Wednesday, July 02, 2003

BSP rally: Mayawati eyes Talhan vote bank

Shikha Trivedi

Wednesday, July 2, 2003 (Talhan):

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati is to hold a massive rally later this month in Chandigarh for the first time ever.

The rally comes in wake of the Talhan incident where Jat Sikhs and Dalits clashed over the running of the shrine of Sufi Saint Baba Nihal Singh.

The rally is being seen as a symbol of Dalit assertion and is a serious attempt to mobilise the constituency in Punjab.

Talhan is the only village in Punjab where panchayat elections were not held and ironically has a panchayat dominated by Dalits.

Gurudwara battle

But now the Dalits in rural Punjab are readying themselves to fight for an equal share of the village wealth.

"Talhan marks the beginning of a phase in Punjab. For the first time, Dalits have staked claim over community resources in the village. They now want the same rights that the Jats enjoy," says Surinder S Jodhka, Professor, JNU.

The most powerful political and religious symbol in Punjab is the gurudwara. And although Dalits have always been free to enter them, they have seldom been allowed to participate in the management.

To resist the discrimination they started building their own shrines. Now the Dalits of Talhan are determined that their gurudwara will be bigger and better than what the Jats have.

"We have become their equals in education and are also earning as much as them. When we have our festival it is more grand than theirs. They are uncomfortable with this," said a local Dalit.

Swords crossed

In Talhan there are three gurudwaras apart from the controversial shrine. One for the Dalits or Ad-dharmis, another for the Jheevars�a backward caste�and the third where the Jats pray.

While earlier people from different communities visited each other's gurudwaras, after the recent violence, they prefer to worship in their own.

"They have divided the Granth Sahib on caste lines. The holy book kept in the Ravidas Mandir belongs to the Ad-dharmis and the Jats have their own," says a local.

Not slaves forever�

Across Punjab the Dalits are also spawning their own network of preachers. Several dissident religious sects have emerged in recent times.

Notably that of Piara Singh Bhaniyarawala, who was jailed last year and his ashram destroyed after he authored an alternative Granth Sahib and declared himself the next Sikh guru.

The controversial God-man says he has been hounded because of his caste.

"They got afraid of my popularity. They cannot accept a Dalit as a religious leader, so I was jailed. But we will not live like slaves forever," warns Bhaniyarawala.

And with the BSP now hoping to re-emerge in Punjab politics, it is apparent that caste and religious equations in the state could undergo a gradual transformation with control of Sikh gurudwaras becoming the immediate battleground.

Source: NDTV, July 2, 2003


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