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Clergy acknowledges caste gurdwaras

Five Singh Sahibs issued a directive asking shrine committees to stop discrimination on the entry of devotees.


A gurdwara in the Dalit part of a village

he Sikh community has been forced to acknowledge the existence of caste-discrimination, with the Sikh clergy speaking against gurdwaras built on the basis of caste.

Five Singh Sahibs, together constituting the Sikh equivalent of clergy, passed a resolution last week to this effect. In a strongly worded directive they said, "A gurdwara is a place of reverence, a place where anyone, irrespective of caste, colour, creed or religion could pay obeisance. Hence, the management committees of all shrines are directed to ensure that there is no form of discrimination or restriction on the entry of devotees." The meeting presided by Giani Gurbachan Singh, Jathedar of Akal Takhat Sahib, took note of numerous complaints from Sikhs worldwide, requesting action on gurdwaras serving to people of specific castes. Giani Gurbachan Singh said that the foundation of Sikh religion was laid to counter the Hindu caste system, however, ignorant people failed to recognise the ills of the system and started practicing it as a part of the Sikh religion.

While the Sikh clergy's directive showed that the community has acknowledged the existence of "caste-based" gurdwaras, it also brought to fore the fact that the casteism has taken roots in Sikhism. This is ironic for the community that takes pride on its origin as a casteless religion. As Bhupinder, a commentator on Dalit issues, says, "The Sikh gurus' attack on casteism, though admirable by medieval standards, did not go far enough, and was a far cry from modern sensitivities towards caste." Not surprisingly, Sikhs, mandated to identify themselves only with common surnames such as Singh and Kaur, still classify themselves according to their castes. While Sikhs in Punjab constitute about 63% of the population, about 31% of the state population is classified as Dalits.

While Sikhs in Punjab constitute about 63% of the population, about 31% of the state population is classified as Dalits.

Noted scholar Harish K. Puri concurs that Sikhism did not lead to the creation of an egalitarian community or end of caste hierarchy and discrimination. It only led to a change in the caste pattern, leading to the construction of a Sikh caste hierarchy, parallel to that of the Hindu caste hierarchy. This explains the Sikh clergy taking note of what has come to be known as labels like "Jattan da gurdwara" or "Mazbhi Singhaan da gurdwara".

Dr S.S. Jodhka, a sociologist from Jawaharlal Nehru University conducted a study in 2001-2002 in 51 villages of Punjab. 41 of the surveyed villages had separate gurdwaras for Dalit Sikhs and nearly two-thirds of the villages had separate cremation grounds for upper castes and Dalits. In a similar survey of 116 villages in one sub-division of Amritsar district, Dr Puri found 68 villages had separate gurdwaras and 72 villages had separate cremation grounds for the Dalits.

According to Dr Puri, the large scale construction of separate gurdwaras by the mazhabis, Ravidasias Kabirpanthis and other caste groups is a significant marker of the resistance against a sense of discrimination among the Scheduled Caste Sikhs.

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