The Adi Dharam Movement of Punjab - Exploiting Caste Faultlines

Wikipedia Photo of a Ravidassia Procession in Italy

Of late, a campaign has been going on, somewhat unnoticed, by two factions of a single community — the Ravidassias — in the Doaba region. These groups have been urging the Centre government to provide them recognition as a separate religion, distinct from both Hindu and Sikh faiths. Both factions want a separate religion column for themselves and also a unique code for their respective sects. One sect that is making these demand includes two groups — the All India Adi-Dharam Mission led by Sant Satwinder Heera as well as All Indian Adi-Dharam Sadhu Samaj led by Sant Nirmal Das, and the Dera Sach Khand, Ballan in Jalandhar, Punjab. The Ravidassia movement, primarily based out of Jalandhar, is also incidentally home to the largest Dalit population within Punjab.

The controversy, for those who follow Punjab's socio-political fabric, isn't new. The demand for a separate religion status for Ravidass followers first came up in 2010, when the Dera Sachkhand Ballan announced a new religion, Ravidassia Dharm, at Seer Gowardhanpur in Banaras, the birthplace of Guru Ravidass. The occasion was the 633rd birth anniversary of Sant Ravidass. It was also announced that the community would have its separate religious book, Amrit Bani Guru Ravidass, containing 240 hymns of Guru Ravidass, a separate symbol 'Har' and a separate motto 'Jai Gurudev'.

In the Footsteps of Ravidas Ji Maharaj

The legend of Ravidass Ji Maharaj is a powerful statement within Punjab’s Dalit community. Sant Ravidass ji Maharaj was a Bhakti movement saint during the Mughal era, and was a contemporary of Mirabai. It is said that he was Mira’s guru. Belonging to the chamar/jatav caste, he was a shoemaker by profession but extensively wrote bhakti poetry. He is the man to whom is ascribed the famous Hindi saying मन चंगा, तो कठौती में गंगा .

Even today, Ravidass ji Maharaj has considerable following across North India among the Jatav community. There was major outrage when a temple associated with him historically was demolished in Delhi, causing massive protests.

Currently the Ravidassias are recognized under the Hindu religion. However, both the groups argue that they are different from Hindus and belong to the Ad-Dharam (Original religion). Curiously, experts are of the opinion that providing separate religion column for them in the census is legally not tenable, and these are the claims and aspirations which are not new but have been around for centuries. 

The Opposition of the Sikh Community to the Separation is Louder

The Sikh response to the same has been quite vociferous, even louder than the Hindu community’s silence on the issue. Immediately after the announcement in 2010 of a separate religion, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee issued a statement which claimed that Ravidassias were part of the Sikh faith. As per then Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) president Avtar Singh Makkar, "Guru Shri Ravidas was highly respectable in Sikh community and the Sikh community has highesteem for the followers of Shri Guru Ravidas as they areinseparable part of Sikh fold.” Makkar had also thanked Sri Guru Ravidass Sadhu Sampradaye society for rejecting the separate religion for the community, declared by Dera Sachkhand Ballan at Seer Gowardhanpur in Banaras, few days back.

However, what he could not gloss over was a stark reality that stares Punjab in the face. It must be pointed out that the separate religion move was a sort of culmination step of a separation that was already happening between Ravidass followers and Sikhs. On 24 May 2009 at about 13.00, a worship service in the fully occupied Ravidassia prayer hall in the Vienna-Fünfhaus was attacked with guns by Sikh extremists who had come from Spain in blue-yellow turbans, killing one of the preachers, Saint Ramanand, while severely injuring another guru, Saint Niranjan Dass. The result of this incident was a far-reaching escalation of the conflict between the two groups as seen in bloody riots and curfews in Punjab, the home of most Sikhs and Ravidassias.

Prior to this incident, the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, was recited in Ravidass gurudwaras as the voice (baani) of Guru Ravidass. After the attack, Dera Ballan, making a major departure from tradition, did not place the Bir (copy) of Guru Granth Sahib during the Antim Ardas of Sant Ramanand and read only 40 hymns and one 'sloka' of Guru Ravidass, which is part of the Sikh holy book. A photo of late Sant Sarwan Dass, who founded the dera, was placed in the palanquin.

The rioting that had followed the Vienna shootout was centred around Jalandhar, which as a significant percentage of Scheduled Caste population in the state. The police did not engage in serious investigations however, as was shown in a 2016 Hindustan Times report. As per the data available with the Vienna Kand Sangharsh Committee, of total 75 FIRs, 30 cases were sent to the court as untraced and trial in them never began. Only 45 cases were sent to the court for trial. Interestingly, all accused have been freed by court in 19 of them citing “lack of evidence” on the part of police. Most of these FIRs were registered on the complaint of police officials posted in different police stations during the riots in which the Ravidassia community reacted aggressively resulting in damage to private and public properties worth hundreds of crores. Their allegation of a caste bias within the system can not be refuted that easily.

The Reality of the Faultlines That Exist

The continued opposition is rooted in a deep caste faultline of Punjab, driven by the long-held discrimination that the Scheduled Castes have faced in Punjab. Ronki Ram in his 2009 essay on the Ravidassia movement talks about the repeated references to and loud condemnations of caste-based discriminations in the teachings of the Sufis and the Sikh Gurus as a case in point.he points to the roots of caste-based hierarchies and their entrenchment in Punjab to the point that the reformatory measures undertaken by various social reform movements such as Arya Samaj, Singh Sabha and Chief Khalsa Diwan failed to weed them out. 

A major feature that distinguishes caste in Punjab the most from the rest of the country is the primacy of the material and political factors. Dalits were mostly landless unlike Jat Sikhs, and the relationship of Dalits with Jat Sikhs used to be that of landless agricultural workers versus landlords. However, significant change has taken place over the last few decades, with Dalits in Punjab have improved their economic position driven in large by emigration abroad.  While there has been a sharp decline in the number of Dalit farm workers in Punjab, their disassociation from the menial and agricultural work in Punjab and their relatively better economic conditions have not translated into greater acceptance politically and socially within Punjab. 

In such a scenario, Guru Ravidass ji Maharaj became a rallyingg figure among the Ravidassia Dalit diasporas, especially of the Doaba Punjab, home to the highest concentration of Dalits in the state. A very significant part of the Ravidassia Dalit diaspora from Doaba happen to be the followers of Dera Sachkhand Ballan, also located in the same region. Some of the Ravidassia Dalits abroad are well settled and take active interest in community activities in their host as well as home country. They have even constructed a large number of Ravidass shrines (interchangeably known as Deras, gurughars, temples and gurdwaras) in order to assert their separate Dalit identity.

An important aspect to this dynamic noted by Ram is that one of the ways in which the SCs of Punjab have been ‘rebelling’ against the mainstream have been through religious practices. This is the ground cause for the rise of a large number of Deras across Punjab and in Haryana and a growing yearning for a separate Dalit identity in Punjab. Ram traced how the Ad Dharm movement and Ravidass Deras played a crucial role in empowering Dalits and and forging a separate Dalit identity in Punjab. The Ad Dharm movement is widely accredited with the task of sowing the seeds of Dalit consciousness in Punjab by emphasizing that Dalits (Ad Dharmis) are the original inhabitants of the region and are distinguished from caste Hindus and Sikhs. It was during this very movement, that the image of Ravidass, a Dalit Nirguni (devotee of God without attributes) Sant of the medieval north Indian bhakti (loving devotion) movement was projected systematically to concretise the newly conceived Dalit cultural space in Punjab.

Social Mobilization Translate into Political Impact, Ironically Through Deras

It is important to highlight that Punjab has the highest scheduled caste population for any state as a percentage of the total population. As per Census-2011, the state has the highest percentage of Scheduled Caste population amongst all the States of the Country at 31.94% of the total population. Moreover, the decennial growth rate of SC population in the State was 26.06% as compared to 13.89 % for the State as a whole. However, a sizeable number of SC families still live below the poverty line.

There is an Ambedkarite streak running among the Scheduled castes of Punjab. A distinct cultural identity has been drawn up in recent times, with such songs as Putt Chamara De on the lines of Putt Jattan De to assert their identity. Artists like Ginny Mahi have become quite popular in the Dalit community in Punjab with songs like Fan Baba Sahib Di that talks about her love for Dr. B R Ambedkar. 

At one moment, it did seem to be coalescing. The Bahujan Samaj Party used to command significant strength in Punjab, even leading to a hung assembly in its heyday, and was the only other state beyond Uttar Pradesh where BSP was a really strong cadre-based party. It won nine seats out of the 105 that it had contested in the 1992 elections, securing 16.32 per cent of the votes. 

However, the political takeoff died away after Kanshi Ram, who originally was a Ramdassia Sikh (another Dalit community) became politically and socially irrelevant. As reported in the Indian Express in 2017, the BSP failed to win even a single seat in the 2012 Vidhan Sabha elections despite fielding candidates in all 117 constituencies. Its vote share in 2012 was also its second-lowest ever – just 4.29 per cent, with a whopping 109 of the total 117 candidates failing to save their deposit. Kanshi Ram’s sister Swaran Kaur, blamed Mayawati for the party’s failure in the state, alleging that she purged all Punjab leaders from our community who had some calibre and those who didn’t fall in line or questioned her diktat. Interestingly, in the 2017 elections Aam Aadmi Party had tried to consolidate Dalit votes by saying that the Deputy CM shall be a Dalit if their party comes to power, noting the large percentage of SCs in the state, but it clearly failed to make any impact.

As a result, it seems the Deras became a proxy for the expression of political power. A large number of the Scheduled Caste populations across Punjab go to Deras and have thus led to the political courting of these Deras in Punjab. As Ashutosh Kumar of Panjab University, Chandigarh had noted in 2015, this bonhomie between the political class and the deras has occurred with religion receding into the background as a factor for making electoral choices and communal peace and good governance taking the centre stage as the main electoral themes.  Ashutosh pointed out that the Dera politics is a result of attempts by the state’s political parties to mobilise the marginal castes/communities only for votebank politics. This phenomenon is also being seen in Haryana now, but has so far eluded Uttar Pradesh, which also houses several such deras. 

With elections coming near, it would be interesting to see how the demand pans out. Already there are signs over the past few years that the Congress may try to use this issue to its advantage somehow, even though the political impact is very difficult to gauge as of now. However, what is certain is that there is no way that this issue is not going to die anytime soon.


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