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Unquiet peace in Talhan

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

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A view of the Dalit locality in Talhan village.-

A view of the Dalit locality in Talhan village.-

Dalit rebellion opens old wounds of caste and faith and stirs up the politics of Punjab.

"NOTHING to report," records a brief intelligence report for June 24, sent to the Ministry of Home Affairs on the situation in violence-torn Talhan. A day earlier, a fortnight-long curfew clamped on the village, had been lifted. Arrested leaders of the village's feuding Jat and Dalit Sikh communities had been released, and both groups had proceeded to signal their acceptance of a government-brokered deal by participating in a prayer ceremony for peace.

All well? Not quite. For one, Talhan and the syncretic religious traditions it was home to for centuries have been irretrievably scarred. The samadhi, or memorial, to the Sufi saint Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh no longer exists; the board at its entry now proclaims the structure to be the Gurdwara Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh. The memorial structures, which borrow from Islamic tradition and symbolically contain the remains of the saint in whose memory they were built, were demolished in April. Talhan's Jats claim that they carried out the act of historical vandalism on advice from religious leaders that a gurdwara could not be built over a burial site, even a symbolic one. As important, the village's Dalits have not got much out of the deal either. They rarely cross over into Jat-dominated areas, and a crippling social and economic boycott, which denied Dalits the right even to defecate in the mainly Jat-owned fields, is yet to dissipate completely. The two Dalits who have now been given the right to participate in the Nigran Committee, which manages the shrine's annual earnings of over Rs.5 crores, are outnumbered six to one, though the village is overwhelmingly Dalit; Dalits have no say in the Maryada Committee, which will manage the gurdwara's ritual practices until two Amritdhari Dalits, who observe the full religious obligations and mandates of the Khalsa Panth, were found.

But Talhan has, without dispute, placed simmering Dalit rage at the foreground of politics in the State. It has breathed life into Punjab's near-defunct Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is tacitly allied, paradoxically enough, to the factions of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which has for decades supported atrocities by landholding Jats against Dalit agricultural workers. It has helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) project of winning over sections of Sikhs into what it considers the larger Hindu fold. And it has helped the Sikh Right too to consolidate its position as the sole spokesperson for Sikh identity. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's government is scrambling to undo the damage, but its actions are too little and have come far too late.

Like most people, the State government had little clue of just how fateful the conflict between Dalits and Jats at Talhan would prove to be.

The dispute began over five years ago, when the Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh shrine began to attract massive donations from Punjabi visitors from overseas, who believed that it had miraculous powers. Dalits, who claimed the shrine was part-built on village common land and with community resources, asked for a share in its management. The Jats flatly refused. Last year, the Dalits won a court order allowing them to participate in elections to the shrine's managing body, which the Jats flatly refused to obey. In January, the Dalits arrived to participate in the elections again, armed with a fresh court order. This time, the Dalits chose to assert their rights more forcefully, and violence broke out. Although the Dalits were routed, not a little because of the intervention of local Station House Officer Gurbachan Singh, himself a Jat, they elected a 13-member all-Dalit managing committee. In retaliation, the Jats initiated a six-month boycott, denying the Dalits work in the fields and refusing to buy milk produced by their cattle. Posters of Saint Ravidass were torn down by angry Jats who took over the shrine, and the board declaring it a samadhi sthal was replaced with one calling it a gurdwara.

Forceful state intervention could have helped. All the government had to do, after all, was to insist on the implementation of the court orders and allow the inevitable appeals and counter-appeals to take their own course. Yet, official Punjab chose to do nothing. It failed even to respond to the directives of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes ordering the prosecution of Jat leaders under the Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989 and recommending that key figures in the anti-Dalit crimes be externed from the village. It failed to act even after Social Security Minister Santokh Singh had announced that "documentary evidence established the [anti-Dalit] boycott".

The sheer lethargy of the official response is not difficult to understand, and speaks something about the working of power in Punjab. From the Station House Officer upwards - Jalandhar Deputy Commissioner Ravi Sidhu, Senior Superintendent of Police Paramjit Gill, local Member of the Legislative Assembly Gurkanwal Kaur, and Amarinder Singh, - all are Jats. Although none is known to be anti-Dalit, and some hold views quite to the contrary, the fact is that the issue simply did not register in official consciousness.

OTHERS, however, sensed that matters were about to explode, and were preparing to cash in. One of the key architects of the Talhan boycott, Kewal Singh was a long-standing member of the Damdami Taksal, the ultra-right-wing seminary that gave birth to the fascist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Taksal leader Mokham Singh became increasingly involved in the Talhan dispute and gave organisational shape to Jat reaction in the village. Mainstream SAD leaders preyed on the fringes. Former Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC) chief Bibi Jagir Kaur, informed sources told Frontline, tried to persuade local leaders to appoint former Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal the mediator between the warring communities. Jalandhar-based BJP leader Vijay Sampla and BSP activist Pawan Tinu mobilised opinion among Dalits in the city, holding a sustained agitation that drew on young people in the slums the city's uneven economic development has given rise to. By this time, the Congress(I) was trying to initiate negotiations of its own, but feuds within its ranks, notably between Dalit leaders Choudhary Jagjit Singh and Mahinder Kaypee, ensured that nothing got done.

When violence finally broke out in Talhan on June 5, the Punjab government was shaken to its core. Curfew had to be imposed in Jalandhar and, for the first time in recent years, in the countryside as well. Senior Congress (I) leader Manmohan Singh and Amarinder Singh finally visited Talhan on June 11, but were greeted by black flags displayed by Dalit residents.

A detailed intelligence brief on the situation, including Frontline's detailed assessment of the situation in April, had meanwhile made its way to Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi. Aware of the national consequences of the ugly caste war, she ordered prompt action. Amarinder Singh responded by sending new officials to Jalandhar, notably Deputy Inspector-General of Police Dinkar Gupta, who has a long-standing intelligence background and who is highly regarded for his handling of sensitive issues in the past. Still smarting from the display of black-flags in Talhan, the Chief Minister announced that the shrine would be handed over to a government receiver, a measure resorted to in emergency situations under Sections 145 and 146 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

It was just the excuse that the Sikh religious Right had been waiting for. On June 12, a group of villagers, mainly women, occupied the Talhan shrine under the leadership of the Damdami Taksal. The women, mainly elderly non-political figures from adjoining communities, threatened to immolate themselves should the police enter the shrine. Delighted Akali leaders jumped into the fray. Although Badal restricted his pronouncements to condemning the government action, his lieutenants sensed an opportunity. Any police entry into the shrine, the Akalis knew, would have serious repercussions, particularly since Amarinder Singh had left the government of Surjit Singh Barnala in 1987 after it ordered the police into the Golden Temple. Akali leaders remained in regular contact with individuals holed up inside the shrine, persuading them not to come out until the government involved a Badal nominee in attempts to end the siege. The Chief Minister, for his part, was left with no options. If he backed down, the Congress(I) would have lost face and alienated the very Dalit votes it had sought to win back by appointing a receiver.

Taksal leaders, however, proved the joker in the pack. By the morning of July 13, the Jalandhar administration had succeeded in roping in three figures opposed to Badal to carry out the negotiations. Harminder Singh Gill, president of the All India Sikh Students Federation (Gill), Manjit Singh, a close aide of Badal's key rival among the Akali centrists, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, and senior Taksal leader Ajaib Singh Abhlyasi were involved in the talks. The administration used the incarceration of Mokham Singh, jailed for his role in the events at Talhan, as a bargaining chip. Simultaneously, pressure was brought on both Dalits and Jats at Talhan, by jailing five leaders of each community. In the end, the Sikh religious leadership agreed to bring out those who occupied the shrine if the government released Mokham Singh, and revoked its take-over of the shrine. In return, the Jats of Talhan agreed to include Dalits in the two new committees. A potentially bruising showdown had been averted at Talhan, one that, in the view of some observers, could have snowballed into a full-blown war between Sikh orthodoxy and the state.

BUT is the cost of peace worth paying for? Talhan's Dalits, on the face of it, just have not got a fair deal. The twin court orders they obtained spoke of elections to a single shrine management committee, not token representation on two. The Jats who desecrated the shrine and initiated the boycott have not been punished. And, worst of all, the religious far-Right has ended up legitimised as arbiters of the destiny of the Sikh faith.

Understanding the Taksal's first surprising course of action requires an understanding of the complex workings of faith in Punjab's ongoing political struggle. In May, the Akal Takht, the supreme seat of Sikh religious authority, formally declared Bhindranwale a martyr of the faith. Given the organic linkages between the Badal-controlled SGPC and the Akal Takht, the move clearly had the sanction of the Akali centrists. Although Badal did not publicly eulogise Bhindranwale, he made clear that the move had his endorsement, "in the interests of Punjab". The former Chief Minister's motives were fairly obvious. Under pressure from ongoing corruption investigations that threaten to indict his immediate family [see box], Badal, who had endorsed calls for Khalistan in the past, clearly sought religious legitimacy to replace his waning temporal authority. The far-Right, however, was less than pleased at this effort to displace it as the centre of Sikh communal politics. The Taksal angrily reiterated its line that Bhindranwale was still alive and waiting to return to lead the Panth to victory. Other elements joined in, showing that they could go further than the Akali establishment. On June 15, 132 Dharmi Faujis, soldiers who had mutinied in the wake of Operation Bluestar, and their families were given cheques by representatives of several religious, charitable and so-called human rights organisations.

Amarinder Singh's responses to these tendencies have, for the best part of a year, been to counter the Akali centrists' communal opportunism by backing the ultra-Right. During last year's SGPC elections, he even threw official support behind Harminder Singh Gill, who alleged that key pro-Badal figures were religious apostates who, in defiance of their Amritdhari vows, consumed alcohol. Gill has, of course, now emerged as a key player in conflict resolution in Talhan.

Last November, in the course of a complex legal battle on the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal, the Chief Minister met the head of the pompously named International Human Rights Organisation's head, Dalbir Singh Gill, for consultations. Two weeks earlier Gill had participated in a function at the Golden Temple to honour Beant Singh, one of the guards who assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Although calls for the struggle for Khalistan have been made by fringe figures with alarming frequency in recent months, the Congress(I) has done little to challenge these with either administrative sanction or political activism. Clearly, it hopes that the ultra-Right will help marginalise the centre-Right, a dangerous enterprise, which has had calamitous consequences in the past.

It is here that the Dalit rebellion at Talhan is of particular significance. For all the media comment to the contrary, the violence at Talhan was not simply the outcome of a struggle for the shrine's revenues, although that may have been its proximate cause. It was, rather, part of a larger debate over the content of religious practice and its working in secular life.

For the past several years, the Sikh religious establishment has been working to disenfranchise Sehajdhari Sikhs, those who do not observe some or all of its outward manifestations, from participation in elections to the SGPC. Dalit organisations, whose members make up the overwhelming majority of Dalit Sikhs, have understood this as an attack on their religious and community rights. As Bhai Harbans Lal pointed out in a 1999 essay, the orthodox argument flies in the face of Sikh history; Sehajdhari Sikhs played a central role from the time of Guru Gobind Singh to the Singh Sabha movement. The ongoing orthodox effort to debar Sehajdhari Sikhs in fact has little to do with faith, and not a little to do with asserting control over increasingly assertive Dalits in the countryside.

Some 11 Talhan-type conflicts continue to dot Punjab, a sign perhaps that bigger battles lie ahead. There are signs that the government is finally putting its weight behind the victims. On June 18, the administration finally intervened in a long-running agitation by the Left parties and the Dalit Dasta Virodhi Andolan at Dalel Singhwala, near Mansa, freeing Dalits who had been forced to work to repay the interest on loans taken by their forefathers. Dalits in the village alleged that they were also made to pay for a local opium-based narcotic that makes it possible to engage in repetitive low-skill tasks for longer hours without sleep. The Andolan's Jai Singh alleges that such practices are common in the Malwa region, and that indebted labourers were routinely traded among landlords. A week before the Dalel Singhwala agitation was resolved, village common land usurped by Jats was handed over to Dalits at Dhuri, where the community now intends to build a temple. The problem is that these initiatives just do not go far enough.

By endorsing the Talhan agreement, for example, which allows only for Amritdhari Sikhs to be involved in the shrine's religious practices, the Punjab government has endorsed the ultra-Right position. Ironically, the Jats have sought to appease the right-wing groups who fought for them, not the government which forced them to make concessions, however minimal.

BSP politicians, predictably, are only too eager to fill the vacuum that the Congress(I)'s retreat from its Dalit strongholds has left behind. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati has announced her intention to visit Talhan in July and address a rally at Buta Mandi, the Jalandhar slum worst hit by the rioting. Amarinder Singh has taken the extraordinary step of personally writing to his counterpart and advising her that no rallies will be allowed - an unprecedented move widely read, correctly or otherwise, as a sign of panic. Amarinder Singh's discomfiture has delighted Badal, who has announced that Mayawati is "amongst the tallest of Dalit leaders in the country".

While the BJP has been a little alarmed at the appropriation of the Talhan movement by the BSP, it seems probable that it will play along, hoping to win at least some converts to its own project of building a Hindu-Sikh alliance under the Hindutva umbrella. Come the next Assembly election in Punjab, Amarinder Singh could find his most local constituency abandoning him for his foes. He will have no one to blame but himself.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 18, 2003.)

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