By Pritam Singh and Rajkumar Hans | OPINION |
It is a beautiful coincidence that in the year we are celebrating the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak and remembering his egalitarian teachings, comes another anniversary of an event 100 years ago on this day that was inspired by his teachings. This remarkable event happened on October 12, 1920 in the premises of Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple), Amritsar.
A practice had emerged whose precise origins are still not clear whereby the lowest caste group – what we call Dalits today – in Sikh society was not allowed to offer the degh at Darbar Sahib. This appears so appalling now that it seems unbelievable, but it had been going on then for several decades. The revolt that occurred that day against this most reprehensible practice was momentous in multiple ways. It was momentous because it showed how inspiring were the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib containing the baani of the Sikh gurus and many bhagats that the downtrodden of the Sikh community felt empowered spiritually to question the retrograde practice of casteism being followed by the pujaris at Darbar Sahib. It was momentous also because it raised many searching and troubling questions about the historical evolution of the Sikh community and the imprint it left on the institutions, religious practices and the political movements of the Sikh community in the twentieth century.
On that day, a group of initiatied Dalit Sikhs, who had organised themselves under the banner of Khalsa Baradari, accompanied by an enlightened group of students and professors of Khalsa College, Amritsar which included Bawa Harkishan Singh and Teja Singh (who later on became the Principal of the College) marched from Jallianwala Bagh in a religious procession carrying the degh of Karah Prasad to offer at Darbar Sahib. A word spread in the Darbar Sahib premises about this unexpected and unusual event. It created an atmosphere of commotion in the premises and almost near panic among the pujaris (priests) entrenched at Darbar Sahib. When the procession reached Darbar Sahib, the Head Granthi Gurbachan Singh first did what the priests were used to doing namely refusing to accept the Karah Prasad prepared by what they considered untouchables. When the two professors, who were eminent figures in the Sikh community, confronted the pujaris that their refusal to accept the Karah Prasad prepared by devout Sikhs of the gurus was against the principles of Sikh religion, the pujaris aware of the respect the learned professors commanded in the Sikh community, relented and agreed to a compromise namely to seek the vaak (the shabad of advice) of Guru Granth Sahib. The vaak on opening Guru Granth Sahib that appeared was a beautiful composition of the third guru, Gur Amar Das, which was an invocation to God to forgive the sinful and worthless ones and bestow His grace to all to serve Him. This moved everyone gathered there to tears. The Granthi overawed by emotions recited the prayers, accepted the prasad and distributed it. That moment was one of those where decades get compressed into one and history takes a new turn. Darbar Sahib was now again open to Dalits for ever as it was to anyone else.
The historic event triggered in quick succession a series of far reaching developments. The Jatha consisting of Khalsa Baradari members and reformist intellectuals moved from Harmandar Sahib to Akal Takhat to offer prayers there. The priests of Akal Takhat unable to comprehend the events proceeding at a fast speed, panicked and fled. Kartar Singh Jhabbar, a prominent Sikh activist, proposed that Akal Takhat cannot be left unattended and appealed for 25 volunteers who would look after the ceremonies at the Takhat. Only 17 volunteers came forward of which 10 were Mazhabi and Ravidasia Dalit Sikhs. This created a furore among the arrogant upper caste Sikhs who spread a rumor that chuhras and chamars had taken control of the Golden Temple. The episode also stirred the Government. The next day the Deputy Commissioner called Sarbrah (the government appointed caretaker of Akal Takhat), the priests and representatives of protesting Sikhs for solving the crisis. The priests did not come, leading eventually to the formation of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) in a short time. The foundations of the historic gurdwara reform movement to liberate the gurdwaras from the corrupt mahants were laid and this subsequently gave birth to Akali Dal.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
That historical turning point on October 12, 1920 raises many questions. When were the restrictions imposed on the entry of Dalit Sikhs to a place which from day one of its opening in the late sixteenth century, was designed to be open to everyone without any restriction? Why were those restrictions imposed and who imposed those restrictions?
These restrictions were not only against the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib, they were also not in conformity with the breakthrough made by Sikhi regarding many egalitarian practices during the early period of Sikhism.
Guru Nanak’s lifelong companion especially through his over 20 years of udasis was a low caste Muslim, Bhai Mardana. The sacred text Adi Granth compiled by Guru Arjun Dev was an all-embracing inclusive granth carrying baanis of Muslim sufis and lower caste Bhagat and Sant thinkers along with the baanis of 6 Gurus. Bhai Jaita, a Dalit warrior, had brought the severed head of Guru Teg Bahadur from Delhi to Kirtapur. He also wrote a long poem Sri Gur Katha around Guru Gobind Singh which demonstrated that the gurus had opened the gates of education to everyone defying the old Brahmanical practice of monopoly of Brahmin caste over learning. At the momentous episode of the creation of Khalsa, among the five beloved ones (panj piaras), four of them came from lower caste artisan communities. Caste distinctions and discrimination were abolished while initiating them with amrit taken from the same bowl. Guru himself asked the Panj Piyaras to also initiate him, partaking the amrit from the same bowl, thus also abolishing the difference between guru and chela (aape gur chela). This was the radical step in establishing the egalitarian social order. This spirit had led to establishing the first democratic revolution in the world under the leadership of Banda Singh Bahadur. This had also produced warriors and leaders from all communities including Dalits. Among many, Bir Singh Ranghreta emerged as a successful leader when after 30 years of Sikhs persecution, 5 dals were created of which he was the leader of the one. The Sikhs had combated Abdali while also dying for the sake of Panth. Ironically, it was during the formation of Misals in the early 1760s when he was treacherously killed along with his several Dalit warriors by Ala Singh of Patiala and Charat Singh, grandfather of Ranjit Singh in the Darbar Sahib complex.
WHEN MAHANTS HELD SWAY
Against the background of these developments, the available historical evidence suggests that the roots of the abominable practice of denial of entry to Dalit Sikhs to the sacred shrine of Golden Temple can be traced to the specific circumstances of the eighteenth century when the Sikh community was involved in an armed combat against the powerful rulers of the Mughal empire. The armed Sikh guerrillas could not manage the gurdwaras too while carrying on the struggle for the mere survival of the community against the hostile and still mighty Moghuls and the raiding armies of Ahmad Shah Abdali. The gurdwaras, including Darbar Sahib and Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, came under the control and management of Udasi and Nirmala sects of the Sikhs who were pacifists. Since the founder of the Udasi sect Baba Sri Chand was the son of Guru Nanak, the Sikhs were respectful to the sect. The weakened Mughal rulers, too, tolerated this pacifist sect as a tactic against the armed guerrilla bands of the Sikh resistance. The mahants of the Udasi sect reintroduced many of the Brahmanical practices including casteism in the management of the Gurdwaras.
The rise of the Sikh aristocracy in the latter half of the eighteenth-century culminating in the Sikh empire of Ranjit Singh also gave fillip to upper caste priestly community whose religious services the aristocracy sought while downgrading the lower caste Sikhs. However, even despite these degradations that had taken place, the force of gurus’ egalitarian teachings could be seen even during Ranjit Singh’s regime. One complicated example of that is that in 1826, Mazhabian da Bunga was constructed in the Golden Temple complex. A similar bunga was also constructed in the Tarn Taran Durbar Sahib. It demonstrated that though castes existed but there were such institutions that signified equality between castes. This was far from the ideals of Sikhism but even this compromised equality was a clear signal that it was different from the structured and graded inequality that characterised Brahmanical Hinduism. The later demolitions of these bungas was an indication of the resurgence of clear upper caste hegemony in Sikh society.
The British rulers further empowered the upper caste Sikhs through their acts of patronage for consolidating their imperial rule. The historical culmination of this trend resulted in the ugly practice of discrimination against Dalit Sikhs in the gurdwaras against the egalitarian teachings of the Sikh gurus. It was the realisation among the Sikh intelligentsia in the later nineteenth century about the need to fight against the creeping influence of Brahmanical casteist practices among the Sikhs that the Singh Sabha Movement arose. One of the chief ideologists and organisers of the Singh Sabha movement was Bhai Dit Singh, a Dalit by background.
It is in this context that the significance of October 12, 1920 needs to be celebrated as a part of the larger project of rewriting Sikh history. Most well-known works on the history of the Sikhs have been written by upper caste Sikhs who have generally marginalised the contributions and sacrifices of Dalit Sikhs, and this self-assertion of Dalit Sikhs on October 12, 1920 for religious equality according to the teachings of the Sikh gurus rarely finds mention in those accounts.
The project of rewriting history and the celebration of the enormous contributions made by Dalit Sikhs in the making of that history is one way of empowering them – spiritually and ideologically – to fight against the continued practices of multiple forms of discrimination Dalit Sikhs face in Punjab and in the Punjabi diaspora.
If remembering and celebrating 12th October 1920 enables, at one end, the Dalit Sikhs to be connected to their proud place in Sikh history, it should also, on the other end, make the upper caste Sikhs feel a sense of humility. Undoubtedly, it would be a combination of pressure from below by Dalit Sikhs against caste discriminations and self-critical thinking among upper caste Sikhs influenced by the egalitarian teachings of Sikhi that the scourge of casteism in Sikh society in Punjab and outside can be confronted. Capitalism as a socio-economic system by being based on a structure of class inequalities, tends to reinforce casteism. Building a true egalitarian society, therefore, demands a vision opposed both to capitalism and casteism.
 For an analysis of the co-existing and competing paradigms of non-violence and violence in Sikh theology and history beyond the simplistic notions of Sikhs as a pacifist or militaristic community, see Pritam Singh, ‘The political economy of the cycles of violence and non-violence in the Sikh struggle for identity and political power: Implications for Indian federalism’, Third World Quarterly, Vol 28, Issue 3, 2007 si
Pritam Singh is a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, University of Oxford while Rajkumar Hans is a former professor at the M. S. University of Baroda, Gujarat
* This is the opinion of the writer/s and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
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