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The curse of caste

The curse of caste

Author: Vikas Singh
Publication: The Times of India
Date: May 26, 2009.
URL: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/ruebarbpie/entry/the-curse-of-caste

Here's a little known fact: Guru Tegh Bahadur is probably the only religious leader to have sacrificed his life on behalf of ANOTHER religion. When the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb ordered a group of Pandits to convert to Islam or be put to death, they rushed to the ninth Guru, seeking his aid. Tegh Bahadur offered himself in their place, and was duly martyred.

I wonder what the gentle Guru would have made of the violence that erupted in Punjab following the death of Rama Nand Dass, the second-in-command of the Dera Sachkhand Ballan, after a clash in a Vienna gurdwara. For that matter, I wonder what Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, would have made of the casteist colours of this conflagaration.

Apparently, the rioting in Punjab is the result of long-simmering tension between Jat Sikhs on the one hand and Dalit Sikhs on the other. The followers of Dera Sachkhand Ballan are mostly Dalits, and saw Rama Nand's murder as one more example of upper-caste oppression.

Wait a minute. Caste conflict in Sikhism? Nanak was a lifelong opponent of the caste system. It was one of the reasons for his breaking away from Hinduism. He began the institution of the langar, a free kitchen attached to every gurdwara, where anyone can come in and eat regardless of caste, community, or economic status. Sadly, in modern-day Punjab, one can now see separate gurdwaras for specific castes in the same village. There couldn't be a crueller travesty of Nanak's teachings than this.

Of course, Sikhism isn't the only religion that has been subverted by the caste system. Islam and Christianity also, in theory, don't have castes. But one keeps hearing of demands for reservations by 'lower-caste' Christians and Muslims. Apparently, you can take people out of the caste system, but you can't take the caste system out of people.

The dream of making caste redundant was a big part of the idea of modern India. Reservations were given temporarily, and were supposed to be reviewed and removed when they had achieved their purpose. Over the years, many formerly oppressed castes have visibly grown economically prosperous and politically powerful, in every part of India. But if anyone were to suggest that they should no longer be given quota benefits, all hell would break loose. The newly empowered castes zealously safeguard their privileges and fiercely resist any perceived intrusion -- remember the Gujjar-Meena standoff which shut down Rajasthan and affected lives in some parts of Delhi?

Thankfully, there is one tiny sliver of hope. The results of the Lok Sabha elections seem to indicate that at least the Hindi heartland seems to be finally tiring of casteist rhetoric, and wants to talk about good governance instead. If Indian political priorities indeed shift in such a manner, it would be the best thing that can happen to this country. But as the fire that began in Vienna and is now raging in Punjab shows us, the resilience of caste can often frustrate even the most ardent of reformers.

Update: Presumably misled by my surname, some readers seem to have concluded that I am either Sikh or Punjabi. As a matter of fact, I am neither. Beyond that, I see no reason to discuss my ethnicity, caste or community. It's enough for me to be an Indian.
Update: Some readers have pointed out that the Ravidassias are a separate sect, not part of mainstream Sikhism. Fair enough. But is it purely a coincidence that so many Deras are flourishing in Punjab, and have so many Dalit followers?

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