Upper-caste Sikhs denied membership of Dalit temple in Canada


Vancouver : In a strange case of reverse caste discrimination, two upper-caste Jat Sikhs have been denied membership of a gurdwara run by the Dalit Indo-Canadians in the city of Burnaby near here.

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Gurshinder Sahota and Sohan Shergill, who had applied for membership of the Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha Temple in February 2007, were rejected by the management reportedly without giving any reason.

Aggrieved, the two upper caste Sikhs moved the provincial British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, alleging that they had been discriminated against on the basis of their caste. They argued that the temple was promoting the evil caste system which stood against Sikh tenets.

But in a recent decision, the tribunal rejected their complaint, citing its earlier ruling on a similar dispute about native Indians who are also called First Nations. Being a minority group, the tribunal said, the Dalit management of the temple was entitled to restrict membership to its group.

Since fierce fights for control of gurdwaras are quite common in Canada, a Dalit leader said his group feared that Sahota and Shergill might try to seize control of the temple in the long run.

Added Dalit spokesman Jai Birdi: “These two men used to come to our gurdwara from North Vancouver. For the past four or five years, Sahota and Shergill have been organizing functions in memory of Raja Nadh Singh. We have never had any problem with this.”

But the trouble started when Sahota and Shergill applied for membership of the temple last year.

“When we rejected their applications, they went to the human rights panel which then asked us to file a reply. And now it has ruled in our favour. We feel empowered. But these two men, like anyone from the upper castes, is welcome to visit our temple,” said Birdi.

Built in 1982, the Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha Temple has over 900 Dalit members. The temple houses the Sikhs’ holy Guru Granth which also features hymns of 15th-century Dalit saint Ravidass.

Interestingly, casteism is pretty rampant in the Indo-Canadian community here.

Citing a few cases, Birdi says: “In the first case that made headlines here, an upper-caste taxi driver used the word Chamar against a fellow driver. He said something like: `You Chamar, get lost.’ In another case, an upper-case man changed the name of his fellow Dalit security guard (on the company’s slip) from Sami Toora to Sami Churha. And a third case involved a Dalit truck driver who was publicly humiliated by an upper-caste driver on some union matters.”

Surprisingly, Dalits have been in Canada for more than a century, with records showing their first arrival here in 1906.