Sunday, September 11

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Hope Comes to children in farmer' suicide belt

This story of a girl who had to discontinue her studies after her father committed suicide, by Amrita Chaudhry appeared in Chandigarh edition of The Indian Express on September 8. Her sad story had a silver lining though, with a visit of a documentary film maker couple. The hope they rekindled in her life needs to be replicated in the region.

Thirteen year old Jaspreet Kaur, a resident of Chotiyan village in Sangrur district, wants to become a doctor when she grows up. A normal aspiration for a teenager. Only, life has not been normal for Jaspreet, whose father, a farmer caught in the debt trap, had committed suicide when she was eight. And with that all dreams of future as a doctor were shattered. Jaspreet had to discontinue her studies. But now there is hope.
Tom Deiters and Suzanne Nievaart - a couple from The Netherlands - have not only got Jaspreet admitted to SEABA International Public School, Lehragaga but have also promised to sponsor her education throughout.
Kawaljit Singh Dhindsa, Managing Director tells the belt is full of cases of farmer suicides. For Jaspreet, tragedy stuck twice. First, when her uncle committed suicide after failing to repay the loan the family had taken from the ahrtiya. The burden kept multiplying and when her father, Bhatti Singh, also failed to repay it, he too committed suicide leaving behind no male earning member in the family.
Jaspreet's grandfather, Mohinder Singh is so shaken up that he has withdrwan himself from everything. Jaspreet dropped out of school so that her brothers, Harjinder(12) and Sandip (10), could continue studying.
But this year, two students from the University of Amsterdam came to study the profile of this farmer suicide ridden belt, Jaspreet was once again sent to school and is now studying in class seven.
Back home Tom studies political science whereas Suzzane is a student of social anthropology and the two are presenlty making a documentary on farmer suicides. Suzzane adds, "chilldren having to give up education due to family members committing suicides is common in this belt and we are just trying to help."
Lauding their action Dhindsa says though both Tom and Suzzane themselves are studentsand have to work to pay for their education, yet they have promised to support Jaspreet. Suzzane has even promised to get sponsorship for more such students once back home.
Jaspreet meanwhile is picking up the threads of her life once again. She does not know why her father or her uncle committed suicide but she does know that, "I was stopped from going to school for my family could no longer afford our education." And now Jaspreet is happy living at her paternal village Jwarwala for, "the school bus does not go to my village but stops at this village so I shifted to my nanke."
Motivated by Jaspreet's case, Dhindsa, who is also the convenor of the NGO, Society for Education in Backward Areas (SEABA), has launched a drive to appeal to people interested in supporting education of children like Jaspreet or even other poor children. Dhindsa says "We have decided to appeals for participation in education of such children either on annual basis or on life time basis. If a person desires he can deposit Rs 1 lakh in one go and this will ensure a minimum of ten years of education for the child in our school. If someone wants to sponsor the child on an yearly basis then the amount comes to around Rs 15000 per year and includes school fees, books, school uniform and the transportation of the students."
Dhindsa says, "We are also trying to boost the morale of these children through therapeutic forms like theatre and sports."
Those interested in helping may contact Kawaljit Singh Dhindsa, Convenor, SEABA, at +911676273498 or Jatinder Preet co-ordinator Media Artists at, 9815512084 or email at or

Punjab the 'Best' State! - Really?

Punjab was recently adjudged the best state. Birinder Pal Singh, Professor, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Punjabi University, Patiala, in an article in The Tribune wonders how could it be so, the way things are actually.

The recent "Best State Award" to Punjab is, no doubt, a matter of pride. But if one looks at the state of society, polity, economy, or even agriculture and environment, he would fail to appreciate the criteria adopted by the judges and meaning of such awards. One wonders how one-dimensional and lopsided are the indices of growth and development selected by the judges.
As a sociologist, this writer finds it difficult to reconcile how the "Best State Award" is related to the problem of female foeticide and lowest sex ratio (793 females per 1000 males) in the country. That too, in an area where the religion of half strongly interdicts the killing of baby girl - those who kill their daughters would be boycotted socially. Despite this, we find a highly skewed sex ratio. Is this variable not related to the criteria of selection of the "Best State"?
It is not that the female in Punjab is an endangered species in its foetal stage only. Her problems multiply as she grows. Starting from neglect of all sorts - food, clothing, education or other allied privileges - compared to man, she is finally sent to another family to be exploited and sometimes be a victim of the exploding stove. The lust for dowry is going sky-high in this age of consumer culture.
Lately, Punjabis have become desperate to marry their daughters abroad so that she becomes a safe conduit for the whole family, especially the sons, to the greener pasture of the western world. Once again, the daughter is sacrified for the son's settlement. These parents know full well the fate of such marriages, but still "someone must sacrifice" for the family.
The picture is no less gloomy for males. Their dropout rate is high in school. And they keep filtering out as they go up. The Punjabi University has about 70 per cent girls who were a meagre 30 per cent two decades ago. What are the boys doing? The fortunate ones make to the US/Canada somehow. The Malta tragedy has not dampened the spirit of the Punjabi youth for illegal migration. And, the not so fortunate ones who stay back take to drugs and intoxicants. This menace is growing every day. Why are young people indulging in escapism and others desperate to run out of the "Best State"?
The land of "the five rivers" is gradually losing out its water reservoirs, both surface and underground. We may boast of the increasing number of tube-wells and tractors, but do not look at the water table that is receding at the rate of a metre per year in most parts of the state. Aren't we becoming an extension of the great Indian desert? We haven't taken water harvesting seriously. The rich farmers are going deeper and deeper to water their crops. Where would the poor farmers go? Why are the farmers committing suicide?
The state of the forest, so very essential for the environment, ecology, water and wildlife etc. has also succumbed to the thriftiness of the Punjabi farmer who is well known for clearing the forests in the Tarai region of Uttranchal and Madhya Pradesh. In Punjab, the forest cover is dismally lower than the minimum requirement of 33 per cent. The inflated figures released by the government stand at less than 8 per cent.
The state of polity is no better. It is ridden with factions and strife both within and outside the party independent of its type and ideology. Barring a few exceptions, political leaders are concerned with their narrow end of maximising one's own resources. Why are they so callous towards their own beloved Punjab?
What is happening to the health services of the state? The Government Rajindra Hospital at Patiala was a premier institution only two decades ago. It is now slogging due to paucity of funds. It is stagnating while the private polyclinics are mushrooming and flourishing in its vicinity. The condition of the rural health services is worse. The doctors and other staff go to the Primary Health Centre to collect their salaries only. According to the latest World Bank Report, on an average, on any day, "nearly 39 per cent of doctors and 44 per cent of other medical personnel are absent from their place of work".
If health is not taken care of in the rural areas, is education faring any better? The latest World Bank report says 552 government schools do not have a single teacher, 2500 have one teacher each and 7000 primary schools have only two or three teachers. Each day 36 per cent primary teachers abstain from schools. Of the remaining 64 per cent, only half go to classes. What is the status and future of government school education in the "Best State" and the "builders of the nation" after 58 years of self-rule?
One may reach out to any sector of the Punjabi society and find it replete with problems. Are internal security services any better? One may only listen to the cassettes of Bhagwant Mann to assess the nature and character of the Punjab Police. The people are scared of approaching the police stations that are fraught with all kinds of ills. The senior officers of this force have often been charged with serious misconduct especially with fair sex. How secure is the life of an ordinary citizen in hands of the police of the "best state"?
The reader may charge this writer with extreme pessimism in painting such a gloomy picture of their beloved state. But what should one do when he cannot be a victim of the pigeon-cat syndrome? The academic and the media must not eulogise the little achievements of the government/state which is duty, but they must point out mistakes so that the state may improve and deliver the goods.
The whole problem with declaring a "Best State" lies in our obsession with statistics of a select set of variables. We must shun this obsession. A rise in the number of tractors, tube-wells, the volume of pesticides and fertilisers or even of wheat and rice does not mean that all is well with the state. On the contrary, the number of suicides does not seem large enough to bother the government for launching a remedial action on a war footing.

Saturday, September 3

Grandparents in Punjab bring up children of a lost generation

As hundreds of indebted farmers in Punjab commit suicide, in village after village old grandparents -- once prosperous, now impoverished -- are left struggling to take care of their grandchildren, writes Rashme Sehgal

Dressed in a tehmat and kurta, Bade Ram looks older than his age. He has every reason to look worried. He has no option but to stop sending his two nieces -- 11-year-old Sheila and nine-year-old Reena, studying in Class 5 and Class 2 respectively -- to the government school.
It's difficult to believe that Bade Ram, whose family once owned 300 acres of land in the village of Banga near Patiala, can no longer afford to send the two young girls to school. But rural indebtedness has caused such havoc among families in the Punjab that they are no longer in a position to fork out even Rs 200 every month. Although the fees at government schools are not high, other incidental expenses including the cost of uniforms and books work out to almost Rs 200 per month.
Bade Ram's three elder brothers committed suicide. Bade Ram takes a deep breath and says: "My oldest brother Balbir Singh committed suicide way back in 1997. Immediately after his death, my bhabhi , the wife of another brother Gyana Singh, became ill. My brother ended up taking loans of Rs 2,50,000 for her treatment. She could not be cured and 21 days later Gyana killed himself by drinking pesticide."
Activist Surjeet Singh, from the nearby village of Bhutal Khurd, feels the problem in the Sangrur belt is compounded by annual flooding of the Ghaggar river. "Unlike other parts of the Punjab, the farmers here can grow only one crop. Year after year we end up losing the paddy crop. The government is aware of our problems but has done nothing to try and rein in the river," Singh complains.
"With our entire livelihood dependent on the wheat crop, most of us farmers have been forced to take loans for weddings or for illnesses, which we are not in a position to repay. What has broken our spirit is the fact that while the children of dalits enjoy several privileges, including free education, free uniforms and free books, no such facilities have been extended to the majority of farmers who belong to the Jat community," Surjeet Singh adds.
Bade Ram is too weighed down by his immediate problems to add to the discussion. Educating his nieces is only one of his many worries. His other major concern is that he is the sole breadwinner for his brothers' children too. "My elder brother has left behind an 18-year-old daughter who has to be married off. From where do I raise the money for her marriage?" he asks.
The spate of farmer suicides in Punjab has created an unprecedented situation where often one or sometimes both parents are dead. So the burden of bringing up children is being shouldered by grandfathers and grandmothers who have neither the money nor the physical strength to cope with such a huge responsibility.
There's Paneswari Devi, who, at the age of 70, is trying her best to look after her son's three children. Sitting outside her dilapidated hut in Khanori Khurd village in Bhutal Kalan, near Lehra, she tries to stop her fingers from trembling as she describes the abject poverty and anguish of her condition.
"After my husband's death, my only son Pritam Singh committed suicide by drinking pesticide. This happened in July 2004. He was only 27 years old. The local moneylenders forced him to take this extreme step. My husband had taken a loan against our land, which he was not able to repay. The debt piled up and Pritam Singh also was not in a position to repay the money. After his death, his wife ran away leaving behind three children between the ages of five and ten. They are my responsibility, but tell me, how can an aged and ailing woman like me take care of them," she asks.
Shanti Devi, an elderly grandmother from Kalwanjara, shares Paneswari Devi's plight. Her husband's suicide, triggered by indebtedness, preyed enormously on the psyche of her two elder boys both of whom also ended up taking their own lives. Her middle son's wife, unwilling to be burdened with the responsibility of taking care of three young children, ran away. Shanti Devi was already looking after her youngest son who is retarded. She is now forced to depend on village charity to take care of the three children and her youngest son. "If someone gives me one kilo of wheat for doing an odd job here or there, then only we are able to eat. The rest of the time we are close to starvation," she says in a faltering voice.
Members of panchayats in the region are worried about this trend. One senior sarpanch, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "This entire area comes under the Lok Sabha constituency of Perneet Kaur, wife of Punjab's chief minister Amarinder Singh. She has all the money and the wherewithal to come to the rescue of these grief-stricken families, but she has done little to help any of them."
Malkit Kaur, sarpanch of Chotiyan village, points out: "We are constantly being sensitised about the whole AIDS syndrome where earning members of families are being destroyed by this disease. But in Punjab an entire generation has been wiped out because of rural indebtedness. And once the earning member is not there, who is going to shoulder the responsibility of nurturing and taking care of the young ones? The elders have been placed in an impossible situation."
Delhi High Court lawyer Manjit Hardev Singh read about the plight of these families in the newspapers. Extremely disturbed, she got in touch with Chandigarh-based activist Inderjit Singh Jajee who has been highlighting suicides in the Punjab. Manjit Hardev Singh personally toured some of the affected villages and decided to adopt three families being looked after by an aged matriarch. All three families were from Sangrur district. "I'm giving each of the three families I have adopted a stipend of Rs 1,500 each. The cheques are given to them through their local sarpanch or a responsible village elder. But my contribution is like a drop in the ocean. Other people need to come forward to look after these suffering people," she says.
Sociologist Dr Pramod Kumar, who runs the Centre for Sociology and Communication in Chandigarh, believes the government must take immediate steps to provide assistance to these families. "Community structures have broken down all over the state. Even in the villages, extended families are getting smaller. The government should intervene and provide some sort of relief package for these people. This whole trend of elders taking care of a younger generation is no solution to the problem."
But until the government steps in, the plight of over 10,000 families in the Punjab (according to estimates put together by local activists) will remain unchanged.

(Rashme Sehgal is a Delhi-based writer and journalist)

Friday, September 2

Scheduled Castes in Sikh Community: A Historical Perspective

An understanding of the distinctive caste hierarchy in Sikhism and the new pattern of competing hierarchies, parallel to that of the Hindus, calls for insights into the dynamics of political power and economic relations both at the local and regional levels. This paper by Harish K. Puri aims at exploring the trade-off between the doctrinal principles of Sikh religion and the ruling social and political interests in the context of changes in the society and economy of Punjab.

Caste as Colonial Construction
After the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, when the British administrators and anthropologists started looking closely at the social hierarchy in the province they discovered that the Punjab represented 'a notable exception' to the caste system in India. It appeared that the continual influx of foreign people of diverse stocks made the people of this region extraordinarily mixed. Buddha Prakash depicted, in a way, the special quality of the region, when he described it as "The socio-cultural panmixia of Punjab". He also noticed that this region was 'practically abandoned' by the orthodoxy (brahmins), most of whom had quite early shifted to the Indo-Gangetic region [Buddha Prakash 1976:8]. The British administrators noticed, during the 19th century that, by religion, Punjab 'is more Muhammedan than Hindu', and that 'Islam in the Punjab is as a rule, free from fanaticism'. In the western part of Punjab where there was a larger concentration of Muslims and the society was organised on tribal basis, it was found that ?caste hardly exists?. Part of the reason for such a characteristic of Muslim social life in the region was the Sufi influence, which was brought from Persia by 'the early Sultans of Ghor' (Imperial Gazetteer of India -1, 1908:48-50). Historians noticed a significant mobilisation among the artisan castes/classes during the period of Turkish rule. The teachings of the Bhakti poets, particularly the ridicule of the brahmin by Kabir and Ravidas, were perhaps as much an evidence of a challenge to the structure of social deference, as a reflection of a shifting structure of social hierarchy. However, in central Punjab, broadly the area of present Punjab, it was the emergence of Sikh Panth which was believed to have made a definitive influence with respect to caste. Arnold Toynbee took note of evidence that the Hindu society had, by the time of the Turkish invasions, started to break down under 'the morbid social growth' of caste system, resulting in revolts of the proletariat led by Kabir and Nanak. According to J S Grewal, "Toynbee sees the rise of Sikhism, thus, as an act of secession on the part of the internal proletariat of the Hindu society in its disintegrating stage" [Grewal 1972:141].
The large-scale entry of the jats from the time of the sixth Guru, however, tended to alter the caste equation in the panth. The jats constituted the rural elite who dominated rural Punjab. By the 18th century the jat constituency was preponderant among constituent groups in the panth [McLeod 1975:10]. In the 1881 Census it was found that among 1,706,909 persons who returned themselves as Sikh, about 63 per cent were jats.
Irfan Habib traced the jats to the pastoral people first noticed in Punjab during 7th to 9th centuries and suggested that they may have been attracted to the Gurus because of their inherited egalitarian traditions. The jats were known for their indifference to brahminical social stratification and the Gurus "willingly raised jats to positions of high authority in the new panth". "The inevitable result was development along lines dictated by the influence of jat cultural patterns" [McLeod 1975:10]. Whereas the Hindu varna order was altered, it did not end caste distinction. More significantly, the change did not seem to affect the attitude and treatment towards the outcastes. The burden of tradition appeared to have been heavy among the rising number of the followers of Sikh faith. The Sikh Misals (militias) were organised along caste lines [Marenco 1977:38]. We do not know the number of the outcastes who entered the panth at that stage. It is clear, however, that their number was small until large-scale conversion to Sikhism, which began towards the end of the 19th century.
During the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839), Sikh jats emerged as a major part of the nobility or the ruling class. In the overall population of his vast kingdom the Sikhs formed 6-7 per cent of the total population of his kingdom. Muslims constituted about 70 per cent of the total, and the Hindus 24 per cent. But in the area of their greatest concentration, the districts of Lahore and Amritsar, the Sikhs formed around one third of the population [Grewal 1994:113]. The Sikh jats constituted a major part of Ranjit Singh's army; they constituted nearly 30 per cent of the total nobility and they were the major recipients of jagirs. The largest share of religious grants went to the Sikhs [Sagar 1993:9]. Social status was determined by the size of one's landholding. Ideologically, as Grewal noted, the doctrine of Guru-Panth had given place to that of Guru-Granth, in recognition of the prevalent social inequality. 'Every Sikh was equal in the presence of the Granth Sahib, in the sangat and the langar, but in the life outside, social differences were legitimised' [Grewal 1994:118]. The contemporary literature noticed a wide gap between the Sikh nobility and the common Sikhs. Slavery was prevalent in the society, and so was beggary. 'Poor parents used to sell their children. At times grown up girls were sold' [Sagar 1993:95]. Some of contemporary British observers thought that the difference between Sikh nobles and the Sikh poor was greater than similar differences elsewhere in India [Grewal 1994:116]. More uninhibited prevalence of caste hierarchy and discrimination against the untouchables was reflected in denial of access to villages, public wells and Gurdwaras [Pratap Singh 1933:146].

Creating Merit and Complexity
The 'British colonial embrace', following the annexation of Punjab in 1849, had 'an overriding significance' in shaping a new kind of Sikhism and in changing the social structure and caste relations in the Sikh community. Understanding the hatred of men of substance for then new rulers, the administrators of Punjab tradition went about constituting 'natural leaders', who would be loyal to the British while holding sway over the peasantry. After the disbanding of the Sikh soldiery, confiscation of the estates of most prominent chiefs, 'lowering and crushing' the priestly class of Sodhis and Bedis, and reconstitution of the Sikh aristocracy and the army (by the end of 'mutiny', Sikhs constituted 28 per cent of the army in Punjab) had paid dividends to the British during the Indian rebellion of 1857. The British administrators in Punjab understood that those who stood firmly loyal and served as 'breakwaters of the storm' - 'natural leaders' of the community ' 'deserved support and encouragement' [Narang 1998:16-24, passim].
The reorganisation of the British Indian army after 1858 was based on a theory of 'martial races'. The Sikhs were recognised as one of the most prominent martial races of India for their loyal support in suppressing the rebellion. However, though Sikhism was noted to have drawn its adherents from all classes, it were the jats who carried such weight in the formation of the (Sikh) national character that the Sikh, "whatever his origin, may now be considered as practically identical with" the Punjabi jat [Bingley 1985:112]. It was recognised that in the matter of caste, the Sikh, like the orthodox Hindu, 'holds aloof from the unclean classes, and even the Mazhabi Sikhs are excluded from the religious shrines and are left to the religious administration of granthies of their own caste' [ibid:72]. Recognition of that regulatory form of hierarchy as crucial for ruling India, not tinkering with it, became a part of colonial wisdom and statecraft.
One of the significant instances of that regulatory principle as the basis of policy related to the development of the nine canal colonies during 1885-1940, which involved allocation of over 40,00,000 acres of freshly developed virgin land for ownership and cultivation. Given its commitment to the 'sound principle' - 'not to upset the existing social and economic order' - the British government ensured that "tenants, labourers and other landless men should not, as a rule be chosen". The land was allocated to the 'dominant castes?, as per the scale of already existing landholding status [Imran Ali 1989:95, emphasis added]. In the customary scheme, outcastes such as mazhabis (Churah Sikh), balmikis and ramdasias (chamar Sikh)/ravidasias were not allowed to own land. In fact even access to village commons - shamlaat land - could be shared only among hereditary landowning communities. 'Consequently', as Ambedkar told the Rajya Sabha in 1954, "the 'untouchables' or kamins were not entitled to build their houses in a pucca form on the land on which they stayed. They are always afraid lest the zamindars of Punjab may, at any time, turn them out" [Moon 1997 vol 15:927]. Another instance, more significant in its import, was the Punjab Land Alienation Act 1901. According to this law (which was enacted primarily to save the indebted farmers from the rapacious money-lenders of the khatri, arora or brahmin castes), agricultural land could be purchased or acquired only by people belonging to the defined 'agricultural castes'. All those belonging to the lower castes, not included among the 'agricultural tribes', were debarred from owning land even if a few had the means to purchase land for cultivation. (It was only after independence that B R Ambedkar, as law minister, moved to repeal the Act in 1952 to remove the invidious disability). This extraordinary privileging of the jat agriculturalist (80 per cent of whom turned to Sikhism in central Punjab districts by 1921) contributed further to their caste domination and arrogance of privilege.
A difference was, on the other hand, made to the status of the mazhabis by opening their recruitment in separate regiments of the imperial army. They were first raised as a 12,000 man strong mazhabi corps for the seige of Delhi during the 1857 revolt. In 1911 there were 1,626 mazhabi Sikhs soldiers (in fact reduced to 16 per cent of their number in 1857), out of a total of 10,866 Sikhs in the imperial army; the number of Jats being 6,626 [Marenco 1976:260]. Since the mazhabis had earlier raised their status by discarding traditional occupations like scavenging and sweeping, they were considered suitable enough for recruitment as soldiers. Apparently, the British considered the mazhabis to be good soldiers. "They (mazhabis) make capital soldiers", it was noted, and that "some of our pioneer regiments are wholly composed of mazhabis" [Rose 1970:75]. Bingley recorded, that "As a mazhabi Sikh, despised as chuhra or sweeper, at once becomes valiant and valued soldier, and, imbued with the spirit of his martial faith, loses all memory of his former degrading calling" [Bingley 1985:117]. The latter part was, of course, an exaggeration. Mazhabis constituted exclusively mazhabi regiments - the Sikh Pioneers 23, 32,and 34, later named 'Sikh Light Infantry' - separate and distinguished from the exclusively jat - Sikh regiments. No Sikh jat or any other caste man could be recruited in the Sikh light infantry. Conversely, in the Sikh regiments, as an old retired brigadier explained to the author, "not even a labana Sikh could be recruited to the Sikh regiments". The fear of pollution of the high castes could compromise their loyalty. However, association with the army gave a boost to the mazhabi's sense of dignity, marking them out in distinction to the other untouchable castes.
It was, however, the collateral gain from some of the developmental measures undertaken in the Punjab which promoted noticeable change in the status and living conditions of the then untouchable castes people through occupational and social mobility. One of these was the large-scale migration for labour during the development of the canal colonies prompting change from traditional occupations. After the jats and the arians, the chuhras and chamars constituted the largest groups of migrants to the colonies. Among the total migrants to the Chenab colony, for example, there were 41,944 chuhras and 26,934 chamars besides 1,502 mazhabis [Marenco 1976:261]. The migrations to the irrigation projects or canal colonies were based on corporate decisions through the caste panchayats, and became the basis for corporate caste mobility and a rise in status.
A small number of mazhabi retired soldiers were also allotted land in two mazhabi settlements. It was found that more than half of these allottees became landowners and tenants and another 13 per cent worked as landless labourers. In a few selected areas, such mazhabis came to be classed among the 'agricutural castes'. Their recruitment as soldiers in the imperial army had already helped in their corporate rise in status, as against Hindus chuhras. It was believed that "for the most part, their advance in Sikh society was due to the special favour they held with the British, on whose side they had fought during the Sepoy Mutiny" (ibid: 285).
Among the immigrant chamars, only 26 per cent continued with their traditional occupation: others worked as field labourers, weavers, agricultural tenants and labourers. The number of 'general labour' required for work on the canals which was 3,71,940 in 1891 increased to 8,32,689 in 1901. Most of these came from the 'outcastes'. Findings of H A Rose show that "in 1901 the chuhras and chamars in Punjab were quite often working as general labourers rather than as sweepers or scavengers or leatherworkers" (ibid: 254).
Establishment of these colonies and trade centres also contributed to development of new towns and mandis in adjoining towns. A section of the outcaste, largely chamars, moved to towns, working in mandis or in the municipal service. As against corporate mobility, individual members of the untouchable castes moved to cities and towns in pursuit of earning in cash, changed their occupations, became skilled workers or in some cases graduated to professional classes.

Consolidation of Caste Power
When the Singh Sabha movement - the most powerful movement for reform in the Sikh community - was launched during the 1880s, one of the 'classic' expositions was made by Bhai Kahn Singh in his 'Hum Hindu Nahin' (we (Sikhs) are not Hindus). One of the major arguments, as referred to above, was the total rejection of caste in Sikh religion. It was the political logic of Hum Hindu Nahin, which swayed the minds of the Sikh political class. Judge points to the dialectics of Sikhism becoming a key factor in elevation of jats to a higher caste status and the social and political domination of the jats in Sikh community contributing to the consolidation and expansion of Sikhism. "Each reinforced the other. It is this dialectics of social change that significantly contributed to the emergence of communalism in Punjab" [Judge 2002: 179].
The social universe of the Sikhs at that time was defined by, what was described as 'Sanatan Sikh tradition' - primarily a priestly religion. Giani Pratap Singh, later the head priest at the Golden Temple, noted that the mazhabis were forbidden to enter the Golden Temple for worship; their offering of karah prasad was not accepted and the Sikhs denied them access to public wells and other utilities [Pratap Singh 1933:146-47, 156-57]. When a group of Rahtia Sikhs tried to enter the Temple in the summer of the year 1900, "the manager of the sacred establishment, Sardar Jawala Singh, ordered their arrest. The reformist Sikhs who accompanied them were abused and finally beaten up... Because one of the defining characteristics of a sacred precinct, in the eyes of the Sanatan Sikhs, was its ritual purity" [cf Oberoi:1994:107].
Harjot Oberoi cites from an 'authoritative manual' - Khalsa Dharam Sastrar of 1914 - which laid down that the members of the untouchable groups did not have the right to go beyond the fourth step in the Golden Temple (ibid.106-107).

A Parallel Caste Hierarchy
Sikhism did not lead to the creation of an egalitarian community or end of caste hierarchy and discrimination. But the caste pattern had undergone a change. Scholars have pointed to the construction of a Sikh caste hierarchy, parallel to that of the Hindu caste hierarchy. Prominent among these are W H McLeod (The Evolution of Sikh Community 1976), Ethne K Marenco (The Transformation of Sikhism 1976), and Indera Paul Singh ('Caste in a Sikh Village' 1977). Among the Sikhs jats had graduated to the position of a ruling class under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and remained on top of the hierarchy. Generally speaking, khatris, aroras and lobanas came after them, followed by the artisan castes among whom ramgarhias (Sikh carpenter caste) enjoy higher status than Ahluwalias (kalals). The menial or untouchable castes are at the bottom, just as among the Hindus. However, the perceptions regarding which caste is placed second, third and fourth varied both by the village and the caste one belonged to. The structure of caste discrimination in the Sikh community was considerably liberated from the purity-pollution frame of relations, as against the Hindu community in which that consideration is relatively more prominent. Sikhism altered the principle that knowledge is acquired and produced only by priestly class (such as brahmins). There is no permanent class of priests or producers of religious knowledge in Sikhism. Even the initial advantage enjoyed by the Bedis and Sodhis on that score was obliterated after the Gurdwara Reform Movement. Priests and ragis and sewadars (as employees) now largely come from the lower castes, including a noticeable number from the scheduled castes; and, it may be surprising, very few from the jat caste. Jat Sikhs would rather control the SGPC. Castes are endogamous both in the Hindu and Sikh caste systems. But going by the field studies, the endogamy was a little weaker, and hypergamy a little stronger among Sikhs than Hindus.

Struggle for Legal Recognition of Sikh Scheduled Castes
After independence, one of the major demands put forward unanimously by all the 22 Sikh members of the East Punjab legislative assembly in 1948 related to securing for the former untouchable castes converted to Sikhism the same recognition and rights as would have been available to them if they had not become Sikhs. In the memorandum given to the advisory committee on fundamental rights, minorities, etc, of the constituent assembly of India it was pleaded that the lower castes in the Sikh community - namely, mazhabis, ramdasias, kabirpanthis, baurias, sareras and sikligars should be included in the list of the scheduled castes. Moving the report of the committee in the constituent assembly, its chairman Vallabhbhai Patel explained:
"Really as a matter of fact, these converts are not scheduled castes or ought not to be scheduled castes; because, in Sikh religion there is no such thing as untouchability or any classification or difference of classes.. And so when these proposals were brought to us, in fact, I urged upon them strongly not to lower their religion to such a pitch as to really fall to a level where for a mess of pottage you really give up the substance of religion. But they did not agree."
The committee recommended the acceptance of the plea made by the leaders of the Sikh community.Patel, further explained, "I concede that this is a concession. It is not a good thing in the interest of the Sikhs themselves. But till the Sikhs are convinced that this is wrong, I would allow them the latitude." (Rao 1965, Vol IV, 594-603, passim)
In 1953, after the demand for Punjabi Suba had been raised, Master Tara Singh and Shiromani Akali Dal asked for inclusion of all the 'untouchable castes' converted to Sikhism in the list of scheduled castes. Observers viewed it as "a part of larger political game" [Nayar 1966: 239-40]. That only four major castes (covering 85 per cent of all Sikh untouchable/backward classes) were included in the list was condemned as highly discriminatory - "a conspiracy to crush our religion". Master Tara Singh threatened to go on a fast unto death if all the "Acchuts who had become Sikhs were not given the same rights as were given to Hindu Achhuts' [Jaswant Singh 1972: 243]. He led a march of 25 Sikhs to Delhi on October 1, 1953. The government conceded the demand and Master Tara Singh hailed the victory: morcha fateh ho gaya (the battle was won) (ibid 253). It was no problem that the Sikhs who were distinguished from Hindus (Hum Hindu Nahin), largely because they did not believe in Hindu caste system, now considered that such a distinction between the two religious communities was itself a discrimination against the Sikhs. "It may sound ironical, but this was the main contribution of the Akali leaders to the framing of India's Constitution: reverting the Sikhs to the caste hierarchy of Hindu society by giving up the first principle that sets them apart as a distinct religious community" [Kumar 1997: 410, 412].

Reservation in Management of Religious Shrines
The 'practical consideration' for reservation for the Sikh scheduled castes was not confined to the secular domain. By an amendment made in 1953 to the (Punjab) Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925, a provision was made for reservation of 20 seats for scheduled castes Sikhs out of a total of 140 elected seats in the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Further, a convention was adopted that the junior vice-president in the executive committee of the SGPC would be chosen from the scheduled castes. In the case of notified Sikh gurdwaras, not managed directly by the SGPC board, it was provided that in the five-member local managing committees, one member in each case will be chosen from the scheduled castes [Kashmir Singh 1989: 176, 182 and 188]. Representation to the scheduled castes in the management of Sikh shrines appeared to follow an affirmative principle. It also institutionalised the recognition of the lower castes in Sikh religion and in the management of religious affairs of the Sikh community. Paramjit Singh Judge, who is making a detailed study of the tape-recorded speeches delivered by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, brings to light one of the Sant's important observations. He said, "All castes are present among the Sikhs. This makes the Sikhs a separate religion/nation". [Judge 2002: 189-90].

Present Status of Dalits in Sikh Community
The green revolution added to the economic and political clout of the jat landowning class in general, while further widening social inequalities. Things could have improved had land reforms been allowed. The political clout of the richer landowning jat Sikhs ensured that the policy was squarely defeated. The jat control of leadership in Shiromani Akali Dal since 1962 added to fear and apprehension among the lower caste Sikhs. While a lot of change under the impact of dalit political assertion, social welfare measures and spread of education is visible, it has also led to more tension and conflict. The sexual exploitation of dalit women, which was considered more or less common until ten years ago is more often challenged.
Markedly different from the practice in Hindu religious temples, there is a noticeable number of mazhabi and ramdasi granthies (priests or professional readers of the holy scripture) among the Sikhs.
A more significant marker of the resistance against a sense of discrimination among the scheduled caste Sikhs is the large scale construction of separate gurdwaras by the mazhabis, Ravidasias Kabirpanthis and other caste groups, parallel to the ones controlled by the jats. In our survey of 116 villages in one tehsil of Amritsar districts 68 villages (during 2001) had separate gurdwaras of the dalits and there were separate cremation grounds for dalits in 72 villages. Jodhka, in his study of 51 villages, spread over all the three regions, reported that dalits had separate gurdwaras in as many as 41 villages and nearly two-thirds of the villages had separate cremation grounds for upper castes and dalits [Jodhka 2002: 1818, 1819]. This kind of divide has been sensitively voiced by a famous dalit Punjabi poet, Lal Singh Dil:
Mainun pyar kardiye, parjat kuriye
Saade sakey, murde vee ik thaan te nahin jalaunde

(O my beloved of the other caste, (remember) our kinsmen don't even cremate their dead at one place)
Another significant dimension of dalit search for alternative cultural spaces to overcome the experience of indiginity and humiliation is reflected in large scale movement of Sikh dalits towards a large number of deras and sects such as Radhasoami, Sacha Sauda, Dera Wadbhag Singh, Piara Singh Bhaniarawala, etc, or their turning to various other Sants, and dargahs of Muslim Pirs.
The rising incidence of atrocities on the dalits in Sikh villages is another dimension of the caste divide within the community. The underlying purpose, stated or unstated, remains one of 'teaching a lesson to the dalits'. Social boycott of the dalits in the village is another method which, has, of late, been reported more frequently than earlier.
An understanding of the distinctive pattern of caste hierarchy in Sikhism which points to a new pattern of competing hierarchies, parallel to that of the Hindus, calls for deeper insight into the dynamics of political power and economic relations both at the local and regional levels. Not looking closely at the ground level social reality may leave the impression that overall the Sikh community represents a homogeneity of castes rather than division (e g, Gurharpal Singh 2000: 85). In the explanations rooted in the primacy of ideology or culture, on the other hand, the survival of casteism ("it is very clear and open truth that the Sikh society is as casteist and racist as the Hindu society"), is sometimes regarded as a consequence of incomplete liberation of Sikhism from the stranglehold of brahminism, emphasising greater distancing of Sikhs from the Hindus [Muktsar 1999]. Interactions with the dalits in Punjab, however, reveal a pervasive tendency to view the interests of economic and political domination as the force behind caste-based humiliation, rather than ideology as the primary reality. Yet it did not mean proximity to Marxian framework of class conflict. Their solidarity and resistance against social oppression is rooted in a discreet caste category. There is need to further interrogate caste in varied settings of religion and region.

Farmers' Suicides In Punjab

A preliminary take on the first hand impressions gathered after a recent tour of some villages in Punjab, marked by large incidences of suicides, by Jatinder Preet

Punjab enjoying the earlier fruits of green revolution had not bargained for the stagnation in the sector, which was bound to come with time. Agriculture did not remain sustainable for long. The rising input costs and no corresponding rise in incomes embroiled the farmers in a crisis, out of which they have not been able to come out. The peculiar agricultural practice in the region marked by a marketing system mostly controlled by private money-lending institutions acted as a catalyst. They provide easy loans but with exorbitant interest rates. The prosperous phase of the Punjab that gave them wide exposure to the outside world only increased their expenditure. The media, NRIs returning home flashing their newly acquired wealth increased the appetite.
A vicious circle began. Unproductive expenditure only meant increase in indebtedness.
This peculiar socio-cultural character of Punjabi community dominated by Jatts was an invitation to the psychological phenomenon. The breakdown of agrarian society marked by social, economic and cultural changes together made for the trend.

The debate over suicides in Punjab has been reduced only to veracity of the claims of the suicides. The debate was sparked off by a report by Movement Against State Repression (MASR) in early 1998. Its figures took everyone by surprise. Convenor of MASR Inderjeet Singh Jaijee wrote a letter to President K.R. Narayanan claiming that 93 people committed suicide in a cluster of five villages in Sangrur district due to economic pressures. He called it a result of "a lack of opportunities and economic injustice".
Punjab, enjoying the label of success story of agriculture all over the country was not ready to accept the fact. Efforts went underway to find faults with the 'claim.' The then government led by Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal ordered an official investigation into the issue. The Punjab State Co-operative Apex Bank and the Department of Cooperation separately commissioned a study to the Institute for Development & Commission. Both of them though claiming the earlier claims of suicides as exaggerated could not wash off the fact that all was not well on agricultural front in the state with things going so bad that farmers were being forced to commit suicide.
Independent enquiries reveal suicides happening as late as this January. Discounting the hyperbole of political parties and media inclination of lapping up sensation, the fact of decline in fortunes of farming community cannot be obliterated. Only reasons differ according to different perceptions.

A Pattern
Punjab has a very low suicide rate by all-India standards. But there was a sudden spurt in the number of suicides in late nineties. The suicide rate in Punjab increased from 0.58 in 1989 to 2.77 in 1997. Instances of suicide suddenly increased after 1993. But curiously the suicides figures were concentrated in certain regions of the state. Roughly centered in what is called cotton belt, the suicides corresponded with repeated failure of cotton reeling under the bollworm attack. The water logging in certain areas destroyed agriculture there. Part of Malwa region, comprising major parts of districts Sangrur, Mansa, Bathinda, Faridkot and Muktsar were the most severely affected.
Common thread running through all these suicides is fact that all of them were reeling under indebtedness. Immediate triggers might have been different to commit suicide.

The Broad Picture
*Agriculturists becoming landless labourers: There had already been a continuing decline in land holding due to increasing families. Whatever is left to farmers is further being sold to pay for the debt.
*Shift from Agriculture: Farming families wholly dependent on their farms have started shifting to other professions. With no avenues in service sector and lack of proper education meant farmers did not see beyond their fields. But now they are being forced to look for sustenance in daily wages.
*Migration: Forced migration was observed in many villages where families moved out of the village when they were forced to sell their land. Many of the families sold their land to pay off debts while some others shifted because their lands were sold for higher price and they subsequently bought land at lower prices at other places.
*Highly Erratic Official Records: Suicides by farming communities do not figure much in the official records. It's not because they are not happening. It's simply because they are not being recorded. A village watchman who maintains record of birth and death in a village told they have been told by the police that don't mention suicide as the reason for death wherever possible.
*Police Harassment: Police harassment was mentioned as another reason for not citing suicide as the reason for death in many cases. Villagers claimed police asks for bribes to register suicides.
*No land attachments: While many farmers are not being able to pay off their debts, there has not been found a single case of property attachment. The village community collectively taken decision not to participate in the auction whenever the attachment proceedings are initiated for any one of their lands.

Small or marginal farmers, almost all of them had small landholdings. An estimate of expenditure on rabbi and kharif crops and net income revealed the farmers are not getting much and are even suffering losses. A group of farmers in village Lehal in Lehragaga block of Sangrur district collectively gave these inputs:
Right from cost of seeds, tilling the land to other inputs including fertilizers, pesticides, heribicides, harvesting by combine, wages of labourers, transportation to mandi average cost on an acre for wheat is Rs 6450. Taking into account 18 quintals of yield on an average at the rate of Rs 630 per quintal, a farmer gets an income of Rs. 4,890 per acre. The average land holding in the village is six acres. That means average income from one season of wheat is Rs. 16,360 merely.
Similarly for paddy the average cost per quintal is Rs. 13,170. While a farmer gets 14,160 for an average yield of 24 quintal at the rate of 590/qtl. The income comes to merely 960/acre.
The total annual income of an average farmer comes to about Rs. 5850/per acre. For six acres average land, a farmer?s annual income is Rs. 35,100.
Interestingly for an average household, the basic expenditure on day to day living came to 39,300.

This means an average farming family is incurring losses of Rs. 4200.

The farming community is at cross roads. The agricultural practice of wheat paddy rotation and cotton in a region has played havoc. While paddy as it is grown is very water intensive crop, cotton has been a failure because of bollworm attack. The steep prices of pesticides and their ineffectiveness could not sustain cotton. The declining water table, farmers depending on diesel for submersible pumps and bad quality of water at places made paddy too unsustainable.
The rising costs of living aided and abetted by consumerist culture which has taken into sweep even the rural Punjab made agriculture an uneconomic profession. The widespread dependence on drugs, inability to return loans taken for unproductive expenditures like marriages and tractors couple with breakdown of traditional support systems in rural society has caused a spate of suicides.