The highest listed caste population among Indian states is fragmented and wants better representation
Punjab is the state with the highest percentage of the listed caste population in India at nearly 32%, yet the community has not seen the emergence of strong leaders in major political parties. Clear caste divisions within the SCs, the landlessness and indifference of political parties are among the main deterrents to their rise.
Ahead of the 2022 Assembly elections, the Congress Party’s electoral strike to appoint a SC Chief Minister with Chanranjit Singh Channi put the community back at the center of the Punjab’s political arena.
The registered castes of Punjab, like their counterparts in other parts of the country, do not form a homogeneous community. They are dispersed in 39 castes and five major religions, and include Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, in addition to followers of a large number of sects and faiths such as Ravidassias, Ramdassias, the Kavirpanthis and the Radhasoamis.
Emphasizing the clear divide between caste and religion within the community, Ronki Ram, Shaheed Bhaghat Singh Professor of Political Science at the University of Punjab, said: “Among their 39 castes, two caste groups constitute approximately 80% of the total population of SC (31.91%, 2011 census). The two caste groups include four castes: Valmikis and Mazhabis, Chamars and Ad-Dharmis. Each of these two main caste groups consists of 40% of the total population of SC of Punjab. Politically, too, they are also divided along the ideological lines of the main political parties in the state. Their political division is strikingly manifested in the bifurcation of the SC reserve from 25% to 12.5% for the Valmiki and Mazhabi castes and the remaining 12.5% for the rest of the 37 SC castes. The divisions of caste and religion within the Punjab SC over the years prevent them from developing their own distinct and effective leadership at the state level. Struggling to cultivate an exclusively SC-based leadership at the state level, different caste-based SC factions are lining up with different political parties in the Punjab to be elected to 34 reserved seats in the assembly.
There are a total of 117 Assembly constituencies in the Punjab.
Moreover, the SC are far from being the Jat Sikhs in the latter’s domination of the ownership of agricultural land. The majority of the state’s SCs are agricultural workers employed by the Jat Sikhs, the economically stronger community that has dominated politics, whether in Congress or the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science at the University of Punjab, explains: “The Punjab is an agrarian economy and the SC hardly own any land in the Punjab. This is the main reason why we haven’t seen a strong Dalit leader emerge in the state. In the Punjab, the Jat Sikhs dominate the ownership of agricultural land. The SCs, on the other hand, have less land holdings. In fact, a large number of SCs are employed as laborers on the agricultural lands of the Jat Sikhs. Another reason is religious and caste divisions among the CSs.
It was the Bahujan Samaj party that first presented the Dalits as a political plank in the state in 1992, when it won over 16% of the vote and won nine seats, but since then the party has saw its support drop to around 1.5% of the vote in 2017 Assembly polls.
Political observers believe that the indifferent attitude of political parties towards the SCs is another main reason for the non-emergence of a strong SC leadership in Punjab politics. Des Raj Kali, a well-known Punjabi novelist and political analyst whose work focuses on the Ghadar movement, SC issues, literature and state culture, points out that political parties, whether Congress , Shiromani Akali Dal or others, have done nothing of importance to the SC other than playing the politics of appeasement.
“The leadership of the main political parties, Congress and Akali Dal, has been dominated by the Jat Sikhs. They never fed any Dalit chiefs, only to make sure their domination continued. Even now, the appointment of Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi by Congress is a decision taken under duress. First, Ambika Soni declined the offer of the post of chief minister, then the party was unable to reach consensus on Sunil Jakhar and Sukhjinder Randhawa. Channi’s name wasn’t even in controversy. His name was only discussed after the party had exhausted its main options, ”said Mr. Kali.
Professor Ram notes that the state’s main political parties target the SC population at the regional level, which has prompted more factions within the Punjab’s SC. “Babu Kanshi Ram of the Bahujan Samaj party worked hard to bring political unity between the different castes within the Punjab SC, but after finding few possibilities, he focused on Uttar Pradesh”, a- he declared.