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Brahmins and Jat Sikhs lead campaign for Dalit land rights in Punjab amid milieu of deep-rooted caste prejudices

Ludhiana: Upper castes have been rightly accused of oppressing and denying the human rights of Dalits for centuries. But in Punjab, a significant section of the leadership of the campaign for Dalit land rights comes from Brahmins and Jat Sikhs – both considered high castes.

The Malwa region of Punjab is witness to a growing Dalit movement over rights to common panchayat land. Section 6(1)a of The Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Rules, 1964 stipulates that one-third of the cultivable common land proposed to be leased shall be reserved for the Scheduled Castes. However, Dalits complain that the law is not being followed. They say the land is used for other purposes and have been protesting this injustice for years.

Interestingly, in this cause, they have not just been joined, but led by members of communities that have traditionally been the most notorious violators of their rights, the Brahmins and Jat Sikhs. While leaders from higher castes working for Dalit causes in Punjab downplay their caste origins, their support is deeply appreciated by the Dalit leaders.

'Laws rarely implemented'

Mahi Pal, a prominent Brahmin leader of the landless peasants' movement from Bathinda district, started working for Dalit causes in 1980. Pal who is the finance secretary of the Dihati Mazdoor Sabha said that caste has never come in the way of his work for Dalits, and that he tries to keep his caste a personal affair.

 Brahmins and Jat Sikhs lead campaign for Dalit land rights in Punjab amid milieu of deep-rooted caste prejudices

File image of Mahi Pal, a Brahmin leader of the peasants' movement in Bathinda. Image courtesy; Mahi Pal

“After entering the movement for Dalits and landless labourers, I was shocked to see that people from this section of society are being discriminated against only because they are born in a specific caste,” Pal says. He stressed that despite the many laws for uplifting Dalits, little has been done as they are rarely implemented. “While the law demands renting out of one third or 33 percent of the panchayat land to Dalits, a village in Bathinda, Jai Singh Wala, has allotted the entire panchayat land for construction of a gurudwara. Now how will the Dalits in the village get their share of land?” questions Pal.

No land for Dalits

Dalits in villages of Punjab are mostly landless labourers who work on the agricultural lands of Jat Sikhs. After widespread mechanisation of agricultural processes in recent decades, most of them have lost their jobs and been forced to do menial work.

A Dalit rights activist, Mukesh Sharma Malaudh, from Sangrur district was recently declared a proclaimed offender (PO) in a case going back to June 2014. Sharma, along with other protesters, had then clashed with police over their demand for the lease of panchayat land to Dalits at a nominal price.

Sharma, who is the president of Zameen Prapti Sangarsh Committee (ZPSC), is fighting for the one-third share of Dalits on panchayat land as well as on Nazool land, which is un-irrigated, barren land located outside municipal limits and escheated to the state government.

The Nazool Land Cooperative Societies were established under the Nazool Lands (Transfer) Rules, 1956. As per the rules, there is a provision that Nazool land may be allotted to landless Dalits.
Sharma says that the state government increases the rent on panchayat land for Dalits every year. “If the government is serious about improving the status of the Dalits in the state, there is a need to overhaul a few things and implement all laws created for the welfare of Dalits,” says Sharma.

The problem of casteism is deep-rooted in Punjab, where separate cremation grounds and gurudwaras for Dalits still exist in most of the villages. While the law regarding renting out of one-third of panchayat land could be applicable in large villages, it becomes difficult to implement in case of smaller villages.

According to the 2011 census, Punjab has the highest percentage of Scheduled Caste population among all the states of the country. The Scheduled Caste population in Punjab numbers 88.60 lakh, or 31.94 percent of a total population of 277.43 lakh. As per the 2011 census, the vast majority of the Scheduled Castes (73.33 percent) live in rural areas, while 26.67 percent reside in Punjab’s urban centres. The majority of Scheduled Caste labourers work in the agricultural sector or are engaged in low-wage and arduous occupations in the cities.

Communist movement in Malwa

SR Darapuri, a retired IPS officer and Uttar Pradesh-based Dalit thinker whose family belongs to Doaba region of Punjab, says that the spread of the communist ideology in the Malwa region has led to many intellectuals and social activists, irrespective of their caste, to join the Dalit movement.

“It is a classic case where Brahmins and Jat Sikhs are steering a movement of people who were suppressed by these very castes. The success of the communists in the Malwa region of Punjab is the main cause why leaders have forgotten their castes for the cause of Dalits,” says Darapuri. A case in point is the All India Kisan Sabha, the mass organisation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Ruldu Singh, president of the Punjab Kisan Union says that despite being from the Jat community, he has been supporting the cause of poor farmers and Dalits in the area for a long time. “I was also arrested during a protest for Dalits in year 2009 in Mansa district,” he says.

Singh says the Jat community, for the most part, rarely concerns itself with issues other than the mounting problems of agriculture in Punjab. “But I will continue to work for poor and Dalits in our state as successive governments use Dalits only as their vote bank and never see them as humans,” Singh says.

(Arjun Sharma is a Ludhiana-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

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Updated Date: May 24, 2018 16:55:58 IST