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.

Dr. Ambedkar and Sikhism

Kanshi Ram’s last rites were performed last week as per Buddhist rites. His family has apparently not approved of this. What is interesting in this episode is that Kanshi Ram was born in a Sikh family, and as far as I can recollect, he hasn’t ever said anything on the issue of Dalits and Sikhism- whose tenets deny casteism. Nor did he convert to Buddhism.
Kanshi Ram’s family said they suspected foul play in Kanshi Ram’s death and would file a case against Mayawati. They sought a probe into the circumstances leading to Kanshi Ram’s death and objected to the last rites being performed according to Buddhist traditions.

(news report)

However, there is more to the relationship between Dalits and Sikhism. The founder of the Dalit movement Dr. Ambedkar had once himself seriously considered conversion to Sikhism at one point. His interest then waned, though the reasons are not known, and he finally converted to Buddhism with half a million of his followers.

***

By 1935, Dr. BR Ambedkar’ s disgust with Hinduism and its caste system was complete. His patience at reforming Hinduism from within by securing for the untouchable castes the right to drinking water from public places, using metal utencils and receive education, was wearing thin. Earlier in 1929, he had advised his followers to embrace any religion that would give them respectability. Following this advice, some of his followers took to Islam.

Referring to his own personal decision in the matter, Ambedkar said that unfortunately for him, he was born a Hindu Untouchable. It was beyond his power to prevent that, but he declared that it was within his power to refuse to live under humiliating and ignoble conditions.

“ I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu”, he thundered.

He called for an end to the decade long struggles he had led for temple entry and which was brutally opposed by caste Hindus. Ambedkar’s call to the Untouchables to stop frittering away their energies over fruitless attempts and to devote themselves to carve out an honorable alternative for themselves shocked the nation, especially the caste Hindus.

As to conversion, he said it will be done in five years and he would reconsider his decision if caste Hindus assured him by positive results. He added that he wanted to absorb his community into some powerful community and was thinking of embracing Sikhism.

On April 13-14 1936, Dr. Ambedkar addressed the Sikh Mission Conference at Amritsar. He had earlier indicated that this would be his last speech he would deliver as a Hindu. The main feature of the conference, however, turned out to be the conversion of five prominent Depressed Class leaders of the Thiyya community of Kerala headed by Dr. Kuttir and 50 others from UP and Central Provinces to Sikhism.

In May 1936, he called a conference of the Mahar community to which he belonged, and his abominations and the condemnation of Hinduism was biting, coarse and yet smashing and dissecting. He ended his speech with a quotation from the lips of the dying Buddha- he asked his people to seek refuge in Buddhism. This quotation from the Buddha led to speculations that Bhimrao was veering towards Buddhism. He himself, however, avoided a straight answer. A few days before, however, he had sent his son and nephew to Harminder Sahib as a gesture of goodwill towards Sikhism. They stayed there for over one and half months.

By June of that year, Ambedkar after consulting his colleagues decided to embrace Sikhism- his friends and colleagues felt that he should seek the support of the Hindu Mahasabha leaders in their conversion to Sikhism, for the Mahasabha leaders believed that Sikhism was not an alien religion. It was an offspring of Hinduism and therefore the Sikhs and Hindus were allowed to intermarry and the Sikhs were allowed to be members of the Mahasabha. In his proposal, Dr. Moonje agreed to the inclusion of these neo- Sikhs in the list of Scheduled Classes and enjoy the benefits under the Poona Pact, if Ambedkar preferred to embrace Sikhism in preference to Islam and Christianity and that he agreed to counteract the Muslim movement to draw the Depressed Classes into the Islamic fold.

Ambedkar said that he preferred to embrace Sikhism which offered less than social, political and economic power than Islam and less material attractions than Christianity (western nations). He favoured Sikhism in the “interests of Hindus”.

Dr. Moonje and Dr. Kurtakoti (the Shankracharya) in giving their blessings obvioulsy chose the “least evil”. In choosing thus, they also showed their belief that Sikhism is another branch of Hinduism and that it owed the same culture and principles.

Gandhi voiced concern over the proposed conversion, but Ambedkar continued to increase his contacts with the Sikh Mission. There was even a proposal to start a college in Bombay for the proposed neo- Sikhs. 13 of his followers who were asked to study the Sikh religion at Amritsar actually converted to Sikhism and returned to Bombay, where, writes Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer, they were coldly received as they had only been asked by Ambedkar to study and not to convert.

Soon, Bhimrao went on a tour of Europe. It seems after returning in 1937 his love for Sikhism had evaporated. He continued to talk of his proposed conversion though, and in 1955 along with half a million adherents went over to Buddhism.

(Much of the above I had written in 1997, and as far as I recollect is mainly based on the notes I took from the wonderful biography of Dr. Ambedkar written by Dhananjay Keer.)

Update: The Story of Kerala’s first Sikh Convert
(Thanks to Bajinder for pulling the story out of his archives)

a story by Ramesh Babu
in hindustan times(cannot get exact date)

Nintyone-year old Sardar Bhupinder Singh from Kadakarapally is the only living Malayalee Sikh in Kerala. People call him “Sikh Chettan”, that is, elder brother.

On Baisakhi day in 1936, fed up of caste barriers, Bhaskaran embraced Sikhism and became Bhupinder Singh. he was not alone. Around 300 families, mostly from backward castes, converted at that time.

There is a historical background to this conversion. During Vaikkom Satyagraha in 1922, at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi, a few Akalis came to Vaikkom to make langar for satyagrahis. After successful completion of satyagraha and the Temple Entry Proclamation, some of the Akalis stayed back. Some youth were attracted by the discliplined life and joined Sikhism.

Bhupinder has a different story to tell: “After Vaikkom Satyagraha, backward castes basked in a renewed vigour. At that time, Ambedkar exhorted people that if you don’t get self-respect and dignity in your own religion, you should get out of it. This prompted many of us to join Sikhism.

Initially it was tough. “My father was liberal enough but his brother opposed my conversion tooth and nail. But I stuck to my belief.”

After becoming a Sikh, Bhupinder went to Gujaranwallah and Lahore for theological studies. He worked some time in Khalsa College. But the returns were inadequate. So he joined the British Royal Army as a technician in 1940. He retired in 1968 as Subedar.

Though he married a Sikh, his daughters and sons are Hindus and married under Hindu Ezhava customs. “When the community shrank we found it very difficult to find matches. So none of us insisted the second generation to follow our example. Many families later re-converted to Hinduism. It is one of the reasons for our decline in Kerala.”

Bhupinder complains that when numbers became dwindled, the Sikh Committee stopped showing any interest in them.

Every Sunday Bhupinder visits the only gurdwara in the State of Elamakkara in Kochi. Recently the Kochi Gurdwara Committee honoured him with a saropa.

The nonagenarian always keeps a low profile. “Once S S Barnala came here. He was eager to know more about Malayalee Sikhs. He asked me so many things and wanted me to write a book, but I politely refused.:

Leading a solitary life after his wife’s death, Sardar Bhupinder has only one wish: “Till thee last breath I want to be a true follower of the Panth.”


Picture Acknowledgement

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The Quran: Origins and Influence

An extract from The Qu’ran: A Biography by Lawrence Bruce:

South Asian Muslims approach the Qur’an from a cultural domain shaped by language and outlook that are Islamic but not Arab. Open to outside influences, they filter what they receive through their own distinctive aesthetic imagination. Consider the story of a royal woman who was memorialised in her burial space: the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is a 17th-century tomb that is at once simple and complex. Its marble surfaces project a unity that forever changes, from morning to evening light. It is fronted by a water pavilion, surrounded by mosques and geometrical gardens, and banked against the Jumna River.

An older post on Allama Iqbal here.

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Blasphemy

Hum to jis haal main huye ruswa huye
Hindu bane to kafir huye, Musalmaan bane to mlechha huye[In every (human) form that I was born, was I insulted
When born a Hindu, I was outcaste as an infidel, when born a Muslim, I was outcaste as one polluted]

One wonders how the practical aspects of non- Brahmins being appointed as priests for Vaishnavite and Shaivite temples will work out- my own limited experiences as practically a mlechha in Tamil temples tells me that there are spaces even within the temples (the garbhgrahas) that forbids a non- Brahmin from entering there.

Karunanidhi may be a shadow of Periyar, and one does not have to agree with all that he has done immediately after his return as CM, but this one is as important a step as that of Laloo appointing Dalit preists in Bihar few years ago.

If we define tradition only through texts, then practices such as opening of temples to Dalits and abolition of the Devadasi system can be viewed as going against the agamas. The presence of fans, tube lights, and air conditioners in temples can also be seen as being against agama injunctions. The Maharajan committee too warns us against this.

Opening up of temples and the priesthood to all castes is a fight against discrimination based on birth. What is required is to expand the definition of discrimination and include women in it. It is time for the question: when will women be allowed to become priests?

Link via Krishworld

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Tradition, Revolution and Confrontation in Iran

Political scientist Matthias Küntzel gives a devastating background to the volunteer militia Basij Mostazafan–or “mobilization of the oppressed” and explains it in the context of the Shia tradition of martyrdom.

Küntzel concludes that this is leading to the “showdown” between the zealous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad- a product of the Basij- and the Western world. He ignores, of course, the war mongering that the neo- cons have indulged in, training their guns now towards Iran, as if the deepening quagmire in Iraq was not enough. Küntzel’s own account provides the reasons on the dangers of confrontation with a country where the (counter) revolutionary energy has not yet died down. Every revolution eventually devours its own children- the Iranian one has not yet reached that stage.In the background of the tradition of martyrdom and the continuation of the Islamic Revolution, confrontation with the present Iranian regime is only a recipe for further disaster.

During the Iran-Iraq War, the Ayatollah Khomeini imported 500,000 small plastic keys from Taiwan. The trinkets were meant to be inspirational. After Iraq invaded in September 1980, it had quickly become clear that Iran’s forces were no match for Saddam Hussein’s professional, well-armed military. To compensate for their disadvantage, Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies. Before every mission, one of the Taiwanese keys would be hung around each child’s neck. It was supposed to open the gates to paradise for them. (read on, need to register at TNR)

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Muslim Perceptions in Europe

Ziauddhin Sardar describes how Europe (besides America, and one may now include Australia as well), despises the Muslim. While it is increasingly united in this perception, Sardar argues that the reasons differ in each country.

Throughout my journey, from Germany to the Netherlands, onwards to Belgium and finally into France – the object of much recent attention – I meet people all too ready to describe Muslims in the colours of darkness. Islamophobia is not a British disease: it is a common, if diverse, European phenomenon. It is the singular rock against which the tide of European liberalism crashes.There are common themes but also subtle differences in the way each nation’s history influences its people’s present attitude to immigrant communities. Much of this is rooted in the various colonial histories.

More essays on the theme here.

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May Allah forgive the BBC

Ziauddin Sardar, on an asignment for the BBC, meets heads of states in some of the Muslim countries- Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey and discovers the different trends in politics and Islam in those countries. Pakistan, he avers, can be rescued from fanatic Islam not by the military but by popular movements that negate both the military as well as the Islamic fundamentalists.

If Pakistan poses a threat to the rest of the world it does not come from these people, or from Qazi and his conservatives. It lies elsewhere, and the west just cannot see it. The most obnoxious religious zealots in the country wear the uniform of the military, and what happened after my interview with Musharraf was a perfect illustration of the army’s mentality. General Sultan, who had been sitting behind the president taking notes throughout, called us over and proceeded to review the interview line by line. “Can you cut this sentence out?” he asked. “And that sentence; and this word in the sentence after that?” The producer and I looked at each other in amazement.The army has the habit of controlling everything. The richest, most politically active and most zealot-ridden institution in Pakistan, it helped create the Taliban and the jihadi madrasas, and it propped up the religious opposition. It was the former military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, who enshrined the sharia in law. Those who think Pakistan’s military rulers will rescue them from extremism are barking up the wrong tree.

What is most surprising to a visitor from the west is that, despite the military, an alternative, progressive interpretation of Islam is gaining strength. This is the force that can lead Pakistan out of its darkness; these are the people – not Musharraf and his supporters – who need our backing in the fight against extremism.

Sardar however does not go beyond interviewing General Musharaff and Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the leader of the Jamaat e Islaami, and hence what he seems to say appears to be no more than a personal wishful thinking, albeit a desired one.

In the same paper, John O’Farrel writes on why Tony Blair’s comment that the al- Qaeda and the IRA are fundamentally different. Besides the fact that Tony Blair is a god fearing Christian with Catholic influence in his family, Blair seems to have gone further and read the Koran and listened to discussions within moderate Islam. Hence it proves that the ‘Thatcher in trousers’, as Hobsbawm derisively referred to Blair, is far more enlightened than President Bush to take on the Islamic fundmentalists. He points to the similarities between Gary Adams and Blair as well.

Although five years older, Gerry Adams has some things in common with Blair. Both are essentially pragmatists, and have moved their respective organisations to powerful positions through ditching shibboleths. Dissidents have been isolated and marginalised.Both men are children of the Sixties, but neither were ’68ers. IRA veterans use the revealing term “theological republicanism” to describe those dissidents who opposed “electoralism” and viewed “armed struggle” as the purest means to their ends. These diehards were to Adams what “old Labour” was to Blair. While both can be charming, they can be ruthless when faced with obstruction.

In war, Blair has been an advocate of what the IRA might, for its purposes, have called the “tactical use of armed struggle”. His Chicago speech of 1999 laid down rules for “internationalist” military intervention. “War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress,” he argued, “but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators.”

Morality may be the motive, but ultimately the use of violence is based on whether it will work. According to this theory, the amount of force needed is part of the moral calculation – placing just enough pressure on the Serbs, for example, to withdraw from Kosovo, rather than occupying Belgrade. Likewise, the combination of ruthlessness and incompetence that created the Omagh atrocity probably would not have happened on Adams’s watch.

Both men are religious. Adams is a regular communicant and Blair is inching towards the faith of his mother and his wife. Also, Blair’s understanding of theology in an essentially atheist political culture may give him an insight into the sheer inflexibility of al-Qaeda. Middle Britain gets confused by fundamentalism, be it Christians picketing the BBC or suicide bombers from Leeds.

Blair has made a point of reading the Koran and has listened to British Islam. He understands the nuances of faith and appreciates that the line between the personal consolations of faith and the violent expression of sectarian superiority is fine but deep. Marx called religion “the heart of a heartless world”. Salafism views sharia as this world’s heart transplant. Blair understands the nature of this ambition, and therefore the violence “without limits” required to achieve it.

If Blair had believed that the IRA could not be brought onside, he would not have spent so much effort since 1997. He believed that Irish republicanism could be dealt with because he understood it. For exactly the same reason, he will not deal with al-Qaeda.

It was O’Farrel himself who once referred to Bush as the global village idiot, and while one liked the column of political satire that O’Farrel wrote till recently for The Guardian, this piece of wisdom is slightly more difficult to digest.

Unless O’Farrel actually meant this piece to be a continuation of his weekly column…

And as if continuing on the same theme, Hanif Kureishi, the son of an English mother and liberal, more Buddhist than Islamist father, describes the discomfort that he felt listening to clerics haranguing their British- born 30 something audiences in mosques in England.

The mosques I visited, in Whitechapel and Shepherd’s Bush, were nothing like any church I’d attended. The scenes, to me, were extraordinary, and I was eager to capture them in my novel. There would be passionate orators haranguing a group of people sitting on the floor. One demagogue would replace another, of course, but the “preaching” went on continuously, as listeners of all races came and went.

…. Sometimes I would be invited to the homes of these young “fundamentalists”. One of them had a similar background to my own: his mother was English, his father a Muslim, and he’d been brought up in a quiet suburb. Now he was married to a woman from Yemen who spoke no English. Bringing us tea, she came into the room backwards, and bent over too, out of respect for the men. The men would talk to me of “going to train” in various places, but they seemed so weedy and polite, I couldn’t believe they’d want to kill anyone.

….I found these sessions so intellectually stultifying and claustrophobic that at the end I’d rush into the nearest pub and drink rapidly, wanting to reassure myself I was still in England. It is not only in the mosques but also in so-called “faith” schools that such ideas are propagated. The Blair government, while attempting to rid us of radical clerics, has pledged to set up more of these schools, as though a “moderate” closed system is completely different to an “extreme” one. This might suit Blair and Bush. A benighted, ignorant enemy, incapable of independent thought, and terrified of criticism, is easily patronised.

A Laboratory of Islam

Irfan Hussain writing in The Dawn reminds us that it was General Zia who assured early in his rule that Pakistan would be the laboratory of Islam. This seems to be further strenghtened by some of the laws being passed in NWFP.

Even before this latest manifestation of religious zeal, we had witnessed a series of Talibanesque decisions emanating from Peshawar. Women patients requiring X-rays could not be scanned by male technicians; advertizing posters with women were banned; and video shops were shut down. All these draconian measures were enforced with varying degrees of enthusiasm by civil servants and policemen. Now these (and far fiercer) edicts will be rammed down the populace’s throats by an authority whose decisions cannot be challenged in any court.In Nathiagali, I recently met an old friend who has served as a senior government officer in the NWFP for many years. According to him, the rule of the mullahs has been an unmitigated disaster for his province. No development activities are going on, corruption is rampant, and ordinary people are miserable. And yet, he continued, the MMA will probably get re-elected in the next polls because the opposition parties are in such disarray.

This is on the lines of the situation in Saudi Arabia and the Taliban ruled Afganistan.

As readers are aware, the Saudi religious police routinely beat up or jail anybody seen on the streets at prayer times, and cane women who are showing an inch or two of ankle. In a recent demonstration of religious fervour, they pushed back girls fleeing a blazing hostel into the flames because they were not adequately covered. Several girls died as a result.When in power in Afghanistan, the Taliban went a step further, and decreed that men whose beards were not of a certain length would be punished. Their treatment of women aroused the anger of the civilized world. Not content with brutalizing the living, they destroyed ancient statues for not conforming to their code.

Ayaz Amir, as usual, is more shrill, but does sum up the frustrations of the somewhat right of center inteligentsia (generally modernists with an Army background):

Bin Ladenism, which is a peculiar distillation of Wahabi Islam, and the terrorism which has come to be its favourite tool, are no answers to American domination or Muslim weakness. In fact, Bin Ladenism, with its narrow interpretation of Islam, is itself a reflection of Muslim weakness because it shows a preoccupation with the very elements which constitute the core of Muslim backwardness: a romantic attachment to a glorified past, an emphasis on literalism, and a comprehensive failure to understand what makes the modern world tick.

The answer to Muslim decadence lies in a political renaissance: a replacement of autocracy with democracy. Of course this is easier said than done but if we can’t achieve it there being nothing on the horizon to suggest that we easily can ‘we should at least understand that terrorism such as that in London is no answer to anything. In fact, far from liberating anything, it only makes the Muslim predicament worse by lending strength to the false doctrine of a ‘clash of civilizations’.

While ‘bin Ladenism’ is a descendant of Wahabism, the mutation seems to be in that while Wahabism was a social- poiltical movement, ‘bin Ladenism’ is essentially a political movement marked by anti- Westernism in general and anti- Americanism in particular. At its core is the former, for it was the US administration that propped up the Mujahideen in Afganistan for many years.