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Behind Dalit assertion in Punjab Congress, new churning against old caste supremacy

Having highest percentage of Dalit population among states, SCs in Punjab are seeking bigger share in structures and positions of power.

punjab Updated: May 28, 2018 11:01 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur
Sukhdeep Kaur
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Dalit assertion,Congress,caste supremacy
“You live with inferiority complex as a Dalit,” Punjab technical education minister Charanjit Singh Channi. (HT File )

“You live with inferiority complex as a Dalit. In school, teachers make you stand up in the class to say your fee has been waived. From homes on outskirts of villages to no entry to gurdwaras, there is systemic social exclusion everywhere.” These words of technical education minister Charanjit Singh Channi decode why the Congress is now facing a Dalit backlash in its own backyard.

There is whiff of revolt among the Scheduled Caste (SC) and backward class (BC) ministers and MLAs of Congress against the government led by Captain Amarinder Singh which came to power after 10 years, only when its traditional vote bank of Dalits — both among Sikhs and Hindus as well as upper caste Hindus — returned to its fold. Together, the 22 SC and 11 BC legislators constituted 42% of the party’s near two-thirds majority of 77 seats in 2017 polls.

But there are just three Dalit ministers and none from the backward class in the full House of 18. It’s the main reason why most SC/BC legislators have thrown their lot together. This new kind of caste churning has split open the fault lines within the party and the government.

As per the 2011 Census, Punjab has highest percentage of SC population among states. Together with backward classes, they make more than 50 percent of its people.

Jat Sikh domination

But it is still Jat Sikhs, the land barons, who dominate Punjab’s economic and political landscape. Though they comprise just 25% of the state’s population, the Congress, at best, got a third of their vote share in polls last year.

But when it comes to spoils of power, they bagged the lion’s share. Jat Sikhs have eight cabinet berths out of 18, including CM Amarinder. The only “non-Jat” Sikh is CM’s confidant Rana Gurmeet Sodhi, who represents the Khatri community. All have meaty portfolios.

Upper caste Hindus are not complaining too. The Congress has rewarded them with posts of the speaker, state party president and five cabinet berths.

Dalit leaders of Congress accuse the party of playing vote-bank politics. They claim Channi, who hails from the Ravidassia community, was appointed leader of the Congress legislature party a year ahead of polls. In power, he has been given “light” departments such as technical education and employment generation.

To accommodate two more Jat Sikhs and a Hindu from the Majha belt, Valmiki leader Raj Kumar Verka failed to make it to the cabinet last month. With highest SC/BC population, Doaba has just one minister in the cabinet, and that too a Hindu.

Other power perks

Cabinet berths are not the only cause for heartburn. Of the 14 committees of the Vidhan Sabha formed by speaker Rana KP Singh last year, just one had a Dalit chairman. After the outcry, three of the 14 committees reconstituted this month have Dalits as their chairmen. The appointment of law officers is the new flashpoint. None on the new list of 28 announced on Thursday is a Dalit and Channi raised a banner of revolt openly. In the entire list of 156, five are SCs.

‘Debt relief only for landed farmers’

The loan waiver scheme of Congress government too favoured land-owning Jat Sikhs. According to the data of Punjab’s SC welfare department, Dalits own just 6% of state’s operational landholdings. A majority work as agricultural labour, for whom a waiver has yet to be worked out.

The quota in promotion to SCs promised by the 85th amendment to the Constitution too is not being implemented in Punjab. Channi has accused the government of “not defending the case well” in the Punjab and Haryana high court.

Channi and Verka have escalated the “discrimination” to Congress president Rahul Gandhi when he held a rally against Narendra Modi government over “atrocities on Dalits” last month. “CM’s own retinue of 16-odd advisers, OSDs and political secretaries has no Dalit,” one of the SC MLAs says.

State’s SC and BC welfare minister Sadhu Singh Dharamsot, also a Dalit, had lamented in a cabinet meeting that SC students were suffering as funds for scholarships were not being released. The reason: A report to unearth the “scam” with private institutes is yet to see light of the day.

Professor Ronki Ram of Panjab University’s department of political science says Dalit MLAs cannot seek posts in proportion to their numbers after winning polls as candidates of the Congress or BJP. “These parties have own ideology and priorities. BR Ambedkar too said Dalits elected from other parties would be deaf and dumb to aspirations of their own people,” he says.

But pointing to last month’s clash in Phagwara between a right wing Hindu outfit and Dalits over naming of a chowk, he says Dalits are now asserting themselves owing to better economic status. “They are getting education and high-paying jobs. They will root for share in local structures and positions of power. And the upper castes will resist it,” he adds.

First Published: May 28, 2018 10:58 IST