Caste Away

By James King and Derek Quizon

Many members of Britain’s Indian community left their homeland to escape caste discrimination, but some say the problem still lingers

LONDON — In June 2009, at a protest rally in downtown London, 15-year-old Selina Dhanda proudly shows off a scar on her left arm that she received during a fight at the school she attends in a London suburb.

Dhanda is a member of the Ravidassi, a splinter group of the Sikh religion. She said fights like the one that left her with the 3-inch scar are common at her school, which Ravidassi and Sikh children both attend. “Last week a boy at my school from a different caste pushed me and called me a filthy untouchable,” she said, “so I knocked him out.”

The tension between the Ravidassi and Sikhs is one of the more complex religious conflicts facing England today. Many feel that a caste system, similar to the one that existed (and arguably still exists, according to many Indian nationals) in India, where both religions originated, has followed their faithful to Great Britain.

A tangled past

England claims the second largest Sikh population in the world, with more than 750,000 practicing members, as well as roughly 20,000 practicing Ravidassi. The Sikh religion started in the 15th century with the goal of ending the longstanding caste system within the Hindu religion. Over time, different interpretations of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikh religion, as well as continuation of the Indian caste system, caused a small group of lower-caste Sikhs to break away from Sikhism and form a separate but similar faith called Ravidassi.

Today, tensions run high between the two groups.

In May 2009 the Ravidassi spiritual leader, 57-year-old Guru Sant Sri Ramanand, was murdered at a Sikh temple in Austria. Police suspect Sikh extremists were behind the attack.

The murder of Guru Ramanand sparked outrage throughout Europe. In early June more than 4,000 Ravidassi marched in London to protest the violence. The murder has breathed new life into a centuries-old conflict and raised questions about the caste system in Great Britain.

At the London rally, Ravidassi protestors wore shirts commemorating the martyred guru. Conflicting signs read “Hang the Murderers” and “We Condemn Extremism/Terrorism.” Chants to end the caste system filled Piccadilly Circus as the four-city-block procession weaved through downtown London to the Indian consulate.

Mild spats of violence arose. Several Sikh men with provocative signs taped to their backs, saying things like “Please respect our Guru,” prompted Ravidassi protest leader Rajinder Kaur to leap the police barricade, megaphone in hand, and engage the Sikhs. London bobbies had to forcefully stop him.

When asked how he knew the men were Sikhs, Kaur said, “I could see the hate in their eyes.”

Kaur said the hate stems from the financial success of the Ravidassi in recent years and the Sikhs’ desire to keep them as second-class citizens in England. “We’re becoming educated and rising in society, and they hate us for that.”

Discrimination or religious differences?

What appears to Western observers to be infighting among members of different groups within Sikhism is actually a confusing tangle that involves both caste discrimination and sectarianism. Although Ravidassi have historically considered themselves Sikhs, members of the Sikh community shun them. Ravidassi leaders claim it’s an example of ethnic discrimination, but orthodox Sikhs trace the conflict to religious differences.

Sukpreet Singh, a practicing Sikh who lectures at Bournemouth University, said the tension between Sikhs and Ravidassi stems from religious differences, not caste discrimination. The Ravidassi use of sacred Sikh scriptures, he said, offends members of the Sikh community, who believe those scriptures are theirs — and theirs alone. “Sikhs are irritated that they’re using the holy book.”

According to Singh, Ravidassi are using caste discrimination as a rallying cry to gain sympathy from the Indian government, which has outlawed caste discrimination and begun using affirmative action to force employers to hire people from lower castes. Cries of discrimination also catch the attention of Western media and human rights groups, he said. “Caste is a big issue in India. Caste gets votes, and caste gets jobs.”

Singh added that while he and most Sikhs condemn the violence in Austria, militants are willing to use violent means to intimidate other sects. “It’s quite possible that Sikhs did this,” he said. “There are always extremists in any religion.”

The Ravidassi community, represented in Britain by the advocacy group Guru Ravidas Sabha UK, and members of the British lobby Castewatch UK tell a different story. Piraph Bali, president of the London branch of Guru Ravidas Sabha UK, acknowledged that Sikhs and Ravidassi have a few religious differences, but he said the driving force of the conflict is caste discrimination.

“We do the same things in our temples that they do in their temples,” Bali said. “Our guru’s words are in their holy book, [but] they always tell us that we’re the downtrodden, that we can’t mingle with them.”

Castewatch UK is dedicated to trying to heal the rifts between British Indians of different castes. General Secretary Davinder Prasad accused the Sikh community of intentionally downplaying the issue of caste, which he said is the main cause of the tension.

“People are quite happy to practice casteism,” Davinder said. “But if you talk to the perpetrators of the discrimination, you’ll find they’re completely in denial. They’ll say, ‘We don’t believe in a caste system.’”

Moving forward

Castewatch and several affiliates of Guru Ravidas Sabha UK are pressuring members of the British Parliament (MPs) to include caste discrimination in the Equality Bill. An attempt to unify decades of anti-discrimination laws passed in the UK, this bill would outlaw discrimination in the workplace and public sector based on factors such as race, nationality, sex and religion. In July 2009 the bill was still making its way through the House of Commons, the lower house of the British Parliament.

Rob Marris, a Labour Party MP who is trying to amend the bill to include caste discrimination, said other MPs are hesitant to pass the amendment because it would have serious legal implications for most employers, including affirmative action requirements and the potential for lawsuits. Marris acknowledged that it will be difficult to pass the bill.

“The government says that there is no evidence of casteism in the UK, so it will not legislate unnecessarily,” Marris wrote in an e-mail. “This is clearly nonsense, although to be fair the evidence is anecdotal — as it often is with discrimination.”

Prasad said Castewatch feels the most important thing to come out of this amendment would be a legal foundation for claims that caste discrimination is wrong. People are less likely to consider caste discrimination a form of acceptable behavior in private life, he said, if it’s illegal in public life.

“Any law describes unacceptable and acceptable behaviors in society,” Prasad said. “Legislation will be the beginning. Then this [attitude] will filter down to different levels of society.”

Some second-generation Ravidassi like London accountant Asha Chumber, who grew up accustomed to the Western democracy of the UK, are baffled by their community’s insistence on dividing themselves by caste and sect. Chumber was seriously considering marriage with a UK-born Sikh man of a higher caste, but she had to break off the engagement because his family wouldn’t accept their relationship.

“Such attitudes shouldn’t be accepted by the Indian community in the UK,” she said, “especially when their homeland is trying so hard to eradicate caste inequalities. We speak the same language. We’re in the same country. What’s the big deal?

“India has moved on, so why can’t we?”

Mistaken Identity—Ravisdassi and Sikhs

By Daryl Bjoraas

Ravidassi and Sikhs: A history of conflict

By Derek Quizon

The May 2009 murder of Ravidassi leader Guru Sant Sri Ramanand by Sikh extremists sparked the latest Sikh-Ravidassi conflict and threw the Ravidassi community into an identity crisis it may never recover from, according to anti-caste activists. Though the Ravidassi have historically considered themselves a sect of the Sikh religion, years of being excluded from worshipping at Sikh temples has left many members questioning whether they truly belong to the Sikh faith.

“We’ve never been part of the Sikh community,” said Piraph Bali, president of the London branch of Guru Ravidas Sabha UK, a Ravidassi support community. “We are Ravidassi.”

Orthodox Sikhs are quick to corroborate Bali’s view of the Ravidassi faith as a separate entity from Sikhism. “The Ravidassi community is not a Sikh community,” said Sukhpreet Singh, a practicing Sikh and lecturer at Bournemouth University. “The Ravidassi community is a Hindu community that also follows the [Sikh holy scriptures].”

History — and some members of the Ravidassi community — say otherwise.

The Ravidassi faith has its roots in Sikhism, a monotheistic faith founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak. He envisioned a society without the religious or caste differences that had divided India for thousands of years. The ten holy gurus who came after Nanak compiled the Sikh scriptures, known collectively as the Guru Granth Sahib. When the scriptures were completed in the 18th century, Guru Gobind Singh declared that there would be no more living gurus. Instead, the holy scriptures would serve as the final authority for Sikhs on matters of morality.

This is where the Ravidassi and Sikhs disagree. Among the teachers and prophets featured in the Guru Granth Sahib was a 15th-century, low-caste shoemaker named Bhagat Ravidas, who spoke out against caste divisions. Ravidassi, made up mostly of people from the low-ranking Chamar caste, have elevated Ravidas to the status of chief guru. Sikhs follow Ravidas’ teachings, but they don’t consider him one of their ten holy gurus.

Because Ravidas’ teachings are featured in the Guru Granth Sahib, members of the Ravidassi community also use it as their scriptures. Sikhs, who consider the scriptures sacred, take offense to this, as they don’t consider Ravidassi to be true Sikhs. They also object to the Ravidassi principle of a living guru, as Sikhs believe the holy scriptures are the final authority in religious and spiritual matters.

Caste divisions come into play as well because most Ravidassi are of a lower caste than Sikhs. Despite the fact that the Sikh faith doesn’t officially believe in a caste system, proponents of both sides say there are still divisions. Singh said orthodox Sikhs are more accepting of lower castes, but they draw the line when it comes to marriage. “That’s when Sikhs get hoity-toity,” he said.

Members of the Ravidassi faith and the human rights lobby Castewatch UK claim that caste still plays a significant role in the Sikh community. “Many holy people have come, and they have tried to rule out the caste system from society,” said Castewatch General Secretary Davinder Prasad. “[But] caste is in the DNA of Indian culture.”

Jas Singh, a practicing Ravidassi who considers himself Sikh, said members of the Sikh community choose to associate mainly with people from the same caste. “Everyone is aware of everyone else’s caste,” Singh said. “[It determines] who people socialize with and who they marry.”

Whatever the reason for the conflict, it has caused the Ravidassi community to question whether it even has a place in the Sikh community. Ravidassi have historically considered themselves Sikh, but years of rejection have left them bitter. Sources within the Ravidassi community gave conflicting answers as to whether they are Sikhs.

“Some of us recognize ourselves as Sikh people, and some of us recognize ourselves as Hindus, so we’re a bit confused,” said Asha Chumber, a London accountant and practicing Ravidassi. “But the rest of the Sikh community doesn’t accept us. They don’t think we’re proper Sikhs.”

Prasad said the murder of Guru Ramanand has forced many in the Ravidassi community to question whether there is a place for them in the Sikh community. Because Sikhs and Ravidassi share the same holy scriptures and many of the same religious tenets, many Ravidassi considered themselves Sikh, he said, until the latest round of violent confrontations.

“Before this happened, they were all proud to call themselves Sikhs,” Prasad said. “But suddenly this incident has brought them to a crossroads.”

Sikh House of Worship

By Daryl Bjoraas


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