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"Dr. Ambedkar and Sikhism"

by Gurtej Singh

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This page was last updated on October 1 2001.





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One of the most intriguing questions of modern times is the non-conversion of Dr. B.R.Ambedkar and his followers to Sikhism after having made a clear decision to that effect. There is a school of scholars who would like to find fault with the Sikh leadership which they claim thwarted his sincere efforts in order to prevent the Sikh faith being inundated by his five crore followers. Assumption is that it consciously discouraged his conversion. It is also held that Dr.Ambedkar became wary of Sikhism on seeing the prevalence of caste system amongst the Sikhs. If it were true, these circumstances would have far reaching effects on the destiny of Dalits, Sikhs, Hindus and consequently that of India. Fortunately, besides being opposed to facts, it is also opposed to logic and common sense.

Some others who do not subscribe to it fail to understand how Dr.Ambedkar was obliged to follow the lead of uninformed Sikh leaders since he was converting with at least five hundred percent more followers than there were Sikhs in all the world at that time. They also find all the available evidence to be contrary to the assumptions of doubting school. These positivists notice overwhelming evidence to show that the Sikh leadership overstrained their resources in every way to encourage Dr.Ambedkar and the Dalits. They also cite evidence to show that it was M.K. Gandhi who put his entire weight in the balance on the non-conversation plan and that this proved too formidable even for Ambedkar. This would once again happen to him at the time of Poona pact.

This view disturbs the negativist school to the point of making them hysterical in support of the good intentions of Gandhi. They fail to see how else could he have acted, being a good Hindu as he was. This brings in the question of Gandhi's motives, which is not strictly relevant to the main issue of knowing the history of Dr. Ambedkar's aborted attempt. Dalits would like the support the negativist thesis because it ultimately absolves their ideal from neglecting the real interests of his followers. As it is, they are hard put to justify his submission at the time of Poona Pact. Worshippers of Gandhi also find it more politic to support them.

The Hindus have no objection to this thesis since Gandhi eternally secured to them unpaid slaves who have been serving that society for many thousands of years.

The whole world is with them today but for a few ugly little facts amply laden with truth and logic, which render the assiduously built argument a nullity in no time.

For a short while before joining the Indian Police Service, I taught history and public speaking at Gurmat College, Patiala to post graduate students. This was one of the most satisfying of my experiences. I came in contact with some of the most remarkable men of the age. The legendary Bhai Sahib Singh, a perfect gentleman, was a kind colleague. Equally remarkable in his own way was Sardar Narain Singh, tireless and fiery Sardar Hari Singh Shergill was also a part of the management. Shergill's Namdhari friend, Sant Inder Singh Chakarvarti author of the epic Hind di Chadar was a very sensitive poet and a an excellent conversationalist. Amongst the three or four others must be mentioned the, humble, great and politically wise, Yadavendra Singh Maharaja of Patiala and the totally non-communal and extremely sensitive scholar Professor Ramesh Walia, who in Patiala was the greatest supporter of the concept of Sikh Homeland formulated by Sirdar Kapur Singh.

Sardar Narain Singh had been manager of Sri Nankana Sahib Gurdwara. In that capacity he had been associated with the founding of the Khalsa College at Bombay and also the interconnected bid by Dr. Ambedkar to convert to Sikhism. Once he spoke at length about the episode amongst a few friends. I was permitted to take notes. These came in handy when I was invited by an organization at Ludhiana to speak on Dr.Ambedkar. The talk was appreciated. So for the benefit of the general reader I converted it into an article which was carried by the Punjabi Tribune of May 6, 1990. During the period I was working with a political setup in which Sardar Atma Singh was an important leader.

He saw my article and confirmed that the facts mentioned by me were exactly as he had witnessed them. We all know that he had worked at Nankana Sahib had appropriately financed the Khalsa College at Bombay and had supervised the attempted conversion. I was reasonably certain about the facts, as I had earlier heard the account from another actor in the episode. Bawa Harkrishan Singh, who lived in the neighborhood of the great Sirdar Kapur Singh at Chandigarh and was a frequent visitor to his place. The article written by me on the subject was in the nature of a document. It was, therefore published in a book entitled Kichh Suniai Kichh Kahiai From this book, it was used by a magazine and from that magazine it was taken up by The Daily Ajit, which published it on October 20, 1995.

I received several comments on the issues raised by this article. It became imperative for me to react to them. I pointed out that it was not right for anyone to pretend that I am somehow popularizing my own private views. The article in question was based on unassailable accounts of some of the most reliable eye-witnesses to the events. I discussed the matter with Sardar Jagjit Singh and he said that it was a good thesis to pursue further. We did not know at that time that the tireless Sardar Narayan Singh had recorded all the facts of the discussion with us at Patiala, in a pamphlet in Punjabi, entitled, 'Khalsa College Bombay Kiyon te Kiven'.

After the sudden demise of Sardar Jagjit Singh on March 10, 1997, Abstracts of Sikh Studies announced a memorial number in his honour. Remembering his wish on the subject and his life-long work for eradication of caste system, I decided to pay my respects to him through the present article. This however, could not be published all these years and has come to me in the old file when I took over as editor. I find it still relevant and worth carrying. It is the third anniversary of Sardar Jagjit Singh's death and it is just right that we in the Institute must remember him, for he along with Sardar Daljit Singh was the founder of the Institute and consequently the Abstracts. Hence this article. Though it is a bit done up here and there, basically the same format has been retained. That is why it starts with a tribute to Sardar Jagjit Singh.

I want to pay respects to him as one of the greatest and the saintliest of persons, I have known. How do I go about it? In his lifetime he was wary of accepting even a single word in praise. Taking advantage of his death, shall I inflict upon his memory whatever comes to my mind? Can I do this knowing that death does not destroy the essence of personality of jiwan mukta that he was? This is the teaching of his faith and mine. In the circumstances, I suppose, I have the only choice of paying him a brief subdued tribute. He did love understatements.

Everyone who met him was impressed by his humility. I believe, I was with him on several occasions when he incarnated humility. At least one such moment can be preserved here. He was being taken to the operation theater for his last operation. I had just lifted him on to a stretcher and had tucked the small comb in his tiny silken white hair bun. Apart from his family members, there were two or three of us present in the room. Just before the journey started, he folded his hands and addressing us all said, 'during my association with you I must have made many mistakes and must have hurt you in several ways. Claiming to be your gurbhai, I humbly ask you to forgive me for it all'.

My reply in behalf of all others, to which they assented later, was, 'we do not think that you would ever hurt anybody or make a mistake of this nature. In this regard we place you on the same pedestal as God'. Tears swelled up in his eyes on hearing it and he was unable to say anything, but gesticulated me not to speak thus.

Gesticulation was in the nature of gentle admonition, which was all he had ever been capable of by way of violent disapproval of any opinion, all his life. His daughter-in-law, Bibi Amarjit Kaur told me not to say this because he had already disapproved of similar sentiments expressed by Principal Harbhajan Singh earlier in the morning. But I had already said it.

All his life, one of his primary concerns was to see the total elimination of caste and racial prejudices from society. He did not hesitate for a moment when his eldest daughter, Dr. Parkashjit Kaur, asked his permission to marry a non-Jat Dr. Bhupinder Singh. I suppose, my tribute to him should be in that context.

It has been argued, while analyzing the cause for non-conversion of Dr. Ambedkar to Sikhism that Mr. Gandhi was right in wanting to prevent the Dalits from converting to Sikhism, because that was in the interest of his own community. Can that justify treating the Dalits as pawns in someone else's game? Especially, would that brush aside the immoral nature of his desire to prevent the emancipation of such a substantial part of humanity?

My sole point, however, while trying to understand the role of Gandhi was that, although he was advertised as a non-communal national leader working for the welfare of all, he was at heart a sectarian person, a mere Hindu leader. Nothing much wrong has been found with at least this conclusion. Men of Gandhi's stature, who actually lived within such narrow boundaries around them, are as answerable to history as any one else and must not shirk that responsibility in the interest of truth. Thought must also be given to whether the best interest of the Hindu people lies in preserving the caste system and maintaining the Dalits in their pitiful state?

Gandhi has been also been compared to Master Tara Singh, who also worked for the interest of his own community. Difference between the position of the two must be appreciated. Master Ji never pretended to be a secular leader and never had hegemonic designs over any other community. He was motivated by the means of preserving their wholly humanistic culture. Gandhi, on the other hand, displayed a majoritarian frame of mind and sought to replace British imperialism with a peculiar kind of tyranny of the permanent cultural majority in the garb of secular, democratic, republican pretensions.

Had he openly supported the Hindu desire to resurrect the ancient Hindu glory with the help of political independence from the British, there would be nothing much to condemn him for. In that case the minorities would have known what they were in for in de-colonized India and would have either acquired adequate safeguards from the departing power, or would have at least stepped into the snare, if at all, with their eyes wide open. So camouflaged were his moves that of his four targeted victims, only some of the Muslims could discern them and actually escape the juggernaut. Sadly, the Dalits, who needed most to escape, were roped in. I take it to be repugnant to any sense of political morality, any sense of justice, that the Dalits, Tribals, a section of the Muslims and the Sikhs were duped and led into a situation detrimental to their best interests, primarily, by the smooth talk of Gandhi.

Eventually Gandhi alone was instrumental in perpetuating the miserable condition of Dalits and the Sikhs. Together they constitute the duo of birds that this 'prophet of non-violence' killed with one stone. In the enlightened opinion of the most spiritually awake of souls of all ages, all people are entitled to political and spiritual freedom. This stands denied to a vast section of the Indian population. It is certainly wrong. There should be no objection to protesting on that score. It is clear as the sun at noon, that Gandhi's communal approach is also responsible for the vivisection of this great and ancient land of five rivers. Can history forgive that?

Gandhi's desire to retain the Dalits in the Hindu fold was so intense that he took many measures, some of which merit being termed unethical, to ensure it. His fast in Yaravada jail was one such. The questionable manner, in which Dr. Ambedkar was cajoled to acquiesce in the subsequent Poona Pact, must remain one of the most sordid chapters of modern history. The ultimate aim of the fast was to dissuade the Dalits from living upto their resolve of converting to some other religion. It is clear that, since Sikhism was uppermost in the minds of their leaders, Gandhi's effort was to prevent their conversion to Sikhism. Direct evidence on the issue is available in the writings of Gandhi himself. Those interested are referred to Volumes 27,63 and 67 of his Collected Works, which reproduce several documents being used here.

Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, Jugal Kishore Birla, Dr. Moonje, and some others had decided that for their own good and for the good of the Hindu society, Dalits under the leadership of Ambedkar should be allowed to convert to Sikhism. This was formulated in the background of Gandhi's often-expressed views that he regarded the Sikhs as Hindus. "My belief about the Sikh Gurus is that they were all -- Hindus and that Guru Gobind Singh was one of the greatest defenders of Hinduism.--I do not regard Sikhism as a religion distinct from Hinduism". Not much opposition to conversion was expected from him, but he was not taken into confidence initially. Gandhi was informed of it later on in the strictest secrecy. He, in a breach of trust, published all this in his Haijan of August 22, 1936.

The report he filed is in his own paper, is in the nature of loud alarm. 'A Dangerous Proposal' shrieked the headline, and the article went on to describe it as "fratricide" and a "calamity". He goes to the extent of pontifica ting that "it would not be so bad as if Harijans were called Christians or Muslims". He condemned those resposible for the proposal as "self constituted leaders". He kept up the campaign against them in personal correspondence and conversation. We find him assailing them once again in the harijan, dated September 19,1936.

All evedence suggests that his objections were both religious and also political. "Sikhs have a separate electorate" and are not Hindus, he bemoaned. In a letter to Jugal Kishore Birla, he wrote on September 7, 1936, asking him to "persuade the Sikhs to accept that Sikhism is a part of Hinduism". "We do not find him examining dispassionately whether the conversions would benefit the Dalits and the country and would help in ridding Hinduism of the stigma of caste-system, as was the calculation of those who supported the conversion bid.

Under these circumstances, any rightly motivated person would sympathize with the Dalits and not with Gandhi. How can one feel at one with the "oppressed and depressed" in the words of B.S. Murthyu, and yet admire one man responsible for their plight? If some would like to raise 'doubts about my ability to understand' on that account, they can do so again for I do not also understand how one can sympathize with pursuit of communal policy in the garb of upholding universal principles. In order to provide yet another opportunity to them; I also feel that Gandhi was being inhuman as he was taking measures to foil every Dalit bid to escape the noose of caste system. This he was doing to a helpless people, who had suffered so long and who trusted him so much. Any one having an iota of humanity in him would have wholeheartedly aided Dr. Ambedkar's bid to rid his people of the cruelest and the most demeaning system of caste in all human history.

In my article I had held that Dr. Ambedkar was well informed about there being no caste system amongst the Sikhs. That was not what deterred him from converting to Sikhism, as is the popular, but uniformed belief. One plain reason in support of this is that there is no caste system amongst the Sikhs. Revealed text, the Gurbani, is there to support this proposition. The other is that the number of those seeking conversion was expected to be more than twenty times the total Sikh population. To me it is inconceivable that one-twentieth part of the population was deemed capable, by a perceptive man like Dr.Ambedkar, of imposing its social norms on the rest and that, in defiance of strict scriptural provisions.

In contrast, the Hindu caste system is an inexorable arrangement related to ultimate salvation, is sanctioned by religious texts like the Manusmriti, preaching of thousands of saints and incarnations and the religious practice of at least five thousand years. Sikh scriptural position is just the opposite; from no Sikh pulpit can anyone dare to preach adherence to reprehensible caste philosophy. No Sikh Guru or Sikh saint has ever respected the caste system. Every Sikh unequivocally knows that it is not related to final salvation. The Sikhs also know that its observance is certainly detrimental to spiritual growth and ultimate goal of life. There is no tradition of belief in caste system in Sikh history; in fact, its condemnation is a part of many living Sikh practices and traditions including that of the langar.

Some of the scholarly critics (which category includes certain motivated historians) may be surprised to know that for many a thinking mind all this constitutes a weighty argument against the existence of caste system amongst the Sikhs. I have often left uninformed prejudice against the Jat racial element in the composition of the Sikh Panth, is the ultimate cause of the belief of some of the scholars entertaining the unfounded belief.

This prejudice was exploited fully by historians including Dr. Hew McLeod and was dexterously converted into a justification of sorts for the 1984 attacks on Sri Darbar Sahib and the Sikh people as a whole. It is no use quoting Sikh scholars like the erudite Sardar Jagjit Singh and his incomparable 'Jat Pat te Sikh', to this vategory, for the tendency to denigrate anything Sikh alone can sustain them in their baseless beliefs or hopes.

Would they take the trouble of analyzing the Hindu caste system, they would know that nothing of this sort has existed in any other society at any time in history. There have been caste prejudices, inequality is the villain we can see stalking all societies in some subtle form or the other but the caste system as a system sustained by widespread religious belief is peculiar to Hindu society only. Those who reared pigs, for instance, were looked down upon in, ancient Egypt and so on. No sociologist has referred to this wayward social behaviour as 'caste system'.

The Hindu world-view, however, has been so arranged that caste is built into every action, inaction and belief of a Hindu. It is the systematic application of hereditary inequality to every sphere of secular and spiritual life that Hindu caste system unique. Only those who fail to grasp the importance of the word 'system' in the phrase, end up believing that it prevails wherever small social prejudice becomes noticeable. To perceptible minds these are inconsequential deviations for they know that the building bricks of the caste system are entirely different.

In his, The Rise And Fall of the Sikh Power, translation of which by Jadunath Sarkar was published in The Modern Review of 1911, Rabindra Nath Tagore observed regarding the work of Guru Gobind Singh, "he totally rooted up the caste system which was a strong obstacle....." In the same article, he further says," at a blow from Guru Gobind (Singh) the already weakened caste system tumbled down to the earth."

One of the other persons to believe that caste system does not exist amongst the Sikhs, is Dr. B.R. Ambedkar himself. In 1936, the Jat Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore invited him to deliver a presidential address at its annual conference to be held in Lahore. He duly wrote the address and sent it to the Mandal. On seeing it, the Mandal had second thoughts about inviting him and escaped doing so by cancelling its annual conference. The undelivered address is published under the title of "Annihilation of Caste" and also forms a part of Dr. Baba Sahib Ambedkar: Writing and Speeches.

In his very well formulated speech, he gives three reasons to believe that caste system does not exist amongst the non-Hindus - 1) "Ask a Sikh who he is? He tells you that he is a - Sikh. He does not tell you his caste..........So essential is caste in the case of a Hindu that without knowing it you do not feel sure what sort of a being he is, the caste has not the same social significance amongst the non-Hindu...2) "...The Sikhs --will not outcast a Sikh -- if he broke his caste.... But with the Hindus - he is sure to be outcasted if he broke caste."3) "Caste amongst the non-Hindus has no religious consecration, but amongst the Hindus, most decidedly it has. Amongst the non-Hindus, caste is only a practice, not a sacred institution. They did not originate it. With them it is only a survival. They do not regard caste as a religious dogma. Religion compels the Hindus to treat isolation and segregation of castes as a virtue.....if Hindus wish to break caste, their religion will come in their way."

This is the belief of Ambedkar in the year 1936, the year most relevant for our purpose. Gandhi's attitude towards the same incident also reveals his true feelings about the position of caste in Hindu society. Sant Ram of the Mandal explained to Gandhi that the Mandal itself did not believe in the caste system, but was obliged to cancel the meeting only when Ambedkar insisted on announcing that (before the contemplated conversion to Sikhism) it "was his last speech as a Hindu." Since Ambedkar was abandoning Hinduism, the Mandal did not want to go ahead with the meeting and his address.

In his Harijan of August 15, 1936, Gandhi wrote, "If the Mandal rejects the help of the Shastras, they do exactly what Dr. Ambedkar does i.e. cease to be Hindus. But it is pertinent to ask what the Mandal believes if it rejects the Shastras. How can a Muslim remain one if he rejects the Quran, or a Christian remain Christian if he rejects the Bible?"

He goes ahead to hint at his theory about how the Shastras and caste are to be reconciled and rationalized, presumably, for mass consumption.

Now the reader may judge whether he agrees with the negativist school or the positivist one and their conclusions. Those wearing the ill-fitting Punjabi identity, as opposed to the Sikh reality, appear to be trying to curry favour with the 'powers of the future'. Can baseless assertions, such as they make, serve any purpose at all? It can only be humbly pointed out to him that by discarding the wholly edifying ways of the great Sikh gurus, without wholehearted acceptance of which there is no salvation of mankind, they are committing a mistake.

Guru's is the most valid philosophy of the future; "my Satgur is for ever and ever. Comings and goings are not for Him. He is the only Indestructible Person, Who resides in every human being for ever." (Satgur mera sada sada na avai na jai. Oh abnasi purash hai sabh mein rahia samai).

Written by Gurtej Singh.

From the book "Abstracts of Sikh Studies" Published by Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh April - June 2000



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