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Dalits Challenge Jat Hegemony in Punjab
By S.P. SINGH
The Indian Express, Talhan (Jalandhar, Punjab, India), Jun. 15, 2003
"When violence broke out in Talhan in Jalandhar, politicians and the media woke up to what sociologists had been warning for long. The immediate provocation for the violence was religious. Talhan's Dalits, 70 per cent of the village population, wanted a stake in a shrine which generated crores of income but the Jats controlling it refused to part with any slice of the cash pie. The result: violence, police firing and curfew returned to Punjab after nearly a decade. The Dalits-Jat Sikhs clash also showed how religious institutions had defeated Sikhism's central tenet of a caste-less society. As sociologist Surinder Jodhka of the Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University's Centre for Study of Social Systems, says: 'Low caste Sikhs of Punjab are the only Dalits from a non-Hindu religious community listed among scheduled castes.' "
"The situation is now explosive in a state where the Jats have all the power and where S.C.s account for over 30 percent of the population - the highest ratio in the country. The average national is 16.32 percent. While brahminism may be central to the caste principle, Punjab is significant in a near absence of this construct. Brahmins are only ritually important for urban upper caste Hindus, a small number. Caste violence in Punjab may have been new, the making of it certainly is not. There have been consistent minor incidents of violence against Dalits and the dateline has been all of Punjab's 12,600 villages. Talhan is only the symbol of a widespread ill."
"Parallel to the 1920s reform movements in Punjab, in the Doaba region Mangoo Ram was able to mobilize a large majority of chamars and his Ad-Dharmi movement was termed by sociologists such as Jurgensmeyer as among the most successful of Dalit mobilisations in the history of modern India. The Punjab Alienation of Land Act, 1901, clubbed Dalits with 'non-agriculturalist' castes, legally denying them access to landholdings. While the Act was scrapped after Partition, its impact was never reversed and it's left Dalits at the lowest end in the agrarian state. They now have 2.54 per cent of the agricultural land, and 0.40 per cent of landholdings which is the lowest in the country. Against the all-India average of 25.4 percent, only 4.80 percent of the S.C. workers are cultivators."
"Silent developments have telling consequences. Ill-equipped preachers and Akali leaders have eroded the values of Sikhism. This has led communities to assert their autonomy by building their own gurdwaras, a phenomena Jodhka calls 'a question of pride and a form of local level resistance.' Talhan is a product of this phenomena. The Dalits may not have power but they have become politically conscious after the spread of regional reform movements. They are now more than ever likely to assert themselves against the landowners - the Jats. 'Caste in Punjab can perhaps be understood better in the framework of 'agrarianism' rather than through the more popular notion of brahminism,' says Jodhka. And with most political parties making only overt expressions of concern such as shagun schemes and granting a few units of power every month to Dalits, there is a vacuum where there should have been co-existence. Unfortunately, that vacuum is now being filled with violence."