Dalit Issues Take Centre Stage in Punjab, But Jat Sikhs Continue to Dominate Political Dialogue

Dalits have become a bargaining force in Punjab politics but they have failed as a credible political front. Jat Sikh dominance is unlikely to be impacted in the upcoming polls.

Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. Credit: PTI

Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. Credit: PTI

Bathinda and Jalandhar: Punjab’s Badal village has everything that constitutes vikaas (development) – a political plank on which the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)-BJP combine has ventured into the 2017 assembly polls. A smooth as silk two-lane road, a vocational training college, an imposing panchayat office building, hospitals and dispensaries, schools, ATMs and banks line up both sides of the village.

The grand old patriarch of Punjab politics and currently chief minister, Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal – the deputy chief minister – get their names from this tiny hamlet that gained political prominence as the Badal family slowly worked its way to the political helm.

Because of its dominance in Punjab politics, the family turned its village of origin into a model one. Yet, for a village that has just around 3,500 residents, such extraordinary facilities mean little once other social indicators are taken into account.

The 2011 Census throws light on some of these indicators. The average sex ratio of the village is 864, lower than the state average of 895. The literacy rate of Badal stands at 67.49% against the statewide 75.84%. The skewed nature of gender dynamics is also reflected in the stark gap between the male (74.52%) and female (59.26%) literacy rates.

This seemingly formal economy loses its shine when the land ownership of Badal village is evaluated. Around ten to 15 upper caste Jat Sikh families, including that of the chief minister, own virtually 90% of the cultivable land in Badal. This, despite the fact that around half the population of the village is Dalit.

The unequal economic equation is reflected in the social arrangement of the village as well. Under the veil of vikaas, hordes of Dalit families inhabit the concentrated colonies of ten feet by ten feet hutments on either side of the village. With barely any permanent employment, they rely on daily labour to fend for themselves and have been living below the poverty line for ages.

Their crematorium, gurdwara and even the playground is separate from that of the at Sikh families. There aren’t any water pipelines running through their colonies while there is an abundance of water in the lands owned by the Jat Sikh families.

Dalit crematorium of Badal village. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Dalit crematorium in Badal village. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

“Whatever vikaas the government claims it has done has been done only in that side of the village [the Jat Sikh colony]. Every election, all political parties promise us jobs but we do not see them after they win,” said a Dalit resident who declined to be named.

“Usually in other villages the landless get a small pie annually from the panchayat land to farm. But in Badal, most common land has been taken away to construct buildings, which remain inaccessible to us. The CM claimed that he built a vocational training centre for us but when our children do not even have a 10th [class] degree, how does he expect them to be eligible for any form of higher education,” asked another Dalit resident.

Dominance of Jat Sikhs

Despite its political lineage, Dalits continue to face discrimination in Badal. While this village shows that even a four-time chief minister – who comes from the powerful Jat Sikh community – could not or did not wish to change the social equations, it also reflects how the state polity has firmly been in the control of the Jat Sikhs, irrespective of their political affiliations.

Most prominent politicians of the state come from the Jat Sikh community who own maximum resources in one of the most affluent states in India.

Badal is not the only village in Punjab where the social reality remains grim. According to government estimates, Dalits share among themselves only 2.34% of the total cultivable land and around 4% of other businesses. In every village of Punjab, the colonies are separated by caste and social status. The places of worship, funeral grounds and even the common places are marked by such separation. Sikhism – the dominant religion in Punjab – considers its followers as one and the same, however, this principle is followed only in theory.

Jat Sikhs often address Dalits as chote log (small people) in the state, automatically assuming that they are the bade log (big people). Anecdotes about Jat Sikhs socially and economically boycotting Dalits and raping Dalit women in face of resistance pervade in Punjab.

A landless Dalit couple in Joga village in Punjab. Credit: Hina Fathima

Veer Singh and his wife Shero Kaur live with their sons in a tiny house in Khiala Kalan in Mansa district of Punjab. They are fighting to get a larger plot allotment for housing from the government. Credit: Hina Fathima

Such matters seems unreal in a state where Dalits form the second largest voter group after OBCs. When compared with other Indian states, at 31.9%, Punjab has the highest number of Dalits in terms of their proportion to the population. These numbers should have made them one of the most prominent voices in the state, but given the political silence around issues of caste that all major state political parties maintain, the issues of Dalits have remained in the background. With 34 reserved seats in the 117-member assembly, Dalits are wooed by political parties only around the elections.

Social and political churning in Punjab

In an age when identity-driven movements around caste seem to be dominating the political landscape of India, one often wonders why Punjab has remained unfazed?

Despite the status quo gradually changing in Punjab – Dalits are asserting themselves against Jat Sikhs with increased enthusiasm in recent years – the dominant Sikh identity, unified in projection, has remained the centre of political rhetoric.

Years of Sikh panthic politics had made invisible the age-old caste exploitation in Punjab ever since the state was carved out in 1966. Because of the Punjabi Suba movement in the initial years after independence, and then over the two decades of insurgency, the projection of a united Sikh identity became politically contingent for all stakeholders. Hoping that they too will get a share of the benefits that would come along with the creation of a separate state, they directly or indirectly supported the identity-driven movements.

However, with the onset of a parallel green revolution, not only did the land-owning Jat Sikhs become economically powerful but they also cemented their dominance in state politics. However, the long-drawn Khalistan movement destabilised the existing political equations in Punjab. The militant movement took a toll on people’s lives and several families had to bear great material and human cost during this period.

Dalit gurudwara of Badal village. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Dalit gurudwara of Badal village. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

This exhaustion with militant Sikh identity-driven politics paved the way for the secularisation of state politics. In 1996, all the political parties pledged to adopt the doctrine of “Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat,” in Moga, a small district town in the Malwa region of the state.

Since then, the Moga declaration, as the convention came to be known, became the bedrock of Punjabi politics in which each religious and caste group were seen, at least in theory, as equal stakeholders.

This opened up political space for both the Hindus and Dalits, with both groups asserting themselves against the dominant Jat Sikhs. The clash of identities that followed the declaration shape the present electoral equations. However, with their historical dominance, Jat Sikhs have managed to prevail at the highest level in state politics despite having to cede substantial territory to other communities.

Dalits as an electoral force?

While the Hindus came to control much of the non-agricultural businesses, the Dalits organised themselves under various deras (religious sects) that preached equality and harmony.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when the Dalits could not benefit from the profits that the green revolution generated, a large section of the community began migrating to western countries for work. This tremendously improved the conditions of Dalits – especially in the Doaba region comprising Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Nawanshahr and Hoshiarpur. With new sources of money, migrating to the West became a norm among a majority of Dalits.

In Kheri village of Sangrur, the villagers are fighting for homestead land. Credit: Janhastakshep

In Kheri village of Sangrur, the villagers are fighting for homestead land. Credit: Janhastakshep

The quiet acknowledgement in politics that the community gained after the Moga declaration and the dignity they found with foreign exchange capital flowing in, precipitated new and creative resistance movements among Dalits of Punjab.

In the last few years, Dalits have built their own pop culture with new hip-hop and folk artists eulogising their caste identities and spreading B.R. Ambedkar’s message of equality, dignity and education for all. Ginni Mahi and Hans Raj Hans are just two among the long list of Dalit artists who invoke caste pride with their songs.

The cultural resistance is complimented by the innumerable land struggles being lead by them to get land reforms implemented in the state. In districts of Mansa, Bathinda, Sangrur and Ludhiana, Dalit agricultural workers have been militantly fighting long-drawn battles against the Jat Sikh-dominated state administration.

Jat Sikh crematorium. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Jat Sikh crematorium. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

The assertive movements under which Dalits consolidated themselves is reflected in the elections as well. In the 2007 assembly polls, Dalits shocked the political establishment in the Malwa region after the Dera Sacha Sauda, headed by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, threw its weight behind Congress. Although the SAD (Badal)-BJP combine managed to form the government, it lost in the agricultural belt of Malwa.

The dera head was locked in a violent battle with the Akali-influenced Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which had accused him of blasphemy for posing as the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, an allegation that Dera Sacha Sauda had denied. This led to violent clashes between the SGPC foot soldiers and Dera followers. With more than 35 lakh followers – mostly Dalits – Dera emerged as a political giant that could swing the polls in either direction.

Similarly, in 2009, the murder of the deputy chief of the influential Dera Sachkhand Ballan, Sant Ramanand, in Vienna triggered widespread violence in Punjab. Sachkhand Ballan, with majority of its followers belonging to the Ravidassia community or Chamars, is the biggest dera in the Doaba region. It has placed itself quite high on the ladder amongst non-Sikh deras. Similar violence followed in Talhan and Mahem villages in the last decades after Jat Sikhs prevented the Dalits from entering gurdwaras.

Such discrimination at places of worship has made non-Sikh deras hugely popular. Panjab University professor Ronki Ram, who has worked extensively on the emergence of these sects over the last few decades, explained this phenomenon: “The whole episode has deep sociological roots, the violence has deep sociological roots. It can only be understood when we see the non-Sikh deras as independent sects and not as part of the mainstream Sikh religion. Most of such attacks happen when the mainstream religion thinks that the deras are not adhering to Sikh maryada. But if the dera followers do not identify themselves as Sikhs, where is the question of maryada?” he told this correspondent a few years ago.

Response of parties to such sects

This churning in Punjab has definite electoral implications. After the Dera Sacha Sauda swung the Malwa results in 2007, the often-ignored deras have become significant groups to mobilise Dalit votes. Top leaders of every party visit these deras to remain in their good books. The newest entrant in state politics – the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – has also not shied away from visiting the deras. Arvind Kejriwal recently visited Dera Sachkhand Ballan to pay homage. It is said that the dera commands a majority of Dalit votes in Doaba – a region where Dalit concentration is the highest in Punjab with around 45% votes of the total electorate.

The entry of AAP as a serious contender, and an unprecedented triangular contest this time around, has made the deras even more significant. Leaders of all hues realise this and they have left no stone unturned in wooing the deras even as these sects have remained non-committal.

In an unprecedented move, for the 2017 polls, all the three significant political parties in contention – SAD (Badal), Congress and AAP – have charted out separate plans and programmes for the Dalits. The AAP has even declared a separate Dalit manifesto. In their manifestos, all the parties have promised Dalits land reform measures, employment, student scholarships and education loans – exactly what Dalits have been fighting for in various parts of Punjab.

Dalits have struggled to attain political power in the state. However, a lack of a pan-Punjab leadership from its own stable has meant that the top leadership in Punjab continues to be dominated by Jat Sikhs, who, despite making advances towards the Dalits, retain their feudal character. Additionally, Dalits themselves are a fragmented community, divided within caste groups like Ravidassias, Mazhabi Sikhs, Balmikis, Bhangis, Ad Dharmis, each aligned with one or the other political group.

Dalits have managed to become a bargaining force in the state’s politics – which in itself is a leap – but have failed as a credible political front. The only Ambedkarite party in Punjab is the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose founder Kanshi Ram was a Punjabi from the Ropar district but practiced politics only in Uttar Pradesh. The party has its own pockets of strength – especially in Doaba – but it is fast losing its influence. It had made an impressive start in 1992 polls by getting 12% votes but could secure only around 4% of the votes in 2012.

Although the land-owning Jat Sikhs have begun to acknowledge the problems of Dalits but they continue to dominate the political dialogue in the state. As Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science at Panjab University, told The Wire, “There are many firsts in 2017 polls. It is a triangular contest. AAP has disrupted the existing political equations. Sikh identity issues have not been invoked with similar vigour as it used to be in previous elections. More or less, development-related issues dominate. Despite all this, the elections will not alter, in any significant way, the Jat Sikh dominance.”

While this may limit the process of democratisation in Punjab, the 2017 polls will be an important one for Dalits. As they continue to fight against the political hegemony of Jat Sikhs, the unprecedented triangular contest this time around will be one of the biggest tests for them to evaluate how strong an electoral force they currently are. This, in turn, would further cement its bargaining position.