Making Sense of Dalit Sikh History


Author – Dr. Raj Kumar Hans

Growing out of the powerful, anticaste sant tradition of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in northern India, the Sikh variant of Guru Nanak (1469–1539) and his successors evolved into an organized religious movement in Punjab in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It became a rallying cry for the untouchables and members of “lower castes” that they be allowed a respectable social existence. As a young, vibrant religion of the subcontinent, the Sikh religion has witnessed high and low points in its journey of five hundred years. So have the Dalits of Punjab, who joined it in great numbers in the seventeenth century and found dignity and equality within its egalitarian fold. But in the process of its growth and expansion in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, its body politic came to be afflicted by casteism and untouchability from which the great gurus had tried to extricate its followers.

Being a religion of the book from within the Indian tradition, Sikhism has received worldwide scholarly attention in the last hundred years. Whether due to the strong doctrinal position of egalitarian Sikhism or the hegemony of the dominant Jatt Sikh caste, whose members have also been the focus of academic work, the issues of caste and untouchability within Sikhism’s history have received scant attention. The remarkable contribution of Dalits to the Sikh tradition has been missing from the mainstream Sikh discourse.

Naranjan Arifi, a nonprofessional Dalit Sikh historian writing in the Punjabi vernacular, laments the discriminatory attitude of Sikh historians. “If the Sikh historians had honestly and impartially recorded history from the point of view of history writing,” he writes, “today’s general readers would not have been confused on several issues.” Arifi is convinced that “Sikh history needs to be rewritten from the start without bringing in miracles and magic so as to give a scientific and analytical orientation to history.”(Naranjan Arifi, Ranghrehtian da Itihas (Adi kal ton 1850 tak), Part I, Amritsar: Literature House, 1993, 13)

This article first deals with the great attraction of Sikhism for Dalits—that is, its egalitarianism. Second, it covers the forgotten facets of Dalits—their glorious moments, their heroes, and their achievements—within the Sikh tradition. Last, it discusses the emergence of the Hindu caste system, particularly the practice of untouchability, within the Sikh tradition and the setbacks and resultant sufferings of Dalit Sikhs.

Egalitarianism and Caste Hierarchy in Sikhism

The conversion of large numbers of Dalits to Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism amounts to a search for equality and human dignity that had been anathema to Hinduism. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar believed that bourgeois nationalism, republicanism, and traditional Marxism did not provide any satisfactory solution to the problem of caste and untouchability. He, therefore, turned to religion for sustained relief. Before Ambedkar turned to Buddhism, he had considered the option of embracing Sikhism along with his followers, thereby opening the same path for Dalits of the subcontinent. Being a notable intellectual of twentieth-century India, he carefully weighed the implications of such a move in contrast to turning to other non-Hindu religions. He was aware of the strong anti-Brahmanical principles and practices of Sikh religion.

Following a “pedagogical” device for Sikhism, the very word “Sikh” denotes the relationship between the guru (teacher) and the Sikh (pupil). And the whole Sikh movement was the proximity of thinker-people, an organic relationship between the gurus and their followers. At the pinnacle of Sikh thought, the merger of the two (aape gur chela) achieves a radical position within the Indian tradition. J. P. S. Uberoi puts it aptly in the case of the last guru, Gobind Singh (1666–1708): ‘The tenth guru of the Sikhs . . . became in effect the disciple of his disciples at the new revolutionary moment of reversal, inversion and reflection of the leader/follower relation.” (J. P. S. Uberoi, Religion, Civil Society and the State: A study of Sikhism, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996, 74)The pedagogy of liberation epitomized in Guru Granth Sahib also turns out to be “magisterial” in the sense that it 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, the text envelops the philosophy of liberation. It does this so completely that Guru Nanak, coming from the upper caste of Khatris, identifies completely with the lowest of the Indian social order, Dalits:

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.

The Sikh guru embraced untouchables by distinctly aligning himself with them to challenge the Hindu caste system. He destroyed the Hindu hierarchical systems—social as well as political. The subversion of the system reached its climax in the creation of Khalsa by the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, in 1699. 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 also succeeded in abolishing the inhuman practice of untouchability in the Sikh practice. It is another thing that untouchability was to re-enter the body politic of the Sikh religion in the mid-eighteenth century and fully corrupt it in the nineteenth century.

By practicing what they preached, the gurus became the exemplars of their message. Guru Nanak felt that the real cause of the misery of the people was the disunity born of caste prejudices. To do away with caste differences and discords, he laid the foundation of sangat (congregation) and pangat (collective dining). Thus, all ten of the gurus took the necessary steps to eliminate the differences of varna and caste. No special places were reserved for people of high rank or caste. The pangat institution, in particular, was encouraged and strengthened by Guru Amar Das. He insisted that everyone partake of simple food when coming for sat sangat (holy congregation).

We get direct testimony from Bhai Jaita (c.1657–1704), a legendary Dalit Sikh, in his epic poem Sri Gur Katha, which was composed after the Khalsa formation and before his death in 1704. Bhai Jaita was rechristened as Jiwan Singh, after the creation of “Khalsa,” a new identity of Sikhs conferred by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. He says that Guru Gobind Singh’s Sikhs do not recognise baran (varna) and jaat (caste) distinctions but considers only good deeds as good baran.

Now listen to the rahit of the Singhs,

The Singh should pray to God keeping the war in mind.

When a victim and a needy person beseeches help;

Forgetting his own, a Singh should remove others’ suffering.

Not keeping in mind differences of high and low caste,

The Singh should consider all humans as children of God.

Abandoning the Brahmanical rituals and customs,

The Singh should seek liberation by following the gurus’ ideas.

(Giani Nishan Singh Gandiwind, Shaeed Baba Jiwan Singh: Jeevan, Rachna te Viakhia, Amritsar: Bhai Chatar Singh Jeevan Singh, 2008, 181)

Dalit Initiatives in Sikhism

As most literature on Sikh history and religion has failed to take account of the Dalits, John Webster’s pioneering formulation on the “Dalit history approach” is quite instructive. According to him, “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 and shapers of their own history; the historian will therefore focus upon them, their views, their struggles, and 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 or understanding their history.”(John C. B. Webster, “The Dalit Sikhs: A History?” in Tony Ballantyne, ed., Textures of the Sikh Past: New Historical Perspectives, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007,132-154.)

There is no work on Sikh history and tradition in English that has been produced from the Dalit history perspective. Major historical works reflect what Webster calls the “Sikh history approach.” Only a few books available in Punjabi (Gurumukhi) language—not all of which are by professional historians—can be seen as written from the “Dalit Sikh approach.” While denouncing the established histories as nothing but high-caste histories, S. L. Virdi stresses the need for a Dalit history: “India needs such a history that germinates revolutionary consciousness for social change because history plays a very significant role in this respect. Society assumes a character and shape as moulded by its history. From this perspective, Dalit history has a very important role. ‘Dalit history’ is another name for ‘revolution’ in Indian society.”(S. L. Virdi, Punjab da Dalit Itihas (1901 ton 2000), Phagwara: Dalit Sahit Academy, Punjab, 2000, xxxi-ii)

While Shamsher Singh Ashok wrote his history of the Mazhabis—commissioned by K. S. Neiyyer, a Dalit Sikh settled in London—Naranjan Arifi, a Dalit officer in the revenue department of the Punjab government, wrote a bulky volume on the history of Dalit Sikhs after a great deal of research. He gives us a comprehensive account of Ranghretas or Mazhabis joining the Sikh fold as early as the period of the fifth guru, Arjun (1563-1606). Arifi very diligently extracts Dalit information from the Sikh writings available since the early eighteenth century. In this volume he provides fascinating details about Ranghretas up till the mid-nineteenth century, giving them the names and voices and highlighting their individual and collective participation in the growth of the Khalsa.(Shamsher Singh Ashok, Mazhbi Sikhan da Itihas, Amritsar, 2nd revised ed. 2001)

The fact that a large number of Dalits, seeking liberation from discrimination and degradation, had joined and secured respectable status within the Sikh order was exemplified by the gurus’ special relations with some of the Dalit families. One notable Dalit family was that of Bhai Jaita. His great-grandfather, Bhai Kaliana of Kathunangal Village, near Amritsar, is said to have converted to Sikhism during Akbar’s time. Intimate ties of his family to the gurus motivated Jaita to carry the severed head of Guru Teg Bahadur under the most violent circumstances from Delhi to Anandpur in 1675. Overwhelmed with emotions, the young Gobind Singh, the tenth guru (1666–1708), had embraced Bhai Jaita with this blessing: “Ranghrete guru ke bete” (The untouchables are the Guru’s own sons). Jaita emerged as a fearless Sikh warrior who so endeared himself to the tenth guru that he was proclaimed by the guru as the panjwan sahibjada (fifth son), in addition to the guru’s own four sons. It is at the time of the creation of the Khalsa in 1699 that Bhai Jaita was rechristened as Jeevan Singh. He was killed in a fierce battle with Mughal armies in 1704 at Chamkaur.

Bhai Jaita remained neglected to such an extent that it was hardly known to let alone acknowledged that he was also a scholar poet. He had composed a long poem, Sri Gur Katha, mentioned above, that provides an eyewitness account of important events surrounding Guru Gobind Singh.  It is only with the recent emergence of Dalit Sikh scholarship that a body of literature has begun to be built up around Bhai Jaita in attempts to recover Dalit Sikh pasts. The way Bhai Jaita had been integrated not only into Sikh religion but also into the family of Guru Gobind Singh makes it understandable that any other identity would have been meaningless to him. His identity as a Ranghreta had been subsumed by his identity as a Sikh, as he says: “O Jaita, the savior guru has saved the Ranghretas. The pure guru has adopted Ranghretas as his sons.”

The numbers of Dalits who became Sikhs can be gauged from their presence in Guru Gobind Singh’s army. Arifi gives interesting details about some leading Dalit warriors, and some of them were also among Guru Gobind Singh’s fifty-two court poets. The notable among them were Kavi Dhanna Singh Ghai, Aalam Singh, Dhakkar Singh, Dharam Singh, Garja Singh, Man Singh, and Nigahi Singh. By the mid-eighteenth century, when—amid sustained persecutions by the Mughals—the Sikhs organized themselves into five dals (warrior bands), one of these was composed entirely of Mazhabis or Ranghretas under the command of Bir Singh Ranghreta, who had raised a force of 1,300 troopers.

After the death of Guru Gobind Singh, Banda Bahadur (1670–1716), whom the guru had sent from Maharashtra to save the Sikhs from the Mughal oppression in Punjab, succeeded in mobilizing Sikhs to fight against Mughal governors. Muhammad Shafi Warid, the contemporary Persian writer talks of the levelling effects of Banda Bahadur’s policies after the victory of Sirhind: “After the slaying of Wazir Khan, Banda Bahadur laid down that of Hindus and Muslims, whoever enrolled among his Sikhs, should be one body and take their meal together so that the distinction in honour between the lowly and the well-born was entirely removed and all achieved mutual unison, acting together. A sweeper of spittle sat with a raja of great status, and they felt no hostility to each other. . . . If a lowly sweeper or cobbler (chamar), more impure than whom there is no caste (qaum) in Hindustan, went to attend on that rebel [Banda], he would be appointed to govern his own town and would return with an order (sanad) of office of government in his hand.”(“Banda Bahadur and his Followers from Muhammad Shafi “Warid”, Mirat-i-Waridat”, translated by Irfan Habib in Grewal & Habib, Sikh History from Persian Sources, New Delhi: Tulika, 2001, 161-62)

The trend continued throughout the eighteenth century, as noted above. The strength of Dalits in the Sikh Panth and Ranjit Singh’s army was considerable. We have an account of the Sikhs in Ghulam Ali Khan’s history of the eighteenth-century north Indian state of Awadh, written in 1808. He says: “Finally, now [1808 ad] the whole country of Punjab up to the At-tock River [Indus] and this side up to Multan, and from the banks of Sutlej to Karnal . . . is in the possession of this sect. Their leaders of high dignity are mostly from the lower classes, such as carpenters, shoemakers and Jats. In addition to the army, which they call dal, the number of Sikhs in Punjab has reached millions, since yogurt-sellers, confectioners, fodder-vendors, grain-sellers, barbers, washermen, all [fully] keep their hair and, saying Wahi Guru di fateh, interdine with each other. They are not confined to Punjab only. In the whole of Hindustan from Shahjahanabad [Delhi] to Calcutta, Haidarabad and Chennapatan [Chennai], groups after groups are found to belong to this sect; but most of them are market people (bazarian), and only a few are well-born.” (“An account of the Sikhs, 1808 from Ghulam Ali Khan, Imadus Saadat” translated by Irfan Habib in Grewal & Habib, op.cit., 214-15)

Creativity, especially literary creativity, is another area in which the Sikh religion seems to have played a significantly positive role in the life of Dalits. Reference has already been made to Bhai Jaita’s Sri Gur Katha (Story of Sikh gurus), an epic composed at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The second Dalit poet was Sant Wazir Singh (c. 1790–1859) who prolifically composed metaphysical and social poetry, both in Punjabi and Braj Bhasha. He attracted a number of people as his followers, including five poet disciples hailing from high castes. One of the five poets was Nurang Devi, who was the first female Punjabi poet groomed under sant Wazir Singh’s tutorship.

The next Dalit intellectual writer Giani Ditt Singh (1852–1901) emerged as a poet, teacher, polemicist, journalist, orator, and ardent Sikh missionary, who turned out to be the pillar of the Singh Sabha movement. Sadhu Daya Singh Arif (1894–1946) who came to master the Gurmukhi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit languages was the most popular intellectual poet of his time in Punjab. His first poetical work, Fanah-dar-Makan (Doorstep to dissolution), was published when he had just turned twenty. The work which made him a household name throughout Punjab was Zindagi Bilas (Discourse on life), which was completed in 1916.  All of them have remained neglected in the histories of Punjabi literature. From the early twentieth century, a series of Dalit writers are writing with clear Dalit consciousness.(For a broad survey of dalit see Raj Kumar Hans, “Rich Heritage of Punjabi Dalit Literature and its Exclusion from Histories”, Beyond Borders: The SAARC Journal, vol. 6 No. 1-2, 2010, 73-81)

Hinduism Enters Sikh Religion

Caste and untouchability came to afflict the Sikhs, particularly in the past two centuries. There was a gradual rise of Sanatan Sikhism, a fine admixture of Hindu caste-centric practices and Sikhism, in the second half of the eighteenth century. By the close of the nineteenth century, it had assumed a vicious form.

Features of Sanatan Sikhism were first outlined in a genealogical history of Sikh gurus by Kesar Singh Chhibber in Bansavalinama Dasan Patshahian ka, completed in 1769. Chhibber belonged to a Brahman family of Jammu. He attributes the Guru Gobind Singh’s power and success to the worship of a Hindu goddess and gives considerable importance to the role of Brahmans in his account of the Sikh gurus. Arifi devotes more than a hundred pages of his book to a close examination of Chhibber’s work and lashes out at him, saying that the work is “a complete conspiracy against the gurus’ philosophy as its purpose is to introduce Brahmanical ideas.   Historian J. S. Grewal is also highly critical of Chhibber’s work and calls it “Brahmanizing the tradition”: “Whether consciously or unconsciously, Kesar Singh Chhibber makes a consistent and an earnest attempt at Brahmanizing the Khalsa tradition.”(J.S. Grewal, “Brahmanizing the Tradition: Chhibber’s Bansavalinama” in The Khalsa: Sikh and Non-Sikh Perspectives, New Delhi: Manohar, 2004, 85-86)

It is ironic that the Hindu caste-centric practices entered Sikhism during the reign of Ranjit Singh (1780–1839), who founded the first Sikh empire in India. Henry Steinbach, a European soldier in Ranjit Singh’s army, made an astute observation: “The assumption of irresponsible power by Ranjeet Singh destroyed, in some degree, the potency of the Khalsa.” (The Punjaub: Being a brief Account of the Country of the Sikhs, Karachi: OUP, 1976 (originally published in  1846, London), 159)That the Hindu practices were fast creeping into Sikh culture during Ranjit Singh’s time was also observed by another European traveler in 1836, Baron Charles Hugel, who noted that “like every other religion grounded in deism, the faith of the Sikhs is already deteriorated; image worship and distinction of castes are gradually taking place of the precepts enjoined by their original institutions.”(Travels in Kashmir and Panjab containing a Particular Account of the Government and Character of the Sikhs, tr. from German by Major T. B. Jervis, 1845, London, 283)

The Golden Temple at Amritsar has been the sanctum sanctorum for Sikhs, as Mecca is for Muslims, and had assumed such an importance in the religious and political life of Punjab. Ranjit Singh abolished the system of collective management and assumed the right to appoint a temple manager. This precedent was used by a subsequent ruler of Punjab, Lieutenant-Governor Sir Robert Egerton, in 1881 to appoint his own temple manager and by that time, the Mahants had already introduced non-Sikh practices in the precincts of the temple Idols were placed in the Golden Temple, and Dalits were prevented from bathing in the sarovar (holy tank).

The deterioration in the Sikh religion was observed at the beginning of the twentieth century by John Campbell Oman, a keen student of Indian epics, mysticism, cults, customs, and related issues. During his extensive visits to the Golden Temple Oman noticed quite a few Hindu practices within the complex. In front of the Akal Bunga, goats were slaughtered on the Dussera festival. He found that along the northern side of the pool, a Brahman was worshipping tiny images of Ganesh and Krishna. At the northeast corner of the tank, there was a Shiva temple with a lingam, and along the eastern side there was another temple of devi (goddess). At the devi temple Oman “encountered Brahmans engaged in worship, separately, of course. One had before him a saligram and a picture of the temple of Badrinath; while the other adored a saligram and a tulsi (holy basil) plant. The latter worshipper appeared quite at home in the precincts of the Sikh temple, for he blew sundry loud blasts by means of a conch, from which he managed to produce some three or four distinct notes.”(John Campbell Oman, Cults, Customs and Superstitions of India, 1908, 95-98)

Caste prejudice and the practice of untouchability being central to Hinduism, any individual, organization, or ideology questioning it was always seen as an enemy, and no effort was spared to eliminate the challenge. In the context of the Sikh religion, A. E. Barstow observed in the 1920s that “Hinduism, [due] 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.” (The Sikhs, 1928, p. 19)Bhagat Lakshman Singh (1863–1944), a scholar and intellectual who was a new convert to Sikhism, believed that the Sikh creed had been Hinduized after the establishment of the Sikh rule. (Autobiography, 192.)Khushwant Singh is straightforward in admitting that “Sikhism did not succeed in breaking the caste system. . . . and Sikhs of higher castes refused to eat with untouchable Sikhs and in villages separate wells were provided for them.”(The Sikhs, 45-46.)

The Sikh leadership by that time had gotten so lost in the struggle to liberate gurdwaras from the clutches of Brahmanized Mahants that the agenda to liberate Sikh minds from casteism was set aside. The helpless situation drove Bhai Pratap Singh, the head granthi (priest) of the Golden Temple, to write a treatise on the issue. Besides looking into the theological and practical high points against untouchability in the Sikh tradition, he summarized the efforts of the SGPC for the removal of untouchability between 1921 and 1933.(Bhai Pratap Singh, Jaat Paat te Chhut-Chhaat sambandhi Gurmat Sidhant, Amritsar: SGPC, 1933.)

Ambedkar’s engagement with Sikhism was another factor contributing to the introspection on the part of a small group of Sikh reformers seeking to remove untouchability. It started with Ambedkar’s powerful move in 1936 to envisage a dignified life for the Dalits in the Sikh religion. An editorial in Khalsa Sewak on March 7, 1936, reports that Ambedkar had written letters to the SGPC but laments that the committee’s response was unsatisfactory. The editorial notes with sarcasm that with all this “the Sikhs are so indifferent that they would not stop bragging of their reforms on paper, which is just a show, but in practice not a single step forward has been taken.”

Sikhism emerged as a vital religious force and movement with ideas of equality and liberation for the downtrodden. It succeeded in empowering those groups of Punjabi Dalits who joined it. They excelled in several fields, including religion, warfare, and literary creativity. The nonreligious path to emancipation was a socialist revolution. The Communists have had a few successful movements in Punjab since the 1920s but only once addressed the Dalit question explicitly. The exception was the young revolutionary Bhagat Singh, who wrote a lengthy article titled “Achhut da Sawal” (The question of untouchability) in 1928. Pointing at the competition between different religions to win the untouchables to their respective folds out of sheer political greed and vested interests, he issued a clarion call to Dalits to unite and fight their own battles, as no one else would fight for them. (This article was published in the June 1928 issue of Kirti under the pen-name of ‘Vidrohi’. See Jagmohan Singh, ed., Shahid Bhagat Singh ate uhna de Sathian dian Likhtan, Ludhiana: Chetna Parkashan, 221) But after Bhagat Singh was martyred in 1931, no Communists followed his approach.

Dalits in general and Dalit Sikhs, in particular, find themselves at a crossroad as far as the question of religion is concerned. A group of Dalit Sikhs whose families have retained memories of the glorious past are unable to understand what has happened to the religion, and they still entertain hopes that Sikhism will restore what has been lost. Yet a majority of Dalits have experienced the tensions of conflicting attitudes and feel frustrated as they turn away from Sikh religion. Education, political awareness, and Dalit assertion pose the challenge to older religious identities as Dalits find alternative ways to seek dignity and pride.

(Excerpts from Rajkumar Hans “Making Sense of Dalit Sikh History” in Dalit Studies, edited by Ramnarayan S. Rawat & K. Satyanarayana, Duke University Press: Durham & London, 2016, 131-51).

Edited and compiled by – Dr. Jas Simran Kehal, MA (Journalism), MS (Ortho).                                                                          

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