Friday, December 22

New face of Dalit Identity

Dalit activism has enabled the community to make some progress, but it is still subjected to oppression across the country, reports Frontline in its cover story 'Victims, Still', as ANNIE ZAIDItakes a recount of Punjab

"If you want to see the new face of Dalit identity in Punjab, look at the backs of motorcycles in Boota Mandi. Where once youngsters proudly sputtered round on bikes saying `poot jattan de' (sons of Jats), today it is `poot chamaran de' (sons of Chamars)," says Professor Ronki Ram, who teaches Political Science at Panjab University, Chandigarh. He has just concluded a two-year study of the emerging socio-political situation of Dalits in places such as Dera Sach Khand at Ballan village near Jalandhar, and believes that the worm is turning, once again.
Early in the last century, when the Ad-dharmi movement took root in the State, the emphasis was on establishing an independent quamiyat (community identity), mazhab (religion) and majlis (organisation). While there may not be significant numbers of people lining up to convert to Ad-dharm, the call for a separate identity continues, although this is complicated, given that there are at least 38 sub-castes. But wherever Dalits have shaken off the economic ties binding them to upper castes, they seem determined to shake off the cultural yoke as well, by turning round the traditional burden of caste and wearing it on their sleeve. Increasingly, they are building their own places of worship too - Ravidasiya temples, Balmiki temples and what are described as "parallel gurdwaras" for Mazhabi Sikhs.

The Saint Ravidass temple on the campus of the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh. pic by Akhilesh Kumar

At the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, the largest teaching hospital in the State, there are buildings representing each religion. A Sri Hari temple, a church, a mazaar, a gurdwara, a Ravidass temple and a Balmiki ashram which is under construction. Until 2003, all these structures were unauthorised. When the administration woke up to this fact and decided to bulldoze the structures, they began with the Ravidass temple. And they stopped there, for the howls of protest resounded all the way to Delhi. "It was not about the demolition of a temple. If they had bulldozed all the buildings, we would not have minded. But they began with the temple for Dalits, although the Sri Hari temple is the first in line from the road," said Ram Chander, general secretary of the temple trust. "Only some part of the church was also damaged, but they didn't dare touch the Hindu temple or the gurdwara."
As matters took a politically fraught turn, the land was allotted to the temple and the structures were all regularised. The Ravidass temple has been rebuilt and for now that is enough, says Ram Chander. "This is not just about a building. We want a place that is our own. This space serves as a platform, too, for the community to meet and talk and unite."
However, this wave of assertion is not indicative of Dalit well-being. Much of the defiance remains concentrated in the districts of the central Doaba region. Large parts of rural Punjab remain dependent on agriculture and the majority of Dalits remain landless, and thus at the mercy of upper caste landlords. At Asron village in Nawasheher district, for instance, though there were very few Jat households, none of the Dalit families had much land. Rattan Kaur, a widow, is landless. Of her four sons, only one finished his schooling. "They dropped out - in the fourth, or fifth or seventh."
There is a primary school in Asron, where most of the pupils are from poor families who cannot afford the Rs.300-a-month fees that private schools nearby charge. The nearest secondary government school is in Ropar town, which requires children to travel several kilometres on bicycles. Those who do not have bicycles cannot study further.
The major problem in the rural areas, however, is land and indebtedness. Says Professor Manjit Singh, who heads the Ambedkar Centre at Panjab University, "Dalits form nearly 33 per cent of the rural population, but own only 2.3 per cent of the land. Also, our studies show that at least 58 per cent of Dalit households are caught in debt traps; we estimate a total debt amounting to at least Rs.1,906 crores."
Frontline has recorded the rising unemployment and debt traps leading to bonded labour among Punjabi Dalits. Not much has changed. In fact, the situation may be getting worse. In 1991, S.Cs were estimated to account for at least 52 per cent of the State poverty statistic. This has now gone up to 62 per cent.
Manjit Singh points to research conducted across five districts by a scholar in the Sociology Department of Panjab University. It showed that 97 per cent of the agricultural labourers were from S.Cs and work participation was as low as 28.8 per cent. At least 20 per cent of the surveyed villagers agreed to work as "attached" labourers, which is half a step away from bondage. Studies have shown that although the spate of suicides in the past decade is commonly referred to as "farmer suicides", at least 30 per cent of the victims were landless labourers.
To nobody's surprise, the majority of landless Dalits are teetering on the edge and are just as vulnerable. "When you don't even own a patch of land to relieve yourself in, how can you raise your voice against the dominant castes?" asks Manjit Singh. "If you rear cattle, you need land to bring fodder from. If you are willing to work, you need a field to work in. Socio-economic boycott is an ever-present threat."
Most Dalit youth seek to escape deprivation and discrimination by going abroad. The only reason why Dalits in the Doaba region can afford to be more assertive is that they are economically independent, since many of the men work abroad and send money home.
While Punjab does not suffer from the purity-pollution severity of casteism, caste does play a role in the continuing socio-economic oppression of Dalits. The Malwa region remains largely feudal, a chilling reminder of which came in the form of the assault on Bant Singh of Jhabbar village in Mansa district, which led to his losing three limbs (`Casteist assault', Frontline, February 10, 2006). Once the tragic case captured national headlines, the subsequent pressure from activists and the media glare forced the government to pay compensation and make arrests.
Bant Singh was not an exception. Anil Kumar Lamdharia, an advocate in the High Court who deals with Dalit human rights violations, rattles out accounts of atrocities, each more horrifying than the previous one. He said: "In Ferozepur, about a year ago, a Dalit boy was forced to drink urine out of an upper caste person's jooti (shoe). In Ludhiana, a Dalit girl was raped, dismembered and thrown into a ditch. In Faridkot, a Balmiki boy was killed and his eyes were gouged out because he had dared to stare back. Incidentally, in this case, the police moved application 169 - which could lead to discharge without trial - citing lack of evidence on which to prosecute. Following protests, they withdrew the application. We are now demanding cancellation of bail."
According to Lamdharia, only those cases are heard of where the victim has the strength and the wherewithal to talk to lawyers. He told Frontline: "Half the time the police refuse to file an FIR. Yet, I don't know of even one person convicted under Section 4 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act? This Section makes the official culpable for not taking proper action."
The State administration, however, maintains that in Punjab atrocities against Dalits are rare. In police records, the total number of crimes against S.C.s in 2005-06 is only 101. It was 98 for 2002. Lakha Singh, Additional Director in the Department of Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes, told Frontline that thanks to the Sikh gurus untouchability did not exist. He added that Dalits were increasingly misusing the Act and registering false cases.
Punjab has much to answer for. The conviction rate under the S.C./S.T. Act is practically nil. No district or village has been considered "sensitive" enough to ensure that steps are taken to prevent atrocities. Only 17 acres of surplus land was transferred to S.C.s this year and before that none at all. Of the 111 bonded labourers identified between 2001 and 2004, only four were rehabilitated. Although Rs.1,154 crores has been allotted for the development of S.C.s under the Special Component Plan, experience shows that the State rarely releases the entire amount. Last year, less than 45 per cent of the allocation was actually spent.
Political parties are not above blame either. The focus of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is Uttar Pradesh, though its founder, Kanshi Ram, hailed from Punjab. The oldest political voice of the Dalit movement, the Republican Party of India (RPI), Babasaheb Ambedkar's party, is a shambles. It shuffles along on the heels of a few dedicated old-timers who claim to be true to the Ambedkar legacy. Mukhtiar Singh Arshi, who heads the RPI unit in the State, said: "We are weakened because we cannot keep up with resource-intensive politics. Everything is about money. But we intend to make a concentrated bid for unity in the coming elections, especially with the breakaway factions of the BSP."
The breakaway factions are mostly the BSP's own doing. Leaders of the three factions - BSP (Kanshi Ram), BSP (Ambedkarite) and the Bahujan Samaj Morcha - blame Mayawati for neglecting Punjab and taking political decisions with an eye on the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister's chair. Pawan Tinu, who was thrown out of the BSP for questioning the leadership, admitted that Dalit political activists' courage broke when Kanshi Ram died. But he was confident that they would regroup on a common platform.
Despite talk of uniting, none of the factions seems to have qualms about seeking a partnership with the Congress or the Akali Dal, both Jat-dominated parties, or the BJP, with whom they can share no ideological ground. One Dalit activist asked, "Why is [Shamsher Singh] Dullo [Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president] not the chief ministerial candidate? Surely, it is time."
Many activists and researchers believe that the conflict between Dalits and Jats is bound to worsen. With the emergence of a new Dalit identity that wants not just social-spiritual equality, but also a share of the economic and political pie, conflict is inevitable, and with it, possible violence.

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