Raising Questions

Ravidassia Community in Britain

Perhaps your initial response to the role played by caste amongst Sikhs is rather blurred and at times contradictory.  There may be confusion if you have come across many books which at the outset declare “There is no caste amongst Sikhs”. This is misleading since in principle (based on the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib) caste based discrimination has no place amongst the followers of the Sikh Gurus.  However, in practice, caste still plays a significant role amongst Sikhs especially through the practice of endogamy in marriages.

According to Takhar: “Many gurdwaras in Britain are identified informally on caste basis such as for example, the Ramgarhia or the Bhatra gurdwaras. The general consensus has been that bitter treatment by the higher zat Sikhs has led to the former Mazhabi/Adivasi Sikhs finding equality through their distinction as Valmikis and Ravidasis. Movements such as the Ad Dharm have been politically influential in raising Dalit consciousness at a time of political unrest in Punjab.” (2012: 164).

This clearly suggests that although the emphasis from Bani (teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib) is to denounce caste-based discrimination, testimonies from Punjabi Dalits will show this is far from actual practice.

In terms of identity, a significant percentage of Ravidassias seek distinction from Sikhs. However, there is nevertheless a sizeable numberof the followers of Guru Ravidass (particularly the older generation) whom are content on leaving things as they are. From the clip below (From the documentary ‘Hidden Apartheid’, can you identify WHY there is a lobbying of Parliament from Key Dalit organizations in the UK to include ‘caste discrimination’ as a punishable offence under the Single Equality Bill?

This short documentary produced by Sapna World Arts highlights the extent to which caste based discrimination takes places amongst South Asians in Britain. The commissioners for the Single Equality Bill felt that there was not enough evidence of caste discrimination amongst South Asians in the UK. Hilary Metcalffe was appointed to collect evidence of discrimination, this was then published in her report ‘Caste Discrimination and Harassment in Great Britain’ on behalf of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) December 2010.  In their collection of case studies in the first instance by CasteWatchUK, not many individuals came forward to tell of their experiences of caste based discrimination which was evidently present through informal testimonies. What factors do you think were in play which prevented many Dalits coming forward as victims of caste discrimination?

The ‘Hidden Apartheid’ documentary also looks at the discrimination faced by Dalits who convert to Buddhism by highlighting that the stigma of untouchability is so strong that it transcends religious boundaries.  Interestingly, converting to religions such as Buddhism and Christianity resulted in non-eligibility for Dalit reservations in education and government jobs (see Dirks 2001: 279).  What do you think attracted so many Dalits to follow the Buddhist way of life,despite losing out on government reservations? A visit to the Punjab Buddhist Society in Wolverhampton and the Dr Ambedkar Centre in Wolverhampton will give students the opportunity to gather first hand testimonies as well as see many of the personal belongings of Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar.

Click on Teachings about caste equality from the Guru Granth Sahib to explore the reasons why masses of Dalits converted to Sikhism.