By S P Singh
16 June, 2003
Talhan (jalandhar): When violence broke out in Talhan in Jalandhar,
politicians and the media woke up to what sociologists had been warning
for long. The immediate provocation for the violence was religious.
Talhans Dalits, 70 per cent of the village population, wanted
a stake in a shrine which generated crores of income but the Jats controlling
it refused to part with any slice of the cash pie. The result: violence,
police firing and curfew returned to Punjab after nearly a decade.
The Dalits-Jat Sikhs clash
also showed how religious institutions had defeated Sikhisms central
tenet of a caste-less society. As sociologist Surinder Jodhka of the
Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru Universitys Centre for Study of Social
Systems, says: Low caste Sikhs of Punjab are the only Dalits
from a non-Hindu religious community listed among scheduled castes.
The situation is now explosive
in a state where the Jats have all the power and where SCs account for
over 30 percent of the populationthe highest ratio in the country.
The average national is 16.32 percent.
While brahminism may be central
to the caste principle, Punjab is significant in a near absence of this
construct. Brahmins are only ritually important for urban upper caste
Hindus, a small number.
Caste violence in Punjab
may have been new, the making of it certainly is not. There have been
consistent minor incidents of violence against Dalits and the dateline
has been all of Punjabs 12,600 villages. Talhan is only the symbol
of a widespread ill.
Parallel to the 1920s reform
movements in Punjab, in the Doaba region Mangoo Ram was able to mobilize
a large majority of chamars and his Ad-Dharmi movement was termed by
sociologists such as Jurgensmeyer as among the most successful of Dalit
mobilisations in the history of modern India.
The Punjab Alienation of
Land Act, 1901, clubbed Dalits with non-agriculturalist
castes, legally denying them access to landholdings. While the Act was
scrapped after Partition, its impact was never reversed and its
left Dalits at the lowest end in the agrarian state. They now have 2.54
per cent of the agricultural land, and 0.40 per cent of landholdings
which is the lowest in the country. Against the all-India average of
25.4 percent, only 4.80 percent of the SC workers are cultivators.
Silent developments have
telling consequences. Ill-equipped preachers and Akali leaders have
eroded the values of Sikhism. This has led communities to assert their
autonomy by building their own gurdwaras, a phenomena Jodhka calls a
question of pride and a form of local level resistance.
Talhan is a product of this phenomena. The Dalits may not have power
but they have become politically conscious after the spread of regional
reform movements. They are now more than ever likely to assert themselves
against the landownersthe Jats.
Caste in Punjab
can perhaps be understood better in the framework of agrarianism
rather than through the more popular notion of brahminism,
And with most political parties
making only overt expressions of concern such as shagun schemes and
granting a few units of power every month to Dalits, there is a vacuum
where there should have been co-existence. Unfortunately, that vacuum
is now being filled with violence.