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Ravidasi Sikhs: caste aside at home, not away

In 2003, overseas Punjabis of the Dalit cobbler caste had organised a conference in Vancouver, Canada, asking for jobs for Dalits in multi-national companies in India.

delhi Updated: May 28, 2009 00:08 IST
Vikas Pathak

In 2003, overseas Punjabis of the Dalit cobbler caste had organised a conference in Vancouver, Canada, asking for jobs for Dalits in multi-national companies in India.

The same caste is in news again. A spark from Vienna — the killing of Sant Ramanand of the Dera Sachkhand Ballan, a Ravidasi sect popular among these Punjabi Dalits — lit a fire back home.

The spark naturally came from the Dalit diaspora. Reason: diaspora communities retain caste, but caste relations get altered abroad.

“The Dalit diaspora is richer, and it also experiences equality with upper caste Sikhs in a foreign setting. This destroys hierarchy in their living experience, and they bring the sentiment back to their villages in Punjab,” said a Jat-Sikh academic, requesting anonymity.

In fact, much more happens. In Europe and North America, both Jat-Sikhs – the dominant caste – and Ravidasi Sikhs – Dalit cobbler castes having their roots in Punjab’s Doab region – do unskilled, low-end jobs and this creates a sense of equality.

Dalits want this to be reflected in caste relations, but Jat-Sikhs retain their caste pride. Communities thus get divided on caste lines.

There are separate Ravi Dasi gurdwaras across the world. Punjab University professor Ronki Ram has visited and documented them all.

“There are Ravidasi gurdwaras in England in places like Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Derby, Lancaster, Southhall and Southampton. In US, these are in New York, Houston, Fresno, Pittsburg, Seattle, Sacramento and other places, and in Canada in Brampton, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver etc. There are also many Ravidasi gurudwaras in Italy, France, New Zealand, Lebanon, Austria and Germany,” he told HT.

The Ravidasis do not see themselves as Sikhs or Hindus but just Dalits. “Hinduism had caste discrimination. But even in Sikhism they saw this discrimination and carved out an alternative identity in the early 20th century.”

These gurudwaras are, thus, different. Ravi Das – a Bhakta for Sikhs – is a guru here, which Sikhs see as heresy, as they recognise only 10 gurus.

“You find both Guru Granth and Ravi Das images in these places of worship abroad,” said sociologist Vivek Kumar.

Sociologist S.S. Jodhka said: “Ravidasis are outside Sikhism. They worship Guru Granth just because it contains Ravi Das’ sermons.”

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