Religion, identity and empowerment

The making of Ravidassia Dharm (Dalit religion) in contemporary Punjab

Authored by: Ronki Ram

Routledge Handbook of Contemporary India

Print publication date:  August  2015
Online publication date:  August  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415738651
eBook ISBN: 9781315682570
Adobe ISBN: 9781317403586


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The present-day Indian state of Punjab has a unique pattern of caste hierarchy that differentiates it from the rest of the country. In the country at large, Brahmans (the priestly class, knowledge people) are placed at the top of the Hindu caste hierarchy 1 whereby they continue to enjoy special social privileges, such as being the custodians of the sacred and spiritual realms in the religious traditions now popularly called Hinduism or Hindu Dharma. However, in Punjab, they did not enjoy such a privileged status at all. On the contrary, they were treated rather derogatorily 2 and contemptuously called a mang khani jat (a community/caste simply living on alms). The marginalization of Brahmans, however, does not eliminate the possibility of the presence of caste-based social exclusion in the state. Curiously enough, caste and social exclusion continue to persist even today, though with a difference (Ram 2004a). It replaced Brahmans with Jat Sikhs. 3 While replacing Brahmans, Jat Sikhs, however, did not inherit the complex patterns of ritual and ceremonial practices of the former. They came to acquire a dominant social position perhaps because of their material strength, which also extends their hold over the resource-rich management committees of Sikh shrines popularly known as gurdwaras. 4 In other words, Jat Sikhs, unlike Brahmans, came to acquire the status of a dominant caste not by virtue of their being closer to sacredness and the ceremonial paraphernalia of spirituality, but for their hegemony over the agricultural land as well as gurdwaras and other panthic (Sikh organizational) institutions. There is hardly a village/town/city in the state of Punjab that does not retain a gurdwara or several gurdwaras. Many Dalits 5 embraced Sikhism in the hope of escaping social exclusion but they 6 failed to find a place in the management committees of the gurdwaras. Such committees are invariably monopolized by Jat Sikhs who constitute around 30–33 per cent (one-third) of the total population of the state and occupy the biggest chunk of the agricultural land (more than 80 per cent). 7 It is the material and the numerical predominance of Jat Sikhs, formerly a Shudra (lower/menial) caste, coupled with their monopoly over the control of the management committees of the gurdwaras that has helped them in acquiring the status of a dominant caste in the state. Gurdwaras, over the years, have emerged as centres of Sikh identity (Takhar 2005: 21).

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