Saturday, June 21, 2003

A shrine and a struggle

PRAVEEN SWAMI

Years of suppression of Dalits by the Jat community culminates in Punjab's worst caste-related strife, involving Jat and Dalit Sikh residents of Talhan village near Jalandhar.

ROADSIDE dhabas in Punjab do not have separate tea-cups for Dalits, and Dalits are not massacred when they ask for higher wages: and that, it is now becoming clear, is about as far equality goes in India's most prosperous State.

On June 5, Dalits and the dominant, landholding Jat community blew apart the facade of caste peace in Punjab, initiating clashes that have so far left one person dead and dozens injured. The clashes began at an annual fair held at the Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Samadhi, built in memory of a local Sufi saint in Talhan village near Jalandhar (Frontline, May 9, 2003). The two communities blamed each another for starting the violence, which took place as police officials watched. Most of the injured were Dalits, and most of the 10 homes damaged in the rioting also belonged to Dalits. Within hours, Dalits in Jalandhar city, incensed by the images of the violence telecast on cable television channels, came out on the streets. A 27-year-old Dalit, Vijay Kumar Kala, was killed in police firing, which began after Dalits torched buses and blocked traffic on the Jalandhar-Amritsar railway line.

Violent clashes between the police and Dalits continued in Jalandhar for several days. Although curfew was imposed in Talhan, fresh clashes broke out there on June 8. This time, Dalit assertion was evident. A group of Dalits marched into a Jat-owned field to harvest fodder, asserting a traditional right denied to them ever since the landlords initiated an economic blockade two months ago. Fodder stacked in the field of Kewal Singh, a local Jat leader who was instrumental in initiating the anti-Dalit blockade, was set on fire. The violence in Jalandhar mirrored this local conflagration, with young Dalits refusing to respect curfew orders imposed by what they say is a Jat-dominated police force and administration. The violence has, without dispute, been the worst caste-related strife Punjab has ever seen.

IT all began a decade ago, when massive donations by overseas Punjabis began to flow into the coffers of the until-then obscure Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh shrine. The Dalits soon began to assert that they had a right to share in the management of the shrine, since it was built on village common land. The matter went to court and last January Dalits obtained an order enabling them to participate in elections to the shrine's managing committee. Jats flatly refused to respect the order, and the matter went back to court. On January 14 this year, Dalits, armed with a fresh court order, arrived again to contest the elections. This time Jats walked out.

Talhan's Dalits now chose to assert their rights. Since 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, tempers flared, and a fight broke out. The police posted at the shrine responded by attacking Dalits with batons. Dalits say Station House Officer Gurbachan Singh - himself a Jat - ensured that they were thrown out of the Shaheed Baba shrine. Jats placed new banners declaring the Samadhi Sthal a shrine, thus asserting that Talhan's Dalits - who, although Sikhs, practise traditions rejected by the orthodox Khalsa sect of Jats - had no right to the building. The same day Jats announced an economic blockade of Dalits, by refusing to buy their milk, sell them fodder, and even denying them access to open fields to defecate.

For two months, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's government refused to step in. The administration and the police refused to implement court orders, or even to respond to the directives of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes which ordered the prosecution of Jat leaders under the Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989. The government's inaction was wilful, since evidence of the ugly oppression of Dalits in Talhan was only too easily available. On the basis of a report by the Additional Director of the Punjab Social Welfare Department, Social Security Minister Santokh Singh had announced that "documentary evidence established the boycott". Then, investigators from the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes recommended that Jat leaders "Kewal Singh and Bhupinder Singh be externed from the village for six months".

Dalits attempted to mount pressure with demonstrations and even a hunger strike, but to little effect. Finally, on May 27, the Talhan Dalit Action Committee passed a resolution threatening more up-front means. "Till now our struggle has been peaceful, but if the Punjab government does not understand our peaceful overtures, we will resort to direct action, for which preparations are being made," the resolution warned. The Dalit Action Committee announced that it would continue its hunger strike in Jalandhar until the end of May, but if the district administration still failed to check its "partisan and communal" attitude, direct action would be taken, for which preparations were being done. It is worth noting that the Dalit threat came in the face of sustained provocation and after the failure of legal avenues.

AS things stand, the Talhan struggle could mark a decisive turning point in Punjab politics. For one, it has clear implications for Sikh communal politics. For the past several years, the Jat-dominated Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) have sought to exclude Sehajdhari Sikhs - those who do not observe its outward appearances, such as unshorn hair - from the umbrella of the faith. Most Sehajdhari Sikhs are Dalit, and have been fighting efforts to strip them of the right to vote in SGPC elections. Talhan's Jats have found support both in the mainstream SGPC, which has blamed the violence there on the Bharatiya Janata Party, and far-Right organisations such as the Damdami Taksal. Talhan, in a very direct way, poses a challenge to Jat hegemony over Sikh religious practices, with sects like the Ad-Dharmis asserting their right to control community institutions.

Equally, the incident poses a serious challenge to secular forces in Punjab. The leadership of the Dalits of Jalandhar has been appropriated by local BJP leader Vijay Sampla, himself a Dalit. This came about more or less by default, given the Congress government's dithering on the issue. Sadly, Punjab's once-vibrant Left was invisible in the course of the struggle. As things stand, the confrontation between Dalits, both Sikh and Hindu, on the one hand, and Jats on the other, could take an ugly communal turn. The Talhan clash comes at a time of renewed mobilisation by the Sikh religious Right. On May 6, the Akal Takht, the highest seat of Sikh spiritual authority, declared revanchist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale a martyr of the faith. Although similar pronouncements have been made from time to time, the adoption of his martyrdom as a formal event in the Sikh religious calendar is designed to widen the fissures between Hindus and Sikhs. Earlier, the Sikh religious establishment formally adopted the Nanakshahi calendar, which will now sunder major Hindu and Sikh festival dates.

"Don't react," recommended an editorial in The Indian Express on Bhindranwale's elevation to Akal Takht-endorsed martyrdom. It is an approach Chief Minister Amarinder Singh seems to endorse. At one press conference, he blamed the Talhan violence on "trouble-makers from outside", a thinly veiled attack on the many Dalit workers who travel to Punjab each year, bringing with them ideas of Dalit political rights forged in struggles in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Chief Minister has, sadly, nowhere committed himself to respect the Talhan Dalits' legally obtained rights. A five-member Congress Group of Ministers set up to investigate the Talhan rioting had, at the time of writing, failed even to visit the families of Kala and other Dalit victims. Silence on the inextricably linked caste and communal-fundamentalist forces in Punjab has proved calamitous in the past. Reaction to recent events by all secular forces is precisely what is needed.

Two decades ago, the Congress(I) failed to provide leadership for this reaction, choosing opportunistic alliances with the religious Right instead. The consequences are still there for all to see - and now the party seems to be at it again.

Source: Frontline, June 21, 2003

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