Punjab has the highest percentage of the Scheduled Castes population in India at nearly 32% yet the community has not seen the emergence of strong leaders across key political parties. Sharp caste divisions within the SCs, landlessness and indifference of political parties are among the key deterrents to their rise.
Ahead of the 2022 Assembly election, the Congress party’s electoral strike in appointing Charanjit Singh Channi as Chief Minister has brought the community back into focus in the political arena.
The Scheduled Castes, like their counterparts in other parts of the country, are not a homogeneous community. They are scattered among 39 castes and five major religions — Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists — besides being followers of a large number of sects and faiths such as Ravidassias, Ramdassias, Kavirpanthis and Radhasoamis.
Underlining the sharp caste-religious divide, Ronki Ram, Shaheed Bhaghat Singh Chair Professor of Political Science at Panjab University, said: “Among the 39 castes, two caste groups constitute about 80% of the SC population (31.91%, 2011 census). The two groups comprise four castes — Valmikis and Mazhabis, Chamars and Ad-Dharmis. Each of these two main caste groups consists of 40% population of the SC population.
“Politically too, they are equally divided along the ideological lines of the main political parties. Their political divide is vividly exhibited in the bifurcation of SC reservation of 25% into 12.5% for Valmiki and Mazhabi castes and the remaining 12.5% for the rest of the 37 castes. The caste and religious divisions over the years preclude them from developing their own distinct and effective State-level leadership. Finding it difficult to cultivate exclusively SC-based leadership at the State level, different caste-based SC factions align with different political parties to get elected in 34 reserved seats [in the 117-member House].”
Jat Sikhs’ dominance
Moreover, the SCs stand nowhere near the Jat Sikhs in the latter’s dominance of farmland ownership. The majority of the SCs are agricultural workers employed by the economically stronger community that has dominated politics, whether in the Congress or the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Ashutosh Kumar, Professor of Political Science at the Panjab University, says: “Punjab is an agrarian economy and the SCs hardly own land. This is the key reason why we haven’t seen the emergence of a strong Dalit leader. The Jat Sikhs are dominant as far as the ownership of agricultural land is concerned. The SCs, on the other hand, have lesser land holdings. In fact, a large number of them are engaged as workers on the farmlands of the Jat Sikhs. The religious and caste divides among them is another reason.”
It was the Bahujan Samaj Party that featured Dalits as a political plank for the first time in 1992 when it secured over 16% votes and won nine seats, but it has since seen its support declining to around 1.5% votes in the 2017 Assembly polls.
Observers feel the indifferent attitude of the political parties is another key reason. Des Raj Kali, a well-known novelist and political analyst — whose work focuses on the Ghadar movement, SC issues and the State’s literature and culture — points out that the Congress, the SAD or others have not done anything significant for the SCs other than play appeasement politics.
“The leadership in the mainstream political parties, the Congress and the Akali Dal, has been dominated by the Jat Sikhs. They never nurtured any Dalit leader to ensure that their dominance continues. Even now, the appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi is a move borne out of compulsion. Firstly, Ambika Soni declined the offer of the Chief Minister’s post, then the party couldn’t arrive at a consensus between Sunil Jakhar and Sukhjinder Randhawa. Mr. Channi’s name was not even in the contention. His name came up for discussion only after the party ran out of its primary options,” points out Mr. Kali.
Professor Ram notes that the mainstream political parties have targeted the SC population region-wise, which prompted further factionalism within the SCs. “Babu Kanshi Ram of the Bahujan Samaj Party worked hard to bring political unity among the different castes but after finding not much scope, he shifted his focus to Uttar Pradesh,” he said.