Saturday, 20 June 2009

DALITS OF PUNJAB
Harish K. Puri,

Diversities--religious, cultural, linguistic, economic and
political-- are a known hallmark of Indian society. These
diversities are not confined to the upper castes, since diversities
relating to the position of Dalits in India are enormous. These
cover a wide range of local and regional differences in the
historical evolution of caste hierarchies; in the differential impact
of socio-economic changes and the state's affirmative actions; in
individual and collective Dalit aspirations and coping strategies;
and in the experiences of Dalit political resistance and mobilization
within different regions of India. One simply cannot ignore the fact
that the structure and evolution of caste and untouchability are
socio-historical phenomena which are going to vary and change
according to specific conditions and circumstances.

Weak Brahmanic Influence

The state of Punjab has been, for example, known as a "notable
exception" to the widely prevalent Brahmanic view of caste and
untouchability in India. Denzil Ibbetson, who conducted the first
serious study of Punjab castes in 1881, discovered that Brahmanic
influence was "probably never so strong in Punjab as in most other
parts of India". Scholars of ancient history noticed that Brahmanic
orthodoxy had "practically abandoned" the Punjab region, probably
because of a continuous influx of aggressive people of diverse racial
and cultural characteristics, and shifted quite early in history to
the Indo-Gangetic region. Ibbetson thought that the influence of
Islam in the Punjab may also have weakened Brahmanic influence. He
observed that by religion the Punjab was "more Mohammedan than
Hindu" and that "the people of Punjab are bound by social and tribal
custom far more than by any rules of religion" such as ritual purity.
The different material conditions of life may also have been part of
the reason why the knowledge generated from the experience of life
associated with the Sant tradition of North India was able to
strongly contest the Brahmanic sources of knowledge (Dharamsastras,
Smritis and Puranas) in this region. The teachings of Sufi saints,
Kabir, Ravidas and the Sikh Gurus, who ridiculed Brahminic knowledge
and ritual, appear to have exercised noticeable influence on the
thinking of the people of this region. Later, the struggle for
removal of untouchability, started by the Arya Samaj and the Singh
Sabhas in the last quarter of 19th century, and the provision for
education and upliftment of Dalits all contributed to weakening the
ideological hold of the purity-pollution syndrome. Whereas
untouchability has been less of a problem in Punjab than elsewhere in
India, the material base of caste division and the vested interests
of the dominating landowning caste have proven to be more significant
grounds for discrimination, exploitation and oppression of Dalits.

Another significant feature of Dalit life in this region has been
their use of the weapons of the weak to resist oppression. This is
noticeable in the few Dalit autobiographies and literature in the
Punjabi language, but more importantly in the distinctly Dalit-led
and organized Ad Dharm movement launched in 1925. Confined almost
exclusively to the more progressive segment of the Chamar caste, the
Ad Dharm (i.e., original or ancient religion) developed a proud and
distinct religio-political identity of pride around Ravidas as the
chief deity; the use of new symbols, prayers, rituals, flag, dress,
salutations; and claims for a communal share in political
representation. " We are not Hindus . . . We are the original
people of this country", it was asserted. "There was a time when we
ruled India, . . . The Hindu qaum came from outside and enslaved
us." It was a tremendous boost to their claims when the Commissioner
for the 1931 Census allowed them to record their religious identity
as 'Ad Dharm' in place of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian. As many
as 418,789 Dalits registered themselves as Ad Dharmis in that census.
In the 1937 elections Ad Dharmis captured seven of the eight seats
reserved for Scheduled Castes in the Punjab Legislative Council.
Although the movement declined after the mid -1940s, it is believed
that the early beginnings of the violent conflict that took place
recently in village Talhan of Jalandhar district can be traced to
the radicalization of Dalit consciousness and to the resulting
conflict and confrontation with the Arya Samajist and Sikh leadership
pf the 1930s.

The Religious Factor

The Punjab state has, at present, the largest proportion of the
Scheduled Caste population, 28.3% according to the 1991 Census as
compared to the all-India average of 16.4%. When the classified data
for the 2001 Census becomes available, the proportion may have risen
to above 30%. More than one-fourth of Punjab's villages have an
average Dalit population of over 40% and in some villages such as
Talhan, mentioned above, it is above 65%.

The fact that Punjab is the home of Sikhism has also made a
significant difference in the prevalence of caste and untouchability
in the region. Following the partition of the province in 1947 and
the re-organization of the Indian Punjab in 1966, it became a Sikh
majority state; 63% of its present population are Sikhs. Sikhism is
known for the egalitarian teachings of the Gurus, the institutions of
sangat (congregation for worship) and langar (partaking of free
meals), and the absence of a caste-based priestly class (unlike the
pervasive presence of Brahmins in Hindu religion). It also offers no
religious sanction for caste hierarchy. Caste discrimination and
oppression against Dalits in the Punjab is less marked than in other
parts of India.

Over the centuries the Punjab has been witness to large scale Dalit
conversions to Islam, Sikhism and later to Christianity. Conversion
divided Chuhras and Chamars into different religious categories and
even different names were used for Chuhras belonging to different
religions (i.e., Mussalli for the Muslims, Mazhabi for the Sikhs,
Isai for the Christians, and Balmiki for those who kept to the
distinctive Chuhra religion.) Only Hindu and Sikh Dalits were
included in the list of Scheduled Castes prepared by the Government
of India after independence. Around 40% of the Dalits are Sikh by
religion and practically all the Christians in Punjab are also
Dalits. Christian Dalits were, however, kept out of the list of
Scheduled Castes and were later included in the Backward Class
category, creating a ground for discrimination against Christian
Dalits. A good number of Dalits in the Punjab have converted to
Buddhism in recent years.

The boundary between Dalits who follow Hindu and Sikh religions is
quite flexible and may be crossed inconspicuously. Their religious
identification with Hinduism or Sikhism has been generally weak.
Ramdasias are a Sikh Scheduled Caste. A section of the Ad Dharmis
followed Sikh ways of worship and ritual. However, most of them
remain clean-shaven and regard Ravidas as their Guru. Kabirpanthis
are both Hindu and Sikh, but the caste fellowship is more important
to them than is the religion. Of late, Kabir temples and distinct
rituals of worship have been developed to support a new religious
identity. Dalits are mostly opposed to notions of Hindu or Sikh
communal identity. The growth of religious communalism in Punjab from
the last quarter of the 19th century was directly related to the
extension of upper caste domination over the lower castes and the
promotion of the economic and political interests of the elite in
each community. Communalism thus blocked rather than furthered the
Dalit search for equality.

The Economic Factor

The British rulers had strengthened the economic order based on caste
hierarchy through measures, like the Punjab Land Alienation Act 1901,
which debarred the lower castes from owning land. This bolstered the
social and political domination of the Jat landlord and condemned
the Dalits to live as a reservoir of cheap bonded labor for
cultivation and other forms of menial service to the ruling castes.

The Dalit share in cultivable land in Punjab today is abysmally
marginal, just 2.4% of the total. The state's efforts to bring about
land reforms were defeated. The Green Revolution changed the face of
Punjab, but widened economic differences, increasing the economic and
political clout of the Jat landowning class. Jat control of
leadership in the Shiromani Akali Dal since 1962 that made it
virtually a Jat political party has further increased fear and
insecurity among the lower castes. The forcible appropriation of
village common lands which traditionally had provided a little
cushion for Dalit survival has become a major cause of violent
conflicts in Punjab's villages. The Dalit struggle for dignity in the
rural areas also involves resistance against social symbols of Jat
hegemony. A recent field study of 5I villages spread over the three
regions of the Punjab found separate Mazhabi (i.e., Dalit Sikh)
gurdwaras in 41 of these villages. As many villages also had separate
cremation grounds. The dominating influence of Sikh religion in
Punjab has not meant an end to caste discrimination or atrocities
against Dalits. Incidents of anti-Dalit violence and social boycott
of Dalits or the stripping and rape of Dalit women by those dominant
in the village community have been common. Harinder Singh Khalsa, a
Sikh member of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and
Scheduled Tribes, recorded with some pain that "Punjab has no
untouchability, probably because of Sikhism, but I am ashamed to say
that in committing atrocities on Dalits, we do not lag behind."

Poverty, which is a well known distinguishing mark of Dalit life in
general, is prevalent among Dalits of Punjab, especially among those
living in the Malwa area. However, the character of poverty is
qualitatively different from what poverty is generally understood to
be in states like Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, and Orissa. Jean Dreze and
Amartya Sen noted that in the Punjab 21% of the general population
lived below the poverty line (BPL) in 1994, less than half of India's
45% average. However, according to Government of Punjab records, 68%
of the Scheduled Caste [Dalit] population belonged to the BPL
category in 1991. It was rightly remarked, therefore, that "The poor
(in Punjab) are the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Castes are the
poor". Nearly half of the total Scheduled Caste population still
live in unhygienic conditions in colonies on the edge of the village.
Yet it is not unimportant to note that, as the National Sample Survey
Report 1990-91 showed, "there was no rural household in Punjab whose
members were not able to eat two square meals a day on all the 365
days in a year."

A significant factor that made a difference in the status and
self-perception of the Dalits in Punjab has been their large scale
migration to foreign countries for work. It is estimated that on an
average one member in every second Dalit family in the Doaba region
of the Punjab had gone abroad. The remittances sent home by these
migrants contribute to fine houses and other visible signs of
prosperity. Migrant remittances have also contributed to the
enlargement of the Dalits' religio-cultural autonomy, as some of it
goes to the development of, e.g., the Ravidassi Sachkhand dera of
Sant Sarwan Dass at Ballan near Jalandhar.

The prosperity of a section of Dalits has not, however, raised their
social or caste status in the village. Instead it has made them not
only more apprehensive about insults and humiliation but also more
inclined to retaliate violently to maltreatment and uncomplimentary
remarks or body language by the upper castes in general and by Jats
in particular. A major reason for the violent public clash between
the Dalits and Jats of village Talhan was the resentment born of the
disparity between Dalit economic and social status. Economic
disparities have also affected relationships between rich and poor
Dalits. More serious are the hierarchies and walls dividing one
Dalit caste from another, a formidable obstruction to Dalit political
solidarity. The appeal of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has
registered a significant rise in Punjab's politics for over the past
decade, has remained largely limited to the Chamar community.

Conclusion

The dynamics of change has enabled Dalits of Punjab, despite
handicaps, to acquire a sense of autonomy, pointing to a "community
in movement and not mired in helplessness." There is a marked
tendency among the Dalits towards conscious dissociation from
stigmatized occupations and practices which are humiliating to them.
A field study by S. S. Jodhka shows that in the year 2000 not more
than 10% of Dalits followed their traditional occupations and most
have also moved away from agricultural labor which made them
dependent upon Jat landlords. Although it was rather restricted and
half-hearted, the spread of education, affirmative action by the
state, and Dalit political participation have contributed to the
first flush of awakening and empowerment of Dalits. Now, with the
rising tide of market rationality under liberalization, privatization
and globalization, as well as the state's decreasing inclination to
protect their interests, it is feared that Dalits may be affected
more adversely than other sections of society by market forces.

Dr. Harish K. Puri is Retired B. R. Ambedkar Chair Professor,
Department of Political Science, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar,
Punjab.

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