The presence of various castes, including Dalits, within Sikhism appears at the outset to be a misnomer, since Sikhism doesn’t recognise any kind of social stratification. Before their conversion to Sikhism, Dalit Sikhs were Hindus, and had embraced Sikhism in the hope of gaining dignity and social equality. But the curse of casteism was not so easily shed, and even in their new religious avatar, social exclusion continued to benight them.
Dalit Sikhs often lament that they remain peripheral to structures of power even in Punjab, which is the only Sikh-majority state in the Indian Union, but the recent elevation of Charanjit Singh Channi – a Ramdasia Sikh – to the post of Chief Minister, and thus the first ever Dalit CM of Punjab, has dramatically propelled the issues and political identity of Dalit Sikhs to the centre stage of contemporary Punjab politics.
Sikhism, despite its egalitarian philosophy, and the gallant well-meaning efforts of various Sikh reform organisations, could not extricate itself from caste. The Census of 1881 and 1931 recorded various castes within the Sikh community, including Aroras, Ahluwalias, Bhattras, Chhimbas, Jats, Jheers, Khatris, Kambohs, Labanas, Lohars, Mahatam, Mazhabis, Nais, Ramgarhias, Ramdasias, Ranghretas, and Sainis. Eleven of these formed the core of the ‘caste constituency’ – Jat and Kamboh (agrarian); Khatri and Arora (mercantile); Tarkhan, Lohar, Nai, and Chhimba (artisan); Kalal (distiller); and Chamar and Chuhra (outcaste Dalits).
In terms of social status, the Mazhabi, Ranghreta, Ramdasia, Ravidasia, Rai, and Sansi Sikhs – far from being bracketed with the topmost castes, i.e., Jat, Khatri, and Arora Sikhs – are categorised to be lower than Ramgarhia and Ahluwalia Sikhs. Most regrettably, Dalit Sikhs – like their counterparts in the Hindu caste hierarchy – are placed on the lowest rung of the Sikh caste hierarchy.
They themselves disregard the egalitarian tenets of the Sikhism, and further subdivide themselves along caste lines: Marriage is within community boundaries, and Ramdasia and Ravidasia Sikhs consider themselves superior to the Mazhabi and Ranghreta Sikhs. Although Ramdasias and Ravidasias originated from Chamars, the former consider themselves superior to the latter. Sansis and Chamars are considered lower in hierarchy than the Mazhabis. But for non-Dalit castes, hierarchy within Dalit Sikhs carries no meaning. For them Sansi, Chamar and Mazhabi Dalit Sikhs are of the same – the lowest – rank.
Ravidasia Dalit Sikhs
One segment of Dalit Sikhs consists of Ravidasias (leather workers), and Ramdasias (weavers). But many Ravidasias do not consider themselves part of either Hinduism or Sikhism but a separate religion altogether – Ravidasia Dharm. Followers of Guru Ravidas, they are often mistaken as ‘Dalit Sikhs’, even though some of them keep beard and unshorn hair similar to the baptised Sikhs and worship Guru Granth Sahib.
Ravidasias are very particular about their distinct faith and often assert their separate Dalit identity. However, in official records, they are still bracketed with Chamars, and counted as Hindus in the census records just like them.
Ramdasias were also originally Chamars, and are included within that group in Punjab’s Scheduled Caste list. Those members who were mainly from the weaving community, popularly known as Julahas, became Ramdasias after conversion to Sikhism. Ramdasias were also known as Khalsa biradar (brother). They were allegedly converted to Sikhism during the time of fourth Guru of the Sikh faith, Guru Ram Das. Babu Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, was a clean-shaven Ramdasia Sikh who belonged to Punjab’s Ropar district. Just like him, many Ramdasia Sikhs remain clean-shaven.
Mazhabis and Ranghretas
Mazhabis and Ranghretas are the second major segment of Dalit Sikhs. They were primarily scavengers before their conversion to Sikhism. After embracing Sikhism, they differentiated themselves from their Hindu counterparts.
The popularity of Mazhabis and Ranghretas in the Sikh religion has been established by a rhyme Ranghrete Guru ke Bete (the Ranghretas are the sons of the Guru), attributed to them on account of the valorous act of bringing the severed head of ninth Guru of Sikhism, Guru Tegh Bahadur, from Delhi to Anandpur Sahib by the legendary Bhai Jaita, a Ranghreta.
Rai Dalit Sikhs
Rai Sikhs are members of the Mahatam ethnic group. Mahatams were originally Hindus, though some also professed to Islam. During British rule, they were declared a criminal tribe. They are endogamous and practice clan exogamy. Rope-making was their traditional occupation, though they were notorious for illicit liquor trade. Rai Sikhs are mainly concentrated in Punjab’s Ferozepur, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, and Ludhiana districts.
Sansi Dalit Sikhs
Sansi Sikhs are nomadic gypsies, and are divided into two main clans named after two mythical ancestors, Mahala and Beehdoo. They were primarily Hindus prior to their conversion to Sikhism. Their nomadic lifestyle – Sansis were primarily hunters and shepherds – is considered the main cause of their social exclusion, backwardness, degradation to a lower caste. They also performed the function of hereditary genealogists to the dominant Jat caste, and in return received some grain at each harvest.
As with the Rai Sikhs, the British government had condemned them as robbers and thieves, and declared them a “Notified Criminal Tribe”. Though a lower caste, they traced their origin to the Bhati Rajputs of Rajasthan. They take immense pride in claiming Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab as one of their own. However, in terms of social status, Sansi Sikhs are considered lower than the Mazhabis.
The author would like to clarify that caste names have been used for academic purposes, not with any malafide intentions.
Dr Ronki Ram is professor of political science, Panjab University. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)