What Contemporary Punjabi Music Tells Us About the Construction of Jatt Masculinity

The glorification of misogyny, caste-based violence and gun culture are a mainstay in popular Punjabi music today. But this is not necessarily a new phenomenon.

Listen to this article:

Recently, Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala made an oblique reference to supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), calling them gaddaar (traitors) in his newly released album Scapegoat. This came a few weeks after he, a Congress candidate, lost by a margin of over 63,000 votes to AAP candidate and now health minister Vijay Singla from Mansa in Punjab.

However, this is not the first time Moosewala has stirred up controversy with his music. Back in 2020, after being granted bail in a case under the Arms Act, 1959, he released a song named ‘Sanju. The case was registered against him after his videos went viral in which he was seen firing an AK-47 rifle, assisted by six police officials, who were later suspended. In the song ‘Sanju’, Moosewala compared himself to actor Sanjay Dutt, who was convicted under the Arms Act in 2005, in connection to the 1993 Mumbai blasts. This song’s release resulted in a subsequent first information report (FIR) for promoting violence and gun culture, as the song’s visuals were ridiculing, mocking, and undermining law and order in Punjab.

Moosewala also has a history of eulogising controversial figures in his songs. In the past, he has used El Chapo and Saddam Hussain’s names in his lyrics; the former ran the world’s largest crime syndicate, killing thousands of people over the last 20 years and the latter was one of the most brutal tyrants in recent times.

Another singer Amrit Maan who collaborated with Moosewala for ‘Bambiha Bole’ released a song named ‘Guerrilla War, in which he refers to himself as desi Pablo Escobar – the most notorious narco-terrorist in recorded history.

Among Punjab’s serious socio-political and socio-economic issues, the drug menace is one of the most glaring ones. In this context, the glorification of drugs and violence seems counterproductive. On the one hand, the Punjab government’s “war on drugs” has recommended capital punishment for drug peddlers to the Union government, making a dope test mandatory for all government employees (including police officers). However, these boisterous songs that valorise the Jatt culture present a somewhat unfavourable backdrop for any effective policy changes. This trend had also forced the state government to constitute a Punjab Sabhyachar (Culture) Commission to check “obscenity and vulgarity” and the glorification of drugs and violence in Punjabi songs.

In most contemporary Punjabi songs, there is a Jatt protagonist who is a land-owning, revenge-seeking, hyper-masculine, and proudly violent figure. This is continuously reflected in songs like Jatt Da Muqabala, whose lyrics say: “Khule jigre te khuliyan zameena aale aan, tehde te crime’an aale scene’an aale aan (Jatts are people with big hearts and even bigger lands, and they are the ones who are often associated with crime scenes)”.

Karan Aujla, who enjoys a similar fandom as Moosewala, also sings violence-laced songs such as ‘Chitta Kurta, in which the protagonist’s partner complains, saying “Chitta kurta labedeya tu khoon naal ve”, which means, “You have spoiled your new white kurta with blood all over it.”

However, Moosewala and Aujla are not the only Punjabi singers to glorify guns, violence, and alcohol in their songs. While the fandom they enjoy, which can be credited to the popularity of genres like Punjabi hip-hop and gangsta rap, is unlike other Punjabi singers in previous years, the lyrics of their songs are deeply embedded in age-old structures of patriarchy and caste-based subjugation.

Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala. Photo: Twitter/ @iSidhuMooseWala

Caste in Punjab

The institution of caste has been perceived as absent from Punjab due to the state’s association with Sikhism. This religion envisioned an egalitarian society and was founded by Guru Nanak Dev in the 15th century. Sikhism emerged as a critique of the Brahmanical Hindu tradition of caste hierarchy, the concept of purity-pollution, superstition, ritualism, and other orthodoxies, emphasising worldly aspects and the household, contrary to the other-worldly orientation of Hinduism. The egalitarian vision of Sikhism attracted those at the margins of the Hindu social order. 

Despite the caste history of the region unfolding over more than five centuries, the Jatt Sikhs remain the dominant caste and have monopolised both religious and temporal matters in the state. The dominant caste status of Jatt Sikhs results from their numerical strength (one-third of the state’s total population) and ownership of land (more than 80% of the available agricultural land is owned by them).

The Dalits in the state, on the contrary, are not only marginalised in terms of their share in land ownership, but a large proportion of them work as landless agricultural labourers for Jatt Sikhs. The unequal treatment of Dalits and their lack of representation can also be seen in most Sikh organisations, including gurdwaras, deras and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee – the central governing body of Sikhs.

The contemporary discourse on caste – the invisibilisation of the lower castes by the upper castes and identifying it as a ‘cultural’ difference over a social one ignores their negative impact on everyday life. The distinct feature of Punjab’s caste structure is that it is not as rigid as other states.

However, to understand the role of caste in Punjab, especially the cultural assertion, we must take a closer look at its roots in the state’s Dalit politics, particularly the Ad-dharmi movement started by Mangu Ram Mugowalia in the 1920s. Mugowalia belonged to the Chamar caste and was a member of the Ghadar Party in the US. He returned to Punjab to initiate the Ad-dharmi movement against the caste system, which was able to get recognised in 1931 as a separate caste distinct from the Hindus. This move was opposed by M.K. Gandhi, who wanted them to be clubbed under Hindus. In the famous Poona Pact between Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, a settlement was reached wherein it was decided that the Ad-dharmis would now be categorised as Hindus. Regardless of that, the Ad-dharmis had, by then, developed a separate religious and social identity as followers of Ravidas.

Mangoo Ram Mugowalia. Photo: Public Domain

The Chamars of Doaba had gained significantly from the British cantonment’s arrival in Jalandhar. This led to an increased demand for leather goods, and the Chamars, who worked with raw animal skins, made good use of the opportunity, with some of them migrating to the West. It is crucial to analyse Chamar pop – a sub-genre of Punjabi music – in the context of caste as subject to local historical specificities and material conditions.

The Chamars of Doaba were highly urbanised, upwardly mobile, and already had a sense of a specific identity, even within the SC community. They were also able to lay claims on commercial resources in their villages and were supported by a large Chamar diaspora in the West. This kind of solidarity and support has given them the confidence to assert themselves. This is why Chamar pop is not a subversion, but a statement of arrival, and somewhat exclusionary in that, as it has a specific appeal only for the Chamars and not others in the SC community.

While the story of Dalit resistance art and music resistance began years ago, the sudden rise of Dalit singers like Ginni Mahi and Roop Lal Dhir has taken the modern Ambedkarite assertion of equal rights one step forward.

As opposed to Jatt-centric songs, Dhir’s biggest hit ‘Hummer shows a young man coming to college in a Hummer but is a serious student, and a follower of Bhimrao Ambedkar, with no interest in the affections of women, including the one smitten by him in the video. The song’s lyrics go:

“Jadon da liya une Chandigarh dakhla,
rakhda bana ke hun saade kolon faasla,
Hummer gadi vich aunda ni putt Chamaran da,
hun nahin ankh milaanda putt Chamaran da”

The song is about a girl singing about a Chamar boy who comes to college in a Hummer (the car signifies that he is from an upwardly mobile class) but refuses to look into her eyes. The protagonist is devoted to his studies and is shown to be studying for the entire duration of the song, as he aspires to become the deputy commissioner. Such representations are embedded in Ambedkarite belief that empowerment for Dalits can only be achieved through education to pursue political action for social reform.

Similar to Dhir, Ginni Mahi, a 23-year-old girl, sings about pride in her anti-caste heritage and takes a hard stance, physically postures assertively, and her voice swells deeply, representing dissent, assertion, and resistance that saturate her history.

Jatts: The martial caste

The formation of the Jatt identity, just like Chamar identity, has also been influenced by various historical events such as the British rule in India. The British Indian army facilitated recruitments under the caveat of ‘martial caste’ status, land ownership, dominant caste syndrome, and good bodily physique or physical strength that ideologically came to represent dominant masculinity in colonial Punjab.

They promoted the concept of ‘loyalists’ to new heights by equating it with izzat – honour, and prestige – a widely accepted and acclaimed distinguishing attribute in the rural society of northern India. The recruitment process was based on the idea that some people were inherently more suitable for military service than others. This martial caste theory fits perfectly with the historical theory of Aryan conquest and Aryan origin, the combination of which led to the formation of the virile Hindu male identity based on valorised heroic deeds.

While the martial status represented the masculine and heroic man, the manly man’s opposite was associated with cowardice and femininity. This theory is credited to Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces, according to whom, it was not a question of efficiency but courage and physique. Those from the South of India were dismissed as effeminate, along with the Bengali babus in contrast to the martial race and superior caste groups in the north. Thus, in Punjab’s agrarian milieu, upper caste groups were commonly known and identified as zamindars – the land-owning classes in particular. The army men possessed guns, owned land, and were the dominant caste fighting to save honour. This created a community of men that displayed power and dominance over others in the village.

The 15th Ludhiana Sikhs regiment in Marseille on their way to fight the Germans. Photo: National Army Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Green revolution, decadent consumerist culture and misogyny

Apart from gun culture, drugs, and caste-based violence, misogyny is the other dominant theme in Jatt-centric Punjabi music. This feudal and patriarchal mindset related to decadent consumerist culture also emerged because popular Punjabi music has heard no counter voices of resistance from women’s perspectives. The Green Revolution played a significant role in impacting gender relations in Punjab. The folk songs of the pre-Green Revolution depicted the everyday life of ordinary people with references to the deeper inner world of emotions, desires, anxieties, and dreams in the language and idioms linked to the culture, beliefs, and social practices of the region.

The Green Revolution that brought a shift in traditional agricultural practices also masculinised agrarian production by destroying the relationship between women and forestry, animal husbandry, and agriculture. The Green Revolution – with its sole focus on increasing yields – resulted in a shift from human inputs to technological ones, sidelining the women who played a significant role in managing agriculture, making their roles merely subsidiary.

With an increase in household incomes and subsequent increase in social status, women were the first to be withdrawn from the workforce, symbolising this newly gained status. The agrarian life which was earlier marked by reciprocity and an extensive network of mutual obligations among cultivators was now replaced by commercial practices leading to the destruction of the traditional Punjabi community. Traditional cultural networks were penetrated by market forces that caused extensive cultural erosion and created a profound moral crisis.

The sudden rise in incomes gave way to a new reality where affluence encouraged the lifestyle and culture of conspicuous consumption. The increased circulation of cash in a society whose old forms of life had been dislocated led to an epidemic of related social issues such as alcoholism, drug addiction and violence against women. Thus, the glorification of the pleasures of alcohol consumption, the accumulation of weapons and glorification of violence, love of expensive cars, tractors, lust for luxury goods and brands that can be seen in the Punjabi songs is a continuation of the culture of consumerism and hedonism ushered in by the Green Revolution.

Representations of hegemonic Jatt identity

The term hegemonic masculinity was first used in the year 1982 by the Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell. Hegemonic masculinity is culturally idealised and is both a personal and a collective project that includes a set of values established by men in power that includes and excludes and organises society in gender unequal ways. It combines several features: a hierarchy of masculinities, differential access among men to power (over women and other men), and the interplay between men’s identity, men’s ideals, interactions, power, and patriarchy. The individual’s self-concept, which is tied to group memberships, is achieved through social comparisons with other groups so that positive social identity is maintained through comparisons that portray the in-group in relatively more favourable terms than the out-group.

The comparative strategies include in-group favouritism in the form of feelings of in-group pride and loyalty, out-group derogation such as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviour to out-group members, or a combination of both. This can be seen in both Jatt and Chamar music, which has created a counterculture in the virtual world that reflects the tensions between the Jatts and the Chamars.

The representations of Jatt identity and masculinity go beyond borders and can be seen in Pakistani Punjabi films such as the character of Maula Jatt, a rebellious and violent figure in rural Punjabi vendetta films in Pakistan. This particular male cultural type’s masculinity is established by demonstrating his superiority over women and other men, especially those from subordinated social groups, including younger men, “un-manly” men, and those from subordinated ethnic and social groups.

A screengrab from the trailer of the upcoming Pakistani film ‘The Legend of Maula Jatt’.

The code of his masculinity is encapsulated by both material as well as behavioural possessions. While the material possessions include Gandhasa, the ultimate weapon of choice for the Maula, the Jatt protagonist in Indian Punjab possesses firearm brands like Beretta 92, Glock 17, and Remington Model 870 which have entered lyrical parlance. 

Another popular representation of masculinity in Punjabi cinema highlights the transition of the Jatt protagonist from regional to transnational. The protagonist in Punjabi films, much like the music videos, often belongs to the land-owning Jatt caste, whose masculinity is performed by his ability to move between different rural, urban, and transnational spaces.

Unlike a Bollywood hero, the Jatt protagonist goes through the process of glocalisation – under which a highly localised representation is further accentuated and projected into transnational geographical and cultural spaces. The Jatt protagonist is also assigned the tasks of upholding Punjabiyat (a sense of being Punjabi) and recovering Punjabi Sabhyachar (culture and tradition) through the reproduction of the patriarchal family within the cinematic narratives.

Unlike Bollywood, where masculinity is frequently realised through the overt subjugation of women (such as whistling at or harassing women in public), masculinity in Punjabi films is not performed in reaction to but often in the absence of the figure of the Punjabi women.

The discussion on Jatt-identity-centric contemporary Punjabi music and how this identity came to be is incomplete without discussing the caste conundrum in Punjab and the rise of Chamar pop, the counter-narrative and an instrument of caste assertion. While the Jatt singers and their music get hailed, Dalit singers are physically attacked, hounded, and threatened to speak out against caste oppression. Thus, music as a medium for expressing one’s identity, feelings, and justice also suffers from caste hierarchy and violence.

Sumati Thusoo is an incoming PhD student at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University. Shivangi Deshwal is a PhD student/Graduate research assistant at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, University of Maryland, Baltimore, USA.

This article was first published as ‘Exploring the Formation of Jat Masculinity in Contemporary Punjabi Music‘, in Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 57, Issue No. 16, April 16, 2022.