Opinion

Deras Of Punjab: Powerful Symbols Of Dalit Assertion

Dalits may be under-represented in mainstream politics, but in Punjab they have a rich tradition of religio-cultural assertion through the influential Deras.

Deras Of Punjab: Powerful Symbols Of Dalit Assertion
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“The regal realm with the sorrowless name;
They call it Begumpura, a place with no pain
Not taxes or cares, nor own property there,
No wrongdoing, worry, terror or torture,
Oh my brother, I have come to take it as my own,
My distant home, where everything is right…”

(Begampura, a poem by Sant Ravi Das about a utopia, a city without sorrow, translated by J.S. Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer, in their 1988 book, Songs of the Saints of India)

It is Sunday. The sun peers down, with not a trace of clouds in the clear blue sky. The cab takes a detour off the highway to a narrow road leading to Ballan village. It is about eight kilometres from Jalandhar, one of the major towns of Punjab’s fertile Doaba region, between the Sutlej and Beas rivers. The village has become well known as the site of the Dera Sachkhand Ballan, considered the most important Ravi Dasi dera in the area.

With Dera Sacha Sauda’s head Baba Ram Rahim Singh being sentenced to life for the murder of the sect’s former manager, the Deras—with their ­eclectic culture and hordes of dedicated followers—are back in news. There are numerous deras in Punjab, but what stand out are the Ravi Dasi deras of the doaba region, which have emerged as a site for Dalit assertion and counter-culture.

The Ravi Das sect has great influence among Dalits of the leather-working caste. In Punjab, which has the highest concentration of Dalits in India at about 32 per cent, about 80 per cent Dalits come from two main clusters: the Ravi Dasis or Ad Dharmis, who are leather-workers, and the Mazhabis-Valmikis, the sanitation workers. Among the latter, those who have ­become Sikhs are called Mazhabis and those who remain Hindu are called Valmikis. Those of the leather-­working caste who have become Sikhs call themselves Ramdasiyas.

The Doaba region, also a hub of the Green Revolution, has a Dalit population estimated to be anywhere between 35 and 45 per cent, making the region the hub of Ravi Dasi deras. As we approach Dera Sachkhand Ballan, even GPS is not required to find where the dera is. I see crowds of people walking in the direction of the dera. The cab passes them by slowly, and we see a police ­barricade and a board announcing that our ­destination is close by.

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Spirit of the Faith

A woman prays at Dera Sachkhand Ballan

The road turns left and the crowds get bigger. Stalls line up the entire stretch leading to the ­gurudwara-style structure that houses the ­headquarters of the dera. The large building has a dome and a canopy above it, with an arrow on the top pointing skywards. There are smaller domes on the left and right. Armed jawans of Punjab Police are stationed across the road.

I get down from the cab to feel the ambience of what is a massive congregation building up. I peer into a stall selling a variety of things, from toys to cloth. Various small and large portraits of the medieval saint Ravi Das are on display. There are also many portraits of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, India’s first law minister, chairman of the ­drafting committee of the Constitution and a pan-Indian Dalit icon. Ambedkar is depicted dressed in a blue coat, with some portraits ­showing him holding a copy of the Constitution and some others showing the parliament ­building in the background.

I make my way on foot towards the dera, buying a handkerchief to cover my head, just like the devotees who have taken time out on a Sunday to visit the place they hold in deep reverence. What is it that attracts people to this dera? They come on foot and in cars. And on a Sunday, their ­numbers can swell to several thousands.

Wearing a white kurta and pyjama, retired ­department of telecom employee Daulat Ram has an answer. “I have been coming here for 40 years. After my retirement, I decided to leave Delhi, where I was last posted, and settle in Jalandhar. This dera is unique,” says the 80-year-old, with a sparkle in his eyes. “Casteism was rampant in society. Those who were oppressed started the Ravi Das Dharm, ­inspired by the Banaras saint Ravi Das, who was a leather-worker by caste. This place is special because everyone is equal here. Not everyone gets the same honour in a temple or ­gurudwara. But here, there is perfect equality.”

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Piety with a difference

(Clockwise from top) Devotees at Dera Sachkhand Ballan; the Baba Brahma Das dera near Phillaur

The crowd is diverse indeed. There are poor people in tatters as also middle-class people in cars. There are as many women as men. There are also teenage girls in jeans and T-shirts who have come to the dera to spend their Sunday here; to hear sermons and ­devotional songs blaring from loudspeakers and to have a sumptuous meal at the large langar hall.

“The Ravi Dasis have a unique identity. They don’t associate with Hinduism or Sikhism. They revere Sant Ravi Das, who lived in medieval times in Varanasi,” says Des Raj Kali, a writer who has widely written about the Ravi Dasi deras.

The history of autonomous Dalit assertion—­particularly of the leather-working caste—is a rich one in the Doaba region. The assertion came with profound social changes that occurred after the British annexation of Punjab, and the coming of Christian missions and the colonial decennial ­census. The British made sense of people as ­religious groups and began recording populations of all ­religions in the census. This made the middle classes in late 19th-century Punjab, both Hindu and Sikh, realise that community numbers were important. To preserve these, it was important to reach out to Dalits, who would otherwise enumerate themselves separately.

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The Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement, swung into action first. It started the shuddhi (purification) of the then ‘untouchables’ to ensure that they remained Hindu. Much academic literature—Kenneth Jones’s book Arya Dharm, J.T.F. Jordens’s biography of Arya Samajist Swami Shraddhanand and Mark Juergensmeyer’s seminal work on Punjab Dalits—has captured this in detail.

Two things changed the lives of leather-working Dalits forever. One, as an army cantonment came up in Jalandhar, a ready demand for boots was created. The leather-working Dalits were economically ­empowered because of this. The Boota Mandi of Jalandhar is still a hub of leather work. Two, the doors of education opened for Dalits, with Arya Samaj and Christian missionary schools. The result of the twin processes was the creation of a conscious middle class.

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It is from this class that an autonomous Dalit ­symbolism was employed and the medieval saint Ravi Das, who was from the same caste, resurrected as a Guru. It helped that Ravi Das is believed to have met Guru Nanak in his life and his writings are also included in the Adi Granth of the Sikhs.

However, Dalit consciousness was not willing to be seen as an appendage of Sikhism or Hinduism. Mangoo Ram, an early 20th-century Dalit leader from Doaba and a Ghadr Party revolutionary, started the Ad Dharm movement in the 1920s. This movement saw Ravi Das as its icon and argued that the Ad Dharmis were the original inhabitants of India, who were dislodged from their pride of place and subjected to oppression by the ‘invading Aryans’. In the 1931 census, more than 4 lakh people from the leather-working caste enumerated ­themselves as Ad Dharmis, a separate qaum ­(religious community).

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However, the movement petered out by the 1940s and 50s, its leaders joining either the Congress or the Scheduled Caste Federation of Ambedkar, who was respected by the Ad Dharmis. When Mahatma Gandhi went on a fast unto death to oppose ­separate electorates for Dalits—a demand of Ambedkar—­and push for joint electorates with ­political ­reservation, Mangoo Ram went on a ­counter-fast in Punjab to oppose Gandhi.

S.S. Jodhka argues in his article in the Economic and Political Weekly on Ravi Dasis in Punjab that the need for reservation meant Ad Dharmis had to officially accept themselves as Hindus. A separate religious identity could have jeopardised that.

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The Ambedkar

Connection Brahma Das and Ambedkar depicted together in a picture adorning a wall of the dera near Phillaur

But even as the Ad Dharm formally petered out, Ravi Dasi deras that pre-dated it survived and even prospered. With many Dalits leaving for the West in the 1990s, diaspora money and a new ­assertion came to the movement. In the West, the Ravi Dasi migrants not just earned money, but also refused to accept “low-caste” status vis-à-vis other Punjabi migrants. “The Chamars, who came to Britain expecting to find life different, take ­offence at the upper-caste Sikhs’ attitude towards them,” writes Mark Juergensmeyer. “They earn as much as the Jat-Sikhs, sometimes more, and ­occasionally find themselves placed by the British in command over them—a Chamar foreman ­superintending a Jat Sikh work crew—much to the displeasure of the latter…”

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Donations by Ravi Dasi NRIs made the Deras expand. The expansion also led to an incident of violence in Vienna in May 2009, when a visiting leader of Dera Sachkhand Ballan was shot dead by Sikh militants, sparking tension and violence in Punjab. “Till then, even the Guru Granth used to be present in Dera Sachkhand Ballan. But after that, it has been removed and only the Amrit Bani dedicated to Sant Ravi Das is present at the dera,” says Des Raj Kali.

The infusion of wealth into the dera is visible. The armed jawans were deployed after the Vienna violence. I head towards a large hall where the present Dera chief, Sant Niranjan Dass, is seated on the gaddi at the stage at the far end. Songs ­dedicated to Ravi Das are being played and a large congregation of devotees sits on the carpeted floor in the spacious hall, which can ­accommodate a few thousand people.

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I step out to visit another large hall where the community meal (langar) is on. Here, too, while some people sit at one end on chairs placed next to two dining tables, large numbers of people sit in neat rows on the floor, with sewadars ­(volunteers) serving them dal, ­vegetables, rotis and rice. The langar goes on for hours, but there is still food left. The dera can offer free, freshly cooked to thousands of ­devotees on any Sunday.

If the Sikhs have the slogan Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal, the Dera Sachkhand Ballan has a similar slogan, capturing Dalit assertion: Jo Bole So Nirbhay, Sant Ravi Das Ki Jay (the one who takes his name conquers fear; hail Sant Ravi Das).

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Traffic management outside the dera is done by volunteers. All of them are devotees who decide to offer sewa when they can. Sewadars can be recognised by their yellow cotton jacket and white trousers.

Satnam, a middle-aged sewadar, strikes a ­conversation. “I have been coming here for 40 years. Anyone can become a sewadar. Keep ­coming for some months, offer service at the ­langar, and gradually you will get the badge and this dress. I come here to offer sewa as part of my spiritual duty,” he says.

In his office near the Doordarshan building at Jalandhar, Des Raj Kali says Ravi Dasi deras are of two kinds: the Udasi deras and the Sufi deras. The Udasi deras claim their origin from Srichand, the son of Guru Nanak, while the Sufi deras have a Sufi connection. Gradually, says Kali, when people from the leather-working caste joined the Udasi deras in large numbers and even began to become dera-dars (heads), these deras became Ravi Dasi in orientation.

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The Sufi deras have an ambience very different from Udasi deras. A day after visiting the Dera Sachkhand Ballan, I headed to Phillaur, close to which is a major Sufi Ravi Dasi Dera called Ad Dharmi Dera Sant Brahma Das ji Sabri. The dera building, which resembles a Sufi shrine and has visibly Islamic architecture, is located next to a school run by the dera.

The dera has an interesting story. Sant Brahma Das, a leather-worker by caste, was offered to the Sufi shrine of Khwaja Maule Shah by his parents. He accepted the Sufi saint as his guru and offered sewa for years at the shrine. Aware of his “low caste” status, the Muslim man running the langar would give him stale rotis for years, goes the story. Brahma Das never complained. Once, the Khwaja noticed it and asked Brahma Das to bring his rotis to him. He asked Brahma Das to tear a roti from his plate. When he did, it came apart like a fresh roti. The Khwaja asked another person to tear the next roti. Being stale, it did not come apart easily. The Khwaja said that Brahma Das had now bec­ome siddh (a saintly man), got the langar staffer removed, gave Brahma Das the title of Sabri (the patient man), and asked him to go and serve his downtrodden community. This, it is said, was how the Dera Brahma Das came into existence.

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The caretakers of the dera see the late Brahma Das as a saint. He was close to Ambedkar, they say, as they point to portraits of Ambedkar and Brahma Das, both together in a frame, adorning the walls. Brahma Das, it is said, went to Delhi in 1947 to meet Ambedkar and invite him to Punjab. Ambedkar obliged, and a public meeting was ­organised for him in Ludhiana.

“Ambedkar was very impressed with Baba Brahma Das,” says Jarnail, who stays at the dera. “He once asked Baba who he had faith in. Baba replied that he had faith only in those who support his community of Ravi Dasis. He had no faith in any other belief system. Ambedkar was so impressed that he stood up and clapped. He said that despite his education, even he had never thought the way Baba Brahma Das could think.”

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The present head of this Sufi dera is Baba Jashpal. “People who don’t have children come here for Baba’s blessings. They have children after that,” says Mohan Lal, a volunteer who stays at the dera along with his children and grandchildren. He says the dera believes in Sant Kabir and the Chishti order, and a significant part of its following comes from the leather-­working caste. The dera, which wears a ­deserted look on weekdays, has three large congregations in June and also on Baisakhi day. Qawwalis are sung on these occasions. There is a large courtyard where these qawwalis take place, and a large, covered space for the community meal (langar) to be served to devotees.

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Des Raj Kali, who was given his name by Baba Brahma Das, says the Baba’s writings changed his thought process. “He dissuaded the community from giving money to pundits for festivals. He suggested a community fund instead, where all people donated some money, a part of which could be lent to anyone with a wedding in his family at low interest rates,” says Kali. “He was also against immersion of ashes in the Ganga and wanted people to immerse these in ponds or ­canals near their villages.”

Ravi Dasi deras have their own diversity, but provide a site for an alternative Ravi Dasi culture to assert itself. Despite such popular sites and the high Dalit population in Punjab, politics in the state remains dominated by Jat-Sikhs. Only recently did the state get its first Dalit chief ­minister, Charanjit Singh Channi.

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What prevents the vibrant and resourceful Dalit world of Punjab from leaving a deep impact on politics? Kali says it is the division among Dalits that has prevented any powerful political assertion. Ravi Dasi Deras also largely have one caste, the leather-workers, as followers.

For decades, the Valmiki-Mazhabis have been demanding a sub-quota for themselves within Scheduled Caste reservation, as they feel the better-off leather-workers have benefited more from the quotas. This has ensured that the large Dalit population in the state cannot have a united voice.

Kali points out that Meghs and Ravi Dasis—two Dalit caste groups—migrated to Jalandhar ­during Partition. Both groups are involved in producing sports goods. Yet, the Meghs do not work with leather and the Ravi Dasis work only with leather. So, Meghs make cricket bats and hockey sticks, while the Ravi Dasis make footballs. So deep, Kali rues, is the divide within.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Deras of Dalit Counter-culture")

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