Punjab: Why Numerically Strong Dalits Could Not Become a Political Force in State?

It is interesting to note that parties other than the BSP produced the majority of Dalit legislators.
Representational Image
Representational ImagePhoto: Scroll

New Delhi: Punjab is the birthplace of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) founder Kanshi Ram and has the highest concentration Dalit population (around 32%) across the country. Ideally, the demographic should have a politically empowered role and influence electoral outcomes in the state with an agrarian economy. Is it so?

Political analysts disagree, stating that the “leadership crisis” has prevented them from gaining political clout despite their numerical dominance. They do not vote as a cohesive community, which is another factor.

Kanshi Ram worked hard to unite the Dalits in Punjab and also made a lot of efforts to spread political awareness among them. It resulted in the BSP bagging three seats in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the Akali Dal (Badal).

But in the 1997 Assembly elections, the party could get only 7.5% votes, which came down to 1.5% in 2017.

The BSP’s vote share, as the data suggests, has significantly decreased over years in both Assembly and Lok Sabha polls. It has failed to secure even a single seat in the Lower House of Parliament from Punjab since 1998.

The Assembly polls in 1992 showed the BSP performing at its best. The party had won nine seats in that election, but it managed to win only one seat in the subsequent elections in 1997.

The party received 5.69 percent of the vote in the 2002 Assembly polls, but that percentage dropped to 1.77 percent in the 2022 polls primarily as a result of the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

It is interesting to note that parties other than the BSP produced the majority of Dalit legislators.

Why is the BSP, which claims to be champion of Dalit causes, declining in a state where the community’s share in the total population stands at 32%? And how do the Jat Sikhs, who are around 25% of the state’s population, dominate the political landscape here?

Responding to the questions, senior journalist Aditya Menon, who is associated with The Quint, said the Scheduled Caste (SC) population in the state is not a monolithic group. Different castes groups vary geographically and have distinct political inclinations, so they shouldn't be viewed as one bloc.

He said while the population is divided between Sikh Dalits and Hindu Dalits, there are many communities among the Sikh Hindu Dalits who have their own different ideologies.

“Perhaps this is the reason why despite so much hard work, Kanshi Ram could not unite the Dalits in Punjab, and he had to start working among SCs in Uttar Pradesh and other states,” he told The Mooknayak.

The influence of the party is now limited to some areas of Doaba region of Punjab.

According to a 2018 report by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Dalits in Punjab are divided into 39 sub-castes. Over 80% of the Dalit population comprises five sub-castes. ‘Mazhabi Sikhs’ add up to 30% of the total Dalit population, followed by Ravidassias (24%) and Aad Dharmis (11%).

“The Aad Dharmi and the Ravidassia are traditionally well off and have been capitalist Dalits even before independence. They neither associated themselves with the larger Dalit community and the BSP. Because of their greater social standing, access to better education and financial clout, they hold powerful positions,” he said.

Aad Dharmi Dalits were once leather tanners before joining the Ad-Dharm movement in the 1920s and claiming a unique religious identity. Many of them work as engineers, doctors or are in the public service.

On the other hand, the Mazhabi Sikhs, who are associated with the agrarian economy of Punjab’s Majha region (Amritsar, Taran Taran, Gurdaspur and Pathankot) and Malwa region (the state’s southeast) have either a very small landholding or landless farm laborers who live in extremely poor economic situations.

“For employment, they rely on the landed peasantry, who are Jat Sikhs — the state’s governing class. So, they maintain cordial relations with their ‘upper’ caste counterparts. In Punjab, the oppression of Dalits is not similar to what we see in the rest of the country. There is no untouchability. Though they have separate Gurudwaras, yet there is no restriction on the Dalits to go to the Gurudwaras of Jat Sikhs. Even the former chief of the Akal Takht was from the Dalit community. These are some of the reasons why there has been no political consolidation of the community,” he pointed out.

The Mazhabi Sikhs (26.33%) and Valmikis (8.66%) have traditionally supported the SAD. The Dalits in Doaba, on the other hand, had historically backed the Congress before switching to the BSP and then returning to the Congress. This also applied to other castes.

Punjab-based freelance journalist Sandeep Singh, who writes on politics, labour rights and farmers’ issues, too said there is very little physical discrimination against the Dalits in the state, mostly due to the influence of Sikhism. However, the feudal system’s existence still results in social and economic division.

He made the point that, in all of India, 15% of the population is Dalit, and they own 8.5% of the country’s land. Even though Dalits make up approximately one-third of the state’s population in Punjab, their share of landholding is only 3.5%.

“The power structure in our country has been such that marginalized castes are used as a vote bank but are not socially and economically empowered,” he added.

Since independence, there have been 15 chief ministers, yet none of them are Dalits. Before its split in 1966, Punjab was ruled by three Hindu chief ministers. After Haryana was carved out, all of Punjab’s CMs — except Giani Jail Singh — are from the Jat Sikh community.

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