Debating India

PUNJAB

Growing Dalit resistance

Praveen SWAMI

Sunday 7 December 2003, by SWAMI*Praveen

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 25, December 06 - 19, 2003.

Jat landlords and Dalits clash in Punjab once again, a clear sign that Dalit patience is coming to an end across the State.

FOR over 400 years, the village pond has been at the centre of life in Hasanpur in Sangrur district. On one side of it lie the homes of the upper castes, mainly Jat landlords; on the other, those of the Dalits who work on their fields. Cattle are brought here to be watered and to graze; cow dung is dried on the shores; and the long grass on its banks makes for a sheltered community latrine. Children play on the fringes of the pond and the last rites of the dead are performed on its banks. Through this pond runs an invisible line: the landlords live and die on its northern bank, the Dalits on the southern shore.

On October 11, that line was breached, sparking off the most violent caste clashes in Punjab since the Jat-Dalit confrontation in April at Talhan near Jalandhar. Twenty people, mainly Dalit women, were injured in Hasanpur when they got together to stop a Jat farmer from ploughing the dry bed of the pond, which he had taken on lease from the village panchayat. No one agrees on what started the fighting - the Jats insist that the Dalits used force to block their clansman from exercising his right, and the Dalits alleged that the farmer forced women off the common land they had used for decades.

If the string of caste clashes in Punjab are any indication, Dalit consciousness in Punjab is being revolutionised, a fact that could have far-reaching consequences. In Hasanpur itself, Dalit anger had been simmering for at least a year, and it centred around the pond and the Shamlat land (common land) surrounding it. Early this year, upper castes in the village, with the support of 12 neighbouring panchayats, built a gaushala, a hospice for aged and ill cows, on the banks of the pond. The gaushala was built over a sewage drain that ran from the Jat quarter of the village into the pond, forcing realignment of the drain. The Dalits believed that the new alignment of the drain was intended to insult a Dalit temple that was being constructed nearby. The Jats responded by pointing out that the Dalits had also made use of Shamlat land for building the temple, an ashram, a cremation ground, and a road leading to Dalit-owned small farms. The new alignment of the drain, they insisted, was a necessity, not a statement of caste supremacy.

In April, even as the dispute simmered on, the panchayat decided to lease out the pond land. The decision was well within the village body’s legal rights, but controversial nonetheless. Although some Dalits participated in the auction, a Jat farmer, Jagtar Singh, won the lease. He began flattening the pond bed, and demanded that Dalits using areas along the shore to dump agricultural waste and dry dung move out of what was now his land. "Next," claims Hasanpur Dalit Jit Pal Singh, "he would have claimed that we could not graze cattle around the pond, or take them to the water to be bathed. The pond is essential to our livelihoods, and we just did not accept the right of the panchayat to give it up for the use of just one person."

Between April and October, the local administration made several unsuccessful efforts to resolve the issue. The Jats, according to the Dalits, stepped up the pressure with an economic blockade, refusing to employ local workers on their fields. The claim is refuted by the Jats, who point to the presence of several Dalit workers in their homes. The administration responded by imposing legal restrictions on the right of villagers to assemble on the Shamlat land, hoping to stave off a caste clash. Jagtar Singh, however, insisted on pressing his rights to the leased land, saying he had spent over Rs.100,000 on having the pond bed levelled and cleared of scrub. The Dalits, too, continued using the Shamlat land.

On October 10, Jat leaders complained to the local police about Dalits using the pond bed. The next day, fighting broke out. "The Dalits gathered in their ashram with swords and lathis," says Jat Harjit Singh, a local Jat, "and so we were forced to defend ourselves." Given the fact that most of the victims were Dalit women, this claim seems incorrect. All the17 persons charged by the Sangrur police with rioting and atrocities against Dalits are Jats, a clear sign of just what took place on the day. According to police records, Jat leaders gathered at the community’s gurdwara in the village and called for action against the Dalits. Six suspects have so far been arrested and have obtained bail.

Prompt police intervention, unlike in Talhan, probably helped stave off more violence. "I’m from a peasant background myself," says Sangrur Senior Superintendent of Police Gurdeep Singh Dhillon, "which helped me understand the sensitivities in Hasanpur and speak directly with community leaders". A deal was hammered out, meeting almost all major Dalit demands. The Jats conceded the Dalits’ right to use the road to their fields, and use part of the Shamlat land to dry dung and dump agricultural waste and to build a Balmiki temple. The pond land itself was denied to all under the deal. Jagtar Singh has moved the courts to seek execution of his lease.

Both communities are now scheduled to have a mass langar, or community meal, to cement the deal. Yet, even this gesture, if it is ever held, will not be without its ironies. Like most Punjab villages, and in defiance of Sikh scripture, Hasanpur has two gurdwaras, one for Dalits and one for Jats. No one is certain which will be chosen for the langar. Jats, for their part, make little effort to conceal their unhappiness. "We have the greatest respect for Dhillon," says local schoolteacher Durga Dutt Sharma, a spokesman for the landlords, "but these Dalits have been spoiled. While the government built them proper latrines, our women still defecate in the open grass. They received full funding for their cremation ground, we received far less. Still they ask for more!"

Chauvinism of this kind seems to be driven by the growing ability of Dalits to stand up for their rights. While most of the recent incidents of violence have taken place in Punjab’s Doaba region, where Dalits are relatively affluent, their counterparts in southern Punjab also seem to be building the foundations of resistance to landlord fiat. Although none of the Dalits in Hasanpur receives foreign currency remittances, a common phenomenon around Jalandhar, four of the 140-odd families have members in government service, and another dozen own small businesses. That Dalit patience is coming to an end across Punjab is clear. On October 28, Dalit teenagers in Khojewal near Kapurthala beat up two women, Jagir Kaur and Tirath Kaur, who tried to evict them from the Jat-owned field where they were playing cricket. The assault came after weeks of tension over Jat cooption of Dalit panchayat members, who were perceived as traitors in their community. Earlier that month, Jat landlords opened fire on Dalits in a field in Sahnipur Tanda near Patiala, injuring five persons. The Dalits were ploughing Jat-owned land in defiance of a boycott, called after the village elected a Dalit sarpanch. A month before the Patiala outrage, Jat farmers in Pandori Khazoor, Hoshiarpur, called a boycott against Dalits after a Dalit woman candidate defeated a Jat in the local body elections. The district of Jalandhar alone has seen seven caste clashes since April.

How does one account for this sundering of Punjab’s once-pacific social fabric? Part of the problem may lie with the structure of village development funds. Given the sharp caste fissures in villages, little panchayat funding goes into the creation of genuine cross-community assets. The installation of a tube-well, for example, benefits landlords more than Dalits. As journalist P.P.S. Gill recently pointed out, relatively little funding is targeted at Dalits. Although over 28 per cent of Punjab’s population is Dalit, half of it living below the poverty line, only between 7 and 8 per cent of the government’s plan expenditure specifically seeks to ameliorate their conditions. "This imbalance," Gill recently wrote, "is one of the factors responsible for the incidents of social tension in villages." Increasingly educated and affluent, the younger Dalits seem unwilling to put up with injustice the way their parents did.

Efforts by the State government to broker compromises have generally failed. In August, for example, two Dalit representatives were nominated to the Talhan shrine’s management board, in an effort to defuse tension. Funds have been received for development, but the Dalits still feel sidelined. Amarjit Singh, one of the two Dalit representatives, recently noted that Jat members on the board continued to ignore Dalit demands for a share of the pie. "For instance," he said, "I had requested them to arrange for the repair of some faulty streetlights in a Dalit area and the removal of garbage from near the village pond, but this was not done."

The events in Hasanpur show that the State government may finally be waking up to the need to take sides - but whether this realisation has dawned early enough to assuage Dalit anger remains to be seen.

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