Saturday, December 02, 2006

Punjab: A Bihar in Making?

In Punjab’s Malwa region, upper caste landlords are creating ‘Ranvir Senas’ in response to the growing Dalit assertion.

The first telltale signs of the growing class divide in Punjab are evident in the office of the CPI-ML in the Mansa district. In the courtyard, many Nihang Sikhs, dressed in their traditional attire, are listening to their first discourse on Marx.
All of them are lower castes. “We have told them that instead of fighting for Gurudwaras, they must fight for their own lot,” says Bhagwant Singh Samaon, a CPI-ML activist.

A few miles away, a caste cauldron is simmering in the Bhurj-Jabbar village. Groups of upper-caste Jat landlords stand outside their pucca houses, waiting for news from the court. Seven Jat boys from the village stand trial for attacking and badly mutilating Bant Singh, a 40-year-old Dalit, in January this year. He lost his two arms and a leg in the attack.
The news finally arrives in the village. For 3.5 hours, in front of the judge, Bant Singh narrated the sequence of the attack on him and identified his attackers. The final judgement of this case, as per Bant Singh’s lawyer, is expected by December 25.

“Our boys have been falsely implicated in the case,” says Sukhwinder Kaur, whose two sons are among the accused. A former village sarpanch, Sukhwinder Kaur’s husband is the current sarpanch from the Congress party. In the courtyard, the eldest son Yadavinder Singh’s three children are playing hide and seek. Holding her younger son’s photograph in her hands, she asks: “Does he look like a murderer? He was about to get engaged.”
On a string cot, in front of her, sits Amrik Singh, whose two sons have also been arrested in the case. “It is all being done at the behest of the liberation guys (CPI-ML activists). They are trying to mobilize Dalits against us. They are poisoning their minds,” he says. Ask him about the attack and he goes silent for a while and then whispers, “ It is not an act against Dalits. It is a case of personal enemity. Bant Singh had a series of fights with our boys. And some of them hit him back.” How many of them? “Only four, I swear. Three of them are innocent. They have been dragged into this.” And does those four include his sons? Another bout of silence. And then another whisper. “Yes, my younger son.”

As Bhurj-Jabbar waits to explode, upper caste landlords are increasingly taking cudgels against the formidable Dalit assertion. In Khadiyal village of the neighbouring Sangrur district, Jat landlords took out armed processions in an apparent show of strength, after the death of a lower caste labourer, Jarnail Singh, allegedly at the hands of his upper caste employers, on November 2. The labourers, led by the activists of the CPI-ML, staged a Dharna in front of the DSP’s office, urging him to arrest the perpetrators of the crime. After this incident, the Jats have made announcements through the Gurudwara loudspeaker, warning Dalits not to venture in their fields. “Their aim is to annex our lands; we are not against Dalits but they should not become a puppet in somebody else’s hands,” says sarpanch Harbans Singh, who is spearheading the agitation against the Dalits.

Similar armed rallies have been taken out elsewhere too. In October, Landlords took out a procession, carrying their licensed arms, under the banner of their newly-formed organization, Kisan Mazdoor Vyapari union. “The government is scared of Dalits. We will have to deal with them ourselves,” the leaders of the union are believed to have declared.

In Raipur village, in August, landlords came out in huge numbers after labour activists tried to lay siege over a piece of land which, they allege, had been illegally acquired by a landlord. In a meeting, the upper caste sarpanch appealed to other landlords to take out their weapons and come out in the form of a rally on August 28.
The labour activists staged a dharna outside the DC’s office in Mansa, demanding that the administration take action against the landlords. Finally, a day before the rally, the administration seized all the licensed weapons, thus nullifying the rally. “They are trying to create a Ranvir Sena in Punjab,” says Sukhdarshan Singh Natt, a veteran leftist (In red turban).

“A line has been created between the bigger farmers and the labourers after the Bant Singh attack,” says farmer leader, Raldu Singh. “It is not a caste war; it is the rich versus the poor,” he adds. But it remains a fact that almost all big farmers in Punjab are upper castes and all the local labourers are Dalits; most of them landless. Punjab has the highest number of Dalits in the country – almost one-third of the total population. So ultimately everything boils down to caste.
Nobody can swear this more than Bant Singh himself. “Being a lower caste, they expected me to keep to myself. But I would raise my voice everytime they committed any wrong. I got their ration depot cancelled and I was not even dependent on them since I raised pigs for a living instead of working in their fields. They did this to me in order to send a message. But it has boomeranged,” says Bant Singh, as he is being carried back to the hospital, from the court.

After the arrest of the accused in the Bant Singh case, landlords in a number of villages decided to boycott Dalit labourers. They were barred from working in the fields and were even prohibited from entering them. Most of these labourers have no access to toilets and thus depend on the fields for relieving themselves. It was only after the adminstration’s intervention that the boycott was called off.
“But it still continues in some villages; our men in villages are getting threats that they will be finished off,” says Kamaljeet Singh, a former Robotics engineer, who is now a CPI-ML full-timer (standing behind in maroon jacket with his fellow comrades).

After this boycott, a large number of labourers got mobilised. “When we gave a call for a meeting, we were surprised to see them turning out in huge numbers. We were not expecting this,” says Natt. “The credit for this goes to the sacrifice of Bant Singh,” he adds.

In Bhurj-Jabber, all eyes are now set upon the court judgement. “In his latest statement, Bant Singh has even named sarpanch Jaswant Singh as an accused. His two sons are already under arrest. The Jats will revolt against this injustice,” says a farmer.

Meanwhile, in the hospital, Bant Singh’s second daughter wipes the sweat on her father’s forehead. Since the incident, she has been away from her home, at her aunt’s house. “I am scared to go back, but I miss my home,” she says, with a faint smile on her lips. Considering what the court judgement may be and the consequences thereafter, her home-coming seems unlikely as of now.

(An edited version of this story first appeared in The Sunday Indian).

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