‘Our Votes are Meaningless if We Don’t Have Our Land’: Dalit Women in Punjab

Ignored by political parties and threatened by the upper castes, the community feels compelled to let their votes go to waste.

Dalit women in a Punjab field. Credit: Shailza Sharma

Dalit women in a Punjab field. Credit: Shailza Sharma

Punjab: In Sangrur, amidst the flurry of ongoing assembly polls, Dalit women in villages across the state paint a bleak picture of their lives. It is a common practice for the Dalit families to own livestock as an additional source of income. However, they have no land for cultivation and thus, have to rely on the extra or unused fodder cultivated on the fields of land-owning farmers.

Consequently, these women work and live in an atmosphere of continuous fear of the dominant landlord community of the area. They demand land separate from the common reserved land of the village to collect fodder, since they typically have to deal with various forms of harassment while they work in areas owned by the dominant landlord community.

They say that “jattan ton na gallan khaiye, je sanu sadey hisse di zameen milje” (We won’t have to face the vile language and behaviour of the Jatts if we get our part of the land).

It seems that they have a very despondent outlook of the political parties and their agendas. They stress on the fact that none of the candidates – from BJP-SAD, Congress or Aam Aadmi Party – focus on bringing a change in their living conditions.

Minder Kaur, a Dalit woman from Ranike village in Dhuri segment expresses her discontent when she points out that the government is always ready to provide subsidies to the farmers but fail to address their concerns. “The farmers get free or subsidised electricity for use in the farmland, but we still have to somehow scrape enough money to pay electricity bills worth Rs 1500-2000 for domestic use. No government is ever ready to focus on helping the labour class.”

The condition of labourers in other villages of Punjab is similar, they languish in huge amounts of debt and question why, unlike the farmers, their debt is never waived.

While the Dalit movement for land reforms has gained traction in the last few years and has also resulted in caste-based clashes in rural Punjab, political parties have barely addressed the issue in their manifestos.

Dalit women who daily face harassment at the hands of the dominant communities do not seem optimistic about the elections. It is a known fact that the Dalit women have to invariably face various problems while working in the fields owned by Jatts, however the men from the community get some reprieve by working as daily labourers in the cities.

Gurmail Kaur of Ranike village observed that in their village, nine acres of land is reserved for Dalits but, “the Panchayat is not ready to give us this land, our votes are meaningless if we don’t have the land.”

Har ek nu ek ek vote pauni paini aa, mudke vi ta khet jaana; nahi ta agle khet ch vadan ni denge” (We will somehow have to vote for each party, otherwise they won’t let us enter their fields for collecting fodder). Families are apprehensive and they fear that if they choose sides and show support for a particular party, some prominent families in the village may object. Their solution to this fear of objection, explains Sinder Kaur from Kanjla village, is that in a family of four, they will ensure that each member casts a vote to a different political party to please everyone.

The current political landscape in Punjab is such that, while the Dalits of Punjab are mobilising a huge population of the community to demand their rights, not only are the political parties barely paying any heed to their demands, but due to the dominance of upper caste families and farmers, Dalits are also feeling compelled to let their votes go to waste in the face of immense pressure and fear of harassment.

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