As Congress announced Charanjit Singh Channi as its main ministerial face, the dynamics of Dalit electoral politics in Punjab dominated political discourse like never before. About 32% of the state’s population falls into the Scheduled Caste (SC) category.
However, at least 13 districts in Punjab have an SC population above the state average (32%) according to the 2011 census. With 42.5% Dalit population, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar tops the ranking, followed by Muktsar Sahib (42.3%) and Ferozepur (42.2%).
Congress is hoping for a “consolidation of Dalits” in its favor after appointing Channi as the main ministerial face and his 111-day performance as CM. However, to see an entire community marching behind it is too much to expect to go through the layers and fault lines within this stratum of society.
There are 39 sub-castes in Punjab which come under the SC category as per the notification from the state government. Of the 32% Dalit population, 19.4% follow Sikhism, 12.4% are Hindus and 0.98% are Buddhists.
The SC vote bank comprises 29.7% of Mazhabi Sikhs, 23.6% are Ravidassias and Ramdassias, 11.5% are classified as Ad-Dharmis and Balmiki accounts for 9.8%. Channi belongs to the Ramdassia community. Together, they make up 74.5% of the total SC population in the state.
Due to their beliefs and origins, these four sub-castes are generally categorized into two groups: Mazhabi Sikhs-Balmikis; and Ravidassias-Ramdassias-Ad-Dharmis.
Mazhabis outnumbered, Ravidassias dominate politics
Although three out of 10 Dalits in Punjab are from the Mazhabi Sikh category, the Ravidassias, who are mainly concentrated in Doaba, dominate electoral politics. The most prominent Dalit leaders in the state of all parties are drawn from this community.
The Ravidassias are considered influential because they have a large population settled in foreign countries and are considered socially and politically aware. The Mazhabis, who dominate Malwa and Majha, are either landless or have small land holdings. They are socially and politically neglected.
The two broad categories of the Dalit population – Ravidasias-Ad-dharmis and Mazhabi Sikhs-Balmikis – have competed with each other in the past. The Balmikis who are mainly settled in urban, semi-urban areas, living from sanitation activities are predominantly Hindus. Although the Deras also have an important impact on the Dalit politics of Punjab. Dera Sach Khand Ballan, the largest center of the Ravidassia community, influences the choices of its followers, small deras here and there play the refuge of Balmikis and Majhabis. Dera Sacha Sauda, based in Sirsa, also has a great influence on the Sikhs of Majhabi, especially in the Malwa region.
A five-decade-old problem of providing 50% reservation in indirect recruitment to Valmikis and Mazhabi Sikhs is yet another fault line among the SC population. The matter is still pending before the Supreme Court.
Will the Dalits march after Channi?
Professor Raunki Ram of Panjab University, Chandigarh says that the caste dynamics of the SC population in Punjab has remained such that it has never come under a single umbrella. History shows that consolidation attempts on two important occasions failed, he said. “The Ad-Dharam movement in the pre-independence era received an unprecedented response in common Punjab. However, Majhabis and Balmikis did not participate in this movement. Then BSP was formed and it eventually became the party of Ravidassias, and he found that Kanshi Ram could not get support from other sub-castes and moved the party base to UP. Both were social movements,” he explains.
Ram says that while Congress is betting on Channi for Dalit consolidation, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has BSP on his side.
“If even PASB has failed to consolidate the SCs, how can Congress do it. I have a strong feeling that this open statement from CM’s face on caste could backfire on Congress in the form of a consolidation of Jats and other upper castes,” he says.
Prof Parmod Kumar, director of the Institution for Development and Communication, says the SCs have never acted as the exclusive ‘vote bank’ of any particular political party.
“While six times the Punjab SCs voted for the Congress, five times they opted for the SAD. Moreover, the caste lines are so deep between the different sub-castes in the community that consolidation seems unlikely,” says Kumar.
Safai Karamchari Commission Chairman Geja Ram, who comes from the Valmiki community and recently left Congress to join the BJP, said Balmikis and Majhbis had strong misgivings about the Congress’ preference for influential Ravidassias.
“If you look at the ticket distribution this time, Congress cut four tickets from Balmikis to prefer Ravidassias. Out of 34 reserved segments, 24 candidates are Ravidassias/Ramdasias while only nine are Balmikis, and one Bazigar, while we are the most numerous among the SCs. What about other castes aiming for consolidation? he said.
In 2017, of the 34 reserved seats, the Congress won 21, the AAP won nine, three went to the SAD and the BJP captured one.