Building Begampura: Confronting Caste

Caste is one of those dark secrets in our community.  Some defend it as “culture”, others downplay its discriminatory effects, and some go even as far as to blame the victims of the violence itself.

Many have documented the ongoing apartheid that exists in our villages and in our minds.

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Some scholars have recently looked at the issue in light of the commitment to equality bequeathed by our Gurus, but the continued existence of discriminatory practices by many Sikhs.  Professor Natasha Behl sheds some light on this topic in her dissertation, titled “The Politics of Equality: Caste and Gender Paradoxes in the Sikh Community.”  She began her research asking the simple questions: How do ordinary Sikhs maintain a belief in equality while also participating in caste- and gender-based discrimination? How do Scheduled Caste Sikhs and Sikh women take political action in a community that engages in discrimination, yet denies its very existence?

For those that were still not convinced by the video that this practice is actually common in most pind Gurdwaras, scholars have written on the subject extensively.  Surinder Singh Jodhka has written that those Sikhs that have been “historically-discriminated” are not generally stopped by “privileged” Sikhs, but they are “not treated at par with their counterparts from the upper castes.”  He has cited numerous examples of Dalit Sikh children that are only asked to enter the langar after everyone has finished eating, sit in separate lines [the point of pangat being negated here!!], and not allowed to cook and serve Langar.  According to Jodhka, in a village in Gurdaspur district, the devout Mazhbi Sikhs would regularly visit the village gurdwara, but “they could never sit along with the upper caste jats, [and] rarely would they be encouraged to distribute langar or parshad.’

In Behl’s interviews, she remarked how this insidious discrimination has an effect on those that it oppresses.  One man, Fauja Singh, a ”historically-discriminated” Sikh stated:

We don’t have funds, and therefore we remain back; we don’t take the lead. The higher caste stays ahead because they have funds; they say, “We built the gate for the gurdwara, we had the gurdwara painted, and we had the doors installed.” They have more property, and therefore they stay at the top, they stay ahead at the gurdwara. Those of us who are poor, we live within our means, and if we go too forward then. Actually, let’s just talk about me. If I try to make myself visible in the gurdwara, if I try to take the lead, then some people within the gurdwara will try to uproot me and they will say to me – not directly, but indirectly, in their casual language — that I should remain within my limits; that I should do this, not that; I should act this way, not that way. And I understand this. I don’t want anyone talking negatively about me, so I stay within my limits.

One of the responses to coming face-to-face with this discrimination in our community, Behl writes is to create ‘distance.’  I’ll return to her analysis in just a moment.  One of the ways that us pardesi Sikhs react when faced by the fact of caste discrimination is the same – we “distance” the issue by believing it only happens in Punjab.  It does not!

Harmeet Kaur of Columbia University, in her recent thesis titled “Politics of Discrimination: Study of Caste against Ravidasi Sikhs in the Diaspora” has done work in the United States – specifically in the Richmond Hills area of Queens in New York and finds that discrimination still continues.  She documents experiences of attendees of the Sri Ravidas Temple and notes discrimination they experience religiously, in social relations – especially in marriage and other interactions, as well as in employment.

A friend that is one of the organizer’s of an upcoming conference on the subject – Lalkaar 2012 – Building Begampura: Confronting Caste recently spent time with the sangat at the Sri Ravidas Temple in Roseville, CA and explained a predominant sentiment amongst the community that they shared to him:

“WE preach equality, but as soon as Guru Granth Sahib Ji is out of sight, WE begin discriminating. Everybody that believes in the Guru Granth Sahib Ji should be considered to be the same.”

This experience of employment discrimination by “privileged” Sikhs has been documented in the UK as well.

Despite the Gurus encouraging inter-caste marriage and creating institutions that were meant to unite the community, we have now created even caste-based Gurdwaras that will only serve to separate and impede dialogue for future generations.  Nothing could be more antithetical!

So how do we respond to this?  Behl, during her research, unfortunately found most Sikhs will react in one of 3 ways to continue talking about equality, but also continuing to discriminate in their daily practices:

  1. Distancing – they distance themselves from discriminatory actions by shifting responsibility onto others
  2. Narrowing – they obscure specific types of discrimination through the use of a narrow definition of equality, thus rendering specific discriminatory acts harmless.
  3. Shifting Blame – A majority of the respondents explain the structural position of Scheduled Caste Sikhs and Sikh women through a series of ontological narratives that minimize their own participation in discriminatory practices by shifting focus to Scheduled Caste Sikhs’ and Sikh women’s behavior, state policies, and degrees of religious observance.

Silence DOES NOT make the problem go away, The Singh Sabha fearlessly took on the subject.  Unfortunately many of us only also distance, narrow, shift blame, or justify based on “tradition,” “culture”, or whatever buzzword we use to be complicit.

The Jakara Movement in their annual Lalkaar conference is again focusing on this issue.  They had first touched on the subject in 2007 and their video at the time helped spark an interesting conversation, on the now-closed Sepia Mutiny blog.

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I strongly urge many of our readers to attend the conference.  It will be held at UC Davis, from June 21-24, 2012.  Registration closes THIS WEDNESDAY (6/13).  Visit for more information.  Let us no longer be silent; let us begin the process of “building Begampura” as envisioned in the Guru Granth Sahib.

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35 Responses to “Building Begampura: Confronting Caste”

  1. missing the picture says:

    the group that is historically the highest is khatri and they are probably doing better than jats. jats lifted themselves up as a result of sikhism and so should other castes. the historical leaders of the sikh community have been khatri and even today they seem content to lay the problem of caste on tbe jats while practicing a strenous degree of castism .

  2. kdep says:

    "Despite the Gurus encouraging inter-caste marriage and creating institutions that were meant to unite the community"

    let's start here, because this is the living proof that while the gurus preached caste blind behaviour, they did not practice it in a way that would have demonstrated commitment to the ideal in a historic/landmark fashion. The best way to confront the issue would have been to have gurus from castes other than khatri. You can say that it became a lineage or expectation at some point—so what better way to have the sikhs accept a non-khatri guru than to have one who was married into the family or was borne of an intercaste marriage?

    one could make some sort of hand wavy argument that the panj pyaray embody the multicaste guru panth, but I don't buy it. They kept certain jatts close (baba buda, baba deep singh, mai bhago), but they were not deemed worthy of guru status. Did they use the inner circle of jatts to gain legitimacy amongst the commoners?

    there are many heretical asides I can delve into, but let's face it: either the gurus thought this wasn't a big deal (and quite possibly it isn't—while we can all agree that discrimination inside the gurdwara/panthic sphere is antithetical—there may be valid reasons to insist upon caste based marriage/relations (let's face it, bhapay and jatts have seriously different values and culture), or it is and they really didn't fix the issue in a way that we can point at and say, yes, caste is a anachronistic vestige of hindu culture.

    instead, to wrap the debate into the zeitgeist, we have luv and kush, bedi to sodhi, khatri to khatri.

    postscript, because I'm drunk on root beer: the akj follows their own guru, randhir singh, who was not a jatt; the goray follow the yogi who wasn't a jatt; maybe jatts should start following their own (baba buda)—they've certainly been regarded as the bravest soldiers, now it's their time to be the officer, the general.

  3. jodha says:

    @kdep – Instead of addressing any of the issues of inequality, apartheid, and the worst forms of discrimination, you raise red herrings.

    None of your viewpoints offend, as most are born out of ego.

    For generations, SIkhs have been inspired by Gurbani, by their lives, and by their humanity. Wondrous are the ways of the Guru. If things were as simple as you stated then Guruship would have been passed merely from father to son. This was not the case.

    You are no one to define what the Gurus did or did not do. What details of history you wish to exaggerate and dismiss flow from an egotistical whim.

    In your desire to maintain 'static' notions of culture (that are undefined and largely 'imagined'), far more 'dangerous' to the preservation of your caste cultures are urbanization, consumerism, and migration. Telling that you did not touch on any of these subjects.

  4. Blighty Singh says:

    Who exactly is being discriminated against when it comes to 'caste' ? The so called 'lower castes' get the best university places in Punjab that have been reserved for them through government quotas. Once in university, the so called 'lower castes' only need a 20% mark to pass the course whereas everybody else needs somewhere between 60 and 70%. Once graduated, the so called 'lower castes' walk into the civil service jobs because they've been reserved for them through government quotas, whilst the others sit with a 90% unemployment rate. So lets be honest about what is being discussed here : Simply because a member of the so called 'lower castes' in the west gets rejected for marriage he plays the caste card. The whole things a joke. First they embrace the concept of 'caste' to such an extent that they elevate bhagats to the position of Guru simply because the man belonged to the same 'caste' as them. Then they show their deep love of caste by elevating the new 'Guru' to the position of top Guru…i.e the prohet of their faith. Then they proclaim that they are not Sikh and want to be known as their own distinct faith. Then…..when Sikhs don't marry them for not being Sikh they pull out the caste card again and cry discrimination. They seem to want their cake and eat it.

  5. jodha says:

    @Blighty – there are times that I often agree with you. This is not one of them. Your rant is similar to that in the US that whites make about minorities. You discount a history of discrimination and then overplay recent corrective policies.

    Do you not believe that the scenes in the first video could literally be filmed in almost every village in Punjab?

    Your comments with regards to state policies falls exactly into what Behl's dissertation calls denial strategies – "Shifting the Blame."

    With regards to your university statistics it is WAY off to say the least. At most universities there is no more than a 5% relaxation. That is the case for every university in Punjab.

    There have been numerous people that have actually done statistical analysis on the subject for a more sober analysis rather than mere perception that inflates and exaggerates. In every case the difference in score is FAR less than 5% in terms of the differential between GCs and OBCs, SCs, STs, etc. The real problem is scarcity of seats.

    So let's be honest about what is being discussed here – discrimination occurs in our villages, in our Gurdwaras, and even in our homes. We can continue to distance, narrow, or shift the blame – or we can actually acknowledge the cancer and be as committed to the ideals of equality, freedom, and justice within our own institutions as we rightfully demand from others.

    Which do you think our Gurus would encourage?

  6. BKaur says:

    Another article on the political marginalization of Ad-Dharmis and Mazhabis ('Scheduled Castes'), with the author shedding like on how caste continues to shape social and political relations in the state; '

    Something the attendees can consider reading before the conference – Looking forward to seeing reflections on the conference posted afterwards. Thanks for the great work.

  7. For further consideration and discussion:

    "The Mandal commission had admitted that people of all castes, who reside in villages, are educationally backward. Everybody knows that 95% Jats live in rural areas. Similarly, Jat Sikhs have social status equal to members of various communities like Kamboj, Ramgarhia Sikh, Lubana, Gujjar, Ahir and Lohar, who enjoy reservation under OBC quota," the Congress leader observed.

  8. missing the picture says:

    You missed or misread a lot of what i wrote.

  9. missing the picture says:

    For example two of your points, raising awareness – who is not aware of the issues of caste in the pibd? Also, engaging in dialogue – who are you in dialogue with at the conference or who is reading your cited article? People in the pind? What action will you formulate? Who is going to come up with possible actions and decide which ones are good? People from the pind? It seems like the information will be gathered by others, actions decided by others and the majority of people in the pind will be recipients of the action. Also by what force will the change happen? What is your action? Again awareness is not really lacking in the pind about caste is it? So what you are calling me only i would call doing what you can to change things for yourself and the people around you and then working to spread that to others in the most intelligent ways available out of profound love. It’s no wonder articles like this focus invariably on thw victim, the perpetrator and the reformer over and over ad ifinitum. When you don’t see everyone as everything that tends to happen

  10. dhillon says:

    This is our haume (pride), which make us feel superior in any field. If we discriminate a person at one place, then we also feel discriminated by somebody else at other place. This false pride can only go away with gyann (knowledge). We all are equal. If we cannot see God in all, we cannot see God at all.

  11. Gurpreet Singh says:

    you wanna solve caste problems of Punjab/Sikhs and India while sitting in North America? Check with the people in Punjab first who are oppressing and being oppressed and then check with your parents/families in North America if they are ready to shed this case system and then get talking. Our Guru's were not successful in eradicating this fully but laid the path for us to follow which we obviously don't. If you really wanna make a difference, help out the poor in Punjab and show them love and affection. Give them a helping hand and let them not depend on you and continue on with the this life, make sure you are helping the oppressed regardless if they are jatts, mahbis or any other caste

  12. dalsingh101 says:

    I find it quite shocking to read comments from those who would otherwise appear to be reasonably educated/articulate Sikhs, on this and other Sikh forums, which seem to boil down to plain attempts at obfuscation. Bring up casteism amongst Sikhs and you get this strange uncomfortable squirming by certain people, and then out pours the whattaboutery. And it's ALWAYS the same old, tired stories of some perceived unfair advantage to the traditionally oppressed. On one level, the way that people, who should know better, so vehemently defend, excuse or simply tolerate deeply embedded inequalities within our society is mind blowing. It points at some serious deficit of imagination as to what a progressive Sikh society could look like. The egalitarian vision of the Gurus is rejected outright as if it were some silly, unrealistic, alien, unachievable idealism. What conclusion can you draw other than these people appear to be hanging around the faith for some materialistic advantage or perceived social status? They certainly don't seem to have been effected by the higher notions inherent in what has been given to us.

  13. missing the picture says:

    Your tone suggests how puffed up you are about how righteous your view is. Its funny. Go on sant.

  14. Deeph says:

    Guru Nanak abolished Caste, did he not?

    Also, didn't he say to always identify with the downtrodden?

  15. missing the picture says:

    And then you can go read articles that confirm what we already believe and have conferences together with people we already agree with and decide anyone who doesn’t agree with us is the enemy of progress, truth, justice and also just sux.

  16. dalsingh101 says:

    For anyone confused about the Sikh stance to such matters:

    ???? ????? ??? ???? ???? ?? ??? ???? ?
    Those who are lowest of the low class, the very lowest of the low;

    ????? ??? ?? ???? ???? ???? ??? ??? ??? ?
    Nanak seeks the company of those. Why should he try to compete with the great?

    ???? ??? ???????? ???? ???? ???? ????? ?????
    In that place where the lowly are cared for-there, the Blessings of Your Glance of Grace rain down. ||4||3||

    Ang 15 SGGS ji

  17. Admin Singh says:

    Unfortunately this has turned into ad hominem attacks. The issue of caste is sensitive for both the oppressor and the oppressed. We will be sure to bring up the topic again. Hopefully we can just avoid the ad hominem attacks in the future.

    Admin Singh