Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dalit assertion in Punjab

Fire at Vienna exposes Ugly realities of caste discrimination in Punjab

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Punjab is burning. The Dalits are at the street. The government is seeking peace and every one is amused why the Dalits have taken to the street. Some are amused as why attack on Sant Niranjan Dass, head of Dera Guru Ravidas Sachkhand Balan and death of Sant Ramanand could spark such violent protest in Punjab. Unfortunately, they forget to understand the first question itself as why such Deras face attack by the fundamentalist Sikh groups. Is it because these Deras have provided a glimpse of hope and identity to a massive Dalit population in Punjab? Is it also not true that these Deras are also giving the upper caste Sikhs a run for their money and power?

Problem is in our perception about Punjab as a casteless society where Sikhism grew. The fact is that inspite of great preaching in the Guru Granth Saheb and their own sacrifices, the leadership that emerged in Punjab is upper caste dominated feudal Sikhs. And they have used the Gurudwaras for their political purposes. The Dalits were just not wanted in these Gurudwars. After the Ravidasis and Majahabis also started creating their own temples, the problem started growing. The slogan of ‘Guru Ravidas Mahraj ki Jai’ reverberate in these Gurudwaras and perhaps that is considered to be a challenge to mainstream Sikhism. It’s the question of identity. It is unfortunate that like Churches, Gurudwaras are also caste based. Once I happen to travel to Uganda and found that there was Gurudwaras for Ramdasis, for Jat Sikhs and for Ravidasis. It clearly means that despite converting to other religions and leaving your country, Indians are deeply rooted in their caste prejudices and have every power to demolish the powerful preaching of Gurus. When the preaching of the great people become issue of identity by their community people, the oppressed would also search for the similar identities and Punjab and elsewhere, the Dalit’s quest for identity can not be negated and discounted. Interestingly, the ‘experts’ from Punjab rarely brought this facts out how the agrarian community of upper caste Sikhs in Punjab has developed deep rooted prejudices and contempt towards the Dalits and the marginalized.

Punjab, they say, represent India’s pride, a state that changed us from a food importing country to a food sufficient country. Punjab, the state of green revolution, though many of us always questioned this. Yet, long back, I mentioned in one of my long notes that Punjab’s green revolution actually strengthened the feudal values. Feudalism is not just enemy of egalitarian values but thoroughly against nature and environment. Today, the beautiful land of Punjab have no water ( water level has depleted) and the mustered field have been replaced for cash crops and big wedding points and shopping malls which show the ‘growth’ rate of Punjab.

While none can condone the violence and burning of trains, the fact is, this incident in Vienna has happened at a time when we are still analyzing our poll results. Our national and international media suggested that India is now looking forward for a ‘progressive’ government, and that the current verdict was against ‘regionalism’, and casteism. Paradoxically, just a few days back, in the review committee meeting of World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia, the international agencies, civil society organizations, governments failed to address the issue of caste. Despite much hype created in Durban about the discrimination based on caste, the government of India ensured that nothing happens on this front.

But then old habits die hard. Those, whose lives have been based on purity of castes, do not really change even when they go abroad. Those who believe in superiority of a particular race do not change even staying in countries where they enjoy freedom and civil liberties. Two most important and visible communities of India in abroad are from Gujarat and Punjab. Both these states are supposed to be growing with a growth rate more than our central figures. Both these states are fantastic for ‘investors’ and are providing ‘stable’ governments yet they are far behind the national figure of male female ratio. While the Muslims in Gujarat are still far boycotted and Dalits completely on the margins in the absence of a popular Dalit movement there, in Punjab the situation is different. Sikhism was actually a way of life which revolted against the caste hierarchies. Guru Granth Saheb is perhaps the only holy book where you have ‘sabad’ and kirtans of different Sufi Saints including Kabir, Ravidas, Dadu, Nanak and Jaisi. Yet, like every other revolution, the Sikkhism itself became victim of the hierarchical system as the Jats hijacked the social justice agenda of Sikhism. The agenda then turned to Sikh identity ignoring the demands and assertions of the Dalits, mostly the Majhabis and Ravidasis.

Punjab has the highest percentage of Dalit population (27%) and yet despite good economic changes, Dalits are discriminated by the Jats in not only Punjab but elsewhere. Unfortunately, in the name of minority rights, these Jaat Sikhs gets away with everything and turn violent. None of us can forget the case of Baant Singh, a Majahabi Sikh, whose hands and legs were chopped off by the powerful Jats because he objected to molestation of his daughter and raised the voice against discrimination in the Manasa region of Punjab. Ironically, Punjab did not burn then.

I have been involved in a similar fight for the Dalit rights in the Uttarakhand state’s Tarai where over 150 families of landless Dalits have not been able to get their land rights for over last twenty year despite favorable verdict from every court of the country including Supreme Court. Even when the Lokayukta of Uttarakhand found that contempt of the court verdict has been made by the authorities. The land grab by this powerful Jat Sikhs in the Tarai belt is well known to be described here. And who are the victims; it is predominantly the Dalits and tribal. The Tharus and Boxas are still tilling their own land as bonded labour. The Akalis and all the political parties actually tried to raise the issue of discrimination against Sikhs but the same time forget when they themselves discriminate against some one else.

The massacre in Vienna, as some Austrian papers wrote, is the sign of dirty side of Indian social system. Despite our government and intellectual hiding their misdeeds, caste is a reality in this country and Dalits at the receiving end. It is not therefore strange that the reports coming from Vienna blame the Ravidasis for ‘denigrating’ the Guru Granth Saheb. To justify a murder we make statement. Every fundamentalist create a situation to ensure that his viewpoint look rational. A dynamic way of life like Sikkhism could easily become victim of the caste hierarchies reflect that the Indians as a society become a follower of a person not because of his or her ideals but because of the birth based identity. Therefore, we end up respecting the person for being one among us and ‘preaching’ certain gospel and doing miracles in their names. A revolutionary therefore is brahmanised and converted into a money minting machine for the greedy leaders who make big business in the name of religion. This is true about every one. Religion has become the biggest threat to world peace and the sooner people understand the thugs doing business in the name, the better for the world peace. A revolutionary like Bhagat Singh, who wrote against religion and caste and had the courage to shave off his beard and hair, thus become symbol of ‘Jaat’ ‘pride or simply ‘ Chhora Jaat da’. When such things happen the Dalits would automatically opt for Udham Singh, a martyr who died for the cause of the country. Obviously, the mischief makers will create such divide based on caste for their own purposes leaving people fight. That unfortunately happened in Vienna.

That Sikkhism in Punjab is closely associated with power politics particularly as Akalies have used the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee ( SGPC) for their own purposes. The Gurudwaras help them control the sentiments of Sikh community. It is rare that this SGPC could ever come out against the caste based violence and caste system. If the caste based love affair meet with the worst form of action from the ‘grieved’ parents, it reflect to the very idea of society that exist in Punjab and how they inherit it elsewhere. The number of ‘honored killing’ or what could be suggested as ‘shameless killing’ by the Indian Diaspora, predominantly the Sikhs from Punjab reflects the ugly side of our growth pattern. Growth in term of economy can not really make a country great. Punjab’s caste discrimination actually reflect its ugly side that despite all this hoopla about Punjabiat, there is a darker side often hidden by our media and intellectuals.

There is no doubt about the fact the Sikhism was initially meant to demolish the caste system and idol worshipping. Guru Nanak’s message was universal and none can deny the important role that Gurudwaras played in social mobilization. It is an example. There is also little doubt that Punjab was better off then many other states in India in terms of violence against the Dalits. There was no brahmanical hegemony and Sikhism itself is a great way of life. But Punjab’s problem started with mixing of Sikhism with political agenda by various political parties. When SGPC become a part to control minds of people, then one can imagine the condition of the society.

One would have imagined that powerful movements like that of Nanak’s would have demolished the caste structure in Punjab. But contrary to that spirit, the caste discrimination grew because of feudal values. Punjab’s prosperity is because of the Dalit labour work harder in Punjab. The influence of Sufism in Punjab was tremendous and finding caste discrimination rampant the Majhabis and Ravidasis started their Deras and sects. And today the number of these Deras are over 300 in entire state.

Punjab’s Dalits mostly wanted to fight a religious battle through religiosity. Revolutionary Sufi saint Ravidas wrote “ Paradhinata paap hai, jaan lehu re meet, ravidas das pradhin se kaun karre hai preet’ meaning, please understand that enslavement is sin, Saint Ravidas says,who loves an enslaved person. Now such a person who talks of freedom. He says that those who studied Vedas were called Pandits ( Knowledgeable) and those who make your shoes were called Chamars. How can you divide one human race into so many caste and Varnas?

Ravidas attacked the brahmanical system and the Dalits in Punjab got liberation in his spiritual values. Many of the Ravidasis shifted to Europe and America and have actually followed the same pattern as the SGPC and other upper caste Sikhs in Punjab. When money floats a lot and not much to work, you only develop empty institutions for the purpose of religious change. Punjab’s religious sects are more spiritual in nature and have rarely helped the Dalits to get out of the Hindu varna fold. And therefore, the Dalits gets agitated on the issues when the religious leaders face threat or attacked which is absolutely right, yet the same people do not get agitated when their rights are not honored, when their daughters are discriminated and molested. It is the question one has to address.

I always wonder why Chamars, one of the most enlightened communities among the Dalits could get political wisdom in Uttar-Pradesh yet remain on the margin in Punjab despite better economic status. The answer was clear that in Uttar-Pradesh, despite poverty, they embraced Ambedkar’s methods of fighting a battle politically. In Punjab, it is still a spiritual battle for getting recognition. It is still the concentration of one sect and one cult and without much social change. The focus there have been more on more institutions, temples, charitable causes a clear pattern of the Sikhism which always believed in charity. Ofcourse, charity do not grant you right and in fact some time takes them away from you. Hence the issue of Punjab’s Dalit’s identity can not really get resolved through controlling Gurudwaras but in more enlightened political battle.

In the morning, I spoke to a friend in Punjab. I thought he was much agitated on the issue but then found that he did not belong to the same sect and hence he was not very happy with current turn of events. Punjab’s Dalits are powerful enough to give the powerful people a run for their money. Economic changes have given them a lot of things but they will have to understand that they will only be helping the status quoists if they do not raise their issues on a broader political front. Just using the spiritual battle will take you nowhere. One can understand that as long as the Jaat Sikhs will have their leadership from the powerful SGPC, the Deras will continue to provide alternative to Dalits. The incidents in Vienna are not isolated. It is basically to control the Sikh mind. Such incidents are not happening suddenly. Prejudices are being played by the political masterminds.

Not many years ago we saw the incidents to control Gurudwara in Talhan, in Jullandhar. As the Dalit’s assertion will try to match the upper caste power in Punjab, these issues will continue to threaten peace and harmony. The upper caste Sikhs seems to be deeply concern of the growing power of the Ravidasis and Majahabis, particularly those living abroad. The control is coming through the NRI money and therefore it is important for them to teach a lesson. Charges are leveled against Ravidasis that they disrespect the Gurugranth Saheb. It is absolutely false as I have attended their congregations in Punjab and found them extremely well versed in the Granth Saheb and respecting it. It is another matter that they recite the verses of Ravi Das also and there is nothing wrong in that. However, the real fear of those who disagree with the Ravidasis is their cry and matching power with the upper caste Sikhs. Like the statues of Ravidas Maharaj in the Gurudwara is a matter of heart burn for many of the upper caste Sikhs but then why should they have a problem with that. If you do not allow them to your Gurudwaras and if the Churas and Chamars (Punjabi Dalit writer Balbir Madhopuri’s autobiography clearly mention how the upper Caste Gurudwaras discriminated against the Justify FullDalits) continue to be treated like animals and discriminated against then these Deras would always provide them a strength. The Sikh leadership which predominantly hails from the upper caste background need to start a process of reconciliation and it will not work by calling a meeting of the upper caste parties. Punjab’s problem is the increasing gap between the Sikhs and the Dalit Sikhs. The Sikh leadership has failed to realize this issue and became equally brahmanical in nature therefore ignoring the vast interests of the Dalits in Punjab. Punjab’s Dalit need sharing in power and respect at every forum. Such threat as emerged from Vienna which tried to eliminate the spiritual leadership of Dalit will only anger them and create a further wage between the two communities which will end in clashes and fragile peace in Punjab, perhaps more dangerous than what we saw in the height of violence in Punjab in 1980s.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Prachanda's tryst with dissent

Democracy of Convenience in Nepal

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Nepal is facing the biggest crisis after the formation of new democracy. Prime Minister Prachanda has resigned after his government was reduced to a minority as partner UML party which has 108 members in the Parliament withdrew its support on the issue of sacking of the Chief of Nepal army General Katwal. The Maoist blamed him for being pro Indian and resisting the inclusion of their 19000 cadres which fought against the military. General Katwal and many other political parties felt that these political cadres of the Maoists will be a grave threat and the army would then be indoctrinated. Ofcourse, it is a fact the same army was under the royalty and was considered to be an obedient supporter of the erstwhile royalty.

The Maoists are in the street. Prachanda seems to have gone back to where he belonged to, which is guerilla warfare. The Nepalese political system, which was held to ransom by an autocratic monarch, is now sandwiched between the forces of democracy and those who use democracy to hijack it.

One needs not to be an analyst to see why Prime Minister Prachanda resigned so fast. Nepal’s people are completely disappointed with the current lot of politicians and the Maoists raised hopes for them but current problems that cropped in Nepal, could not really provide them with innovative ideas or radical ideas. The economic disparities remain the same. The long lines for petrol and diesels could always be seen at the petrol pumps. The economy was in doldrums. The former gorillas were now power centre with gunmen surrounding them and distancing them from the people.

But now the historical moment of democratizing the Nepalese society seems to be slipping out of Nepal’s hand. Prachanda and his comrades seem to fuel anti Indian sentiments to further their own agenda which has never been democratic. It is strange that the forces of change, as they claim, are afraid of democratic dissent. It is the irony of democracy that it becomes victim of anti democratic forces who use democracy for their vicious agenda. We have in India, all the anti democratic forces, riding on the wave of democracy to further their casteist and hate agenda.

However, Nepal looked an exception. Nearly 10 years war of the Maoists against the Monarch, whose stories were well established in the political circle, whose anarchist son would rampage at any place to fulfill his whims and fancies, the people of this kingdom, joined hand and revolted against the age old monarchy. To the credit of the Maoists, they forced the dictatorship of the monarchy out. Had they been not there, I would bet, the Nepalese congress and other political parties did not have the courage to tell the King to leave the Narayanhiti place, which is now a national Museum.

In August, after Prachanda assumed the charge of the nation, a lot of things were expected. Prime Minister took oath in a different way; of course, his red tilak was always there. His deputy Babu Ram Bhattarai have been more argumentative on the issue of breaking the ‘feudal’ structure of Nepal. The prime minister actually in a recent international conference organized by International Land Coalition and government of Nepal argued for a scientific land reform. All his ministers have been talking about it. For us it was a difficult preposition but then Bhattarai said that many of the old mindset in Nepal still resists their original ‘revolutionary’ land reform and hence they undertook a middle path and said it will be ‘scientific’ land reform.

Both Prachanda and Babu Ram Bhattarai, may not be ignorant to the blatant casteist society in Nepal. It flourished during the regime of the king who considered himself as the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Unfortunately, the ‘revolutionaries’ in Nepal keep a conspicuous silence on it. After hearing them so many times, none of them ever use the word ‘ Dalits’ or ethnic minorities to describe about oppression and exploitation. Why is the current regime of Nepal living in a continuous mode of denial, and does not say a single word against the atrocious caste system of Nepal? Fighting war against feudalism is welcome but the caste oppression in Nepal is not just feudalism. It exists even among the poor. So a poor Brahmin is not equal to poor Dalit as being projected by the Maoists. A visit to many of these areas of Nepal suggest how the Dalit still face boycott and tyranny of the upper castes in the villages, schools still have the same structure, water is not available to Dalits, job reservation is not meant for them and hence if Prachanda and his company talks of ‘scientific land reform’, one sincerely hope, it wont be the rigged ‘reforms’ as the CPM has done in West Bengal, which never reached the Dalits. Contrary to this, these progressive left actually turned oppressor against the Dalits as their ‘perceived’ notion that ‘caste’ does not exist simply because they do not believe in it. In the name of looking ‘progressive’ by using ‘internationally’ ‘acceptable’ terms of class, feudalism etc, the Maoists seem to be defending a status quo in Nepal which subjugated people for centuries. The Dalits in Nepal are looking for a change, a democratic one which gives them opportunity to develop. A mere manufactured consent of Dalit yes to their ‘initiative’ will not suffice.

Having tracked down their issues, I am amazed that none of them ever raised the issue of how the ‘cult of Kumari’ which is nothing but a ‘celebration’ of virginity and patriarchical feudal values are still allowed and none of the revolutionaries are seen speaking against the same. Similarly, a majority of the landless labours, share croppers in Nepal are Dalits. What stops the Maoists to speak openly on the issue and develop Dalit leadership and not just show pieces who do not raise the issue of caste discrimination and continue to ‘fight’ against ‘feudalism’ or simply ‘samantshahi’.

Now, the situation in Nepal is alarmingly changing. More and more anti India rhetoric are on the air. One can understand that New Delhi actually messed up things in such a way that average Nepali feel that India does not respect them as an independent nation but simply as another state of India. It is ironical that all the democratic movements in Nepal never had an Indian support. May be because of the government of India’s policy of not offending a neighboring power, the Maoists propaganda worked that India is not interested in strengthening the democratic system there. But at the end of the day democracy has to come through our own struggle and interference from an external power would not work.

Immediately assuming the power, Prachanda went to China. The government of Nepal wants a similar treaty with China as it has with India. While every country is free to make its choices, one is sure that Prachanda and his friend know that culturally India and Nepal are closer and any thing on part of the Maoists to go against that would not work in Nepal.

When the Nepal fought against tyranny of the king, it was people’s desire to be free from the shackles of monarch and dictators. The Maoists played a lead role in getting rid of the oligarchs who destroyed Nepal. But then democracy throws strange results. It brings to the forefront those forces, who do not have faith in democracy. The fifty years of Indian democracy has the similar experience when the feudal forces got legitimized through democratic set up. In Nepal, Prachanda and his associates harped much on the Chinese vision and blamed India for every evil.

One has to understand why the Maoist government was keen to establish itself beyond India. The fascination comes from various aspects. One, Chinese brand of people’s democracy has no faith in dissent and the Maoists actually failed during the past few months. Their working pattern was no less than feudalistic like our own monarchs who pretend to represent the poor. Secondly, Prachanda’s own son has no good record than Paras, the autocratic son of former king. The expectations that the Maoists raised to its cadre actually were fast receding and therefore they needed the rhetoric.

One needs to ask the question to the Maoists and all those sympathizers. How can they include their cadre into the army of a country? Is Nepal a moist country? As an ideology, one should not afraid of it, but as a nation Maoists and Nepal can not be used in interchangeable term. Nepal as a nation is much bigger than Prachanda and his Maoist army. Nepal paid a price of the submissive royal devotees as army chief. Now if the royal Nepalese army is being replaced by the one loyal to Prachanda, then one can for sure understand that Maoist war against the Monarchy was not on pure ideals of democracy but to thrust their way of dictatorship on a nation which is asking for more democratic liberal values.

Country’s armed forces, educational institutions, judiciary and media need to be free from these ideological biases. If Nepal has to develop then they can not have a democracy hijacked by those who do not believe in it and want to use it for their own nefarious purposes. Nepal’s tryst with destiny is to open itself to its diverse population, ethnic minorities and destroy the age old feudal structure led by the priestly class amply supported by the King. Unless that priestly class is attacked, the slogans of ‘revolution’ will remain the biggest humbug. Unfortunately, the Maoist government was not bothered to use this terminology. May be because they feared the issue of representation of the Dalits with in the party and government will always be raised.


Democracy may have many flawed. We witness it in India but democracy at the end is a level playing field. Whether we like it or not, Lalu, Ramvilas, Maywati, Narendra Modi and Prakash Karath are the reality of the day in India. Such things are not that easy in Nepal. The Dalits with in the communist set up are afraid to speak up against the brahmanical leadership of the political structure there in Nepal. One can understand the difficulties of the leadership in speaking plainly against the caste structure as a majority of them hails from one particular community and the top brass of the Communist Party of Nepal are particularly Brahmins. Ofcourse, there are a few showpieces as Dalit ministers very much like what used to be in India with mainstream parties in the past. The Maoists know it well that it is important to use this symbol of Dalit empowerment through individual ministers who fail to impress with their work.

It is important that Nepal find a way out. The Nepalese society is democratizing itself. It needs more diversity and the Maoists will never allow that diversity to function. No doubt the political parties have their problems and corruptions but the danger to Nepal may not come from corruption that much as from the centralization of forces and corruption of ideology. In the name of revolution, you can not confine people to a particular perception. Ideologies have to be fought with ideology. Nepal’s tryst lies with a vibrant democracy. For Indians who have always thought Nepal as their own part, it is better to lay off but definitely, the cultural ties between the two countries are so strong that the political leadership can not keep away from it. If the Maoists are really interested in a vibrant democracy then they will have to use their ‘indoctrinated’ cadre for political purposes rather than forcing them to join the army. For Nepal, the biggest danger is between different kinds of indoctrinated soldiers. Democracy gives ample space to every one to survive and opportunity to negotiate. One hope that the Prachanda led party will not put Nepal into turmoil again. The earlier one, they had pretence of a monarch but now every one has its say. Fighting against each other will only ruin Nepal. Time for all those who believe in democracy to come together and find a solution. Nepal can not afford another round of instability and killing of the innocent people. Again the monarchy is gone but the monarch is still witnessing. The Hindutva’s champions are sitting there and if the democratic polity fails in Nepal, the forces of patriarchy and monarchy will come through democratic mandate. Prachanda should visualize this and show more maturity and negotiating skills rather than mobilizing his rabble rousers in the street.