Saturday, June 21, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Flames of caste
by Reeta Sharma

THOUGH poor, Dalits have lived a life of dignity in Punjab, unlike those in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat or even adjoining Haryana. Over the last half century or so, they have almost never been subjected to caste hatred or humiliation by the so-called upper castes.

After Partition, Punjab witnessed a radical social change on account of various factors. Several proactive programmes were launched for the uplift of Dalits. The government’s policy of affirmative action strengthened the practices of Sikhism which considers all humans being equal. The unique practice of langar paved the way for visible equality among people as the rich and the poor, the upper and the lower castes sat together to eat from the same utensils. All sections could also serve in gurdwaras. This ensured the entry of Dalits into religious places and untouchability soon ceased to be practiced. As such, it is difficult to recall instances of upper caste violence against Dalits in Punjab. However, the ideal of a casteless society is still a distant dream as casteism is prevalent among the Sikhs as well as the Hindus in Punjab.


Harish K. Puri, a noted Amritsar-based academician and scholar of Dalit issues, says, "Punjab has been known as a "notable exception to the widely prevalent Brahminical view of caste. Denzil Ibbetson who conducted a serious study of the caste system in Punjab discovered that the Brahaminic influence was ‘probably never so strong in Punjab as in most other parts of India.’ Sikhism, as an egalitarian religion, made a notable difference. The struggle against untouchability by the Arya Samaj, Singh Sabha movement and Ad Dharm movement weakened the ideological hold of the purity-pollution consideration. Therefore, untouchability has been less of a problem in Punjab, even though evidence of its practice in different forms is still present. More significant is the material base of caste division and oppression. Caste and untouchability in practice is determined here not as much by ideology as by social and economic interests."

In present-day Punjab, Sikhs constituted 63 per cent of the population and Hindus a little over 34 per cent. The Sikh share in the rural population is higher; about 72 per cent. The population of Scheduled Castes is projected to have increased to 31-32 per cent as per Census 2001. Over 80 per cent of the people belonging to these castes live in the rural areas. Punjab’s villages are, therefore, mostly populated by Sikhs and Dalits. Among Sikhs, Jats own most of the agricultural land.

"The teachings of the Sikh Gurus, the sangat and langar, the absence of a caste-based priesthood, and respect for manual labour have exercised a liberating influence on the Scheduled Castes in Punjab. However, the evolution of the Sikh community did not result in the end of casteism but rather in the evolution of a Sikh caste hierarchy, parallel to that of the Hindu caste system. Indera Pal Singh in the first anthropological study of a Sikh village, found that ‘most of the Sikh values are Jat values and the Jats assert that they occupy the highest position among the Sikh castes.’"

Dalits constitute 30 per cent of the total population of Punjab. Under the reservation scheme for SCs, about 15 per cent of the Dalits are in government services. Of these, 14 per cent are Class I officers. The rest of the population is engaged in agriculture. A majority of these people work as agricultural labourers. Over the last couple of decades they have been marginalised by the cheaper migrant labour from Bihar and U.P.

Government jobs are also shrinking. Take, for instance, the 28 All-India Services. This year there were only 258 posts available for all categories of applicants. This means 37 or 38 posts would be reserved for SC candidates.

According to Dr Jaspal Singh, Principal, Ambedkar Institute, SAS Nagar, "Punjab has one of largest Dalit populations (nearly 30 per cent) in the country. But they do not have their proportionate share in the power structure as is the case in the rest of the country. There are hardly any educational institutions run by Dalits. Their share in trade, industry, financial institutions, health and religious establishments is almost negligible. So far they have mainly benefitted from government reservations in jobs. Since, the government is now withdrawing from some of the areas, reservation benefits are shrinking day by day. The Scheduled Castes holds only 20 per cent of the land in the state. Whatever the little benefits of reservation are available in the public sector have been monopolised by the Scheduled Caste elite. So, about 85 per cent of the Dalits have to fend for themselves."

Dr Jaspal Singh“There may not be any other situation like the one that developed at Talhan. Nevertheless, Dalit politics can become explosive with the passage of time. A huge Dalit segment of population without any significant share in the state’s resources can open another front for the government to deal with.” Harish K. Puri“The Green Revolution added to the economic and political clout of the Jat land-owning class. Things could have improved had the land reforms been implemented as in West Bengal. The Jat control over the Shiromani Akali Dal since 1962 added to the fear among the lower caste Sikhs.”

Post-Partition Punjab no doubt provided Dalits a friendly social environment, yet a couple of factors did not allow them to rise. The biggest retarding factor has been that of the failure of land reforms. The distribution of the surplus land could never be achieved as the landed community used the loopholes in the laws to their advantage. Thus, the landless Dalits continue to be downtrodden.

Unfortunately in India and especially in Punjab, the land that a family owns determines its status. Virtually landless, the Dalits continue to live a life on the periphery. The Congress rule in Punjab did uplift the Dalits, but the lack of long-term policies have failed to sustain the progress.

The Left parties have been credited with having played a significant role in the social uplift of the Dalits. The influence of the Left in rural areas of Punjab grew considerably and in the 1977 Vidhan Sabha elections there were as many as 15 Dalit MLAs in the House. The Left’s firm belief that all are born equal and its categorical stand against casteism has played a significant role in bringing Dalits to the mainstream of social life.

Left leaders like Teja Singh Swatantar, Harnam Singh Chamak, Satpal Dang, Vimla Dang, Dalip Singh Singh Tapiala, Madan Lal Didi, Shiela Didi, Awtar Singh Malhotra, etc, played a definite role in empowering them.

Says Harish K. Puri, "The growth of communalism from the last quarter of the 19th century was related to the promotion of economic and political interests of the elite in each community and their domination over the lower castes. It blocked the path to an egalitarian society. The British rulers legitimised the order through measures like the Punjab Land Alienation Act, 1901, which debarred the lower castes from owning land. This ensured a vast reservoir of cheap bonded labour for cultivation and for other kinds of exploitation. After Independence, the first struggle launched by the Panthic leadership was for seeking the grant of the same constitutional status for "acchuts who had become Sikhs" as was given to ‘Hindu acchuts’.

"The Green Revolution added to the economic and political clout of the Jat land-owning class. Things could have improved had the land reforms been implemented as in West Bengal. The Jat control over the Shiromani Akali Dal since 1962 added to the fear and apprehension among the lower caste Sikhs.

"Considerable improvement has taken place in the social and economic conditions and empowerment of the Dalits under the impact of social welfare measures, spread of education, reservations, occupational change and political awareness. The emigration of a large number of Ad Dharmis from Doaba to foreign countries has provided visible signs of prosperity among Dalits. But the vast majority of Dalits are very poor; exploited and subjected to inhuman insults and atrocities, while the police more often than not takes the side of the oppressor. They may be the worst victims of liberalisation and privatisation. Their separate gurdwaras and separate cremation grounds in half of our villages are symbolic both of discrimination and awakening among the Dalits for assertion of their dignity. Their resistance and assertiveness is reflected in increasing incidence of caste tension and conflict."

Says Dr Jaspal Singh, "The recent events at Talhan village in Jalandhar, despite a caste veneer, have more subtle ramifications with a widespread fallout directly associated with the Dalit identity in the socio-economic structure of the state. Caste conflict in Punjab has once again exploded the myth of Sikhism being a casteless religion in practice." As a student of Dalit ideology, this commentator has found that recently a very strong tendency has been found among the Dalits to demand their share in the socio-political structure of the state which has been dominated by farming castes, particularly the Jats, so far. "There may not be any other situation like the one that developed at Talhan. Nevertheless, Dalit politics can become explosive with the passage of time. Already Punjab’s peasantry is in turmoil. A huge Dalit segment of population without any significant share in the state’s resources can open another front for the government to deal with. So far there has been no plan for manpower management in the state," Jaspal Singh says. He further adds, "The state planners have not yet given any viable model for the economic resurgence of Punjab that can take care of teeming millions. In the absence of such a policy, social and existential issues are highlighted and sometimes blown out of proportion to score a political point over the other. How the government planners manage these crises is yet to be seen. For political formations, it is imperative to retain support base among Dalits who keep on shifting their loyalties as a matter of political expediency like other castes and classes in the country."

Although the BSP has emerged as a major political platform for the representation of Dalits elsewhere in the country, it has failed to make its presence felt in Punjab. The Dalits of Punjab largely support the Congress.

According to informed observers, the Talhan incident is not mainly caste-related. It had its genesis in a battle for control between the Dalits and the Jats of Talhan for the smadh or gurdwara whose annual offerings amount to nearly Rs 5 crore.

Talhan, which has 7000 Dalits out of the total population of 9075, has a majority of its residents either living abroad or having blood relations living there. These NRIs, with their deep-rooted faith in this religious shrine, have made it cash-rich leading to tension between the leaders of the two communities.

The state and the Jalandhar police, which were caught on the wrong foot initially, finally succeeded in controlling the warring communities. As many as four compromises were reached between them under the supervision of the administration. Each of them failed because political parties were eager to capitalise on the emotive issue.

According to Ashok Gupta, Deputy Commissioner, Jalandhar, "The first compromise was reached in the presence of the ADC, Development. The second time it was at the residence of the Chief Minister. Third occasion was when both parties agreed to a compromise in my office, and finally ADGP Bhatti and myself were witness to an amicable agreement. However, the compromises were sabotaged by various political parties that wanted to keep the pot boiling in Talhan. They were not bothered about peace returning to the village."