The Ravi Dassias: Punjab’s fourth Qaum
By Karthik Venkatesh
In May 2009, a murderous attack on a prominent Ravi Dassia leader, Sant Ramanand Dass, in Vienna brought to the fore the complex social and religious conflicts in Punjab. The ramifications of this attack were felt in Punjab’s Doaba region (comprising Jalandhar and its nearby districts) which remained disturbed for a number of days. In February 2010, the Ravi Dassias proclaimed a new religion with their own prophet (Guru Ravi Dass) and their own sacred text (Amrit Bani Guru Ravidass). This was the culmination of a religious movement that had surfaced in the early 20th century.
The foundation for this ‘separateness’ had been laid in undivided Punjab by Mangoo Ram in the mid-1920s. Mangoo Ram was an unusual personality. Hailing from the Chamar caste (considered untouchable) he had gone to America in 1909 and worked in the orchards of California. In California, he had become involved with the Ghadar party. The Ghadar party, a brain-child of Indian expats in America and Canada, aimed at overthrowing British rule by fomenting mutiny in the Indian army. It had the backing of many Indians in California, many of them Punjabis. This American sojourn of Mangoo Ram had a decisive impact on him and when he came back to India in the mid-1920s, he immediately became involved in uplifting his community through education.
In 1926, Mangoo Ram proclaimed a new religion — Ad Dharm – for the lower castes. His initial following came from his own community, the Chamars. The following reached such sizeable numbers that it forced the colonial authorities to enumerate them as a separate religious community (qaum) distinct from Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims in the 1931 census. They were to be Punjab’s fourth qaum and Mangoo Ram’s vision was that the Ad Dharm would eventually draw into its fold all of Punjab’s lower castes. After the highpoint of 1931, the Ad Dharm movement lost steam. It made a series of political compromises with the British, moved in various directions and eventually, by the end of the decade, it had become a shadow of its former self. It soon metamorphosed into the Ravi Dass Mandal in 1946 and contented itself with being enumerated as a distinct Hindu caste in order to benefit from reservation. In this, it allied itself with the Dera Sachkand located in village Ballan near Jalandhar.
The Dera Sachkand’s origin goes back to the last decade of the 19th century when Sant Pipal Dass had established a dera (camp) near Jalandhar which soon began to be frequented by the lower castes of the region. Mangoo Ram had established a connection with Pipal Dass at the time of conceiving Ad Dharm. Though the Dera soon built up a strong connection with the Ad Dharm movement, owing to its strong grassroots support, the Dera did not fade into obscurity even as the Ad Dharm movement did.
In the years following independence, the Dera Sachkand continued to grow from strength to strength. Its proclamation recently of a separate religion or qaum is an interesting case of history repeating itself albeit in a new context which, while being different, retains some of the old social stigmas which had resulted in the Ad Dharm movement in the first instance.
It is important to note that while the emergence of the Ravi Dassias in terms of identifying themselves as a distinct community or qaum is a 20th century phenomenon, Ravi Dass himself lived in the 14th/15th centuries. He was born in Banaras into an untouchable caste – Chamars (leather workers). Religious sources indicate a time span of 126 years from 1377 onwards for Ravi Dass. Gail Omvedt in her work Seeking Begumpura, however, indicates a time span of 1450 to 1520. Ravi Dass probably visited Punjab during that time, met with Guru Nanak (1469-1539) and gave him most of his writings, a portion of which (about 40 verses) was included in the Guru Granth Sahib.
By virtue of his verses being included in the Granth Sahib, Ravi Dass came to occupy an important place in the Sikh pantheon just below the ten Sikh Gurus (Ravi Dass is, along with several others whose verses are included in the Granth Sahib, a bhagat — a holy person). It would not therefore be wrong to say that Ravi Dass, who was in all likelihood a rebellious figure in his time, had become something of a mainstream figure owing to his importance in Sikhism. He also remained a popular figure of veneration for the Chamar community since he was one of their own. Many deras were set up in his name in Punjab. Sikhism itself was an attempt to create a casteless society and it was putting into practice Ravidass’ ideas, which were similar to those of Guru Nanak.
Given all of this, why have the Ravi Dassias felt the need to break free and constitute a distinct community two times over? Why could they not find their voice within Sikhism? Why couldn’t independent India with its visionary Constitution and numerous legislations that attempted to rein in the excesses of the caste system give them due dignity within their existing context? Clearly the dream of a casteless society that honoured all its members remained unrealized both within Sikhism and in independent India.
The genesis of the Vienna incident of 2009 as well as the proclamation of a new religion in 2010 can be traced to yet another incident. This incident took place in 2003 in Talhan village near Jalandhar and served to highlight the fraught relationship that the Ad Dharmis shared with the Jat Sikhs of Punjab, the land-owning community that dominates the cultural and political life of the state. Talhan, a village with an Ad Dharm majority witnessed clashes between the Ad Dharmis and Jats over the management of a local shrine. The shrine (Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Samadhi Sthal) had grown in importance over the years and attracted considerable donations. Since the shrine was built on village common land, the Ad Dharmis demanded a say in its management which was fiercely resisted by the Jats. Clashes ensued as a result and the fault lines that had always existed in Punjab became more sharply accentuated as a result.
The Vienna incident deepened these fault lines as it was an attack on a figure revered by the Ad Dharmis and the proclamation of a new religion is perhaps the final manifestation of a break between the Ad Dharmis and the Jats. Owing to ill-treatment, the Ad Dharm emerged as a separate qaum in the early 20th century. Today, the Ravi Dassias are again attempting to emerge as a separate entity. The reasons for seeking this ‘separateness’ remain the same—caste Hindu/Sikh society’s ill-treatment of people at the ‘lower’ end of the spectrum. Constitutional safeguards like reservation have ensured a degree of prosperity, but societal attitudes haven’t changed since independence. In this indisputable fact lie the roots of wanting to opt out.
Ravi Dass in one of his popular poems speaks of ‘Begumpura’ – a place with no pain, no taxes or cares…no wrongdoing, worry, terror or torture (Translated by Hawley and Juergensmeyer in Songs of the Saints of India, OUP, 1988). In this verse and in many others, Ravi Dass was articulating the pain of the lower castes at brahminical society’s treatment of them. He was in effect proclaiming a new utopia that needed to be realized. Clearly, this utopia has remained unrealized and so, yet another new beginning has been made.
Karthik Venkatesh is originally from Bangalore, but circumstances took him to Punjab where he lived and worked for more than a decade. This resulted in a keen interest in things Punjabi – history, literature, culture and politics. He has written on aspects of Punjabi history (1, 2) and translated Punjabi poetry (1, 2). He has also published on Mahatma Phule, the poetry of Arun Kolatkar and other opinion pieces. He is now back in Bangalore and working as an editor with a publishing firm.
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