The Punjabi society is comparatively free from the caste biases which are otherwise so widely prevalent in the rest of India. A story 'Where people vote for charisma not caste' in the Indian Express of January 27, 2007 on the eve of Punjab elections reported Punjabi voters paying little attention to the castes of the candidates (1).This transformation can be traced back to Sikh Gurus who put down the caste distinctions in their teachings.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, refused to recognize the caste divisions which created such disparities in society. In one of his famous hymns he says:
Guru Nanak instituted Sangat, Pangat and Langar (mixed congregations and mixed community dining) so that people of all castes could sit and eat together and forget their high or low status. In this context, Dr. W.H. McLeod remarks “There can be little doubt that the institution (of Langar) was developed as a deliberate attack on caste distinctions.” 2. Guru Nanak started the tradition of addressing his followers as Bhai (brothers) as for example, Bhai Mardana, Bhai Lehna and later Bhai Gurdas.
The third Guru Amar Das was also quite vocal against the caste system. He declared:
The fourth Guru Ram Das exhorted his followers to forget caste and remember that the only true nobility is his holiness:
In Adi Granth, the fifth Guru, gave equal status to the hymns of the low caste Bhagats - Sadhna, a Muslim butcher, Kabir; a weaver; Ravidas, a chamar, and Sain, a barber - along with the hymns of Gurus and other Bhagats. Guru Ji got four doors built to Harimandar Sahib, a symbolic gesture to welcome people of all castes from all directions.
The sixth Guru Hargobind put the Khatris of his own high caste under the authority of the lower caste Jats. The Persian author of Dabistan-i-Mazahib visited Kiratpur in the forties of the 17th century and noted that, although the Gurus had been Khatris “they made the Khatris subservient to the Jats who are the lowest among Vaishyas. Thus most of the great masands of the Gurus are Jats.” 3
It was, however, Guru Gobind Singh who brought the campaign against caste distinction to a grand finale. On March 30, 1699 at Anandphur Sahib on Baisakhi day he founded a new order of the Khalsa brotherhood, for members who would abjure their castes and would be all equal as “children” of the Guru. The first five converts, the Panj Payares, were all from different castes. Except for one, Daya Sigh, who was a Khatri of high caste, other four were from lower castes. All five of them were made to drink Amrit from the one same bata (bowl). According to S.M. Latif Guru then admonished thus to the newly initiated Sikhs, "There must be no caste among you. And you all must all be equal, no man greater than the other...All must eat from the same table and drink from the same cup; caste must be forgotten. (4).
At Nander before his death the tenth Guru put an end to personal leadership and authorised Sangat to take decisions collectively in the presence of holy Guru Granth.
According to the Bhatt Vahi Talauda Pargana Jind and Bhat Vahi Bhadson, pargana Thanesar, the Guru passed on the spiritual Guruship to the Adi Granth and transferred the corporate Guruship to the Khalsa. (5). Guru merged his identity in the Sangat, and made it sovereign.
The new order of the Khalsa with its five distinctive symbols appealed immensely to the Punjabi peasantry who had inherited from their early stage an egalitarian social structure, to which both Hiuen Tsang and Chachanama bear testimony. Prof. Irfan Habib pertinently observes in this context “Sikhism which rejected in theory the earlier system of caste and whose Gurus in practice raised Jats to the highest positions without hesitation, could not fail but to win over and command the loyalty of large sections from amongst the Jats. 6
The egalitarian emphasis in the teaching of the Sikh Gurus considerably influenced the subsequent course of Sikh history. The institutions of Sangat, Pangat and Guru ka Langar had a levelling and democratising effect upon the followers of Sikh faith. In the Sarbat Khalsa assemblies in the 18th century, decisions were taken collectively. “The organising of Dal Khalsa and the republican nature of the Sikh Misals during the eighteenth century,” remarks Dr. Ganda Singh, “also had their birth in the Sangats.“ 7
A Sikh, however rich or powerful he may be, if violates Sikh traditions, is summoned at the Akal Takhat to explain his conduct and punished if necessary. In history such explanations have been sought from such powerful men as Ranjit Singh, sovereign of Punjab, Zail Singh, President of India, Surjit Singh Barnala, Chief Minister of Punjab and Buta Singh, Home Minister of India.
However, under Ranjit Singh and in the second half of the 19th century, Sikh society started to show signs of decay. Old Hindu practices began to creep into the Sikh society. To stem this tide, the Singh Sabha Movement came into being (1873). It reclaimed Sikhism from a state of ossification and inertia and inspired what Prof. Harbans Singh calls a “Sikh Renaissance” 8.
A study of the census reports from 1881 to 1921 shows that Sikh society regained the egalitarian appeal which it had lost. Between 1901 and 1911, the number of Sikhs had increased by 37% although the number of Hindus increased by only 15% and Muslims remained almost unaltered. The great beneficiaries of the Singh Sabha Movement were the Mazhabi and Ramdasia Sikhs. According to Marenco, 80% of the Mazhabi Sikhs in 1911 dropped their traditional menial pursuits, turned to agriculture, the army or labour in industry 9. Although the Jat Sikhs retained their numerical superiority (66%), by 1921, the Ramdasia Sikhs (5.9%) had become the second largest group among the Sikhs, and had superseded the Ramgarhia Sikhs ( 5% ) who were number two in 1881.
The Gurdwara Reform Movement of the early twenties continued the momentum and further strengthened the democratic and the egalitarian tendencies in Sikh society. Sikhs threw out the priests who discriminated against the so called untouchable Sikhs in the Gurdwaras.
The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) founded in 1920 to manage the historic Gurdwaras of Punjab is a democratic body in constitution. Now it has a house of 190 members, 170 of them are elected directly by the Sikh populace quinquennially. Every Sikh, rich or poor, irrespective of caste or status can vote in the elections. Similarly Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) founded in 1971 to manage the Sikh historic shrines in Delhi has 55 members, 46 are elected directly by popular vote every four years. Even in ordinary Gurdwaras, management is elected by the Sangat.
It is, however, not correct to claim that Sikh society is a completely casteless society. Sikhs still generally marry within their castes and use caste surnames. But the democratic practices and institutions initiated by the Sikh Gurus have played a great role in bringing about some transformation in Sikh society. Khatri, Jat, Ramgarhia, and Ahluwalia castes are now more or less equal in status in the Sikh hierarchy and inter caste marriages among them are taking place. The most outstanding figure of the Gurdwara Reform Movement, Kharak Singh, was an Ahluwalia Sikh. Giani Zail Singh, a Ramgariah Sikh, rose to be the President of India. The Mazhabi and the Ramdasia Sikhs have also shown a noticeable upward mobility in their status. Buta Singh, a former Home Minister of India, is from the scheduled castes.
Thus the message of the tenth Guru on Baisakhi day in 1699 has exercised a profound influence on the whole subsequent evolution of Sikh society.