Sikhs March in London against Caste Discrimination

London, UK - Several thousand Sikhs from the Ravidassia Community around the country (and a group from France) marched through central London on Sunday 13 June, 2009 to the Indian High Commission, calling for an end to all caste-based discrimination.

The Sikh religion has as one of its central tenets that all human beings are equal, made by God from the same clay, and rejects all discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, or gender. One of the earliest expressions of this came from Shri Guru Ravidas Ji, one of a number of Indian holy men whose thoughts were incorporated into the Sikh Holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, along with the writings of seven of the ten Sikh living Gurus. The rejection of caste was emphasized in the formation of the Khalsa, where three of the five Panj Piyare came from the so-called 'lower castes'.

Despite the teaching of the Guru Ganth Sahib, caste-awareness has remained strong among many Sikhs, and with it caste discrimination by those who consider themselves higher caste. It remains powerful despite being illegal in modern India, where the former 'lower castes' generally refer to themselves as 'Dalit' but are officially known as 'Scheduled Caste.'

This discrimination within Sikhism meant that many Sikhs were barred from taking part in the running of Gurdwara and were not encouraged to adopt Sikh names or follow some of the Sikh practices. Instead they founded separate Gurdwaras, in what is known as the Ravidassian community. In many towns in the UK you can find both Singh Sabha and Shri Guru Ravidass Gurdwaras (often called Bhawan by the Ravidassia) and many in both consider the other as a separate - if strongly related - sect or religion. There are thought to be around 175,000 Ravidassians in the UK, where there are 21 temples.

But for a few fundamentalist high-caste Sikhs, followers of the Ravidassian tradition are viewed as heretics who commit sacrilege against the Guru Granth Sahib. On Sunday 24 May, a small group of bearded and turbaned men went to the worship at the Sri Guru Ravidass Temple in Vienna, Austria and attacked the two preachers who were visiting from India, Sant Nirajnan Das and Sant Ramanand as well as the other Sikhs in the congregation who leapt to their defence. There were a number of gun shots, wounding both of the preachers. Sant Ramanand, who was the deputy head of the Guru Ravidass Singh Sabha, died a few hours later.

The killing led to violent protests in India, particularly around Jalandhar, where many Dalit Sikhs live, in which a number of people were killed and injured in battles between protesters and police.

In Britain the march in London was a peaceful one, but there was no mistaking the anger that was felt by many at the continuing discrimination. Placards carried by the marchers called for Human Rights, Freedom of Speech and Justice, as well as condemning the assassination of Sant Ramanand and calling for the murderers to be hanged as well as demanding equal rights to worship. Others carried small black pennants in mourning and people signed petitions.

The marchers marched to the Indian High Commission with a petition demanding a full enquiry into the affair and its possible backers in India by the Indian government; they demanded that the killers be extradited to India and face trial there.

The police stopped traffic for the march and encouraged them to keep moving. One man who was handing out leaflets to marchers was led away for questioning and I think searched.

On the Ravidassia UK web site it says "Sat Guru has chosen our generation to bear this burden of freeing our people, so let’s hold our shoulders high and March, in peace but also in protest at this unjustified attack."