Religion, Caste, and Communalism in Punjab India

Introduction & Background

Punjabi society is extremely structured, with caste and class distinctions. It is also the state having the biggest population of scheduled castes. Although UP has the largest proportion of the total SC population, Punjab has the highest proportion of Dalits, at 31.9%.


Punjab’s caste structure is considered to be quite weak in comparison to the rest of India. Its frail nature stems from two primary factors: first, the Punjab region has seen a lot of reforms, and second, the presence of Sikhism, a religion opposed to Brahmanical orthodoxy and caste system.


The institutions started by the Sikh Gurus, such as the Sangat(congregation) and Langar (community kitchen), where people irrespective of religion sit together and eat, broke various caste discrimination norms. But, there have been multiple instances in the past few decades against the Dalit Sikhs that people from their community are not allowed inside the Gurudwaras meant for high caste Sikhs.



Caste Hierarchy

  • Traditionally considered a low-caste group, the Jats entered into the fold of Sikhism during the time of Guru Arjun Dev Ji in great numbers and rose to the position of landowners. The Jats (30-35% of the state’s total population) constitute the single largest group in the state and the majority of the Sikh people. Due to various revolutions and transformations of leadership structure added to the political and economic status of the Jat Sikhs.

  • Then there are the urban trading castes, consisting of Khatris, Aroras and Baniyas, who control trade and industry in the state and are economically quite well off. 

  • Constituting 31.94% of the state’s total population and 39 sub-groups, the Scheduled Castes are the lowest in the society. Similar to other states, they reside in segregated houses in separate district localities –in the villages of Amritsar district, Dalit locality is called “Thathi”, whereas, in Jalandhar district, it is called “Chamarhli.”


Scheduled Castes in Punjab

The Dalits in Punjab are divided into two segments –

  • The first segment includes Dalits whose profession is scavenging and cleaning and are called Mazhabhis and Rangretas. They were Chuhras who converted to Sikhism.

  • The other segment of the Dalit Sikhs consisted primarily of the Chamars. The Ad-Dharmis are predominant among Chamars and are mainly leather workers.

  • Chamars, including Ramdasias and AdDharmis, and Mazhabis, including Chuhras and Balmikis, constitute nearly three-fourths of Punjab’s total scheduled caste population.


Keeping in mind that the government, under the prevention of the Atrocities Act, has said it is a crime to use the word Chamar on any person belonging to the Scheduled Caste as it is referred to as a derogatory term.

Schedule Caste’s population of the segments 

  • Mazhabis are the largest scheduled caste group, accounting for 31.6% of the overall scheduled caste population. 

  • Chamars are next, accounting for 26.2% of the Scheduled Caste’s total population. The Ad-Dharmis are the most numerous, accounting for 14.9% of the entire Chamar population.

  • Then Balmikis, accounting for 10.5% of the Scheduled caste population.

  • The remaining castes put together constitute less than one-third of the total SC population in the state. They are equally heterogeneous and can be further divided into two clusters of 17 SC castes of  Vimukta Jatis and “depressed castes,” and 18 SC castes, which can be termed peripheral/invisible castes.

  • The Dalit community now includes migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa, who arrived following the green revolution and have mainly settled down and gained voting rights.


Caste-based discrimination in Punjab

  • There are separate Gurudwaras for the Jat and Dalit communities in many rural and urban areas of Punjab. Caste-based discrimination is widespread in Punjab, despite Sikhism’s teachings of equality. Even today, there are many separate places of worship and cremation grounds for Dalit people in Punjab.

  • Even after their conversion to Sikhism, there has been no proportionate change in the social standing of Dalits, as caste injustices in the form of dominating cultural traditions still exist in Punjab. This phenomenon is linked to the establishment of a huge number of Deras or alternative spiritual sites for the downtrodden.

  • The two major SC clusters of Chuhra and Chamar castes are sharply divided regarding their affiliation to different sects and the benefits/disadvantages they draw from the reservation policy. Their divergent cultural and religious outlooks and highly differentiated educational and economic backgrounds pit them against each other. 

  • Ad-dharmis and Chamars are ahead of all the other SC castes. They are the main beneficiary of the reservation in education, government jobs and legislature. Some of them have established their stronghold over the leather business, surgical industry, and sports goods. Having excelled in business and multiple skilled labour professions, they have also established their separate caste identity. 

  • Compared with the Chamar caste cluster, the equally populous Chuhra caste cluster is highly backward in education, governmental employment and ventures abroad. It often blames the Chamar caste cluster for cornering a significant share in the reservation policy, causing its backwardness and neglect. Though this cluster is sharply divided internally between Balmiki (Hindu) and Mazhabi (Sikh)castes, it has forged a common front against the Chamar caste cluster. It has secured a special reservation within the reservation.

Rapid mobilisation, economic prosperity following the green revolution, and the religious reform movement among Sikhs in the 1920s contributed to the rise of a dominant Jat group, causing internal schisms within Sikh society. Furthermore, the advent of social, religious reform movements among Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians and independent political mobilisation of the scheduled castes in the form of the Ad-Dharm movement made people conscious of the significance of their numbers. Chamar cluster’s failure to get the support of the Chuhra cluster during the struggle of the Ad-dharm movement and the latter’s indifference towards the Talhan, Meham and Vienna skirmishes are a few instances of open division between them.



Punjab’s caste structure has been altered by numerous reforms and movements, and it is the state with the greatest scheduled caste population. Despite the fact that Sikhism is opposed to Brahmanical orthodoxy, some caste hierarchies and divides can still be seen. Even after the Sikh ideology, there have been incidents of numerous crimes and mishaps based on caste discrimination. This only goes to illustrate how widespread the problem of discrimination is in our country, regardless of faith or area.

Gurkirat Singh
Gauri Thakur