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In northern India in the 14th and 15th centuries, there was a strong anticaste sant tradition. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Sikh Guru Nanak (1469–1539) and his followers turned this into an organised religious movement in Punjab. It became a rallying cry for the untouchables and people from "lower castes'' who wanted to be treated with respect. 

As a young, active religion from the subcontinent, the Sikh religion has been through both good and bad times in its 500-year history. So have the Dalits of Punjab, who moved there in large numbers in the 17th century and found respect and equality in its inclusive community. But as it grew and spread in the last quarter of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, its body politic became affected by casteism and "untouchability," problems from which the great gurus tried to free their followers.

Dalits in Sikhism 

Sikhism is an Indian religion that has been studied by scholars all over the world in the last hundred years. The issues of caste and untouchability in Sikhism's history haven't gotten much attention, either because of Sikhism's strong belief in equality or because of the dominance of the Jatt Sikh caste, whose members have also been the focus of academic work. The important role Dalits have played in the Sikh tradition has been left out of most Sikh conversations.

Naranjan Arifi ,a Dalit Sikh is a non-professional historian. He writes in Punjabi about how Sikh historians are biased against Dalits. He states that if the Sikh historians had written history in a fair and honest way from the point of view of writing history, general readers today would not be confused about a number of things. Arifi also says that Sikh history needs to be rewritten from the beginning without miracles and magic so that history can be more scientific and logical. 

Equal rights and a Caste system co-exist in Sikhism

A lot of Dalits have turned to Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism because they want to be treated equally and have human dignity which had been anathema to Hinduism. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar believed that bourgeois nationalism, republicanism, and traditional Marxism did not solve the problem of caste and untouchability in a satisfactory way. So, he turned to religion to find lasting comfort. Before Ambedkar became a Buddhist, he considered the option of embracing Sikhism. This would have opened the same path for Dalits in the subcontinent. He was a well-known intellectual in India in the 20th century, so he carefully thought about what this would mean compared to turning to religions other than Hinduism. He knew that the Sikh religion had strong ideas and practices that were against Brahmanism.

The word "Sikh" itself shows the relationship between the guru (teacher) and the Sikh pupil). And the whole Sikh movement was based on the closeness of thinker-people, on gurus and their followers having a natural bond. The union of the two (aape gur chela), which is the highest level of Sikh thought, is a radical part of Indian culture. 

Guru Granth Sahib is a great example of the pedagogy of liberation because it fights against all systems of oppression and injustice, especially those that hurt the poor. The philosophy of liberation is wrapped up in the text because it speaks for the low, the poor, and the oppressed.

A step away from untouchability 

J. P. S. Uberoi in his book Religion, Civil Society, and the State: A Study of Sikhism,  wrote about the last guru, Gobind Singh (1666–1708). He said that the tenth guru of the Sikhs in effect became the disciple of his disciples at the new revolutionary moment of reversal, inversion, and reflection of the leader-follower relation.

To challenge the Hindu caste system, the Sikh Guru sided with the untouchables, making it clear that he was on their side. He got rid of the social and political hierarchies in Hinduism. The tenth guru, Gobind Singh, established Khalsa in 1699, marking the climax of the system's subversion. The real historical force came from the long development of liberation practice and philosophy, which not only fully included the "untouchables" in the fight for freedom but also ended the cruel practice of "untouchability" in Sikh practice. Untouchability came back into the Sikh religion in the middle of the eighteenth century and completely corrupted it in the nineteenth century.

Gurus became the best role models because they did what they said they should do. Guru Nanak thought that the real reason people were unhappy was that they didn't get along with each other because of their different castes. To get rid of caste differences and fights, he set up sangat (a group of people) and pangat (collective dining). 

So, all ten gurus did what they had to do to get rid of the differences between varna and caste. People of high rank or caste didn't have any special places to go. Guru Amar Das was especially supportive of and helpful to the institution of pangat. He made sure that everyone who came to sat sangat ate simple food (holy congregation).

The legendary Dalit Sikh Bhai Jaita (ca. 1657–1704) gives a direct account of this in his epic poem Sri Gur Katha, written after the Khalsa was formed but before his death in 1704. Bhai Jaita assumed the new identity called the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh and he changed his name to Jeevan Singh. He says that Guru Gobind Singh's Sikhs don't see differences between baran (varna) and jaat (caste), but only between good deeds.

Initiatives for Dalits in Sikhism

Most books about Sikh history and religion haven't talked about the Dalits, so John Webster's "Dalit history approach" is a great way to learn about them. He said that the Dalit history approach method is based on two assumptions. The first is the agency of Dalits. In this case, Dalit Sikhs move to the center of the stage and become the main actors and shapers of their own history. The historian will focus on them, their views, their struggles, and what they do. The second is that a conflict model of society, with caste as not the only but the most important conflict in Indian society, is the best way to understand their history.

There is no work in English that looks at Sikh history and traditions from the point of view of Dalit history. What Webster calls the "Sikh history approach" can be seen in many important historical works. Only a few of the Punjabi (Gurumukhi) books that are available, not all of which were written by professional historians, can be seen as having a "Dalit Sikh approach."

 S. L. Virdi says that the established histories are just high-caste histories and that India needs a Dalit history. He says that India needs a history that plants the seeds of revolutionary consciousness for social change because history plays a very important role in this regard. Society gets its shape and personality from its history. Dalit history is very important from this point of view. 

Bhai Jaita Ji: A prominent Dalit figure in Sikh history 

Some of the gurus had special relationships with Dalit families, which showed that a lot of Dalits joined the Sikh order to get away from discrimination and humiliation and gain respectable status. Bhai Jaita's family was a well-known Dalit family. People say that his great-grandfather, Bhai Kaliana of Kathunangal Village near Amritsar, became a Sikh when Akbar was in power. Because his family was close to the gurus, Jaita was willing to carry Guru Teg Bahadur's severed head from Delhi to Anandpur in 1675, even though it was dangerous. 

"Ranghrete guru ke bete" (The untouchables are the Guru's own sons) was the blessing that the young Gobind Singh, the tenth guru (1666–1708), gave to Bhai Jaita as he hugged him. Jaita became a brave Sikh warrior, and the tenth guru liked him so much that he named him the panjwan sahibjada (fifth son), in addition to the guru's own four sons. When the Khalsa was made in 1699, Bhai Jaita's name was changed to Jeevan Singh. In 1704 at Chamkaur, he died in a fierce battle with Mughal armies.

Bhai Jaita remained neglected to an extent that it was barely known, let alone recognised, that he was also a scholar poet. He wrote Sri Gur Katha, which was already mentioned, which is a long poem about important things that happened around Guru Gobind Singh. Dalit Sikh scholarship has only recently started to build up a body of literature around Bhai Jaita in an attempt to recover Dalit Sikh pasts. Since Bhai Jaita was part of not only the Sikh religion but also the family of Guru Gobind Singh, it's easy to see why he wouldn't have cared about any other identity. As he says, “O Jaita, the savior guru has saved the Ranghretas. The pure guru has adopted Ranghretas as his sons.”

Dalits in Sikh history 

Arifi gives interesting information about some of the most famous Dalit warriors. Some of these warriors were also among Guru Gobind Singh's 52 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 middle of the 18th century, when the Mughals were still persecuting the Sikhs, they had formed five warrior bands or dals. One of these dals was made up of only Mazhabis or Ranghretas and was led by Bir Singh Ranghreta, who had gathered a force of 1,300 troopers.

Guru Gobind Singh sent Banda Bahadur (1670–1716) from Maharashtra to free Sikhs in Punjab from Mughal rule. After Guru Gobind Singh died, Banda Bahadur was able to get Sikhs to fight against Mughal governors. Muhammad Shafi Warid, a modern Persian writer, talks about how Banda Bahadur's policies brought everyone on the same level after the victory of Sirhind. He wrote that after the killing of Wazir Khan, Banda Bahadur ordered that Hindus and Muslims who joined his Sikhs should be one body and eat together so that there was no longer any difference in honour between the poor and the rich and everyone worked together in harmony.  A sweeper of spittle sat next to a high-ranking raja, and neither of them felt hostility for the other. If a lowly sweeper or cobbler (chamar), more impure than whom there is no caste (qaum) in Hindustan, went to help 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.

As was said above, this trend continued through the rest of the eighteenth century. Dalits made up a large part of the Sikh Panth and Ranjit Singh's armies. In 1808, Ghulam Ali Khan wrote a history of the north Indian state of Awadh in the 18th century. In it, he talked about the Sikhs. He wrote that the leaders of high dignity in the Sikh community were mostly from the lower classes like carpenters, shoemakers, and Jats.

Dalit Sikhs’ contribution to Sikh literature and culture 

Another area where the Sikh religion seems to have made a big difference in the lives of Dalits is creativity, especially creative writing. Bhai Jaita's Sri Gur Katha (Story of Sikh Gurus), an epic written at the start of the 18th century, has already been mentioned. Sant Wazir Singh, who lived from about 1790 to 1859, was the second Dalit poet. He wrote a lot of metaphysical and social poetry in both Punjabi and Braj Bhasha. He had a lot of followers, including five poets from high castes who learned from him. One of the five poets was Nurang Devi, who was the first woman Sant Wazir Singh taught to write Punjabi poetry.

Giani Ditt Singh (1852–1901) was another Dalit intellectual writer. He was a poet, a teacher, a polemicist, a journalist, a public speaker, and an ardent Sikh missionary. He became the pillar of the Singh Sabha movement. Sadhu Daya Singh Arif, who lived from 1894 to 1946 and learned to speak Gurmukhi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit, was Punjab's most well-known intellectual poet at the time. When he was twenty years old, Fanah-dar-Makan (Doorstep to dissolution), his first poem, came out. Zindagi Bilas (Discourse on Life), which he finished in 1916, made him a well-known name in all of Punjab. In the history of Punjabi literature, all of them have been ignored. Since the early 1900s, Dalit writers have been writing with clear Dalit consciousness.

Hindu beliefs started becoming a part of the Sikh religion

Caste and "untouchability" became problems for the Sikhs, especially in the last two centuries. In the second half of the 18th century, Sanatan Sikhism, which is a nice mix of Hindu caste-based practices and Sikhism, grew slowly. By the end of the 1800s, it took up a vicious form.

Features of Sanatan Sikhism were first described in Bansavalinama Dasan Patshahian ka, which was written by Kesar Singh Chhibber in 1769. This book is a genealogy of Sikh gurus. Chhibber was from a family of Brahmans in Jammu. In his story about the Sikh gurus, he says that Guru Gobind Singh was powerful and successful because he worshipped a Hindu goddess. He also gives the role of Brahmans a lot of importance. 

In his book, Arifi spends more than a hundred pages analysing Chhibber's work and attacking him. He says that Chhibber's work is a complete conspiracy against the gurus' philosophy because its goal is to introduce Brahmanical ideas. 

Ironically, Hindu caste-centric norms entered Sikhism under the reign of Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), who established India's first Sikh empire. A European soldier in Ranjit Singh's army, Henry Steinbach, made an important observation that the assumption of irresponsible power by Ranjeet Singh damaged, to some extent, the potency of the Khalsa.

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 deteriorated; image worship and distinction of castes are gradually taking place of the precepts enjoined by their original institutions.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar has been the sanctum sanctorum for Sikhs, as Mecca is for Muslims, and has taken on such significance in Punjab's religious and political life. Ranjit Singh dissolved the collaborative management structure and assumed the authority to designate a temple manager. This precedent was exploited by a later ruler of Punjab, Lieutenant-Governor Sir Robert Egerton, in 1881 to choose his own temple manager, and by that time, the Mahants had already adopted non-Sikh customs in the temple grounds. Idols were installed at the Golden Temple, and Dalits were forbidden from bathing in the Sarovar (holy tank).

Sikh community moving away from central Sikhism tenets 

John Campbell Oman, a diligent student of Indian epics, mysticism, cults, rituals, and associated concerns, saw the deterioration in the Sikh religion at the beginning of the twentieth century. During his frequent travels to the Golden Temple, Oman saw a number of Hindu practices within the structure. During the Dussera festival, goats were butchered in front of the Akal Bunga. He discovered a Brahman worshipping miniature idols of Ganesh and Krishna on the northern side of the water. 

A Shiva temple with a lingam was in the tank's northeast corner, while another devi  (goddess) temple stood along the tank's eastern side. Oman encountered Brahmans engaging in worship, separately at the devi temple. One had a saligram and a photograph of the Badrinath temple in front of him, while the other adored a saligram and a tulsi (holy basil) plant. The latter worshipper appeared completely at ease within the confines of the Sikh temple, as he blew various loud blasts with a conch, producing three or four separate notes.

By that time, the Sikh leadership had become so engrossed in the struggle to free gurdwaras from the clutches of Brahmanized Mahants that the objective to liberate Sikh minds from casteism had been laid aside. The desperate circumstance compelled Bhai Pratap Singh, the Golden Temple's head granthi (priest), to pen a treatise on the subject. He described the SGPC's efforts to abolish untouchability between 1921 and 1933, in addition to delving into theological and practical high points against untouchability in the Sikh heritage.

B.R.Ambedkar’s association with Sikhism 

Ambedkar's involvement with Sikhism was another factor in the introspection of a small group of Sikh reformers trying to abolish untouchability. It all began in 1936, with Ambedkar's powerful move to envision a dignified life for Dalits in the Sikh religion.

 On March 7, 1936, an editorial in Khalsa Sewak claims that Ambedkar had addressed letters to the SGPC but was disappointed with the committee's reaction. With all of this, the editorial writes sarcastically, the Sikhs are so indifferent that they would not stop bragging about their reforms on paper, which is simply a show, but in actuality, not a single step forward has been taken.

Restoring untouchability in people’s mindset 

Sikhism emerged as a powerful religious force and movement based on concepts of equality and liberation for the oppressed. It was successful in empowering the Punjabi Dalit communities that joined it. They were exceptional in a variety of domains, including religion, combat, and literary inventiveness. A socialist revolution was the nonreligious path to emancipation. 

Since the 1920s, the communists have had a few successful movements in Punjab, but only once have they overtly addressed the Dalit issue. The youthful revolutionary Bhagat Singh was an exception, writing a lengthy article titled "Achhut da Sawal" (The Question of Untouchability) in 1928. He delivered a clarion call to Dalits to unite and fight their own fights, pointing to the race of different religions to woo the untouchables to their separate folds out of mere political greed and vested interests.

Dalits in general, and Dalit Sikhs in particular, are at a religious crossroads. A group of Dalit Sikhs whose families have maintained memories of the beautiful past are unable to comprehend what has happened to the religion, and they continue to hope that Sikhism will restore what has been lost. However, the bulk of Dalits have experienced the tensions of contradictory attitudes and are disillusioned as they drift away from the Sikh religion. Education, political knowledge, and Dalit assertiveness pose a challenge to traditional religious identities, as Dalits seek dignity and pride in other ways.

 

*Based on an article by Dr. Raj Kumar Hans in Velivada 

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