The Times of India: Panjab CM Caste Identity

   Posted by: aman   in Punjab

Dear Friends,

Recently, Jairaj Singh from The Times of India asked me for an explainer on the caste identity of the new Panjab CM. I must state caste in Panjab and in India is extremely complex and cannot be summarised in an article. Yet, here is an attempt to list some pointers at least. Since the article is behind paywall, here is my text.

Headline: Why new Punjab CM is not just a Dalit face

Shoulder: To look at it through the prism of identity politics only ends up exaggerating the Jat-Dalit fault line, as if that has been Punjab’s primary concern. Charanjit Singh Channi’s greatest strength is that he’s a ‘common man’.

Column: On September 20, as soon as the Congress high command selected Charanjit Singh Channi to replace Captain Amarinder Singh as Punjab’s 16th chief minister, the news headlines began to scream: “First Dalit Sikh CM”. Many on social media naively asked, if there is even caste in Punjab? Some pundits floated theories that this is a stop-gap arrangement for Navjot Singh Sidhu to take over as CM, if Congress is elected next term.

Before we dive deeper into this. We need to know that to understand any people, any social or religious community, it is vital to look at the history and the political economy of that society for context.

A Culture Cauldron

For more than three millennia, Punjab has been the gateway to the Indian subcontinent. On modern maps you can trace 20 countries — Macedonia to Turkey to Steppes to Mongolia — from where exodus to Punjab took place. Empires flourished during the Mauryan, Gupta, Harsha empires and later Mughal reigns. Even as Arabs, Ghaznavids, Durranis invaded the land, long before the British took control of it, imagine how many blood lines have mixed in the great cauldron, turning it into perhaps one of the greatest gene pools in the world? If one were to go by the tenets of Manu Smriti, this churning led to what a scholar explained to me as “Punjab being the apotheosis of Shudra culture”.

Through these millennia, while power shifted between kings and empires, the Punjab society moved from pastoral to agrarian, and the people took to arms in self-defence alongside being farmers, traders, ironsmiths, carpenters, tailors, leather workers, manual scavengers, and so on. These trades, informed by power dynamics, created hierarchical layers in Punjab’s society. This, in a crux, is Punjab’s caste structure. It is unlike the caste logic of the Gangetic plains, or in the regions south of Narmada, which, to an extent, are sanctified through religious texts and practices.

Punjab’s Complexity

The Sikh religion was founded in the 16th century and the Khalsa was inaugurated in the early 18th century. The ten Gurus indeed preached equality. The eleventh guru the Guru Granth Sahib contains verses by Bhagats, Bhatts and Pirs from across religions and castes. However, the reality of any religious community is more than its ideals. The fact is that like any other religion with their founders, even Sikhs have fallen short of the ideals by which they must live.

In the 19th century, the British tried to slot people into spreadsheets through census. But their categories of caste and tribe and race kept shifting. They formed regiments for so-called low caste Mazhabis, even as they declared the Sikhs on the whole as a ‘martial race’. The history is long and winding, but as of now, the Jats, the landed caste, dominate the politics of Punjab, and the Dalits, who constitute 31.9 per cent of the population, remain largely powerless. This is because in Punjab’s agrarian political economy, land is of immense value.

In current times, we might get an insight into caste through studying the aftereffects of the Green Revolution. While earlier in villages, Jats owned the land, the many trades formed the ecosystem of the land. Profits were shared through mutual agreements. With greater mechanisation due to the Green Revolution, the role of other trades in farming was reduced, which led to the Jats earning well though economic disparity became stark.

After the trifurcation of Punjab in 1966, in both the religious institutions and political parties, Jats began to edge out the trading class. Social mobility, aided by religious dominance and political power, abetted by influx of migrant labour, hardened the caste lines in Punjab. Towards the end of the previous century, Dalits — unencumbered by land whose profits were shrinking — mobilised themselves and took to urban livelihoods. The surge of Deras also provided social capital and widened the differences between Jats and Dalits. Though, it must be mentioned, most Deras are actually run by Jats.

The differences led to separate Gurdwaras and cremation sites and fights of villages over common land. Meanwhile, the welfare state did not provide for the Dalits by ways of schools, hospitals and employment opportunities. While Dalits languished, Jats could earn from, or monetise their land, and provide facilities to their next generations.

Punjab’s dominant music and culture too — barring the recent farmer protest songs — has pandered to the dominant patriarchal and feudal mindset. This is countered a bit through Dalit resurgence songs. While Jats claim the Sikh religion does not sanction casteism, the lived experience of Dalits tells an entirely different story.

Beyond Identity Politics

In this mix, Channi has made history. Yes, he is Dalit, from the Ramdasia community, which used to deal in leather. Congress found him an ideal candidate because rural Dalits are the party’s core vote bank, and they want to retain it. This also helps them negate the Shiromani Akali Dal and Bahujan Samaj Party tie-up and torpedo the Aam Aadmi Party move to nominate a Dalit deputy chief minister. But highlighting Channi’s being Dalit is similar to British ascribing people on spreadsheet columns. It is a parochial view and ends up exaggerating the Jat-Dalit fault line as if that has been Punjab’s primary concern.

For example, take the current jathedar of the Akal Takht. No one raised an eyebrow when Giani Harpreet Singh took the post. Giani Ditt Singh’s role as a reformer and scholar of the Singh Sabha movement is a part of historical records. The fact that the restoration of Dalits’ right to offer karah prasad at Darbar Sahib on October 12, 1920 led to the formation of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and the Gurdwara Reform Movement cannot be overlooked.

Coming back to Channi, his face alone is not enough to swing one-third of Punjab’s votes. The systemic oppression of weaker castes is such that they are heavily fragmented. There are differences between Mazhabis, Valmikis, Ad-Dharmis and Ravidassias. That is why, though Kanshi Ram was from Punjab, BSP could only manage to form its government in Uttar Pradesh. Also, by now, caste cynicism is deeply entrenched. A labour leader not long ago asked me: “Every election Punjab elects 34 reserved candidates. What have they done for us? What is the president of the nation doing for Dalits? Merely installing faces is symbolic.”

Channi comes from the eastern Puad region, which has been historically neglected. He is well-educated — he has a Master’s degree and an MBA, plus he is a lawyer, and has even enrolled for a doctorate. At 58, he is two decades younger than the outgoing CM Amarinder Singh. His greatest strength is, as he said in his inaugural address, “I am a common man.” After all, he does not belong to Punjab’s dominant political families and offers a clear break from royalty — like Captain — and almost-royalty — the Badals. This time, Congress has presented itself to the people without the baggage of feudalism. Yes, it may be symbolic, but symbols too have value.

In the post-militancy years, Manmohan Singh’s elevation as prime minister had changed the perception of Sikhs in the country. Now it depends on what Channi is able to achieve in the next four months before elections. It is here that Congress must observe caution: If Channi wins the Congress the next elections, the high command must repeat him as CM for the next term and root out the ‘stop gap’ speculation. That will be Congress’ test in Punjab. In any case, Captain has resigned from CMship, not from politics. His anger against his arch-rival Sidhu is only too apparent. One thing is clear: No one can yet say what the 2022 elections will throw up in Punjab.

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