Saturday, October 14, 2006

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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indscribe said...

From what I have gathered, Dr BR Ambedkar contemplated a lot. Yes he also thought about Sikhism. I think what stopped him was that Sikhs were mostly concentrated in India.
With conversion to Buddhism, he felt that the Dalits would get an international religion and support of 'brethren from far Eastern countries' . That, I guess, was the main reason for conversion to Buddhism. He studied Islam also and many enthusiastic Maulanas keep going to him for converting him but the Shia-Sunni schism seemed to have dissuaded him.

Siyaah said...

You seem to have a good grasp of India based social issues. Didn't know about the Ambedkar - Sikhism connection. Though now that you bring it up, it makes complete sense.

bhupinder said...

Indscribe: I think you have a good point- International support would have been widened because of the far Eastern countries being Buddhist as well. Dr Ambedkar must have been cognizant to this fact.

Ambedkar had also, in his work, Origin of Untouchability tried to prove that the untouchables had once been Buddhists. Some other reasons were:
- Buddhism was an Indian religion and Buddha was nearer to the untouchable classes
- Buddhism could withstand scientific rigour
- Buddha's humility (The Buddha saw himself merely as a margdarshak and not God (Jesus), or God sent messenger (Prophet Mohammad)or a mokshdata

However, while we know why he embraced Buddhism, he never explained why he lost interest in conversion to Sikhism (of course, one can extrapolate).

Siyaah: Whatever little understanding that I have, was gleaned the hard way- trying to change the world :-)

Nowadays, I merely try and understand.