The prevailing social milieu with regard to the human and social rights of dalits in India came into discussion and focus in the 20s of the last century. The Congress Party took note of the depressed classes for the first time in 1917 in one of its annual sessions. With the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on the scene in the late 20s, the issue of the condition of depressed classes started attracting attention both in political and social circles. The Ghadrite leader Babu Mangu Ram Mugowalia of Punjab returned back from abroad sometime in 1925. He was much distressed on seeing the political, social and economic condition of dalits in Punjab and throughout the country. The main stream political parties and communities were engaged in freedom struggle against the British rulers. Nobody was interested in ameliorating the sufferings of the depressed and oppressed segments of the society. Dr. Ambedkar started his activities in Maharashtra and some other parts of the country with regard to empowerment of depressed classes. Babu Mangu Ram Mugowalia picked up the threads in Punjab started a focused movement to address the issues of the depressed classes. His vision was to establish a separate identity for the dalits outside the affiliation of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians. He felt that as long as the dalits would remain in the fold of these religions, they would remain oppressed and exploited as per the dictates of Hindus shastras and practical behaviour and treatment by the so called upper-castes.
Babu Mangu Ram Mugowalia initiated and established Ad-dhram Mandal on June 11-12, 1926 along with his associates Basant Rai, Thakur Dass, Shudranand and many more at Hoshiarpur in Punjab. The Headquarters of the Ad-dhram Mandal was shifted to Guru Ravidass School, Kishanpura Mohalla, and Jalandhar in November 1926. The Ad-dhram Mandal professed that dalits were the original inhabitants of India and should be recognized as such. The agenda and goal of the Mandal was emancipation and empowerment of dalits. With a view to unite all dalits, they said that Ad-dhram was their religion. It was said that the Sant Mat of Guru Ravidass, Bhagwan Valmiki, Sant Kabir and Sant Namdev was “Ad-dhram. The symbol of ad-dhram was “Sohang”. The mode of greetings and social salutation was “Jai Guru Dev” and “Dhan Guru Dev”. They also approved, in consultation with Sant Sarwan Dass of Dera Ballan, a separate granth called “Ad-Prakash” which contained the vani of all the above said dalit GurusThe ‘Adi-Danka’ was issued as the mouthpiece of the movement. The leaders of Ad-dhram Mandal struggled to achieve their goal under the leadership of Babu Mangu Ram Mugowalia. The Dera Ballan of Jalandhar under the leadership of great Sant Sarwan Dass fully supported the Ad-dhram Mandal. With this, the general dalit masses in and around the doaba region of Punjab joined the movement with their leaders namely Master Gurbanta Singh, Seth Kisan Dass, Seth Sunder Dass and many more and professed themselves as “Ad-dhramis”. The Ad-dhram Mandal submitted a Memorandum to the Governor of Punjab on December 10, 1929 and pleaded that in the general census they should be registered and shown as Ad-dhramis as distinct from the main stream religions i.e. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. The demand was considered and accepted and for the first time Ad-dhram was recognized as a different religion in the Census of 1932. It was a great victory for the Ad-dhram Mandal. The struggle was being intensified. Dr. Ambedkar came firmly on the scene. He made his assertions at the round table conferences with regard to the rights of the depressed classes. The Ad-dhram Mandal under the stewardship of Babu Mangu Ram whole heartedly supported Dr. Ambedkar. The result was the Communal ward by PM Ramsey MacDonald which granted separate electorate to the depressed classes. The Congress Party under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi opposed this. The rest is history. Under considerable pressure and duress, Dr. Ambedkar was made to relent in the larger interests of the freedom struggle and to save the life of Mahatma Gandhi who resorted to fast unto death against the separate electorate for the depressed classes. The Poona Pact was signed between Dr. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi providing for reserved seats for the depressed classes. In the ensuing elections in 1937, Ad-dhram Mandal won 7 seats of the 8 reserved seats and established its credentials successfully under the leadership of Babu Mangu Ram. It was a great success. The Congress Party could not relish this. The leaders like Prithvi singh Azad, Master Gurbanta Singh, Yashwant Rai, and Seth Sunder Dass parted their ways and aligned with the Congress party and opposed Babu Mangu Ram and Dr. Ambedkar. The seeds of division and disintegration were shown nourished. Subsequent political developments after independence in 947 further marginalized the Ad-dhram movement. Dr. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in October, 1956 and advised his followers to do so. Unfortunately, he died soon after on December, 1956. It resulted in further set back to Ad-dhram movement. Babu Mangu Ram Mugowalia who was getting old could not hold and sustain. A renowned Indian scholar and authority on the subject, Prof. Ronki Ram has done an intensive study in his thesis “Mangoo Ram, Ad Dhram & the Dalit Movement in Punjab” and said:
"The Ad-Dharm movement succeeded in raising the consciousness of the downtrodden people of the Doaba region of Punjab in particular and of the entire state in general. It gave those gurus to believe in, a qaum to belong to and a sense of history to relate with. It envisions the possibility and potentiality of social change for the Scheduled Castes. The process of cultural transformation and spiritual regeneration started by the Ad Dharm movement under the leadership of Mangoo Ram has continued to reverberate in the cities and villages of Punjab into the 21st century through different platforms and political formations.” (Source: ad-dhram.com)
Yet another American scholar Mark Juergensmeyer in his study “Religious Rebels in the Punjab” and “The Ad-Dharm Challenge to Caste” said:
“With the Census of 1931 the Ad-Dharm had carved out a niche for itself. In the public world of the Punjabiat that time – the world of the Arya Samaj, the Singh Sabha, and the various movements for communal identity, nationalism and reform – the Ad-Dharm had made its mark. It had established a fact which previously had been unproved: that the Untouchable castes were capable of mobilizing for their own benefits, and of organizing in ways that permitted them to compete under the conditions that governed the socio-political arena at large. The time had been ripe for such an achievement, but an achievement it was, and the Ad-Dharm deserved whatever glory it conferred. The year 1931 and the great census would be remembered as the movement’s crowning moment.” (Source: website: ad-dhram.com)
Babu Mangu Ram tried his best to revive the movement. At a conference held at Dera Ballan in Jalandhar on December 13, 1970. The agenda of the meeting and some of the decisions were:
- Promote the Temple in Benares (Varanasi).
- Renewal of Qaum Identity.
- Resurrection of Ad-Dharm as the Original Religion of the Scheduled Castes.
- Better roads and bridge across the canal at Ballan, so that people can easily reach the Dera.
- Better road be built in Benaras (Varanasi) to connect the Guru Ravidass Ji Temple there with the Benares Hindu University and rest of the city.
- Launch of Ad Dharm Scheduled Caste Federation.
- Managing Trust Committee set up for responsibility of Guru Ravidass Ji Temple at Benares.
- Seth Khushi Ram formally made Chairman of Advisory Committee.
- Presidency of the Federation assigned to Babu Mangu Ram Ji.
- Hazara Ram Ji became the General Secretary of the Federation.
Babu Mangu Ram Mugowalia said at the meeting:
“Whatever rights we have now, it is because of the [original] Ad-Dharm Mandal. But the young people have not seemed to be capable of carrying the task which we started. During the British rule, we were twice slaves: slaves of the British and slaves of the Hindus. We have gotten rid of the British, now we have to assert our own rights against the upper castes. We were inspired by Ravi Das, Kabir, and Nam Dev. Hinduism is a fraud to us. Ad Dharm is our only true religion.” (Source: Website: ad-dharam.com)
On the anniversary of the Ad-dhram Mandal (June 11-12), I write this as a piece oral history. I think the outlines of the agenda and programme of the Ad-dhram mandal including the concept Ad-dhram as a religion of the original inhabitant (dalits) is worth studying with a view to provide dalits their due identity and space in the society.