Why Dalit Sikhs of Punjab's Bathinda are nonchalant towards elections, debate around caste, quota and development

Arjun Sharma | Feb 17, 2019 | 5 min read


After discrimination, oppression, Punjab’s Dalits have a new problem at hand — Muscular Hindutva     

By Arjun Sharma

Ludhiana: As the 2019 general elections looms large in the horizon, Doaba region in Punjab is faced with a new development – the rising conflict between its Dalits and Hindutva groups. Growing Dalit assertion in the area and a steady inroad of right-wing organisations in the state also points at the changing nature of electoral politics. With Hindu organisations aggressively trying to pursue its agendas, there is a palpable discontentment among the Dalit population who believe sustained efforts are being made to reduce their influence in the region.  

At nearly 32%, Punjab, among all states, has the highest population of Dalits in the country and most of them are concentrated in Doaba that includes the districts of Jalandhar, Phagwara, Nawanshahr and Hoshiarpur. The state accounts for 4.3% of the total scheduled caste populace in the country. 

Dalits here have had frequent clashes with the upper-caste Sikh community as the two groups fight over social, economic and political issues. Suffering caste-based discrimination and disillusioned with Sikhism, the Dalits here have sought security in the deras, which dot Punjab’s periphery. Many young Dalits have also taken to music for a strong, unapologetic way of asserting their identities. In what is known as ‘chamar pop’, foot-tapping music brings to light the aspirations, caste-consciousness as well as works of B R Ambedkar and Guru Ravidas, a 19th century saint.

Renowned Punjabi writer and author of the popular book ‘Changiya Rukh’, Balbir Madhopuri, said, “The Dalits have fought against any community or group which has tried to suppress it. The Ad-dharmi movement, which was started by Mangu Ram Mugowalia against the caste system, brought to light how Dalits were not Hindus but mulnivasis (indigenous people) of the country. It also affirmed that the Dalits were not in the lowest rung of hierarchy in the society.”

Madhopuri also added that barring entry of Dalits into gurdwaras by upper-caste Sikhs had manifested in the former’s patronage of deras in the state.

Bulldozing Dalit strongholds

As the Lok Sabha polls near, experts believe that instances of Dalits and Hindu outfits could become common as several right-wing groups try to garner support for the BJP in power. The situation had changed drastically after the Narendra Modi-led government came to power and several Hindu groups started “bulldozing” through Dalit strongholds in the region.  

A senior functionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Jalandhar, who did not wish to be named, said, “Before each election, we hold meetings with the spiritual leaders in the deras. With the BJP in power, the meetings this time will be different.”

The Dalit followers of deras are infuriated over these new developments, said experts.

Phagwara clashes

In the days leading up to BR Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, on April 14, the increase activities of Hindu outfits and simmering discontent among Dalits had led to what is known as the Phagwara clashes. Activists of the Ambedkar Sena (Mool Niwasi) (ASMN) had tried to change the name of an intersection called Gol Chowk to ‘Samvidhan Chowk’, a move that was opposed by Shiv Sena members and other Hindutva groups. This had led to a violent clash during which a Dalit youth succumbed to his injuries. Some leaders of the Shiv Sena and other outfits were later arrested.

Ronki Ram, professor of the political science department at the Panjab University, said, “The Dalits also fear that the present regime could change reservation policies. There is also an apprehension that the varna system or hierarchy of castes could again come into effect. This is a new force that they now have to deal with, even as their differences with Jats, upper caste Sikh still continue.”

Changing socio-political dynamics

The surge of right-wing groups in the region and its changing socio-political structure became apparent as early as 2016 when Sikhs, Dalits and Muslims had united against the Shiv Sena in Phagwara district after the latter had allegedly raised slogans against Muslims in the district. A small population of Phagwara Muslims took out a protest on July 2016 against Shiv Sena members who had called the former “Pakistanis” and painted slogans outside their shops. This agitation against the right-wing group was supported by both Dalits and Sikhs of the region. Stones were pelted at Shiv Sena activists and the glass shield of an idol inside a temple was damaged during the protests.

Defying ghar wapsi

Of the 37 scheduled castes in Punjab, Mazhabi, Chamar, Ad Dharmi, Balmiki and Bazigar together constitute 86.8 % of the total Dalit population. At 31.6%, the Mazhabi is numerically the largest SC community, followed by Chamar (26.2 %), Ad Dharmi (14.9 %), Balmiki (11.2 %) and Bazigar (3.0 %).

RSS’ aggressive “ghar wapsi” programme has also been another bone of contention among Dalits, many of whom have converted to Buddhism and Christianity following incessant caste-based harassment. Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, the Sikh-wing of RSS, is believed to have reconverted hundreds of Dalit groups. Due to reconversion efforts, however, the 2011 Census showed a fall in numbers.”

According to official figures, the number of Buddhist followers had droped from 0.17 % in 2001 to 0.12% in 2011. But the population of Christians rose from 1.20 % to 1.26 % during the same period. Darapuri further said that the RSS’s focus now was to reconvert the Dalit Christians.

Reacting to accusations made by some about reconversions made under threat, a senior Rashtriya Sikh Sangat functionary, who did not wish to be named, said, “We do not force people to reconvert. Ghar wapsi is done purely on a religious basis. Many Dalit Sikhs who had converted to other religions were brought back into Sikhism of their own accord.”


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