- How Jaats became a powerful community in Punjab? Who is a Bhapa & are Brahmin Sikhs? Who are Nirmalas, Udasis and Nirankaris? Why are Deras popular?
1. The Caste Construct
Many of us are obsessed with caste. We shall debate whether Shivaji Maharaj was a Sudra or Kshatriya but not his karmas. Read Shivaji’s Karmas not caste matter
Is the word caste Indian in origin?
No, it is of Spanish origin and fails to capture the meaning of the Indian term “jati,” which more properly translates as “community.” Jati in traditional India promoted and preserved diversity and multiculturalism by allotting every jati a particular space and role in society so that no jati would be appropriated or dominated by another. The jati system was integral to the survival of the Indian nation.
Note what Dharampal wrote in Rediscovering India, “For the British, as perhaps for some others before them, caste has been a great obstacle, in fact, an unmitigated evil not because the British believed in casteless-ness or subscribed to a non-hierarchical system but because it stood in the way of their breaking Indian society, hindered the process of atomisation, & made the task of conquest & governance more difficult.”
Further, Swami Vivekananda said, “Caste is an imperfect institution, no doubt. But if it had not been for caste, you would have had no Sanskrit books to study. This caste made walls, around which all sorts of invasions rolled and surged but found it impossible to break through.”
Having said that, the Varna system has degenerated over the years.
Note that Abbe J.A. Dubois, a Christian missionary of eminence, who was in India from 1792 to 1823 wrote thus, “This plan of dividing the people of India into castes is not confined to the lawgivers of India.” 4 Hinduism: The Faith Eternal Pg. 66 J Sai Deepak wrote, “But I am suggesting that it was under the British that ‘caste’ became a single term capable of expressing, organizing and above all ‘systematiszng India’s diverse forms of social identity, community and organization.” India that is Bharat Pg. 304
However, divisions created by the British have got ingrained in the Indian psyche.
Read articles on Caste
Also note that Indian religions are not centrally organised nor are they rigid, but they are amorphous. So people across the country have always flocked to sants in their region. Within a common spiritual framework, the guru’s organisations provides spiritual and emotional support to their respective followers.
The author states that caste names are used for identification and academic purposes and not for calling or belittling anyone or with malafide intent. There is no ill feeling for any community or caste.
2. First who are Amritdhari, Sahajdhari and Kesdhari Sikhs?
According to W.H. Mcleod, a scholar on Sikhism, “Those who take initiation into Khalsa, having received the amrit or water of baptism are Amritdhari Sikhs. For those who held back the name adopted were Sahajdhari Sikhs. Those who do not take initiation but who observe the fundamentals of Rahit (particularly the uncut hair) are Kesdhari Sikhs.” Pg. 12 Kesdhari Sikhs sport the 5 symbols of Khalsa.
3. Who is a Sikh as per the Sikh Gurudwaras Act 1925?
The word Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit word Shishya meaning student.
By about 1920, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) was overtaken by the Akali Dal, a political party that gave expression to the revived sense of Sikh identity. The Akalis entered into a dispute with the British for the control of Sikh gurudwaras. In 1925, the Sikh Gurudwaras Act was passed.
The Act’s definition of a Sikh leant strongly towards the exclusivist Khalsa view and is “one who believed in the ten gurus and the Granth Sahib and was not a patit (apostate). This last proviso was particularly odious to the Hindu members of the Legislative Council.” 1 Pg. 212
In the context of Sikhs a patit is one who does not follow Sikh Rehat Maryada. Trimming of the long hair, idol worship, smoking, following the rituals of other faiths, or not following Sikh religious injunctions makes one a patit.
According to this Times of India 2011 article, “Those who are born in Sikh families and cut their hair are called Patit not Sahajdharis.” However, P S Ranu of the Sahajdhari (Mona) Sikh Federation questioned this interpretation. Those born in Sikh families who had never maintained their hair cannot be called Patit. Only Amritdhari Sikhs who cut off their hair are Patit.
The Act states that “Amritdhari Sikh” means and includes every person who has taken khende-ka-amrit or khanda pahul prepared and administered according to the tenets of Sikh religion and rites at the hands of five pyaras or `beloved ones’ (Section 10). Sahajdhari Sikh’ means a person – (i) who performs ceremonies according to Sikh rites; (ii) who does not use tobacco or Kutha (Halal meat) is any form; (iii) who is not a Patit; and (iv) who can recite Mul Manter.)
A 2016 amendment of the 1925 Act, disentitles Sahjdhari Sikhs from voting in the SGPC and management committee election. Was this amendment introduced (before or after Rajya Sabha polls) to ensure some continue to dominate voting at SGPC?
Differing views on who is a Sehjdhari Sikh!
Guru Nanak and Baba Sri Chand, Lakhpat Gurudwara Kutch, Gujarat.
4. Who are Udasis and Nirmalas?
The Udasi historically began with Baba Siri Chand (son of Guru Nanak Dev and Mata Sulakhani Devi). Udasis are known for their renunciatory outlook as against the mainstream Sikh belief in worldly activity. Udasi establishments do not fall under the control of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC).
Also read The Udasi Tradition
On Nirmalas Dr Satish K. Kapoor wrote in South Asian Observer, Toronto, “While at Paonta Sahib (Himachal Pradesh) where he composed most of his writings, Guru Govind Singhji sent five of his disciples – Ganda Singh, Karam Singh,Vir Singh, Ram Singh and Saina Singh– investing them with the saffron attire of ascetics, to Kashi (Varaṇasi) in 1686, for learning Sanskrit and acquiring knowledge of classical Hindu texts. The chosen Sikhs studied under Pandita Satyananda for about seven years and acquired the quintessentials of ancient Sanskrit literature. After returning to Anandpur Sahib (Punjab), birthplace of the Khalsa, they were called Nirmalas, meaning pure and spotless. The Nirmalas keep long hair, flowing beard, and wore turban but do not always undergo the Sikh baptismal rites of the orthodox. They consider Vedanta as most practical and sublime, and are sometime called Vedanti Sikhs.”
Bandai Sikhs are followers of Banda Bahadur.
5. Who are Nirankaris?
Dayal Das (born 1783 in a Malhotra Khatri family of Peshawar, died 1855) belonged to this Hindu Sikh Community (Khatris-Aroras-Baniyas who made atleast son a Kesadhari Sikh).1 The Nirankaris following is mainly amongst non-Jaat Sikhs and Hindus of Arora Zargar and Kshatriya castes. 1 Pg. 124 It started as a reformist movement.
“In the 1930s, Sant Nirankaris emerged as an offshoot of the Nirankaris. While the original Nirankaris receded into the background, the Sant Nirankaris continued to spread and grow, inviting the ire of orthodox Sikhs.” ThePrint here
“The Nirankaris believe in the formless God-Nirankar-who can be reached through a “God-realised soul” or “satguru”. Trouble began in 1951, when Satguru Avtar Singh proclaimed himself a living guru in the presence of the Adi Granth (the Sikh holy book, which is considered to be a living Guru).” ThePrint Rivalry between Sikhs and Nirankaris is nearly a century old
The cause of differences between orthodox Sikhism and Nirankaris are limited to the latter’s worship of gurus other than the ten gurus recognized by Sikhs. They also disapprove of militant Khalsa. 1 Pg. 125
According to this Indian Express report , “The Nirankari Mission, which is looked upon by many mainstream Sikhs as a heretic cult, claims to be unaffiliated with any religion with an aim of uniting people with God. The Nirankaris deny that Sikhs have any authority over them. In 1980, then sect chief Satguru Gurbachan Singh was assassinated by a Sikh extremist at the Foundation’s headquarters in Delhi.”
6. Dr Ambedkar wanted his followers to become Sikhs!
The Government of India Act 1935 introduced the term ‘Scheduled Caste’ (SC) for the depressed classes (DC) to which Ambedkar belonged. The word Scheduled Tribe came to be used around 1950. In Tripura, the former rulers are now S.T. so a bust of Ambedkar is installed at their palace. The word Dalit come into prominence in the 1990s and is said to be an American Church construct. There are national commissions for the scheduled castes and backward classes but nowhere is the word Dalit used.
Ujjayanta Palace Agartala, Tripura.
Today there is a clamour to be declared SC/ST because of reservations in government jobs etc., for e.g. the Dhangar community (to which Queen Ahilyabai Holkar belonged) want to be declared a Scheduled Caste. New communities are declared SC/ST invariably before elections when votes are sought.
Also read History of the word Dalit
Ambedkar deputed on 18/9/1936, a group of his followers to the Sikh Mission at Amritsar to study the Sikh religion. They were a group of 13, none of whom was a scholar or a first rate Ambedkarite. Ambedkar wished them success but had not asked them to convert to Sikhism. In an excess of zeal those students went over to Sikhism & did what their leader did not mean. They were coldly received in Bombay and then sank into oblivion.
Prior to his meeting the British in 1937, Ambedkar had consulted some German & other Europeans jurists of repute as to the possibility of the DC retaining the reserved seats in the Provincial Assemblies if DC became Sikhs for the Sikhs were granted reserved seats only in Punjab. Later the Sikh authorities & Ambedkar could not hit it off and so they parted. Source chapter 14 of Life and Mission of Dr Ambedkar by Dhananjay Keer
It is also possible that the existing DC Sikhs told Dr Ambedkar of their ill-treatment. This might have influenced his decision. 3
Also after the definition of who is a Sikh in the Gurudwaras Act 1925, the Depressed Classes would post becoming Sikhs have to sport the 5 forms of Khalsa–turban, kada etc. Would Ambedkar’s followers wear turbans and give up Marathi for Punjabi!
It is also possible that those who controlled SGPC then, realized that Ambedkar could take control of SGPC if his followers, being large in number became Sikhs. Prof Harish Puri adds, “Such is the evidence offered by Sardar Kapur Singh in his well-known but controversial book, Saachi Sakhi. According to him there was an apprehension that once the tall leader Ambedkar became a Sikh with all his followers, none from the existing leaders like Baldev Singh may be nominated to the Viceroy’s Executive Council as a representative of the Sikh community.” 3
7. How Jaat Sikhs became dominant in Punjab?
Initially, the Khalsa followers were mostly Jaats (were considered low caste then). Though others considered themselves Sikhs, they held back since they were not followers of Khalsa. The birth of Khalsa resulted in the rise of Jat power in Punjab. Khalsa was raised to fight Mughal oppression and persecution of Hindus and Sikhs (who then were considered part of the larger Hindu community).
Another view by Prof Harish Puri is, “The large scale entry of the Jats by the time of the Sixth Guru, tended to alter the caste equation in the Panth. The Jats constituted the rural elite who dominated the rural Punjab. By the 18th century the Jat constituency was preponderant among the constituent groups in the Panth (McLeod 1975: 10).” 3
Having experienced the strength of Sikh opposition during the Anglo-Sikh wars and grateful for the assistance received from Sikh princes during the Mutiny of 1857, the British realized that Sikhs would be an effective buffer between Afghanistan and India.
Therefore, the British reduced the number of Bengali soldiers (many of whom were involved in the 1857 Mutiny) and replaced them with loyal Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims. It however, insisted that only Kesadhari Sikhs could join the army i.e. those who sported the five k’s. The enlistment of Sikhs rose steeply. Since it was mainly Jaat Sikhs who sported the five k’s then, they were the biggest beneficiaries since soldiers were well paid, given agricultural land and pension.
In order to woo the Jats, “The area specifically chosen for the Sikhs was a tract known as nili bar, irrigated by the Chenab canal. Colonization officers scoured Sikh villages in the districts of Amritsar, Ludhiana and Ferozpur to pick up the best farmers. The settlers were given heritable and inalienable rights of occupancy. The vast majority of Sikh colonists were Malwa Jats with a sprinkling on non-Jat agricultural tribes.”1 Pg. 118
With time farmers (predominantly Sikhs) prospered.
The British enforced rigid occupational boundaries by creating ‘traditional agriculturists’, ‘martial races’ and ‘trading castes’. The Jats were classified as traditional agriculturists.
To retain effective control over Punjab, the British accentuated the wedge between land-owning Jats and non-agriculturists. Backward classes were declared a non-agricultural caste. Thus, they could not own land and had to work as farm labour.
The Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900 “enabled the government to retain its inflexible revenue policies and continue to blame peasant proprietors’ misfortunes on Hindu moneylenders. It was done to pacify the land owning classes and deflect a rebellion, and to aggravate and exploit any tension that existed between Hindus and Muslims to keep their political grip on Punjab. This piece of legislation created a favoured, ‘dominant’ agriculturalist class at the expense of other social groups. Here the ‘agriculturists’ were Muslim tribes and Sikh and Hindu Jat zamindars, and the ‘non-agriculturists’ were Hindu Brahmins, Khatris and Banias. The Act made tribe and caste the basis of land ownership.” 2
Thus, Jaats became the biggest land owning community in Punjab.
Another reason for rise in their power was that Jaats controlled SGPC since its inception in 1925. Barring a couple every Chief Minister of Punjab, since the state was formed in 1966, has been a Jaat Sikh.
The caste divide was created in the Indian Army too. A Jaat Sikh regiment and a Sikh Light Infantry for Mazhabi Sikhs were created.
Thus, Jaat Sikhs became socially dominant and politically powerful in Punjab.
Guru Goving Singhji prayer to Shivji at Siachen War Memorial.
8. Who is covered by the term Bhapas?
The Land Alienation Act 1900 created a divide between Jaat and Khatri/Arora Sikhs such that the latter are called “Bhapa”, a term used dismissively by Jaats to describe some Khatris and others.
Former Chief Minister and Jaat Sikh Pratap Singh Kairon referred to them as Bhapas (brothers) a pejorative term for Sikhs of Brahmin, Khatri or Arora extraction. This is despite all the ten Gurus being Khatris. 1 Pg 317
9. How does one identify Brahmin Sikhs?
“Sikhs of Brahmin origin existed from the times of Guru Nanak. If we see beyond the modern narrative then Pandit Hardyal Pandha was the first one to recognize the divine light of Guru Nanak.” Current distinctions did not exist then.
“Here is a short but not complete list of Brahmin Sikh clans: Rishi, Sasan, Kala, Kalia, Chibber, Dutt, Rissam, Sudan, Pandha, Vasudev, Issar, Dutta, Bhardwaj, Punj, Reen, Bali, Devgan, Joshi, Ramdev, Raina, Tara, Vashisht.”
According to article by H C Dutt in Dailyexcelsior the, “Mohyal-a clan of Saraswat Brahmins separated their life style from other Brahmins by serving the society with weapon in one hand and Vedas in other. The Sikh army was known for many Mohyal warriors like Baba Praga Chhibber- the Bisham Pitama who with the orders of Guru Har Govind fought and destroyed the large army of Shah Jahan. Bhai Matti Dass Chibber was the Prime Minister of Guru Teg Bahadur who fought with the army of Aurangzeb and was cut in two pieces with saw cutter by Mughals on 9 November 1675 in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. His brother Bhai Satti Dass was also burnt alive.”
Maharaja Ranjit Singh Samadhi, Lahore
10. Who are the Scheduled Castes in Sikhs?
They are Mazhabis, Ramdasias, Sikhlighars, Kabirpanthis, Ravidasas etc.
Mazhabis are karamchari/sweeper community. The Sikh Light Infantry in the Indian Army consists of Mazhabhi Sikhs.
Ramdasias belong to the Chamar (leather maker) community. The Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshiram was a Ramdasia Sikh.
Giani Zail Singh belonged to the carpenter community (of Ramgariya Sikhs). The Ramgariyas trace their decent from Jassa Singh Ramgariya, who was a great leader, organiser and warrior. Carpentars in say Uttar Pradesh, are not treated as scheduled castes but belong to the Vishwakarma community. Near Jaipur met a carpentar named Sharma who is a Jehangid Brahmin (see pic below)
Brahmin Carpentar near Jaipur.
Prof Ronki Ram wrote in ThePrint, “Those members who were mainly from the weaving community, popularly known as Julahas, became Ramdasias after conversion to Sikhism.” Source
This concept was conversion to another religion did not exist till recently. Conversion is used when one adopts an Abrahmaic religion.
Dalit activist and advocate Dr S.L. Virdi wrote in ThePrint, “Dalit Sikhs and Jat Sikhs have separate gurdwaras. The discrimination might not be as visible as in UP, Bihar or Haryana in that Jaats may allow Dalits to enter gurdwaras but they won’t allow them to make prasad,” he said. Source
Also read Survey paper by Prof Vishal Puri pg 17
Ad-harmis are a sub-caste and known as Ravidassias. They follow Sant Ravidas (a chamar). Rajput Queen Meerabai was a follower of Sant Ravidas (rigid western style distinctions amongst people do not work in India).
Also read Life and Teachings of Sant Ravidas
According to as Indian Express report, “An attack in 2009 during a religious congregation in Vienna, which the current chief of the Dera Sant Niranjan Das survived, but in which one of the sants was killed, became a watershed moment. In Varanasi, on the birth anniversary of Guru Ravidas in 2010, the Dera and its sants declared Ravidassia as a new religion.”
Ravidassias believe in Ravidasia Dharm. It is a Panth, like there have been many in India. “Dera Sachkhand or Dera Ballan has emerged as a major centre for the articulation of the Ravidassia identity in Punjab.”
According to a Punjab based scholar, “They are considered pariahs in all matters. Sikhs generally used the epithet Sant for Ravidas, denying him the status of Guru, which they kept only for their own ten gurus. While Ravidasis take pride in being chamars (as did their guru) Sikhs continue to consider chamars as low caste. Inter-dining, intermarriage between two communities is still not accepted, although the elite among them enjoys a better social status by virtue of their political or economic power.”
Valmikis are found amongst Hindus too. Ranghreta Sikhs are those who brought Guru Tegh Bahadur’s head from Delhi to Anandpur. Sikhligars, found mainly in Maharashtra, are Lohars who made Shastras/Arms for the Guru Govind Singhji. There are Rai, Bazigar and Sansi Sikhs too.
The British created this system of caste and sub-caste and Indians are trying to justify their society based on that.Dera Sacha Sauda Chief, old pic.
11. Why have Deras become popular in Punjab and Haryana?
Dera refers to places of worship associated with individual gurus.
The backward classes and poor were left out of the prosperity ushered in by the Green Revolution. The need for a support system and to be part of a larger community was felt. It is this vacuum that deras like Sacha Sauda filled. They made the poor feel secure, loved, provided a support system and gave them dignity.
According to a 2017 report in Chandigarh’s Tribune the reasons for their popularity are four-fold . One, identities of caste and religion cease to exist in the dera. Two, the humble ranking of dera management. A state is divided into zones, with each zone headed by a man called Bhangi Das. Three, subsidised food and free rations. Four, many districts close to Sirsa in Haryana are plagued by knee problems and cancer due to bad quality of water. The dera provided free treatment.
Also read Why Dera Sacha Suda draws followers
12. What were the Gurus views on caste?
“If you were to go only by the Gurbani (the words and writings of the ten Gurus of the Sikhs) there cannot be a caste system in Sikhism. But this did not translate into practice,” said noted scholar and subject expert Dr Harish Puri. Source ThePrint
It must be known that neither do Hindu scriptures sanction caste?
What scriptures say and the reality are different.
Note that the Panj Pyare belonged to different caste. On 30 March 1699, at Anandpur, Govind Singhji gave a stirring speech to the assembly about the need to protect their spiritual and temporal rights. He then asked if anyone would offer his head in the services of God, Truth and Religion. The five who came forward were Dayaram a Khatri from Lahore, Dharamdas a Jat from Hastinapur near Delhi, Sahib Chand a barber from Bidar in Karnataka, Himmat Chand Kahar, a water carrier from Puri in Odisha and Mohkam Chand Chihimba from Dwarka in Gujarat.
Prof Harish Puri wrote, “It was no problem that the Sikhs who were distinguished from Hindus (Hum Hindu Nahin), largely because they did not believe in Hindu caste system, now considered that such a distinction between the two religious communities was itself a discrimination against the Sikhs. The Sikh leaders “promoted constitutional provisions for the Sikh society which were an insult to Guru Nanak’s egalitarian principles.” 3
Utmost care is taken in sharing history. While we can have differing views, in case of any errors please mail with reference of source documents.
1. A History of Sikhs, Volume II by Khushwant Singh.
2. Dowry Murder: The Imperial origins of a Cultural Crime by Veena Talwar Oldenburg.
3. The Scheduled Castes in the Sikh Community – A Historical Perspective by Prof Harish K Puri. [First published in Economic & Political Weekly (28 June 2003) and was then included in the author’s edited volume on Dalits in Regional Context (2004)
4. Hinduism: The Faith Eternal by Dr. Satish K Kapoor.
1. The myth of a Castless Sikh Society by Prof Ronki Ram 2007 paper
Simridhi Makhija also contributed to this article.
Disclosure – The author is a Punjabi Khatri who takes equal pride in the karmas of Shivaji Maharaj and Guru Govind Singhji.
Disclaimer: The article was first published on, www.esamskriit.com, We have republished it with kind permission from the author under our global content-sharing initiative.