Doaba flashpoint: Phagwara on the edge over caste faultline

Clash over naming a crossing as ‘Samvidhan Chowk’ in homage to Dalit icon has underlined an age-old divide between ‘lower caste’ and Hindutva forces; a dimension relatively new to Punjab’s caste cauldron.

punjab Updated: Apr 26, 2018 09:32 IST
Ravinder Vasudeva
Ravinder Vasudeva
Hindustan Times, Phagwara
caste flare-up,Phagwara,caste faultline
Security forces in a in bazaar amid a bandh call by caste organisations in Phagwara on Wednesday. (HT Photo)

Known most prominently for once being a textile hub, this industrial town in Punjab’s Kapurthala district on National Highway-1 has been under virtual lockdown for nearly two weeks now, as a caste clash of April 13 over renaming a chowk (crossing) continues to cast a shadow.

The clash and its aftershocks — war of words between, and within, the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has only been escalating — have opened up a faultline between Dalits and “upper caste” Hindus at a time when the rest of the country too has witnessed violence over this age-old divide.

Prominent Dalit face Jarnail Singh Nangal, 43, a former BSP leader who contested last year’s assembly polls from Phagwara on Ludhiana-based Bains brothers’ Lok Insaaf Party, is at the centre of the Dalits-vs-Hindutva forces controversy.

And the tension is now spread across the Doaba region, where Punjab’s Dalit population, the highest among all states at 32%, is concentrated. Doaba has in the past seen clashes primarily between Dalits, or other “lower castes”, and hardline Sikhs; but this clash has a dimension seldom seen here, that of Dalits versus Hindutva forces.

It began late evening on Baisakhi, April 13, when a group of Dalit leaders owing allegiance to an outfit named Ambedkar Sena (Mool Niwasi) put up a hoarding at Gol Chowk to rename it as Samvidhan Chowk, to pay tribute to the main architect of India’s samvidhan or Constitution, Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who is considered a Dalit icon. It was his birth anniversary the next day.

Man at centre of controversy
  • Prominent Dalit face Jarnail Singh Nangal, 43, a former BSP leader who contested last year’s assembly polls from Phagwara on Ludhiana-based Bains brothers’ Lok Insaaf Party, is at the centre of the Dalits-vs-Hindutva forces controversy.
  • As per the police FIR into the April 13 clash, he was leading the Ambedkar Sena men who came to install a hoarding carrying the name Samvidhan Chowk at the crossing over which the flare-up happened.
  • The move was objected to by Shiv Sena and some local BJP workers. Nangal, who is being criticised by local Congress and the BJP leaders for “inciting” tension, led the campaign following which names of seven Dalits were dropped from the FIR.
  • He was also part of the delegation that met CM Amarinder Singh on Tuesday even as local Congress leader and former minister Joginder Maan criticised him for “playing politics on the issue”.
  • Even as all other stakeholders in this controversy, be it the General Samaj Manch or leaders across parties, are gunning for him, he is yet to be arrested by the police. “All of them are targeting me because they feel threatened by my seriousness in the fight for Dalit rights,” he said.

‘Cops could not control’

Within minutes, some activists of a self-styled Hindu outfit, Shiv Sena (Bal Thackerey), reached the spot and objected to the board that had the “new name” in Punjabi and a portrait of Ambedkar. They said the crossing had already been renamed ‘Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh Chowk’. As the arguments turned heated, police intervened but could not check the pushing and shoving, and soon the additional deputy commissioner (ADC), Babita Kaler, and superintendent of police (SP) Parminder Bhandal reached the spot too.

“But they could not control the situation. A scuffle soon turned into full-blown violence, and the Shiv Sena group even fired shots in the presence of the police, seriously injuring two Dalit activists,” said a top police official from the intelligence wing privy to the developments. The local officials, as per eyewitnesses, rather than trying to disperse the groups, kept listening to their claims for nearly two hours. And when the scuffle broke out close to midnight, the cops watched helplessly. Eventually five persons were injured, with one of them still in hospital in a serious condition.

Fuel for some

More than 33 people from both sides were booked in the FIR registered on April 14, and the police arrested four leaders from the Hindu right wing. These arrests have worked as fuel for them. “What showed the partisan role of the local police was that, after a few days, they removed names of seven Dalits from the FIR. No Dalit leader has been arrested yet,” said Naresh Bhardwaj, a leader of the General Samaj Manch, a group claiming to represent the “general category”.

“The issue heated up further when some local leaders, such as Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) MLA (Adampur) Pawan Kumar Tinu and Congress MLA (Chabbewal) Dr Raj Kumar, and some from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), extended support to the Dalit faction,” alleged Som Parkash, the local BJP MLA who happens to be a Dalit too.

People from across party lines are targeting me because they feel threatened by my seriousness towards the fight for Dalit rights. — Jarnail Singh Nangal, Dalit leader

His naming of the SAD MLA must be noted, since the party is a partner of the BJP in the state and at the national level. Tinu, when contacted, said that being a Dalit leader it was his duty to safeguard the community. “Som Parkash ji should rise above politics to support the downtrodden,” he added.

Things, however, appeared to be quietening down by Tuesday afternoon. It was not to be.

Not over yet

Som Parkash has since backed the General Samaj Manch and even reiterated the claim that the chowk was already named after Bhagat Singh.

This was part of a renewed flare-up brought about by two incidents in quick succession on Tuesday evening. First, police had to gather in a local bazaar after some Dalits were reportedly forcing shopkeepers to down shutters; and then came news about chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh’s meeting with Dalit leaders in Chandigarh that ended in his “in-principle approval” to renaming the crossing as Samvidhan Chowk, thus getting back to the nub of the controversy.

Minutes later, General Samaj Manch supporters sat on a dharna and announced a bandh demanding withdrawal of the CM’s announcement.

  • Apr 13: Five injured in clash between Dalit outfit and Hindu “upper caste” right wing activists as Dalits seek to rename a crossing after the samvidhan or Constitution framed prominently by Dalit icon BR Ambedkar
  • Apr 14: Internet suspended for 3 days in Doaba region; FIR against 33 persons across both sides under sections 307 (attempt to murder), 295A (hurting religious sentiments) and others as per IPC
  • Apr 15: Right wing group Shiv Sena’s four leaders arrested
  • Apr 16: Bandh in Phagwara due to escalating tension
  • Apr 17: Senior local leaders hold meeting appealing for peace
  • Apr 20: Situation peaceful but tense; admn cancels gun licences of four arrested right-wing leaders
  • Apr 23: Police remove names of 7 Dalits, including one who remains in hospital, from the FIR
  • Apr 24: Amarinder tries to assuage sentiments of Dalit community by giving approval to the name ‘Samvidhan Chowk’; Phagwara BJP and General Samaj Manch oppose move, hold protest, pitch Bhagat Singh’s name as option instead
  • April 25: General Samaj Manch lifts dharna “for now” with a “deadline” to arrest Dalit group leader Jarnail Singh Nangal by April 30

This dharna was lifted only after an assurance by inspector general of police (IGP) Jalandhar range, Naunihal Singh of a “fair probe” and “strong action” against any Dalit involved in violence.

Piquant situation for BJP, Cong

MLA Som Parkash, who had preferred not to take sides — he is a Dalit in a party often accused of favouring “upper castes” — came out openly in favour of Manch. Mayor Arun Khosla, who is from BJP too, and SAD district unit chief Jarnail Singh Wahid also sat on the dharna held by the Manch. Some Congress leaders, including block unit president Sanjeev Bugga, and the party’s councillors from the general category also came out in favour of the Manch, demanding action against Dalit leaders “involved in the clash” who met the CM.

Amid all this, a silence that rings loud is that of Union minister and Hoshiarpur MP Vijay Sampla of BJP, a Dalit leader in whose segment falls Phagwara. Said to be on a foreign tour, Sampla was president of the state unit of BJP and was seen as a push of the saffron party into the Dalit fold. Earlier this month, he was replaced with Shwait Malik, a leader in the mould of “upper caste” traders whom the party is seeking to woo back after their drift towards the Congress in last year’s assembly polls.

Row over roundabout that was

There’s an irony, too, at the heart of the caste clash over renaming of a chowk (crossing or roundabout) that exists only in name now. It was once Gol Chowk (literally, ‘round crossing’) but was removed five years ago as a flyover came up on the national highway. The flyover is yet be operational, though. At the spot where the chowk once stood, now is only a non-descript pillar of the flyover on which Dalit groups installed the hoarding of ‘Samvidhan Chowk’.

First Published: Apr 26, 2018 09:30 IST