Caste in the periphery


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MUCH of the ‘classical’ literature on caste, untouchability or even dalit politics has emanated from the western and southern Indian experiences. It was relatively recently, after the rise of bahujan politics in Uttar Pradesh and the frequent news of bloody caste-wars from Bihar, that caste began to be seen as an important actor in northern India as well.

The peripheral regions of India, viz. Punjab, Kashmir or the North East where the majority populations are non-Hindu, are still not seen to be of much significance for the understanding of caste or its politics. The anthropologist and sociologist working on India would, for good enough reasons, have viewed these regions as being ‘different’ from the mainstream Indian/Hindu civilization. Though one can find the presence of some elements of caste everywhere in South Asia, its discriminatory practice was, after all, ideologically supported only in the Hindu religion.

While ideological or ideational aspects of caste were certainly important for a theoretical understanding of the system, it was its practice on the ground that determined the nature of caste politics. Furthermore, during the post-Mandal period or, to use M.N. Srinivas’s expression, in its late 20th century avatar (Srinivas 1996), the question of caste has come up ‘from below’ primarily as a question of politics. Thus, while it may have been important for anthropological theorizations of caste to focus on where it could be seen in its ‘purest’ forms, the question of caste will perhaps need to be raised and theorized differently when the primary concern is political, viz. how to fight caste oppression.

The recent debate on caste and race provides a good example of this prolepsis. For those involved with dalit politics, equating caste with race was only a step forward in exposing the oppressive side of caste. The old anthropological discourses on caste remained marginal to their concerns. The professional social anthropologist’s insistence that it was after a considerable amount of scientific research that they were able to establish the fact that caste was not race did not really matter to the activists. Even Ambedkar’s arguments on the subject were ignored. The question for them was not of discovering or understanding the ‘essentials’ of caste, but rather about how best the fight could be taken forward.

Viewed from this perspective, it may be useful to look at caste and caste politics from the experience of a peripheral region where, though the brahminical ideology has not been so strong, the practice of caste still exists. Contemporary Indian Punjab is an interesting case for such an exercise. A view of caste from the ‘periphery’ can also be a relevant point of a comparison with, what can be called, the ‘brahmincentric’ notion of caste, emanating from India’s ‘centres’.

Apart from being an interesting case for understanding caste in the periphery, Punjab is important because among all the states of India it has the highest proportion of scheduled castes in its total population. The scheduled castes accounted for 28.3% of the total population of state in 1991, much higher than the all-India average of 16.32%.1 Another important feature of the state is that the ‘low-caste’ Sikhs of Punjab are the only dalits from a non-Hindu religious community listed among the scheduled castes. Their counterparts in other ‘minority’ communities were not granted such a status, with even the Buddhist converts enumerated as scheduled castes only from the 1991 census.



Historically speaking, despite its differences in social composition, Punjab has been an important centre of anti-caste politics. It was in Punjab that B.R. Ambedkar, on an invitation from the Jat Pat Todak Mandal, was to deliver his famous lecture on the annihilation of caste (which he eventually could not because the invitation was withdrawn by the organizers). Apart from the reformist movements of the Hindus and Sikhs, colonial Punjab also witnessed the emergence of an important auto-nomous dalit movement. The famous Ad Dharam movement initiated by Mangoo Ram during the 1920s has been among the most successful of dalit mobilizations in the history of modern India. The Ad Dharam movement not only successfully mobilized a large majority of the chamars from the Doaba region, it also played an important role in transforming the social identity of dalits in the region (see Jurgensmeyer 1988).



During the post-independence period, Punjab has been in the forefront of agricultural development. Though a lot has been written on the green revolution, there has been little commentary on its impact on caste relations in the agrarian society of Punjab.

Despite the presence of the Bahujan Samaj Party in some pockets of the state and its occasional electoral success, Punjab has not seen many dalit mobilizations during the recent decades. Thus, there is a need, while talking about caste in the periphery, to not merely establish the fact that caste and caste conflicts do exist in Punjab, though different in nature, but equally to uncover reasons for the lack of a creative response from the local middle class dalit elite. Towards this end one needs to examine the social and economic changes experienced in the region and the ways in which they have empowered or disempowered dalits.

I shall try to identify various phases in dalit politics in Punjab through a preliminary historical survey of caste politics in the region. After briefly outlining the specificities of caste relations in the region,2 I shall focus on the kind of choices that were made available to the dalits of Punjab by colonial rule and nationalist politics. What kinds of strategieswere deployed by different dalit communities to overcome the ‘stigma’ of untouchability and, in the process, how they negotiated their ‘traditional’ identities, particularly during the last century.

Given that Sikhism doctrinally does not support the practice of caste, it may be interesting to see how the dalits of Punjab have made use of this available ‘cultural resource’ while trying to negotiate their identities with the dominant communities in their immediate social context. Such an understanding may help us unravel the nature of dalits politics in Punjab today.



Much before the enunciation of modern dalit politics, the legitimacy of caste hierarchy was vehemently questioned by the Sikh gurus. Though all the ten Sikh gurus came from upper caste khatri families, their crusade against brahminical ritualism was genuine. This is perhaps most clearly reflected in the fact that along with their own writings, Sikh gurus included the writings of several of their contemporaries who had dalit origins while compiling the Sikh holy scripture, the Adi Granth. The most prominent among them were Ravidas, Namdev and Kabir. The new institutions initiated by the Sikh gurus, such as sangat (congregation) and langar (community kitchen or the practice of cooking and eating together, sitting in a row irrespective of caste distinctions), were radical statements against the brahminical system of caste hierarchy.

However, despite the crusade of the Sikh gurus against the idea of ritual hierarchy, the institution of caste did not disappear from the region. Even among the followers of the guru, the practice of caste based distinctions has continued. In a sense, even the idea of ‘pollution’ continued to be practiced, though not as strongly as in other parts of the subcontinent (H. Singh 1977; Jodhka 2000).

Though the institution of caste has survived in the region, the frameworks of caste hierarchy developed elsewhere do not always help us understand its functioning or dynamics in a region like Punjab. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the practice of caste in rural Punjab/Sikh society is that it functions without the presence of, what is considered as the most important actor in the system, viz. the brahmins. Though brahmins as a caste community do exist in Punjab, they are ritually important only for the urban upper caste Hindus, who numerically constitute a small proportion of the population of the state.3



The marginal status of brahmins in the region is perhaps not entirely a result of the Sikh movement. The predominance of Islam in Punjab until 1947 too would have played its role.4 However, it was not only among the followers of Islam and Sikhism that brahmins did not matter, even the Hindus of Punjab did not seem to revere them the way they did elsewhere. Writing on the social life in the late colonial Punjab, Prakash Tandon, an upper caste Hindu khatri, comments in his celebrated autobiographical Punjabi Century that the brahmins of Punjab lived a ‘frugal life’ and it was rare to find ‘an affluent brahmin’ in the region (Tondon 1961:77). Most brahmins in his native village were treated as members of the menial castes. Like other menials, they too were mostly dependent upon the food they collected from their jajmans.

Giving a vivid description of their social status, he writes: ‘With us brahmins were an underprivileged class and exercised little or no influence on the community. Perhaps Muslims had so discouraged temples and external worship that the brahmins had no place left from where to exercise their authority.

‘Our brahmins did not as a rule even have the role of teachers, because until the British opened regular schools teaching was done by Muslim mullahs in the mosques or by Sikh granthis... in the gurudwaras. Our brahmins were rarely erudite; in fact many of them were barely literate, possessing only a perfunctory knowledge of rituals and knowing just the necessary mantras by heart’ (Tandon 1961: 76).

Similarly, commenting on the lack of respect for brahmins in Punjab, Saberwal quotes Chanana: ‘In Punjabi the word pandat (pandit) denotes a brahmin and may connote some respect for the latter. But the word bahman (brahmin) almost always carries a little contempt’ (as in Saberwal 1976:10).



However, despite the insignificant position of brahmins and the marginal influence of brahminical ideology, the classical form of jajmani relations did exist in rural Punjab. In other words, a marginal position of brahmins did not necessarily mean the absence of all kinds of disabilities for dalits in rural Punjab.

Caste has remained an important parameter of social inequality in the region. While khatris/aroras enjoyed both power and status in urban Punjab, the landowning jats and rajputs dominated village society.

Punjab dalits, however, were employed not only in their traditional occupations but also worked on land. Writing about the chuhras and chamars of Punjab in the late 19th century, G. W. Briggs mentions that they ‘were little more than serfs; they were the hired labourers who followed the plough, drove the bullocks and sowed the seeds of both the tenants and the landlords... [they] performed most of the menial offices of the village’ (Briggs quoted in Prasad 2000: 26).



As elsewhere in the subcontinent, the establishment of British colonial rule in the region in the middle of the 19th century had far reaching implications for social and economic life. From a caste/dalit perspective, the immediate effect of colonial rule was that it opened up new avenues of employment. A sudden increase in demand for leather goods, such as boots and shoes from the newly set up military cantonment in Jallandhar, brought prosperity to enterprising chamars of the area. Dalits were also recruited into the colonial army. Along with the jats, they travelled across the globe, and some even migrated to western countries in search of better jobs. Mangoo Ram, who later became the leader of the Ad Dharam movement, had, for example, worked in the United States before returning to Punjab in 1925.

Along with the British rulers came Christian missionaries to spread the message of the Church. Not surprisingly, the first to find the appeal of the Church attractive were the members of untouchable castes. The first conversion is reported to have taken place in 1873 when a man named Ditt was baptized in Sialkot. ‘To the surprise of the missionaries, Ditt was followed by hundreds of thousands of others from lower castes, and Punjab Christianity became a de facto movement’ (Juergensmeyer 1988: 181). By 1890 there were 10,171 Christians living in 525 villages of Punjab; by 1911 their number had gone up to 1,63,994 and by 1921 to over 3,00,000.5 Most of them came from a particular untouchable caste, the chuhras (scavengers) and mainly hailed from rural areas. Given the nature of the rural power structure, ‘conversion to Christianity for these highly vulnerable people was a very risky act of rebellion’ (Webster 1999: 96-7). The landholders were offended and tried to dissuade them through various means (Prasad 2000: 40).

Conversions also sent ‘a tremor of fear through the upper caste Hindu and Sikh elite’ (Juergensmeyer 1988: 181). The reform movements like Arya Samaj and Singh Sabhas began to compete for winning the untouchables over to their side (see Sharma 1985). The introduction of the Census made the ‘religious communities’ sensitive to numbers. ‘Numbers were equated with strength’ (Grewal 1994:131).



The militant assertion of Hindutva identity by the Arya Samaj had already sparked off a debate on the question of Sikh identity. Sikhs began to assert that theirs was a separate religion and objected to being clubbed with the Hindus (Oberoi 1994). The practice of untouchability or discrimination against the low castes among the Sikhs was attributed to the continued influence of Hinduism on the community by the new reformist Sikh leadership. Thus, the struggle against caste and untouchability that were seen as core Hindu values, became implicated in the movement for a separate religious identity for the Sikhs.

The Singh Sabha movement for the liberation of Sikh gurudwaras from the ‘Hindu mahants’ launched during the 1920s also became a movement for de-Hinduization of the Sikh religion. One of the main demands of the movement was ‘unquestioned entrance to Sikh places of worship’ for all (Juergensmeyer 1988: 28). Some members of the Sikh Khalsa Diwan tried to create their own ‘depressed class movements’ to encourage scheduled caste support.



The movement was not confined to the liberation of historic Sikh gurudwaras; its impact went further. I.P. Singh, in his study of a village in Amritsar district, reported that the decline of brahmins in the village began around the time these reform movements were launched, i.e., 1922-26. It was after these movements that a low caste Sikh was appointed a priest in the local gurudwara who began to give equal treatment to members of all castes in the village (I.P. Singh 1977: 81-82).

This process continued during the post-independence period as well. The introduction of a new Constitution strengthened those mobilizing against caste. Reporting on his village, I.P. Singh writes: The modern preachers of equality of castes like the sarpanch and his young friends point out that what the new law demands is just what the gurus had preached. It is in keeping with the percepts of Sikh religion. There lies the major difference of caste structure between a Sikh village and a Hindu village. While in a Hindu village caste hierarchy and differences have religious sanction behind them, there are no such sanctions in the Sikh religion. Thus it becomes easier to propagate and instill equality of caste relations in a Sikh village (ibid. 79).

While Sikh reformers attacked caste, the leadership, aware of the significance of numbers, did not deny its existence among Sikhs, or that the low castes among Sikhs did not face any disabilities due to their birth. The Sikh leadership, in fact, had to lobby hard with the national leadership that along with the Hindus, certain Sikh castes should be included in the list of scheduled castes for the provision of special benefits and reservations. They were obviously worried that if the reservation benefits were not extended to Sikhs, the low castes among them would declare their religion as Hinduism. Nayar reports that this ‘concession was achieved in return for an agreement by Sikh leaders that no further political demands would be made in the future on behalf of the Sikh community’ (Nayar 1966: 238).



Apart from the competition among Christians, Arya Samaj Hindus and Sikhs during the colonial period, Punjab also witnessed autonomous mobilizations by local dalits. The most important of these was the Ad Dharm movement. In the favourable atmosphere created by social reformers, by the early 1920s some of the chamars began to think of their own organization. Most of the early leadership of the Ad Dharm movement had grown under the influence of Arya Samaj, but felt uncomfortable with its overall ideology.

The Ad Dharam movement took off with the arrival of Mangoo Ram on the scene. Though the son of a rich chamar, his family had to bear the stigma of untouchability. He spent much of his early life in the United States where he got involved with the Gadar movement. On his return to Punjab in 1925, he set up a school for lower caste children with the help of the Arya Samaj, but soon distanced himself from the Samaj and took over the Ad Dharm movement.

The Ad Dharm movement saw itself as a new religious movement. It advocated that, ‘Untouchables were a qaum, a distinct religious community similar to those of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, and that their qaum had existed from time immemorial’ (Juergensmeyer 1988: 45). During the 1931 Census, the Ad Dharmis insisted on being listed as a separate religious community, distinct from the Hindus.

Their demand was accepted despite stiff opposition from the local Hindu leadership. In the 1931 Punjab Census, 4,18,789 persons reported themselves as Ad Dharmis, nearly equal to the Christian population of the province. They accounted for about 1.5% of the total population and around a-tenth of the total low caste population of Punjab. Nearly 80% of the low castes of Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur districts reported themselves as Ad Dharmis (ibid: 77).



In other parts of the state, however, locally dominant groups were able to thwart the Ad Dharmi drive rather effectively (Khan in Saberwal 1973: 144). After the Census, the Ad Dharm movement was absorbed in Ambedkar’s Scheduled Castes Federation that was later transformed into the Republican Party of India. While Ambedkar enjoyed a great deal of influence, particularly among the Ad Dharmis, and made several visits to the province (Ahir 1992), few among them followed his strategy of converting to Buddhism for social mobility in the Punjab (Saberwal 1973: 145).

After Independence, though the Ad Dharmis are listed among the Hindu scheduled castes of the Punjab, they do not follow Hindu rituals. In fact, over the years they have moved closer to Sikhism, a point that I shall come back to in the concluding section.

While new opportunities that opened up with the establishment of colonial rule and through social reform movements benefited dalits, the colonial policy of agricultural development worked against their interests. The passing of the Punjab Alienation of Land Act in 1901 clubbed dalits along with the ‘non-agriculturists’ castes. Consequently, they were legally denied access to landholding. The act was obviously passed exclusively keeping in view the interests of the dominant land owning castes. Even though a large majority of dalits worked on land as labourers, and in some cases as tenants and owner- cultivators, they were excluded from the right to own land in Punjab (Prasad 2000: 35-7).

This had far reaching implications for the dalits of Punjab. The proportion of landholdings owned/cultivated by them in the state is one of the lowest in the India and clearly reflected in the available official statistics. For example, as against the all India average of 25.44%, only 4.80% of the main workers among the scheduled castes in Punjab were employed as cultivators. This percentage was as high as 42.63% for Uttar Pradesh and 67.67% for Himachal Pradesh.6 Similarly, only 0.40% of all landholdings in Punjab were held by the scheduled castes in 1991. The corresponding figure for Uttar Pradesh was 24.50% and for Bihar 12.11%.7



The most important development in the region during the post-independence period was the agrarian transformation experienced in the state with the successful application of the green revolution technology. Apart from an increase in agricultural productivity brought about by the growing use of new seeds, chemical fertilizers and machines, the green revolution also transformed the social structure of agriculture. As elsewhere, it led to the development of capitalist social relations of production. It transformed the old structures and ties between landowners and landless. Even when the forms of relationships remained the same, their contents changed.

The commercialization of agriculture led to a near complete disintegration of the jajmani ties and many of those employed in their traditional caste occupations moved to agricultural labour. The old system of keeping siris (attached labour) also changed into a formalized system of employing naukars (sometimes still called as siris) on monthly or annual wages. Those working as tenants too were asked to vacate lands by the landowners. The new technology had made agriculture a different kind of enterprise. The growing intensification of cultivation and increasing popularity of crops like paddy increased the demand for labour as well.



As mentioned above, much of the agricultural labour in the state was provided by dalits. Some of the tenants too were dalits. They, however, could not meet all the additional demand for labour. It was around this time that the poor from other less developed pockets of northern India, such as eastern Uttar Pradesh and later Bihar, began to migrate to Punjab.

The increased supply of labour had a direct implication on the bargaining power of local labour. Since only a small number of dalits owned agricultural land, their benefits from green revolution could have only been through increased wage rates. Though agricultural wages in Punjab did go up, it was not enough to transform their lives in a significant way.

While the landless dalits gained little from the green revolution, it further strengthened their immediate adversary, the landowning dominant castes. It was not only at the village level that the new agrarian technology made them stronger, the jats emerged as the most powerful community at the regional level too. Punjab, over the years, came to be identified with agriculture, which was not just an occupation of the dominant community but also came to be seen as a way of life. When looked at from the standpoint of power relations, the triumph of agrarianism was evidence of the growing hegemony of the dominant land owning community of the jats and, in a way, further weakened the dalit in the agrarian setting of Punjab.

The social reform movements initiated during the colonial period indeed had far reaching implications for the dalits and their politics in Punjab. The competitive reformism and autonomous movements further weakened the already marginalized brahmins in the social life of the state. A direct implication of this was that the ideas of pollution and untouchability began to loose their hold not only in urban Punjab (Saberwal 1976) but also in much of rural Punjab.



Though conversions to Christianity did not become a popular movement here, the dalits, over the years have systematically distanced themselves from Hinduism. While a large section of the chuhras converted to Sikhism, mostly during the 20th century, the chamars of Doaba, who were influenced by the Ad Dharam movement, too have moved closer to Sikhism (though many of them may still be reporting themselves as Hindus in the Census enumerations). Almost every village of the Doaba region has a separate gurudwara of Ad Dharmis where, along with the Guru Granth, they keep a picture of Guru Ravi Das, who was a chamar by caste and whose writings are included in the Guru Granth.

Why did they need to build separate gurudwaras when most of the villages already had one? The village gurudwara is the gurudwara of the jats. ‘We can surely go there but we have to do so on their terms,’ is the typical answer that comes from the Ad Dharmis. Building their own gurudwaras was a statement of autonomy, a question of pride and a form of local level resistance for the dalits.



This sense of autonomy among the dalits of Doaba sub-region of Punjab8 can be attributed to several factors. First, the social reform movements in the region made them politically conscious and many among them took to higher education. Second, over the years, they occupationally diversified themselves so significantly that only a small proportion remains dependent on agricultural labour (Abbi and Singh 1997; Judge 1997; Jodhka 2000). Some of them also have their family members working abroad; while jats go to the West, dalits send their children to the countries of the Gulf.

A large majority of dalits in the Malwa and Majha sub-regions of Punjab, as also a significant proportion in Doaba, however, are economically weak and continue to be dependent upon the landowning dominant castes. Here too, the question for the dalits is primarily one of social and economic dependency rather than that of untouchability and pollution. For dalit political organizations and NGOs in Punjab the problem is of oppression by landowners and the practice of unfree/bonded labour rather than about the hegemony of the brahmin. Caste in Punjab can perhaps be understood better in the framework of ‘agrarianism’, rather than through the more popular notion of brahminism.



1. Their proportions were even higher in some districts of the state. In Nawan Shahir, for example, their numbers in 1991 were as high as 39%. Given the fact that the scheduled caste population is growing at a rate that is higher than the rest, their population is likely to have touched the 30% mark by now. The 2001 Census figures on the subject have yet to be released. Proportionately, the scheduled castes are also less urbanized than the rest and consequently, their proportions are obviously higher in the rural areas of the state. There are many villages in Punjab where the scheduled castes are in a majority.

2. I have done so at length elsewhere; see Jodhka 2000.

3. The upper caste Hindus in present day Indian Punjab will not be more than 10 to 15% of its total population.

4. The Muslims were the majority community in Punjab with more than half of the total population of united Punjab before its partition in 1947.

5. See Webster 1999, p. 96 and Grewal 1994, p. 130.

6. See Statistical Supplement, Journal of Indian School of Political Economy, Vol. XII (3-4), p. 615.

7. Statistical Abstract 1999, Government of Punjab, pp. 206-7.

8. The contemporary Indian Punjab is divided into three sub-region – Malwa, Majha and Doaba. Doaba is the central part of Punjab and consists of the districts of Jallandhar, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala and Nawan Shahir.



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