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.

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