In India’s Punjab, a state with a high population of Sikhs, an effort is under way to end centuries of caste discrimination. The effort is being led by gurdwara (Sikh temple) committees, which are working with local people to end this practice.
In the Navi Basti area on the outskirts of Dhanaula town in Sangrur district, daily wage earner Hardev Singh (name changed) visits a Sikh temple every morning before going to work. Two kilometers away, Gurdyal Singh visits another gurdwara located in the hustle and bustle of a market area surrounded by shops.
They visit different shrines because they belong to different castes – Hardev is a Dalit while Gurdyal is a Jat. All across Punjab, in both rural and urban areas, separate gurdwaras, though they have similar rituals, are designated for Dalits and Jats.
Casteist gurdwaras, as they are termed, also define the hierarchy of caste in the Sikh community – a practice generally followed by Hindus. This is a matter of great irony, as Guru Nanak Dev founded Sikhism on the principles of equality. “I am neither a child, a young man, nor an ancient; nor am I of any caste,” he is quoted to have said.
An incident on January 17 shook the conscience of the highest Sikh body, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), and goaded it into taking action against casteism.
According to reports, a Dalit Sikh, Kaka Singh, and his wife Ranjit Kaur were not given utensils for the bhog (a funeral rite) for his mother at a gurdwara in Maanwala village, in Punjab’s Sangrur district. Soon after the incident, SGPC chief Gobind Singh Longowal met with the victim and decided to start a campaign for “one village, one gurdwara” to end casteism among Sikhs.
Residents of Dhurkot village in Faridkot district have taken the lead in this campaign by merging two temples into one, while similar moves are being reported from villages near Jagraon and Kotkapura.
It was ironic that this happened in Punjab despite the fact that the state has the highest percentage in India of scheduled caste (SC) people, who have been traditionally branded as “lower castes” or “untouchables.” Punjab accounts for 4.3% of the SC population of India. The Dalit population of the state is estimated to be around 8.86 million, which is 31.94% of its total population. At the individual level, as many as 98.5% of Dalits are Sikhs.
Sikh scholars say that the founder of Sikhism and the first of the 10 Sikh gurus, Guru Nanak Dev, described all humans as equals and rejected the idea of a caste system. His successors followed in his footsteps and worked to build a casteless society. In line with this, langar (kitchens) were established for all people to gather to eat food while sitting at the same level on the floor; this principle of equality is also why all Sikh men have the surname “Singh” and all Sikh women are called “Kaur.”
But over time, casteism crept into the society. Today, in most villages in Punjab, you will come across separate gurdwaras for the high-caste Jat Sikhs and for “Mazhabi Sikhs” or Dalits.
Hardev says that while visiting the gurdwara is not a “sin” for Dalits, taking part in religious ceremonies and using langar (a free meal provided in gurdwaras) utensils is a taboo. “We’ve been told since childhood that the Sikh religion is based on equality, but ironically we were taken by our parents to a separate gurdwara built especially for Dalits,” he said.
Experts say that casteism was induced in Sikh society to establish political dominance. The idea was to create a wedge within the community by separating their places of worship.
Dr Anurag Singh, former director of the Sikh Itihas (history) Research Board, a body under the SGPC, said: “Casteist Sikh temples mushroomed in Punjab mostly in the late 1960s with political leaders trying to establish their dominion by giving seed to hatred within the Sikh community. As panchayats [local governments] in the state increased, these casteist shrines grew as well.”
The scholar said there were villages where up to five gurdwaras had been constructed for different castes and sects. “Surprisingly, casteist gurdwaras are now a common sight even in Canada, which has a substantial Sikh population,” he added.
The issue recently took a political turn as well, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Punjab asking the SGPC to act against casteism. Prominent Dalit leader Vijay Sampla, the federal minister of state for social justice and empowerment, said Dalits in Punjab were being discriminated against.
While the BJP has a considerable vote bank in some parts of urban Punjab, especially the Doaba belt, it has no base in rural areas, where it depends on its ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
Beyond gurdwaras to erase casteism
The caste barrier in Punjab is not confined only to religious shrines. It extends to cremation grounds as well, with separate crematoriums being constructed for the Dalits and actual, physical walls being built to segregate them in death as well.
Kiranpreet Kaur, a professor of sociology at Panjab University, Chandigarh, said different gurdwaras for various castes could be explained through the concept of dominant caste. “In Punjab, Jats are numerically more than the other castes. To establish their dominance, they build separate gurdwaras for themselves where members of lower castes are not allowed to perform religious rituals.”
The SGPC believes that the awareness campaign it has initiated against the caste system will bring results in the future, if not immediately. Bhupinder Singh Bhalwan, an SGPC member from Sangrur and a Jat, said after India gained independence from British rule, the influence of the Jat community increased in rural Punjab.
“They wanted to arrest power, and so they started looking down on lower castes. As a result, the lower castes were not allowed to enter gurdwaras meant for the higher castes,” Bhalwan said. However, he added, the new generation understands the perils of the caste system, and things are beginning to change for the better.