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A Call to Unison

Gajindar Singh

Perpetuating caste conscience is a curse which is admitted in private by those who are confined to its stranglehold by tradition and religious sanctions. It is by now not only stifling the Hindu mindset but spread to other egalitarian disciplines who claim equality of human race. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, all have lists of backward and underprivileged sections of their respective communities clamouring for special rights in imitation of the Hindu protective laws. Instead of an economic problem, it has assumed sinister shape of a communal malady.

The framers of the constitution of free India, in the middle of the Twentieth Century, took a typical bureaucratic decision to extend reservations at all stages to the Hindu scheduled castes and tribes as a panacea for their advancement and final absorption in the mainstream of national development. Calling sizeable sections of the populace as ‘scheduled castes/ tribes’ and ‘backward or criminal classes,’ casts aspersion on their ability to keep pace with the advanced sections of the Hindu society. That is adding insult to injury inflicted on these unfortunate citizens for the past thousands of years. A better description of these exploited classes would be ‘the suppressed classes’. It also confers ‘de facto’ recognition of the traditional superiority of the twice-born Hindu ‘high castes’ over others as a fact of life in the Indian Constitution.

Other sections of the Indian people, the minorities, for instance, were not accorded the same consideration and the sanctions which they enjoyed in the times of British Empire, who could not find an easy alternative to resorting to weightage and reservations to keep semblance of peace and balance in a multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-lingual conglomerate, ever ready to explode, always suspicious of the other. A happy blend of such warring communities in a secular constitution of Free India was inconceivable. Happily, this omission has been sought to be corrected after sixty years. Perhaps it is never too late!

Another flawed postulate was the ‘one-man-one-vote’ formula patterned on the Western democratic norms which the British had failed to foist in Indian conditions during their long rule in this country. A visionary like Prof Puran Singh had warned in 1920s of its unsuitability, which remained unheeded by leaders who considered themselves the best brains with all the right solutions.

The hypothesis, namely the suicidal solution of partition of the country, perhaps, was not the only way out and could have been avoided, had the leaders of the majority community envisaged the ill-effects of a hastily patched-up cancerous solution with unending antagonism, mutual distrust and hatred, the continuing turmoil, boiling down to the perpetual massive expenditure on defence and cross border infiltrations, the unrelenting law and order problems it was going to entail on a long term basis, howsoever divisions were made of the Indian Sub-continent. Pakistan had to be conceded basically to assuage such misgivings of the Muslim dominated areas, which were dead set against the ‘one-man-one-vote’ system of governance. Mr Jinnah despite the League’s avowed public postures hesitated and hedged when his bluff was called by acceding to the partition of India by others. He had more concessions in mind and not the “moth-eaten Pakistan.” The underlying simmering discontent continues in various anti-social acts of terrorism in different parts of the country.

After sixty years and more of Independence that feeling of safety and protection has not dawned on the Hindu suppressed classes and the few Sikh depressed sections who were accorded similar privileges, despite assurances of only ‘short term’ reservations in the Indian constitution in education, on jobs and their preferred position in society, extended repeatedly, as it has not yielded the expected results. There is a tremendous malaise lying somewhere in the diagnosis and treatment of the fault. The centuries old exploitation by the so-called upper castes towards all others who were of lesser or lower rank was a duly sanctified religious tenet, by which the brute majority of the members of the Indian constitutional assembly assumed divine right to provide succor to the ‘scheduled castes’ without appreciating their aspirations. For the injustice and cruelty of ages, it was considered sufficient to provide in the statute, clauses to safeguard the rights of the ‘scheduled castes’ for a limited period only. Not fully implemented, it has indefinitely stretched to eternal time. Others, especially, the minorities who deserved reservations to assuage their doubts and fears of perpetual majority injustice and suppression, continued to suffer as the majority community decided that they were not in need of any safeguards. It is very recently that steps are under consideration to remove this lacuna. The concept of ‘one-man-one-vote’ backed by the majority community fully knowing it meant the ball being in their bag, allowed steam-rolling of all hopes, ambitions and objectives of miniscule groups like the Sikhs, who kept on harping on weightage for their unequal record of sacrifices, their holdings, loyalty and valorous record as an alternative to the principle of ‘one-man-one-vote,’ left to fend for themselves in the face of ‘changed circumstances’. Whereas the Sikh Gurus emphasized quality instead of quantity, here it was the head count like sheep that mattered.

By fixing protected rights of the Hindu ‘scheduled castes’, the lid of a worm-filled can was opened. What about the freedom of choice of the suppressed classes to adopt any other religion to attain a sense of self-esteem, when it was not feasible to restore them to a place of equality in the Hindu society at par with high castes? The majority held that the approved religion, in such eventuality, was, perhaps, Buddhism. What about the minorities who were socially and culturally overwhelmed by the vast majority society, their ways and style? What about the economically underprivileged citizens and the suppressed classes in other religious minorities who were in the same plight as the Hindu ‘scheduled castes/tribes’ over decades of neglect? In the process, the minorities became fresh victims of the inequality which the British had tried hard to solve by giving them weightage wherever the sense of insecurity was intense. Weightage was repugnant to the members of Free India’s constituent assembly.

By lethargic and tardy functioning of the Indian state, the Hindu scheduled castes and tribes have not made any significant progress at integration with the mainstream, either economically or socially. The religious and societal taboos and restraints continue to keep them at a distance as heretofore. The sacred verses of Kabir, Ravidass and Nam Dev continue to psychologically and religiously inspire all, but do not bring integration of the low castes with the high castes. With all fanfare, trims and festoons of the Indian constitution, the effort remains futile and the gap is, if anything, as wide as ever.

Over five hundred years ago, this perennial problem of the suppressed classes engaged the attention of Guru Nanak who embarked on a mission to reveal a new outlook and reasoning to the society which had on account of its age and antiquity got enmeshed in a state of confusion of myriad interpretations. Simple ideas which, at their inception in the SatYuga seemed revolutionary and path breaking lost their bearings as the complexities of knowledge grew. More the attempts at correction, and fresh and novel justifications for the old precepts by the ancient scholars, thinkers and philosophers, more was the confusion and things became mere formalities and unintelligible sacred rituals to the general public. One such principle was that of ‘untouchability’.

Guru Nanak rejected the doctrine of a heavenly sanction of varnashram and the past Karma philosophy as justification of compartmentalisation of humanity. His refutation of caste was basic as well as final, and gave religion a new intention and rationale. It has to be understood that Guru Nanak’s panth neither filtered the old dogmas nor redefined the prevailing laws, but pointed out to a new road and to take to that path, the only condition was, to wipe off all old traces of beliefs and convictions in a spirit of discipline which far exceeded the ancient faiths. The whole fiber of Sikhism rests on the elimination of caste, what is assumed to be the result of one’s good and bad karma, actions. Guru Nanak defines God as the Karta instead of man. The Sikh acts at the pleasure of God. That is more akin to the Islamic dogma. There can be no compromise with any faction which in some garb tries to resurrect and maintain karma doctrine of Hinduism. Any group or section claiming racial superiority is as ridiculous and blameworthy as those who cringe at their inferior status.

The fact is that there is neither any racial nor tribal distinction nor any godly command in fixing any group as more competent, except for the individual’s moral and spiritual training and adoption of liberty as a goal which ethnically changes the outlook of a society. It is a fallacious argument concocted by either ignorant people or malicious scholars that Sikhism adopted a stance of militancy due to the influx of a particular tribe, namely the Punjabi Jatts. It is spread by those who believe in racial inequality and special attributes of a chosen race. Sikhism condemns such divisions in humanity. Guru Gobind Singh’s declaration of making sparrows hunt the hawks amply points to the Sikh argument that all human beings can be promoted to the same caliber and competence. Sooner the erroneous ‘caste’ theory is laid to rest, the basic Sikh values will clearly emerge. A special campaign is needed to bring together sects of all hues on one platform, observing Guru Nanak’s priorities for salvation of man and society. Special laws and reservation not only keep discrimination of the suppressed classes in perpetuity but ironically it encourages other religious depressed classes to re-convert to the Hindu fold to become eligible for the unending concessions! It is a reverse stroke, far from eradication of untouchability.

Compared to this, we have the model promulgated by the Sikh Gurus which strove to eradicate untouchability by abolishing it at its roots from the society, by encouraging racial equality and social respect. That makes Sikhism more homogeneous as a religious perspective than others. The contribution to the heart-rending sacrifices of the Sikhs in the last four hundred years was not confined to any one ethnic group. Out of the Five Beloveds who volunteered to sacrifice themselves on the call of the Tenth Master, four were from the so-called outcastes who came from far flung provinces except for one khatri from Lahore, Punjab. However, it neither means that the Punjabi Jatts were not outstanding Sikhs nor does it stress the point that Sikhism was only a local Punjabi phenomenon. Sikhism is a doctrine that rejuvenates the human spirit and it belongs to all humanity. Anyone can become fearless and liberated in courage and attitude by adoption of the Sikh mores. It inspires all equally, to shed the syndrome of cowardice, inferiority or incapacity. That is exactly what it has done for the traditionally slighted and lowly Jats in Hindu caste hierarchy as well as other suppressed groups and sections of people who came in contact with Sikhism. It is erroneous to argue that these tribes and clans strengthened Sikhism. It was so assumed by those who could not fathom the mystique of the Sikh faith. It is a paradox to see the resurrected Sikh Jatts value placement in Hindu caste hierarchy so much to secure elevation nearer the Vaish status, instead of cherishing the honour and valor reposed by dint of their Sikh spirit and background. Incongruously, in other states of India, Hindu Jats are clamouring for ‘backward status.’ However, Sikh Jatts alone may not be singled out but others belonging to Khatri and Arora as well as Brahmin ancestry continue to bask in their superior Hindu caste syndrome and frequently enquire about the gotra / subcaste and janam-patri details to contract marriages and feel superior in flouting their castes.

Guru Nanak wanted to free human ingenuity by erasing such formalities as customary puja or namaz, the imposed meditation and reflection at only prescribed hours at the temple or mosque. Instead, man was meant to give up all vices in thought and action and develop all time love of all creation, to give others the taste of goodness and purity without any favour in return. There was to be no recompense and remuneration like the old assurances of a cosy corner in heaven or karmic improvement. Good deeds should have their own sense of fulfillment and peace. There should be no caste barrier, not even a distinction of being from the faithful lot compared to the non-conformists. All days, months and seasons are equally blessed and sanctified when one acts piously to feel whole and clean.

Guru Nanak offered no carrot or stick but wanted each person to do well to others in a spirit of graciousness of piety even on receiving adverse treatment and an assured moral and spiritual upliftment as well as societal welfare. Well entrenched, well placed people understood the difference between strictures of old rites and rituals and the new dharma of Guru Nanak, but were too lethargic to move. It was mostly the depressed classes, the untouchables and those outside the pale of the varnashram of caste Hindus who eagerly responded to the Sikhi of Guru Nanak. There was a new reformed stance and the removal of stigma of many ages which had suppressed these unfortunates, who wanted their slice of liberation and freedom. And Guru Nanak offered it to them on a platter and equated himself with the lowest of the lowly. There was to be no high or low, no superior or inferior, no leader or follower. All were to sit together in meditation and eat together from the same kitchen, out of one bowl, from the same fire and same grain.

That sense of equality dawned on all, from the rays of one sun, from the same wind and the earth. Guru Gobind Singh made them sip the ambrosia from one bowl, to think alike, look alike and attain a new life from their change of attitude and objectives. The challenge for the new order was a unique experience for those who were born slaves and outcastes and found themselves elevated with a turban of honour and a dagger to wear and wield for their rights. The system of Nanak-Guru-Gobind Singh does not believe in pleading or beseeching to bestow dignity to man. It develops one with the change of outlook of a rejuvenated person. Each person becomes as strong and as important as his belief expands. A day will dawn when these depressed people will, of their own, reject the label of suppression, the abhorring distinction of backwardness and the charity of reservations.

The tanners were given dignity by our Gurus by renaming them as Ramdasia; the Rangrettas as Guru-ka-beta; Thokas as Ramgarhias; Kalals as Guru–ka-Lal, etc. It was a deliberate act to instill in them human dignity and not a continued reminder of their ‘backwardness’ and ‘untouchability’ as a perpetual social stigma. That spirit produced visionaries like Bhai Mani Singh, warriors like Bachhitar Singh, Baj Singh, Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, Jassa Singh Kalal to name a few; ideologues like Bhai Mansukh, Giani Dit Singh and Prof Gurmukh Singh and selfless devotees like Bhai Makhan Shah and Bhai Lakhi Shah and long lists of those martyrs who selflessly died at the alter of Sikhism. There are strict injunctions to the Sikhs not to flaunt their castes and sub-castes, high or low. There is no ‘asli’ or ‘nakli’.

Therefore, there is no need to despair about our apparently estranged brethren who are searching for their roots in the Panth. They need reminding of the great deeds accomplished by their ancestors in the service of the community and the Gurus, in their carrying the divine message to all corners of India as it was spread out then as well as in defence of Sikhism in battles shoulder-to-shoulder with their other brothers-in-arms. Those are glorious pages devoted to the saga of their belonging and service to Sikhism. We need to revive that spirit of camaraderie and to assure them that they rightfully belong to the mainstream of the Panth. We wholeheartedly support their cause, their sentiments and their cherished objectives to find their niche in the Panth and their equitable rights like other suppressed classes and solidly stand by them.


ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2010, All rights reserved.