Saturday, April 26, 2003

Dalits' battle in a Punjab village

PRAVEEN SWAMI

Despite their relative economic prosperity, the Dalit residents of a village near Jalandhar face oppression at the hands of Jat Sikh landlords.

AN enormous concrete statue of a Boeing 737 adorns the arch over the small lane that forks off the Grand Trunk Road near Jalandhar, and winds its way towards the village of Talhan. The statue is homage to the hundreds of thousands of people who have flown from Punjab's Doaba region to discover wealth in Europe or the Americas. And then, the irony hits home. For most people in Talhan, there is no escape.

On the face of it, the Dalit residents of Talhan seem to live on a planet that little resembles the miserable world inhabited by others of their community across India. Their village has clearly shared in the prosperity of the Doaba region, fuelled by remittances from non-resident Indians (NRIs) and by the Green Revolution. Many of Talhan's Dalits work for the government, or own shops and businesses. Six of the village's nine panchayat members are Dalits. Almost all the Dalit children in the village go to school, and come back to well-built homes supplied with electricity.

But since January, it has become painfully clear that Talhan is, indeed in this country. The village's powerful landholding Jat community has launched a boycott of the Dalits. The Jats do not sell the milk to them, do not allow them to buy fodder, and do not engage them for work in their fields. And, most humiliating of all, they no longer allow the Dalits to use the fields as latrines, a traditional village practice, forcing them to defecate in public, by the side of the village roads.

IT all began a decade ago when the Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Samadhi Sthal, a shrine to a carpenter-caste Sufi saint who lived and died in Talhan, began to attract pilgrims from Punjab and abroad. The offerings at the shrine were used to build a new building to house the shrine. Five years ago, when a local television network telecast the rituals being performed at the shrine, a local bank and the local school put up images of the Sikh Guru Ramdass, Saint Ravidass, and the Sufi poet Kabir, all key figures in Dalit practice of the Sikh faith.

The real problem began when the Dalits asserted that they had a right to share in the management of the Shaheed Baba shrine, since it was built on village common land. The matter went to court and, last January, the Dalits obtained an order enabling them to participate in the elections to the shrine's managing committee. The Jats refused to respect the order, and the matter went back to court. On January 14 this year, the Dalits, armed with a fresh court order, wanted to contest the elections. This time, the Jats walked out.

Talhan's Dalits now chose to assert their rights. Since the Jats had walked out of the elections, all 13 members of the committee chosen that day were Dalits. The tactic was intended to force a bargain and a meeting was called five days later to arrive at a compromise. Instead, a fight broke out. The police posted at the shrine responded by attacking the Dalits with batons.

Dalits say Station House Officer Gurbachan Singh, himself a Jat, ensured that they were thrown out of the Shaheed Baba shrine. Panchayat member Balwinderjit Pal claims that he said he would deal with us Chamaars "the way they deal with dogs". The portrait of Saint Ravidass was torn by the Jats, and the main board of the shrine was removed. A new board was put up, proclaiming the building to be a gurdwara, a symbolic assertion of Jat religious conservatism against the more syncretic practices of Dalits. That evening, 70 Jats sent a letter to the village sarpanch, claiming that Dalits had thrown stones at the shrine, abused Jats and insulted Jat women. It announced that a boycott had been put in place, and warned Jats who hired Dalits or even allowed them to enter their fields that they would face a fine of Rs.10,000.

SINCE then, Dalits in and around Jalandhar have been protesting against the outrage at Talhan almost every week. The protests, however, have yielded little result. The SHO was briefly shunted out of his job, only to return a few weeks later. The elected shrine committee was not allowed to carry out its work or even to visit the building. No effort was made to restore the status quo at the shrine or to punish those who had torn down the portrait of Saint Ravidass.

Gurkanwal Kaur of the Congress(I) who represents Talhan in the State Assembly, is a Jat elected largely because of the support of Dalit voters in rural Jalandhar. She visited the village once, promised justice, and never returned. A team from the National Commission for Minorities also visited the village, but failed to persuade the Punjab government to defend the rights of the Dalits. The boycott, meanwhile, continues. "The more well-off Dalits in the village," says Balwinderjit Pal, "are helping the poorer ones. But I am afraid we will not be able to hold out forever."

Experience suggests Balwinderjit Pal is right. Atrocities against Dalits are a recurrent, if subterranean, motif of rural life in Punjab. In September 2002, Dalits in Moond Khera village, represented in Parliament by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's wife Parneet Kaur, faced a Talhan-style boycott. Landlords in the village charged Dalit agricultural workers with not having paid back loans. In turn, the Dalits claimed that the Jats were overstating their debt and demanding excessive and endless repayments. The Jats then denied Dalits access to their fields and also ordered local shopkeepers not to deal with them. Punjab government authorities, true to form, first pretended that nothing was happening and acted only after a series of newspaper articles exposed the incident.

The previous month, Dalits of the Aur caste were subjected to a boycott after they refused to leave the village of Burj, near Bhatinda, while in October, a Dalit minor was raped in Talwandi Sabo, after her mother used a tap claimed by upper-caste people as their own. Bihar-style anti-Dalit carnage is unknown, but violence does occur. In August 2002, a landlord in Mojo Khurd, near Mansa, was charged with the attempted murder of a bonded labourer, Balbir Singh.

Talhan offers special insights into the working of the caste system in Punjab as the issues there squarely address issues of political and social power. Jat Sikhs in Talhan have sought to legitimise their position by claiming that the Dalits religious practices place them outside the boundaries of Sikhism. Jat leader Bhupinder Singh says, "The reason we object to the Dalits taking charge of the gurdwara is that they cut their hair, smoke and drink." He has the support of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which has been working to bar Sehajdhari Sikhs, those who cut their hair, from voting in elections to the body.

At a recent meeting in Talhan, the head of the ultra-Right Damdami Taksal, Mokham Singh, even claimed that the Dalit protests in Talhan were a conspiracy to destroy the Sikh faith. The Taksal, once led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, has been at the core of efforts by the religious Right to strangle alternative practices of the faith, such as those of the Ad-Dharam, Udasi, Ravidasiya and Ramdasiya sects, adhered to by most Dalit Sikhs. Although the Sikh faith expressly bars the practice of caste, most villages in Punjab have separate gurdwaras for different communities.

The Dalits, unsurprisingly enough, are dismissive of Jat claims of religious superiority. "All the Jats in our village," says Talhan resident Sadhu Ram, "also drink, and if they tell you they do not, they are lying." Religious legitimacy, however, is just a battlefield for a wholly temporal war. Prosperous Doaba Dalits have increasingly invested in building and improving gurdwaras used by the community, as a means to advertise their newly acquired economic muscle. The role of the gurdwara as a social institution also means that it offers political clout.

A welter of dissident Dalit-led religious sects have also emerged, notably that of Piara Singh Bhaniarawala. Piara Singh was jailed last year after he authored an alternative Granth, or religious text, proclaiming himself to be a living Guru of the Sikh faith. He served as a key interface between his Dalit followers, Dalit bureaucrats and politicians of all castes who hoped to use his influence to gain votes. The Sikh religious establishment, normally hostile to any kind of government intervention in its affairs, has been energetically lobbying the Punjab government for police action to root out the heretical Dalit sects.

UNDERSTANDING the curious play of Dalit prosperity and deprivation in Punjab requires an engagement with history. The advent of colonial rule in Punjab opened up dramatic new opportunities for Dalits. The setting up of British military bases in and around Jalandhar led to a massive demand for leather goods, produced by the Chamar caste. The Dalits were, for the first time, recruited in the colonial army, and travelled the world, gaining access to new ideas of equality.

At the same time, colonial policy ensured that this emerging Dalit class was denied control of that key instrument of rural power, land. In 1901, the Punjab Land Alienation Act restricted the purchase of land to what it described as the `cultivating castes'. The Dalits were deemed a non-agricultural caste, and were therefore denied the right to own the land they toiled on as workers or tenants. The Act secured the interests of the Jats, whom the British saw as a kind of Oriental version of the landholding Yorkshire peasantry, propertied, hard-working, and above all, deferential to authority.

Religion and Dalit resistance had joined hands very early. Among its first expressions was the Ad-Dharam movement, which suggested that Dalits constituted a distinct qaum, or nation, distinct from Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Most villages in the Doaba belt today have distinct Ad-Dharmi gurdwaras. The movement gained momentum after the return to India of Mangoo Ram, the son of a rich Chamar, who despite his wealth, had to live with a social stigma. Mangoo Ram spent much of his early life in the United States, where he was actively involved in the revolutionary Gadar movement. On his return to India in 1925, he set up a school for Dalit children, initially with the assistance of the Hindu-revivalist Arya Samaj. However, he soon switched allegiance to the Ad-Dharam movement, and helped shape it into a powerful force. During the 1931 Census, the Ad-Dharmis insisted on being categorised as a separate faith, in the face of stiff resistance from Hindu leaders.

While these mobilisations probably helped give Dalits in Punjab a better social position than their counterparts elsewhere, the community had little political power. It traditionally supported the Congress(I) against the Shiromani Akali Dal, the party of the landlords. However, both parties were dominated by Jats, an arrangement the new Dalit elite seems to be rejecting. "There is a strong sense among relatively well-off Dalits," notes Avdesh Shrivastava, the Resident Editor of Amar Ujala a Jalandhar-based newspaper, "that their wealth is superior to that of the Jats. They believe it is so because it has been earned through labour and enterprise, not inherited through the possession of land. This is a wholly new sensibility." Dalits' political life is also increasingly influenced by the fact that no major political party in Punjab is willing to represent their real interests. "In the next elections," says Jaswant Singh, a Dalit resident of Talhan, "we are not going to allow any politicians into our village. The fact is none of them was with us during our time of need."

Religion as a medium for political assertion, however, can only go so far. Dalits must secure real political power if the community as a whole is to share truly in Punjab's prosperity. A study carried out for the Institute for Development and Communication in Chandigarh by Bhupendra Yadav and A.M. Sharma points to the realities of Dalit deprivation in Punjab. Although Punjab has the highest proportion of Scheduled Castes in the population as a whole, 28.3 per cent, Dalits own just 2.54 per cent of the agricultural land. While the percentage of literates in the State is higher than the national average, Punjab's Dalits are less likely to be educated than their counterparts nationwide. And, between 1981 and 1991, the percentage of Dalits in Punjab living below the poverty line barely declined, while the numbers of poor among them grew. The Bahujan Samaj Party's forays into the State have, so far, had little success. The field seems to be wide open for political forces willing to address the issue.

Source: Frontline, April 26, 2003

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