Dr. Ambedkar and Sikhism

Kanshi Ram’s last rites were performed last week as per Buddhist rites. His family has apparently not approved of this. What is interesting in this episode is that Kanshi Ram was born in a Sikh family, and as far as I can recollect, he hasn’t ever said anything on the issue of Dalits and Sikhism- whose tenets deny casteism. Nor did he convert to Buddhism.

Kanshi Ram’s family said they suspected foul play in Kanshi Ram’s death and would file a case against Mayawati. They sought a probe into the circumstances leading to Kanshi Ram’s death and objected to the last rites being performed according to Buddhist traditions.

(news report)

However, there is more to the relationship between Dalits and Sikhism. The founder of the Dalit movement Dr. Ambedkar had once himself seriously considered conversion to Sikhism at one point. His interest then waned, though the reasons are not known, and he finally converted to Buddhism with half a million of his followers.


By 1935, Dr. BR Ambedkar’ s disgust with Hinduism and its caste system was complete. His patience at reforming Hinduism from within by securing for the untouchable castes the right to drinking water from public places, using metal utencils and receive education, was wearing thin. Earlier in 1929, he had advised his followers to embrace any religion that would give them respectability. Following this advice, some of his followers took to Islam.

Referring to his own personal decision in the matter, Ambedkar said that unfortunately for him, he was born a Hindu Untouchable. It was beyond his power to prevent that, but he declared that it was within his power to refuse to live under humiliating and ignoble conditions.

“ I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu”, he thundered.

He called for an end to the decade long struggles he had led for temple entry and which was brutally opposed by caste Hindus. Ambedkar’s call to the Untouchables to stop frittering away their energies over fruitless attempts and to devote themselves to carve out an honorable alternative for themselves shocked the nation, especially the caste Hindus.

As to conversion, he said it will be done in five years and he would reconsider his decision if caste Hindus assured him by positive results. He added that he wanted to absorb his community into some powerful community and was thinking of embracing Sikhism.

On April 13-14 1936, Dr. Ambedkar addressed the Sikh Mission Conference at Amritsar. He had earlier indicated that this would be his last speech he would deliver as a Hindu. The main feature of the conference, however, turned out to be the conversion of five prominent Depressed Class leaders of the Thiyya community of Kerala headed by Dr. Kuttir and 50 others from UP and Central Provinces to Sikhism.

In May 1936, he called a conference of the Mahar community to which he belonged, and his abominations and the condemnation of Hinduism was biting, coarse and yet smashing and dissecting. He ended his speech with a quotation from the lips of the dying Buddha- he asked his people to seek refuge in Buddhism. This quotation from the Buddha led to speculations that Bhimrao was veering towards Buddhism. He himself, however, avoided a straight answer. A few days before, however, he had sent his son and nephew to Harminder Sahib as a gesture of goodwill towards Sikhism. They stayed there for over one and half months.

By June of that year, Ambedkar after consulting his colleagues decided to embrace Sikhism- his friends and colleagues felt that he should seek the support of the Hindu Mahasabha leaders in their conversion to Sikhism, for the Mahasabha leaders believed that Sikhism was not an alien religion. It was an offspring of Hinduism and therefore the Sikhs and Hindus were allowed to intermarry and the Sikhs were allowed to be members of the Mahasabha. In his proposal, Dr. Moonje agreed to the inclusion of these neo- Sikhs in the list of Scheduled Classes and enjoy the benefits under the Poona Pact, if Ambedkar preferred to embrace Sikhism in preference to Islam and Christianity and that he agreed to counteract the Muslim movement to draw the Depressed Classes into the Islamic fold.

Ambedkar said that he preferred to embrace Sikhism which offered less than social, political and economic power than Islam and less material attractions than Christianity (western nations). He favoured Sikhism in the “interests of Hindus”.

Dr. Moonje and Dr. Kurtakoti (the Shankracharya) in giving their blessings obvioulsy chose the “least evil”. In choosing thus, they also showed their belief that Sikhism is another branch of Hinduism and that it owed the same culture and principles.

Gandhi voiced concern over the proposed conversion, but Ambedkar continued to increase his contacts with the Sikh Mission. There was even a proposal to start a college in Bombay for the proposed neo- Sikhs. 13 of his followers who were asked to study the Sikh religion at Amritsar actually converted to Sikhism and returned to Bombay, where, writes Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer, they were coldly received as they had only been asked by Ambedkar to study and not to convert.

Soon, Bhimrao went on a tour of Europe. It seems after returning in 1937 his love for Sikhism had evaporated. He continued to talk of his proposed conversion though, and in 1955 along with half a million adherents went over to Buddhism.

(Much of the above I had written in 1997, and as far as I recollect is mainly based on the notes I took from the wonderful biography of Dr. Ambedkar written by Dhananjay Keer.)

Update: The Story of Kerala’s first Sikh Convert
(Thanks to Bajinder for pulling the story out of his archives)

a story by Ramesh Babu
in hindustan times(cannot get exact date)

Nintyone-year old Sardar Bhupinder Singh from Kadakarapally is the only living Malayalee Sikh in Kerala. People call him “Sikh Chettan”, that is, elder brother.

On Baisakhi day in 1936, fed up of caste barriers, Bhaskaran embraced Sikhism and became Bhupinder Singh. he was not alone. Around 300 families, mostly from backward castes, converted at that time.

There is a historical background to this conversion. During Vaikkom Satyagraha in 1922, at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi, a few Akalis came to Vaikkom to make langar for satyagrahis. After successful completion of satyagraha and the Temple Entry Proclamation, some of the Akalis stayed back. Some youth were attracted by the discliplined life and joined Sikhism.

Bhupinder has a different story to tell: “After Vaikkom Satyagraha, backward castes basked in a renewed vigour. At that time, Ambedkar exhorted people that if you don’t get self-respect and dignity in your own religion, you should get out of it. This prompted many of us to join Sikhism.

Initially it was tough. “My father was liberal enough but his brother opposed my conversion tooth and nail. But I stuck to my belief.”

After becoming a Sikh, Bhupinder went to Gujaranwallah and Lahore for theological studies. He worked some time in Khalsa College. But the returns were inadequate. So he joined the British Royal Army as a technician in 1940. He retired in 1968 as Subedar.

Though he married a Sikh, his daughters and sons are Hindus and married under Hindu Ezhava customs. “When the community shrank we found it very difficult to find matches. So none of us insisted the second generation to follow our example. Many families later re-converted to Hinduism. It is one of the reasons for our decline in Kerala.”

Bhupinder complains that when numbers became dwindled, the Sikh Committee stopped showing any interest in them.

Every Sunday Bhupinder visits the only gurdwara in the State of Elamakkara in Kochi. Recently the Kochi Gurdwara Committee honoured him with a saropa.

The nonagenarian always keeps a low profile. “Once S S Barnala came here. He was eager to know more about Malayalee Sikhs. He asked me so many things and wanted me to write a book, but I politely refused.:

Leading a solitary life after his wife’s death, Sardar Bhupinder has only one wish: “Till thee last breath I want to be a true follower of the Panth.”

Picture Acknowledgement

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The Quran: Origins and Influence

An extract from The Qu’ran: A Biography by Lawrence Bruce:

South Asian Muslims approach the Qur’an from a cultural domain shaped by language and outlook that are Islamic but not Arab. Open to outside influences, they filter what they receive through their own distinctive aesthetic imagination. Consider the story of a royal woman who was memorialised in her burial space: the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is a 17th-century tomb that is at once simple and complex. Its marble surfaces project a unity that forever changes, from morning to evening light. It is fronted by a water pavilion, surrounded by mosques and geometrical gardens, and banked against the Jumna River.

An older post on Allama Iqbal here.

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Hum to jis haal main huye ruswa huye
Hindu bane to kafir huye, Musalmaan bane to mlechha huye[In every (human) form that I was born, was I insulted
When born a Hindu, I was outcaste as an infidel, when born a Muslim, I was outcaste as one polluted]

One wonders how the practical aspects of non- Brahmins being appointed as priests for Vaishnavite and Shaivite temples will work out- my own limited experiences as practically a mlechha in Tamil temples tells me that there are spaces even within the temples (the garbhgrahas) that forbids a non- Brahmin from entering there.

Karunanidhi may be a shadow of Periyar, and one does not have to agree with all that he has done immediately after his return as CM, but this one is as important a step as that of Laloo appointing Dalit preists in Bihar few years ago.

If we define tradition only through texts, then practices such as opening of temples to Dalits and abolition of the Devadasi system can be viewed as going against the agamas. The presence of fans, tube lights, and air conditioners in temples can also be seen as being against agama injunctions. The Maharajan committee too warns us against this.

Opening up of temples and the priesthood to all castes is a fight against discrimination based on birth. What is required is to expand the definition of discrimination and include women in it. It is time for the question: when will women be allowed to become priests?

Link via Krishworld

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Tradition, Revolution and Confrontation in Iran

Political scientist Matthias Küntzel gives a devastating background to the volunteer militia Basij Mostazafan–or “mobilization of the oppressed” and explains it in the context of the Shia tradition of martyrdom.

Küntzel concludes that this is leading to the “showdown” between the zealous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad- a product of the Basij– and the Western world. He ignores, of course, the war mongering that the neo- cons have indulged in, training their guns now towards Iran, as if the deepening quagmire in Iraq was not enough. Küntzel’s own account provides the reasons on the dangers of confrontation with a country where the (counter) revolutionary energy has not yet died down. Every revolution eventually devours its own children- the Iranian one has not yet reached that stage.In the background of the tradition of martyrdom and the continuation of the Islamic Revolution, confrontation with the present Iranian regime is only a recipe for further disaster.

During the Iran-Iraq War, the Ayatollah Khomeini imported 500,000 small plastic keys from Taiwan. The trinkets were meant to be inspirational. After Iraq invaded in September 1980, it had quickly become clear that Iran’s forces were no match for Saddam Hussein’s professional, well-armed military. To compensate for their disadvantage, Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies. Before every mission, one of the Taiwanese keys would be hung around each child’s neck. It was supposed to open the gates to paradise for them. (read on, need to register at TNR)

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Muslim Perceptions in Europe

Ziauddhin Sardar describes how Europe (besides America, and one may now include Australia as well), despises the Muslim. While it is increasingly united in this perception, Sardar argues that the reasons differ in each country.

Throughout my journey, from Germany to the Netherlands, onwards to Belgium and finally into France – the object of much recent attention – I meet people all too ready to describe Muslims in the colours of darkness. Islamophobia is not a British disease: it is a common, if diverse, European phenomenon. It is the singular rock against which the tide of European liberalism crashes.There are common themes but also subtle differences in the way each nation’s history influences its people’s present attitude to immigrant communities. Much of this is rooted in the various colonial histories.

More essays on the theme here.

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May Allah forgive the BBC

Ziauddin Sardar, on an asignment for the BBC, meets heads of states in some of the Muslim countries- Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey and discovers the different trends in politics and Islam in those countries. Pakistan, he avers, can be rescued from fanatic Islam not by the military but by popular movements that negate both the military as well as the Islamic fundamentalists.

If Pakistan poses a threat to the rest of the world it does not come from these people, or from Qazi and his conservatives. It lies elsewhere, and the west just cannot see it. The most obnoxious religious zealots in the country wear the uniform of the military, and what happened after my interview with Musharraf was a perfect illustration of the army’s mentality. General Sultan, who had been sitting behind the president taking notes throughout, called us over and proceeded to review the interview line by line. “Can you cut this sentence out?” he asked. “And that sentence; and this word in the sentence after that?” The producer and I looked at each other in amazement.The army has the habit of controlling everything. The richest, most politically active and most zealot-ridden institution in Pakistan, it helped create the Taliban and the jihadi madrasas, and it propped up the religious opposition. It was the former military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, who enshrined the sharia in law. Those who think Pakistan’s military rulers will rescue them from extremism are barking up the wrong tree.

What is most surprising to a visitor from the west is that, despite the military, an alternative, progressive interpretation of Islam is gaining strength. This is the force that can lead Pakistan out of its darkness; these are the people – not Musharraf and his supporters – who need our backing in the fight against extremism.

Sardar however does not go beyond interviewing General Musharaff and Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the leader of the Jamaat e Islaami, and hence what he seems to say appears to be no more than a personal wishful thinking, albeit a desired one.

In the same paper, John O’Farrel writes on why Tony Blair’s comment that the al- Qaeda and the IRA are fundamentally different. Besides the fact that Tony Blair is a god fearing Christian with Catholic influence in his family, Blair seems to have gone further and read the Koran and listened to discussions within moderate Islam. Hence it proves that the ‘Thatcher in trousers’, as Hobsbawm derisively referred to Blair, is far more enlightened than President Bush to take on the Islamic fundmentalists. He points to the similarities between Gary Adams and Blair as well.

Although five years older, Gerry Adams has some things in common with Blair. Both are essentially pragmatists, and have moved their respective organisations to powerful positions through ditching shibboleths. Dissidents have been isolated and marginalised.Both men are children of the Sixties, but neither were ’68ers. IRA veterans use the revealing term “theological republicanism” to describe those dissidents who opposed “electoralism” and viewed “armed struggle” as the purest means to their ends. These diehards were to Adams what “old Labour” was to Blair. While both can be charming, they can be ruthless when faced with obstruction.

In war, Blair has been an advocate of what the IRA might, for its purposes, have called the “tactical use of armed struggle”. His Chicago speech of 1999 laid down rules for “internationalist” military intervention. “War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress,” he argued, “but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators.”

Morality may be the motive, but ultimately the use of violence is based on whether it will work. According to this theory, the amount of force needed is part of the moral calculation – placing just enough pressure on the Serbs, for example, to withdraw from Kosovo, rather than occupying Belgrade. Likewise, the combination of ruthlessness and incompetence that created the Omagh atrocity probably would not have happened on Adams’s watch.

Both men are religious. Adams is a regular communicant and Blair is inching towards the faith of his mother and his wife. Also, Blair’s understanding of theology in an essentially atheist political culture may give him an insight into the sheer inflexibility of al-Qaeda. Middle Britain gets confused by fundamentalism, be it Christians picketing the BBC or suicide bombers from Leeds.

Blair has made a point of reading the Koran and has listened to British Islam. He understands the nuances of faith and appreciates that the line between the personal consolations of faith and the violent expression of sectarian superiority is fine but deep. Marx called religion “the heart of a heartless world”. Salafism views sharia as this world’s heart transplant. Blair understands the nature of this ambition, and therefore the violence “without limits” required to achieve it.

If Blair had believed that the IRA could not be brought onside, he would not have spent so much effort since 1997. He believed that Irish republicanism could be dealt with because he understood it. For exactly the same reason, he will not deal with al-Qaeda.

It was O’Farrel himself who once referred to Bush as the global village idiot, and while one liked the column of political satire that O’Farrel wrote till recently for The Guardian, this piece of wisdom is slightly more difficult to digest.

Unless O’Farrel actually meant this piece to be a continuation of his weekly column…

And as if continuing on the same theme, Hanif Kureishi, the son of an English mother and liberal, more Buddhist than Islamist father, describes the discomfort that he felt listening to clerics haranguing their British- born 30 something audiences in mosques in England.

The mosques I visited, in Whitechapel and Shepherd’s Bush, were nothing like any church I’d attended. The scenes, to me, were extraordinary, and I was eager to capture them in my novel. There would be passionate orators haranguing a group of people sitting on the floor. One demagogue would replace another, of course, but the “preaching” went on continuously, as listeners of all races came and went.

…. Sometimes I would be invited to the homes of these young “fundamentalists”. One of them had a similar background to my own: his mother was English, his father a Muslim, and he’d been brought up in a quiet suburb. Now he was married to a woman from Yemen who spoke no English. Bringing us tea, she came into the room backwards, and bent over too, out of respect for the men. The men would talk to me of “going to train” in various places, but they seemed so weedy and polite, I couldn’t believe they’d want to kill anyone.

….I found these sessions so intellectually stultifying and claustrophobic that at the end I’d rush into the nearest pub and drink rapidly, wanting to reassure myself I was still in England. It is not only in the mosques but also in so-called “faith” schools that such ideas are propagated. The Blair government, while attempting to rid us of radical clerics, has pledged to set up more of these schools, as though a “moderate” closed system is completely different to an “extreme” one. This might suit Blair and Bush. A benighted, ignorant enemy, incapable of independent thought, and terrified of criticism, is easily patronised.

A Laboratory of Islam

Irfan Hussain writing in The Dawn reminds us that it was General Zia who assured early in his rule that Pakistan would be the laboratory of Islam. This seems to be further strenghtened by some of the laws being passed in NWFP.

Even before this latest manifestation of religious zeal, we had witnessed a series of Talibanesque decisions emanating from Peshawar. Women patients requiring X-rays could not be scanned by male technicians; advertizing posters with women were banned; and video shops were shut down. All these draconian measures were enforced with varying degrees of enthusiasm by civil servants and policemen. Now these (and far fiercer) edicts will be rammed down the populace’s throats by an authority whose decisions cannot be challenged in any court.In Nathiagali, I recently met an old friend who has served as a senior government officer in the NWFP for many years. According to him, the rule of the mullahs has been an unmitigated disaster for his province. No development activities are going on, corruption is rampant, and ordinary people are miserable. And yet, he continued, the MMA will probably get re-elected in the next polls because the opposition parties are in such disarray.

This is on the lines of the situation in Saudi Arabia and the Taliban ruled Afganistan.

As readers are aware, the Saudi religious police routinely beat up or jail anybody seen on the streets at prayer times, and cane women who are showing an inch or two of ankle. In a recent demonstration of religious fervour, they pushed back girls fleeing a blazing hostel into the flames because they were not adequately covered. Several girls died as a result.When in power in Afghanistan, the Taliban went a step further, and decreed that men whose beards were not of a certain length would be punished. Their treatment of women aroused the anger of the civilized world. Not content with brutalizing the living, they destroyed ancient statues for not conforming to their code.

Ayaz Amir, as usual, is more shrill, but does sum up the frustrations of the somewhat right of center inteligentsia (generally modernists with an Army background):

Bin Ladenism, which is a peculiar distillation of Wahabi Islam, and the terrorism which has come to be its favourite tool, are no answers to American domination or Muslim weakness. In fact, Bin Ladenism, with its narrow interpretation of Islam, is itself a reflection of Muslim weakness because it shows a preoccupation with the very elements which constitute the core of Muslim backwardness: a romantic attachment to a glorified past, an emphasis on literalism, and a comprehensive failure to understand what makes the modern world tick.

The answer to Muslim decadence lies in a political renaissance: a replacement of autocracy with democracy. Of course this is easier said than done but if we can’t achieve it there being nothing on the horizon to suggest that we easily can ‘we should at least understand that terrorism such as that in London is no answer to anything. In fact, far from liberating anything, it only makes the Muslim predicament worse by lending strength to the false doctrine of a ‘clash of civilizations’.

While ‘bin Ladenism’ is a descendant of Wahabism, the mutation seems to be in that while Wahabism was a social- poiltical movement, ‘bin Ladenism’ is essentially a political movement marked by anti- Westernism in general and anti- Americanism in particular. At its core is the former, for it was the US administration that propped up the Mujahideen in Afganistan for many years.