Village India is no longer a place one can plan one’s future in. Regardless of which class one comes from, there is a universal distaste for village life and an aspiration for things urban. To a large extent this is a function of small landholdings and a tapering off of the promises of the Green Revolution. Owner-cultivators groan under the weight of inadequate returns on their meagre investments. Terms of trade have been going steadily against agriculture in spite of state subsidies — which incidentally are one of the lowest in the world. Urban incomes today are two times higher than rural earnings in India. Non-landholding classes have few jobs in the villages because 85 per cent of landholdings are below five acres and are therefore essentially worked upon by family labour.
It is because of this dismal agrarian scene that the non-agricultural sector is so alluring to Indian villagers today. Even as late as the early Eighties, owner cultivating communities like the Jats and Gujars were proud of their status as agriculturists. Today the scene has changed quite substantially. They want to be in the urban world doing whatever it takes to get there — even jobs that they would never consider performing in villages.
Given this structure of landholdings, the landless have no option but to look beyond the village. The fact that urban options exist is useful, but the transition is still far from being painless. Of all those who have left, or want to leave, the village, it is the poor who are the most eager to sever their rural roots. Of the poor, the Dalits, and of the Dalits, it was the most forward, or the better endowed, that embrace non-agricultural occupations most fervently. In Maharashtra it is the Mahars, in Uttar Pradesh it is the Dalits and the Jatavs, in Punjab it is the Adi-Dharmis.
In each case, it is not the poorest and the most depressed of the Dalits, but that category among them that is better educated and better connected than the rest, which most determinedly strides out of the rural agararian nexus. What we see in such cases are instances of “step mobility”, where the upward trajectory depends on being a little better off than the worst. It is by virtue of being just that critical bit ahead that the better-off members of the Dalit community have the ability to flout the village and its dominant mores.
In Maharashtra, Mangs and Matangs are far less aggressive than Mahars in leaving their rural confines. The Mahars not only take on the Marathas in politics, but they have also established a strong marker of difference from the dominant Hindu community by embracing Buddhism. In Punjab, Adi-Dharmis have symbolically rejected the Sikh gurdwara and, perhaps, Sikhism itself. Adi Dharmis would prefer to say that they are not against the Guru Granth Sahib, but against mainstream Sikhism in rural Punjab, because it is oriented around the dominant Jat Sikh community.
Adi-Dharmis signal their defiance in a number of ways. For instance, they insist on a portrait, or engraving, of Sant Ravidas in their temples. They still have the long pole with a flag (the Nishan Sahib) at the entrance of their temples, as in all gurdwaras. But the services inside are different, and the centrality of Sant Ravidas is a significant departure from what happens in mainstream Sikh places of worship.
It needs to be stated, that much like mainstream Hinduism that does not reject Buddhism but embodies some of its precepts, Sikh scriptures, particularly the Granth Sahib, have several references to Sant Ravidas. Therefore, like the neo-Buddhist Mahars, Adi-Dharmis too have developed and enlarged an aspect of their received tradition but positioned it angularly against the orthodoxy. Just as neo-Buddhism offends Hindu sectarians, but not old Buddhism, likewise, Adi-Dharmis’ adoration of Sant Ravidas prompts many Sikhs to hit out against them and call them adharmis (non-religious), though Ravidas is an important personage in the Granth Sahib.
The Adi Dharmis have, in the main, given up the Five Ks of Sikhism (including unshorn hair). All this has happened very recently. Even a generation back their parents wore a Khalsa visage. This symbolic defiance of Sikh orthodoxy is in response to the way they perceive the Jat Sikhs in rural Punjab humiliating them and refusing to treat them as equals. While Sikhism does not impose caste disabilities like Hindus do, yet in practice, there is a clear recognition of hierarchy amongst them. In rural Punjab, Jat Sikhs are the principal landholders and they treat the ex-untouchables with contempt.
The Adi-Dharmis may be more vocal now, but they have always resented the way Jats denigrated them, particularly in rural Punjab. The term chuhra-chamar (scavenger and tanner castes, generically) is freely employed by Jats to refer to those who are not worthy of respect. It is so current that it has become a term of near abuse and need not refer to caste categories as such. Anybody who is despicable is likened to a chuhra-chamar — the chuhra being the more offensive of the combine.
Yet, it is the ex-chamars (now Adi-Dharmis) who have revolted against Jat Sikh domination in rural Punjab, and not the Mazhabis (ex-scavengers or chuhras). The Mazhabis have taken to being agricultural labourers as Adi-Dharmis generally disdain to work in that capacity any longer. They would rather be employed as coolies, rickshaw pullers, and perform other kinds of strenuous activity, but not earn their living by labouring on a Jat’s farm.
This is not very different from the way the Dalits in Uttar Pradesh and the Mahars of Maharashtra look at their traditional occupations. As Dalits in UP no longer want to work as agrestic labour, those who now call themselves Valmikis (ex-scavenger caste) have taken their place in the villages. It is another matter that there is not enough work in the agricultural sector any longer, but it is the Valmikis in UP or the Mazhabis in Punjab who are usually employed in the fields.
Unlike the Adi-Dharmis, who have taken off their turbans, the Mazhabis, whom the orthodoxy places at an even lower level, observe the Khalsa visage. They observe the five Ks, and have so far not shown any signs of giving up on this practice. They often have separate gurdwaras of their own in the villages, as they too have long felt the hurt of being treated contemptuously by Jat Sikhs. While Adi-Dharmis took the fight to the Jat community, Mazhabis are still within the fold of Sikhism. They often pay obeisance in mainstream Sikh temples. They would even go to the other, more lavishly appointed gurdwara in the village besides their own.
Adi-Dharmis might visit prominent gurdwaras, such as the ones in Amritsar or Anandpur Sahib, but would not enter the prosperous ones controlled by Jat Sikhs in the villages. Their animosity runs that deep, and this anger is directed very clearly at those who, they believe, humiliate them at the local, everyday level.
While Adi-Dharmis tend to steer clear of any passionate involvement with Sikhism, Mazhabis feel very differently. As a Mazhabi told me recently: “We did all the hard work, we sacrificed our lives for Sikhism, and now other people (meaning the Jats) have usurped our religion and made us appear inferior.” Even so, they are not yet ready to defy mainstream Sikhism, or employ any symbol of defiance as the Adi-Dharmis have. They are unhappy with the way Jat Sikhs treat them in the fields and even in the temples, but, as of now, they are willing to swallow that humiliation.
Why is it that Adi-Dharmis in Punjab, Dalits in UP and Mahars in Maharashtra are symbolically defying orthodoxy, while those Dalits who are traditionally ranked below them, have not yet been as oppositional in their stance' Obviously, the ability to defy depends on the ease with which one can avail of alternative job opportunities that are non-agrarian in character. Dalits, Mahars and Adi-Dharmis are better educated than those Dalits ranked below them, have been more successful in availing of government jobs, and, therefore, have better networks outside the agrarian sector. It is this combination that gives them the courage and the energy to symbolically defy the dominant orthodoxies in their respective regions.
Politically too, this category of Dalits has established new oppositional fronts. The Bahujan Samaj Party in UP depends largely on Dalit support; the Dalit Panthers of Maharashtra are almost all Mahars; and the Adi-Dharmis refuse to bow down to the Jat controlled Akali Dal party in Punjab. Upward mobility is, therefore, not just a question of wanting to leave the village, or of the opportunities presented by the policy of reservation. It needs a certain degree of economic viability and confidence to embark on the upward trajectory. Once this course is fairly set, symbols of defiance make their presence felt and alternative ideologies, even religions, come into view. In other words, social mobility is of a ratchet kind. It does not happen uniformly, but step by step.