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When Charanjit Singh Channi, a leader belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC), was appointed as the chief minister of Punjab after a tug of war over the post in which he emerged as a ‘consensus’ candidate, most hailed it as a ‘master stroke’ by the Congress party.
The flip side of that move is beginning to manifest itself now, as caste faultlines are accentuated and the Jatt Sikhs, who have for long seen the chief minister’s chair as their “inviolable right” are watching the assertion by Channi in quiet dismay.
From day one, Channi has been a runaway hit among Punjab’s substantial SC community – 32% – as he set about consolidating his Dalit base by visiting prominent Dalit institutions and making SC-friendly announcements.
Channi also appointed officers belonging to the SC to two key posts – Iqbal Singh Sihota as Director General of Police and Hussan Lal as his Principal Secretary. He quickly announced the setting up of a Sri Guru Ravidass Chair over 101 acres of land in Jalandhar to honour the life, philosophy and teachings of the saint. While paying obeisance at Dera Sachkhand Ballan, the seat of the Ravidasia cult, he said that the Chair will be set up adjoining the Dera and will be managed by the Dera itself. The government is to ensure operation and maintenance of the Chair for the next 10 years.
Channi also initiated the set up of a museum dedicated to Dr B.R. Ambedkar and a management college in his name, stressing that instead of freebies, the focus of his government will be to impart quality education.
Euphoria among those in the SC community has understandably boomed across the state as they rejoiced at what is perceived as a huge dent in centuries of Jatt Sikh supremacy. But, this has also meant that the caste divide that is prevalent in Sikhism despite its egalitarian philosophy, has begun to deepen.
Within days of Channi being named as CM, social media in Punjab was full of derogatory and casteist comments about him. That these went viral was testament to the anger and disgust of ‘upper’ caste Sikhs towards the prospect of a man belonging to the SC community calling the shots. The Punjab State Commission for Scheduled Castes was forced to take suo motu notice of the barrage of abuse on social media, and directed the police to take action under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989.
As Gurpreet Singh, president of the Institute of Sikh Studies, observed, “We Sikhs have become as casteist as Hindu and the ills of social divisions have impacted our religious and political cultures.”
But Channi’s elevation, though an earthshaking event by itself on Punjab’s political landscape, would not have been a problem if he had submitted to Jatt Sikh hegemony and allowed them to operate the levers of power through remote control.
Many other members belonging to the SC community, who, whenever they are given important positions have no option but to keep a low profile and operate like rubber stamps for the powerful Jatt Sikhs around them.
“So, though the head of the Akal Takht and the head Granthi of the Golden Temple are both members of the SC community, they do not have the freedom to wield executive power because they are political appointees. They have never taken up the cause of the SCs or the large scale conversions to Christianity taking place among SC Sikhs who are trying to escape the caste discrimination they face in Sikhism,” says professor Harpal Singh of the Sikh National College, Banga, who has been a long-time observer of Sikh politics.
Be it a sarpanch in a village or an officer in the government, appointments from the SC community are mostly token shows while the real decisions continue to be taken by powerful land-owning Jatt Sikhs, through subtle and not so subtle intimidation.
The unease with Channi is primarily because he bucked this trend and began to consolidate his constituency.
Ramesh Chander, a retired diplomat settled in Jalandhar, belonging to the same community as Channi, minced no words. “The time for SC people to be empowered has come. We do not need any handholding or patronage. As chief minister, Channi does not need to bow down before objections from people like Navjot Singh Sidhu. Where is the harm if he appoints people from his own community as DGP or PSCM? The problem is that the ‘upper’ castes are unable to digest his independent decisions as they had assumed that he would do their bidding,” he asks.
Channi has a record of speaking up for and locking horns with those in power for the inclusion of the depressed classes in powerful positions. In 2016, when he was leader of the opposition, he had objected to the overwhelming presence of Jatt Sikhs in the Punjab Public Service Commission. Six out of seven members at that time were Jatt Sikhs and Channi had pointed out that considering the population of SCs and Backward Classes in the state, at least 50% of the members of the PPSC should be from the poor sections of the society. But Badal ignored him.
Those belonging to the SC community of Punjab are, therefore, watching the ongoing tussle between Sidhu and Channi for greater control in the government with trepidation. Paramjit Singh Kainth, who started the Chamaar Mahan Sabha some years ago, sees the actions of Sidhu and others as an “attempt to dislodge Channi and subdue the elation and consequent empowerment of SCs before things go out of hand.”
The rise of Channi is also being watched with some concern within the Congress party as murmurs have begun about the withdrawal of Jatt Sikh voters from its fold.
“If Channi is allowed to carry on like this, and the party projects him during the elections, no Jatt Sikh will vote for the Congress,” says an MLA, requesting anonymity. Jatt Sikh pride has been dented and despite Sikhism’s advocation of a classless society, a large section of the community is seething at being made to play second fiddle to the chief minister. They visibly control all social, religious and political spaces in villages and the possibility that those in the SC communities will gradually lose their subservience to them is now a topic of discussion in villages.
“There must be a fear lurking in the mind of Sidhu and the larger Jatt community that if the Congress comes to power with Channi as the chief minister, it will be difficult to remove him, and the next few years may well be the age of Dalit domination in Punjab politics,” says professor Harpal Singh.
Eventually, though, everything in politics boils down to numbers. Jatt Sikhs comprise some 18% of the population while the SCs of Punjab are 32%. The SCs are further divided into more than 30 sub-castes of which Ad-Dharmis are comparatively the most well off section while Mazhabi Sikhs are more in number. Neither community votes en bloc for any political party, but if the present fissures are allowed to deepen, things could change.
The questions being asked in Dalit circles are: Will the traditional ruling classes who surround Channi, allow him to continue? Will he be allowed to do the work that he wants to do in the next four odd months before elections? Will the Congress party project him as the chief ministerial candidate in the election campaign or settle for a Jatt Sikh like Sidhu?
Chander Suta Dogra is a journalist and author.