PATNA - It is a centuries-old ignominy they wanted to escape by converting to Sikhism in Punjab and found new respect there. But back home in Bihar, the tag of Dalit refuses to leave them.
Many Dalit labourers who migrated to Punjab for work years ago and converted to Sikhism during their stay there are upset that they are still being categorised as Scheduled Caste in government records after they returned to their native villages in Bihar.
Sanjay Singh, who converted to Sikhism during his years-long stay in Punjab and sports a colourful turban and a long beard, says local and district administration officials in Bihar are not ready to accept him as a Sikh. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, preached against discrimination and prejudices on the basis of caste, class and status.
“The government officials are still treating us as Rishideo of the Musahar caste (the poorest Dalit community known as rat eaters), not as Sikhs, despite our efforts to convince them,” Singh told IANS, adding that he was yet to be termed a Sikh in the government records despite repeated requests.
Singh said that about two decades ago his close relative Naren Rishideo left for Punjab to earn a livelihood and converted to the Sikh religion, becoming Naren Singh. His example was followed by most of those of his caste men working there.
“We tasted dignity, respect and equality after we converted. Before that, we were treated as low caste, sometimes even inferior to animals, by the upper caste and backward caste people in the village,” Sanjay Singh said.
He said most of the women members of their families have now started using the Kaur surname.
Rup Singh and Manish Singh, who also converted to Sikhism, are no longer keen to be known as Rishideos and want that they should be treated as Sikhs in government records.
“We changed our religion to get rid of the stigma of untouchablity and to live a life with pride. We were happy to return to our village. Local people, barring a few, accepted us as Sikh, but in the government records and caste certificates we have the same old Dalit tag,” Rup Singh told IANS.
Soon after they returned to their village Halhalia in Araria district, nearly 400 km from Patna, they were shocked to learn that despite the change of religion they would have to fight another battle to upgrade their social status in official records.
“All the Dalits who converted to the Sikh religion are still Dalits in the caste certificate and we are being denied the status of the Sikhs,” Rup Singh said.
Manish Singh, another convert, says that they are no longer Dalits after embracing the Sikh religion and they should instead be treated as minorities as Sikhs are a minority community in the country.
A large number of migrant labourers from Bihar who converted to Sikhism in Punjab and stayed back there hardly face any identity problem, but the converts who returned to their native villages in Bihar are facing a different discrimination, Manish Singh said.
Araria district magistrate Anjani Kumar Verma, when asked about the problem, told IANS over telephone that he was not aware of the matter.
“So far no such complaint has come to my notice. If there is anything like it, the district administration will do justice with them,” Verma said.
Over 200 Dalit villagers of half a dozen villages including Kamta Balia, Gurumuhi, and Parmanpur under the Khwaspur panchayat (village council) have already converted to Sikhism. They have set up a gurdwara with support of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), while some Sikhs from New Delhi are helping them to maintain it.
(Imran Khan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)