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Social boycotts, segregation

Print edition : May 21, 2004 T+T-
NAUNIDHI KAUR in Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur

IT is not uncommon to come across people of the lower castes living in well-furnished houses or holding government jobs in the Doaba region of Punjab. Villages around cities such as Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur have Dalit families whose relative economic prosperity has come from small businesses or migration to Western countries. Dalits have taken to occupations other than scavenging and tanning, traditionally enforced on them by the caste-Hindu hierarchy. However, improvement in the financial condition has not translated into improved social status. Dalits in the Doaba region, like their less fortunate counterparts in south Punjab, still face social boycotts and segregation in daily life. The term chuhra-chamar (scavenger and tanner) is freely employed by landlords belonging to the Jat community to refer to Dalits. As common as the segregation of Dalit colonies are illiteracy, unemployment and landlessness.

Squalor and hunger may not mark the faces of Dalits in Punjab, but this has not changed some key facts. Although Dalits form 32 per cent of Punjab's population, the community as a whole owns less than 3 per cent of the agricultural land. While the percentage of literates in the State is higher than the national average, Punjab's Dalits are less likely to be educated than their counterparts nationwide. The future looks dismal with the number of Dalits living below the poverty line having increased in the past decade.

None of the major parties in the State is talking about the need for action against untouchability, strict implementation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and ensuring that Dalits get their quota of jobs in public sector enterprises. Instead, the Congress government has been doling out money for shagun for the marriage of Dalit girls under the aashirvad scheme. The funds for schemes to grant scholarships to deserving Dalit students remain unspent. During the current financial year, the government's failure to release adequate funds for providing scholarships to Dalit girls studying in primary schools has meant that only 10,000 children instead of the targeted four lakhs have benefited from the scheme. Radical programmes that can change the lives of Dalits are not on the election agenda of the major parties.

This time round the Dalits in Punjab are leaderless and have no party to turn to for help. The Bahujan Samaj Party's (BSP) forays into the State have so far had little success. Dalits across Punjab are disenchanted with the three major parties - the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the Congress(I) and the BSP. "When they say they would vote for the BSP, it is because they want to defeat the Congress(I). If Dalits vote for the BSP in Punjab, it is because of the TINA [there is no alternative] factor and not Kanshi Ram or Mayawati," said a government official in Jalandhar.

IN Hoshiarpur, the former constituency of Kanshi Ram, TINA's impact is evident. Kanshi Ram's name triggers derisive laughter from the voters, all of whom remember him as a Member of Parliament who never visited his constituency after the elections. Mayawati's name stirs discontent, not adulation. "Ideology or promises by candidates have taken a back-seat as Dalits realise that no party will work for them," said Anurag Sood, a resident of Hoshiarpur.

The Hoshiarpur seat is witnessing a triangular fight among the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s Darshan Singh Mattu, the Bharatiya Janata Party-SAD's Avinash Rai Khanna and the BSP's Charanjeet Singh Channi. Channi, who is the sitting Congress(I) MP, joined BSP after he was denied the ticket by the party. Dalits constitute 30 per cent of the electorate in this constituency. The candidate of the CPI(M), which has an electoral understanding with the Congress(I) in the constituency, is the only one who has an electoral agenda that focusses on Dalit-related issues. Mattu said: "I would see to it that village shamlat (common land) is distributed among the landless labourers and effective land reforms are carried out." Distribution of shamlat to the landless lower castes is a sensitive issue. In most villages shamlat is solely used by the Jat community. Not long ago, in Dyon village of Bhatinda the construction of a teachers' training institute led to the destruction of several Dalit houses. Jats refused to accommodate the displaced Dalits in the shamlat, which they were using as agricultural land.

While Mattu has set himself to the onerous task of redistributing shamlat land in his constituency, Khanna refuses to see empowerment of Dalits as a poll issue. Khanna said: "I would like to concentrate on overall development work such as the setting up of a railway network and educational institutes. If all this is done, Dalits will benefit." Khanna's stand sums up his party's response to the exploitation and oppression of Dalits across Punjab - not to recognise it as an issue.

The SAD-BJP combine's unpopularity with Dalits is a given in Punjab politics. Nowhere is it more obvious than in the Ad-Dharmi colony, which is situated behind the sprawling houses of the Jat landowners in Hoshiarpur. As a sign of the sad state of the BSP in Punjab, the people in this constituency are not voting for the BSP candidate, but Channi the former Congress(I) leader. "Channi gave funds to build our temple. This is a recognition for our religion, which will never come from the SAD or the BJP," said a resident of the area. In Punjab, the Ad-Dharmis have symbolically rejected the Sikh gurdwara and have given up the five Ks of Sikhism. This symbolic defiance of the Sikh orthodoxy is in response to the way the Jat Sikhs in rural Punjab humiliate them and refuse to treat them as equals.

"The only thing we want is to end the social boycott of Dalits in villages," said Balwinderjit Pal, Dalit panch of Talhan village on the outskirts of Jalandhar town. The village made news in June 2003 when Dalits were denied representation in the Shahid Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara and violence occurred in the aftermath of the incident. Both the BSP and the BJP, which took up the Talhan issue at the national level, are treading cautiously now. None of the leaders from the parties has touched on the issue at election rallies or in the campaigns. However, the Talhan issue is alive in the minds of Jats and Dalits in the Doaba belt. The Talhan panchayat is a divided house, with two members, including the sarpanch, supporting the Congress(I) and seven others supporting the BSP.

"We are not making Talhan a poll issue but during our visits to the rural areas, people question us about it. This means that they have not forgotten it. Not only this, the boycott of Dalits in about 14 villages, including Bhattian, Pandori Khajoor and Hasanpur can cast its shadow on the poll," said Pawan Tinu, BSP candidate from the Phillaur Lok Sabha constituency.

No remedial measures have been suggested by any party to end such social boycotts. Instead, Dalit leaders in Sangrur and Bhatinda have been deprived of their voting rights for speaking out against the discrimination by upper-caste Hindus in the panchayat elections.