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Is sacrilege charge against Punjab Dalits any different from Pak blasphemy cases?

Lakhbir Singh, his wife
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 

There is no doubt that Sikhism actually was a revolt against the Brahmanical system and superstition. Guru Granth Saheb is perhaps the only Holy Book which contains matters from different religions as well as those of various Sufi saints, including Kabir, Ravidas, Baba Farid and others. The aim of Sikhism was to create an egalitarian society, and, definitely, Punjab that way is far better than many other States in India, where violence against Dalits is rampant.
However, there are other dark realities of Punjab’s socio-political structure that reflect that the message of equality and brotherhood has not reached everywhere. The fact, is Majhabis and Ravidasis have for long faced the tyranny of caste forces in Punjab. It is important to understand, in the context of recent events, who is being blamed for sacrilege and what exactly it is.
Is sacrilege the same as blasphemy, being used to target the minorities, and most importantly the Dalits? The dictionary meaning of sacrilege is, “ Behaviour that shows great disrespect for a holy place or object”. Blasphemy is considered as a synonymous of sacrilege, but more often it is used in Islamic countries, where Islam is the state religion. In their definition, blasphemy is an act or attempt to denigrate the Holy Quran or the Prophet or Islam.
Under Islamic regimes, there are specific laws that provide specific punishments for blasphemy, and in most cases it ends up in death penalty. Globally, the victims of blasphemy or sacrilege laws or morality are the minorities, marginalised and women.

Ahmadis or Dalits in Pakistan

The story of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was charged under blasphemy law came into limelight in Pakistan. It was said that she uttered insulting remarks against Islam or Quran allegedly heard by some women who complained against her. The court found ‘enough’ material in these ‘complaint’ and the woman accused of blasphemy was sentenced to death.
Another couple Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, belonging to the Christian community were sentenced to death in 2014, though their sentence was overturned by the Lahore High Court and they were released in February 2021.
Whether it was Asia Bi or Shafaqat Emmanuel and Shagufta, all of them belonged to the Christian community of Pakistan, which is a ‘respectable’ name for Churas in Pakistan – something similar to what happened in India, where Arya Samaj campaigner Amichand Sharma suggesting the ‘Valmiki’ surname for the communities engaged in sanitation and manual scavenging.
A careful investigation of the cases will tell you how flimsy the charges were. Asia Bi was humiliated by the upper caste Muslim women (a fact so far very cleverly denied by the Pakistani elite who treat caste and Dalit issues as related to Hindus) just because she drank water from a pitcher as she was thirsty.
Shafaqat and Shagufta were completely illiterate and living in the compound of a Church when a Muslim cleric charged them for sending WhatsApp message insulting Prophet Mohammad. Shockingly, the illiterate couple were ‘accused’ of sending the so-called insulting message in English. 
Ironically, Shafaqat is wheelchair-bound. Her lower part of the body was completely paralysed in an accident in 2004. They have four grown up children. The blasphemy court found the charges ‘proved’ and issued death sentence in 2014, but the High Court overturned it for lack of evidence.
There are many others in Pakistan who suffer at the hands of the religious elite, which uses blasphemy as per its whims and fancies to target the Dalits and Ahmedis. It is a serious question which is not debated much in Pakistan, as it uses the Dalit card for its propaganda against India at its ‘national’ and international forums, while completely ignoring the status of the Dalits in Pakistan.
The Pakistani elite speaking of ‘human rights’ has not only not responded to the question as to why blasphemy cases are used against Churas or Dalits, who are ‘internationally’ identified as Christians just to avoid the caste question and the issue of Dalits. The hypocrisy of the Pakistani elite can be gauged the fact that they ‘celebrate’ Ambedkar Jayanti and want Indian ‘intellectuals’ to visit them and speak about the caste system in India, as if their own track record is great.
They need to read and re-read the resignation letter of Jogendra Nath Mandal, the chair of Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly, and its first law minister. It must respond as to why Jogendra Nath Mandal was compelled to return to India just within a year’s period after the Constitution was promulgated in Pakistan. Have the Pakistani law makers ever addressed the question as to why most of the victims of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan are Churas?
Asia Bi
It is not for any other reason except caste discrimination that the sanitation job is ‘reserved’ for Churas in Pakistan. Pakistanis will never speak about the Pasmandas – an Indian Muslim social reform organization dedicated to the emancipation of the Dalit Muslims belonging to the "Arzal" class in the caste system among South Asian Muslims.

Caste system in Punjab

Bordering Lahore on our side is Punjab. Here blasphemy has a new name called sacrilege, and those killed or blamed are mostly Dalits. Look at the brutality inflicted on Lakhbir Singh, a landless Dalit, who was accused of sacrilege of the saropa at the Singhu border, where farmers have been sitting on an indefinite protest for the last 10 months.
Sikhs are normally considered a very progressive community. We have seen the power and commitment of Sikhs, but it is also a fact that almost all the Sikh Gurus emerged from the Khatri community, as Ambedkarite scholar Bhagwan Das told me in an interview 15 years back. He said:
“About Sikhism, I have a very poor opinion. I came close to them because I was teaching two Sikh children. One of the students' fathers was a doctor, who used to invite me to Gurudwara. I used to go there. Then there was one festival on which they had a langar (community meal) in the Gurudwara. One man asked the doctor: 'You are making us eat with the Churas and Chamars.' It was a shocking experience for me in the Gurudwara. After that I studied Sikhism and found that they had 10 Gurus, all belonging to the Khatri caste, none married outside their own parental castes, and the fourth guru included teachings of Ravidas, Kabir and others in the Guru Granth Sahib, but in practice Sikhism is no different from Hinduism.
“If a convert comes from the carpenter community, he is a Ramgarhia, if is he a convert from the scavenger community, he is a Majhabi, if he is a convert from liquor selling community, then is an Ahluwalia. Where is the caste system gone? If goes from the front door and comes back from windows. They never started a movement to condemn caste system. After that incident, I never went to a Gurudwara.”
Bishan Das Bains is a well-known political activist and former mayor of Wolverhampton, UK, and the first South Asian to have risen to that post in the mid 1980s. In an interview with me, he said that during his campaign, most of the South Asians, Africans and other nationalities supported him wholeheartedly but the upper caste Sikhs fought vigorously not to allow a ‘chamar’ to win from his constituency. But he won despite their fierce opposition. He said:
“The 1979 election was the most memorable episode in the history of my political career in England. The Indian Workers Association, mainly lead and dominated by Punjabi Jat Sikhs, was a very strong national organisation during the period of sixties and seventies. They found it extremely difficult to digest and compromise with the facts that a person from a lower caste can be an elected member of the council.
“Subsequently, the dirty Indian politics of caste prejudice and religious hatred reared its head to undermine my position as an elected member of the council. They left no stone unturned to get me deselected by the Labour Party and replaced me with one from their own caste. After their failed attempts, they fielded a most reputable person the president of the Indian Workers Association, against me.
“During the election they started a smear campaign to tarnish my name and discredit my public reputation. They had army of workers roaming streets of my constituency all day, harassing and intimidating residents, printing and distributing literature. It was one of the most difficult elections as campaign as I have to overcome a multiple of discrimination and prejudice.
“In addition to Indian caste and religious prejudice, there was a British National Party (far right wing organisation) and other two parties slightly less racial. In the end with solid support from the Pakistani community, some indigenous and others, I managed to won the seat with an increased majority.”
He further informed me about the attitude of the native whites who too worked to stop him:
“The local Labour Party had an established custom and practice for the past many years to elect a Mayoral candidate for the ensuing year. At a special meeting two names were proposed and secret voting taken, according to custom and practice the winner of the contest became the candidate for the following year, and the runner up is usually had the nomination and was elected the following year.
“I like to mention here that I was the only non-white out of sixty elected members of the council for many years, and the rest of fifty-nine were all indigenous whites. In the beginning I was not interested at all in becoming the Mayor of the city. But there were some left wing councillors who wanted me to bid for my right. My name was duly proposed and seconded continuously for two constructive years and I lost the contest for both times.
“It means the established custom and practices which were being followed up over the past many years were violated for no reason other than underlying racial prejudice. Not only that, it was contrary to the policy of equality of opportunity of the national Labour Party.
“This situation left me with no option but to seriously consider my position in both terms as an elected member of the council and as a member of the party. I decided not to walk away quietly but to fight back and publicly expose their behaviour of racial prejudice. I decided to bring the whole truth of underlying racial prejudice in the Labour Party into the public domain.
“Now it was not a question of getting the nomination for mayoralty but to fight back for equality of opportunity and justice. I decided to issue a press statement, high lighting the underlying racial discrimination within the Labour Party. It was a very controversial, of course a courageous move which attracted a great deal of public support for me and contrarily huge discontent amongst my fellow Labour councillors. .
“I was served with a show cause notice and meeting with the high command leadership. I justify my actions at the meeting and it was decided to harmonise mutual relations amongst elected members of the Labour Party.”

Who are the victims of sacrilege in Punjab?

The story of Lakhbir Singh is now well publicised, as it happened at a public place where farmers have been protesting for the last 10 months. The body of Lakhbir Singh, a landless Dalit, was chopped off mercilessly and hanged at the pole near the place of protest. Why is it that there have been strong assertions of sarvadharma samabhav, but no strong condemnation from the protesters, except the fact that they have had “no association either with Nihangs or with Lakhbir Singh”?
Why have political leaders and activists remained cowardly silent on this criminal act of the thugs who feel no shame in suggesting they did it and will do it again? If this was a murder committed by a Muslim, international media would have made it a big headline, and we would have seen debates of brutality and primitivity of Islam on TV. The Brahmin-Bania media in India, known to have kept quiet on mob lynching by Hindutva goons, highlighted this incident only to defame the farmers’ movement.
Can the Samyukta Kisan Morcha justify its stance by saying that both the Nihangs and Lakhbir Singh were never associated with them?
Lakhbir’s case is not out of the blue but a continuous process happening in Punjab to intimidate the Dalits. Even children are not left out. Like the Islamic fundamentalists did it for an illiterate couple accusing them of ‘blasphemy’, on this side of Punjab things are no different.
In June 2020, a 10-years-old girl from the Mazhabi community in district Sangroor was charged with sacrilege. She used to go for ‘sewa’ in a Gurudwara. Accused of sacrilege, hundreds of people gathered to actually harass or lynch her. She and her parents were illegally arrested and put in jail. She was then charged under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. The provision criminalises “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”
Punjab’s SIT and other records suggest that the girl actually did not commit any sacrilege. The fact is, probably hailing from the Mazhabi community, she would go to sweep the floor and inadvertently she picked up a calendar and would have touched the cloth that covers the Holy Guru Granth Sahib.
As per an “Indian Express” report, the CCTV footage does not show the girl tearing the Holy Book. It is definitely an act of untouchability, which was blown out of proportion to suggest that the poor girl committed sacrilege. How different was this case from that of Aisa Bi or Shagufta who were still better, as they survived the mob? Of course, if they were not arrested, they would have been lynched.
Then there is the case of Bant Singh, a revolutionary balladeer whose hands were chopped off by feudal landlords and his daughter was violated by the criminals on January 7, 2006. Nobody knows where Bant Singh and his daughter are. How many political leaders and government officials have gone and spoken to them, providing them a healing touch?
Violence against Dalits in Punjab may not be the same as it happens elsewhere, such as Gujarat and Haryana, where social boycott has been the biggest weapon employed by the powerful thugs. But is that a consolation?

Hypocrisy of Samyukta Kisan Morcha

Can the Samyukta Kisan Morcha justify its stance by saying that both the Nihangs and Lakhbir Singh were “never associated” with them? How is it that none heard the cries of a man being brutally chopped off near a public space? Someone even mentioned that it was not a Dalit verses Sikh issue, as the killing was the doing of Nihangs. Some also tried to suggest that it was a Dalit verses Dalit issue.
The question is, what stopped farmer leaders from visiting Lakhbir’s home and providing his family financial aid? It is the fear and repercussion of the powerful community in the election year that is making the politicians stay away.
No doubt, India’s farmers have rightfully understood the dangers of capitalism, or in terms of India, the Gujarati crony domination on our vast agrarian sector; but unfortunately the farmers’ movement has not yet identified the priestly classes/castes that is a threat to India’s vast Bahujan masses – something that was brilliantly explained decades ago by Jyotiba Phule by identifying the threat as coming from the ‘Sethji-Bhatji’ combine. The priesthood in Punjab is extremely powerful. It dominates the powerful agrarian communities, whose religious value system has no space for Dalits.

Great Gurus’ fight against superstition

It is time our communities and their leaders understood that innocent people can’t be accused of blasphemy or sacrilege just because something happened mistakenly. Equally important it to note that those who are made villains of sacrilege have the right to question religious texts, whether one likes it or not.
Manu Smriti was burnt by activists at Mahad in 1927 in the presence of Baba Saheb Ambedkar, who termed it “the book of injustice”. Bertrand Russel wrote, “I am not a Christian.” Somebody else wrote, “Why I am not a Muslim.” Tasleema Nasreen felt Islam was a threat, while many activists and authors of the marginalised communities feel the same about Hinduism.
There is no doubt that Guru Granth Saheb is respected and revered. It is definitely different from other religious books, as it contains great texts from different religions and Sufi saints, irrespective of their caste and religion, which is its unique quality. Yet it is a fact that Punjab has caste system and Dalits are on the margins. For keeping the dominance of the elite, false cases are filed against Dalits and others in the name of sacrilege.
It is time Sikh intellectuals and political leaders get together and state that their Gurus had done much bigger service to humanity, and none of them would have done things barbarically, as happened to Lakhbir Singh or Bant Singh. 
Sikhism was a revolt against Brahmanism, but the caste system survived; it is a reality that the powerful caste lobby today dominates Sikhism. It is a violation of the principles of equality and fraternity as espoused by Guru Nanak Dev and other great Gurus. It is time to condemn these brutal acts unapologetically and seek justice for Lakhbir.
There is no bigger sacrilege than allowing the Brahmanical caste system among the Sikhs and killing people in the name of religion. The crisis is not of sacrilege but of those wanting to make their political fortune out of it, deviating from the path of the great Gurus who spoke against superstition, caste practices and untouchability.
Upper caste Sikhs know it well as to why the Ravidasis and Majahabis had to start their own Gurudwaras and temples if there was so much of love and affection everywhere in Punjab and elsewhere.
---
*Human rights defender. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat; twitter: @freetohumanity

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