Ujjal Dosanjh’s latest novel, The Past is Never Dead, sheds light on the stranglehold of caste on Punjabi Sikh immigrants in the UK – a unique perspective of caste violence in a faith outside of Hinduism, one that was born out of the noble teaching that every human is equal in the eyes of god. Dosanjh makes it his project to challenge this idea about Sikhism, as he writes about a poor family that migrates to England soon after India’s independence in the hope of escaping the indignities of caste back home – only to be confronted by it again, and in the most horrifying ways possible, in a cold, foreign land, where caste is supposed to be an insignificant marker of identity.

In a conversation with Scroll, Dosanjh talked about his novel and characters, the failure of Indian society to relinquish caste, and why even the oppressed have prejudices of their own. Excerpts from the conversation:

In The Past is Never Dead, casteism does not lurk in the background, it makes its presence felt palpably, and I’d even go so far as to say that it is the most important character in the story. But in the end, it is a story. How difficult is it to strike the perfect balance between fact and fiction when it comes to a topic as sensitive as caste?
Yes, in fact, caste is the co-protagonist that accompanies the protagonist Kahlu as the latter navigates the contours of his life smeared by it. As for the difficulty in striking a balance between fact and fiction, it is as sensitive and complex as caste demands it should be. The truth is, caste is more complicated than fiction can be, and yet fiction helps in achieving the balance you ask about.

This was the first time I read about casteism in Sikhism. In what ways would you say caste plays out differently among Sikhs as compared to Hindus?
Not very differently, though it was not supposed to be that way. I remember the untouchables not being allowed into Sikh temples just as in the Hindu ones, except the distance at which they had to sit and maintain from the sanctum was smaller in Sikh gurdwaras. While the lower castes sat at a distance unbridgeable by human arms, in the sanctum sanctorum the granthi recited verses about human beings equal and children of the same god. Even today there’s no dearth of separate temples for Ravidasia Sikhs or Balmiki Sikhs, who were pushed away and spurned by other Sikhs.

Effectively, there is perhaps only a small or no difference at all between the Hindus’ and Sikhs’ attitudes toward the so-called lower castes including the so-called untouchables. Because Sikhism was born out of the religious tensions and superstitions of the 15th century and its desire to end the influence of caste, the Sikh reality is doubly saddening.

“As a Ravidasia Sikh, he wore a turban and had a Sikh name, but none of it could erase his birth as a Chamar.” Despite Sikhism’s lessons on equality, why do you think Sikhs (and Punjabis at large) have held on to the caste system?
The same reasons that Indian Muslims, Christians and Jains have continued to suffer castes’ indignities in its deathly strangulation. The ancestors of most if not all of the adherents of these religions, including Sikhism, were at one time Hindus; it is the hold Hinduism still has on them that perpetuates caste.

It was also interesting to see how Banti, despite being a lower-caste woman herself, has her own prejudices against other lower castes and Blacks. I suppose considering herself superior in this matter helped her hold on to her pride when she has little to call her own. Would you say this is true for her?
Absolutely. Humans always seek spiritual and social refuge and often find it in the familiar. They also feel the need to “own” a space to consider themselves equal, if not superior to the other, in it. Banti feels at home in her space and it is convenient that even though she is oppressed by society at large and spurned by the so-called upper castes, she falls victim to prejudices against Blacks and castes lower than hers.

“Bibi didn’t sleep with the Jat rapists or some Chuhra and she didn’t allow herself to be raped. That does happen in Banjhan,” defending her extra marital liaisons in Udho’s absence, Kahla says about his mother, Banti. And later his wife has to go through unimaginable cruelty for her decision to marry beneath her caste. In a twisted way, a lower-caste woman has greater freedom of choice when you’d expect the converse to be true. Can you tell me briefly about how you conceived the stories of the women…after all, they are the worst-affected victims of casteism.
I grew up in a village in Punjab where, before I migrated to Britain, a certain caste pride was beginning to take hold amongst the so-called lower castes. Kahlu defending his mother for fulfilling her sexual needs in Udho’s absence summons this budding caste pride to blunt Udho’s anger at Banti’s indiscretions. That pride helped me etch Banti onto the pages of The Past Is Not Dead; and in a way, the same defiance – to challenge caste hierarchies, helped shape Kahlu’s wife Simran’s character.

Ujjal Dosanjh at the launch of his book, 'The Past is Never Dead'. | Image credits: Speaking Tiger on Instagram.

“Even in the Labour Party, I’m a mere Chamar. An Indian, to be sure, but a Chamar first.” You have had a long career as a politician. Have things improved for lower caste Indians in Western politics and did you ever have to face casteism in the Parliament?
Things have improved a lot for people of colour in the so-called White countries. In Kahla’s case, the Whites didn’t advance, even though they may have accepted the caste argument. The other Indians, then in the majority in the diaspora, used caste to advance their own goal of securing nomination for an Indian, but someone who was not like Kahla.

At one point in the story, Kahla’s son Angad blames “India” for the fate of his mother. The moment comes as a shock though in no way would I say it’s an exaggeration. In another instance, a Brahmin in the UK still actively practices caste for he considers it to be “God’s Law”. And in yet another instance, Kahla says only the privileged can afford to be proud of “Indian traditions”. There is no way out of the menace of caste, is there?
So far there seems to be nothing other than a bare-knuckle nonviolent fight against caste. Even conversion to other faiths, flight to other countries, or professing atheism might not help fight the demon of caste.

I think Kahla shaving his hair – including his eyebrows and moustache – was a brave thing to do as a Sikh. It highlights the larger point that sporting religious symbols is meaningless if we are devoid of innate goodness. What is your personal take on organised faith?
Kahla’s hair was shaved by his caste-hate-obsessed kidnappers as revenge for what they considered his uppitiness in describing a Jat’s daughter as mini bell unsuited to be married to his Jat friend. Eventually, he discards his hair; the act acknowledges the impotence of religion and religious symbols in the struggle for equality and against caste.

The Past is Not Dead is not an easy read. It must have been very emotionally challenging to write too. Did you ever feel overwhelmed – or let’s say, feel the toll of the issues that you were writing about?
It was emotionally quite exacting to write The Past Is Never Dead. The toll of the issues I wrote about has been a lifelong companion. Age has rendered me shameless enough for me to confess that I often cried as I wrote many parts of the novel.

As a vocal critique of all kinds of violence and extremism, would you say we learn from the past, or do we hide under its cover to keep committing atrocities under the garb of tradition and culture?
The human incapacity to learn from the past astounds me. It aids us in veiling the past from ourselves and abets our continuing cruelty in the name of dumb tradition and comatose culture.