Recently I was watching news related to developments in Punjab. Suddenly I was intrigued by the new lexicon used by some media houses to describe Sikh social stratification. The new buzzword was “Dalit-Sikh”. This baffled me because according to tenants of the Sikh gurus, whom most of us in India follow as revered gurus, do not preach and practice the caste system or any other social inequality. Interestingly, the very basis of the founding of Sikhism was social equality, egalitarianism and also non-discrimination. So who is a Dalit-Sikh? What is the meaning of this word? Dalit-Sikh is academically a misnomer since Sikhism does not believe in castes.
Sikhs are spread all over the world and constitute the most equal and valiant community. The Punjab is the only Sikh majority state in India. In recent years, especially the past decade, Sikhism has faced the most severe crisis since its inception. Sikhi, which means equality and Khalsa (purity), is in danger. There are two types of threats: from inside and outside. These two threats are interconnected and emanate from the erosion of the values for which Sikhism was created and defended. If we analyze the threat from the outside, it will give us a clear understanding of the threat from within which gives rise to a threat from the outside.
The biggest challenge from outside is the conversion to Christianity of many Sikh believers in the Punjab. According to the 2011 census, Sikhism is practiced by 16 million people representing 57.69% of the population of Punjab. Among the Punjab districts, Tarn Taran has the highest percentage of Sikh population, 93.33%, followed by Moga (82.24%) and Baranala (78.54%). According to the 2001 census, Sikhs made up 59.9% of the population of Punjab while Christians made up only 1.2%. In 2011, there had been a significant drop in the Sikh population to 57.69% while the ratio of those who followed Christianity increased to 1.26%.
As I delved into the data and facts, I was shocked by the recent change in the demographic and religious profile of the Punjab with a skyrocketing increase in the number of Christians in the state. The main targets of Christian missionaries are lower class Sikhs and Dalit Sikhs. Tracing the history of Christianity in the Punjab, many contemporary historians are of the opinion that Christian missionaries failed to convert many in the Punjab from the 18th to the 20th century, as the Punjab was slow to enter into the framework of the British Empire to facilitate this act. Moreover, egalitarian ethics was the cardinal virtue of Sikhism, which was not only preached but also practiced. The Christian community in Punjab was mostly made up of converts from the Hindu community until two decades ago.
But of late, there is a noticeable new undercurrent which is a massive wave of massive conversion of the lower Sikh strata, especially in the rural mainland, to Christianity. Thousands of people have embraced the new faith of Christianity by abandoning their old age religion, Sikhism. So much so that the demography of this border state is changing rapidly.
The first and main reason for this massive and probably irreversible conversion is the inequalities linked to the castes practiced within Sikhism. Sikh gurus spoke of a caste-free society where everyone is treated equally and ordered no caste discrimination, which is evident from the tradition of Langar (community cuisine) and Gurudwara being open to all. The four gates of the pious Harmandir Sahib signify and symbolize the philosophy that it is open to the four castes.
But the reality is far from it. In practice, upper caste Sikhs do not mix with lower castes such as Ramdasias and Ravidasias. There is no inter-caste meal or marriage. There is a sense of social superiority in groups at the top of the social ladder. There are Gurudwara and separate cremation places for these social castes in all urban and rural areas of Punjab. Today’s Sikh community leaders, social influencers and religious preachers have failed to promote and nurture a society as envisioned by the gurus. As this caste-based discrimination continues to prevail, Sikh intellectuals and leaders are busy realizing their political and material ambitions.
Another reason for the disillusionment of lower caste Sikhs is the lack of a religious or social way by which the alienation of these people can be addressed. They are lower in the economic and class hierarchy. They belong mainly to the working class and no sustained effort has been made by religious institutions or by successive governments to improve their lot. Even though a few of them leap through the ranks of the class, they still do not find the social acceptance of upper caste Sikhs. Thus, they easily lend themselves to the conversion traps spread by missionaries.
The other main reason for the alarming conversion of Sikhs in the Punjab is a marked decline in the level and reputation of Sikh religious and social institutions. This was to be headed by the Shromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC) which is said to be the highest temporal authority for Sikhs. Over the years it has lost its religious appeal due to its political overtones and alignment with political groups and its excess of politics. It is now seen more as a political body than a religious one. The SGPC also lost its interest in the dissemination of religious principles and turned to areas other than its main areas. From the total budget of the SGPC, it practically does not spend a significant amount on the propagation of ideas of Sikh religious and spiritual food, which is its main function. The other reason is the misconception that has crept into the minds of Sikh intellectuals and Sikh followers that the Hindu religion, and not conversion, will pose a threat to the existence of Sikhism. The recent SGPC resolution regarding the Hindu religion highlights this undercurrent. On the contrary, Hindus and Sikhs have a common threat. So instead of nailing down the main reason, they deflect attention by using that reason as an alibi.
The other reason for these alarming conversions is the zeal of Christian missionaries. They are ready to do anything to deploy their tentacles. Christian missionaries made full use of these fault lines within Sikhism by offering social respect and financial incentives to the target audience. They use all tactics such as spreading a lie, disinformation or disinformation and even giving incentives of various kinds including financial.
One of the ways they attract innocent but insane people is by promising them a visa to Canada, England or the United States upon conversion. They trick illiterate and disabled people into being baptized by convincing them that God will take away their pain and suffering. The other way is to give them incentives such as free medical help in hospitals run by Christian missions, free education, healing of chronic illnesses, and other financial benefits.
People are leaving their religion of birth in favor of a foreign faith. To dispel the belief that Christianity is no stranger, these missionaries seduce people by presenting a story that Christian missionaries are no strangers to the culture rather that they are an integral part of Punjabi culture and are similar to Sikhism. . Churches are sprouting in every nook and cranny of the state, in rural and urban areas. They are modeled after the form of the Gurudwaras, the Christian Hymns are sung in the form of “Kirtan” (musical recitation of Saint Guru Granth Sahib). Missionaries point out the flaws within Sikhism and claim that their own religion is more acceptable. So much so, at a meeting of the Punjab pastors associations at Circuit House in Ludhiana on November 21, 2019, it was decided that a supreme body Shiromani Church Parbandhak Committee (SCPC) would be formed for the betterment of Christians of the State.
The Sikhs of Punjab have a new war at their doorstep – one of the toughest in their history of valiant fighting. It is the most serious crisis ever encountered by Sikhism. Sikh religious leaders should recognize and accept this and strive to combat it.
The author is a freelance columnist and commentator. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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