The popularity of “mission singing” and Chamar songs in recent times, in response and retaliation to Jatt pop music, in Punjab harks to the larger caste conundrum of the region and its complex historical location as a frontier society. The lower castes that migrated from Hinduism to new faiths, attracted by the latter’s textual claims of egalitarianism and non-hierarchical world views, over the centuries found that there was a huge gap between its theoretical premises and everyday practices. Dalit singers who produce songs valorising their history and heroes emerge as powerful expressions of rebellion against entrenched caste hierarchies.
The recent media coverage of Dalit singers from Punjab has understandably elicited much attention and interest. While Punjab has always been known for its peppy music and boisterous sociocultural life, the rise and prominence of Dalit singers harks to the state’s caste conundrum in its wake. Celebratory occasions in Punjab have hitherto seen the predominance of a particular kind of music, locally known as “Jatt pop” music, highlighting and valorising the Jatt culture and its heroes. This was expected given the almost absolute monopoly of the Jatt Sikhs, an upper caste of Punjab, over both religious and temporal matters, most crucially landownership. The Jatt Sikhs own roughly about more than 80% of the state’s land. Hence, the emergence and popularity of say Ginni Mahi, a 17-year-old singing sensation, hailing from the lower caste Jatav community in Punjab signifies a larger trend and a reconfiguration of the sociopolitical milieu of Punjab. Mahi, however, is only a recent addition to the tradition of what is being referred to locally as “mission singing.”1 The phenomenon of mission singing, which became prominent particularly post-2009 in the Doaba region and gradually spread to other parts, has a lot to do with the contested caste history of Punjab.
Caste in Punjab
Caste, as an institution, has largely been perceived as either absent or insignificant in Punjab because of its association to Sikhism, an egalitarian religion which emerged in the backdrop of, and also in response to, the flaws of Hinduism, including caste untouchability, superstition, ritualism and orthodoxies. Founded by Guru Nanak Dev (1469–1539), Sikhism emerged in the 15th century as a separate religious stream with a strong critique of the Brahminical Hindu culture infested with rigid hierarchical principles of social ordering based on the logic of purity and pollution. The new tradition put heavy emphasis on this-worldly aspects and the household, contrary to the other-worldly orientation of Hinduism (McLeod 1968; Grewal 1990). In the course of time, there emerged a tradition of living Gurudom that lasted until Guru Govind Singh (1666–1708), the tenth guru. Understandably, the new tradition held tremendous attraction and appeal to its adherents, promising to alter the social arrangement, reform it and in this case, particularly create an egalitarian religious and sociocultural set-up. Those at the margins of the Hindu social order were the most enthusiastic converts to the new faith.
It holds no surprise that the erstwhile untouchables of the Hindu fold were increasingly sought to be poached by the proselytising wings of almost all mainstream religious traditions, including the Arya Samaj, Singh Sabha, Christian missionaries, Islamic organisations, etc, and towards the late 19th century, this contest for new converts became highly competitive and even conflicted (Jones 1973). The caste history of the region, unfolding over more than five centuries, has witnessed the re-emergence and progressive strengthening of caste in the region (Judge 2010). The newly-converted lower caste segments had been kept waiting for centuries for an equal world.
However, the Jatt Sikhs, the landed caste of Punjab, continued to monopolise public spaces. The dominant caste status of the Jatt Sikhs is a function of a composite set of conditions, including their numerical strength (one-third of the state’s total population), ownership of land (more than 80% of the available agricultural land is owned by them), dominant stakes in agriculture, and status as a historically martial race, among others. In contrast, however, the Dalits of Punjab, despite their substantial numerical clout, are grossly marginalised in terms of their share in landownership. This rendered a large proportion of them as agricultural labourers working on the lands of the Jatt Sikhs. The unequal treatment meted out to Dalits and other marginal segments of society at the hands of the dominant Jatt Sikhs in the panth are established facts. For instance, all the Sikh organisations, including gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship), Sikh deras,2 the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC—the central governing body of Sikhs) are under the dominant control of the Jatt Sikhs. In 2007, an empirical study of the caste background of SGPC members revealed that 80% of its administrative posts were under the control of the Jatt Sikhs, 15% under other castes and only 5% with Dalits. At the time, all the three secretaries of the Shiromani committee were Jatt Sikhs (Singh 2007).
From Coexistence to Conflict
Sikhism and its gurus emphasised inclusion, and propagated and preached a religious tradition that was syncretic in its world view. The holy book Guru Granth Sahib contained verses from the Bhakti poets and saints, many from the lower caste communities, such as Ravidas and Kabir. This spirit of syncretism and porosity of sacred geography gradually, however, gave way to a rigidification of boundaries and the rise of a dominant caste.3 Instances of exclusion in the form of separate gurdwaras and cremation grounds for Dalits in the villages of Punjab came to mark and reconfigure the cultural landscape of the region. In the realm of the sacred too, the segregation was clearly visible. The mushrooming of non-Sikh deras, owing allegiance to alternative traditions, put further pressure on the cultural matrix of cohabitation (Jurgensmeyer 2000; Ram 2004). The deras emerged as a sign of protest to the exclusionary practices of the dominant mainstream religion. Its proximity to the idea of a living guru along with a tendency to incorporate other traditions besides Sikh traditions, made them appear subversive.
The factors that contributed to these developments include (i) the numerical strength of the Dalits, accounting for 33% of the state’s population—the highest in the country; (ii) the progressive politicisation of the community leading to awareness of their constitutional rights and provisions; (iii) alienation of the local agricultural labour from the village economy, pushing them towards the cities and a consequent rise in identity consciousness; and (iv) the emergence of strong diaspora networks among the Dalits, etc (Judge 2002; Jodhka 2004; Puri 2003; Ram 2007). The area which has shown the most robust identity crystallisation of the Dalits happens to be the Doaba region, where the percentage of the Scheduled Caste (SC) population is estimated to be more than three-fourths of the total population. The specific SC community that has emerged as the most powerful therein is that of the Ravidassia, who have traditionally been in to the leather business and now increasingly, identify themselves as followers of the 15thcentury Bhakti poet Sant Ravidas. The Ravidassia of the Doaba region4 have always been politically active. One of the reasons for this activism has been their economic mobility and prosperity, both locally and globally, courtesy the leather business they have been associated with, since the colonial times.
Sachkhand Ballan Movement
The Dera Sachkhand, a Ravidassia dera, located in the village Ballan of Jalandhar district, Punjab has been at the forefront of articulating the Ravidassia identity, particularly so since 2009. While the dera has been in existence for close to a century now, it is only in the last couple of decades that it has clearly taken off and emerged as the most visible sign and site of the Ravidassia identity. The murderous attack on two sants of the dera, namely Sant Ramanand Das and Sant Niranjan Das, by radical elements in the city of Vienna in 2009 brought the dera in to the limelight not just in India but internationally too. In the said incident, Sant Ramanand was killed and the other, Sant Niranjan, the current Gaddi-e-Nasin or the incumbent leader of the dera, escaped and survived with severe injuries. The incident was followed by days of violence, arson and rioting in many parts of Punjab, especially in the Doaba region. Angry Dalit youth took to the streets in large numbers and it was only after many uncertain weeks that the situation was brought under control.
The Vienna incident, in some sense, turned out to be a watershed in the history of the region with far-reaching implications for the identity politics of Dalits. There were reports of the removal of the Guru Granth Sahib or the “Bir” from many Dalit gurdwaras in Europe and other overseas locations with strong Ravidassia presence, the impact of which could be felt back home in India too (Tribune 2009; Singh 2010). The demands for separation in terms of a religious code of conduct were gaining momentum. So far the dera had continued to follow the Sikh maryada(protocol) but the pressure for a split was immense, both locally and globally. This was amply evident during the funeral of Sant Ramanand when the dera showed signs of relenting by not following the tradition of akhand path (continuous recitation of sacred Sikh texts) at the time of antim ardas or the last rites of the sant (Singh 2011). The movement for a separate religion, however, picked up momentum ever since. On 30 January 2010, on the occasion of the 633rd birth anniversary of Guru Ravidas in Govardhanpur, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, the birthplace of Ravidas, the dera declared a new religion called Ravidassia dharma with a new code of conduct and new religious symbol with “Har” inscribed in the middle, under the leadership of the dera mahants (priests) of Ballan and in the presence of thousands of their devotees, a sizeable proportion of whom were non-resident Indians (NRIs). In 2012, on the third anniversary of the founding of the religion, the sacred book Amritbani Guru Ravidass ji, comprising the shabads (verses) of Guru Ravidas, was introduced amidst much celebration.
Dalit Mission Singers
The emergence of Dalit singers or “mission singers,” as they are popularly called in the region, especially post the Vienna attack, are reflective of the growing chasm between the Jatt Sikhs and the Ravidassia community. Sample the titles of some of these audio/video albums:
Putt Chamaran da (son of Chamars),
Jago Ravidassia (awake Ravidassia), Hummer (the famous vehicle), Sadda Haq(our right), etc.
These songs and videos are extremely provocative and more often than not contain lyrics and visuals challenging the Jatt Sikh hegemony. It is to be noted that so far the Dalits had been playing “Jatt pop” music in their vehicles, for weddings, parties and other such occasions, which mostly celebrated Jatt history and culture with scant attention to the heroes of other communities.
For instance, a song by Pamma Sunar titled Ziddi Chamar (stubborn Chamar) seeks to revive the glorious past of the community by invoking the sacrifice of Jai Singh Khalkhat, a Chamar, who was hanged to death by the Mughals after he refused to renounce Sikhism. The prominence given to this history of Jai Singh is clearly to suggest that the Ravidassia have always been loyal to Sikhism and it is only because of the unequal treatment meted out to the community that they are now seeking freedom and autonomy. A young Chamar man in Jalandhar said to me in an interview, “Despite such supreme sacrifices of our people in Sikh history, they were unceremoniously ignored and Sikhism became a religion of Jatt Sikhs only” (fieldwork conducted by the author in 2013).
Another young dera follower said the following with a wry smile, “We danced to their tunes for long, and it is time now to make them face the music that we produce and sing.” Many of the songs and videos have violent, masculinist content where young boys are shown armed with weapons, riding sports utility vehicles and bashing their opponents. These videos are extremely popular among the youth as they perhaps match, and even outscore, the perceived macho image of the Jatts. Just a glance of the opening lines of some of the popular songs in these videos will give a sense of how these singers are articulating the issues of identity and caste assertion (Sethi 2013):
When Chamars walk out with weapons in their hands
Phir vekheyo pataka, kiven payo mitro,
Friends, watch the fireworks that follow
Aaj dekhde pana keda lao mitro
Then we shall see who can cross our paths?
(Pamma Sunar’s Fighter Chamara, 2011)
Kharka dharka karna kamm
To create loud noises and ruffle feathers
Is what the followers of Ravidas do
Aiven nahi hunde charche Chamara de
It is not for nothing that the Chamars are the talk of the town
(Roop Lal Dhir’s Hummer 2, 2014)
Ravidassia noon kade nahin bhulna,
The followers of Ravidas will never forget
Austria sahar Vienna
The city of Vienna in Austria
(Pamma Sunar’s The Fighter Chamara 2: Badla, 2012)
Some of the mission singers like Roop Lal Dhir and S S Azad identified and performed as folk singers earlier but now they have all turned mission singers who sing for the community and its gurus, rather than for money. Oher popular names include Kaler Kanth, Harbhajan Tajpuri, Miss Pooja, Rajni Thakkarwal, etc, who release songs by the dozen.
The mushrooming of mission singers post-2009 cannot be a mere coincidence, as they are clearly a by-product of the Dera Ballan’s movement for change and autonomy in the religious realm. The production of many of these music audios and videos has the financial backing of the Ravidassia group and organisations settled abroad. The demand for these videos too is higher among the diaspora who actively upload the videos onto YouTube and other social media sites to counter the dominant Jatt pop music videos. The comments section following these videos oftentimes turns in to an ugly war of words between followers of the Dera Ballan and Sikh deras. There have been many instances of attacks on mission singers, especially the women singers who become soft targets of radical elements. While the male singers get threatening calls, the women singers have been physically attacked, such as Rajni Thakkarwal of Hoshiarpur, who was attacked by a group of Jatt boys in Phagwara who wanted her to stop singing Chamara songs. To prevent such attacks, interestingly, multiple militant groups such as the Begumpura Tiger Force Punjab, Ambedkar Sena Punjab and Sri Guru Ravidas Force Punjab have come up to defend these singers. They are mostly a group of young boys, armed with kirpans and local weapons, who surround the stage where mission singers are to perform (Sethi 2013).
The mission singers, therefore, are only expressing the deep-seated angst resulting out of the way Dalits have historically been treated despite being, at least theoretically, part of the egalitarian cosmos of Sikhism. The recurrence of themes such as the Vienna incident, martyrdom of Sant Ramanand, Amritbani of Guru Ravidass ji, Seer Govardhanpur in Varanasi, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Begumpura,5and Ravidassia teachings, in the songs of the mission singers express the background of their recent upsurge and explain why they are in so much demand. Many of these singers are invited abroad for performances by members of the community settled there. It is a fact that the dera’s popularity and influence grew manifold in the era of globalisation with the overseas population increasingly becoming more interested in their roots. This changed the musical landscape of Punjab, with Dalit singers finally getting a global stage and international opportunities. In recent years, the overwhelming participation of NRIs in the initiatives of the dera such as pilgrimages to the birthplace of Guru Ravidas through the Special Begumpura Express to Varanasi, on the occasion of Ravidas Jayanti, bear testimony to the strong global–local interlinkages that the dera has established over the years.
Ambedkarite Turn and Assertion of ‘Self’
The Dera Sachkhand has visibly more photos, posters and stickers of Ambedkar today than even its own sants. The little shops outside the dera have calendars, metal lockets and headscarves printed with Ambedkar’s images. In fact, in many posters, publications and publicity materials of the dera, Ambedkar’s pictures occupy a prominent position, on occasions even shadowing the founder of the dera, Baba Pipal Das and other sants. It appears as if Ambedkar has been naturally appropriated in the Ravidassia religious iconography. This reflects how the dera has over the years become a face of subaltern protest and a seat of identity articulation by the lower castes in general and Ravidassia in particular. The association of the dera to Ambedkar and his philosophy is a kind of revival of its earlier association with the Ad Dharm movement led by Babu Mangoo Ram (Jurgensmeyer 1988; Jodhka 2016), who was the first to articulate an independent religious identity for the Dalits of the region in the late 1920s. He was a regular visitor to the dera and was in touch with its sants, especially Sant Sarwan Das who had visited Ambedkar in Delhi, in 1948, as per a dera source (Baba 2013: 24).
It is true that the Ad Dharm movement gradually petered out and many reasons are cited for this, but one reason happens to be the rise of Ambedkar in Indian national politics in the 1930s and his pan-Indian appeal. The Ad Dharm gradually got co-opted by the Congress party’s politics and virtually surrendered its political aspiration to be subsumed in the emerging pan-Indian Dalit politics, under the leadership of Ambedkar. In that sense, Ambedkar was always integral to the Dera Sachkhand Ballan. His current visibility, however, owes majorly to the rise of political awareness among the Dalit youth of the region. In the given history of oppression and denial, Ravidas and Ambedkar coalesce rather than contradict. While the legacy of Ravidas brings in a sense of autonomy and solidarity to the community with its “own” cultural and spiritual resources, the presence of Ambedkar fills the community with modern values and a more material and pragmatist orientation. It is no surprise, then, that many calendars and booklets that are sold in the shops in Varanasi and Ballan outside the Dera portray Ambedkar as the reincarnation of Sant Ravidas. Myth and history unite to create a symphony of resistance and a powerful political narrative of an alternative discourse. One of the slogans popular with young Ravidassia goes as follow,
Babasaheb thaudi soch te, Pahda dyange thok ke, Dekh le koi rok ke
(Babasaheb, we will protect and defend your legacy by becoming its shield. Let us see who will stop us).
The generous use of the word Chamar, along with Ravidassia, in the music albums also resonates with the mood of the community which clearly wants to own its past, reassemble the disjointed and fragmented pieces of their community history and heroes, including the social labels, oftentimes used as terms of insult and abuse. This is demonstrative of the Dalits’ rising confidence in their own “selves” and the will to resolutely exhibit it publicly.
The young generation of Dalit singers, including Ginni Mahi, represent a new wave, a coming of age moment, as it were, for the Dalits in Punjab. Some of Mahi’s popular songs, such as Haqq (2015), Danger Chamar (2015) and the most recent Fan Baba Sahib Di (2016) have Ambedkar, Sant Ravidas and their teachings and contributions as the dominant theme. Most of these songs are directed at Dalits, exhorting them to remain fearless (sample the Ravidassia salutation—Jo bole so nirbhai, Guru Ravidas ji ki jai: Those who revere Ravidas have nothing to fear) and to be proud of their qaum (community) (one of the opening lines of a song by Ginni Mahi—Dar ke chup na rahna, Baba Sahib sikha gaye yaar: Do not fear and keep silent, Baba Sahib has taught us this).
Dilemmas and Tensions
The Dera Sachkhand Ballan’s journey so far has been tentative and also, increasingly guarded. Post Vienna, the pressure from the influential diaspora community to move towards a decisive separation, to split away from the syncretic coexistence with the Sikh rahit (codes of conduct), could not be sustained on the ground locally. There have been efforts from various groups and segments, from within the community, to maintain a status quo in favour of coexistence, and to not support the Dera Ballan’s separatist position. The recent visibility of other Ravidassia gurdwaras, such as that of Baba Pritam Das Dera, not very far from the Sachkhand Ballan, who forefronts the ethos of coexistence with the Sikhs, by installing two nishansahibs (triangular masts with insignia atop it)—one, of the Sikh “Ek Omkar” and the other of Ravidassia “Har”—in its campus, only serve to demonstrate the complexity, fuzziness and heterogeneity of the narrative on the ground. Another prominent place, Ravidas Bhavan in Jalandhar city, is a testimony to the renewed efforts at rapprochement, as the bhavan’s newly furbished central hall is adorned with pictures of Guru Nanak, Guru Ravidas, Mirabai and many other sants. Besides, other Dalit groups such as Kabirpanthis and Valmikis are not quite upbeat about the Dera Sachkhand’s assertion of Ravidassia identity. Many in Jalandhar believe this to be a setback for a larger Dalit consolidation.
It is, however, clear that the local political considerations and business interests too have played a role in this effort towards status quo. Many rich and influential business families, dealing in leather products, have stakes in both the established political parties, namely the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Indian National Congress and they have been uncomfortable with the dera’s extreme stance post Vienna. As one gentleman from Boota Mandi, Jalandhar confided to me, “Yes, it is true we do not want to clash with the local power structures. And it is not conducive to our business interests to go the way Dera Ballan wants us to go. After all we have to survive here.”
The Dera Sachkhand is aware of this. The exit of Baba Surinder Das from the Dera Ballan, who was very active in the aftermath of Sant Ramanand’s murder in Vienna, and was enthusiastically leading the movement under the influence of the diaspora, reflects the dera’s guarded attitude and cognisance of the local political context. The dera’s movement for a separate religion is fraught with uncertainties as incessant internal debates rage6 between those who do not want to split from the age-old linkages with the Sikh maryada, and those who want to travel on a separate path. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the Dera Sachkhand is turning out to be a fountain head of counter-narratives to Punjab’s upper caste hegemony, wherein the mission singers are literally the voice and vanguard of that narrative.
The critical theme, in the case of Punjab today, is the kind of questions that are being articulated, especially by the young Ravidassia. One such question, for instance, is: why is our supreme Sant Ravidas known as Bhagat, and not as guru?7Nobody would have possibly anticipated these questions in the past, perhaps it never mattered earlier. But today these questions are at the core of Dalit identity politics in Punjab. The Dera Sachkhand Ballan, notwithstanding its ambiguity and tentativeness, seems to have put its weight behind these key questions and articulations. Every year, as the Special Begumpura Express begins its journey to Varanasi, on the occasion of Ravidas Jayanti, accompanied by the dera sants and thousands of Ravidassia, Jalandhar railway station in Punjab virtually comes under the siege of the deluge of the Ravidassia, with young men and women frenetically dancing to Ginni Mahi’s Chamar pop songs, only interrupted by the equally thunderous war-cries of “Jo bole so nirbhai, Guru Ravidas Maharaj ki jai” and “Jai Bhim.”
1 The term “mission singing” is essentially used to refer to those singers whose mission was not to make money but to propagate the teachings of Dalit sants and heroes such as Ambedkar and highlight the causes of the community.
2 Deras represent religious congregations which are organised around a living guru. Those who follow the Sikh code of conduct are known as Sikh deras, while those who follow other traditions and/or composite traditions as well, including Sikhism, are considered as non-Sikh deras. Conceptually the institution of dera is considered blasphemous by the panthic bodies because of the presence of a living human guru. Sikh panthic tradition put a closure to the idea of a living guru after Guru Govind Singh, the tenth guru. Idol worship and devotion towards a human guru is also quite common in these non-Sikh Deras. It is perhaps this tendency to tamper with the Sikh panthic traditions that causes the non-Sikh deras to be viewed as potentially threatening by the mainstream. As per one estimate, there are more than 9,000 Sikh as well as non-Sikh deras in the 12,000 odd villages of Punjab (Tehna et al 2007).
3 A host of factors contributed to the rigidification of boundaries, the most prominent being the role played by the colonial caste census which actually inaugurated the idea of the power of numbers in the subcontinent, and accentuated the competitive context of community profiles and arrangement. The dominant strata among various communities, in any case, always preferred the status quo, to perpetuate their entrenchment in power.
4 The state of Punjab in India is divided into three main regions, namely Doaba, Majha and Malwa. The Doaba literally means “land of two rivers” as it is surrounded by the two rivers, Beas and Sutlej, and considered to be one of the most prosperous regions.
5 The word “Begumpura” has been used by Guru Ravidas to describe his vision of a new society which will be without (“be”) any “gum” meaning sorrow or suffering.
6 The pressure to split and chart an independent path is most pressing from the diaspora. On the occasion of the inauguration of a hospital in the name of the slain Sant Ramanand on Ravidas Jayanti in 2013, there was, like always, a strong presence of the diaspora in the newly inaugurated hospital building in village Kupur–Dhepur, Kathar, close to Dera Ballan. A gentleman from the United Kingdom made a passionate appeal to a large congregation, mostly local, to join the movement and be Pakka Ravidasis (real Ravidassia). He exhorted the locals to be fearless and not be Kachcha Ravidasis (weak or not sufficiently resolute Ravidassia) (Fieldnotes of the author from a visit to the Dera Sachkhand Ballan 2013). The locals, on the other hand, know that their economic ties are intertwined with the Jatts and hence, the response was somewhat lukewarm or ambiguous. Moreover, the centuries old cultural ties locally are far too intermeshed and even though there is anger and protest, on the question of a split, the people, especially the older generation, do not seem quite yet prepared.
7 In the Sikh tradition, there are only 10 gurus, the rest of the other holy sants while equally respected are referred to as Bhagats. The Ravidassia, however, look at it as a sign of discrimination and disrespect. The use of the prefix guru or sat guru (supreme guru) in place of Sant for Ravidas, in the dera literature signifies that attempt to put its own guru on the same pedestal as others.
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