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.

Some scholars have recently looked at the issue in light of the Sikhi belief in equality, but the existing practices of discrimination by Sikhs.  Professor Natasha Behl produced her dissertation, titled “The Politics of Equality: Caste and Gender Paradoxes in the Sikh Community.”  She began her research asking the simple question: 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, and shift blame.

This year at our annual Lalkaar conference, again, we are focusing on this critical issue.  We first touched on the subject in 2007 and our video at the time helped spark an interesting conversation, on the now-closed Sepia Mutiny blog.

We strongly urge you to attend the conference.  It will be held at UC Davis, from June 21-24, 2012.  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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  • Jakara Movement
    published this page in Blog 2012-06-11 16:16:54 -0700

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