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Who are Dalit Sikhs? New Punjab CM Channi’s caste is just one among a complex hierarchy

Caste discourse around Charanjit Channi’s elevation has surprised many, especially as Sikhism espouses equality. But Sikhs have caste hierarchy similar to Hindus.

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Chandigarh: The elevation of Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit Sikh, as Punjab’s new chief minister has highlighted the complex caste equations in the state. 

The caste discourse around Channi’s appointment has surprised many, particularly as Sikhism espouses equality and promotes ideals for an egalitarian society. 

But Sikhs have a caste hierarchy almost similar to Hinduism, though most scholars on the subject agree that in the case of Sikhism, the demarcations between the hierarchies are not very strict and over the years, caste differentiation has shifted from the principles of purity and pollution to the “material and political”.  

Sikhism and caste

Experts on caste in Sikhism told ThePrint that though the religion envisages an egalitarian society, it never fully achieved it. 

“If you were to go only by the Gurbani (the words and writings of the ten Gurus of the Sikhs) there cannot be a caste system in Sikhism. But this did not translate into practice,” said noted scholar and subject expert Dr Harish Puri. 

Dr Ronki Ram, another expert on Punjab’s Dalits, who teaches at Panjab University, Chandigarh, concurred.  

“Although Sikh doctrine does not assign any place to the institution of caste… it must not be inferred as argued that Sikhism was able to transfer the caste structure into an egalitarian moral community of Sikhs. Sikhism remained far from a casteless society,” he wrote in an article titled ‘Social exclusion, resistance and deras’, in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2017. 

According to the experts, caste patterns that existed in the Hindu religion were transferred to Sikhism. 

“Sikh religion itself evolved over centuries. Even when the religious conversion happened, it did not naturally mean shedding one’s caste. One who entered the panth entered with his caste intact,” Puri said.

“The 10 Gurus were all Khatris and married their children into Khatri families,” he continued, pointing out that endogamy continued to be the key identifier among castes even after conversion to Sikhism.

Ronki Ram added: “The converts continued to follow their previous caste practices regarding connubium (marriage) and commensality even after receiving pahul (the Sikh form of baptism). They strictly followed the principle of caste endogamy,” Ram told ThePrint.

He pointed out that Dalits converted to Sikhism to escape the caste system, only to find themselves back at square one. 

“Dalit castes in Hindus embraced Sikhism because they wanted to gain social equality, but it did not happen,” Ronki Ram said. “Untouchability was practiced against them even in the new religion.”

According to Puri, Dalits were even kept out of gurdwaras for a long time. “Those from the Dalit castes who had become Sikhs were not allowed in gurdwaras until 1920, when on the eve of the gurdwara reform movement, this practice was shed,” he said. “Now the situation is that even the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee (SGPC) has reservation for Dalit castes among its members because otherwise it would be dominated by Jatt Sikhs.”

Puri said Dalit Sikhs continue to be oppressed at the hands of the dominant community — the Jatt Sikhs. 

“Jatts are OBCs, not much above the hierarchy from Sikh Dalits,” Puri said. “But the Jatt Sikhs dominate Punjab mainly because they own land, and in the state’s agrarian society, ownership of land has become an overarching criteria of social domination.” 

Also read: Behind-the-scene drama: How Sidhu scotched Jakhar’s & Randhawa’s chance before agreeing on Channi

Dalit castes among Sikhs

Both these experts said Dalits in Sikhism are classified just as they are in Hinduism. 

“Almost all the divisions there are among Hindu Scheduled Castes exist in Sikhs as well,” Puri said. “There are many, but to simplify it, the Balmikis in Hindus are loosely termed as Mazhabi Sikhs, who are at the lowest rung of the hierarchy. They have, however, witnessed some upward mobility due to their being part of the British Mazhabi regiments. Earlier, they were a part of the army of Guru Gobind Singh.” 

In his EPW piece, Ronki Ram also wrote that among the Mazhabis, there are the “Rangretas” who consider themselves superior.  

“Rangretas’ close ties with the gurughar (the House of Gurus) is evidenced from the fact that when the legendary Bhai Jaita, rechristened as Jeevan Singh, presented to Guru Gobind Singh the severed head of the ninth Guru and his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, which he had brought from Delhi, the young Gobind Rai, overwhelmed with emotion, pronounced Rangrete Guru ke Bete (sons of the guru),” Ronki Ram wrote in the piece.

Above the Mazhabis in this hierarchy, according to the professors, are the Chamars, the traditional leather workers who are divided into two main groups — the Ramdasias and the Ravidasias. 

The Ramdasias follow the fourth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Ram Das, as their main Guru, while Ravidasias don’t follow any of the Sikh Gurus but adhere to the principles of the 15th century Bhakti saint Guru Ravi Das. 

Occupationally, the Ramdasias gave up leather work and branched into weaving and dyeing (julaha and rangrez). Kanshi Ram, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)  founder, was a clean-shaven Ramdasia Sikh from Ropar (now Rupnagar). 

New chief minister Channi, too, is a Ramdasia Sikh. 

“Ravidasias have been the fastest upwardly mobile community among Dalits in Punjab,” Puri said. “They have become economically strong and assert a separate identity distinct from Sikhs. They have their own religious places, temples, gurdwaras.” 

Ronki Ram said Ravidasias cannot be clubbed as Dalit “Sikhs” as they are a separate Dalit caste.  

According to Puri, from among the Chamars rose the Adi Dharmis, who started a movement in the 1920s claiming to be the original inhabitants of the land and granted themselves a certain superiority within the Dalit framework. They too follow Guru Ravi Das.

The scholars also listed several occupational groups among the Sikh SCs.

“The Rai Sikhs are the cane workers and have their origins in Rajasthan. Then there are Baazigars, the acrobat community,” Puri said. “There are also Mashkis or water distributors, Nai or barbers, and the Sikligars or ironsmiths.”

Puri added that there have been demands to ensure affirmative action for the Dalit Sikhs.

“After Independence, a demand was put forth by the 22 Sikh members of the East Punjab Legislative Assembly to secure the same recognition and rights for the former untouchable castes converted to Sikhism as would have been available to them if they had not become Sikhs,” Puri said. 

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

Also read: Congress got the messaging right in Punjab but the Gandhis and Sidhu can’t celebrate yet


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