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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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