The beginning of the 20th century witnessed a series of political developments which inter alia led to the formation of Adi movements in different parts of colonial India. The main objective of these movements, of which the Ad Dharm movement was one, was to liberate the so-called untouchables so they could lead a life of dignity and equality with the twice-born.
Although the abolition of untouchability was also on the agenda of the protagonists of the social reform movements, they wanted to achieve it without changing the basic structure of the caste system. Operating within the ambit of the nationalist struggle, they could not devote themselves totally to the removal of untouchability. Since the immediate goal of the nationalist movement was to liberate the country form British imperialism, the ultimate result was that neither the Nehruvian secularism nor Gandhian “Ramraj” could provide an Indian identity that was liberatory for the dalit and low castes..’.
The most virulent opposition to the caste system emanated from the lower-caste movements for whom the immediate important issue was caste domination, not Western hegemony, social emancipation or political autonomy. The struggle against imperialism and other such issues were of secondary importance. The main exponents of these movements were, among others, Jyotiba Phule, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, Narayanaswami Guru in Kerala, Achutananda in U P and Mangu Ram in Punjab.
The present article is confined to the Ad Dharm movement in Punjab. It aims to explore, first, the social and political configurations in colonial Punjab during the 1920s which led to the rise of this movement; and second, to document the present status of the movement in Punjab. What were the circumstances in which the Ad Dharm movement originated in 1926, and what accounted for its so-called demise in 1946? Who were its protagonists? What objectives did they seek to achieve, and were the tactics and strategies they adopted suitable for the realisation of these objectives? Did these objectives sharpen the struggle against social oppression or lead to the blunting of the struggle? Whom did the Ad Dharm consider its sympathisers, and whom its adversaries? What status did these sympathisers and adversaries hold in the socio-economic and politico-administrative setting of Indian society? What is the present status of the Ad Dharm movements? What are its goals and objectives, and how is it intended to realise them?
Ad Dharm: Socio-political Settings : The Ad Dharm movement was born in volatile social and political circumstances in the early 20th century and, while similar socio-political situations pertained throughout the country, the presence of various communal organisations in Punjab (Arya Samaj, Christian Church, Sikh Khalsa Diwan, the Ahmaddiya movement) makes the case of the latter a peculiar one. It was precisely during this period of socio-political uncertainties that the British government passed the Land Alienation Act of 1900 and The Government of India Act of 1919. These Acts provided further impetus to the ongoing competition between the various communal organisations. Although the Land Alienation Act of 1900 was aimed at preventing the transfer of land from the hands of agriculturist castes into the non-agricultural money-lending castes, it also debarred many castes from owning land.
Untouchables who were already deprived of land according to the Hindu varna-vyavastha system were now legally debarred from land ownership. The system of separate electorates introduced in 1909 and 1919 further exacerbated communal and separatist politics, with serous implications in the province of Punjab where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had their respective political organisations pursuing their vested interests. Since Scheduled castes did not have their own organisation to articulate and defend their interests, they became the centre of attention of all the communal organisations, each of whom was trying to woo them to secure an edge over the others in terms of numbers. This was, perhaps, the first time in the history of Punjab that the Scheduled Caste presence was recognised in the calculation and formulation of social and political forces. The provision for separate electorates also raised the expectations that they might become an independent force rather than be used by the Arya Samaj, Congress or Akalis, as pawns on the chessboard of electoral politics.
Moreover, the adoption of a resolution for the removal of untouchability by the Indian National Congress in 1917 provided further impetus to the Scheduled Castes in their efforts to seek a respected place in society, as did California-based Ghadar Movement and the Babbar Akali Movement, both revolutionary and militant in comparison to the non-violent and passive postures of the Indian National Congress and Arya Samaj.
Interestingly, the Ad Dharm movement, particularly some of its key protagonists, had had close affiliations with the Arya Samaj before they became active in the movement. As Juergensmeyer remarks: The Arya Samaj had provided young untouchables with ideas of social equality not only by allowing them to attend its schools but also by creating service organisations such as the Dayanand Dalit Udhar at Hoshiarpur and Achhut Udhar at Lahore.
The trio that initially conceived the idea of the Ad Dharm movement consisted of Vasant Rai, Thakur Chand and Swami Shudranand, all of them also active as either pracharaks (preachers) or upadeshaks (missionaries) in the Arya Samaj movement. Vasant Rai had been a teacher with the Arya Samaj, and subsequently with the Samaj’s orthodox Hindu opposition, the Sanatan Dharm. Swami Shudranand was a missionary of the Samaj, and Takur Chand, though a Dalit like Vasant Rai and Shudranand, was called pandit because of his association with the Arya Samaj. Even after their absorption into the newly-formed Ad Dharm movement, the Arya Samaj offered them important roles in the movement to lure them back.
Mangu Ram and Ad Dharm : Mangu Ram literally took the movement to the doorsteps of the untouchables in the Doaba region and soon emerged as a cult figure of the Dalits in Punjab. He was born at Mugowali, a village in the district of Hoshiarpur, on 14th January 1886. Though his forefathers were chamars, his father, Harnam Dass, had abandoned the traditional caste-based occupation of tanning and preparing hides, and taken to trading in tanned leather. Since the leather trade required knowledge of English to read the sale orders, he was eager that Mangu Ram receive an education which would free him from the beggar (forced labour) which he had to do in lieu of English orders read for him by the upper-caste literates. Initially, Mangu Ram was taught by village sadhu (Saint). Then, after studying at different schools, he joined a high school at Bhajwara, a town a few miles away from his home. Being a chamar, he had to sit separately from the other upper-caste students, outside the classroom on a gunny bag brought from his home. In 1905 Mangu Ram left the high school to help his father in the leather trade, which developed into a thriving business. However, in 1909 he followed the footsteps of his peer group in the Doaba region and left for America. Interestingly, even in America, Mangu Ram had to work on the farms of a Punjabi zamindar who had settled in California.
However, while in California, Mangu Ram came in close contact with the Ghadar movement — a radical organisation which aimed at liberating India from British rule through armed insurrection. In fact, he participated in the weapon smuggling mission of the organisation. He was arrested and awarded capital punishment, but was saved from the death sentence by chance. The news of his supposed death reached his village. According to the tradition of his community, his widow, named Piari, married his elder brother. Mangu Ram remarried on his return to India 16 years later and had four sons from his second wife, named Bishno. Mangu Ram did not find any change in Indian society after his 16 years abroad:
While living abroad I had forgotten about the hierarchy of high and low, and untouchability; and under this delusion returned home in December 1925. The same disease from which I had escaped started tormenting me again. I wrote about all this to my leader Lala Hardayal Ji, saying that until and unless this disease is cured, Hindustan could not be liberated. In accordance with his orders, a programme was formulated in 1926 for the awakening and upliftment of the Achhut qaum (untouchable community) of India.
Settling in his native village, he opened a school for the lower-caste children in the village. The school was temporarily housed in the garden of Risaldar Dhanpat Rai, a landlord of his village, and half an acre of land was later donated for the purpose by Lamberdar Beeru Ram Sangha, another landlord of the same village. The school had five teachers including Mangu Ram, and it was in that school that the first official meeting of the Ad Dharm movement was held on 11-12 June 1926. In another version, the school traced its origin to the support provided by the Arya Samaj. However, given his close association with the Gadar movement in California, Mangu Ram’s relationship with the Arya Samaj was not as close as were those of Vasant Rai, Thakur Chand and Swami Shudranand. Moreover, his personal experience of being treated as an equal in America, particularly by his fellow Ghadarites, inculcated in him an intense desire and inspiration for equality and social justice. Soon Mangu Ram emerged as a folk-hero of the Dalits who started rallying around him, particularly in the heavily Dalit areas of the Doab region. However, in 1929 the Ad Dharm organisation split into two factions, the Ad Dharm Mandal with its headquarters in Jalandhar, headed by Mangu Ram; and the All India Ad Dharm Mandal with its headquarters in Layalpur, headed by Vasant Rai. In fact Vasant Rai group was lured back by the Arya Samaj in 1929, while Mangu Ram played an active part in the politics of Punjab for a period of more than two decades from 1926 to 1952.
Mangu Ram set a clear agenda for Ad Dharm movement, namely to create a new religion for the lower castes. Lower castes were treated shabbily by the Hindus who, for political motives, considered them co-religionists. While the Arya Samaj was making frantic efforts to bring Shudras who had converted to Islam, Christianity and Sikhism back into the Hindu fold, Mangu Ram thought it appropriate to intervene at this juncture to espouse the Dalit cause and carve out a separate Dalit identity.
In the poster announcing the first annual meeting of the Ad Dharm movement, Mangu Ram, along with Swami Shudranand and Babu Thakur Chand devoted the entire space to the hardships faced by the untouchables at the hands of the caste Hindus. He also made an appeal to the Achhuts to come together to chalk out a programme for their liberation and upliftment. Addressing the chamars, chuhras, sansis, bhainihras, bhils, etc., as brothers he said:
We are the real inhabitants of this country and our religion is Ad Dharm. Hindu Qaum came from outside to deprive us of our country and enslave us. At one time we reigned over ‘Hind’. We are the progeny of kings. Hindus came down from Iran to Hind and destroyed our qaum. They deprived us of our property and rendered us nomadic. They razed our forts and houses, and destroyed our history. We are seven crores in numbers and are registered as Hindus in this country. Liberate the Adi race by separating these seven crores. They (Hindus) became lord and call us ‘others’. Our seven crore number enjoy no share at all. We reposed faith in Hindus and thus suffered a lot. Hindus turned out to be callous. Centuries ago, Hindus suppressed us; sever all ties with them. What justice can we expect from those who are the butchers of the Adi race. The time has come; be cautious, now the Government listens to appeals. With the support of a sympathetic Government, come together to save the race. Send members to the councils so that our qaum is strengthened again. British rule should remain forever. Make prayer before God. Except for this Government, no one is sympathetic towards us. Never consider ourselves as Hindus at all; remember that our religion is Ad Dharm.
The leaders of Ad Dharm thus chose to restore dignity and freedom to the untouchables by detaching them completely from Hinduism and consolidating them into their own ancient religion – Ad Dharm— of which they had become oblivious during the long domination by the ‘alien Hindus’. In fact, the task of reviving their ancient religion was not an easy one, for the untouchables had forgotten their Gurus and other religious symbols during long period of persecution at the hands of the Savarnas. They had been condemned as impure and declared unfit to have their own theology. Thus, to revive Ad Dharm was tantamount to developing a new religion for the Achhuts. Mangu Ram’s claim that the Dalits were the real inhabitants of this land made an enormous psychological impact on the untouchables, providing a theological podium to sustain and reinforce the new Dalit identity.
Before the 1920s, and especially before the rise of the Ad Dharm movement, the untouchables in Punjab had not envisaged the idea of a separate identity. The growing communal politics and resultant unrest within Punjab in the 1920s, coupled with the emergence of Dalit organisations in different parts of the country, offered them a good opportunity to carve out such an identity. Untouchables, counted as Hindus, constituted one-fourth of the total population in pre-partition Punjab. In a system of communal representation, some Muslim leaders proposed that the Achhuts should be separated from the caste Hindus, and divided equally between the Hindus and Muslims. A large number of the Achhuts of Punjab converted to Christainity (epecially the chuhras of Sialkot and Gurdaspur), Sikhism (in Sialkot and Gurdaspur) and Islam (Rawalpindi, Multan and Lahore divisions)
Consequently, the Hindus in the province had been reduced from 43.8 per cent in 1881 to 30.2 per cent in 1931 while the Sikh increased from 8.2 per cent to 14.3 per cent and the Muslims from 40.6 per cent to about 52 per cent and in the British territory (ie. excluding the Punjab Princely States) the population of the Hindus, the Sikhs and the Muslims in 1931 was 26.80 per cent, 12.99 per cent and 56.4 per cent respectively (Census of India, 1931, Vol. xvii).