Liberation philosophy of guru granth sahib and dalits of punjab


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Liberation philosophy of guru granth sahib and dalits of punjab

  1. 1. Paper for International Conference on "Spiritual Journeys: Aspects of Sikh Studies", 10-12 Jan 2009, Mumbai University Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab (Raj Kumar Hans, M. S. University of Baroda) The generality of brahmanical subordination of Dalits and the severity of untouchability historically depended on the variation of historical experiences of the regions in the Indian subcontinent as determined by their specific geographical makeup. There is a broad understanding, if not complete consensus, among scholars that the Punjab had witnessed a substantial weakening of brahmanical ideology with the emergence and growing strength of religious egalitarian ideological currents and movements such as Islam and Sikh religion. Hence, the pain of untouchability on Dalits was far les severe than compared to other regions of the subcontinent.1 The Nath Yogis, Sufi saints and the Sikh gurus, all, worked towards mitigating untouchability in the Punjabi society. Guru Granth Sahib2 is an inclusive expression of equality and social justice which could be seen as a liberation philosophy3 that gave a definite stamp of defiance to the oppressive structures and orders of the day. But despite such magnificent efforts, it is to be kept in mind that untouchability was never completely eradicated from the lands of the five rivers; the degree of humiliation and oppression kept changing according to the change in the balance of social forces, which was neither linear nor constant. The resources came to be cornered and controlled by the high castes; lower castes in general and Dalits in particular were excluded from all acquisitions, benefits and surpluses. While the first 1 See Harish K Puri, ‘Introduction’ in his Dalits in Regional Context, Jaipur & New Delhi 2004 2 For a scholarly treatment of making of Adi Granth and its journey to Guru Granth Sahib see Gurinder Singh Mann, The Making of Sikh Scripture, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2001 3 This valuable suggestion came from Valerie Kaur in her thoughtful essay “A Liberation Philosophy and Border Thinking” that appeared in Issue No.6, November of Monthly. She introduces the Latin American thought as she opens up her essay: “Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel provides a philosophy of liberation that aims to empower and decolonize marginalized communities. His contemporary, Walter Mignolo, conceptualizes the role of border thinkers, intellectuals who move between dominant and marginalized communities in order to generate a process of intellectual, economic, and social liberation.” She argues that “Latin American and South Asian scholars can understand the development of Sikhism, a Northern Indian religion born in the late 1400s, as a valuable kind of liberation philosophy and an instance of border thinking.” See Monthly Issue No. 6, November 2002 available at
  2. 2. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 2 part of the paper highlights the liberation agenda of Guru Granth Sahib, the second part deals with the historical process where economic and social mechanisms pitched against the religion of liberation to bring back the divisive caste ideas of Brahamanical Hinduism to keep the low castes, especially the dalits in perpetual enthralment. I GURU GRANTH SAHIB is the world’s unique text of spiritual wisdom. It comprises the compositions of the six of the ten Sikh Gurus and contributions of 31 saints and sufis of various social-ethnic-religious backgrounds. This makes the Guru Granth the most inclusive and non- sectarian expression of spirituality in history. Spread over 1,450 pages (its 5,894 verses have been minutely set to 31 classical musical ragas (tones), Guru Granth Sahib seeks to sever the bondage of 'man-made ideologies and systems of thought' and, instead, activate the dormant connection between each of us and the surrounding phenomena of life - as one "thread of life". Instead of giving a dogmatic or absolutist message it seeks to build up spiritual awareness and searching through a life-long process of living and learning for the most liberating, empowered condition of human life.4 Nikky- Guninder Kaur Singh puts it aptly: The Guru Granth provided an excellent example of going beyond particular affiliations and loyalties into the universal basis of religion. "There is One Being, Truth Is Its Name" forms the fundamental principle of Sikh scripture. The Sikh vision of the Ultimate encompasses and transcends all space, time, and gender, and cannot be imaged in any specific form. Such a perception shatters narrow and rigid barriers between peoples and enables an inclusive attitude towards followers from different religious and racial backgrounds.5 Sikh religion with Guru Granth Sahib has been seen as ‘emancipatory’ by Gurnam Singh.6 He is aware of ‘particular complications’ in applying the concept of ‘human emancipation’ to critique Sikh scriptures due to its roots 4 Jagdeesh Singh, Panthic Weekly, 5 “Gurbani in English Translating Celestial Poetry” in Sikh Review, June 2000. Available online at (emphasis in original) 6 “Sikhism’s Emancipatory Discourses: Some Critical Perspectives”, Sikh formations: Religion, Culture, Theory, Vol. 2, No. 2, December 2006, pp. 135-151
  3. 3. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 3 in European culture, language and thought (p. 137). He is also aware of the use of alternative concept of ‘liberation philosophy’ via Valerie Kaur’s formulation about Sikhism’s core as ‘materialised liberation ideology’ (p. 140). His dilemma becomes clear in his concluding remarks: …my journey has made me realise the danger of an uncritical acceptance of the view that Sikhism is indeed a religion whose primary mission, as is often asserted, is to emancipate. This is not to deny the centrality of emancipation to Sikhism, or the integrity of the Gurus’ mission, but to realise that the idea of emancipation itself is contested and multilayered.7 And Gurnam Singh stresses the need to find new tools to understand the message of GGS. One possible way to reach out to the essence, the core of Gurus’ message is to see it as part of ‘philosophy of liberation’ as propounded by Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel. Dussel asserts: Philosophy of liberation is pedagogical activity stemming from a praxis that roots itself in proximity of teacher-pupil, thinker-people. Although pedagogical, it is a praxis conditioned by political (and erotic) praxis. Nevertheless, as pedagogical, its essence is theoretical and speculative. Theoretical action the poietic intellectual illuminative activity of the philosopher, sets out to discover and expose (in the exposition and risk of the life of the philosopher), in the presence of an entrenched system, all moments of negation and all exteriority lacking justice. For this reason it is an analectical pedagogy of liberation. That is, it is the magisterium that functions in the name of the poor, the oppressed, the other, the one who like a hostage within the system testifies to the fetishism of its totalization and predicts its death in the liberating action of the dominated.8 The very word ‘Sikh’ denotes relationship between the Guru (teacher) and Sikh (pupil). And the whole Sikh movement was proximity of thinker-people, an organic relationship between Gurus and people, and at the height of thought, the mergence of the two (aape gur chela). The GGS is magisterial9 that resists all systems of oppression and injustice especially perpetrated on the poor. As it speaks in the name of the low, the poor, the oppressed, GGS envelops the philosophy of liberation. So much so, that Guru Nanak coming from the upper- caste of Khatris identifies completely with the lowest (dalit) of the Indian social order as he says: Neechan andar neech jati, Neechi hun ati neech Nanak tin ke sang sath, Vadian siyon kya rees Jithe neech sanmalian, Tithe nadr teri bakhshish 7 Ibid. p. 149 8 Enrique Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation (translated by Aquilina Martinez and Christine Morkovsky), Orbis Books: Maryknell, New York, 1985, p. 178 9 Mann says it “is treated in such a way as to manifest its royal status within the community. It is always robed in silk or expensive brocade and is displayed on a canopied throne, in a well-lit setting.” Op. cit. p. 133
  4. 4. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 4 (I am the lowest of the low castes; low, absolutely low; I am with the lowest in companionship, not with the so-called high. Blessing of god is where the lowly are cared for.)10 He challenges the Brahmanical dismissal of the low, the untouchable by becoming one with the latter. He destroys the hierarchical systems—social as well as political. To Dussel the “praxis of liberation has been the cause of its unwelcome, its nonacceptance by the system.”11 The Nanakian philosophy, the liberation philosophy, was unacceptable by the religious and political systems right from the beginning. Hence persecutions: first of Nanak, then Arjun, Teg Bahadur and finally of Gobind Singh. These persecutions were symbolic of subversion of the ‘order’ and ‘law’ that reached its climax in the system’s war against Guru Gobind Singh as Dussel puts it: Thus when the oppressed who struggles against the death that the system assigns to him begins through the praxis of liberation the struggle for life, novelty erupts in history "beyond" the being of the system. A new philosophy, a positive one, necessarily makes its appearance. The novelty is not original nor primarily philosophical; it is original and primarily historical and real; it is the liberation of the oppressed. It is secondarily a philosophical theory as a strategic "instrument" or weapon of liberation itself.12 The outcome of such attempts to silence the liberation thought was the eruption of novelty, the ‘weapon of liberation’, the Khalsa. The ‘real’ historical force emerged out of the long gestation of the liberation ‘praxis’ and ‘philosophy’ that not only fully integrated the ‘untouchables’ into the struggle for liberation but succeeded in abolishing the racist practice of untouchability in the Sikh practice. It is another thing that caste and untouchability was to re-enter the body politic of Sikh religion in the changed circumstances of colonial subjugation. II No discourse, no story... No story, none so ever... To them, who were not on the pages of Time [Past]... To them, who are not on the pages of Time [Present]... 10 As cited in Harish K Puri, ‘Scheduled Castes in Sikh Community: A Historical Perspective’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 38, No. 26, June 28-July 4, (2003): p. 2694 11 Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation, p. 180 12 Enrique Dussel, “Philosophy and Praxis (Provisional Thesis for a Philosophy of Liberation)”, John B Brough et. al. ed., Philosophical Knowledge, Catholic University of America, Washington, 1980, 113
  5. 5. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 5 To them, who would be there in Future, must be These are the opening lines of a powerful recent Punjabi story by Maninder Singh Kang.13 The non-dalit writer uses the technique of dream-sequence where he is tormented by Adi Mata (coming in the form of Kali) who claims to be the creator of this world. She thrusts him to write the story of dalits (chuhras), the children of her ‘Innocent Shiva’, whose story has not been written. He seeks Goddess’ permission to confine his looking back at their story only with the foundation of Amritsar, the city he belongs to and knows better.14 The fourth Sikh Guru, Ram Das, the founder of the city, is then seen not only accepting the dalits as Sikhs who approached him but also allocating a patch of land to them that came to be known as Kutti Vehra (Bitchy Habitation) or Kasai Vehra (Butchers’ Colony). The story moves backward and forward in fact and fiction through four centuries emphasising how even after Gurus’ embrace of dalits, the latter continued to be on the margins of Sikhism forcing them to lead a life of wants, squalor, neglect and petty crimes. The story is unusual as it also ends with ‘saar-tatt’ (Essence) as follows: 1. These chuhras (Drawads) had lost both of their gods at the time of Adi Mata’s tormenting the writer. The proud people of Harappa carrying the name ‘chuhras’ had been enslaved by the Aryans, their god Shiva was converted into the god of death and Adi Mata into a blood- drinking Kali. 2. They had been living three thousand years of hellish life when Guru Ram Das sheltered them. The Guru was pained when most of the people had left the ‘langar’ when chuhras were entertained in the community kitchen. 3. When they were accepted in Islam they were handed over butcher’s knives. The Hindu reformers did not go beyond giving them apparently designations of ‘mahashas’ and ‘harijan’. 13 “Kutti Vehra” in HUN: Punjabi Sahit te Sabhiachar da Pratinidh, May-August, 2008, pp. 41-68 (translation mine) 14 Ibid. pp. 46-47
  6. 6. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 6 4. They were not given audience by the Maharaja [Ranjit Singh] during Sikh rule for which reason Mansa Singh, the then dalit priest of Golden Temple, had shut the doors for his residence within the Harimandir complex. 5. The English gave them bible in one hand and dagger in another.15 The purpose of bringing the above story is to highlight a discomfort felt by several conscientious Sikhs belonging to upper-castes. This guilt-feeling is reflected in fictional and non-fictional writings that in their religion which had had a glorious past of Gurus’ struggle to abolish ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ among the Sikhs, something somewhere had gone wrong with the Sikh praxis. That needs to be reworked if a true face of the Sikh liberation philosophy and practice is to be seen. Only reconstruction of historical reality can take us little closer to the untold story of Sikh religion. Contrary to assumptions in the prevalent Sikh history texts, dalits’ embrace of Sikhism had been quite early that became quantitatively significant by the close of the 17th century. Guru Nanak’s life-long spiritual companion was Mardana, a dalit belonging to Mirasi (minstrel) caste. The very fact that chamars who became Sikhs adopted the nomenclature of Ramdasias speaks how they trace their conversion to Guru Ram Das (1534-1581). Gautam, whose son Bhai Paira has been recognised by Bhai Gurdas as ‘Paira jaat Chandalia’, had become Sikh and was very close to Guru Ramdas while Paira and his brother Paraga left Gazni army and became Sikhs with Guru Arjun Dev. Paira’s son Chaupat Rai (Chaupa Singh) had served four gurus since Guru Har Rai and came to write ‘rahitnama’ at Guru Gobind Singh’s instructions. There were several other dalits who also became very close to guru-ghar (the House of Gurus) very early.16 The family of legendry Bhai Jaita (rechristened as Jeevan Singh by Guru Gobind Singh) also formed close ties with guru-ghar. His father, Sada Nand, a great musician, had moved closely with Guru Teg Bahadur while Bhai Jaita’s elder brother, Sangta was a bosom 15 Ibid, p. 68 16 See Naranjan Arifi’s Ranghrehtian da Itihas (Adi kal ton 1850 tak), Part I, Amritsar: Literature House 1993, pp. 203-220
  7. 7. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 7 friend of child Gobind and they used to live and play together. It was the same Jaita who had overwhelmed young Gobind Rai with emotions when he had presented him the severed head of his father, Guru Tegh Bahadar, brought from Delhi to Kiratpur in 1675. While embracing Jaita, Gobind Singh pronounced ‘Ranghrete Guru ke Bete’ (Ranghrete, the untouchables, are guru’s own sons). Jaita had turned out to be a fearless and daring Sikh warrior who had endeared himself so much to the Tenth Guru that he was declared as the ‘Panjwan Sahibjada’ (Fifth Son) in addition to his own four sahibjadas.17 He was killed in a fierce battle with Mughal armies in 1705. Even though he is now given some space in the Sikh iconography, it is hardly known or acknowledged that he was also a scholar poet.18 He had composed a long poem ‘Sri Gur Katha’ which furnishes an eyewitness account of important events surrounding Guru Gobind Singh.19 The Ranghretas/Mazhabis had offered numerically critical support in the Guru Gobind Singh’s battles. So much so that by the mid-eighteenth century when amidst sustained persecutions by the Mughals, the Sikhs organised themselves into five dals (warrior bands) one of these was of Mazhbi/Ranghreta dal under the command of Bir Singh Ranghreta who had 1300-horsemen force. Throughout the 18th century the dalit military force played very important role in consolidating the Sikh power. Most of Akali Nihangs20 were constituted by dalit manpower and they had assumed 17 Recently a renowned Punjabi writer Baldev Singh wrote a long novel Panjwan Sahibjada (Chetna Prakashan: Ludhiana, 2005) on Bhai Jaita alias Jeevan Singh. 18 This space became possible because of the dalit assertion in Punjab. One such dalit Sikh, K. S. Neiyyar who had settled in UK, commissioned the writing of history of Mazhbis (erstwhile untouchable Sikhs) to an eminent Punjabi writer and ‘historian’ Samsher Singh Ashok in 1970s and the result was Mazhbi Sikhan da Itihas, Bhai Chatar Singh Jeevan Singh: Amritsar, 2001, 2nd edition (The first edition was perhaps published in 1980 as per ‘introduction’ by ‘Ashok’ dated 2 November 1979). Chapters 5 and 6 (pp.76-89) were devoted to Bhai Jaita/Jeevan Singh where the author also looks into the process of how Ranghretas became Mazhbis. The dalit assertion made the mainstream authors of Sikh tradition have a fresh look at the past and acknowledge the contribution of dalits to the Sikh tradition. 19 This composition “Sri Gur Katha krit Kavi Baba Jeevan Singh (Bhai Jayata)” is published in Naranjan Arifi’s Ranghrehtian da Itihas (Adi kal ton 1850 tak), Part I, Amritsar: Literature House 1993, pages 396-424. Baldev Singh also gives this poem at the end of his novel Panjwan Sahibjada from 465 to 501pages. 20 Nihang is defined as “‘free from care’, a title of the Akali Sikhs” in A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West frontier Province, Vol III, 1883, Reprinted by language Department, Punjab, Patiala in 1970, p. 169. According to the Glossary “The sect of the Akalis differs essentially from all the other Sikh orders in being a militant organization, corresponding to the Naga or Gosains among the Hindus.” It continues “In their military capacity the Akalis were called Nihang, || or reckless, and played a considerable part in the Sikh history, forming the Shahids or the first of the four dehras.” It further says “Ranjit Singh, after 1823, did much to reduce their power, and the order lost its importance.” Vol III, pp. 9-10
  8. 8. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 8 deadening military power. Even Ranjit Singh used to be careful with them. Though initially he used their power in reducing several places including Srinagar (Kashmir), where many dalits stayed put since then, but eventually he reduced their influence, possibly because of the caste factor as the rising Jatts, and he was one of them, could not see dalits wielding that kind of influence. During his rule only, they got constructed ‘Mazhbi Singhan da Bunga’ quite close to ‘Ramgarhia Bunga’, near ‘Dukh Bhanjan Beri’ in Harimandir Sahib Complex in 1826 by raising Rs 21000/. Later on it was demolished and incorporated in the ‘Guru Ramdas Langar’ building. Mazhbis had their bunga at Taran Taran Darbar Sahib as well.21 The kind of status and prestige the dalits came to raise for them in the tumultuous times of the eighteenth century was quite enviable for any upper-caste Sikhs. Hence, concerted efforts were made to reduce them after the establishment of Ranjit Singh’s rule. Thereafter one sees a gradual hold of brahmanical Sanatan Sikhs over religious institutions of Sikhs that they had come to purge the egalitarian traditions of gurus from religion by the last quarter of the nineteenth century in such a way that what started emerging as record then, thanks to the just emerged press, was taken for the entire history of Sikhs though it had clearly been an ‘invented tradition’. There is no work on Sikh history and tradition in English which has been produced from the dalit history approach22 . Major historical works by W. H. McLeod, J. S. Grewal, Ganda Singh, Khushwant Singh, Pashaura Singh, Harjot Oberoi, Jagjit Singh, Indu Banga, Gurinder Singh Mann, Jeevan Deol, Arvidpal Singh Mandair and Louis Fenech reflect what Webster call the ‘Sikh history approach’23 . Only a few books available, not necessarily by the ‘professional 21 Shamsher Singh Ashok, Mazhbi Sikhan da Itihas (History of Mazhbi Sikhs), Amritsar, 2nd revised ed. 2001, passim but for Bunga’s information page 171; for detailed accounts see Naranjan Arifi, Ranghrehtian da Itihas (Adi kal ton 1850 tak), Part I, Amritsar: Literature House 1993, pages 429-65. Bunga was a lodging place. 22 To John C B Webster “The Dalit history approach is based on two assumptions. The first is that of Dalit agency. In this case, Dalit Sikhs move to centre-stage to become the chief actors in and shapers of their own history; the historian will therefore focus upon them, their views, their struggles, their actions. The second is that a conflict model of society, with caste as not the only but the most important contradiction in Indian society, provides the most appropriate paradigm for understanding their history.” See his “The Dalit Sikhs: A History?” in Tony Ballantyne, ed., Textures of the Sikh Past: New Historical Perspectives, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 138 23 Ibid., p. 133
  9. 9. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 9 historians’, written in Punjabi could be seen as written from the ‘Dalit Sikh approach’.24 While Shamsher Singh Ashok, belonging to non-dalit caste, wrote his history of Mazhbis as commissioned by a dalit Sikh K. S. Neiyyer, settled in London, Naranjan Arifi who was a dalit officer in a central government department wrote his 576 pages first volume of the history of Ranghretas after a great deal of research. He gives us a comprehensive account of early joining of Ranghretas/Mazhbis in the Sikh gurus’ ranks at least very clearly from the period of the 6th Guru Hargobind. Arifi very diligently filters the dalit information from the Sikh writings since late-17th century. In this volume he brings very fascinating details about Ranghretas till mid-19th century by giving them names and voices by highlighting their individual and collective participation in the growth of Khalsa. As long as Sikhs were struggling and sacrificing their lives for the distinct Sikh/Singh identity, the caste distinctions, except of endogamous nature, and untouchability had almost ceased to exist and the eighteenth century period of great upheavals in Punjab could be said to be the best for the consolidation of Gurus’ revolutionary social message when Punjabi dalits played very important role in fighting the Sikh battles not only of survival but of establishment of an independent rule.25 The dalit reinterpretation of the eighteenth century argues in detail how the rising power of Bir Singh Ranghreta who had become very influential commander was put a stop to by the treachery of the Jatt commanders. According to Naranjan Arfi the Sikhs had succeeded in establishing their independence by early 1760s and some 24 Some of these are: Giani Udham Singh, Guru ka Beta: Itihas Shahid Baba Jeevan Singh, Amritsar: Jeevan Lehar, 1968; Hari Singh Nirbhay, Mazhbi Sikhan di Jaddo-jahad, Amritsar: Baba Jeevan Singh Mazhbi Dal, 1975; Shamsher Singh Ashok, Mazhbi Sikhan da Itihas (History of Mazhbi Sikhs), Amritsar, 2nd revised ed. 2001; Naranjan Arifi’s Ranghrehtian da Itihas (Adi kal ton 1850 tak), Part I, Amritsar: Literature House 1993. For general history of dalits of Punjab in the twentieth century see Dr S. L. Virdi, Punjab da Dalit Itihas (Dalit History of Punjab) (1901 ton 2000), Phagwara: Dalit Sahit Academy, Punjab, 2000 25 Jagjit Singh agrees that the Ranghreta/Mazbhis had achieved an eminent place during the ‘Khalsa period’ that lasted 75 years after Guru Gobind Singh’s death. That when warring Sikhs were divided into 5 bands, one was under the command of Bir Singh Ranghreta who was also bestowed standard flag from the Akal Takhat as four others had been. “And, when the revolutionary zeal subsided, the Sikhs from castes, who had previously no hesitation in fraternizing with the Rangretas in the Khalsa Dal, again started discriminating against them in the post-Khalsa period.” See his The Sikh Revolution: A Perspective View, Delhi: Bahri Publications, 1981, p. 205
  10. 10. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 10 of the commanders aspired for their individual supremacies in different parts which Bir Singh was opposed to in keeping with the Guru’s injunction that the power shall lie in the Panth (the Khalsa collectivity). Charat Singh, father of Ranjit Singh and Baba Aala Singh, founder of Patiala state, hatched a conspiracy to invite Bir Singh from Peshawar to Amritsar, treacherously disarmed Bir Singh’s soldiers that they should not pay obeisance at Darbar Sahib with arms and then slaughtering them inside the sacred place in batches of five in which they were advised to move. They also wounded Bir Singh in such a way that he taken as dead and his body was put in a wooden box and thrown into river Beas.26 Thereafter Mazbhis were not allowed any commanding position but their military prowess was used under different Misls as subordinates. And after the consolidation of Ranjit Singh’s rule the dalits came to be treated as badly as they were among Hindus. The caste and untouchability had come to afflict the Sikhs, and afflict them badly in the 19th -20th centuries. There was a slow rise of Sanatan Sikhism, a fine admixture of Brahmanism and Sikhism, in the early nineteenth century which by the close of the century had assumed a vicious form. This is best reflected in an authoritative manual “Khalsa Dharam Sastar’ (1914) of Sanatan Sikhism as quoted below: From Braman to Nai, including Chhippe and Jhivara, all those belong to the fourfold caste system are not allowed to partake food cooked or touched by outcastes. This implies that just as the four Hindu castes can be polluted by the untouchables, similarly in the Sikh Khalsa religion all persons belonging to the four castes can be polluted too. Those Sikhs who belong to the untouchable groups (like the Mazhbi, Rahita and Ramdasia Sikhs) constitute a separate caste. These untouchable castes do not have the right to proceed beyond the fourth step in Sri Amritsar [at the Golden Temple]. Members of the high castes should take care not to mix with persons belonging to the lower castes. If someone seeks to do so he forfeits his claim of belonging to the high castes.27 But such attitudes had already started showing reverse returns. The Sikh Dalits started moving either to Arya Samaj or to Christianity forcing the Sikh reformers to step up efforts to stem the tide. Singh Sabhas had initiated the 26 Ranghrehtian da Itihas (Adi kal ton 1850 tak), Part I, Amritsar: Literature House, 1993, pp. 432-458 27 Harjot Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries, Oxford, OUP, 1994, p. 106
  11. 11. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 11 process and yet the castist attitudes were so deep-seated to make any difference. Press started pushing the cause forcefully. In the editorial entitled “Isaai hon de Karan” (Reasons for becoming Christian) of Punjab Darpan of 10th October 1917, the Sikhs were warned to mend their ways: In the last 8 months 1600 hundred Hindus have become Christians… For this mission, the pastors have relinquished professorships in the Mission colleges as they have also abandoned the comforts of Churches. Compare this with the Sikh community; there are thousands of those baptized Sikhs rendering Gurbani with musical instruments that are called Mazhbis, Ramdasias or Bishth. But high caste Sikhs always oppress these who simply labour for their sustenance…Because these illiterate Sikhs hate them more than they hate Muslims, it is necessary to inspire the Sikh Sardars, Numberdars and Zaildars in the villages to embrace their brethren-in-faith rather than making them the enemies of their religion by rebuking them all the times.28 The growing anxiety about the virus of untouchability among the educated Sikhs is reflected in most of the community oriented newspapers and magazines. One Sewa Singh BA wrote a letter to Khalsa in 1923 under the title ‘One most necessary Duty: for the attention of Chief Khalsa Diwan’ in which he drew attention towards the problem of ‘untouchability’.29 While referring to Arya Samaj he urged the Diwan to shoulder ‘the improvement of untouchable castes’. We get a graphic picture of the concern in Jagat Singh Pardesi’s news filed from Khashab in Shahpur district. He writes: Rehatiyas, Mazhbis and Ramdasias in northern Sargodha have become pray to our practicing untouchability. The rest are also not allowed to drink water from wells…it is strange that the Sikhs allow Muslims to draw water from the wells but these amritdhari Sikhs with 5 Ks are thrown out. Moving from village to village the writer on asking the Sikh brothers the reason of their hatred answered that (i) their ancestors smoke hukkas and ate carrion. (ii) These people carry our garbage on their heads as also they carry away the dead animals. That’s why we hate them….30 The Khalsa of 24th June 1923 published a report on a divan (assembly) about shudhi (purification) at Jallianwala bagh held on 21st June which was devoted only to discuss the agenda of removal of untouchability. Teja Singh Samundari presided over the session. The report says: Sardar Dalip Singh, the Secretary of Divan, while introducing the purpose of the divan said that even now Guru Gobind Singh’s baptised Sikhs who are 28 Punjab Darpan, 10 October 1917 29 Khalsa, 21 Feb 1923 30 Khalsa # 96, 2 May 1923
  12. 12. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 12 called Ramdasia, Mazhbis and Chuhras, are thrown out of langars (community kitchen) and their Prasad is not accepted in the gurdwaras. That’s why today’s divan is organised to find out remedy of this malaise. …. Later on Bhai Mehtab Singh ‘Bir” lamented how due to our indifference hundreds of our so-called untouchable brothers are being swallowed by other religions. He told that 25 Rehatiyas became Aryas in 1903 and after that 10,000 Rehatiyas joined the Arya Samaj.31 It was not only the Arya Samaj which was targeting the untouchables but also the Christian missionaries. The Khalsa of 2nd July 1923 reported ‘A Divan in Gurdaspur’ on 27th June when thousands of Mazhbis had marched as led by Pastor Gordon Sahib to a big ground to listen to the Christian discourses. Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) had despatched its own band of missionaries to the site to counter the Christians. Interestingly one high caste Sikh, Sardar Khazan Singh was facilitating the Mazhbi Sikhs towards conversion. On observing the Christian enthusiasm, the SGPC monitors sent an SOS telegram to the headquarters. Accordingly Mehtab Singh, Teja Singh, Bhag Singh, Secreatry SGPC, and Bhai Labh Singh, Granthi Darbar Sahib swooped on the Christian conference. They forced time to speak from the organisers and promised the assembled Mazhbis to remove their objections. The next day Gurmukh Singh Musafir extracted time to address the gathering but the audience soon started leaving the venue. The report concludes with a lament: Dear Khalsaji, this is the reason of Mazhbis’ moving to Christianity. The untouchability that has drowned Hinduism for such a result and you also don’t allow your brothers to touch your wells. Let us learn a lesson and not allow them to be devoured by these vultures…If you want freedom for yourself, free the others.32 The Sikhs by that time got so lost in the struggle to liberate gurdwaras that the agenda to liberating the minds from brahminical attitudes was set aside. Moreover, the minds were not ready to accept social equality as reality, otherwise who would work for them for free. No wonder, the helpless situation on this count made Bhai Pratap Singh, Head Granthi of Drabar 31 Khalsa # 96, 24 June 1923 32 Khalsa # 96, 2 July 1923
  13. 13. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 13 Sahib to write a treatise on the issue.33 Besides looking into the theological and practical high points against untouchability in the Sikh tradition, Giani summarises the efforts of SGPC for the removal of untouchability between 1921 and 1933. He highlights that (i) now the membership of the Committee is open to all Sikhs without discrimination of high and low and of caste; (ii) all allowed in the community kitchens of SGPC controlled gurdwaras; and (iii) the so-called untouchable Sikhs are now employed in different services inside the gurdwaras. What becomes clear is that the efforts to remove untouchability by the Sikh reformers were not just the result of inner calls. A number of factors resulting from objective conditions were making them think if they had to survive as respectable option for the much harangued Dalits. One of these factors was Dr Ambedkar’s powerful moves to see a dignified life for Dalits. In 1936, when Dr Ambedkar was trying to see the religious alternative for Dalits in Sikhism, the Akali papers became more sensitive to the issue. Sardar Amar Singh, Secretary, Shri Guru Singh Sabha Shillong (Assam) wrote two articles on ‘The Need of Sikhi Preaching among the Untouchables and Some Suggestions for That’ in ‘Khalsa Sewak’ 17th and 22nd March 1936.34 Master Mota Singh wrote a scathing article ‘Khalsa Brotherhood and Gurdwara Elections: Existence of Caste as the bigger cause of Community’s Death’. On the scenes of elections he wrote rather with anger: “There was vanity, jealousy and ego clashes all around. Vote-seeking agents did not have anything to sell except the commodity of caste. Caste names as Saini, Jutt, Rore(for Aroras), Tarkhan (carpenter), Chamar etc were being used quite derogatorily. How can you expect a social and community reform from Shrimoni Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee whose recruitment is on the caste lines.”35 In the editorial of ‘Khalsa Sewak’ of 7th March 1936, it is mentioned that it is known that Dr Ambedkar has been writing letters to SGPC but the Committee is not replying with any satisfaction. It wrote with 33 Bhai Pratap Singh, Jaat Paat te Chhut-Chhaat sambandhi Gurmat Sidhant [Gurus’ Principles about Caste System and Untouchability], Amritsar: SGPC, 1933 34 Khalsa Sewak, 17 and 22 March 1936 35 Khalsa Sewak’, 3 March 1936
  14. 14. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 14 sarcasm that “With all this the Sikhs are so indifferent that they would not lag behind boasting of their reforms on paper, it is just a show, but in practice not a single step forward has been made.”36 The charge was not without substance. All the big talks were just being used for the vested interests of the powerful power brokers. ‘Khalsa Sewak’ reported in its 26 March 1936 edition that a conference was organised at village Bham in Gurdaspur district under the aegis of Baba Jeon Singh Dal where SGPC members had reached and 70 people were baptised. Among several lectures against untouchability, Bhai Teja Singh Akarpuri also spoke forcefully. After the conference, a dalit boy was asked to serve a glass of milk to Teja Singh. He got very angry and said that “I have been insulted for being served milk in Chuhra’s glass.” The fellow retorted: “You say something and do something else.” Teja singh immediately fled the scene.37 The title of an article ‘Solve the caste Question: Only then the Community can Thrive – No one should commit a mistake of raising the caste issue” by Man Singh Khalsa BA in ‘Khalsa Sewak’ of 12th March 1936 speaks for itself.* The discussion in this section fairly highlights the gravity of situation among Sikhs as for as the question of untouchability is concerned and even in the moderating twentieth century. It has been a structural malaise whether determined by economy or society; the power relations defined the relations of domination and subjugation. The command over resources had been so dear to the high castes and upper classes that they did not want to give any relaxation to the people at their mercy. Demoralising the Dalits by constant insults, humiliations and deprivation ensured almost free labour supply. The Sikh mind was not ready for the egalitarianism to act as an agent of change to thwart its own class interests. So, in the face of mounting pressures in the first half of the 20th century, half-hearted measures at the level of rhetoric were shown to be taken but in reality the situation remained as grim for Dalits as it was in the 19th century. 36 Khalsa Sewak’, 7 March 1936 37 Khalsa Sewak’, 26 March 1936
  15. 15. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 15 As ‘caste’ and its resultant inhuman practice ‘untouchability’ have been the cardinal principle of Brahmanical ideology and the central pillar of social order any individual, organisation or ideology questioning was always seen as enemy and all efforts were made to finish the challenge. Barstow put it pithily: Hinduism, to its wonderfully assimilative character, had thus reabsorbed a good part of Sikhism, as it had absorbed Buddhism before it, notwithstanding that much of these religions is opposed to caste and the supremacy of the Brahmans.38 Bhagat Lakshman Singh (1863-1944), a Sikh scholar and intellectual, who was the newly convert to Sikhism believed that the Sikh creed was ‘Hinduised’ after the establishment of Sikh rule. The high caste Hindus had made advances for reconciliation with the new power and a compromise was effected by which the Sikhs abandoned their ‘revolutionary programme’. Sikhism began to lose its distinct identity.39 He especially talks of Brahmans’ ‘peculiar aptitude for adapting themselves to changed conditions.’ In the days of Buddhism they had become its Bhikshus only to leave when Buddhism declined. “In more recent times in our own province, when political power passed into the hands of the Sikhs, they did not find it difficult to discard their temples and idols, their yagyopavit and other paraphernalia, wore Keshas [uncut hair] and dastars (turbans) and became custodians of Sikh places of worship and interpreters of Sikh scriptures.”40 Khushwant Singh is also objective on this central question: Sikhism did not succeed in breaking the caste system.... The untouchable converted to Sikhism remained an outcaste for purposes of matrimonial alliances... and Sikhs of higher castes refused to eat with untouchable Sikhs and in villages separate wells were provided for them. Within a hundred years of Guru Gobind Singh’s death, ritual in Sikh gurdwaras was almost like that in Hindu temples, and more often than not was presided over by priests who were usually Hindu rather than Sikh. Sikhs began to wear caste marks; Sikh weddings and funerals followed Hindu patterns; ashes of the dead were carried to the Ganges and offerings were made to ancestors.41 38 Barstow, The Sikhs, 1928, p. 19 39 J. S. Grewal, Contesting Interpretations of the Sikh Tradition, Delhi: Manohar, 1998, p.71 40 Autobiography, p. 192 41 The Sikhs, pp. 45-46
  16. 16. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 16 The dalit voices are more clear and vociferous about ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ in Sikhism. Pandit Bakshi Ram who was born in a Balmiki family towards the close of the 19th century recalls in his autobiography how untouchability was rampant and how because of this the dalits could neither seek education nor were acceptable for a public service. It was only on his father’s approaching the Lahore court that schools were opened for dalits in 1905. He narrates two incidents from his village how the dalit Sikhs were treated by the dominant Jatt Sikhs. Once, a Rahitia (dalit Sikh) boy on drawing water from the school well was beaten up by the Jatt boys. Another time, when the Rahitia marriage party used the village pond for cleaning their backs in the morning they were thoroughly beaten up by the Jatts.42 “Untouchability has become deep-rooted in the Jatt-dominated villages. Isn’t practicing caste and untouchability against gurmat (Gurus’ message)? In fact the Guru says “Khalsa is my image as I reside in the Khalsa”.43 Saying that how after Independence the Jatts have come to completely control the politics and economy in Punjab and oppose the dalits’ demands he argues: “If Jatt Sikhs demand higher prices for their produce don’t the labourers have right to demand higher wages? And if the latter struggle for their right the former boycott them. Isn’t it a height of injustice? If Akalis have their morchas (pickets) for their demands why can’t dalits exercise their right to raise their demands?44 Prem Gorkhi, an eminent Punjabi short-story writer, who graduated from a day-labourer to peon to a ‘respectable journalist’, has bitter experiences. He says: “I have seen that if Punjabi writers are intimate friends they also carry deep casteist ideas within... I have close relations from high to the low...they respect as well...I go to everyone’s house, eat and sleep there...but over taking sides on any vital issue, the cobra within would spread its fangs.... There is no drastic change in the caste situation from what it was a hundred year ago...only the ways of untouchability have changed. Today if you eat in the same plate, you also kill the same person—and whom you call dalit today 42 Mera Jeevan Sangarsh, p. 4 43 Ibid. p. 96 44 Ibid. p. 99
  17. 17. Raj Kumar Hans: Liberation Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib and Dalits of Punjab 17 is not a century-old thoughtless, egoless, without identity. He has reached a stage to decide for himself what is of good to him.”45 Conclusion: It is not sufficient to view Guru Granth Sahib just as a ‘unique’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘emancipatory’ sacred text. Going beyond these expressions and seeing it as a ‘liberation philosophy’ has potential to see in it the recordings of Indian renaissance as it also incorporates writings of great liberationist saints, viz. Nāmdev (1270-1350), Ravidas (1399-1527), Kabir (1498- 1518), and others, independent of the much valorised the western/European renaissance. The Sikh gurus consolidated the liberation philosophy by socially institutionalising the liberation thoughts, born out of social and political praxis. The caste and varna differences came to be done away with in the institutions of sangat (mixed congregation) and pangat (eating food, langar, sitting in a row without any discrimination) and Guru Granth Sahib was given as a permanent reminder to those liberation thoughts. This provides the scholars an opportunity to delinking the Indian past from the Brahmanised and Eurocentric history. Historically the evolution of Sikh panth into an organised religion had paradoxical results. If in its formative stage, it had practical liberating results of integrating dalits into its fold by abolishing untouchability, as an organised ‘religion’ it also slipped into sham ritualism against which gurus had vociferously spoken and fought. The dominant Sikh upper-castes brought back ‘caste’ and untouchability for their own class interests. Even when the Sikh religion came to be salvaged from the danger of being engulfed by the brahmanical leviathan called Hinduism in the last century it still awaits its real renaissance by adhering to the true liberation philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib as the sacred text offers immense possibilities of re-imagining the Indian past and re-visioning its future. 45 Prem Gorkhi, “Dhukhdi Dhooni Pharolani Payee” (Searching from Smoldering Ambers) written as a letter to editor Prem Prakash published in the ‘Caste-Community special Issue’ of Lakeer (a literary quarterly), # 52, Jan-March 1995, pp. 23-29