In most caste conflicts that have riven North India in the past decade, the 15th century Bhakti saint Ravidas emerges as a recurrent theme. Indeed, the violence in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, reportedly erupted when the Thakurs stopped the Dalits from installing a statue of BR Ambedkar in a Ravidas temple. In neighbouring Punjab, upper caste communities regularly clash with Sant Ravidas’ lower caste followers.

The oppression of Dalits in India has a long history, but the sustained backlash against it is a recent phenomenon. And at the vanguard of the uprising are Ravidassia, the followers of Ravidas.

For long, Ravidas was overshadowed by his contemporaries such as Guru Nanak, Kabir and Valmiki, and that could well be the reason we hear of him so much today. For the silences of history have a tendency to erupt as shrill contemporary meta-narratives.

Ravidas' statue in the sanctum sanctorum of Guru Ravidas Janam Sthan Mandir in Varanasi.

Spiritual legacy

Ravidas (1450-1520) was born in Varanasi. His family were leather tanners, considered lowly and polluting in the rigid Hindu caste hierarchy. A man of formidable intellect, he preached “inclusive coexistence”, based on a casteless and classless society, and won over admirers from all strata of the society. Mirabai became a disciple.

He advocated the ideal of “Begampura”, literally a city without sorrow, where everyone would live without any discrimination. His critique of the Hindu caste system and ritualism was unique: for one, unlike Kabir, who was quite combative in his formulation, Ravidas was not irreverent to those who did not follow him. It was this spirit of forgiveness, combined with the depth of his philosophy, which endeared him to the people.

Ravidas never left his family’s profession even though it was looked down upon, contending that keerat, or work, brought a man closer to Hari, the God almighty. When Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, was compiled, 40 of his verses were included in it, an ode to the ethos of syncretism and religious cohabitation he had helped foster.

A painting of Ravidas and Mirabai on the wall of Guru Ravidas Janam Sthan Mandir in Varanasi. Photo credit: Santosh Kumar Singh

Splintered solidarity

Gradually, though, this spirit of syncretism gave way to the rigidity of religious boundaries and dogmatism. Over the last century in particular, South Asia has come to produce a compartmentalised sense of sacred geography. Caste remains integral to the Hindu society and the alternative traditions that emerged from the protest against it now exhibit similar hierarchical tendencies, in practice if not theory. A large section of the erstwhile lower caste communities that migrated to these spaces feel betrayed. Punjab is a classic example.

Here, stigmatising communities as “lowly” and “polluting” continued despite a vibrant egalitarian culture propagated by Sikhism. Several communities, which had migrated to theoretically non-caste sacred spaces to escape centuries of discrimination and inequality, began experiencing alienation. This prompted a long-drawn process of mobilisation towards autonomy, away from the syncretic and shared social ecology. The mushrooming of Deras – places of worship often identified with an individual guru – and Dalit gurdwaras and cremation grounds in rural Punjab are a consequence of this separation.

Of the communities that went their separate ways, the one traditionally engaged in leather work, and variously referred to as chamar, mochi or charmkaar, emerged as a formidable force economically. Perhaps to foster a sense of unity and solidarity, they started identifying themselves as Ravidassia. The movement for an independent Ravidassia religious identity is now being led by Dera Sachkhand Ballan in Jalandhar. The Dera, among other activities, is “developing” the birthplace of Ravidas in Seer Govardhanpur, Varanasi. Modest Ravidas temples have become a common sight in northern India.

Dera Sachkhand Ballan in Jalandhar, Punjab. Photo credit: Santosh Kumar Singh

Continued association with their traditional occupation has helped Ravidassia withstand the collapse of the agrarian economy, unlike other Dalit groups, and even shielded them from the adversities of urban life. In cities and towns, they are ubiquitous, sitting under trees, on the pavements and in small shops, tending to leather work of all kinds. All these establishments have a common fixture: a portrait of Ravidas. These sweat-drenched leather workers may be from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana or Rajasthan but they are all united by Ravidas.

A Ravidassia at work on a pavement in Rohini, Delhi. A framed portrait of Ravidas hangs on the tree behind him. Photo credit: Santosh Kumar Singh

While Ravidassia in Punjab are economically strong, Ravidassia in Uttar Pradesh, such as the Jatav community, are politically consolidated. The rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh and its ascendance to power under Mayawati provided the necessary cultural glue for political unity. In Punjab, such a political force to mobilise the Scheduled Castes, which comprise nearly 30% of the population, has not emerged.

In both Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, though, Ravidassia have sought to fuse the legacies of Ravidas and Ambedkar in a singular socio-political identity for the community, away from mainstream Hinduism and Sikhism. While Ravidas represents a sense of spiritual autonomy and solidarity, Ambedkar brings to the community modern, pragmatic moral and political visions.

No wonder then Ambedkar is near integral to Dera Ballan’s religious iconography. His portraits figure prominently and often ahead of Baba Pipal Das, who founded the Dera in early 20th century. Calendars and booklets sold on the occasion of Ravidas Jayanti in Varanasi even portray Ambedkar as an incarnation of Ravidas. It is thus that the community has harnessed myth and history to create a symphony of resistance against an oppressive socio-political order.

Ravidassia have sought to combine the legacies of Ravidas and Ambedkar in a singular socio-political identity for the community. Photo credit: Santosh Kumar Singh

Muscular identity

But history is witness that any consolidation of subaltern, especially if it leads to articulation of an alternative discourse in public space, invariably invites backlash from the dominant groups entrenched in power. To defend themselves, the subaltern often go beyond the purview of the law: the rise of militias is a case in point. Punjab has Begampura Tiger Force, Ravidas Sena and Ambedkar Sena, while Uttar Pradesh has seen the emergence of the Bhim Army, led by Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan. They are basically youth outfits claiming to work for the interests and pride of the community. In Punjab, for example, when the attacks by upper caste Jats on Dalit singers valorising Ravidas became frequent, the Begampura Tiger Force started to provide protection to the singers. Gradually, the force’s volunteers earned a reputation as defenders of the community’s pride.

Bhim Army leader Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan is “Danger Chamar”.

The rise of the Ravidassia identity has a flip side: it is perceived to have attempted to foist a particular identity on other lower castes such as the Valmiki and the Kabirpanthi, thereby jeopardising the dream of a pan-Indian Dalit political formation.

Still, such movements have shaped a new generation of promising leaders like Ravan and Jignesh Mevani of Gujarat. In the words of Punjab’s pop singing sensation Ginni Mahi, Ravan is “Danger Chamar”: an educated man – a lawyer like his hero Ambedkar – who can articulate and visiblise the oppression of his community and, thus, unmask the oppressor.

Santosh Kumar Singh is associate professor of Sociology at Ambedkar University, Delhi.