"We want to live a dignified life. Are we asking for too much?" asks Charanjit Kaur, 47, echoing the view of 50 Dalit families of Sakohaan villages (Nabha), 40 km from Patiala.
For the past 20 days, it has been an ordeal for them to keep the pot boiling. On September 27, a heavy police contingent, on the pretext of helping the panchayat install a water tank, cleared the 'shamlat deh' (village common land) of the baked cattle dung that Dalit families use for cooking purposes.
"An LPG cylinder has always been out of our reach. We have to make do with baked cattle dung. Now, we have been deprived of that as well," said Manjit Kaur, another villager.
Nabha subdivisional magistrate (SDM) Poonamdeep Kaur said the 9-kanal land in question was not being used for any purpose. When asked why a police contingent went to the village, she said it was a preventive measure taken to avoid any untoward incident.
The sarpanch, Bhupinderjeet Singh Sekhon, said, "Dalits are against the proposed water tank." When it was pointed out that each Dalit family had submitted Rs 400 to the panchayat for the water tank, he said, "Some organisations have instigated villagers against the panchayat."
It is not for the first time that Sakohaan Dalits have been at the receiving end. About 25 years ago, they were asked to shift the spot being used for baking cattle dung as a gurdwara was to be constructed on the site. They complied because alternative land was provided. Seven years ago, it was the same story, with one difference: that time, a school was to come up.
In the present instance, Dalits confronted the panchayat, dominated by so-called upper-caste men, because they were not provided with alternative land. "There is ample land available with the panchayat for installing the water tank. The fact is they are eyeing the 'shamlat' land which we were using," said Narang Singh, a Dalit member of the panchayat.
THE ROOT CAUSE
Kesar Singh, 24, who has done a course in food and beverages from the Industrial Training Institute (ITI), Nabha, offers an insight into the changing scenario. "Our fathers and grandfathers used to work as siris (bonded labour) for landlords (Jats). As we, the Scheduled Castes, who were once at the mercy of upper castes, have started getting education, we are now looking for jobs in other avenues. This decrease in economic dependence on landlords irks them and so they target our sources of livelihood."
His elder brother, Chamkaur Singh, is more direct. "Azad mulk hai. Asin kise di ghulami kyon kariye? (We live in an independent country. Why should we be slaves to anyone?)," he asserts.
On October 8, Dalits protested outside the mini secretariat in Nabha to press for their demands, including an alternative piece of land for baking cattle dung. Bowing to their pressure, the administration promised to meet their demands.
"The administration and the panchayat have passed a resolution to provide land to Dalits for baking dung," the SDM had said on the day of the protest. Later, the sarpanch backtracked. "How can the panchayat give land like this?" he told Hindustan Times. When SDM Poonamdeep Kaur was apprised of the sarpanch's stance, she said the administration would hold a meeting with the panchayat.
"The administration is delaying the matter. If this dilly-dallying continues, we will be forced to take to the streets again," said Beant Singh, state press secretary of the Punjab Students' Union, who is leading the agitation.