Political movements that couldn’t hold
Fighting for land which is theirs
discrimination, some hope
Moving abroad worked for Doaba Dalits
Litterateurs, singers lend pride
Education in letter, not spirit
Despite reservation in the state legislature and even Parliament, Dalit leaders have failed in lending their voice to the cause of a sizeable 32 per cent population in Punjab, the highest proportion among all states. Dalits made some headway in talking about their identity in the Doaba region in the 1930s, with a population base of 40 per cent, but the movement lost its way in the state politics dominated largely by the Jat Sikhs of Malwa.
Dalit politics seemed set for a revolution in 2003, when they came face to face with the Jats of Talhan village in Jalandhar district. The conflict emanated from Dalits demanding representation in the management of the local religious shrine. Another turning point came in 2009, when Sant Ramanand of Dera Ballan was killed in Austria. Dalit violence came on the roads in both instances, but in the absence of a united front, the voice died down.
Prof HK Puri (political science, GNDU) says: "The political pathway of Dalits in the state changed with their leaders more inclined towards a share in power rather than individual identity. Power lay in the hands of the Congress and the SAD. Different groups of Dalits aligned with parties according to their convenience. An egalitarian look became more central to this category of Dalit leaders than attempt for any political power, weakening the group."
A Ravidasia ‘chamar’, Mangu Ram Muggowalia — during 1920s in the US — emerged as a flag-bearer for the rights of the downtrodden. After he came to India, he launched the Ad-Dharmi movement because he believed that no ‘real’ freedom was possible in India without a social revolution. The reformist sect, however, evolved into just one among 39 other reserved castes in the state.
Congress minister Master Gurbanta Singh was also earlier associated with the Ad-Dharmis based at the Dharm Mandal (Guru Ravidas Gurudwara at Kishanpura, Jalandhar). He was considered to be close to BR Ambedkar. His son, Chaudhary Jagjit Singh, became the party face for the Dalits.
During the 1960s, Dalits formed the Republican Party under the leadership of Piara Ram Dhanowalia and registered limited success in joining the first-ever non-Congress government of Justice Gurnam Singh of the SAD.
Prof Manjit Singh, department of sociology, Panjab University, says Ad-Dharmis lost their cause on account of its mission to combine the spiritual with the economic and social activities by creating "Dalit elites".
Born in Ropar, leading Dalit crusader Kanshi Ram delivered his dream of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh. His earlier initiative had failed to find a mass base in Punjab. The Dalit leader was instrumental in setting up the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti in 1981. In his addresses, Kanshi Ram, a former MP from Hoshiarpur, would ask his followers "to shed their caste inhibitions and instead take pride in their social standing". The emergence of deras, a majority of which catered to the Dalits, became strong centres of community vote share. The babas of deras, including Dera Sachkhand Ballan, started visiting the UK. Soon, the visits abroad became common, bringing in finances that helped them in getting a share in the state politics pie. The Doaba region alone had half of the total 60 deras in the state.
Buta Singh, a Majhbi Sikh, was elected to the Lok Sabha eight times on the Congress ticket. He was part of Indira Gandhi’s coterie, but failed to give a voice to his community. Joginder Mann, nephew of Buta Singh, despite being elected to the state Assembly thrice, was later denied party ticket.
Mohinder Singh Kaypee, a leading Congress leader, has been the party face among Dalits in recent times. His father, Darshan Singh Kaypee, was a five-time MLA from Jalandhar. The party high command also appointed him as the working president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee.
The SAD is known for its close alignment with groups other than "chamars". Dhamma Singh Gulshan, a strong Dalit voice, was an MP from Bathinda in 1962 and 1977. His daughter Paramjit Kaur Gulshan was elected in 2004.
Pawan Teenu from Jalandhar is the military face of Dalit representation. The Akalis and BJP have in recent times given special attention to Dalits by inducting Bhagat Chunni Lal (Kabirpanthi), singer Hans Raj Hans (Valmiki) and Som Prakash (Ad-Dharmi) in their parties. – Sanjeev Bariana
Dalits are still unable to take panchayat lands reserved for Scheduled Castes members on lease in auction for cultivation. This is the reason why big farmers in most villages have been cultivating lands meant for SCs for the past 40 years after paying meager amounts. In some cases, influential farmers have managed lands for their men in auction through panchayat officials.
Since the implementation of the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Rules 1964, one-third of cultivable panchayat land in villages has been reserved for members of the SC community for lease through auction. Till recently, the cultivation of reserved lands was done by big farmers in a smooth manner. But with awareness growing among Dalits about their rights and hike in the prices of farm lands, food grain and fodder, Dalits have started raising their voice against this practice.
This year, at some places, Dalits refused to allow the continuation of the decades-old system. Though the auction of land in about 400 villages of Sangrur district was conducted smoothly, Dalits of four-five villages raised a banner of revolt. This also happened in some villages of other districts like Ludhiana (Chuharpur village), Jalandhar (Mallian Kalan, Dayalpura villages) and Gurdaspur (Sidhwan Jamit village).
Agitating Dalits have also been struggling to get the reserved lands at low rates on lease in auction on the plea that they cannot pay huge amounts for cultivating lands. In the four villages of Baopur (Moonak), Matoi (Malerkotla), Balad Kalan (Bhawanigarh) and Mirza Patti Namol (Sunam), Dalits launched agitations in May for getting the lands on lease for genuine Dalit cultivators at low rates. During the protest, the Dalits of Baopur village had to face social boycott though they succeeded in getting the reserved land (26 acres) at low rates. They managed to get the land for just Rs 6.12 lakh and are now undertaking joint farming there.
At Balad Kalan village, the matter is still unresolved while Matoi village issue has not died down. The auction of land at Mirza Patti Namol has been put off. Amrik Singh, a Dalit leader of Mirza Patti Namol, alleges that some upper caste people of the village had announced their social boycott.
Krishan Singh Jassal, a Dalit leader of Baopur village, spearheaded the agitation to get reserved land for all 105 Dalit families of the village for cultivation. They had to fight for two months, but they succeeded in getting the land. The land is now being cultivated by all the families jointly.
Ram Singh and Sandeep Kaur of Matoi village also sought the cancellation of auction of 17 bighas, alleging that in place of the successful bidder, another farmer was cultivating it. They claim due to their agitation, they were now getting fodder from the fields of a particular community instead of big farmers.
Rampal Singh, a Dalit from Balad Kalan village, says Dalits did not have land to sow fodder so they were getting fodder from fields of small farmers as big farmers were not allowing them to do so.
Amrik Singh from Mirza Patti Namol alleges that some landlords were creating hurdles in holding the auction of 6 acres as they wanted to give the land to their own men. – Sushil Goyal
There is a perceptible change in Punjab in the 21st century to improve the socio-economic condition of Dalits by providing them with opportunities in the decision-making process, education, healthcare facilities and job avenues. But still the age-old pervasiveness of caste discrimination, atrocities against women and suppression of the labour force prevails.
The caste system has compelled uneducated Dalits to perform low-end jobs like skinning animals, disposing of dead animals, cleaning streets and toilets, and in many cases, even scavenging.
Often, they face taunts from upper caste people regarding their jobs and dependence on reservation for education and jobs. "We want to change these social impressions, but the influence of upper castes in the political and social system is like a wall between the communities," says Sarwan Kumar of Moga city.
Dalip Singh Pandhi, a member of the Punjab State Commission for Scheduled Castes, says the caste hierarchy has put the Dalits at the lowest rung. Their houses are segregated from other parts of the village and lack basic amenities. The recent outbreak of diarrhoea in a Dalit locality at Rania village in Moga district exposes the apathy of government agencies in providing potable water to people. This is not the case of one village or a district, Dalit localities in the entire state are a picture of neglect and discrimination as far as development goes.
Even though Dalits have a significant presence in the Panchayati Raj system, hundreds of villages in Punjab lack pucca streets, disposal of waste water, supply of potable water, access to quality education and medical care and other amenities in their localities.
Women at receiving end
The condition of women and children is deplorable. Women face the worst kind of discrimination in the form of rape, sexual harassment, physical torture and domestic violence. More than 500 cases of atrocities, including incidents of sexual abuse against Dalit women, were reported in the state in recent years. The actual figures may be much higher because most cases go unreported due to social stigma.
Unfortunately, the conviction rate in such cases is less than 25 per cent, putting a question mark on the efficiency of investigating agencies and prosecutors. Most sexual abuse cases against minors are reported in the Dalit community. "It is the duty of the state government to take care of the poor and deprived children and protect them from sexual harassment," says Bhupinder Kaur Preet, a poet and member of the state Sahitya Akademi.
Despite reservation in government jobs, the SC workforce in the state during the SAD-BJP rule has decreased by 7,572 employees from 2007 to 2013. As per a government report, in 2007, the strength of SC employees in government departments was 73,557; in 2008 it increased marginally to 74,333. Since then, the graph is on the decline — 69,686 (2009), 71,539 (2010), 66,834 (2011) and 65,985 (2012, till March 31, 2013).
The new generation has started going to schools and colleges. In 1980, no SC student was enrolled in the universities of Punjab for PhD and only six boys were enrolled in MPhil courses. Over the years, the trend has changed in higher education. In 2009, 49 students, including 23 girls, enrolled for PhD courses and the strength increased to 120 (53 girls) in 2012. Similarly, for MPhil courses, there were 40 students in 2009 and this figure increased to 56 in 2012. As many as 491 Dalit students enrolled in state universities in 1980 for MA. This strength increased to 1,658 in 2012.
Not only this, in 2009 there were 583 MBBS students. The number went up to 751 in 2012. In the past few years, the numbers of Dalit girls have surpassed boys in MBBS course. In 2012, 447 girls got admission against 304 boys.
The enrollment of Dalits in BEd courses increased from 1,618 in 2010 to 3,195 in 2012. In BA, their enrollment increased from 5,823 students in 1980 to 22,908 in 2012. In BSc, 444 got admission in 1980, which increased to 2,521 in 2012. – Kulwinder Sandhu
Doaba region is famous for two factors — NRI hub and Dalit predominance. The inclination to explore foreign horizons among residents has played a vital role in the uplift of Dalits. They have gone to Arab countries and have also set up businesses in the West. The improvement in their financial condition has helped them resist discriminatory attitude of society. Makhan Lohar of Loharan village near Phagwara moved to the US 15 years ago, where he runs a grocery store. He has also built a house for his parents in the village. Recalling his old days, he says: “My father would do manual labour. People, particularly the landed community, would look down upon us. After moving to the US, our financial condition started improving. We are five siblings. I helped them settle down. Like me, they too are leading a good lifestyle. One of my brothers has moved to Italy. The other one has joined the Punjab Police. My brothers-in-law have shifted to Greece and Dubai.” Several Dalit families have migrated to the Gulf and European countries. “Earlier, there were hardly any ‘kothis’ in my locality. But now there are many,” he says. He feels there are still certain elements in society that look down upon Dalits. “They don’t say anything openly because of strict laws,” he says. Till two years ago, there was a separate cremation ground for Dalits. The Punjabi community abroad also has a discriminatory attitude. There are separate gurdwaras in California for different communities. Harjinder Singh, a 30-year-old tent house owner of Mehmadpur village in Adampur tehsil, says his grandfather used to be a farm labourer. Tired of the life they were leading, his father learnt masonry and migrated to Bahrain. He spent around 25 years abroad, which helped him improve the financial condition of the family. “My brother was in Cyprus. I have opened a tent house and am earning relatively better. We constructed a new house recently,” he says. A better living standard has also helped change people’s attitude towards them. “Because of strict laws, people are careful but some continue to be unfair towards Dalits,” he adds.
– Gagandeep Singh
Makhan Lohar of Loharan village near Phagwara moved to the US 15 years ago, where he runs a grocery store. He has also built a house for his parents in the village. Recalling his old days, he says: “My father would do manual labour. People, particularly the landed community, would look down upon us. After moving to the US, our financial condition started improving. We are five siblings. I helped them settle down. Like me, they too are leading a good lifestyle. One of my brothers has moved to Italy. The other one has joined the Punjab Police. My brothers-in-law have shifted to Greece and Dubai.”
Several Dalit families have migrated to the Gulf and European countries. “Earlier, there were hardly any ‘kothis’ in my locality. But now there are many,” he says. He feels there are still certain elements in society that look down upon Dalits. “They don’t say anything openly because of strict laws,” he says. Till two years ago, there was a separate cremation ground for Dalits.
The Punjabi community abroad also has a discriminatory attitude. There are separate gurdwaras in California for different communities. Harjinder Singh, a 30-year-old tent house owner of Mehmadpur village in Adampur tehsil, says his grandfather used to be a farm labourer. Tired of the life they were leading, his father learnt masonry and migrated to Bahrain. He spent around 25 years abroad, which helped him improve the financial condition of the family. “My brother was in Cyprus. I have opened a tent house and am earning relatively better. We constructed a new house recently,” he says. A better living standard has also helped change people’s attitude towards them. “Because of strict laws, people are careful but some continue to be unfair towards Dalits,” he adds. – Gagandeep Singh
Literature is an effective non-violent tool to address social issues. Dalits know that and have been using it to raise their voice. Among the writers of 1960s and 70s, who raised Dalit issues vehemently, were Sant Ram Udasi, Gurdial Singh and Lal Singh Dil. Contemporary Dalit writers like Des Raj Kali and Balbir Madhopuri have written several books on the plight of the community. Consequently, a platform has come up, where their problems can be discussed.
Apart from this, a YouTube channel, Dalitcamera Ambedkar, is being run on Dalit issues from South India. Perhaps Punjab will follow suit. Certain Dalit singers in the Doaba region mention their caste in songs. They are proud of their caste, which was a " till a few decades ago.
Jnanpith Literary Award winning Punjabi novelist Gurdial Singh says he has written about Dalits and other sections of society that have been oppressed and discriminated against. Two of his novels — Marhi Da Deeva (1964) and Anhe Ghore Da Daan (1976) — depict the plight of Dalits. "While Marhi Da Deeva represents the agony of a ‘seerin’ (landless labourer), Anhe Ghore Da Daan addresses the issue of the entire community’s migration to cities," he says.
His novels are not just based on personal experiences, but are also a study of society.
Balbir Madhopuri, Sahitya Akademi Award for Translation (2013) recipient, has written 12 books. All his books depict the angst of the Dalit community. Born in the same community in Madhopur village of Jalandhar district, Madhopuri says he was subjected to discrimination at a very tender age when he started working as a child labourer with an agriculturist.
"My autobiography Changiya Rukh (2002) was translated into many languages including Hindi and English. It is the first Dalit autobiography that has been rendered into English," he says.
Sixty-year-old Madhopuri says the book highlights Dalit issues like discrimination in rural Punjab, ban on entry to religious places, social segregation, separate cremation grounds, poverty and starvation. "I feel the situation is better than before. The discriminatory attitude has reduced in rural areas. Untouchability does not exist, but casteism is on the rise. Dalit intellectuals and literature based on our issues played a vital role in minimising the unfair treatment meted out to the community," he adds.
Jalandhar-based storyteller Des Raj Kali has written several books addressing Dalit issues of Doaba. His books Fakiri, Parameshwari, Pratham Poran and Shanti Parav are based on reality. "For my contribution to Dalit literature, I was honoured at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2009," he says. Kali believes that the Dalits of the Doaba region have different issues from the rest of Punjab. However, caste-based discrimination and social segregation are common problems that Dalits face across India.
SS Azad, a singer from Amargarh village in Nawanshahr district, dedicated his song ‘Ankhi put chamaran de’ to the Dalit youth. The song has been very popular among community members. He used to work as a farm labourer as a child. "All that I have experienced made me write the song. We should be proud of whatever we are. I don’t mind being called ‘chamar’ if it is not meant to offend me," says Azad. – Gagandeep Singh
An elderly woman, a middle-aged man and a pre-teen boy are sitting on a charpoy at Kaunke village in Ludhiana district. The boy, a class VI student of a government school, reads out from his English book. He can form words, but has no clue what they mean.
He says hesitantly that his ambition is to run a shop. His grandmother flaunts a pair of shiny black shoes, saying the school provides him with uniform, shoes and midday meals. They believe they have no reason to complain about his education.
Though Punjab has the highest number of Dalits, they are not a homogenous group. Apart from caste hierarchies, there is a visible rural-urban divide that is further impacted by the economic status. Dalits on the lower rung experience marginalisation in all spheres, including education.
The promise and reality
The education of children from economically weak Dalit families is confined to government schools. Though the RTE Act says an aided school shall provide elementary education to a minimum 25 per cent children from poor sections, this has not been implemented even though a notification was issued in 2011 by the state government.
"Private schools make excuses to not admit poor children," claims Paramjit Singh Kainth, president, Chamar Mahan Sabha. Dalit leaders say education marginalisation is enmeshed in the system. Mewa Singh Gujjarwal, president of the Shiromani Dalit Dal, says the Act is toothless. "Inclusive education is a distant dream. Government schools are understaffed and lack infrastructure."
"Private schools claim they have not got the notification. No penalty is imposed on such schools," says Arun Sidhu, a Dalit leader. "Scholarships and grants meant for poor sections are being diverted. The Centre’s post-matric scholarship scheme is not benefiting Dalits," claims Gujjarwal.
Jobs are elusive too. A postgraduate girl from Jagraon has received higher education.
She has a BEd degree and is seeking a government job. "Ambitions shrivel up when the harsh reality of unemployment hits you," says a village elder.
"Without caring for the impact of caste dynamics on a child’s mind, teachers often ask SC students to stand up for identification for grants. The motive may be innocuous, but it hurts the child’s self-esteem. I know of girls from urban areas who could not avail of any benefit as they did not want to be singled out," says Sidhu. – Minna Zutshi