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Caste Tensions in Punjab -
Talhan and Beyond

By Surinder S Jodhka, Prakash Louis

Economic And Political Weekly
24 July, 2003

Perhaps for the first time in the recent history of Punjab a case of caste conflict created a serious crisis for the local administration and nearly shook the political establishment. Though the conflict per se concerned a single village, called Talhan, located at a distance of around 10 km from the Jallandhar city in the Doaba sub-region of Punjab, it made big news. Although the conflict in the village had been going on for quite some time, the mainstream national media took note of it only when it reached a flash point in the first week of June 2003.

When compared with cases of ‘dalit oppression’ or ‘caste-wars’ reported from some other parts of India, Talhan saw a minor incident of caste-related conflict. Though tension had been brewing in the village for more than six months and a few cases of scuffles/beatings or abuse had also taken place, the major cases of violence occurred in the first week of June in the town of Jallandhar, in which outside political forces also got involved. The person who died during this conflict did not come from Talhan. Though he belonged to an ad-dharmi family, he lived in the town and died in a police shoot-out while participating in a protest meeting that turned violent. The protestors largely attacked public property, burned buses and other vehicles and organised bandhs. There were no attacks across communities reported from anywhere in Punjab following the Talhan incidents.

However, this is not to undermine the seriousness of the matter. Talhan is unique and it is necessary to understand the complexities and specificities of the case. The conflict stemming from Talhan is far from an exception. Though so far it has not surfaced or taken on violent colour, caste situation in much of rural Punjab seems potentially volatile. Even when the immediate issues are different, there seems to be an underlying pattern that is very similar to what has happened in Talhan. The frequency of reports of caste conflicts appearing in local newspapers from different parts of rural Punjab has also suddenly gone up. A closer understanding of the situation will tell us that such a trend is not really surprising.

The Context

As has been widely reported in the media, the conflict between ad-dharmis and jats in Talhan village emanated from the former demanding representation in the management of a local religious shrine. Though the locally dominant jats were trying to convert this shrine into a ‘proper’ Gurudwara with help from some outside Sikh religious organisations, it was originally a ‘smadh’ (or ‘samadhi’), a shrine where the bodies of one Baba Nihal Singh and his aide were laid to rest. The history and nature of this shrine reflects very interestingly on the syncretic religious traditions of the region.

As the story goes, Baba Nihal Singh was a Sikh from the artisan caste of Ramgarhia who lived in a neighbouring village called Dakoha. He was no saint or fakir while he was alive. He made and fixed pulleys for the newly dug drinking water wells in the area. These wheels are kept at the base of the wells in order to stabilise water supply. Villagers of the area had deep faith in the skills of Nihal Singh. “If he put a wheel in the well, it would never dry and its water would always be sweet.” However, one day while fixing a wheel in a newly dug well near Talhan, Baba Nihal Singh died. For the common villagers this was a sacrifice he made for the village and he consequently was declared a martyr (‘shahid’).

Out of respect for Nihal Singh and in order to preserve his memory, they decided to make a separate structure where his body was laid to rest in the village land near Talhan. Close to the smadh, a flame too was kept burning. Harnam Singh, who used to be an aide of Nihal Singh, took care of the smadh all his life and kept the flame burning. When Harnam Singh died, another smadh was built close to the earlier structure. Over the years these smadhs began to attract devotees, who also brought offerings, mostly in the form of cash. These two small structures were slowly converted into a shrine. In due course another structure came up in the middle of these two smadhs where the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth was kept and it began to be read as per the Sikh rituals. To mark the death anniversary of Shahid Baba Nihal Singh, his devotees from Talhan and neighbouring villages started organising an annual fair (‘mela’) at the shrine. With the growing prosperity of the region and of Baba’s devotees, offerings grew. According to available estimates, the current annual amount of offerings at the shrine is anywhere between three to five crore rupees. As the shrine grew in stature its management shifted to a committee of ‘powerful’ individuals from Talhan and the neighbouring villages. They also controlled all the money and decided on how to spend it. Elections to the 13-member committee were held every year on the evening of Maghi (a local festival that falls around January 14). However, not everyone from the village could participate in these elections.

Apart from the shrine of Baba Nihal Singh, the village also has three regular gurudwaras. One is called the village Gurudwara, which was built by the dominant jats; the second is the Gurudwara of Ramgarhias and the third is a Ravidas Mandir,1 which has been recently built by the ad-dharmis. Though in principle gurudwaras are open to all, different caste communities have tended to build their own gurudwaras, generally to assert their separate identity in a caste divided set-up of rural Punjab [for details see Jodhka 2001; 2002].2

While for regular religious/ritual functions different caste groups have their separate gurudwaras, all villagers visit the shrine of Shahid Baba Nihal Singh and participate in the organisation of the annual mela. However, the committee that manages the shrine and deals with the finances is largely dominated by the landowning jats. Talhan has a population of around 4,500 out of which only 25 per cent are jats while nearly 65 per cent belong to ad-dharmi caste. The rest are from other ‘servicing castes’ such as ramgarhias, lohars and jheers. Except for ad-dharmis there are no other scheduled castes in the village. Interestingly though some other caste communities of villages in the area have been given representation no ad-dharmi was ever represented in the managing committee.

Mobilisation of Ad-Dharmis

The ad-dharmis are not only numerically predominant in the village, but over the last several decades have also experienced a considerable degree of mobility and autonomy. Though they were originally chamars, their long history of mobilsations and cultural awakening has transformed them into a well-to-do community. The ad-dharmis of the Doaba sub-region of Punjab hardly resemble their counterparts elsewhere in India. While they do not mind being identified as a scheduled caste, some of them dislike being called dalits. Despite the fact that very few among them own agricultural land, a large majority of them live in well-built pucca houses and there would be hardly any ad-dharmi whose children did not go to school. Many of them have urban jobs and at least one person from every alternate household is abroad, either somewhere in the west or in the Gulf.

The genesis of their prosperity goes back to the establishment of cantonment by the British colonial rulers in Jallandhar in the second half of the 19th century after they established their rule in the region. The sudden spurt in demand for leather boots brought riches to the local chamars. Mangoo Ram, who spearheaded the ad-dharmi movement, was son of one such chamar who earned enough wealth by supplying boots to the British army to send his son to California for better employment. However, Mangoo Ram came back and began to mobilise his people against caste discrimination and untouchability. He tried working with the Arya Samaj but soon realised that dalits had no future within Hinduism and demanded from the colonial rulers that the ad-dharmis be listed as a separate religious community and should not be clubbed either with the Hindus or the Sikhs [see Jurgensmeyer 1988].

While the British conceded their demand and they were actually listed separately in the 1931 Census, the post-independence Indian state once again put them in the list of Hindu scheduled castes. Notwithstanding their ‘legal’ religious status, the everyday practices of the ad-dharmis are closer to Sikhism. They worship Guru Granth (which also contains the writings of Guru Ravidas who too was a chamar by caste). They also perform their weddings and other rituals according to Sikh tradition. Very few among them however have long hair or tie turbans. Their names too are like those of the Punjabi Hindus. In the local traditions, they could easily be called sahijdhari Sikhs.3

Over the last four or five decades, the caste scene in Punjab has undergone many changes. The traditional ‘jajmani’ relations have nearly completely disappeared from the region. These changes have been greatest in the Doaba sub-region. The rural dalits of Doaba have nearly completely distanced themselves from the local agrarian economy. In Talhan, for example, not even a single ad-dharmi worked on a farm as a servant with the landowning jats, something that they regularly did in the past. Migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar do virtually all the agricultural labour work. The ad-dharmis have also acquired a sense of autonomy as regards their cultural resources and employment [See Jodhka 2000;2002] Thanks to the growing hegemony of the Sikh movement, brahminism is virtually dead in rural Punjab [see Jodhka 2001]. Given their numbers, ad-dharmis have also become much more influential in local politics. Though the current sarpanch in the village was a jat, no one could win the panchayat elections without support of ad-dharmis. Some ad-dharmis claimed that the current sarpanch was their candidate. The ad-dharmis in Talhan and the neighboring villages are clearly not easily susceptible to pressures from the dominant caste.

However, despite their overall empowerment and near complete absence of a brahminical social set-up, rural Punjab has not forgotten caste and the fact that it means inequality. In other words, while pollution has nearly disappeared, the upper caste prejudice vis-à-vis dalits remains.

As mentioned above, the ad-dharmis revered Baba Nihal Singh almost as much as the jats did and participated in all events at the shrine with similar enthusiasm. However, when they demanded representation in the committee that looked after the affairs of the shrine, the jats did not even take their claim seriously. This happened for the first time some four or five years back and since than caste relations in Talhan have not been cordial.

Perhaps the most contentious issue in this whole struggle has been the money that comes to the shrine as offerings. The jat members of the committee claim that a large proportion of the money went into the upkeep of the shrine and development activities that the committee had initiated for the whole village. Over the last five years or so they have spent a large amount of money on construction of a hospital and a telephone exchange in the village. The money has also been spent on schools and streets. The jat members of the committee claimed that even the ad-dharmis were given Rs 2.5 lakh for the construction of their gurudwara/Ravidas Mandir. Moreover, the jat members of the committee we spoke to argued, “Since ad-dharmis were anyway not proper Sikhs, how could they be made members of the managing committee of a Sikh shrine”.

The ad-dharmis on the other hand question such arguments. Smadh Baba Nihal Singh was never a proper gurudwara; and if clean-shaven jats could become members of the committee, why couldn’t they? They too worshipped Guru Granth and conducted their ritual life as other Sikhs did. The ad-dharmis also accused the jats in the committee of corruption and bungling. “It is because they make huge amount of money by being members of the committee that they do not want us to be members”, argued most ad-dharmis we spoke to.

Not receiving any positive response from the jats, the ad-dharmis decided to go to court in 1999 with a petition challenging the manner in which elections to the managing committee were held. While the court did not give a clear verdict, it directed that a few ad-dharmi observers be allowed to be present at the time of annual elections of the committee. However, when they went to the shrine for attending the meeting on January 14, 2003 with the order from the court, the jats did not turn-up for the election meeting. The elections were finally held on the evening of January 19, 2003. However, the jats refused to concede to the demand of ad-dharmis for representation in the committee. The ad-dharmis claim that the jats had called the police, which chased them away and beat them up when they insisted on their representation in the committee. The jats also issued a letter to the non-ad-dharmi residents of the village asking them not to keep any social or economic relations with them. They stopped going to the shops run by ad-dharmis in the village and banned the poorer ad-dharmis from collecting fodder from their farms. They had to either bring fodder from the town or had to collect it from neighbouring villages. Even the use of village fields for defecating was disallowed. A picture of Guru Ravidas that used to hang in the shrine was also torn down.

Though the ad-dharmis of Doaba do not depend much on the local agrarian economy for employment, their ‘social boycott’ was quite a shock for most of them. “Though it did not matter much to us, our ego was terribly hurt”, said a retired employee of the Punjab government who lived in Talhan and led the mobilisation by ad-dharmis. Similarly, Lahauri Ram Bali, an aged Ambedkarite who has been editing monthly paper called Bheem Patrika said that such a thing had not happened in Doaba in the near past. “What has been the use of all our struggle, education and mobility if our people have to still face such humiliation”, he said in despair and anger. He took upon himself to organise the local ad-dharmis against the ‘social boycott’ and for representation in the management of the local shrine. A Dalit Action Committee (DAC) consisting mostly of the local ad-dharmis was formed to spearhead the movement.

They gave a representation to the SC/ST commission and organised dharnas in the town. A team of the Commission came to the village on February 5 and found that the ‘social boycott’ was indeed in place. Though they asked the local administration to intervene immediately, nothing happened. Meanwhile DAC continued its protest in Jallandhar town and in the village. They did not get much support from any of the political parties. The current Congress government has five dalit ministers, three of whom live in Jallandhar but they did nothing to help the ad-dharmis in Talhan. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) also did not come to their rescue. According to Bali the only political party that supported our cause was the Akali Dal (Amritsar). Some Left wing leaders and a few Sikh organisations also gave statements against the social boycott and in favour of dalit representation in the committee, but to no effect.

However, DAC continued its agitation and finally some officers in the district administration called a meeting of both the parties and a compromise was worked out on the June 3. The jats agreed to include two ad-dharmis in the committee provided they wore turbans. The other terms of the agreement included a public apology by all parties involved, lifting of the social boycott and restoration of the picture of Guru Ravidas. However, two days after the agreement, members of the two castes again clashed during the annual mela at the Mazhar of Peer Baba Fateh Shah. It was after this clash that violence erupted in Jallandhar resulting in police firing in which one person was killed. After nearly two weeks of tension, the two groups were brought back on the negotiating table by the administration and the same compromise was made effective.

Beyond Talhan

When we asked one of the newly appointed ad-dharmi members of the committee about his possible role, he sounded very cynical. What can the two of us do in a committee that has as many as 10 jat members? Though he had already attended two meetings with the jats, he did not feel that the situation in the village would ever be the same again. However, their agitation had brought accountability to the financial management. The presence of a representative of the state administration became mandatory at the time of the opening of the box in which offerings were collected.

While ad-dharmis sounded cynical, jats sounded agitated. “Their pride has been hurt. They won’t take it lying down”, was the expression many people (including a politically active dalit bureaucrat) used in their conversations with us in Jallandhar city. The structure of the shrine is also being changed to make it appear more like a conventional gurudwara.

Jats are obviously unwilling to adjust with the changed scenario and dalits are in no mood to give up. Moreover, dalit assertion in Punjab is not confined to Talhan. The recent panchayat elections held in the first week of July when Talhan was still in news provide us with very good evidence of this. Given that dalits constitute the largest proportion of votes in many villages of Punjab, they also want to have their say in who is to be elected. The dominant caste manoeuvring does not seem to be working in rural Punjab any longer in the context where dalits’ dependence on the agrarian economy has considerably declined with their dissociating themselves from traditional occupations and distancing from agricultural labour [see Jodhka 2002]. The typical cases that have followed are:

(1) In village Bhattian Bet of the Ludhiana district jats have not been letting the dalits enter their fields. When a few dalits confronted the jats and asked to let their women use the fields for defecations, it led to a clash. Two dalits were injured in the clash. Tension had been simmering ever since the candidate of the dominant faction of the jats lost to a dalit in elections for the post of sarpanch.
(2) The landowning farmers of Pandori Khajoor village in Hoshiarpur district allegedly manhandled a newly elected women dalit sarpanch when along with six other women she went into field to collect fodder. Charan Kaur, the sarpanch went to the police and the accused were booked under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
(3) Tension had been high in two villages of Sangrur district for some time over the lease of panchayat-owned land. The dominant jats had been taking the land on lease from the panchayat at cheap rates. Now dalits too wanted to be part of the bidding. However, the caste violence in Jallandhar following Talhan alerted the local administration and it quickly worked out a patch-up.

Despite growing incidences of conflict between dalits and the dominant caste at the village level, caste has not yet become an issue in the electoral politics of the state. Conventionally, caste has also not been an idiom of Punjab politics. Though the local dalit parties such as Bahujan Samaj Party and Bahujan Samaj Morcha wish to identify with the dalit cause, they also need to work with them on ground at the village level. In absence of such involvement with their day-to-day problems, not many dalits see them as promising alternatives to parties like the Congress. There were hardly any signs of presence of the conventional Left-wing parties in the area. Though BSP seemed promising, its performance in the last assembly elections was miserable even though dalits constitute nearly 30 per cent of the state population. The available indications suggest that even in the recent panchayat elections following Talhan, many of its candidates lost, and in most cases to other dalit candidates. Dalits of Punjab, however, do need an organisation that can translate the local level conflicts into a broader political and ideological struggle for social equality and a life of dignity.


[This piece is based on a visit to Jallandhar and Talhan. We are grateful all those who helped us understand complexities of the situation and spared time to talk with us. The usual disclaimers apply]

1Though they are locally called Ravidas Mandirs, their structure is, more or less, like a Sikh Gurudwara. The only major difference is that beside the Sikh holy book, the ad-dharmis also keep a picture of Guru Ravidas. In the Talhan Gurudwara they also had a picture of B R Ambedkar inside the main hall.
2 The village also has a Mazhar of a Sufi Peer Baba Fateh Shah. Though there is no Muslim family currently living in the village, the Mazhar is well looked after by an aged Ad Dharmi. An emigrant jat Sikh from Talhan also organizes a fair at the Mazhar every year on June 5 when he visits the village. No caste distinctions are practised at the mela, which is more of a cultural festival than a religious affair and almost everyone from the village participates in it. Some reports have tended to confuse the Sufi shrine with the shrine of Baba Nihal Singh. The later was a Sikh and not a Sufi. Sufis are by faith generally Muslims. 3 The word Sahijdhari means slow adopters and was traditionally used for upper caste khatris and aroras who believed in Sikhism but did not confirm to the Khalsa tradition of keeping five symbols of the Sikhs. The kesadharis are the ones who grow their hair and tie turban. However, in practice these are much more contentious issues and has often troubled scholars and the community. See McLeod 1975; Oberoi 1994; Singh G 2000.


Jodhka S S (ed) (2000): ‘Prejudice without Pollution?: Scheduled Castes in Contemporary Punjab’ Journal of Indian School of Political Economy (special issue on Scheduled Castes edited by Andre Beteille) Vol XII (3 and 4) pp 381-402.
– (2001): ‘Caste in the Periphery’ Seminar No 508 (December) pp 41-46.
– (2002): ‘Caste and Untouchability in Rural Punjab’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XXXVII (19) May 11, pp 1813-23.
Juergensmeyer M (1988): Religious Rebels in the Punjab: The Social Vision of Untouchables, Ajanta Publications, Delhi.
McLeod, W H (1975): The Evolution of Sikh Community: Five Essays, Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Oberoi, Harjot (1994): The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition, Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Singh, Gurharpal (2000): Ethnic Conflict in India: A Case-Study of Punjab, MacMillan Press, New Delhi.