Identity politics amongst Punjabi Dalits

Identity politics amongst Punjabi Dalits

Dalit consciousness in the Punjab arose significantly through the efforts of the Ad Dharm movement in the 1920’s (see Takhar 2005: 89-95; and Juergensmeyer 1982). The Punjab has the highest percentage of Dalits than any other state in India. .  Although the authority of the brahmins is somewhat less pronounced in the Punjab, the stigma attached to untouchability towards the Dalit classes manifests itself at an everyday level in this region as elsewhere in India. As Ronki Ram writes:

Untouchablilty in Punjabis unique, as the Brahmanaical tradition of social stratification has never taken deep root in the region. The word Brahmin did not carry a sacerdotal connotation in Punjab…However, the change did not help the Dalits improve their socioeconomic status in any way (2004: 896).

Much scholarly attention has been devoted to the origins and practice of the caste system in India, as well as the plight of ‘Untouchables’ in India (see Dumont 1980; Ghurye 1986; Mahar 1972).

Religious sanction for the harsh treatment towards the lower castes is vehemently voiced in the Laws of Manu, this ancient Hindu text is regarded the authority and justification for caste based discrimination (Murdoch 1977: 28) and has perpetrated into Indian society as a whole, the Punjab being no exception. The first Dalit poet to express his emotions towards the higher caste attitude towards the former untouchables was Gurdas Ram Alam (1912 – 1989).  His works significantly shed further momentum on the rising of Dalit consciousness. Another Dalit writer Attarjit, in his Thuan (Scorpion) further shows sentiments of Dalit pride and emphasis on hard work.

An excellent video programme produced by the Open University, entitled ‘Ravidasias in Birmingham’ raises some very important issues with regard to the extent to which  caste based Gurdwaras are a contradiction of the egalitarian teachings of the Sikhs Gurus. Harmandir Sahib (also known as the Golden Temple) in Amritsar, Punjab, purposely has four doors to symbolize that people of all backgrounds are welcomed as equals in Sikhism. Watch this video and note down the points of departure amongst Sikhs in practice when compared to the Sikh Gurus’ Teachings about caste equality.  Now compare your answers to others in the class. What evidence suggests that perhaps the intention of the Gurus was to overcome caste based obliteration rather than abolish the caste system per se.

Read Takhar (2012)  “We are not Sikhs or Hindus: Issues of Identity among the Valmikis and Ravidasias in Britain” in Singh, Pashaura (ed ) Sikhism in Global Context (Oxford University Press). Also available here on the Punjab Research Group website.  Follow this up by accessing the following popular sites used by the Ravidassia Community in the UK:

See if you can identify why the UK Census of 2011 was extremely instrumental in the promotion of a distinct identity for the Ravidassias.  The blogs on the websites also highlight issues that the leaders within the Ravidassia UK community are currently facing with regard to multiple religious identities. The case studies in Takhar (2012) clearly highlight why and how this distinction is not as clear-cut as the Central Ravidassia Sabha would like. What issues does this raise when undertaking an exploration of identity formation amongst the Punjabi Dalits? What degree of ‘confusion’  has confronted you when analysing the issues pertaining to hegemonic definitions of Indian religions?

There are a number of Dalit organizations based in the UK.

  • ACDA – Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance
  • CasteWatchUK
  • Dalit Solidarity Netwok
  • FABO – Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist and Buddhist Organizations (in the UK).

All the above organisations are active in the lobbying of Parliament to have ‘Caste Discrimination’ included in the Single Equality Bill as a punishable offence.

 References and Further Reading