Mark Juergensmeyer’s research reignited Dalit consciousness and radical assertion in Punjab

The publication of ‘Religious Rebels in the Punjab’ inspired a new wave of learning among Dalit activists and scholars of Dalit studies on the Ad Dharm movement and its founding father, Babu Mangu Ram, writes Ronki Ram

Professor Mark Juergensmeyer is a household name among social scientists, scholars, students and Dalit activists in the Doaba of East Punjab – a stronghold of Ad-Dharmi and Mazhbi Dalits. This region gave rise to a number of radical social and political movements when India was under British rule. The most prominent among them were the Ghadar, Babbar Akali and the Ad Dharm. Mark’s familiarity with the people of this region evolved during his field work on the genesis, organization, ideology and functioning of the Ad Dharm movement. Half a century ago, he made this place, between two rivers – Sutlej and Ravi – the universe of his doctoral research work. He became affiliated to the Department of Political Science at Panjab University (PU) in the 1960s and from there he used to frequent different places in the Doaba to interview leaders, activists and sympathizers of the Ad Dharm movement – the most prominent among them being its founder, Ghadari Baba Babu Mangu Ram Mugowalia.

I came to know about Babu Mangu Ram and the Ad Dharm movement from Mark’s classic work entitled Religion as Social Vision: The Movement against Untouchability in Twentieth Century Punjab, published by the University of California Press, Berkeley in 1982. This book was based on his PhD thesis. It was republished later in India under the title Religious Rebels in the Punjab: The Social Vision of Untouchables – in 1988 by Ajanta and in 2009 by Navayana, both Delhi-based publishers. I had stumbled upon this book while searching for another title in the A.C. Joshi Library of Panjab University, which I joined in 1995 after completing my doctorate in International Relations from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and subsequently serving there as a Research Associate for three years (1992-95) and teaching briefly in Goa University. The author was unknown to me then, and little did I know that this volume would put me on a completely different trajectory of research. The book had a profound influence on me personally as well.

As I began reading this engaging narrative on the rise of the downtrodden against the then prevalent oppressive social structures in East Punjab (Indian Punjab) – the region I myself come from – I became so completely engrossed in it that I was unable to rest until I had finished the entire book. The minute details about the Ad Dharm’s organization, leadership, the socio-cultural milieu and the way all this had been so coherently contextualized – all bear witness to the intimate knowledge of the author on the subject. Despite being an English speaker, he was able to capture the kernel of the local narrative in the vernacular. The book is an academic tour de force. Such a work is the distillate of years of selfless dedication.

Also Read: Punjab’s Ad Dharm movement – which turned Untouchables into proud Mulnivasis

Mark nurtured close ties with Punjab over several decades. He first visited Chandigarh in January 1966 after completing his first set of graduate studies in Religion and International Affairs from Columbia University, New York, and began teaching a course in Political Theory as part of the Economics Undergraduate (Hons) programme at Panjab University, Chandigarh. During this period (1966-1967) he stayed in the bachelor faculty housing on the PU campus. He worked on his PhD in Political Science at University of California, Berkeley from 1967-69 and he returned to Indian Punjab in 1970-71 to do the field work for his PhD research on Ad Dharm and other Dalit movements. He became affiliated to Panjab University and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, as a research scholar. During his stay in Chandigarh and Amritsar, Mark used to make field trips to Jalandhar and spend time in Boota Mandi and the Dera Ballan, which were predominantly Dalit localities in the periphery of the city.

During one such study visit, Mark met with Babu Mangu Ram himself – the founder of Ad Dharm movement – on his farm near Garhshankar. Mark also used to frequent the Centre for Sikh Studies at Baring College, Batala (near Amritsar), where W.H. McLeod, the well-known scholar on Sikhism, was teaching at the time, and continued his language studies at the language school in Landaur, above Mussoorie. In 1973, he returned to complete his research on Dalits, travelling widely in Indian Punjab. However, the focus of his study were the Dalit villages in the districts of Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, and Anandpur. In 1978, he was in Punjab to begin work on his proposed book on the Radha Soami sect. He had already written a chapter on the sect in his Religious Rebels in the Punjab. Over the following decade (1979, 1985, 1986 and 1988), Mark visited Punjab every year or every other year until the work on the book was complete. His latest research/book project is on how the Khalistan movement ended.  

Prof Mark’s deep connections with Punjab, developed during his frequent research tours, continue even today after a long period of half a century. On his most recent visit, he delivered a talk entitled ‘Reminiscing Ad Dharm’ in the Department of Political Science, Panjab University, on 31 January 2020. This exceptionally long association with the region and its people is what has made Mark’s research on the Dalit movement in Punjab a must-read for anyone engaged with the fast-emerging discipline of Critical Dalit Studies.

Prof Mark Juergensmeyer and his book ‘Religious Rebels in the Punjab: The Ad Dharm Challenge to Caste’

As I dug deep into discipline of International Relations, academic literature on social and Dalit movements remained unfamiliar territory. That is when I stumbled upon Religious Rebels in Punjab. While reading this classic, I had asked a number of people about the Ad Dharm movement, including in my own village in Hoshiarpur district – the birthplace of Ad Dharm – but to my surprise, they were ignorant. This only piqued my curiosity. I spent months on end verifying Mark’s findings and thus began my shift from international studies to Dalit studies. All this would not have been possible, but for my chance reading of Mark’s Religious Rebels in the Punjab. This has widened and deepened my perspective, both personally and professionally, for which I am greatly indebted to Mark.

I met some of the people whom Mark had interacted with during his field study on the Ad Dharm in the early 1970s. Many of them were now in their late eighties and early nineties. Prominent among them were Isher Das Pawar, Bhagwan Das Advocate, Lahori Ram Balley, K.C. Shenmar, Chanan Lal Manak, Manohar Lal Mahey, Pritam Bala and Chattar Sen (son of Babu Mangu Ram). Only Balley and Mahey are alive today. It was a great experience to meet and hear from them first-hand about the Ad Dharm almost thirty years after they had spoken about it with Mark. Most of them fondly remembered their interactions with Mark. At the same time, I also began studying works on Dalit society and history. 

C.L. Chumber, who collected a lot of literature on the Ad Dharm, provided me with the Punjabi and Hindi editions of the Ad Dharm Mandal Report (originally published in Urdu, and translated into English by Mark and included in Religious Rebels in the Punjab). Prem K. Chumber, younger brother of C.L. Chumber, publishes two weeklies, Ambedkar Times (English) and Desh Doaba (Punjabi), both dedicated to the ideologies of Babu Mangu Ram and Dr Ambedkar, from Sacramento, California. Prem Chumber has distributed hundreds of copies of Religious Rebels in the Punjab in North America free of cost over the last few years that he has been in the US.

During my fieldwork on the Ad Dharm movement in Jalandhar city, C.L. Chumber also helped me in locating old copies of Adi Danka (Drum of the Indigenous People), which was the newspaper of the Ad Dharm movement, published in Urdu. It took me a long time to cover the various villages in the districts of Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr and Gurdaspur where some of the activists of Ad Dharm movement and their families live now. The more I came to know about this historic Dalit movement, the more I realized that what Mark had accomplished was much more than just the documentation of a socio-cultural and political journey. Mark’s pioneering work has once again ignited Dalit consciousness and radical assertion. The publication of Religious Rebels in the Punjab inspired a new wave of learning among Dalit activists and scholars of Dalit studies on the Ad Dharm movement and its founding father, Babu Mangu Ram. More research has now been done in the universities of north India.

Mark’s study made it amply clear that Ad Dharm was the only movement of its kind in northwestern India which aimed at securing a respectable space for Dalits through cultural transformation, spiritual regeneration and political assertion among them, rather than by seeking patronage from above. 

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