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.


(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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Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

19 thoughts on “The Deafening Silence of Dalits in Punjab”

  1. @Jagatheesan: I am amused that the NCSC prefers an English term while the Indian term is ostensibly preferred by ‘Western’ media.
    I personally prefer the word Dalit mainly for its linkage to suppression and also for its somewhat more radical connotation expressed at one time by the Dalit Panthers. I don’t have anything in particular against the phrase ‘Scheduled Castes’ except perhaps that it sounds rather constitutional, bookish- and milder.
    @apurva: The interesting aspect is that despite having the highest percentage of Dalits in any state, there is no dalit movement or assertion worth the name. Almost all studies on Dalits (linked in this post) are by academics with left wing leanings.

  2. it is interesting to learn that ambedkar has sikhism on his radar when he thought of converting from hinduism. he may have plumped for buddhism because he was himself and atheist. he realised that the common dalit could not do without religion and so chose buddhism which is originally atheistic and even after its conversion into a religion has retained much of this atheism. ambedkar in fact redefined the concepts of dukha and nirvana. ultimately i suppose it is the hold of the sikh religion that has prevented independent dalit assertion. but i am sure the bsp will not rest till it does make some headway. it is pumping in funds garnered from its governance in up to ramp up its activities in neighbouring states like mp, haryana and punjab.

  3. @Rahul: One thing, among others, that may have possibly retarded the growth of dalit assertion in the state is the long decade of the 1980s when it remained insulated from rest of India including the emergence of caste assertion particularly in UP and Bihar.

    Besides, I think the BSP has quite a few challenges in Punjab- rampant factionalism, its rapid decadence, as you have indicated, into a money based party (as compared to its days of struggle in the 1980s and 90s)- so the people it attracts are now the same as those that go to the Congress or the BJP/Akalis, the lack of strong intermediate castes which can be potential allies like the backward castes in UP and Bihar (in Punjab it is practically a bipolar situation between the Jats and Dalits in rural areas).

    I have to agree with you that despite its intrinsic flaws, Sikhism has blunted the kind of caste antagonism seen elsewhere in the country.

    The Congress continues to provide opportunities for dalit leaders. It is the Left that could have been the most natural outlet for dalit assertion. But with it’s continuing lack of focus on dalits and its continuing decline in the state (some of it has been because of the BSP), it has floundered terribly. The question that emerges from this situation of the left is: where do the more genuine dalits go- those that used to go to the Left at one time? The BSP is a possible option, but I am not too optimistic.

  4. Just a rhetorical question: why a dalit movement is a must, some sort of necessity lack of which is to be mourned and sorrowed. Presumably if Dalit oppression was blunted by Sikh philosophy, if not absolutely at least comparatively, Dalits might not have felt need for a movement. Punjab have women who are oppresses and violated. There is no “women’s movement” per se. So with Dalits.

    Just like the impact of Sikh inclusiveness, impact of Sufi and Bhakti movement is, perhaps, greater in Punjab than is normally understood, thus further unsharpening the caste conflict. Punjab’s geographical location, in the direct path frequent invaders, may also have enhanced mutual dependence in the face of common, external enemy.


  5. @Harminder: Why is the lack of a movement of landless workers to be mourned? Why is the lack of a feminist movement to be mourned? Why is the lack of a working class movement, of slum dwellers, of the poor in general to be mourned?

    Hope rhetoric has been adequately answered by matching rhetoric 🙂 (Though I am not sure what makes you feel that there is something mournful in the post. )

    More seriously, I find it strange that the founder of the greatest dalit political movement, Kanshi Ram’s own state does not have a dalit organization worth the name. What i have tried to argue is that though Sikhism has blunted caste antagonism, it has not eliminated the basis of the caste system, and in the light of political unrest in the state this is possibly merely postponed.

    >is, perhaps, greater in Punjab than is normally understood,

    I am not sure what is referred to by ‘normally understood’.

    ‘common enemy’: This is relative and different situations may crop up at different times. Remember that 30% of the state’s population that is Dalit owns just 2.3 percent of the land ! Contrast this with the jats’ landholding for which I do not have the figures but you can very well guess if you know Punjab countryside.

    And I am not even touching the aspects of language where caste- as well as patriarchal supremacy is well ingrained.

    Sikh inclusiveness, dominant theme of state politics since mid- 1980s, may not necessarily , last. As Rahul indicates in his comment, the BSP is making all out efforts to make its presence felt outside UP. It may not succeed in Punjab, but is altering the minds- and is perhaps incubating- a dalit intelligentsia as well as fostering an intelligentsia sensitive to the dalit cause.



  7. “The Untouchables (Dalits) of India want economic, social, political, religious and educational equality in Society, not in the eyes of God”
    (Harbans Lal Badhan)

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