Such has been the clout of Jalandhar’s Chaudhary clan in Dalit politics of Doaba that the family has contested every Punjab assembly election since 1936. Not only that, in every Congress government formed in the state, at least one ‘Chaudhary’ from the family has always got the opportunity to serve as a minister, holding important portfolios.
It was late Master Gurbanta Singh, revered as ‘Dalit icon’ of Punjab, who laid the political foundation of the Chaudhary family. Master Gurbanta landed in the ‘Ad Dharm’ movement — the first big movement of Punjab Dalits — at the tender age of 20. Master — the name he got while serving as a teacher in a Jalandhar school before joining active politics in 1936 — became the backbone of this movement and served as its secretary, with Mangu Ram at the helm of affairs.
The sarpanch of Dhariwal village situated on the outskirt of Jalandhar city, unsuccessfully contested the Punjab assembly polls, under the British India, from Jalandhar (then Jullundur reserved) segment in 1936.
After winning from this segment in 1945, Gurbanta never looked back and kept winning till 1972, barring in 1967 when he was defeated by a Republic Party of India (RPI) candidate from Kartarpur. In 1972, he was elected unopposed.
Gurbanta, who held all-important portfolios during various Congress regimes in the state, had Babu Jagjivan Ram as mentor at the Centre and had direct access to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and later Indira Gandhi.
As per a study done by a Guru Nanak Dev University research scholar, Asha Kumari, in 2013 (‘Master Gurbanta Singh — his contribution in Punjab Politics), he was such a towering personality among Dalits that even upon facing opposition from the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) established by Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and thereafter its new version RPI, he managed to maintain his winning spree.
“In the first general elections held in 1952 when Dr Ambedkar had himself come to Punjab to campaign for his candidates, Gurbanta defeated the SCF candidate with a huge margin,” mentions the study.
PASSING THE BATON
After winning unopposed in 1972, Master, before his death in 1980, passed the political baton to his eldest son, Chaudhary Jagjit Singh, who by that time had become sarpanch of their ancestral village and also the zila parishad chairman.
However, Jagjit lost the 1977 polls during the ‘Janata Party wave’, but created a sort of record by winning the next five polls continuously till 2002 from Kartarpur. According to few arch rivals of Jagjit, he continuously managed to win the polls playing “various poll tricks” but fell far short of becoming a towering Dalit personality and was embroiled in corruption.
“Gurbanta was revered among Dalits of Doaba, but Jagjit lowered the status of the family. Jagjit was a leader full of lust (for money), whereas Gurbanta didn’t indulge in corruption. Jagjit amassed huge wealth using illegal means,” alleged Dr Ram Lal Jassi, a Congress leader, who had unsuccessfully contested against him in 1997 on the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ticket.
During 2002-2007, when Jagjit served as a minister in Captain Amarinder Singh government, his name figured in the Ludhiana City Centre scam and he faced various allegations, compelling one of his critics and former Congress leader Bir Devinder to term him “mother of all corruptions” during an assembly session. This was the reason that the last two elections -- 2007 and 2012 -- he fought from the family citadel in Kartarpur witnessed his loss. For the Congress, Jagjit used to liaison with all prominent Dalit deras, but never officially declared his son Chaudhary Surinder Singh as his successor.
“Had he been alive today, he would have definitely contested the coming assembly polls as well. This was the difference between him and his father. The father announced Jagjit as his successor after officially retiring from politics but Jagjit never did so even at the age of 82 and never nurtured his son properly,” says Tarsem Sagar, an educationist and member of Ambedkar society. Surinder, 61, who became zila parishad chairman in 2006, is likely to be the Congress candidate from Kartarpur only on the basis of his family legacy.
ANOTHER ‘SON-RISE’ IN THE FAMILY
Lok Sabha member from Jalandhar Chaudhary Santokh Singh, 64, is Gurbanta Singh’s youngest, and got huge success in politics without being this father’s official successor.
The MP says he is proud of his father’s achievements, but his own rise in politics has remained full of struggles.
“I could not become the official family nominee, as I was the youngest among the brothers, 17 years younger to Chaudhary Jagjit Singh. I started from the Youth Congress, and later became Jalandhar district president during militancy, before becoming Phillaur MLA in 1992,” said the MP.
Jagjit never wanted Santokh to rise in politics and when the latter established himself, the differences between the brothers came out in the open. On one occasion, when the two had issues over running educational institutes established by their father, the matter reached the police.
“I was always an organisational man, whereas Chaudhary Jagjit had joined politics as the family heir. It’s the reason I always wear ‘kurta pyjama’ whereas Jagjit Saab used to wear suit and tie. My son Vikramjit Chaudhary, 39, a former Punjab Youth Congress president, is also an organisational man. The two families have different legacies now,” said Santokh, whose son is a contender for the Congress ticket from Phillaur.
The Congress high-ups have also used the rift between the brothers to make power balance in Doaba. During the governments of the last four Congress chief ministers — late Beant Singh, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, late Harcharan Singh Brar and Captain Amarinder Singh — both the brothers were made ministers.
Santokh, a “decent” man who many say is “more deserving” than Jagjit, is not as financially strong. “My father has not made a single penny in politics. I can proudly say we are carrying forward that legacy,” said Vikramjit.
THE POWER BASE
It’s the Ravidassia community that has remained the power base of the Chaudhary clan. “Jagjit was a ‘fanatic’ when it came to work related to Ravidassias. Whenever he ran any ministry, he ensured that officers at the helm of affairs were from the community,” said Tejinder Bittu, a former Jalandhar Improvement Trust chairman and a close aide of the late minister.
Even as Doaba witnessed the rise of other Dalit leaders within the Congress, including former minister Darshan Singh Kaypee and his son and former Punjab Congress chief Mohinder Singh Kaypee, the Chaudhary family continue to remain at the helm of affairs in the region.