In Punjab Villages, COVID-19 Is Dissolving Some Caste Divides Among Sikhs

In Punjab Villages, COVID-19 Is Dissolving Some Caste Divides Among Sikhs

In Punjab Villages, COVID-19 Is Dissolving Some Caste Divides Among Sikhs

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, workless.

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 community. 

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 said. 

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.  

 

Coming together

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 Hinduism (39.6%). 

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 Dalits. 

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.


Picture Captions:

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 Faridkot

Pic 5: Preparation of food at a Gurudwara in Qila Nau village 

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

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