefore NO and NO to you.

Because we are like a flowing river
and you are a stone without a heart
the water will wear away the stone.

Source

As to the barbaric political repression under the former general, Tariq Ali quotes the Indonesian writer Pripit Rochijat:

Usually the corpses were no longer recognisable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn open. The smell was unimaginable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled upon, bamboo stakes. And the departure of the corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] banner grandly flew . . . Once the purge of Communist elements got under way, clients stopped coming for sexual satisfaction. The reason: most clients–and prostitutes–were too frightened, for, hanging up in front of the whorehouses, there were a lot of male Communist genitals–like bananas hung out for sale.’

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The Deafening Silence of Dalits in Punjab

One of the striking aspects of Punjab politics is the near absence of caste as a major factor during elections. It is not that the factor is wholly absent, but in contrast to even its neighboring states like Haryana and Rajasthan, it is much less in evidence, to say nothing about states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra or Tamil Nadu, where caste is most visibly present, politically and otherwise.It would seem that this apparent non- chalance about caste in the state is because of the influence of a ‘casteless’ Sikh religion. Sikhism was certainly a most strident attack on casteism in the medieval period. The Guru Granth Sahib, for example, contains the writings by many saints including Guru Ravidas, a chamar. Guru Nanak also initiated the practice of langar- collective feasts where people from various dined together and thus helped blunt caste antagonism.The last guru, Gobind Singh initiated baptism and gave the new adherents the common suffix of Singh/ Kaur, further dealing a blow to identification by caste name. Guru Nanak, like most Sufi/ Bhakti saints, makes no reference to the Gita, that many consider upholds the caste system. So different is the treatment of caste from mainstream Hinduism that Dr. BR Ambedkar seriously contemplated conversion to Sikhism much before he decided in favour of Buddhism. It is not certain why he changed his decision, but one of the conjectures is that the (upper caste) Sikh theologians were appalled at the thought of millions of converted Dalit Sikhs taking over their religious institutions and thus changing the power equations.Like any other conjecture, this may or may not be true. But the main idea certainly deserves a discussion. After Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s consolidation of the twelve warring misls in early 19th century, it is a fact that the jats more or less controlled both the political and in the last half century also the religious institutions (via the SGPC).

But the roots of the caste consolidation within Sikhism go further back- to the time of the gurus. This needs to be understood well so that one does not make the same mistake as three Sikh organisations recently did, when they termed the vision of the Sikh gurus as the creation of a casteless society:

Three organizations also want to make use services the sants and dera heads to ensure assimilation of Dalits in rural areas in the mainstream. At many places, Dalits are denied entry into gurdwaras and also denied access to Guru Granth Sahib for religious ceremonies, including marriage and antim ardas. This problem has been creating rift among rural Sikh masses and need to be stopped as the Sikh Gurus were for a caste less and classless society. (news report ) (Link via Surinder S. Jodhka’s article in Seminar January 2008: Of Babas and Deras)

The claim of Sikhism as a ‘caste less’ religion needs to be critically examined. Historian JS Grewal has pointed out, for example, that “Guru Nanak does not conceive of equality in social and economic terms.” (quoted in Scheduled Castes in the Sikh Community by Harish K. Puri). Guru Nanak’s rejection of caste was thus mainly in religious terms.

The Sikh gurus’ attack on caste ism, though admirable by medieval standards, did not go far enough, and was a far cry from modern sensitivities towards caste.

For example, till the SGPC was formed, the Sikh religious institutions were by and large controlled by the Khatri castes (the mahants). Much before that, the Sikh gurus, including Nanak had ensured that the guru- ship remained within the hands of the Khatris. No doubt it was a great achievement for the first four gurus to pass on the gaddi outside their family- something that is difficult to even conceive today with politicians and film actors passing on the baton to the next generation within their family. The trend changed significantly after the fifth guru who switched to the practice of retaining the guru- ship within the family.

However, even the first four gurus including the greatest of them all- Nanak, ensured that the guru ship remained within their own caste. All marriages in the guru families were within the Khatri sub- castes. A major, if not the determining aspect of the caste system- endogamy, therefore was retained in Sikh practice.

Even contemporary Sikhs have not taken any major reforms for eliminating the caste system. There have been probably more marriages between Hindus and Sikhs within the same caste than within Sikhs across the castes- this is likely to be true about the Khatris and the Dalit Sikhs/ Hindus, two castes that overlap between the two major religious communities in the state.

Caste distinctions are relatively stronger in rural Punjab. With the economic rise of some sections of Dalits, there has been a spate of separate Dalit gurudwaras in the state. In urban areas probably the distinction is less antagonistic, though not absent. In some places like Jalandhar, for example, the leather trade and production of leather related sports goods for a long time ensured that it was possible for at least some sections of Dalits to wade themselves out of extreme poverty and concentrate on economic development.

However, it is a different story in the rural areas where majority of the landless and agricultural workers are Dalits. The only Dalit leader in the state Communist Party of India in the past many decades was the one heading the agricultural workers front. Indeed, most Communist leaders in the state have and continue to come from among the Jats and Khatris with perhaps the sole exception of Mangat Ram Pasla who was shunted out of the CPI(M) few years ago (he is not a dalit, but a nai, a backward caste). Most of the key Akalis are Jat Sikhs. Relatively the Congress party has offerred slightly more space to backward caste and dalit Sikhs- like Giani Zail Singh (a tarkhan, a relatively backward caste) and Buta Singh, a Dalit Sikh. A majority of the SGPC members are Jats.

Given the continuing presence of caste antagonism, it is indeed quite spectacular that caste remains not only relatively subdued during election time, but is also not very powerfully expressed in other areas. For example, though there was a strong literary movement in Punjabi between the 1950s- 70s, there has been an absence of an identifiable Dalit literary stream in Punjabi. There have been, indeed, poets from a Dalit background- Lal Singh Dil and Sant Ram Udasi come immediately to mind, but both identified themselves with the jujharu or the naxalite influenced movement rather than as dalits (though they are contemporary with the Dalit Panthers movement in Marathi literature.)

The Bahujan Samaj Party, whose founder Kanshi Ram, incidentally was a Dalit Sikh, has made little headway in the state. One tactical mistake that the BSP made was to ally with the Jat dominated Akali party, the party of their immediate oppressor, during the late 1990s. Its electoral debacle and the subsequent disillusionment among its cadres has ensured that it remains a marginal political force in the state, though of late it has gained ground in terms of percentage of votes polled.

Many dalits from various parties including the communist and the Congress parties who joined the BSP have returned to their original ones or have at least left the BSP- disillusioned with its culture and factionalism though, happily, some have come back with renewed assertion as dalits.

The Dalit question has recently come into limelight in context of the controversy around the burgeoning deras and baba cults in the state. As Surinder Jodhka cautions in the article quoted above, though these deras are certainly manifestation of a pluralistic culture in the state and attract many dalits, it is too optimistic to see them as places of dalit assertion. One of the footnotes in his article highlighting the contradiction between the interest of the deras and the dalits is quite illuminating:

The following statement of my taxi driver who took me to visit some deras in the Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts of Punjab is instructive. ‘I am a Scheduled Caste fellow. I do not own any land. Most of our people own no land. Everyone should have some land. If not more, at least two acres for each family. It would give people a sense of security and dignity. Look at these deras. They own so much land; some even more than a thousand acres. There should be some law to limit the amount of land that a baba keeps and the rest should be distributed among people like us.’My driver Buta Singh did not mean any disrespect to the babas. He not only paid obeisance to all the deras we visited, but was upset that I did not show sufficient reverence for the babas we visited. He firmly believed in their supernatural powers and ability to do good.
Whether because of super natural reasons or otherwise, there is certainly no identifiable dalit assertion in the state, politically or otherwise. Most of the attention to their identity has been highlighted by academicians and journalists. There seems to be neither a political, literary or any other manifestation of their assertion in the state despite having the highest proportion of scheduled castes in the country (almost 30% of the state’s total population.)There is a deafening silence on part of dalits in Punjab. One wonders why, and for how long.

*****

Notes:-
(1) It needs to be remembered that Brahmins in the state are not the dominant caste, a role usurped by the jats in rural areas and the khatris in urban areas. In this, the state does not adhere to the pattern in many other regions in the country.

(2) Sikhs in Punjab constitute aout 63% of the population. About 30% of the population is classified as Dalits (mainly scheduled castes, there are no scheduled tribes in Punjab.) About 80% of the Dalits live in rural areas. The share of Sikhs in rural areas is 73%, implying that Punjab villages are predominantly Sikh and Dalit. (All statistics from Harish Puri’s article linked in “Related Articles”.) The Dalits also have one of the lowest percentage of land holdings,a measly 2.34% (Quoted in Ronki Ram, article linked in “Related Articles”.)

Related Posts:
Dalits and the Left: A Troubled Relationship
Wadali Brothers: Sufism and Dalit Emancipation
Imagining Punjab in the Age of Globalization
Dr. Ambedkar and Sikhism
Significance of being Kanshi Ram: An Obituary

Related articles (.pdf files):

Scheduled Castes in Sikh Community by Harish K Puri
Punjab Census- Scheduled Caste Data by Surinder S. Jodhka
Of Deras and Babas b Surinder S. Jodhka


Myth of Casteless Sikh Society by Ronki Ram

Caste and Religion in Punjab by Meeta and Rajiv Lochan
Dera Sacha Sauda by Lionel Baxas
Split Dalit Votes- Punjab Elections 2004 by (unsigned in EPW)

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“Perhaps This was not Barbarity”

Santokh Singh Dhir, now 88, is one of the veterans of progressive Punjabi literature and the only one of his generation to have earned a living solely from his writings. Best known for his short stories, he has nevertheless published a number of collections of poetry.

While it is too early to speak of a current of Dalit literature in Punjabi- it remains on the margins of Dalit literature in India, the writers of the progressive movement like Dhir and others have articulated similar concerns in their writings over the years.

This is what Ashwini Kumar Mishra, author of the paper Voice of the Dalit in South Asian Literature (pdf!) has to say on the subject:

(the violence during the partition of the Punjab in 1947) was bound to have its impact on Punjabi literature for rooting to the cause of dalits. Kulwant Singh Virk had no time to depict lalit (beauty) in the face of a tortured life experienced by a sikh lady who like a dalit had to stay back in Pakistan thus embracing Islamism (sic). She was cut off from her relatives including family members and all that she could dream of was to unite with her sister in India. Amrita Pritam characteristically delineated such pathos in her story “Pinjar (The Skeleton) and novel ‘Dr. Dev’. Prof. Mohan Singh mirrored oppression in his poems and other poets like Bawa Balwant, Piara Singh Sehrai, Santokh Singh Dhir fell into the line to borrow their poetry themes from the sufferings of dalit community… In later years Amarjit Chandan, Amitoj came forward to sing the glory of peasants and workers in their poster poems. In fiction, Gurdial Singh celebrated the cause of the socially oppressed. His novel Paras hardly bothers for any kind of off beat utterances through magic realism but goes down to smell the earth and its subtle collective foundations.

S.L Virdi has rightfully emphasised on this form in a special issue of Punjab Dalit Literature “Yudharat Aam Admi”. Gyana Singh Bal has questioned the veracity of Adi Shankaracharya’s ‘Adwaitbad and denounces the same blatantly as an unrealistic contrivances of human mood.

I had the privilege of translating some of Dhir’s poems in my first year in college, and  even having some of them published in the Chandigarh edition of Indian Express and The Tribune. Despairing at the remote possibility of seeing the English translations of his poems published in his lifetime, Dhir gave me the manuscript a few years ago when I last met him. This poem, and few others that this blog will occasionally carry in future, are from that manuscript.

Perhaps This was not Barbarity

(A Harijan woman, Pritam Kaur, who was murdered by pushing a 22 inch stick into her private part. She was a volunteer (sewadarni) in a gurudwara in Hoshiarpur district)

Perhaps this was not barbarity
Only a common place affair

Had it been barbarity
Some Rama’s fire- arrow
Would have pierced and killed
The demon king
The city of Lanka would have burnt
And tethered
In the flowery flames of fire

Had it been barbarity
The Kurukshetra of Mahabharata would have danced
For ages the soil would have been crimson
And scarlet flames would have engulfed the skies

Perhaps this was not barbarity
Only a common place affair

(July 25, 1978)
[translated by readerswords]

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World Music Day

On World Music Day (which is on 21st June and about which I was ignorant of till Rama’s post), here are two programs that I have enjoyed lately on the BBC World Route series.

There is a good collection of Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali songs at Dishant, where I have been listening to Srikant Acharaya.

…and not that I am turning religious, but there are quite a few gurbani stations online. Sikhnet offers gurbani sung in the Western style besides the classical Hindustani, and this one plays a lot from Bhai Harjinder Singh Ragi, who, incidentally is known for singing a lot from Kabir.

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New Twist to Dera Controversy

In a dramatic twist to the controversy surrounding the Dera Sacha Sauda Chief Baba Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh dressing up like Guru Gobind Singh, a Dera spokesman, Mr Makhaul Kumar Hansmukh has clarified that the Dera head was merely participating in a fancy dress competition organized by the Dera as part of celebrations.

“This trivial issue is being seen out of context and has been blown up out of proportions”, the giggling Mr. Hansmukh explained to the press outside the Dera headquarters. “We have not violated any religion since no religion is explicitly against fancy dress competitions. We respect every religion equally, the theme of this competition was ‘Sikhism’ and hence the dressing up like Guru Gobind Singh”, he explained.

When asked how the other participants were dressed, Mr Hansmukh seemed to stutter even as those near him heard him say something to the effect that of course, there was no one else- who would compete with the head of the Dera, especially when suitable action is known to be taken against dissenters? Experts infer this to be a barely couched reference to the alleged killing of the journalist Ram Chander Chhaterpati by the Dera chief.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, Mr Ashok Doubble, however, fumed. “Does the Baba think that that the defender of the Hindu faith who fought against Aurangzeb is to be ridiculed in a fancy dress competition? Why not as the Pope or the Prophet Mohammad?”, and after a pregnant pause, he observed, “This clearly shows the pseudo- secularism of the Dera and the Italian Congress Party that it supports.”

Our Patiala correspondent spoke to the well- known Sikh ideologue, Dr. Phalsafa Singh ‘Phalsafa’ who observed that “whatever be the immediate teleological import, the hermeneutical aspect of the Guru Granth Sahib clearly stands against a fancy dress competitions. There is no justification at all”, he remarked pensively while taking off his spectacles in his left hand, and running the fingers of his right hand through his long gray beard.

Asked to explain in simpler terms for the lay reader, he happily translated, “My reference is to the semiotics, of course.” The beneficent smile following the explanation, our correspondent states, discouraged him from any further probing questions.

The Akal Takht chief could not be reached for comments. However, sources close to the SGPC leadership said that it has taken the explanation in the right spirit. “We could have been asked to participate in the fancy dress competition, though”, one of them is said to have rued, “anyone of us could have given the Baba a run for his money without involving the Guru.”

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Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jains – All Rejoice !

According to this analysis by the journal Foreign Policy, these are among the fastest growing religions in the world.

Religion     Adherents     Growth Rate
Islam:             1.3b             1.84%
Bahaism:         7.7m             1.7%
Sikhism:         25.8m         1.62%
Jainism:         5.9m             1.57%
Hinduism:     870m         1.52%
Christianity:     2.2b         1.38%

The reason for the top five in the list: high birth rates in India and South Asia.

Congratulations, all ! (Especially to Hindutva adherents whose delight at the high growth rate of Hindus is matched by even higher rates for Muslims and the following explanation for the growth of Christianity- cause enough for some bashing up of the proselytizers)

…Pentecostal movements in Latin America, Africa, China, and India. The fastest-growing individual church in the world is Misión Carismática Internacional in Colombia; the Pentecostal denomination began in 1983 in Bogotá and now boasts 150,000 members. Then there’s Orissa Baptist Evangelical Crusade in India, which reports some 670,000 adherents.