The run up to elections in Punjab is turning out to be quite interesting.
If all the 30% or so dalit voters of Punjab vote for Charanjit Singh Channi then he is likely to lead the Congress party to another sure shot victory. Channi as CM would mean a symbolic end to the already eroding hold of Jats over the public life of Punjab. Channi’s victory would loudly announce that the domination of public life in Punjab by the Jats is over.
The only fly in the ointment currently is the wariness of Channi’s party in declaring him the CM candidate. The Congress High Command’s insistence that the leader of the legislative group will be selected only after the elections clearly signals its hesitancy in handing over the reins of the state to a dalit.
In the absence of Channi as the key-stone, the Congress party becomes indistinguishable from all other parties and, people just might opt for a change and vote for a party that has never been in power in Punjab.
Sensing the public mood, the possibility of actually gaining a majority in Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party has distanced itself from the sundry Khalistani ideologues who seemed to be part of its election campaign five years ago.
The fact is that Khalistanis, mostly jats based in Canada, UK and USA with only a tenuous link to Punjab, have been rendered irrelevant today except as nuisance makers who might engender some violence with the help of the Pakistani deep state.
The jats, who make up about 20% of the population of Punjab own almost all the land in the state today. Made up of over 900 sub-castes/families, these were people who were involved in diverse occupations such as farming, soldiering and cattle herding. The Land Alienation Act of 1900, which limited the ownership of land in Punjab only to cultivating castes quickly solidified their identity as ‘farmers’ and ensured that no other social group could become owners of agricultural land. In a non-industrial society, with a negligible service sector, this became a major source of power. The jats quickly took over control of almost all public spaces in Punjab. By the late 1970s some of them even began to imagine for themselves a separate country for Sikhs and imagined a name for it, Khalistan. That is another matter that apart from Harmandir Sahib, most of the holiest places of the Sikhs were in territories now under the control of Pakistan and not in India.
An unintended consequence of the law of 1900, was that the poorer groups of Punjab, the ones who actually worked on the land and constituted almost the entire agricultural work force, were formally deprived of any ownership of land. The working of the law reduced them to the condition which is best captured by the word ‘dalit’.
With no other resource left to them, they made a great effort to make use of education and professions that did not depend on land. The transformations of the past three decades in Punjab provided prosperity to those who took to education and, who did not depend on land for their income.
They were further helped by the rise of a service economy, which today constitutes over half of the total annual income in Punjab. They got educated and also began exploring the new avenues for wealth creation. Immigration and the availability of opportunities to grow in the caste neutral west only added to their prosperity.
The first flush of this new wealth was invested in creating a more dignified life for those who were still based in Punjab. Paramjit Judge and Gurpreet Bal in their study of dalit communities of Punjab have shown how one of the first things to be done with the newly acquired wealth was to make a pucca house back home for the family members who still lived and worked in the village. A striking facility in these new homes was a toilet.
Over a decade ago Navjot Singh Sidhu, then still in alliance with the SAD, is said to have patronisingly quipped in Amritsar: ‘Na rahega kooda, na rahega chooda’. Taking umbrage at this the Balmiki leader Darshan Ratan Ravan is said to have responded, ‘Na rahega jooda’. The incumbent Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, seeking an election victory, was quick to step in and assuage any feelings of hurt on the part of the Balmiki community.It is in this historical background that self-made people like Charanjit Channi are rooted. They aren’t looking for patronage any more.
The search for dignity had earlier motivated many dalit men to join the ranks of the terrorists. Harish Puri and others documented in great detail how many dalit men took to terrorism in the 1980s merely to have the pleasure of being addressed with some dignity as ‘babaji’ rather than the usual disrespectful words that were used for them. The efforts of police leaders like K P S Gill put an end to that particular source of advancement.
The matter of control over public spaces and assertions of dignity — often involving jats trying to discipline dalits — then began to revolve around what in India is euphemistically called ‘hurt religious feelings’. In the decades that followed pitched battles between warring groups shut down large parts of Punjab for days on end in the name of someone or the other having dishonoured religion. We and other scholars have documented in detail the conflict around Baba Bhaniarawala, the conflict around the Dera Sacha Sauda, the conflict around the Ravidasi deras and others. The Ravidasis ended the conflict, as Ronki Ram has documented, by declaring themselves to be an independent religion that had nothing to do with Sikhism any more. Conflicts around the matter of dishonor to religion also took place in the run up to the elections of 2017. When some people tried to light the same fire once again, Channi’s government was quick to take action against all concerned and quell any disturbance.
Previous chief ministers were wary of stepping in to curb religion driven madness. Earlier Sardar Partap Singh Kairon was perhaps the only chief minister (1956-63) who forced religion into the background and punished severely those who tried to play up religion in public life.
As of today the conflictual politics of Punjab seems to have run out of religious steam. What is left is the attractive religious tourism circuit which pulls in lots of money, employs a large number of people. It also gels well with the natural instinct of Punjabis to be hospitable and friendly. It provides opportunities to everyone irrespective of caste, religion or family. Once the covid lockdowns are lifted in a few months, this part of the economy will come alive once again for it mostly depends on the prosperous Punjabi visitor from abroad who are eager to root themselves in Punjab. The next CM of Punjab just might have the ability to nurture this economy even better and ensure that conflicts in the name of religion do not happen any more.
(M Rajivlochan is Professor, History, Panjab University, Chandigarh)
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