Monday, February 20

Talhan scores for dalit rights

It started with a gurdwara. It became an epic struggle, and ended in a great victory. Vikram Jit Singh tells in Tehelka the story of Talhan's resistance which can change the face of Punjab

In the village square two massive black and white rams laze under an ancient peepul tree, bellies drooping after having ravaged the lush crop of a Talhan landlord. They are the most piquant of the symbols of dalit assertion that identify the community in this famous battleground of caste warfare. These two rams are the offerings of a grateful dalit community to the Pir Samadhi in the village square for having protected the lives of their men, women and children who waged an epic battle with Jat Sikh landlords and a heavy police contingent for six hours in June 2003.
Talhan hit the headlines in 2003 when a forceful assertion of the majority dalit community of Chamars took on the Bains and Randhawa Jat Sikh landlords; they wanted a share on the governing committee of the samadhi of Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh, a local carpenter who died digging a well. The samadhi, which draws offerings of Rs 3-7 crore annually, became a preserve of landlord families who gobbled up a substantial portion of the offerings. Though the dalits form more than 60 percent of Talhan's 5,000-strong population, local ?traditions' ensured that they were denied a share in the committee.
The landlords, in league with radical Sikh organisations and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, attempted to keep out the dalits by razing the samadhi overnight and constructing a gurdwara on it, but the dalit quest for a say in the governing committee could not be eliminated. Today, two dalit Sikhs with flowing locks and beards represent the confidence of a community that has added social and political power to its long-acquired economic independence. Significantly, Talhan also has a dalit woman, Inderjit Kaur, as the village sarpanch.
Talhan's bloody caste clashes and the partisan role of the Jalandhar administration are well known, but what is remarkable is the transformation of a community whose profile does not fit into the stereotype woven by a prejudiced society. Silvery locks and bushy eyebrows distinguish Chanan Ram Pal, president, Talhan Dalit Action Committee. "We fought a war for swabhimaan (self-respect). The teachings of Guru Ravidas and the access to modern education inculcated in us this desire. We are an economically independent community, many of our people are nris who send money from Dubai, the West, etc. Here, we do not work for landlords, we are self-employed. Like any other caste, we too are the offspring of Punjab. We drink its water, we live on its food. We are as good as anybody," says Pal, his serene voice betraying none of the fiery temperament he displayed when he wielded lathis in the great battle of 2003.
This assertion of the Chamars is vindicated by Pal's erstwhile opponent and leader of the landlords, Bhupinder Singh Bains 'Bindi', who is a village sarpanch and member of the Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara Committee.
"Those earlier notions of untouchability, which was a Brahmanical concept, no longer prevail. Earlier, poor Chamar families were dependent on us, for example, for taking the molasses' waste. Now they stand equal to us, with many of their children becoming Class I officers earning fat salaries. While the sons of landlords refuse to work on the land, the children of the Chamars study and get good jobs. In contrast, our sons are getting hooked to drugs as they idle their time away," explains Bains.
Bains admits that the landlords dominating the committee of the samadhi were corrupt. "Every Sunday, the gulak was opened. Of the Rs 5-7 lakh in offerings, Rs 1-2 lakh was pilfered. The committee was against having Chamars as members as it was an old tradition. It is wrong to think like that. The dalits got very upset when they asked for some money to celebrate their festivals and the committee dominated by us doled out just Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000. The dalits wanted to become part of the committee; they fought a four-year battle in court. Today, with the dalits around, everyone keeps a watch and corruption in the shrine has been curbed," says Bains.
Not just the pesky rams, the dalits' opulent houses are an eyesore for the landlords as well. Bolstered by nri help, rich dalit families of Talhan drive around in Toyota Qualises and Maruti Zens, smoking King Size Filter cigarettes.
So strong is the sense of dalit pride and solidarity that after winning the 2003 battle, dalit youngsters painted their homes and motorcycles with the slogan, Putt Chamar De (proud sons of Chamars) in retaliation to the Jat slogan, Putt Jattan De.
A self-employed unit at Talhan sponsored by the Punjab government employs 80 dalit women, who sew soccer balls for a Jalandhar sports goods firm.
Each woman earns Rs 2,400 per month. This self-employment for dalit women has meant that they no longer undertake menial chores in the landlords' houses, where sexual exploitation was common in the past.
"Our educated youngsters saw the TV programme on the government scheme. We met the officials. The soccer ball sewing unit was also set up, where we teach the women to sew. It has given us so much independence," explains Ram Lubhaya, member, Action Committee and the driving force behind the sewing unit.
Women, kids and youths recollect with great pride that historic day in June 2003 when they found they could fight back - and win.
"I threw bricks at the zamindars and the oppressive police. Our enemies cut the power supply to ensure our tubewells didn?t work and we didn't get water in the battlefield. But children rushed buckets of water using our handpumps and salt for the fighting youth to combat teargas shells. I just wanted to give them back what they had given us all these years," says Neeru, a petite Class vii student with pigtails and a toothy grin.
Housewife Jagdish Kaur, too, was in the thick of things. "I realised when all hell broke loose that my children were also in the fight. I picked up a tawa and joined the fight, blocking bricks. I threw back soda bottles and bricks. I did not listen to my brother in the police, and he ran away screaming when I gave him a round of stones. I was taking out my anger on them. For three-four years before the 2003 fight, the landlords had been taunting us in the fields when we went to defecate or get fodder for our cattle. I am proud to say that not for once did I lose my nerve in the battle," says Kaur.
Ravi Kumar was a ?sweet 16' when he took them on. He swells with machismo: "We, the Chamar youth, had only one thought. Let us bash the hell out of these guys. Had the police not been so partisan, we would have inflicted heavy casualties on the landlords."
Though Pal and the dalit elders stress that the village is peaceful, it is evident that the rift runs deep. The spark of revenge is still nurtured in many a heart. "The landlords still nurture their humiliation. They use every opportunity to provoke us," says Lubhaya.
But Talhan remains a precious landmark in the historical victory of a protracted struggle, not so rare anymore in the rural hinterland of unequal, prosperous and boisterous Punjab, where dalit assertion is becoming as real as dalit power. This is the rising which is refusing to end.

A Curse of History

Long ago, girls were killed to protect them from Muslim invaders. Now, it's dowry, writes Khushwant Singh in Outlook

Punjab has a long history of doing away with newborn girls. The preferred method today is foeticide after a sex determination test, but centuries ago, the practice was to bury them. This tradition perhaps goes back to the days of repeated invasions by Muslim armies from the northwest, who used to carry off girls as booty for their own pleasure or to be sold in the slave markets of the Middle East. Today, it is the extortionate dowries that parents of girls have to provide on her marriage. The custom of polyandry in Punjab probably arose out of the shortage of girls?the eldest son of a family would take a wife, his younger brothers would also have access to her.One of Guru Nanak's oft quoted hymns condemns the denigration of women: "We are born of women and nurtured by them, we fall in love with them and they bear us sons and daughters. How can you belittle women who give birth to kings?" His words had little impact-the killing of newborn girls continued as before, though practised more among the land-owning zamindars than by the common folk.At the end of the first Sikh war, when the British annexed half of the Sikh kingdom, the Sikh zamindars of the region met John Lawrence, who had been appointed commissioner, to confirm their land holdings. He insisted on their signing pledges that they would not bury lepers alive, refrain from burning widows and stop burying newborn girls. The zamindars protested, saying Lawrence had promised that the two sides would not interfere with each others' religious customs. Lawrence agreed that he had indeed done so, adding that British religious custom was to hang anyone who followed these practices. That put an end to sati and the murder of lepers, and though female infanticide was checked, it probably continued surreptitiously.After Independence, and the passing of the Hindu Code Bill giving equal rights to inherit ancestral property to sons and daughters, things again took a turn for the worse, with the murder of newborn girls gaining momentum, especially in propertied families. With medical science able to detect the sex of the child in the womb, the practice has become much more widespread, resulting in a situation today where the ratio of females to males in Punjab is the lowest in the country.Religious leaders and institutions like the SGPC and the Akal Takht make only feeble attempts to put down this criminal practice, and their efforts have failed miserably. 'Kuree Maar' (daughter-killer) is a common abuse in Punjab-an abuse that those who indulge in the practice have learnt to take in their stride.

Friday, February 10

Landless and indebted

Many landless workers in Punjab are caught in a cycle of indebtedness, trying to pay off debts by working on very low wages for their creditors, reports Annie Zaidi in Frontline.

Just outside Ludhiana, one of the richest and most bustling cities in one of India's most prosperous States, a large hoarding offers "Limousines For Hire". A few kilometres later, it becomes impossible to escape the cruel irony of a woman getting paid Rs.15 a month to clean out a cattle-shed. That is what Mohinder Kaur of Mohie village earns, as does her sister-in-law Harbans Kaur and as their mother-in-law Dalip Kaur did before them. None of them knows exactly how much they owe to the farmers who gave them loans on various occasions, though they guess that it could be anything between Rs.50,000 and Rs.70,000. So they pay off their debts by working on low wages for their creditors. The women of the family do what is locally called goha-kuda, which includes domestic work and taking care of cattle, cleaning the sheds and taking away dung. For all this, Mohinder Kaur says, they get Rs.15 a month for every head of cattle. "I know I should be paid more and I asked for a raise, but I cannot quit working here until the money is repaid, and we cannot raise so much money. Sometimes we also work in the fields, after all this work, to make some money. My husband lost his hand in a farm accident. We spent a lot of money then, and another big amount trying to build this house. But most of the time we spent small amounts such as Rs.2,000, on weddings or when there was an illness or some emergency." Mohinder Kaur, her sister-in-law and their daughters are also working to pay off a succession of small debts incurred by their mother-in law. This practice is a long-established one throughout Punjab, where daughters-in-law inherit the family's debt and work in the households of the moneylenders at very low wages to pay it off. None of these loans is formal, and none of the debtors has any copy of the records showing how much is owed and what percentage of interest is charged. Of course, it is not just the women. There are men such as Kulwant Singh, a 45-year-old agricultural labourer from Khandoor, who make barely Rs.200 a month. Kulwant Singh told Frontline that he could not even support himself and depended on his sister's son. Baba Singh is a young man who works for Rs.1,500 a month (the minimum daily wage in Punjab is Rs.92). He has no land of his own and owes about Rs.70,000. "I took the money for a house. But now I have worked for the farmer who lent me money for nearly 10 years. I work day and night. I get no holidays. On Deepavali, I am allowed a two-hour break." What is most worrying about such debt traps is that these are not stray cases. Almost every single landless labourer has the same story to tell. Kulwant Singh makes only Rs.200 a month, which is not enough to support himself, let alone pay off his debts. Dr. Manjit Singh, a sociologist who heads the Ambedkar Centre at Punjab University, describes such indebted labourers, who spend their lives trying to work off debts, as "attached agricultural labourers". He told Frontline: "According to our estimates, there are at least one lakh workers in Punjab who are `prone to bondage', or technically bonded. The wives of the attached workers are employed for goha-kuda, often without any wages at all. Their exploitation is so deeply rooted in traditional roles enacted by the landed and the landless of the village that it is not even recognised as `bonded labour'." He also estimates that, going by the technical and legal definitions of bonded labour, there are another two and a half lakh bonded workers at the brick kilns. Tarsem Jodhan, a former legislator from the region who has organised some of the brick kiln workers under the banner of the Lal Jhanda Brick-kiln Mazdoor Union, agrees. Though the union has been struggling to get better wages for workers, there is no escaping the fact that all of them are already in debt and are trying to work it off. He said that unions had managed to free some workers from the debts, but the problem was too deeply entrenched to be tackled without proper organisation. As far as debt is concerned, the focus has been entirely on farmers in Punjab, especially after the spate of farmers' suicides in the last decade. However, according to Dr. Parmod Kumar of the Institute of Development and Communication, who conducted a study on the suicide cases, at least 30 per cent of those who committed suicide were landless workers and not landowners. Nobody talks much about the landless workers who choose to end their lives, however, and nobody asks questions about why and how they were driven over the edge. Bonded labour and indebtedness among the landless are closely intertwined with the non-implementation of the minimum wage structure. The Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act was passed in 1976. The Supreme Court has interpreted this law to be applicable to any labourer forced to work for less than the State's minimum wage. In Punjab, very few people are paid the minimum wage. Mostly, the rate varies between Rs.40 and Rs.80, which does not guarantee that the workers can survive, let alone save or pay off their debts. On the other hand, with the growing mechanisation of agriculture and the lack of agro-based industries, there are fewer jobs around. Son Singh, one of the indebted workers in Mohie village, said: "It is easier to sell animals than it is to sell ourselves. Go to the labour chowk in Ludhiana and you will see thousands of labourers working for Rs.50 or Rs.40 or anything they can get." Increasingly, agricultural workers are hired on a contractual basis, where they get an advance payment of Rs.15,000-18,000 for the entire year. If any extra money is loaned to the worker, the interest rate charged is as high as 60 per cent a year. Since the worker is often forced to borrow small amounts, this debt trap stays in place for years on end. The paradox is that the poor workers are always forced to borrow to meet basic needs such as health care, because their savings are meagre. The public health services are in a shambles and private doctors are unaffordable. The people worst affected are landless workers and their families, who are not only malnourished but also exposed to hazardous chemicals such as pesticides. Dr. Manjit Singh believes that nothing much has changed over the three decades that he has been studying bonded labour in the State apart from the forms in which it occurs. "We recently finished a study of bonded labour and found the worst cases in the Malwa belt, which includes Sangrur, Mansa, Bhatinda and Faridkot. There are several families who have been working without wages for as long as 20 or 30 years. I've seen instances where, when the worker died after being exposed to insecticide, his brother was brought in to work in his place. Debts are passed on within families." Baba Singh has been working for 10 years for a farmer who lent him money. He gets Rs.1,500 a month. This is corroborated by activists in the Malwa belt, who have been trying to organise workers under the banner of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha. Since there is no land to take away, the farmer who advances the loan takes away the debtor's livestock and even locks up his house. The homeless family is then forced to stay in a dharamshala or other public spaces that are common to the whole village. Activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation have intervened in many instances, by breaking open locks on the houses of workers locked out of their homes. According to Bhagwant Singh Sumaon, State secretary of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, the organisation called for a strike in 2004 demanding that each woman doing goha-kuda be paid Rs.50 a month for every head of cattle. He said: "We believe that if the interest is charged in money and the work that these women do is properly paid, they can pay off their debts. But working at little or no wages, they stay bonded labourers forever. There are many additional ways of adding to the loan amount. We have seen instances where the men are given opium husk as wages. The zamindar gives a `free' spoonful at first, or boils it in a `free' cup of tea. When the labourer is addicted, he supplies large amounts and deducts the cost from his wages. There are also cases where the zamindar bails out landless men arrested for petty crimes, then makes them pay by treating the bail amount as a loan." However, the struggle to organise workers and insist upon the implementation of minimum wages is a complicated one that meets resistance from the richer, mostly upper-caste farmers of the region. Sumaon told Frontline: "Recently, in at least four villages, the zamindars formed committees and announced the boycott of all labourers who demanded higher wages. One farmer in Kalipur was even fined Rs.5,000 because he employed workers who were supposedly boycotted." Boycotting is an old technique that the landed farmers of Punjab have used to crush landless workers' attempts to get organised. The landless have only a few head of cattle or pigs to support themselves and they depend on the farmers' fields for free fodder. If the zamindar bans entry into his fields, the worker cannot survive. When economic factors alone do not suffice, cultural factors come into play. The landless also need the fields to relieve themselves, since there are no toilets and the few that the panchayats build are immediately taken over and controlled by the dominant castes. This combination of social and economic pressure ensures that no worker struggle lasts very long. Dr. Manjit Singh believes that the situation will not improve unless there is simultaneous political and social empowerment of Dalits. "Most of the workers belong to the Scheduled Castes and they hold only 2.34 per cent of the land under cultivation in the State. On the other hand, they are used to being oppressed. The unequal economic relationship is only fortified and strengthened by unequal social relations. That has to change first."