Since March 26, Jagjit Kaur, 35, a resident of Qila Nau
village in Faridkot district of Punjab, hasn’t been able to prepare food at her
home owing to the nation-wide lockdown announced to contain the spread of
COVID-19. Like Jagjit, who belongs to the Dalit community, many members of the
lower-caste community have been forced to go hungry as their sources of
livelihood dry up. However, many organisation, including religious bodies, have
shunned the age-old caste discrimination in this time of crisis and have
offered to help the marginalised Dalit community.
Dominated by Sikhs, the state of Punjab has been seething
under caste discrimination since ages, even though Sikhism was formed on the
basis of equality for all. Separate places
of worship and cremation
grounds for Dalits in most villages of the state is a telltale sign of the intensity
of discrimination even among Sikhs.
Jagjit Kaur’s husband, who is a daily wage labourer, used to
earn Rs 350 per day before the restrictions were imposed in Punjab. Until two
months ago, she used to work as domestic help, but had to leave it after she
developed pain in her feet. She has a son who studies in the local government
school in standard eight.
However, amid the pandemic, the practice of caste
discrimination in the rural parts of Punjab, where it was the order of the day,
has ceased to exist. In several villages, gurudwaras meant for ‘Jat’ Sikhs who
earlier had strict norms for serving of ‘langar’ (community kitchen) to the
Dalits have opened their doors for everyone including those in the lowest rung
of the caste hierarchy.
Dalits, who form 32% of the total population and majority of whom are living below poverty line in
Punjab, have suddenly found a ‘friend’ in those who were the cause of their low
status in the social hierarchy, upper-caste ‘Jat’ Sikhs.
Most of the gurdwaras are now preparing the food and sending
it to the homes of poor Dalits.
The lockdown in the country brought all activities to a halt
rendering thousands of daily wage labourers, who happen to be Dalits in Punjab,
Qila Nau village has a population of over 4,400, out of which more than 2,200 (50.60%) are
Dalits. There are a total of five small and big gurdwaras including those
belonging to the Jats, but they are all contributing to help the Dalit
The sarpanch of the village Qila Nau Amaninder Singh
informed that the village has a gurdwara for Dalits and one for Jats besides
three others. “However, all the religious places have come together in the
fight against the coronavirus. The majority Dalit population of the village
works as daily wage labourers, and as a result, they have no means of earning
at this time,” said Amaninder.
He informed that help has also poured in from NRIs, mostly
Jats, who are sending money to procure ration. The food includes rice and
vegetable in the morning and vegetable and ‘chapatis’ in the evening that is
prepared at one of the gurdwaras.
The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), a Sikh
body that is responsible for the management of gurdwaras, has also asked the
religious institutions to prepare food and distribute it to the poor Dalits.
“The principle of Sikhism – ‘Sarbat Da Bhala’ (Welfare of
all) is being fulfilled now as there is no caste discrimination at this point
of time. All gurdwaras are serving to the poor who don’t have anything to eat
during this time when a lockdown is in place. The SGPC has asked everyone to
come and make donations so that no poor [person] sleeps hungry,” said Paramjit
Khalsa, a member of SGPC, Barnala district.
A resident of Balad Kalan village of Sangrur district Amrit
Singh, 48, a member of the Dalit community who works as a mason, stated that he
stays at home these days as there is no source of income. “The local gurdwara
is providing food to us twice in a day. I used to earn at least Rs 300 a day,
as people sought my services when I stood at the labour hub in Sangrur.
However, due to the strict lockdown in Punjab, I am unable to visit the place, hence,
losing my daily income. Youth from different castes help in the distribution of
langar in the village that is helping in our survival," he added.
Another Dalit community member Daljit Singh, 40, a resident
of Hirewala village in Mansa district, stated that the caste discrimination in
his community has become minimal and people from upper castes have become
generous towards them in the village. "We are receiving help not only from
the local gurdwara but even from the well-off upper-caste families. I wish this
harmony continues even after the disease (COVID-19) is over," he
Saudagar Singh Ghudani, general secretary of the Bharatiya
Kisan Union (Ugrahan), an organisation working for the interests of labourers
including Dalit workers, stated that Dalit workers are facing hardships in the
wake of the lockdown. "Almost all the Dalit workers are daily wage
labourers and are dependent on money that they earn every day. After the
lockdown, there is no work due to which these Dalit workers across the state
are not able to buy ration and other essential commodities. If the situation
prevails for more days, it will be the Dalit workers who will suffer the
most," he added.
With the highest concentration in Punjab, Dalits are among
the most affected by the lockdown. The Scheduled Caste labour force constitutes
35.88%, out of which, 79.20% and 20.80% are main and marginal workers
respectively. The majority of this segment of society is agricultural labourers
or is engaged in low wage and arduous occupation, as per the official data for Punjab. The members of the SC community professing Sikhism in Punjab account for 59.9%, followed by
Even in Sangrur and Barnala district, cases of
discrimination had come to the fore in the past where Dalits were not allowed
to sit in langar or even to use utensils to perform religious ceremonies at Gurdwaras
meant for members of the upper-caste.
Dalits possess only 63,480 (6.02%), out of the total operational land holdings
of nearly 10,53,000 in Punjab. On the other hand, out of the total 5.23 lakh Below
Poverty Line (BPL) families in Punjab, 3.21 lakh families (61.4%) are
In Barnala, Baba Gandha Singh Gurdwara that is open-for-all
is exclusively making and serving food to the poor Dalits. The food is packed
and taken to the homes of Dalits for distribution. Many people also come to
have food as part of ‘langar’, however, the administration was discouraging
gatherings at religious places as well.
Mahi Pal, state finance secretary of Dehati Mazdoor Sabha
that works for Dalit workers in Punjab, said that COVID-19 was able to break
the centuries-old discrimination based on caste. “Discrimination besides
poverty and malnourishment was the major problems that we are fighting against
in the state since years,” said Pal.
Interestingly Mahi Pal himself is a Brahmin but has been
leading agitations for Dalits in the state.
“Unless we come out of the caste discrimination, we cannot
empower the poor Dalits and they cannot come out of the vicious circle of
poverty. The present situation has taught everyone in Punjab that no one is
above humanity and each individual should help others irrespective of their
caste,” he added.
Pic 1: Food is being served in a Gurudwara in Barnala
Pic 2: While womenfolk prepare food at a Gurudwara in
Barnala, men wait for its distribution
Pic 3: Women preparing 'chapatis' at a Barnala Gurudwara
Pic 4: Food being distributed in Qila Nau village in
Pic 5: Preparation of food at a Gurudwara in Qila Nau
Pic 6: Food being prepared at Qila Nau village
Pic 7: Women preparing food at Gurudwara in Qila Nau
Pic 8: Food being prepared by men at Gurudwara in Qila Nau
101 Stories Around The WebExplore All News