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Fire At Vienna Exposes Ugly Realities Of
Caste Discrimination In Punjab

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

28 May, 2009

Punjab is burning. The Dalits are at the street. The government is seeking peace and every one is amused why the Dalits have taken to the street. Some are amused as why attack on Sant Niranjan Dass, head of Dera Guru Ravidas Sachkhand Balan and death of Sant Ramanand could spark such violent protest in Punjab. Unfortunately, they forget to understand the first question itself as why such Deras face attack by the fundamentalist Sikh groups. Is it because these Deras have provided a glimpse of hope and identity to a massive Dalit population in Punjab? Is it also not true that these Deras are also giving the upper caste Sikhs a run for their money and power?

Problem is in our perception about Punjab as a casteless society where Sikhism grew. The fact is that inspite of great preaching in the Guru Granth Saheb and their own sacrifices, the leadership that emerged in Punjab is upper caste dominated feudal Sikhs. And they have used the Gurudwaras for their political purposes. The Dalits were just not wanted in these Gurudwars. After the Ravidasis and Majahabis also started creating their own temples, the problem started growing. The slogan of ‘Guru Ravidas Mahraj ki Jai’ reverberate in these Gurudwaras and perhaps that is considered to be a challenge to mainstream Sikhism. It’s the question of identity. It is unfortunate that like Churches, Gurudwaras are also caste based. Once I happen to travel to Uganda and found that there was Gurudwaras for Ramdasis, for Jat Sikhs and for Ravidasis. It clearly means that despite converting to other religions and leaving your country, Indians are deeply rooted in their caste prejudices and have every power to demolish the powerful preaching of Gurus. When the preaching of the great people become issue of identity by their community people, the oppressed would also search for the similar identities and Punjab and elsewhere, the Dalit’s quest for identity can not be negated and discounted. Interestingly, the ‘experts’ from Punjab rarely brought this facts out how the agrarian community of upper caste Sikhs in Punjab has developed deep rooted prejudices and contempt towards the Dalits and the marginalized.

Punjab, they say, represent India’s pride, a state that changed us from a food importing country to a food sufficient country. Punjab, the state of green revolution, though many of us always questioned this. Yet, long back, I mentioned in one of my long notes that Punjab’s green revolution actually strengthened the feudal values. Feudalism is not just enemy of egalitarian values but thoroughly against nature and environment. Today, the beautiful land of Punjab have no water ( water level has depleted) and the mustered field have been replaced for cash crops and big wedding points and shopping malls which show the ‘growth’ rate of Punjab.

While none can condone the violence and burning of trains, the fact is, this incident in Vienna has happened at a time when we are still analyzing our poll results. Our national and international media suggested that India is now looking forward for a ‘progressive’ government, and that the current verdict was against ‘regionalism’, and casteism. Paradoxically, just a few days back, in the review committee meeting of World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia, the international agencies, civil society organizations, governments failed to address the issue of caste. Despite much hype created in Durban about the discrimination based on caste, the government of India ensured that nothing happens on this front.

But then old habits die hard. Those, whose lives have been based on purity of castes, do not really change even when they go abroad. Those who believe in superiority of a particular race do not change even staying in countries where they enjoy freedom and civil liberties. Two most important and visible communities of India in abroad are from Gujarat and Punjab. Both these states are supposed to be growing with a growth rate more than our central figures. Both these states are fantastic for ‘investors’ and are providing ‘stable’ governments yet they are far behind the national figure of male female ratio. While the Muslims in Gujarat are still far boycotted and Dalits completely on the margins in the absence of a popular Dalit movement there, in Punjab the situation is different. Sikhism was actually a way of life which revolted against the caste hierarchies. Guru Granth Saheb is perhaps the only holy book where you have ‘sabad’ and kirtans of different Sufi Saints including Kabir, Ravidas, Dadu, Nanak and Jaisi. Yet, like every other revolution, the Sikkhism itself became victim of the hierarchical system as the Jats hijacked the social justice agenda of Sikhism. The agenda then turned to Sikh identity ignoring the demands and assertions of the Dalits, mostly the Majhabis and Ravidasis.

Punjab has the highest percentage of Dalit population (27%) and yet despite good economic changes, Dalits are discriminated by the Jats in not only Punjab but elsewhere. Unfortunately, in the name of minority rights, these Jaat Sikhs gets away with everything and turn violent. None of us can forget the case of Baant Singh, a Majahabi Sikh, whose hands and legs were chopped off by the powerful Jats because he objected to molestation of his daughter and raised the voice against discrimination in the Manasa region of Punjab. Ironically, Punjab did not burn then.

I have been involved in a similar fight for the Dalit rights in the Uttarakhand state’s Tarai where over 150 families of landless Dalits have not been able to get their land rights for over last twenty year despite favorable verdict from every court of the country including Supreme Court. Even when the Lokayukta of Uttarakhand found that contempt of the court verdict has been made by the authorities. The land grab by this powerful Jat Sikhs in the Tarai belt is well known to be described here. And who are the victims; it is predominantly the Dalits and tribal. The Tharus and Boxas are still tilling their own land as bonded labour. The Akalis and all the political parties actually tried to raise the issue of discrimination against Sikhs but the same time forget when they themselves discriminate against some one else.

The massacre in Vienna, as some Austrian papers wrote, is the sign of dirty side of Indian social system. Despite our government and intellectual hiding their misdeeds, caste is a reality in this country and Dalits at the receiving end. It is not therefore strange that the reports coming from Vienna blame the Ravidasis for ‘denigrating’ the Guru Granth Saheb. To justify a murder we make statement. Every fundamentalist create a situation to ensure that his viewpoint look rational. A dynamic way of life like Sikkhism could easily become victim of the caste hierarchies reflect that the Indians as a society become a follower of a person not because of his or her ideals but because of the birth based identity. Therefore, we end up respecting the person for being one among us and ‘preaching’ certain gospel and doing miracles in their names. A revolutionary therefore is brahmanised and converted into a money minting machine for the greedy leaders who make big business in the name of religion. This is true about every one. Religion has become the biggest threat to world peace and the sooner people understand the thugs doing business in the name, the better for the world peace. A revolutionary like Bhagat Singh, who wrote against religion and caste and had the courage to shave off his beard and hair, thus become symbol of ‘Jaat’ ‘pride or simply ‘ Chhora Jaat da’. When such things happen the Dalits would automatically opt for Udham Singh, a martyr who died for the cause of the country. Obviously, the mischief makers will create such divide based on caste for their own purposes leaving people fight. That unfortunately happened in Vienna.

That Sikkhism in Punjab is closely associated with power politics particularly as Akalies have used the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee ( SGPC) for their own purposes. The Gurudwaras help them control the sentiments of Sikh community. It is rare that this SGPC could ever come out against the caste based violence and caste system. If the caste based love affair meet with the worst form of action from the ‘grieved’ parents, it reflect to the very idea of society that exist in Punjab and how they inherit it elsewhere. The number of ‘honored killing’ or what could be suggested as ‘shameless killing’ by the Indian Diaspora, predominantly the Sikhs from Punjab reflects the ugly side of our growth pattern. Growth in term of economy can not really make a country great. Punjab’s caste discrimination actually reflect its ugly side that despite all this hoopla about Punjabiat, there is a darker side often hidden by our media and intellectuals.

There is no doubt about the fact the Sikhism was initially meant to demolish the caste system and idol worshipping. Guru Nanak’s message was universal and none can deny the important role that Gurudwaras played in social mobilization. It is an example. There is also little doubt that Punjab was better off then many other states in India in terms of violence against the Dalits. There was no brahmanical hegemony and Sikhism itself is a great way of life. But Punjab’s problem started with mixing of Sikhism with political agenda by various political parties. When SGPC become a part to control minds of people, then one can imagine the condition of the society.

One would have imagined that powerful movements like that of Nanak’s would have demolished the caste structure in Punjab. But contrary to that spirit, the caste discrimination grew because of feudal values. Punjab’s prosperity is because of the Dalit labour work harder in Punjab. The influence of Sufism in Punjab was tremendous and finding caste discrimination rampant the Majhabis and Ravidasis started their Deras and sects. And today the number of these Deras are over 300 in entire state.

Punjab’s Dalits mostly wanted to fight a religious battle through religiosity. Revolutionary Sufi saint Ravidas wrote “ Paradhinata paap hai, jaan lehu re meet, ravidas das pradhin se kaun karre hai preet’ meaning, please understand that enslavement is sin, Saint Ravidas says,who loves an enslaved person. Now such a person who talks of freedom. He says that those who studied Vedas were called Pandits ( Knowledgeable) and those who make your shoes were called Chamars. How can you divide one human race into so many caste and Varnas?

Ravidas attacked the brahmanical system and the Dalits in Punjab got liberation in his spiritual values. Many of the Ravidasis shifted to Europe and America and have actually followed the same pattern as the SGPC and other upper caste Sikhs in Punjab. When money floats a lot and not much to work, you only develop empty institutions for the purpose of religious change. Punjab’s religious sects are more spiritual in nature and have rarely helped the Dalits to get out of the Hindu varna fold. And therefore, the Dalits gets agitated on the issues when the religious leaders face threat or attacked which is absolutely right, yet the same people do not get agitated when their rights are not honored, when their daughters are discriminated and molested. It is the question one has to address.

I always wonder why Chamars, one of the most enlightened communities among the Dalits could get political wisdom in Uttar-Pradesh yet remain on the margin in Punjab despite better economic status. The answer was clear that in Uttar-Pradesh, despite poverty, they embraced Ambedkar’s methods of fighting a battle politically. In Punjab, it is still a spiritual battle for getting recognition. It is still the concentration of one sect and one cult and without much social change. The focus there have been more on more institutions, temples, charitable causes a clear pattern of the Sikhism which always believed in charity. Ofcourse, charity do not grant you right and in fact some time takes them away from you. Hence the issue of Punjab’s Dalit’s identity can not really get resolved through controlling Gurudwaras but in more enlightened political battle.

In the morning, I spoke to a friend in Punjab. I thought he was much agitated on the issue but then found that he did not belong to the same sect and hence he was not very happy with current turn of events. Punjab’s Dalits are powerful enough to give the powerful people a run for their money. Economic changes have given them a lot of things but they will have to understand that they will only be helping the status quoists if they do not raise their issues on a broader political front. Just using the spiritual battle will take you nowhere. One can understand that as long as the Jaat Sikhs will have their leadership from the powerful SGPC, the Deras will continue to provide alternative to Dalits. The incidents in Vienna are not isolated. It is basically to control the Sikh mind. Such incidents are not happening suddenly. Prejudices are being played by the political masterminds.

Not many years ago we saw the incidents to control Gurudwara in Talhan, in Jullandhar. As the Dalit’s assertion will try to match the upper caste power in Punjab, these issues will continue to threaten peace and harmony. The upper caste Sikhs seems to be deeply concern of the growing power of the Ravidasis and Majahabis, particularly those living abroad. The control is coming through the NRI money and therefore it is important for them to teach a lesson. Charges are leveled against Ravidasis that they disrespect the Gurugranth Saheb. It is absolutely false as I have attended their congregations in Punjab and found them extremely well versed in the Granth Saheb and respecting it. It is another matter that they recite the verses of Ravi Das also and there is nothing wrong in that. However, the real fear of those who disagree with the Ravidasis is their cry and matching power with the upper caste Sikhs. Like the statues of Ravidas Maharaj in the Gurudwara is a matter of heart burn for many of the upper caste Sikhs but then why should they have a problem with that. If you do not allow them to your Gurudwaras and if the Churas and Chamars (Punjabi Dalit writer Balbir Madhopuri’s autobiography clearly mention how the upper Caste Gurudwaras discriminated against the Dalits) continue to be treated like animals and discriminated against then these Deras would always provide them a strength. The Sikh leadership which predominantly hails from the upper caste background need to start a process of reconciliation and it will not work by calling a meeting of the upper caste parties. Punjab’s problem is the increasing gap between the Sikhs and the Dalit Sikhs. The Sikh leadership has failed to realize this issue and became equally brahmanical in nature therefore ignoring the vast interests of the Dalits in Punjab. Punjab’s Dalit need sharing in power and respect at every forum. Such threat as emerged from Vienna which tried to eliminate the spiritual leadership of Dalit will only anger them and create a further wage between the two communities which will end in clashes and fragile peace in Punjab, perhaps more dangerous than what we saw in the height of violence in Punjab in 1980s.

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