The journey of D R Balley from Phillor to Birmingham is the story of a strong willed Ambedkarite who fought against all odds both of caste as well as class in the society. Ambedkarism and Buddhism was the tool that ensured him a dignified life in England. I first met him in 2011 when I went to Birmingham to participate in a conference at the Birmingham University and after the conference, I was to stay with my Ambedkarite friend Shri Devinder Chandar ji, Editor, Samaj Weekly, at his house. Both Devinder ji and D R Balley Saheb had come to pick me up at the University guest house where I was staying. Devinder ji brought me to the house of Balley Saheb first. It was around 7 pm and his wife had prepared Samosas and other dishes for me. They allowed me to leave only after our dinner was finished. I found the love and affection that he gave me amazing. It felt like my own family in India. Balley Saheb have written several books in Punjabi and the latest one is ‘Sada Geda’. A deeply dedicated Ambedkarite, Balley Saheb speaks from heart and is one among very few who strengthened the Ambedkarite movement in Birmingham in particular and UK in general. He is particularly interested in growth of Buddhism among the Ambedkarite fraternity in Punjab. His wife Balbir Kaur has been a strong pillar of support for him and she too follows Ambedkarism and Buddhism in her life. They have two daughters and one son.
D R Balli was born in a village near Phillor in Punjab on April 12th, 1953. His father Sant Ram used to do leather work in Punjab and did not have enough land to feed the family hence he migrated to England in the late fifties or early sixties and started working in a foundry along with his elder brother. When Bali Saheb was in his 9th standard, his father called him to England in 1968. On December 27th, 1975 he got married to Balbir Kaur who had arrived in the UK from Punjab. She flew from Delhi to London via Frankfurt all alone during her maiden journey out of India. Her father was an army person and wanted to educate his children but since the school of Balbir Kaur was not in her village, she had to abandon her studies after 9th Standard. Those were the days when the families would not risk the safety of their daughters if they were going outside their village for studies. The result was that Balbir had to leave her education. It was this time that her father engaged her with Daulata Ram Balley, who too belonged to Jalandhar and was working in a foundry in England. As young Daulata was unable to come to Jalandhar for marriage, Balbir travelled on her own to London and they got married there. He started working the foundry which was extremely hard. It was more manual work and because of his strong body structure he was always given tough work. Most of the time it was 12 hours work for seven days and he used to get BP 4.50 a week which was considered to be a fairly good amount. His brother used to get around 9 Pound a week. Once a person was confirmed in the job then he would get 8.50 pound a week.
Their hard work paid when all the three members, his father, brother and he got the job. They would go together and come back home. Things were damn cheap that time. On weekends they would go to the pub to have beer and also go to watch movies. The labour work was mainly confined in the midland areas such as Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry and Derby. ‘He says, ‘the work given to us was mostly heavy iron work which was done mostly by the Punjabis and because they all worked heavily over time too they became economically ‘well off’’. ‘All the Indians loved heavy work because it had more money’ says Balley. He was part of the labour movement but he felt that the labour organisations rarely spoke about the caste discrimination. After work, they would come and go to have beer as it was cheaper than water. They were a close family and took care of their three sisters. Two of them are no more now.
He also invested in business with a friend and started a general store for nearly 10 years. With steady income, he was able to get a good house for him in Birmingham nearly 35 years ago. In 1969, he thought of embracing Buddhism but did not get an opportunity but in 1974 he took ‘Deeksha’ at a special ceremony organised in his house by well-known Bhikhu of that time H. Sadatissa who was a close associate of Baba Saheb and had come from Sri Lanka. He says, ‘my brother opposed my decision. He was respectful to Baba Saheb but not keen on Buddhism. All my relatives opposed my decision and stopped speaking with me’. Many of the Ravidasis opposed me and actually offered me to become General Secretary of the Ravidas Mahasabha’’. When everything failed then one day he was attacked with ox but he survived.’ The fact of the matter is that a person faced the biggest challenge from his own community and relatives when an act is considered as a challenge to traditional values and the hierarchical system with in the community or family.
Actually, his father was fond of veteran Ambedkarite and founder editor of Bhim Patrika, Shri L R Balley and hence Ambedkarism was part of their upbringing for long but most of the family was not inclined to embrace Buddhism. This is a normal difference which happened in the Ambedkarite families as many went to Buddhism while a number of others felt no need to convert and retained their original identity as Ravidasis.
He remembers many veteran Ambedkarite of his period in England who contributed immensely for the growth of the movement there. The most important among them was Khush Ram Jhummat, who had passed his M A from DAV college Lahore and was the most educated among his peers at that point of time. The other such eminent persons were Sansari Lal, Malook Chand, Keru Ram, Darshan Ram Sarhare who were responsible for Buddhist Society of Birmingham since 1960s and they used to organise Buddha Purnima and other celebrations here every year. In June 1973, he went to the town hall for the conversion ceremony in which over 500 people participated. There was a lot of discussion regarding it. It was the first conversion in UK of the Ambedkarites into Buddhism and those who made it possible were Mr Bishan Das Mahay, Ratan Lal Sampla, Paramjeet Rattu alias Pahalwan, Deburam Mahay, Surjeet Singh Mahay, Gurmukh Anand and Fakir Chand Chauhan. Buddhist Society people also helped. The first programme that he attended was in 1968 in Glasgow organised by Ratan Lal Sampla. And the second was organised in Birmingham. Eminent Ambedkarite Mr Bhagwan Das came here in 1975 and stayed here for over a month and spoke at various functions in Birmingham, Bedford and Wolverhampton.
Many people came here, he informs me adding that the most prominent among them were Mr B P Maurya, RPI leader, Dr Gurusharan Singh Punjab, Veteran Ambedkarite Dr Suresh Anjat came twice. Waman Rao Godbole, Prakash Ambedkar and Kanshiram also came there. L. R Balley has been a very popular figure here. During emergency time he was here. Indian workers association and Ambedkarites protested against Indira Gandhi when she came to Birmingham in 1975.
I ask him the most important question which always comes to our mind about the situation in England and whether there was discrimination in society. Whether he has your ever-faced caste discrimination personally?
‘We had a mixed team of both the upper caste Sikhs as well as Hindus. There was a good relation among them but caste minds too were there. During the Kabaddi game they used to call me Chamar and yet I used to call my Sikh friend Bhai Saheb but I got offended with his statement and decided to be put off from the team. I told my brother that I can’t do it. I wanted to resign and leave the foundry but the manager did not accept his resignation. Balley informs that the upper caste Sikhs used to tease him in the village. He was a hockey player and a Jat Sikh pushed him with his bamboo stick meant to lash at the cattle, he retaliated with his Hockey. He never accepted any caste slur and responded in the same language.
Balley ji says that he is upset that people don’t follow Ambedkarism with culture and continue to keep their women subjugated. He says that when he was getting married, he was asked to follow a tradition of Punjab where the veil of the wife is lifted by the elderly people of the family like father in law and brother in law. Balley says he refused to accept this practice despite a number of his relatives getting highly upset with his decision. His wife Balbir Kaur came to the UK on her own. She had to leave her studies after 9th standard as the school for the girls was far away from her village and it was highly unsafe for the Dalit community girls to go to other villages for studies. Though her father was in the army who wanted to educate his daughter, he decided to get her married because of the caste based insecurity prevailing in the village, particularly with the safety of the women folk.
Both Balley Saheb and his wife worked together to strengthen their family. They had two daughters and one son. Both the daughters opted for their own marriage. I asked whether he ever felt disturbed or uncomfortable when their son in laws who are white Englishmen. Both Balley Saheb and his wife were categorical that they respected their daughter’s choice and were happy with it.
He is concerned about Bodh Gaya and feels that it is the rightful place of the Buddhist and must be handed over to them. He feels that Ambedkarites must concentrate on cultural aspects by strengthening Buddhism and liberating Bodhgaya. A couple of years back, Balley Saheb had some health issues but with his strong will he recovered well and now dedicating his time to Ambedkarism and Buddhism. Watch the video ‘ In Conversation with D R Balley’ here