The paper examines the caste politics of Punjab in various dimensions. To begin with, the caste demography of Punjab has been studied in order to understand the diverse castes and sub-castes along with their behavior shown during voting for the political parties. Over the years, Punjab has seen active political participation from several parties, such as the Shiromani Akali Dal, Indian National Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Aam Aadmi Party. All these parties have shown interest in winning the support of the religious communities living there by even bringing their own leaders forward who belong to those communities in order to build an amicable image of the party. Seeing a political leader from one’s own community did actually succeed, but not for very long, and this was best illustrated by the example of Charanjit Singh Channi. The paper attempts to examine the reasons for caste involvement in politics and how it plays a role in enhancing the political power of the parties while drawing upon the previous election data to understand the pattern.
History of Caste in Punjab: An Introduction
The religion of Sikhism is casteless. The anti-caste message of Sikhism was utilized by Sikh reformers in the late nineteenth century to distinguish Sikhism from Hinduism, in addition to the fact that the Sikh Gurus were unquestionably strong and effective critics of caste. As far as the traditional education system of India goes, it was a strong and well-built structure, and the cultural and moral values were intact. However, it was only when Lord Macaulay, a British colonial administrator and politician, emphasized how the backbone of India could be molded in order to conquer a nation that has such a strong foundation, comprising the caliber and integrity of the people. This was a decision taken to systematically dismantle the unity, heritage, culture, and education system of India. Therefore, the ancient education system was gradually replaced while Lord Macaulay ensured that Indians believed in the superiority of English as a language and the Western education system by demeaning their own. As a result, eventually, western ideologies took over the Indian mentality, and the strong cultural values were replaced by the British culture and education system, leaving an impact on how Indians perceived their own culture.
The Bhakti Movement, Sufism, the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, and the Sikh movement for human equality have all had a significant impact in Punjab, making the caste system less strong there, although it is still a part of the province’s social hierarchy. The community of cultivators in Punjab defeated feudal lords during the Sikh movement while securing the top position of the social hierarchy and becoming the largest landowning caste in the state. It altered Punjab’s entire societal structure. Moving forward, India has witnessed a significant dominance of the caste system, which is deeply rooted in the culture. Several states have witnessed casteism and its interference with politics, and Punjab is one of the more visible states. There are three significant regions of Punjab to focus on – Majha, Malwa, and Doaba—that are carved by the three of these rivers. They seem to reflect their own different social, economic, and political identities. Malwa was at the top during the farmers’ protest against the farm laws that were, however, later repealed. It is a region also known as the Zamindari Belt, and several rich farmers and landholders reside here. However, the place has also reported quite a lot of farmers’ suicides. Even politically, the region is very dominant. 83 percent of the state’s chief ministers were elected from this region post-1966. In the past, several political parties have entered. In 2017, Arvind Kejriwal’s party- Aam Aadmi Party, managed to secure 18 seats, which was applauded given that it did not show a satisfactory performance in Majha and Doaba. Similarly, several other parties also entered state politics. Majha is known as the Sikh ‘panthic’ or religious belt and also comprises a very religious population. This factor makes it important for matters pertaining to elections in the state. Doaba, the third region, is often the center of politics in the Dalit community. It is also referred to as the NRI Belt of Punjab.
The caste system was not prevalent from the beginning; in fact, the system has been condemned by the Sikh community in Guru Granth Sahib Ji. People who were a part of this community would regard each other with equality and be judged on the basis of their deeds. Hence, there was no place for division on the basis of high and low birth. More importance was given to the good conduct of a human being with no ego. Additionally, they also did not believe in the caste demarcation of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, or Shudras or the fact that one was superior to the other. Eventually, the topic of caste became taboo in the community; however, today it does exist as a serious issue in rural Punjab and also seems to be a significant factor in its intersection with the politics of the state.
In 2009, Buta Singh, the chairperson of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes, emphasized how Dalit atrocities were rising across the nation despite constant monitoring. The spotlight was on Punjab, as it was predicted to be in the fifth position in the entire country. Scheduled castes have been particularly targeted in Punjab. The beginning of the caste system in Punjab can be traced back to when the Jats increased in numbers and eventually were viewed as a major part of the Sikh community. The increase in population as well as landholdings removed the low status and image while also strengthening the community. The Jats make up around 20-25 percent of the total population of the state, enjoying the status of the single-largest community. It was during the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, that the Jats were able to secure a powerful position in contrast with their former status. Additionally, land ownership enhanced their standing within Sikhism.
The Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900 was a contributing factor to the Jats’ agricultural caste position by prohibiting all the non-agricultural castes, such as Tarkhans and the scheduled castes, from accessing any land holdings. Several other factors, such as factionalism, economic developments, party competitions, and widening social inequalities, created a political divide within the Jat community. The upper castes among the Sikhs had very little role to play in politics over a period of time. These were the Alhuwaliyas, Khatris, Aroras, and Chuhars, to name a few. With promises of assuring due representation and other necessary benefits, the political parties have also formed alliances and coalitions based on caste. This way, political parties make an effort to secure the position of communities. Dalits also constitute a significant part of the population, posing a challenge to the strength of the Jats when it comes to the political arena. The Sikh community, on the other hand, also often engages in conflicts such as caste and its intersection with politics.
Traditionally, the community does not endorse the caste system, but in contrast to their belief, there are caste divisions within the community that serve as the cause of several identity conflicts. The caste politics, however, even differ across the different regions of Punjab, as the Malwa region has different political dynamics compared to the Doaba or Majha regions. Caste may have been a prominent factor in politics, but there has been a shift of focus to other factors such as economic development, drug abuse, the political divide, etc. that have played a role in the changing electoral politics, and they continue to influence the alliances and the strategies. Political parties such as the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party are staunch representatives of the Jat Sikhs and the Dalits, respectively, prioritizing issues pertaining to their communities in order to secure their long-term position in electoral politics as they cater to the two biggest groups in the state.
Punjab Alienation Act, 1900
After being passed in 1900, the act was brought into effect in 1901 by the British Raj in order to limit the transfer of land ownership in Punjab. Within the act, they created a category called the ‘agricultural tribes’ category. In order to buy or sell land in Punjab, it was necessary to be a member of this category. The act, however, faced a backlash. During the 1899 Lucknow Session, the act was also opposed by the Indian National Congress. The main objective of this act was to prevent the land from being taken away from the traditional landowners, as the moneylenders would often acquire it. As a consequence, moneylenders, shopkeepers, and professionals turned against the government and this act. It can be said that the act was heavily influenced by the system during the colonial period when only the urban moneylenders had the right to own land. The act classified two main categories- ‘agriculturist’ and ‘non-agriculturist’ and then they limited the transfer of land among the two categories. This was a measure widely opposed, as the original ownership of the land no longer held any value.
Punjab was an agriculturally rich state, and the field held great importance to its people in terms of investing capital and earning their livelihood. The majority of the state was involved in agricultural activities, and therefore, one of the motives of this act was defined as the effort to protect the agricultural character of the region while also preventing any kind of economic exploitation. Whoever belonged to the non-agriculturist group was not allowed to purchase the land without the local government’s permission. In a nutshell, provisions of this act made it difficult for the non-agriculturists who resided in the urban areas. However, for the Jat Sikhs, the position of their community strengthened as they majorly dominated the agriculture sector. The reason, however, was that the act was severely criticized because of how it limited opportunities for non-agriculturists.
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