A Tale Of Two States: Understanding The Complexity Of Dalit Politics In India
Punjab and Rajasthan are two states where the SC/ST share in the state population is the highest.
These two states have gone about trying to break the caste shackles in different ways, and have had different political histories, and the results are telling.
Overall, Dalits are moving away from the Congress and towards the BJP and its allies. This brings the caste fault lines to the fore before the 2019 general election.
The term ‘Dalit politics’ is a misnomer. Dalit is a loose umbrella term used to denote a vast spectrum of communities that have had differing histories and, even within a given region, often had little social contact with each other. To better understand the complex politics of the various Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) of India, it becomes imperative to focus on the regional and community-level variations among the large number of communities classified as Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi (DBA).
Among the large states, Punjab and Rajasthan present the most important case studies for the simple reason that these two states have the largest proportion of SC/STs in their population. At 32 per cent, Punjab has the large share of SCs as a percentage of its population in the country, while Rajasthan with a combined SC-ST population of 31 per cent comes in a close second. Each state also has had a small but vocal communist movement along with the emergence of relatively recent neo-Ambedkarite movements aiming to forge a unified DBA platform, but achieving limited success.
That is where the similarities end.
Despite the large presence of marginalised communities in both the states, the socio-economic and political trajectories of DBA communities in each state since independence have turned out to be vastly different. According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau data, Punjab recorded the third-lowest number of crimes against SC/ST in the country from 2014-2016 while Rajasthan consistently records among the highest incidence of crimes against SC/STs. Punjab is also among the few states in the country where Congress governments have been in power for fewer terms than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies. At the other end of the spectrum lies Rajasthan which, until the late 1990s, saw nothing but an overwhelming dominance of the Congress. In the 66 years since 1950, Congress governments have been in power in Rajasthan for 47 years. There seems to exist a strong correlation between non-Congress governments, economic development, and a reduction of discrimination against SC/STs.
Punjab has the largest number of Dalits as a percentage of its population among all Indian states – nearly 32 per cent of the state’s population is classified as Dalit. At the same time, the state reports the lowest incidence of crimes against Dalits among all the states in the country. Their relatively larger numbers, the influence of Sikhism, as well as relative economic prosperity have ensured that the Dalit communities in the state remain politically active and stand up for their rights.
In the prosperous Doaba belt of Punjab that encompasses the districts of Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala, and Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar, the Dalit community’s dominance has remained unchallenged for almost a century. In particular, the Chaudhary family of Jalandhar belonging to the Ravidassia community have emerged as one of the most eminent political families of Punjab.
In 1936, a young man from the Ravidassia community, Master Gurbanta Singh, contested the Punjab Assembly election under British rule from the Jalandhar constituency on a Congress ticket. Since then, at least one member from his family has represented the constituency in the Punjab Assembly barring one absence in the immediate aftermath of the emergency in the 1970s. Today, Master Gurbanta Singh’s grandson, Chaudhary Vikramjit Singh, is testing the political waters as a scion of the family that has been revered for almost a century as the Dalit icons of Punjab. So complete has been the Chaudhary family’s dominance over the region that every single Congress government ever formed in Punjab has had at least one member of the family in the cabinet. On several occasions, the Chaudhary family’s candidates have been elected unopposed.
What accounts for the clout of the Ravidassia community in Punjab?
Their numerical predominance is an obvious enabler. However, numbers alone do not tell the complete story of the rise of the Ravidassia community in Punjab. Theirs is a story of triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit of a people determined to overcome the shackles of history, and serves as a case study for how economic development can help shatter caste barriers.
The Ravidassias have traditionally been a community of leather workers and tanners, colloquially referred to as Chamars in north India. Caste relations in Punjab were never as rigid as they were in the rest of country, especially since the advent of Sikhism. Guru Ravidas, after whom the Ravidassia sect takes their name, is revered in Sikhism, and his teachings are part of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikh faith.
Under colonial rule, Punjab came to be the sword arm of the British army as nearly a quarter of the troops of the British Indian army were drawn from this province. Ravidassias themselves were not classified as a ‘martial race’, even though a large number of them were Sikhs, and were not generally recruited in the army except during war time. Where the Ravidassias were critical to the army however, was in providing boots, belts, bags, and other crucial leather equipment that was needed to equip a soldier. The British Indian army was a beast of a magnitude never before seen in history. By 1945, the British Indian army numbered 2.5 million men – the largest volunteer army ever raised in the history of mankind. And to clothe and equip this colossal body of men with basic military equipment presented a huge economic opportunity. The Ravidassia community of Punjab spotted this opportunity and managed to leverage their caste-ordained occupation as the foundation that would eventually help them break the shackles of caste.
It is no coincidence that the most famous Ravidassia colony in Jalandhar city is called “Bootan Mandi”. According to the old-timers, the sheer number of military boots made by the Ravidassia leather workers gave the colony this name. The Second World War in particular brought windfall gains to the community as demand for military material and supplies skyrocketed. The twentieth century also saw the sudden rise of an entirely new industry – sports. Being at the beating heart of the global empire that stretched from one corner of the globe to the other helped Punjab take an early lead in supplying a myriad accessories that go into the performance of the mass spectacle that is modern sports. Since leather was one of the major raw materials that went into the making of a wide variety of sporting goods, the Ravidassias were able to leverage their position to gain from the rapid growth of the global sports market. By the closing decades of the last century, the leather and sporting goods industry of Jalandhar controlled by the Ravidassia community, had become a global export hub employing thousands of people and exporting goods worth over Rs 2,000 crore each year.
Increased affluence allowed the Ravidassias access to better education and healthcare while many among them even migrated abroad, creating a small but prosperous and politically active diaspora community that further added to the Ravidassia community’s clout back in Punjab.
Today, however, there is a clear trend that Punjab’s Dalits want to move away from their long association with the Congress. The powerful Chaudhary clan have had to taste defeat of late with the Dalit electorate showing strong signs of aligning with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP. In the 2017 assembly elections in Punjab, Chaudhary Vikramjit Singh lost his seat to Baldev Khaira of SAD-BJP. In the 2014 general election too, the Dalit candidate of SAD-BJP had trumped the Congress’ Dalit face.
Vijay Sampla, a prominent Dalit leader of the BJP’s Punjab unit is currently the Minister of State for Social Justice & Empowerment in the central government. He also served as the Punjab state president of the BJP till March this year. This has been a worrying sign for the Congress.
Part of the reason for the unease among Dalits is economic. Punjab’s economy has been in trouble for some time and the leather industry in particular has been hit by a severe crisis. The fact that the state does not have easy access to sea ports which would boost exports, has been a major dampener for the state’s industries.
Irrelevance of the BSP and the left in Punjab
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was founded in 1985 by Kanshi Ram, a Sikh from the Ropar district of Punjab. Despite that, the party could never get a toehold in the state of its origin. In the latest assembly elections held in 2017, it polled only 1.5 per cent of the total vote despite contesting all of the 117 assembly seats. All its candidates ended up losing their deposit except the state party president. This from a state which gave the BSP its first ever Member of Parliament in 1989, and elected its founder, Kanshi Ram, to the Lok Sabha from the Hoshiarpur seat in 1996.
Few people know that Punjab also witnessed one of the fiercest Naxalite movements in the country. The Punjabi Naxals were an offshoot of the revolutionary Ghadrite movement of the 1920s and 1930s that sought to free India from British rule. When Charu Majumdar organised an armed rebellion against the Indian state in faraway Naxalbari, his actions set Punjab on fire too. However, the Punjabi Naxalites, like their counterparts elsewhere, were dominated by the upper castes and while they waxed eloquent on the nature of class war, they were more than happy to shove the tricky question of caste under the carpet. Thus the Punjabi left remained locked in its lofty castles with its dialectical analysis of Marxist-Leninist thought, its exegesis of Bertolt Brecht, and its extolling of Pablo Neruda, while the Dalits who made up the majority of the landless peasants and industrial workers continued getting alienated.
Today, the Punjabi communists have been upstaged by the neo-Ambedkarite politics that is being espoused by certain sections of the affluent Dalit community. However, the neo-Ambedkarite movement, seen as an extension of the radical left by some, has been very limited in its impact, primarily because it fails to account for the vast spectrum of social and historical differences among the various communities that make up the Dalit grouping in Punjab.
Even though a Congress government is in power in the state, the Dalit community has shown clear signs of effecting a historic break with the party that claimed to represent their interests for long but seems increasingly anachronistic in a world where the aspirations of Dalits have evolved from token offerings. Punjab’s Dalits have emerged as a powerful force of their own accord and what they demand is no less than their equal share in the state’s resources.
Dalits make up 17 per cent of Rajasthan’s population. Within this figure, two communities – Meghwal and Regar – are by far the most numerous, making up 50 per cent of the entire Dalit population of the state. Additionally, Rajasthan also has a large tribal population, at about 13.5 per cent of the state’s population. This takes Rajasthan’s total SC/ST population to 30.5 per cent, which in turn translates to control over nearly 100 assembly seats in a house of 200. Like the SC community, Rajasthan’s tribals are not a unitary entity and the Meena tribals of north-eastern Rajasthan and the Bhil tribals of southern Rajasthan are the dominant group both numerically and economically.
Unlike in Punjab, SC/STs in Rajasthan have not been able to benefit from economic development. Reservations in government jobs and academic institutions remain the pillar on which the community is forced to prop itself. This is one of the reasons caste-based violence is more frequent in Rajasthan. When a scarce resource such as government jobs remains the only means of upward social and economic mobility, competition between various groups vying for the scarce resource becomes bitter and often violent.
Just like in Punjab, there is a small but well-organised communist movement in Rajasthan, centered especially around the northern region of Shekhawati. The All India Kisan Sabha, the farmer wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) holds sway here. Under the leadership of local peasant leader Amra Ram, the CPI(M) had launched a massive farmer protest in September 2017. Farmers blocked all major highways in the districts of Sikar, Bikaner, Ganganagar, and Nagaur, bringing life in the state to a virtual standstill. Internet and telecom services were suspended, forcing the government to impose Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Eventually the demands of the farmers were accepted. However, despite its occasional show of strength, the communist movement in Rajasthan remains a toothless tiger. Like everywhere else, the communist party in Rajasthan, though it expresses solidarity with the Dalit cause, is controlled mostly by the dominant castes. In this case, it is the dominant land-owning Jat community. The issues of the Rajasthani communists are those of land-owning farmers, and their language is that of Marx. Their disconnect with Dalits is all too obvious.
Neo-Ambedkarite voices calling for DBA unity have been emerging in the state of late, but like elsewhere, their idealist vision gets dashed upon encountering the reality of the non-uniformity of the DBA grouping. Even though neo-Ambedkarites would like to present a simple binary of oppressor and the oppressed centred around the Dalit-Savarna fault line to bring all the DBA communities under one umbrella, the complex reality of caste relations in Rajasthani society resists being bracketed into such simplistic categories.
For instance, the Bhil tribals of southern Rajasthan often find common cause with the upper-caste Rajputs, with whom they share a long, bitter-sweet history of cooperation and conflict, than with other Dalit or tribal communities with whom they have historically had little or no social contact. It was Bhil tribals who had supported and sheltered Maharana Pratap and numerous other Rajput rulers during their wars with Mughals and other fellow Rajputs. Bhil archers had for long been part of Mewar kingdom’s armies as the Rajputs had great admiration for the Bhils as hunters and warriors and considered them valuable allies and worthy opponents. Today, the Mewar Bhil Corps, originally raised as a paramilitary force of the Mewar state, is an armed state police force of Rajasthan with a strength close to a 1,000 personnel recruited only from among the Bhil tribal community. In Rajput folklore, King Guha, the founder of the Guhilot dynasty from which the Mewar kings are descended, was believed to have been raised by Bhil tribals in the forests of southern Rajasthan, where he spent most of his life. He was officially invested with sovereignty when a Bhil cut his own finger and applied to Guha’s forehead the red mark (tikka) of kingship. Thus began the royal line of Mewar that exists to this day.
This ancient symbiotic relationship between Bhil tribals and the Rajputs was immortalised by Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard Kipling, when he designed the coat of arms for the prestigious Mayo College in Ajmer in 1875. It features a shield supported on the one side by a Rajput warrior in full armour and on the other by a Bhil archer holding his longbow – the twin pillars that throughout history upheld the sovereignty of Rajputana against invaders.
Given such an ancient and complex web of relations rooted deeply in Indic traditions, it should come as no surprise that the only ideology that has been able to bring the various DBA communities of Rajasthan together on a single platform has been that of the BJP. Nothing underscores the overwhelming Dalit and tribal support for the BJP in Rajasthan than the fact that out of the 59 reserved seats for SC/ST in Rajasthan, 50 are represented by the BJP in the current assembly.
This wasn’t always the case, however. Perhaps more than any other state in India, Rajasthan remained till the late 1990s a staunch Congress bastion. Out of the 13 chief ministers of the state, only two – Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Vasundhara Raje Scindia – have been from the BJP. The rest have been from the Congress. However, over the last decade, the BJP has been slowly chipping away at the Congress’ base. The SC/STs in particular have responded the most enthusiastically to the BJP’s programme for development and change. This has obviously rattled the Congress.
The Gathering Storm - Exploiting Fault Lines to Paper Over Governance Failures
From the analysis of two states with the largest SC/ST percentages in their populations, we see two models of political economy. One in which affirmative action policies have been supplemented by economic development; and one in which government patronage in the form of reservations alone have been the source of upward mobility for Dalits and tribals. Data shows that in the first case, i.e., Punjab, crimes against SC/STs are among the lowest in the country, while in the second case, they are among the highest. It is no coincidence that in the first case, Congress governments remained in a minority since independence while the SAD-BJP ruled for longer. In the second case of Rajasthan, we see an overwhelming Congress predominance with inroads by the BJP having begun only recently. In both the cases, we see that Dalits have been abandoning the Congress, the BSP, and the neo-Ambedkarite parties, and allying themselves firmly with the BJP and its allies.
The implications for the Congress are potentially worrying and one can expect increased agitation along the old caste fault lines as we head into the next general election. Economic development, in the form of increased trade and better access to the marginalised communities to business opportunities, is in the long run the ultimate surety against a lapse to a society entrenched in caste discrimination. Until that is achieved, all possible Constitutional safeguards must be extended to the marginalised communities.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.