Originally published by Kafila: https://kafila.online/2012/12/29/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-sikh-prejudice-pukhraj-singh/.
“The very ink with which history is written,” allegorised Mark Twain, “is merely fluid prejudice.” By that rationale, religion can often be the quill which defaces the truth with its broad strokes, perverting history than promulgating it. And like the bastard child of these perversions, a few counter-narratives manage to wade through the tides of public opinion, carrying the dim outline of the ossified ideas that led to its tragic pursuit. But one has to have the right kind of eyes, says Hunter S. Thompson, to “see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
A similar, horrid apparition of truth opened the floodgates of memories and angst very recently as a headline screamed through the Twitterverse—40 Sikhs Convert to Christianity in a Tarn Taran District Village: Gurdwara Management’s Treatment of “Low Caste” Sikhs Calls for Strict Action—in the particularly sultry month of August.
Tarn Taran is my hometown. It’s where I first fell in love, with the patwari’s daughter. The whole of my extended family ekes out a living there. And like every other kid of Mohalla Khalsapura, I too have defecated in its open drains for the competitive jousts, much to the annoyance of the passersby.
The village in question was Dhotian, a thirty-minute drive from the main kasba.
Tarn Taran-Dhotian… Tarn Taran-Dhotian—I started perceiving a subliminal connection, and then it dawned upon me—the writings of Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni.
The man has been my hero for long. A true son of the soil, the ‘asli’ among all Naqli Sikhs (going by the definition of Giani Ditt Singh). A Hindu by Providence who fought for and dedicatedly historiographed the Gurdwara Reform Movement, a scientist by temperament who worked under the likes of Rutherford and Niels Bohr, and a social reformer by design who tirelessly imbued scientific aptitude among Punjabis, Sahni also co-founded The Tribune and the Dyal Singh Majithia College. It was in his brilliant textual documentary, The Gurdwara Reform Movement & the Sikh Awakening, that I had found the mention of Dhotian, some years ago. At the bungah (the Punjabi word for quarters, quite literally a shelter in this case) of Dhotian, the Akali jathas tried to broker peace with the reigning mahants of Gurdwara Tarn Taran, who had defiled the sanctum sanctorum with deeds that would even make an atheist squirm with disgust. Deviously plotted by the priests, the resulting altercation turned violent when goons armed with swords, kirpans and bombs butchered the non-violent reformers. Two were killed and seventeen injured but the Gurdwara was eventually ‘liberated’ in 1921.
When I finally got the opportunity to visit Dhotian this November, it were these footnotes of history that made me see the crimson tinge of sacrifice in its fertile soil, made me smell the air incensed with the aroma of the martyred souls.
Having arrived in Tarn Taran to celebrate Diwali with my loved ones, the stupor, from the previous night’s recitations of Batalvi over a few drinks with my Chacha, hadn’t subsided when I kickstart my cousin’s Bajaj Platina for the short haul to Dhotian. The Yule-like spirit was clearly obstructing my objective faculties to treat this trip with the seriousness it deserves.
After a refreshing cup of tea with an impromptu gathering at a Sufi shrine, I pause at Sheron Bypass to ask for the directions. One aged farmer instinctively mounts the pillion; free ride for the services rendered. He hails from a village a bit further from Dhotian. I nudge him gently about any disturbances in the area. My feigned zeal gelled great with the sincerity with which he convinces me that nothing untoward had happened. He is, of course, a Jatt, and I leave it at that. Careering past Dhotian’s main market, I park the bike in front of the cobbler’s desk. With a deduction that has become an uncomfortably natural part of my world-view, I assume that he is a Chamar. I bend down a bit, as my knees make that cracking sound, his gesture remains the same—distant but all-observing, while mending a shoe at the same. With a Sat Sri Akal, I come straight to the point:
“Mai suneya aithe de Mazhabi Singha ne Isaai dharam apna leya, jathedaaran ton tang aake.”
(I have heard that some Mazhabi Singhs have converted to Christianity, after the treatment meted out by the Sikh clergy.)
Trying hard to penetrate the leather with the stitching awl, his eyes become even more intensely-rounded as he moistens the lips, not to speak, but to break-away from the conversation.
“Aistraan hai, assin kisse de ghulaam nai aan.”
(The thing is, we are not anyone’s slaves.)
I struggle to retain my composure as he knocks me off with this unexpected volley of sublimity. Is he one of those underground activists who huddle together in the night for the “two minutes hate” against the system? Has he been reading the radical poet, Lal Singh Dil?
I give-in to the excitement.
“Tussi jo keha hai, ossda tatt mai changi tarah bujjh leya. Gull waajib hai tuhaddi.”
(I completely understand and feel the crux of your statement. You make a lot of sense.)
He instructs a mentally-disabled kid sitting under the banyan tree behind him to escort me to the Doctor. Still smitten by his terse one-liner, I depart with the promise to meet again for a cup of tea, later in the afternoon.
The nondescript clinic operates out of a small room facing a narrow street cramped with houses. The walls have been bleached white, lending some seriousness to the affair. Behind the desk, that occupies a corner, is the ‘trophy wall’ adorned with the medical degree, a Certificate of Membership for the Medical Practitioners Association of Punjab, a group snap from the college and the quintessentially rural hack-job of a portrait, probably clicked by the local photographer. The doctor, Ranjodh Singh, knows very well that it’s a giant leap for his family, having cultivated that demeanor of acting as the responsible one.
Such encounters have become all too common for him during the last couple of months. As if reading out loud from a well-rehearsed script, Ranjodh doesn’t even put an effort to convince me that all is well, and these are merely the rumors spread by some ill-intentioned parties.
I am just another stringer raking up the mud for a few quips.
On the other hand, his younger brother, Gurpreet, is far more receptive to the idea of a conspiracy prejudicial to the interests of his community. I heave a sigh of relief as Ranjodh departs to tend to a patient.
The next three hours spent with Gurpreet give me the complete lowdown. Balmikis by caste, his family had converted to Christianity sometime during the peak of pre-Independence proselytization in Punjab. Dhotian is an unusually large village for the tehsil, dotted with numerous gurdwaras, temple and shrines. Though not in the majority, the Dalits boast a decent number here as in the rest of the Majha region. Cohabiting in a composite mix of subcultures—what may seem as paradoxical and trivializing to an outsider—these communities know instinctively how to balance assertion with assimilation, reclamation with reconciliation. Syncretism acts as the clever workaround, a bridge to be traversed for reaching out to the ‘other’. For the Dalit Christians of Dhotian, essential catechism got enmeshed into the contemporary lore, as in the case of marriage ceremonies where the couples not only take vows in front of the Bible but also perform laavan around the Granth Sahib.
It was this ingenious ‘detoxification’ of the Self—at a societal, spiritual and cosmic level—that the Mleccha of Majha had minded its own business, even as the underlying economic stratification made sure that the manacles of caste were only loosened, but never unlocked. However, for the last decade or so, with the conditions improving gradually, with remittances spawning minor revolutions here and there, the menial started reorganizing more rapidly and vociferously. The skewed strictures of the village life started creaking under the strain. Things that weren’t even noticed became the rueful repentances of “modernism” during the evening baithaks of the panchayat and the elders.
One such newly-imagined sore point was the “unceremonial” handling of the Sikh Holy Scripture in the observances of Dhotian’s Christians. The panchayat and the Sikh priesthood, unquestionably the ancillary of the local Jatt landlords, didn’t hide their restlessness for too long. In what could only be termed as Kafkaesque, the story of this impending conflagration unfolded in a manner so bizarre, that it can serve as a grim warning about how Punjab is turning into a tinderbox of caste.
Upon inquiring about the veracity of the news on the conversions, Gurpreet’s tension becomes palpable as he explains that this was indeed a rumor spread to malign them. Hard for us urban dwellers to understand, any deviation from the tenets of the dominant religion, even for a just cause, is no less than a heresy in the suffocating moral confines of rural Punjab. And this is how, when a large Dalit Christian samagam was organized in Dhotian, entertaining followers from the nearby villages, that the landlords decided they’ve had enough. Whether there was any squabble I could not confirm but soon the “news” about the alleged conversions started propagating.
The first time that Gurpreet came to know about it was when someone forwarded him a factitiously incriminating post about the incident on Facebook. Originally authored by one Tajinder Singh, whose identifier on the social network was ‘tajindervienna’ (https://www.facebook.com/tajindervienna); a feeling of disbelief and numbness overwhelmed me as I tried to imagine how far the rumor-mongering had fared. Vienna is to Punjabi Dalits what Memphis is to the African-American civil rights movement—a place where one of the figureheads of their assertion, Sant Rama Nand of the Ravidassia Dharam, was assassinated by the Sikh fundamentalists. But to imagine that the city breeds contempt for an incident, transpiring in the far-off rural heartland of Punjab, in just a matter of a few days, was symptomatic of the widening gyre of this caste rift.
As me and Gurpreet start rifling through the profile of Tajinder Singh (which had already increased the access restrictions by then), my instincts as a professional dealing with cyber threat intelligence took over. How could these alternative media sources be so effective in propagating this falsity, this intrigue of international proportions? It is decent enough to imagine that the initial ‘information’ trickled through the social media, but almost immediately, the plot was picked up by a group of credible Sikh news portals as well. The gurdwara machinery, if one sees it as a matrix of institutions, has created global feeder networks that operate quite independently from governments or regulatory bodies. Sikhs of all hues—hardliners, liberals, modernists, scientific and even skeptics—contribute to this vibrant and fledgling discourse. It is from their ‘swarm behavior’ that the agendas disguised as news, and vice-versa, percolate through the hierarchy of the Sikh body politic and discourse. And when one connects all these dots, the alarm bells start to ring. Why has this propaganda machine gone awry with the Dalits? Dhotian was among the many blips on the radar we were lucky enough to notice.
Snapping out of this wild-goose chase, I finish the cup of tea and bid adieu to Gurmeet. It was already late afternoon and I was desperate to get back to the bazaars of Tarn Taran, studded with local beauties out on a festive shopping spree. Keen to spend half-an-hour exploring the local shrines, Gurmeet suggests that I pay obeisance to the Balmiki Dargah just a kilometer away.
It wasn’t a dargah per se, more of an unimpressive but resourceful arrangement. As I peep around the doors, a kid gives me the directions to its caretaker. Hidden beneath the low-lying porch of a house, the caretaker, a tailor-master to my delight, is busy pedaling the sewing machine. Most tailors in the rural extension procure the raw materials from my Chacha who runs a hole-of-a-shop in Tarn Taran for the last three decades. So the conversation starts on a breezy note. He declares rather forcefully that the Dargah is managed by a handful of Balmikis from the mohalla, with whatever little money they could muster, but they also had a separate gurdwara.
I deliberately touch on the widespread malpractice, almost labeled as a custom now, of setting up caste-based gurdwaras and communal segregation. On that note, he becomes visibly perturbed, maybe even a little cautious. That reminded me of an obtuse observation made by someone: unlike Doaba, the Dalits of Majha still feel more subjugated and are fearful of the dominant castes. With a hint of frustration, he finally exclaims that the most prominent place of worship in the village, Gurdwara Raja Ram, doesn’t allow Mazhabis to enter the premises. With this startling revelation, the caretaker acquiesces to trademark silence.
Still feeling slightly lost and confused after doing a few rounds of the local market, I finally decide to visit Gurdwara Raja Ram. On a road leading to the innards of this large village, lay the entrance to the Gurdwara, bulwarked with a huge metal gate. The sheer expanse of this place surprises me. Spread over a vast piece of land, the granary and the firewood storage on the left looked well-stocked. At the very distant center, the swanky new temple is under construction, and until then, the older one on the right is the sanctum sanctorum. To the extreme right, almost hidden in a corner, are the residential quarters and a cowshed.
After roaming around innocuously in the campus, aware of the tailing gazes, I move forward towards the cowshed where a Nihang is waiting for me. Tall, fair and well-chiseled—his physique didn’t betray the martial leanings—the aquiline face and green eyes reminded me of a ludicrous theory I had entertained for some time: about the “Greco-Punjabi” ancestry of many agrarian clans, perhaps extending from the soldiers of Alexander’s army who chose to settle here after the defeat.
With the politest Sat Sri Akal, I introduce myself as a journalist from Delhi and try to surprise him:
“Babaji, mai suneya itthe Mazhabi Singhan nu karseva karan ton manahi aa?”
(Babaji, I have heard that Mazhabi Sikhs are barred from performing the volunteer service here?)
Before he could utter a single word, an older gentleman emerges from the cowshed and the Nihang bounces-off the question to him. The man doesn’t even take a second to answer an affirmative “yes”.
I know God has a great sense of humor but I certainly missed out on the joke here, the terrific irony that encompasses this place. The Nihang, realizing he was caught a bit off-guard, or genuinely eased by the older man’s interjection, steps in with an explanation. He tells me that the rehat-maryada of the place obligates the followers to comply with a few adherences. Mazhabis, he adds, often arrive shabbily dressed and even drunk, so the administration has decided that they won’t be able to perform the langar-seva, yet the other avenues of service are open to all.
Like watching The Turin Horse being whipped mercilessly, I plunge into a stoic withdrawal like Nietzsche, though managing to ask this in a hushed voice:
“Par tuhannu kistran pata lagda ki o maile kapdeya waalan yaan sharabi banda Mazhabhi aa? Ussde matthe te thode likheya? Daaru taan Jatt wi peenda.”
(But how do you ascertain that the disheveled or drunk-looking person is a Mazhabi? Not as if it’s tattooed on anyone’s forehead? Even a Jatt drinks.)
To that, he retorts with an elaborate exegetical stance coming all the way from the source, the Granth Sahib. I remembered a few lines from a rant of mine on religion, written for Abroo’s blog, “Quoting a scripture to justify the validity of a claim should be taken as an outright defeat of the apologist, when the prevalent socio-political conditions are discordant to its teachings.” Droning on with the “Rangrete Guru ke bete” rationalization and the whole shebang, he narrates a list of castes, incidentally ending with the one to which I belong—Cheemba—and I knew almost instantly then that this rote sequence comes from some manuscript or scripture. He was towing the same-old line. So I decide to bid farewell to the man-forsaken place. The Nihang follows me right up to the exit making sure that I actually depart!
The slight evening chill was already settling in as I hurried back to the cobbler, the rebel in pink disguise. By then, his friends had gathered for the soiree at sunset. Confessing that the cracker-of-a-statement he had delivered earlier in the morning was told to him by a visitor, a government karamchari (could be a local law-enforcement or an intelligence official), who had come to enquire about the caste tensions. Their sordid saga of perversion and prejudice was now all humdrum to my ears which had heard enough for a day. More than the tragedies that they endure, it was their hesitation, the fear in their eyes which rankled me; fear which didn’t even allow the cobbler and his friends, one of whom used to be a seeri (a bonded laborer), to shed that relentless expression of betrayal for a nice photograph! For all the bleeding-heart exhortations of mine—as someone had commented earlier, mistaken by my clean-shaven look—I could very well be a “Bahmann (Brahmin) with vested interests in the situation.”
Returning to Tarn Taran, I head straight to the bazaar. A few old shopkeeper friends have planned a feast of Gurda-Kapoora (goat’s kidneys and testicles in a spicy sauce, cooked on a large frying pan; a Lahori-Amritsari delicacy) to celebrate my coming to the hometown. Since there’s no place to squat at my Chacha’s four-foot wide hatti, we generally meet at the neighboring shop of a jeweler, a muh-bola chacha as well, for the daily adda over the endless cups of tea.
However, this time, I quietly move to the end of the stool with my laptop, frantically searching for information on the disease that had gripped Gurdwara Raja Ram. And that is when I stumble upon a goldmine. Kiranjot Kaur—daughter of the Rajya Sabha member, Bibi Rajinder Kaur, and herself an SGPC member and an ex-General Secretary—had written a blog post for the The UK-Punjabi Heritage Association, where she mentions this fact about the infamous Gurdwara, “Interstingly low caste Mazhabi Sikhs are prevented from doing any sewa there!(sic)” This despicable crime on humanity is being perpetrated since 2009 and ought to have some institutional backing. One name, Baba Jagtar Singh, had crept in earlier during my exchanges with the Nihang. While Kiranjot didn’t spare any words for him, the Nihang only told me that the Baba, a senior functionary of the Gurdwara, and generally available at Marhi Sahib in Goindwal, would be better equipped to answer my queries.
I make a brief mention of what I had witnessed at Dhotian to the fellows congregating at the shop. They are all Kesdhari Sikhs and genuinely pained by it. I further consult Pardhaan-ji—a smalltime milk distributor, recently elected as the head of a local gurdwara. A Jatt and a Sikh—but not a “Jatt Sikh”—his fatherly disposition, magnanimity and the commendably-progressive outlook towards religion and politics had impressed me thoroughly. A truly liberal-minded and humble adept of the Guru Sahiban, who was very aggrieved by the caste discrimination and the wretchedness of the Sikh clergy, he gives me extremely useful pointers on the regional politico-religious situation. Pardhaan-ji tells me that Baba Jagtar Singh is an influential jathedar from the area, having a say in gurdwaras spread all across Punjab and even abroad. With the karseva, the jathas and the resources that he brings, the clergy feels obliged to induct him into the management boards and the governing corporations. Slowly and steadily, he has become indispensible. And when I mention that he is well-aware of the happenings at Gurdwara Raja Ram, Pardhaan-ji concurs that he could readily be turning a Nelson’s eye. As long as the interests of all the associated parties are not harmed—the chances of which are remote, as casteism and segregation become rampant in the Sikh establishments—Dhotian will maintain its descent into darkness.
My Chacha arrives to partake some of the gossip. I scan his shabby wardrobe, the faded turban, and reminisce how immensely difficult and tumultuous it has been for my family to reach this level of self-sustenance. Could all this meddling into the affairs of the powerful jathedars spell a trouble for me and for them? I regret my carelessly indiscrete dealings at Dhotian; they all know where I live. As the fear, seen on the faces of Dalits of Dhotian, that I had resented and demurred all day, cast its paralyzing shadow on me, I give up on the plan of confronting Baba Jagtar Singh the next day. A sudden ruckus erupts in the bazaar. Two dark-complexioned boys start beating a man on his way to the Darbar Sahib with his family. His wife and children are crying as the shopkeepers watch on. No one steps forward. One of my acquaintances at the adda, a typical Punjabi simpleton with a pure heart but no control on the tongue, blurts out,
“Ae ******* de pangeya wich paina matlab apne hatth maile karna. Sirphire ne, kade wi kisse nu kutt dinde ne aake! Inna di ki izzat aa? Thane jhoothiyan reportaan likha dinde ne fasaun layi.”
(Meddling into the affairs of ******* [a common slang for a community of Dalits] is like dirtying one’s hands. They are unpredictable, pick up fights with anyone. What respect have they got? They file false complaints with the police to ensnare people.)
With an unnoticeable cringe, I turn towards the bustling market bedecked with Punjabi goddesses. The pallor of prejudices fades away as I sink my head into their florid bosoms.
(Pukhraj Singh (pukhraj at gmail dot com) is the founder of Abroo (ਆਬਰੂ). By December 2012, he has recorded nine serious cases of caste atrocities, religious discrimination and communal segregation in Punjab’s villages, accessible as ‘Punjab’s Map of Shame’.)
1 – A gathering at the shrine of Baba Noor Shah where I halted for a cup of tea.
6 – The caretaker of the Dargah, a tailor-master.
5 – The Balmiki Dargah of Dhotian.
9 – Our daily adda at Guru Bazaar, Tarn Taran. Pardhaan-ji on the right