Caste and Untouchability in Rural Punjab
Despite having the largest proportion of scheduled caste population in India, Punjab has rarely been seen as a relevant case for conceptualisation of the caste system and the changes taking place therein. Though some aspects of caste in Punjab have been studied, there has virtually been no detailed empirical documentation of the practice of untouchability in rural Punjab. Based on an extensive field-study, this paper provides a broad mapping of the prevailing caste relations and the practice of untouchability in rural Punjab. The study focuses specifically on the process of change, particularly in the context of agrarian transformations that the Punjab countryside has experienced in the wake of the success of green revolution technology. The paper also argues that the processes of change could be meaningfully captured through the categories of ‘dissociation’, ‘distancing’ and ‘autonomy’.
Surinder S Jodhka
Along with ‘village communities’ and ‘joint family’, ‘caste’ has often been viewed as a defining feature of ‘traditional social order’ of India. Though it was only in the Hindu religious philosophy that the practice of caste was formally justified, social relations, as the popular sociological understanding of Indian society goes, were organised hierarchically almost everywhere in the subcontinent.1 The Christians, the Muslims and the Sikhs all practised caste even when their religions decried it.2 This was believed to be the case particularly in rural India where caste differentiation was seen to be required for the working of the agrarian economy3 and for the social integration of the village community.4 Even conversions of ex-untouchables to another faith did not make any difference to the material relations of production or the social structure of jajmani system.
Caste and untouchability have also been much-studied subjects in the Indian social sciences. Social anthropologists and sociologists have in particular been preoccupied with understanding its various aspects and theorising its origin/essence. However, though caste has remained a popular subject, the paradigm within which it is studied has undergone many significant changes over the years. Against the social anthropological common sense that saw it as a feature of the traditional social structure of India and expected it to decline with progress of the modernisation process, more recent studies of caste look at it as a dynamic force, which, though weakened over the last five decades of developmental experience in certain respects, has grown stronger in some others. Caste has, in some crucial senses seen a ‘revival’.5 Though not everyone agrees on the possible social and political implications of its revival, caste, and the issues related to it are certainly recognised as persistent and important today by almost everyone. The forms of its manifestation have indeed changed. Today caste is talked more in terms of politics and lesser as an aspect of social and cultural life of the Indian people.
Perhaps the two most important things that have happened over the last century are (a) a legal de-recognition of the practice and (b) a near complete change in the consciousness of those at the receiving end of the hierarchical system. Dalits have almost everywhere become much more assertive about their human and political rights [Mendelsohn and Vicziany 1998:1]. Whatever might have been the case in the past, there would be very few among the ex-untouchables today who would regard themselves as impure or justify their low status on grounds of their misconduct in some previous life, a ‘fact of nature’ [Charsley and Karanth 1998]. Today they ‘all aspire to more comfortable material circumstances; all demand more dignity’ [Deliege 1999:1999]. This however has not necessarily resulted in an alleviation of their social conditions. Some scholars have argued that while ideologically caste has considerably weakened and the older forms of untouchability are receding, atrocities committed on dalits by the local dominant castes have in fact increased [Beteille 2000a; Shah 2001].
Caste and the Regional Context
The dominant trend in much of the literature on caste has been to look at it in unitary terms, a system present everywhere in India and, more or less, in similar forms. Not much attention has been paid to the historical specificities and material conditions of the different regional contexts. The mainstream theories of caste, for example, have almost unanimously worked with a varna model of hierarchy, which places brahmins at the top and untouchables at the bottom.6
However, a considerable amount of regional variations exists in the manner in which social relations among different groups of castes have historically evolved. As is widely known, there are different sets of caste groups in different regions and ‘the preoccupation with purity and pollution was not equally marked in every part of the country’ [Beteille 2000b:172]. The specific historical trajectory, the patterns of politico-economic changes experienced during the post-independence period and the composition of different ethnic communities determine the actual working of caste relations in a given region.
Even if regional variations were recognised, not every region/sub-region has been empirically studied in similar details. Much of the literature on caste and untouchability has, for example, come from western and southern India or in the north, from the Uttar Pradesh. On the other end, despite it having the largest proportion of scheduled caste population in the Indian federation, Punjab has not been very widely studied for understanding caste. While we have some literature available on the nature of changes experienced in caste relations in Punjab over the last four or five decades, or on the dalit social movements,7 the Punjab experience has so far not been seen to be of any relevance for conceptualisation of the caste system and changes taking place therein. There has virtually been no detailed empirical documentation of the practice of untouchability in rural Punjab.
Based on an extensive field-study of 51 villages selected from the three sub-regions of Punjab and interviews with 683 individual respondents, this paper provides a broad mapping of the prevailing caste relations and the practice of untouchability in rural Punjab.8 Given that the field-study was completed in 2001, its focus is more on the current state of affairs, namely, the process of change, particularly in the context of agrarian transformations that the Punjab countryside has experienced in the wake of the success of green revolution technology.
Caste in Punjab: A Historical Overview9
Though anthropologists have never viewed Punjab as a useful ‘representative case’ for understanding the ‘essence’ of caste, the caste question in Punjab has some very interesting features.
As mentioned above, of all Indian states, Punjab has the highest proportion of scheduled caste population. The proportion of scheduled castes in the total population of the state was 28.3 per cent in 1991, much higher than the all-India average of around 16 per cent.10 Given that the scheduled caste population is growing at a rate higher than the rest, their population is likely to have touched the 30 per cent mark by now (the 2001 Census figures on the subject are not yet available). Being relatively less urbanised than the other caste groups, their proportions are obviously higher in the rural areas of the state. There would be many villages in Punjab where the population of scheduled castes would exceed 50 per cent.
The scheduled castes of Punjab are made-up of 37 different communities. However, a large majority of them belong to two castes, traditionally known as ‘chamars’ and ‘chuhras’. Though they are currently registered under diverse names (such as Ad Dharmis and Ramdasis in case of chamars and mazhabis, balmikis in case of chuhras), together they make up for around three-fourths of the entire dalit population of the state. The smaller groups among them have been relatively less mobilised and more disadvantaged. It was with the intention of targeting development schemes for such groups that the Punjab government has recently identified 13 communities as ‘depressed scheduled castes’. Together they account for only 11 per cent of the total scheduled caste population. Among these 13 castes, seven are the ‘de-notified tribes’ or the ‘vimukat jatis’. Since they followed a nomadic way of life, the colonial administration had branded them as ‘vagrant and criminal tribes’. After independence, they were initially called ‘ex-criminal tribes’ but later they were designated as the ‘de-notified tribes’ [Jodhka 2000; Kumar and Kumar 1996].
Punjab is also one of the few states of India where the Hindus, who constitute more than 80 per cent of India’s total population, are in a minority. As per the 1991 Census, Hindus constituted only around 35 per cent of the total population of Punjab. The Sikhs were around 63 per cent and the rest were Muslims and Christians. Another important aspect of the demographic composition of religious communities in the Punjab is their uneven rural-urban distribution. Despite being in a minority at the state level, the Hindus overwhelmingly dominate urban Punjab while the Sikhs are concentrated more in rural areas, where in some districts they make up to nearly 90 per cent of the total rural population.
More interestingly, despite being non-Hindus, the ‘low caste’ Sikhs have the distinction of being included in the list of the scheduled castes, a status that was not granted to their counterparts in other minority communities, namely, the Muslims and Christians. Even neo-Buddhist converts had been included in the list only from 1991. In his classic study of untouchability, I P Desai had pointed out that dalit conversions to Islam or Christianity did not make any difference to their status at the local level because the dominant upper-caste Hindus continued to treat them as before [Desai 1976]. In the case of Punjab, however, not only a section of dalits follow Sikhism but a large majority of the dominant groups in the village are also Sikhs for whom the practice of caste has no religious justification.
Not only does Sikhism not legitimise the practice of untouchability, its proponents claim that one of its fundamental missions has been to build a caste free society. However, the Sikh movement’s opposition to the prevailing brahmanical world-view was primarily ideological. The material base of caste system, the prevailing structures of agrarian relations in a rural society where caste divisions had become important functional prerequisites for the working of the agrarian economy, remained relatively unaltered.
Socially and economically also Punjab has been a dynamic region. The success of green revolution technology during the 1960s and 1970s made it economically the most advanced state of the Indian union. The region has also been witness to many social movements, including some against untouchability. Beginning with the Sikh gurus who preached against the practice of caste, the state has witnessed several reformist and radical mobilisations. Apart from the reformist movements of the Hindus and the Sikhs during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, colonial Punjab also saw some autonomous mobilisations by dalits. The famous ‘Ad Dharam’ movement initiated by Mangoo Ram during the 1920s successfully mobilised a large majority of chamars of the Doaba region and played an important role in transforming their social status and identity [Juergensmeyer 1988].
Available literature on the subject also tends to suggest a somewhat lesser hold of caste on the social relationships of the region. Perhaps the most important feature of caste in Punjab is the considerably weak position of brahmins and a near complete lack of brhmanical literary tradition in Punjab. The traditional education in Punjab was imparted mostly by Muslim mullahs in the mosques or by Sikh ‘granthis’ in the gurudwaras [Tandon 1966]. The leading religious traditions of the region have been Islam and Sikhism.11 Historically the problem of untouchability has consequently been less severe here. This is also reflected in some of the available literature on the region.
Reporting on the problems of ‘low castes’ in the province, one of the colonial administrators viewed it more in terms of politico-economic disabilities rather than in terms of their being ‘untouchables’, as was the case with the rest of India. A colonial government report of the 1920s observed:
It would be misleading to attach too great importance to the existence of caste in the Punjab…Not only is it the case that the brahmin has no practical pre-eminence among Hindus, but as between ‘caste’ and ‘non-caste’ Hindus the distinction is not so strongly marked as to create the political problem found elsewhere in India.12
Some of the western observers went to the extent of saying that the Punjab was a ‘notable exception’ to the caste system in India [O’Malley in Nayar 1966:20].
Some anthropologists have also made similar claims and have argued that caste inequalities in the region were much lesser than elsewhere in India [Saberwal 1976; Pettigrew 1975]. However, the elements of purity and impurity have not been found to be completely missing in rural Punjab [Hershman 1981; H Singh 1977].
Some studies have also pointed to the important changes experienced in attitudes towards caste during the last century with the rise of the Sikh identity movement. The insistence of Sikh reformers on distancing the ‘community’ from Hinduism also meant a formal de-recognition and campaign against caste by the new Sikh institutions, such as the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC). These mobilisations also had some impact at the ground level where, for example, legal recognition to weddings through Sikh rituals (Anand Karaj), made the village brahmin priest redundant. Unlike the brahmins, Sikh priests could be from any caste [I P Singh 1975].
Although untouchability has apparently been less of a problem in Punjab, the scheduled caste population of the region has been comparatively more vulnerable in the economic structure of the village. Their ownership of agricultural land is among the lowest in the country.13
Untouchability in Rural Punjab
Perhaps the most important fact about caste has been its emphasis on social segregation and ritual purity/pollution. There were minute rules with regard to what sorts of food or drink could be accepted by a person and from what castes. Segregation of individual castes or groups of castes in the village was the most obvious mark of civic privileges and disabilities. There were also restrictions on the kind of work an individual could do. Each caste was expected to consider a particular occupation as its legitimate calling. The prevailing ideology of caste discouraged individual choice of occupation, even employing coercion, if required, as a means to keep the system of occupational hierarchy going.
Though some may argue that ‘untouchability was still thoroughly alive today’ [Diliege 1999:3], over the last century or so the system of caste hierarchy, its forms and manifestations, have indeed undergone considerable change. In his classic study on the subject in the 1970s in Gujarat, I P Desai had observed that with the process of modernisation and development even in rural areas a new ‘public sphere’ of social interaction had emerged where the practice of untouchability was quite low. The norm of caste and untouchability had begun to be violated in the economic or occupational sphere as well. This included seating arrangements in schools, travelling in buses and the postal services. However, when it came to traditional relations that included the domestic and religious life of the people, untouchability was highly practised [Desai 1976].
Nearly 25 years later, when Ghanshyam Shah visited the villages of Gujarat again with a similar set of questions, he found that with the exception of admission of ‘untouchables’ into temples and houses of the upper castes as well as access to barbers’ services, the practice had significantly declined in most areas of everyday life. However, it was only in the ‘public sphere’ that untouchability had considerably declined. It continued to be practised, albeit with lesser intensity, in other spheres of life. These included access to a common source of water (20 per cent), entry to shops (20 per cent), working together with upper caste workers on the farm (25 per cent) and seating arrangements in the panchayats (26 per cent) [Shah 2000].
Extending the classification used by Desai and Shah, the field data being presented here is divided into three sub-categories. The first section presents case studies and perceptions relating to the practice of untouchability/discrimination in, what can loosely be called, the ‘private sphere’ and the sphere of those relations that were traditionally governed by the framework of ‘jajmani’ relations. The second section focuses on untouchability in everyday social and economic life in rural Punjab. These include those spheres of relations that were not necessarily governed by the caste system but were influenced by the values of untouchability. The third category relates to modern institutions, which have traditionally not been part of the rural life and are, at least in principle, ‘caste-free’.
Social Ecology of the Village
As per the traditional norms governing life in rural Punjab, dalit settlements were to be located on the side where the sun sets (‘lahindey passe’, as it is called in Punjabi). This norm has perhaps never been very strictly followed here. There were several villages where dalit houses have traditionally not been located on the west. However, in a majority of the villages, dalit houses were indeed constructed on the outskirts of the main village settlement.
More important are perhaps the changes experienced in the housing patterns over the last two or three decades. The growing population and a continual expansion of residential areas have, to some extent, diluted the old settlement structure of the village. As the newly prosperous upper castes make newer and bigger houses on the peripheries of the village, dalit settlements do not remain as isolated as before. In fact, all categories of villagers have constructed new houses on the peripheries.
There were also some interesting cases where upwardly mobile dalits had purchased houses in upper caste localities from those who had left the village for towns or had immigrated to the west. This has happened particularly in the Doaba region. Of the 51 villages studied as many as four villages had some manner of ‘mixed housing’ (three in Doaba and one in Malwa region). Interestingly, there was little resistance from the neighbouring upper caste residents to dalits buying houses in their localities.
Providing housing to the dalits has been an important component of developmental schemes meant for the upliftment of dalits. A good number of villages in Punjab have such schemes working, under which residential quarters were built for dalits. These schemes are obviously welcomed by dalits simply for the reason that many of them find it very difficult to build houses on their own. However, most of these housing schemes are located at a distance from the village. Since the houses under this scheme are allotted exclusively to dalits, it reinforced their segregation from the main village. Being located at a distance from the village, these settlements also lacked in certain amenities that were accessible to those living within the village. Some did not even have working electricity connections. Or, in some cases where such amenities had been provided, the back-up service was quite unsatisfactory.
The housing structure directly influenced the daily life of different communities in the village. Segregated settlements imposed restrictions on social interactions. For example, in such villages dalit and upper caste children played separately. However, it was not so everywhere. As per our overall assessment, of the 51 villages studied, such restrictions were ‘strictly’ observed in 15 villages. In another eight villages such restrictions were observed to ‘a lesser degree’. In rest of the villages, dalit and upper caste children often played together.
Involvement of dalits with ‘unclean occupations’ has often been viewed as the primary reason for the practice of untouchability. Dealing with dead cattle, scavenging and other occupations that were considered polluting in the Hindu culture were left to be done by the dalits. Though not all dalits would have ever been employed in the ‘callings’ of their castes, every caste group was identified with a specific ‘polluting occupation’. Many radical changes have taken place with regard to the involvement of dalits with such occupations.
First of all, large majorities of dalits have consciously dissociated themselves from their traditional occupations. Only a small number of them (from less than 5 to a maximum of 10 per cent) would still be involved in such occupations. There are also castewise variations. The chamars (including Ad Dharmis and Ramdasis) have almost completely moved away from their traditional occupation of dealing with dead cattle. They have even begun to distance themselves from agriculture and seek such employment that would not involve any relation with the locally dominant caste.
Who then does the work that was traditionally done by the dalits, viz, scavenging or picking-up the dead cattle?
Interestingly, some of these occupations are no longer identified with any specific caste group in rural Punjab. For example, picking up of dead cattle has become a completely commercialised enterprise. The village panchayat generally gives the work on contract to an individual contractor, who could even be from another villages or a nearby town. They would typically employ a few workers (not necessarily local dalits) who work on the dead cattle in the village carcass. Birds and dogs eat up much of the meat. The skin and the bones have a lucrative market. Most of those involved in this ‘business’ are quite well off and are often seen with envy even by the upper castes.
There has also been some degree of commercialisation of other dalit or ‘jajmani’ occupations. Barbers, carpenters, blacksmiths, all now have shops. Along with commercialisation, a process of ‘dissociation of caste and occupation’ is also underway. There are many among dalits who work as barbers. They, however, do not work the way barbers use to in the traditional structure of jajmani relations. Most of them have set-up small outlets, often near the village bus stop. Some dalits have also taken-up the job of carpenters, particularly in villages where the traditional carpenters have left for the towns.
The only ‘unclean occupations’ where a degree of continuity exists is that of scavenging. Though a large majority of those involved with scavenging work are the balmikis and mazhabis (earlier known as chuhras), the castes with which it was traditionally identified, only a few families from these castes actually worked as scavengers.
Even in scavenging, the traditional structure of jajmani relations has almost completely changed. The cleaning of drains and toilets or sweeping of the houses is mostly done on commercial basis. In most villages a scavenger is employed for an individual street. Each household in the street pays a fixed sum to the scavenger on a monthly basis (the current going rate was Rs 10 per household). Interestingly, in some cases, rather than in their own village the scavengers preferred working in the neighbouring village. This was obviously done to avoid any element of familiarity and patronage of the traditional variety being invoked by the households they served.
A large majority of dalits in Punjab have traditionally been employed in agriculture, mostly as labourers. Some of them also worked on a long-term basis with the landowning jats. Though the traditional variety of attached labour, such as ‘sajhis’ and ‘siris’ have given way to more formalised relations, working on long-term basis with farmers still leads to relations of dependency and unfreedom. dalits obviously did not like getting into such arrangements. In the Doaba region where dalit mobility has been more pronounced than elsewhere in the state, very few of them worked as attached labourers. Of the 13 villages studied from Doaba, none of the dalits worked as attached labourer in as many as eight villages. However, Malwa still had many who were working as attached labourers. Of the 26 villages studied, 21 had dalits working as attached labourers (ranging from 5 to 50 in each village).
However, on the whole the process of occupational diversification was quite pronounced everywhere. Wherever they could afford to do so, dalits had stopped working regularly on land under the dominant caste farmers. In the villages of Doaba, for example, we were frequently told that much of the labour work is done by migrants and that the local dalits did not want to work on land. They only performed seasonal labour and rest of the year preferred going to work in the town or bringing work home. The most popular work that dalits of Doaba did while living in the village was rope-making. These ropes were woven for the urban markets and were sold through a middleman who also supplied them with the raw materials required for the ropes.
Entry into Upper Castes Houses
As mentioned above restrictions on dalit’s entry into the upper caste houses has been one of the most strictly observed practices in most parts of rural India. Such restrictions are hardly in existence in rural Punjab today. Only 4 per cent of the dalit respondents and 1 per cent of the upper caste respondents felt that untouchability was observed with regard to dalits entering into houses of the upper castes. As shown in Table 1 a large majority of respondents across caste groups felt that such restrictions were not practised any longer. Table 1: Perceptions on Dalits’ Entry into the Houses of Upper Castes
Categories Untouchability not practised Practised Not Overtly Total
Schedule castes 426 (87.5) 4 (0.8) 57 (11.7) 487 (100)
Backward castes 91 (96.8) 2 (2.1) 1 (1.0) 94 (100)
Upper castes 98 (96.2) 1 (1.0) 3 (2.9) 102 (100)
Total 615 (90.04) 7 (1.02) 58 (8.49) 683 (100)
Apart from some other factors or processes, this has happened because of the significant changes experienced in the life-style of rich farmers of Punjab during the last three decades. Green revolution brought prosperity and provided them with extra income. Though most of the rich farmers of Punjab continue to live in the village, they have all the modern amenities of urban living available in their homes. Their children go to study in the towns and women desire the luxuries of urban living. Many of these households have begun to employ dalit women to help with the domestic chores. At least 10 to 12 dalit women in almost every village of Punjab were regularly employed for domestic help.
They do various kinds of domestic work such as sweeping and swabbing, washing of clothes, and in some cases, even washing the kitchen utensils. As is the case with such employment in towns, dalit women would work in a couple of houses and are typically paid a fixed sum by each household, ranging from Rs 100 to Rs 300 per month, along with some occasional ‘gifts’.
Though the upper caste farmers or their women no longer minded dalit women entering their houses or even the kitchen, only some dalit women are considered fit for such jobs. For example, those who work in the cattle-shed would rarely be considered ‘suitable’ for domestic chores. Only those who keep themselves ‘clean’ are employed for the domestic work. Similarly, in some households, while they were asked to sweep and swab the house and clean the toilets, the upper caste women did not let them enter the kitchen. There were also a few cases where the utensils for serving food to them were kept apart from the utensils used for the upper caste family.
Untouchability and Drinking Water Sources
The source of drinking water has been another area where the upper castes used to be very touchy. Traditionally dalits and upper castes had different sources of drinking water. While all the upper castes (including the backward castes) could take water from the village wells, dalits could never do so. They had to depend exclusively on their own wells.
Much has changed with regard to the access to drinking water. Wells are no longer the primary source of drinking water anywhere in rural Punjab. While in some villages taps have been installed under government-funded programmes, at others hand pumps have replaced wells. This change seems to have completely transformed the attitude of the rural population towards drinking water as a potential arena of caste prejudice. Though the sources of drinking water were as such separate for dalits and the upper castes, there were much lesser restrictions on the access of dalits to the taps and hand pumps used or owned by upper castes. For example, while more than 60 per cent of the total respondents stated that the two categories of castes still had separate sources of drinking water, nearly 84 per cent of the respondents agreed that there was no prohibition on dalits taking water from the sources used by the upper castes (83.2 per cent of dalit and 89 per cent of the backward castes respondents stated so).
However, it may be useful to add here that though dalits could and did access water from the upper caste sources quite regularly, the frequency of upper castes taking water from the sources used by dalits was much lesser, though not completely absent. Only 48 per cent of the respondents agreed that such a practice could be observed in their village.
Dalits and Religious Places
Practice of untouchability has perhaps been most pronounced in the religious sphere. Brahmanical Hinduism imposed restrictions on dalits participation in religious life. They were denied access to the classical religious traditions and scriptures. They could not even learn to read and write. Similarly, they were prohibited from entering the Hindu temples.
Rural Punjab obviously does not fit into this framework. Followers of Sikhism constitute nearly 80 to 90 per cent of the rural population of Punjab. Even among those who are registered as Hindus in the census enumeration, many practise Sikh rituals and visit Sikh gurudwaras. For example the Ad Dharmis of the Doaba region are mostly enumerated as Hindus while in practice they worship the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, partly because it contains the writings of Guru Ravidas, who was a chamar by birth.
Ad Dharam was an anti-caste movement of the chamar dalits of the Doaba region launched during the 1920s and 1930s. The colonial rulers had conceded to their demand for being recognised as a separate religious community[Juergensmeyer 1988]. However after independence, they were included in the list of Hindu scheduled castes and began to be enumerated as such. Though most of them continue to enumerate themselves as Hindus, in practice, they, over the years, have moved closer to Sikhism. Apart from worshiping Guru Granth, the Sikh holy book, they have also begun to follow the Sikh rituals, such as getting married through an Anand Karaj. The primary reason for their attraction towards Sikhism is its explicit anti-caste message.
Similarly, a large number of chuhras (who are called mazhabis) and chamars from other parts of Punjab (who are called ramdasis) converted to the Sikh faith in order to distance themselves from brahmanical Hinduism. Sikhism seems to have worked as an important alternative source of religious symbols for the dalits of Punjab.
Further, it may be relevant to add here that a good number of the religious functionaries of gurudwaras who take care of the holy book (called the ‘granthis’) come from dalit caste groups. Some of them have also risen to positions of power and influence and have become the head granthis and jathedars at the Golden Temple and Akal Takhat, two of the most important seats of the Sikh religion.
However, though at the level of religious principle Sikhism has been anti-caste and has had attraction for the dalits of Punjab, caste prejudices have not been completely absent among the Sikhs. This has been so particularly among the dominant castes of landowning Sikhs of rural Punjab. While in most gurudwaras in Punjab there are no restrictions on dalits entering the local shrines, there are several cases where dalits felt that they are discriminated against by those who control gurudwaras.
As shown in Table 2 nearly 80 per cent of all the respondents felt that there were no restrictions on dalits entering the religious places built and run by the upper castes in rural Punjab. However, there were some interesting castewise variations in their response to the question. While 89 per cent of the upper caste respondents claimed that dalits could enter the upper caste gurudwaras, comparatively lesser number of dalit respondents (76 per cent) felt so.
Table 2: Perceptions on Dalits’ Entry into Upper Castes Gurudwaras
Categories No Practice of Untouchability Practised Some Practice Not Overtly Total
Schedule castes 370 (76.0) 19 (3.9) 81 (16.7) 17 (3.5) 487 (100)
Backward castes 78 (83.0) 3 (3.2) 7 (7.4) 6 (6.4) 94 (100)
Upper castes 91 (89.2) 1 (1.0) 8 (7.9) 2 (2.0) 102 (100)
Total 539 (683) 23 (3.37) 96 (14.06) 25 (3.66) 683 (100)
Detailed discussions with individual dalits and group interviews in different villages revealed that though dalits were never really stopped from entering gurudwaras built and managed by the local upper castes, there were several cases where dalits reported to have been discriminated against and felt that they were not treated at par with their counterparts from the upper castes.
During a group discussion with dalits in a village of Firozepur district we were told that the upper caste Sikhs did not really appreciate their participation in the daily activities of the local gurudwara. The dalits felt that through subtle and not so subtle messages, they were told to stay away. Their children were asked to come for the ‘langar’ (food served in the gurudwaras) after everyone else had finished eating. In another village in Mukatsar district dalits reported that they are often asked to sit in separate queues for the langar. While the gurudwara management formally invites all the others, dalits were not even informed about the special programmes and festivities. A frequent complaint was related to their not being allowed to participate in the cooking and serving of the langar.
In another village of the same district, the mazhabis and meghs (the local dalit castes) reported that they were often told to sit outside the main door of the gurudwara and were served langar only after the upper caste jats had finished eating. The dalits in the village had for that reason stopped going to the local gurudwara. Even on special occasions, such as religious festivals, they preferred to stay at home and have their private celebrations. In another case, a few dalit women reported that the upper caste boys often treated them differently while serving langar. They, for instance, avoided touching their plates while serving them food.
Dalits have worked out their own ways and strategies of resisting this kind of discrimination. The most popular strategy of resistance has been to construct separate places of worship for themselves. In most villages, dalits have built their own gurudwaras. As revealed in Table 3, of the 51 villages studied, dalits had separate gurudwaras in as many as 41 villages. In fact there were some villages where they had more than one gurudwara.
Table 3: Regionwise Number of Villages with Separate Dalit Gurudwaras
Region None One Two Total
Majha 1 11 – 12
Doaba 3 9 1 13
Malwa 6 17 2 26
Total 10 37 3 51
In most cases dalits built separate gurudwaras to assert their autonomy and avoid the humiliation they felt in the gurudwaras run by the local upper castes. In a village of Gurdaspur district, for example, the mazhabis are devout Sikhs. They regularly visited the village gurudwara. But they could never sit along with the upper caste jats. Rarely would they be encouraged to distribute langar or ‘prasad’. As soon as they could mobilise resources, they built their own gurudwara.
Similarly, a dalit of a village near Phagwara in Kapurthala district told us:
There used to be only one gurudwara in the village. The local jats always thought that it was their gurudwara because they were the ones who had financed its building. We used to visit the gurudwara but they never liked it. They would not let us cook langar. So when we could mobilise some resources, we decided to build our own gurudwara in our own basti.
In another village of Nawanshahir district, dalits felt offended and insulted when some members of the dominant castes in the village gurudwara stopped their women from cooking langar. Their first response was to completely stop going to the gurudwara. Gradually they mobilised money and built a separate gurudwara of their own.
Construction of separate gurudwaras by dalits have, however, never been met with any resistance either from the dominant castes in the village or from the religious establishment of the Sikh community. Apart from the Sikh holy book, the dalit gurudwaras, particularly of the Ad Dharmis and other categories of chamars, would invariably also have a picture of Guru Ravidas. In one of the villages of Doaba, along with the picture of Guru Ravidas, the local Ad Dharmi Gurudwara even had a picture of Sant Balmiki. The local Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) activists thought that keeping Sant Balmiki’s picture would help in forging solidarity with the other major dalit caste in the village, the balmikis or chuhras. As per Hindu mythology, Sant Balmiki too belonged to the same caste community.
However, though the upper castes did not mind dalits constructing their own gurudwaras, some dalits reported that the jats and other upper caste Sikhs did not show for their gurudwaras the kind of reverence they showed for their own. For example, even when the dalit gurudwara was closer, the jats would prefer visiting their own gurudwara. Or when an upper caste family in the village needed to bring the Sikh holy book home for some special occasion, rarely would they take it from the dalit gurudwara, even when it was convenient to do so.
However, in some villages the dalits told us that though they had constructed separate gurudwaras for asserting their autonomy, many from the upper castes had lately started visiting these gurudwaras as well. Hence, they too visited the gurudwaras of the upper castes and no longer felt any sense of discrimination or untouchability.
Untouchability in Hindu Religious Institutions
Though there are very few Hindu temples in Punjab villages, the practice of untouchability is much greater there. We asked a dalit woman in a village near Patiala if she also visited the Shiv Ji Temple located in the village. ‘They do not like even our going anywhere near the compound wall of their temple. Why would we be going there?’, she responded. Apparently a couple of years back a few dalit children were chased out of the temple complex during a festival and this had offended the local dalits.
In another village of the same district, a Hindu saint called Moni Baba performed ‘yajna’ every year in the month of December. This yajna was supposed to be for the general welfare of the village. The Baba also organised ‘Bhandara’ (a kind of langar where food is served free to the devotees) for a couple of days during the yajna. He obviously got donations from the villagers. However, he did not accept donations from dalits. Chanan Ram, a mazhabi, told us that when he went to donate 10 litres of milk last December, it was not accepted and he was asked to take it back.
Caste distinctions were also observed quite openly during the Bhandara. The building where the food was served was divided into two parts with a wall, one for the upper castes and the other for the dalits.
However, in most parts of Punjab, dalits have distanced themselves from brahmanical Hinduism and have either moved to Sikhism or they have their own saints and gurus who are themselves from dalit background.
Provision of Services
Perhaps the most radical change has taken place with regard to access to the barber’s service. The barbers practised virtually no untouchability. As mentioned above, most of the barbers in rural Punjab were in fact themselves from dalit castes, chamars or balmikis. Like most other service providers, barbers no longer worked in the traditional framework of ‘jajmani’ relations. Their services have become commodified and commercialised
However, very few dalits needed barbers’ service in Punjab. The ‘keshadhari’ Sikhs anyway did not need them and others mostly cut their hair themselves.
In case of tailors also the situation was quite similar. Some dalits did feel that the tailors in the village practised untouchability towards them but in most cases they either did not experience untouchability or had their own tailors from within their own castes.
Some amount of untouchability was practised with regard to the services of the local potters. Nearly 6 per cent of the dalits and 14.7 per cent of the upper caste respondents reported that dalits in their village had problem with getting pots from the local potters. However, not all the dalits had such an experience as an overwhelming number of them reported that they had no problem getting their supply of pots. More importantly, most dalits no longer took pots from the local potters. They either used plastic buckets or metal vessels or simply bought pots from the nearby market.
Perhaps the most visible division between the upper castes and dalits was with regard to the cremation grounds. Most of the villages have conventionally had separate cremation grounds for the upper castes and dalits. Nearly two-thirds of the villages had separate cremation grounds for upper castes and dalits. In their perceptions also nearly half the respondents reported that caste-segregation continued to be in practice with regard to the cremation ground.
Though there were some villages that had only one cremation ground where every one cremated their dead, the upper caste generally did not like dalits using the village (upper caste) cremation ground. Interestingly, dalits too preferred having their separate cremation grounds. In fact there were several cases where dalits complained that they have to use the common cremation ground because the land being used for cremating their dead had been encroached upon by the dominant landowners in the village.
Untouchability in Daily Social and Economic Life
The available literature on the subject suggests that untouchability is practised most vigorously in the ‘private sphere’ and in relation to religious institutions. As discussed above, there has been a considerable degree of erosion with regard to the practice of untouchability in these spheres in the rural Punjab.
Caste, however, has been an overarching institution and influenced almost every aspect of life in rural India. Though not as pronounced as in the ‘private sphere’ untouchability was practised against dalit castes in many other spheres of social and economic life as well. These included carrying of the caste prejudice to the market-oriented exchange relations or imposing restrictions on dalits’ use of the village public space.
The local markets in rural Punjab have become nearly free of caste prejudice. dalits could easily enter the village shops run by the upper castes and buy things from them without any experience of untouchability whatsoever. In fact, some dalits have also opened shops in the villages. However, most of their shops are either located in dalit localities or on the main road, near the village bus shelter, where there is a certain degree of anonymity. Importantly, dalits were not the only ones who patronised these shops. Their shops were also visited by the upper castes, albeit, less frequently.
Some of the dalit shopkeepers reported that given the choice some members of the upper castes in the village would avoid visiting their shop. One of the Malwa villages, for example, had a single flour mill being run by a dalit. Though a majority of the villagers belonging to all castes got their wheat powdered from this ‘chakki’, there were some upper castes that preferred going to the neighbouring village to get their wheat powdered. The obvious reason for this was their caste prejudice.
Similarly, there was no evidence of untouchability with regard to the labour market. Most of the manual labour in Punjab villages was done by dalits. They were employed by all categories of villagers for jobs on farms or house construction. However, the upper castes did, in some cases, avoid working alongside the dalits, particularly if the work involved coming into physical contact with dalits. Nearly 15 per cent of dalits and 26 per cent of the upper castes reported that untouchability was practised against dalits when working together involving physical contact.
Dalits’ Access to Village Streets
There were virtually no cases of overt discrimination/ untouchability or any kind of restrictions on dalits’ access to the common public space in the village. None of the respondents reported about any kind of restrictions being imposed on dalits on their passing through the road and streets of the village. Dalits could also take their processions through the village streets and walk with fanfare at the time of marriages or other festive occasions. Similarly, there were no restrictions on their wearing goggles or new clothes and shoes. They could also walk through the village streets with an umbrella and could ride bicycles through the village streets. In fact some of them also owned motorcycles and scooters and no restrictions were imposed on their using these vehicles. Dalits were also not required to take permission from their upper caste patrons while fixing weddings in their families.
Perhaps the most pronounced practice of untouchability/discrimination against dalits happens during the festivals and village feasts. It is rather interesting to note that nearly 19 per cent of dalit respondents and as many as 37 per cent of the upper caste respondent reported that dalits were openly discriminated against during the village festivals. Less than half of all the respondents reported in unambiguous terms that untouchability was practised against dalits during such occasions. In a majority of the cases untouchability was practised, overtly or not so overtly (Table 4).
Table 4: Perception on Practice of Untouchability During Village Festivals
Categories Not Practised Practised Some Experience Not Overtly Total
Schedule Castes 238 (48.9) 91 (18.7) 108 (22.2) 50 (10.3) 487 (100)
Backward castes 51 (54.3) 7 (7.4) 26 (27.6) 10 (10.7) 94 (100)
Upper castes 38 (37.3) 38 (37.3) 12 (11.7) 14 (13.7) 102 (100)
Total 327 (47.87) 136 (19.91) 146 (21.37) 74 (10.83) 683 (100)
This discrimination took various forms. dalits, for example, could not participate on equal terms in celebrations of local festivals unless they organised these celebrations on their own in their gurudwaras or dharamshalas (community centres). However, not in every village of Punjab do dalits have their own establishments.
Perhaps the most obvious occasion when dalits are discriminated against in village festivities is during the serving of food. As was reported above about the langar, dalits would often be asked to wait until every one else had eaten and left. Only 37.6 per cent of dalit respondents and 43 per cent of the upper caste respondents reported that no untouchability was practised with regard to serving of food to dalits during village festivities.
Though not so pronounced, there were also reports of using separate utensils for the dalits during festivals or village feasts. Nearly 12 per cent of dalits and 22 per cent of the upper caste respondents reported that separate utensils were used for dalits during the village feasts that were organised by the upper castes. In a village in the Verka block of Amritsar, though dalits were invited by the upper caste jats for weddings in their families, they were served food and snacks on separate tables.
Even otherwise dalits and upper castes rarely ate together. As discussed above, though restrictions on dalits entering the houses of upper castes have been considerably relaxed, restrictions on eating together continued. As such also, dalits and upper castes did not interact so closely that they would visit each other’s houses for lunches or dinners on a regular basis.
Untouchability in Modern/Secular Institutions
Apart from the continued practice of untouchability in the private sphere and the everyday social and economic life, the system of caste hierarchy and its ideology of purity and impurity has also percolated into the new ‘caste free’ institutions. For example, unlike the traditional Hindu system of education, the modern institutions of learning are not supposed to discriminate on the basis of caste or gender. In fact, secular education has been a vehicle of dalit mobility.
However, given the nature of the institution of caste, these too could not always escape being influenced by past values. Schools, public distribution system (PDS) outlets, post offices, milk cooperatives, panchayats or modern hospitals could all discriminate against dalits.
As was reported by studies of Gujarat by Desai and Shah, with the exception of seating arrangements and functioning of panchayats, the practice of untouchability was much lesser in these spheres of social life.
Dalits experienced no untouchability while accessing services of post office, PDS or the local cooperatives. They could also visit the local health care centres without any problem. However, they did have complains about the working of the public distribution system. In a village of Patiala district they told us that more than the poor dalits the upper caste Rajputs had yellow cards which made them eligible for subsidised purchases from PDS outlets. Rajputs were the ones who benefited more from the PDS. They also complained about the attitude of health care staff towards dalit patients, whose behaviour reflected an element of caste prejudice against them. Even some of the upper caste respondent felt that the health care staff in the local hospital/primary health centre discriminated against dalits, overtly or ‘to some-extent’. However, when it came to visiting dalit houses during medical emergencies, fewer complained about discrimination. More than 95 per cent of the dalit reported that doctors did not discriminate against them during emergencies and visited their houses without any hesitation.
Dalits and the Police
Police force is the face of the modern state that an average person encounters in his/her everyday life. In the new legislative system where untouchability is a crime, the role of the police and its accessibility to dalits is very critical. The police are the custodians of the law.
Though in most cases dalits did not feel intimidated by the police and there were no restrictions on their entry into the police station, not everyone felt comfortable going to the local thana. Nearly 13 per cent of the dalit respondents felt constrained in reporting any cases of discrimination to the police. At times, they are made to sit separately, away from the upper castes, and mostly on the floor. But in a large majority of cases, dalits did not feel discriminated against in the police stations.
Dalits and School Education
From a dalit perspective, introduction of the modern secular education was one of the most important changes introduced by the British colonial rulers. Unlike the traditional education in the Hindu society, the modern secular education – schools, colleges and universities – are, in principle, open to everyone. However, it is mostly the upper castes and the rich who have taken to modern education and who continue to dominate these institutions. Thanks to the growing awareness about the uses of education among them and the official policy of keeping some posts reserved for the members of the scheduled castes, some dalits too have been able to acquire education. Some of them have also become schoolteachers.
What was the experience of dalits in the schools of rural Punjab?
By and large, the practice of untouchability was not very visible in village schools. Rarely were dalit children made to sit separately. However, not everything was fine with these institutions. As shown in Table 5, though in nearly 75 per cent of the cases, the upper caste and dalit children interacted with each other without any problem and drank water from the same source, there were more than 20 per cent cases where distinctions were observed, overtly or subtly. dalit teachers in the schools too felt that they were not completely accepted by their upper caste colleagues. They tended to interact more with other dalit teachers.
Table 5: Perceptions on Upper Caste and Dalit Students Sitting and Eating Together, Drinking Water from Common Source in Schools
Categories Untouchability Not Practised Practised Some Practise NA Total
Schedule castes 389 (79.9) 61 (12.5) 30 (6.1) 7 (1.4) 487 (100)
Backward castes 58 (61.7) 16 (17.0) 15 (16.0) 5 (5.3) 94 (100)
Upper castes 67 (65.7) 33 (32.4) 2 (2.0) 102 (100)
Total 514 (75.25) 110 (16.11) 47 (6.88) 12 (1.75) 683 (100)
More than untouchability, perhaps, the problem was with the quality of education being imparted in the government-run village schools. The number of teachers employed was normally lesser than required. Even those employed did not take their work very seriously. Rarely do the rural schools have enough infrastructure in terms of rooms, laboratories and furniture required for proper functioning of the school. As a consequence, more ambitious and well-to-do parents have started sending their children to urban schools. One could also notice mushrooming of private schools, mostly at the nursery and primary level of teaching in some of the villages. The main attraction of these schools is that they claim to carry out teaching in ‘English medium’. However, they charge fees while the government schools are virtually free. Only the landed upper caste and better-off families could afford to send their children to these schools.
This withdrawal of upper castes from the government-run schools has had a further negative impact on the quality of education in these schools. In some of the villages, the government schools have begun to be called dalit or harijan schools. Since the influential upper castes do not send their children to the government school, there is little interest among them to demand for the improvement in standards of teaching in the local schools.
In a village of Amritsar district, a dalit student of class VIII told us that out of 37 children in his class, only four were jats. Rest were all dalits or from other ‘backward castes’. In the neighbouring district of Gurdaspur, the head mistress of the government-run village primary school had a similar story to tell. Of the 108 students in her school, only around 14 or 15 came from families of the landowning jats. The rest were mostly dalits. The village also had an ‘anganwadi’ for young children (a creche), which had around 70 young kids. They all came from dalit or backward caste families. None of the jat families sent their children to the local anganwadi.
Dalits and the Panchayats
Introduction of local level political institutions based on the principle of universal adult franchise and representative democracy has had far reaching implications for rural power structure. Like other institutions of Indian political democracy, panchayats too have seats reserved for scheduled castes, both at the level of ordinary membership and sarpanches (the presidents). Given their population in the Punjab countryside, some dalits could get elected as sarpaches even on ‘open’ seats. Of the 51 villages surveyed, as many as 17 currently had a dalit sarpanch and another six had them in the past. Of the 17 dalit sarpanches currently in office, nearly half were women. They could become sarpanches primarily because the seats were reserved for dalit women. There were another six villages where dalits had been sarpanches in the past. In the rest of the 28 villages, no dalit has ever been a sarpanch. The number of dalit panchsas (ordinary members) varied from one to five, depending on the size of the village and the panchayats.
This democratisation of the local political institutions has made a lot of difference to the dalits. It has given them a sense of dignity and the power to bargain. Universal adult franchise has forced the upper/dominant castes to recognise the value of dalit votes. Their being able to get elected as sarpanches also forced the members of the upper castes to renegotiate their relationship with them. dalits have become an important ally for everyone in the factional politics of the village.
However, despite these radical changes in the rural power structure, caste related structures of domination have not completely disappeared from everyday life in the village. Nor have the dalits become empowered everywhere. For example, some dalits still felt the compulsion of standing up in the presence of an elderly upper caste person. As revealed in Table 6, in nearly 16 per cent of the cases dalits felt such compulsion.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the data given in Table 6 is the castewise variation in responses to the question. While 14 per cent of dalits and 13 per cent of the backward caste respondents reported that such a practice existed, as many as 29.4 per cent of the upper/dominant caste respondents responded positively to the question. This obviously reflects that while the dominant castes would still wish that such a practice continued, the old ideology of patronage and loyalty has been much eroded from the minds of the dalits and ‘backward’ castes.
Table 6: Perception on Compulsion for Dalits to Stand Up in the Presence of Upper Castes Persons
Categories No Compulsion Feel Compulsion Only occasionally Total
Schedule castes 408 (83.8) 68 (14.0) 11 (3.3) 487 (100)
Backward castes 77 (81.9) 13 (13.8) 4 (4.3) 94 (100)
Upper castes 72 (70.6) 30 (29.4) – 102 (100)
Total 557 (81.55) 111 (16.25) 15 (2.19) 683 (100)
Dalits are also not treated equally in the panchayat buildings. Nearly 43 per cent of the dalit respondents felt that the dominant castes did not welcome their going to the panchayat buildings. These buildings are seen as upper caste community centres. In many villages dalits have built separate community centres of their own. Though to a significantly lesser degree, some discrimination is also practised in the seating arrangements during panchayat meetings. In some villages, dalit members were reportedly made to sit separately from upper caste members. However, virtually no untouchability is practised during the election process. For example, there was no practise of making separate queues of dalits for voting in the village panchayat elections.
Group discussions with dalit and some personal interviews with dalit sarpanches further reinforced the point that caste continues to be an important player in the rural power structure. Though they have been able to get elected as panchas and sarpanches, power in the village still lay with the dominant castes. In most cases dalits could contest and win elections to the village panchayats because they had the support and patronage of some members of the dominant castes. Even where the post was reserved, the dominant castes often had a say in deciding who amongst the dalits should contest. ‘The jats would not allow any other dalits to contest elections’ was the response of one dalit.
Further, when elected, they are not always given the respect due to them. Their opinions in the village panchayat meetings did not carry as much weight as it would in case of the dominant caste sarpanch. Ordinary members have even lesser say. Jat/upper caste sarpanches did not even let them speak during the meetings and when they were able to say something, rarely were their views taken seriously. The jats also disliked visiting the house of a dalit sarpanch unless they urgently needed his/her favours. In most villages, the upper castes strongly resented the reservations of seats for dalits in the village panchayats.
In some cases even when a dalit became sarpanch, the real power remained with the landowning jat whose faction had supported his/her candidature. In a village of Amritsar district, for example, a dalit called Surat Singh could get elected because the local jats did not let any other dalit contest elections. Reportedly, the upper caste jats got their nomination forms rejected with connivance of the officials. Surat Singh was allowed to contest because the jats were sure that they would be able to manipulate him. Such sarpanches obviously do nothing for the welfare of their own communities. By the time their term is over, they become so unpopular with the members of their own caste that if they wish to pursue a political career they have to depend almost solely on their patron jats.
In another case in a village of Gurdaspur district, we were told by some dalits that the local jats launched a campaign against a dalit women sarpanch and got her suspended on charge of appropriation of panchayat money. In place of her a jat appointed himself as the sarpanch even when the seat in the village was reserved for a dalit woman. In still another case in the Nawanshahir district, the local organising committee did not even care to invite the village sarpanch when the then union sports minister, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, visited the village for a sports meet. dalits complained that he was not invited because the sarpanch was a dalit.
Caste has often been seen as a unified system that worked in more or less, similar ways everywhere in India. The popular discourses, as also ‘mainstream’ sociological writings, tended to emphasis on the underlying cultural/ideological consensus across castes on its governing normative order [Dumont 1971; Moffatt 1979]. Despite many criticisms of these theories and the available empirical evidence from the field that contradicted such claims, theories such as that of Dumont continue to dominate the discourses on caste [Gupta 2000:3].
Whatever might have been the case in the past or elsewhere in the subcontinent, it certainly does not apply to contemporary rural Punjab. Dalits of Punjab see no virtues in the hierarchical structures of caste. As Deliege (1999) points out, they all aspire to better material conditions and a dignified life.
For a large majority of dalits living in rural Punjab, caste has only been a disabling structure. Thanks to the various social movements and the processes of economic development, they no longer have to encounter overt untouchability in their everyday life. They have also been investing in accumulating symbolic resources that help them lead a life of self-respect and dignity.
At the structural and political level, the changes taking place in the institutions of caste and untouchability in contemporary rural Punjab could perhaps be captured through categories of ‘dissociation, distancing and autonomy’. These have also been used as strategies of social and cultural assertion by the dalits in rural Punjab.
With a near complete decline of jajmani relations, the traditional association of castes with certain specific occupations does not seem to hold good for rural Punjab any longer. As discussed above, some of the traditional ‘unclean’ occupations, like picking-up of the dead cattle, have become commercialised. Though most of the villages in Punjab still have carcasses, the work of picking-up the dead cattle was mostly done on contractual basis. Even when some of them were still engaged in their traditional occupations, they no longer work in the framework of jajmani ties.
Perhaps more than the idea of pollution, the subordination of dalits in rural Punjab was institutionalised through the prevailing structures of agrarian relations. Being landless, they had to almost completely depend on the landowning castes for employment and other economic needs. While working on the land continues to be the most important source of employment for a large majority of them, they have also, and quite consciously, begun trying to move away from agricultural labour. Their attempts at distancing from agricultural labour are perhaps more because of their acute dislike of the dependency relationship with the farmer than for the nature of work itself.
However, such a distancing is possible only where alternative sources of employment become available to them. The opening of the village economy and its growing linkage to towns has made it physically possible for them to look out for other sources of employment, and many of them have been doing precisely that. However, it is not an easily available option to all.
As Lynch had observed, under conditions of change caste does not necessarily disintegrate into some other type of social group [Lynch 1969:203]. dalits in rural Punjab do not necessarily want to forget their caste identities. However, they do want to be treated with dignity and self-respect. For living a life of dignity, they need their own autonomous cultural resources. The traditional Hindu social order prohibited them from acquiring such resources. They were not allowed entry into temples and centres of learning. The Sikh religion does not advocate discrimination against any caste or creed. However, in practice, Sikhs belonging to the landowning dominant castes have not shed all their prejudices against the dalits. While dalits would be allowed entry into the village gurudwaras, they would not be permitted to cook or serve langar.
Wherever, they could mobilise resources, the dalits of Punjab have tried to construct their own gurudwaras and other local level institutions in order to attain a certain degree of cultural autonomy from the dominant castes.
Notwithstanding the changes experienced in almost all spheres of life, the continuities are not yet insignificant. Rural Punjab has not forgotten caste. While it is true that in most cases, caste-based prejudice against dalits has considerably declined, only rarely did we find it completely missing.
[The data presented in this paper was collected during the field-study for a broader project on the subject that was funded by ActionAid India. The field-work was completed with help from a Phillaur based NGO, Volunteers for Social Justice. My thanks are due to Jai Singh, Joginder Pal and Dharminder Singh for their help. Several sessions of discussions with Mathew Charien and Adil Ali of were extremely useful.
The writing of the paper was completed during my stay at the Department of Rural Sociology, University of Wisconsin. I am grateful to Professor Gary Green for inviting me to a visiting position. I also express my gratitude to Sneha Sudha Komath who read an earlier draft of this paper and gave useful comments. Usual disclaimers apply.]
1 It was not only the colonial administrators and ethnographers who constructed India in such unitary terms. The nationalist leadership also viewed social structure of the ‘traditional India’ on similar lines. Nehru, for example, wrote in his Discovery of India: …the old Indian social structure which has so powerfully influenced our people….was based on three concepts: the autonomous village community; caste; and the joint family system [Nehru 1946:244]. Similarly, social anthropologists who carried out a large number of ‘village-studies’ during the 1950s and 1960 worked with the assumption that the Indian villages were the same everywhere (for a critical survey of village studies, see Jodhka 1998).
2 See, fir example, H Singh (1977); Desai (1976).
3 Beteille articulates this point well when he writes: “The traditional structure of the Indian village not merely tolerated but required the presence of untouchables for both economic and ritual reasons. There had to be in every group of villages, if not in every village, labourers to do the hard physical work in the fields as well as scavengers, flayers and tanners to insulate the community from pollution” (2000b:171-72).
4 For a critical survey of social anthropological studies of Indian villages see Jodhka (1998).
5 See, for example edited volume by Srinivas (1996), published in the backdrop of the anti-Mandal agitation and was titled as Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatara.
6 Though they disagree in many ways, Dumont and Srinivas operate with a notion of hierarchy that is assumed to works for the whole of India.
7 See for example, Singh, I P 1975; 1977; Singh, H 1977; McLeod 1996; Saberwal 1973; 1976; Sharma 1985; Juergensmeyer 1988; Kumar and Kumar 1996; Judge 1997; Abbi and Singh 1997; Jodhka 2000.
8 Fieldwork for the study was carried-out during July-October 2001. Punjab has three folk sub-regions, Majha, Malwa and Doaba. The geographical area of the Malwa sub-region is nearly half of the total area of the state. Keeping the proportion of the dalit population (the highest and the lowest) in mind, districts, blocks and eventually village were selected for the study. Of the 51 villages selected for the study, 12 were from Majha, 13 from Doaba and 26 from Malwa. Individual respondents were chosen randomly from different caste groups, giving more representation to dalits for the obvious reasons.
9 Discussion in this section is based on an earlier paper of mine [Jodhka 2000].
10 One possible explanation for such a high concentration of the scheduled castes in the region could perhaps be extrapolated from Delige’s observation where quoting Gough, he observes that dalits were generally more concentrated in fertile areas [Delige 1999:6]. Given that it was located with two rivers, Doaba would have always been a fertile region.
11 Demographically also the followers of Islam were in majority in the region until the partition of Punjab in 1947. The Sikhs, though in minority, had been the ruling community until the British extended their rule to Punjab in the middle of the 19th century.
12 Great Britain Indian Statutory Commission, Memorandum Submitted by the Government of Punjab (1930) as in Nayar 1966:20.
13 Unlike in some other states, the scheduled castes of Punjab rarely worked as cultivating peasants on their own holdings. As per the official figures, only 0.4 per cent of all the land holdings occupying 0.72 per cent of the total cultivated area in the state were being cultivated by the scheduled castes. This was in stark contrast to some other states where despite the proportionate number of scheduled castes being lesser in the total population, the number of those cultivating land was much higher. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, the scheduled castes, consisting of 21.06 per cent of the total population, held as many as 24.5 per cent of the land holding occupying 14.31 per cent of the total cultivated land in the state. Similarly in Bihar and West Bengal, they cultivated 12.11 and 10.89 per cent of the total land holdings respectively. Similarly, as against the all India average of 25.44 per cent, only 4.80 per cent of the main workers among the scheduled castes in Punjab were employed as cultivators as per the 1991 figures. This percentage was as high as 42.63 per cent for Uttar Pradesh and 67.67 per cent for Himachal Pradesh (Statistical Abstract, Punjab 1999:206-07)
Explanation for such a low incidence of land ownership and cultivation among the scheduled caste could perhaps be traced to the colonial policies. The most critical in this context was perhaps the passing of the Punjab Alienation of Land Act in 1901, which clubbed the dalits with the “non-agriculturists” castes. Consequently, they were legally not allowed to own agricultural land. The act seemed to have been passed keeping in view the interests of the dominant land owning castes exclusively. Even though a large majority of the dalits worked on land as labourers, and in some cases also as tenants and owner cultivators, the 1901 Act would have obviously made them dispossess their holdings [Prasad 2000:35-37].
Source: Econnomic and Political Weekly
Thanks, BuddhistCircle !
Filed under: dalit atrocity | 3 Comments