Discrimination along caste lines has persisted for a long time against so-called ‘lower castes’. But a new trend has emerged where people from the ‘upper castes’ flaunt their caste identity and wear it as a badge of honour. In the modern world, this takes interesting forms. One such form is music. We will focus on contemporary Punjabi music.
Punjab has the largest population of Scheduled Caste (SC) communities in India, which is nearly about 32 per cent of the entire population. Communities such as Mazhabis, Ravidasias, Ramdasias, and Dharmis make up around 87 per cent of Punjab’s Scheduled Caste population. Also, the SC community is predominantly rural, with around 70 per cent of them residing in villages.
Despite the numerical dominance of SCs in Punjab’s demography, it is the Jatt community that has the monopoly in the agrarian economy because they own more than 80 per cent of the available agricultural land. On the other hand, Dalits hold about 3.5 per cent of Punjab’s private farmland, according to the agriculture consensus of 2015-16.
Keeping this caste division in mind, we will look at the contemporary music scenario of the Punjabi music industry. It is one of the biggest music industries in India, and its chartbusters have gotten international fame. The Punjabi non-film music industry has produced even more success stories. The genre shift from folk songs to hip hop, rap and disco can be attributed to globalisation and people’s gradual acquaintance with world music.
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The Jatt protagonist in Punjabi music
One major leitmotif of Punjabi hip hop is a hyper-masculine, violent, land-owning ‘Jatt’ protagonist. ‘Jatt Da Muquabla,’ a song by Sidhu Moose Wala, goes: “Khule jigre te khuliyan zameena aale aan, tehde te crime’an aale scene’an aale aan.” These themes are reflected in other songs as well, where the proudly masculine and violent Jatt seeks revenge for causes unknown.
This assertion of caste identity can be through the Social Identity Theory. It describes the conditions under which social identity precedes individual identity. The major categorisation laid out in this theory is ‘them (out group) versus us (in group)’. Members of the ingroup find negative aspects of an outgroup to aggrandise their self-image.
The theory stipulates three stages for the evaluation and the categorisation of others in the ‘us vs them’ dichotomy. The first stage is social categorisation, which is done in order to understand the social milieu of the individual. The second stage is social identification, which calls for the adoption of an identity, how an individual identifies themselves and which group they would fit into. The final stage is social comparison, wherein for the maintenance of self-esteem, comparison takes place. It can foster seeds of prejudice, racism, casteism, sexism, etc., and give rise to hostility between different social groups.
If we study this assertion of Jatt identity against the caste divide present in modern-day Punjab, we can observe a contrast. If a Jatt singer takes pride in their ‘land owning’ caste, there is also a 70-year-old Gurdev Kaur who lost her life because Jatt landlords attacked a group of Dalits as they were returning to Jaloor after a dharna in front of Lehragaga SDMs office. Their demand? Lease six acres of village common land for Dalit families.
Bant Singh was a Dalit activist and revolutionary singer whose daughter was raped by upper-caste landowners. They also threatened him to not go to the police or courts. Singh and his daughter sought legal justice and won the case. But little did Bant Singh know that he would have to pay the price for defying the upper-caste men by losing his limbs. Bant Singh was brutally beaten. His legs had to be amputated.
Privileged upper-caste people have land, money, social status and, most importantly, the power to subdue any voice of dissent. Dalit voices usually come from hardworking individuals who cannot afford to proudly assert their identity without being judged, ostracised or assaulted.
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Dalit pop rises
There has been a change in the music industry, however, with the parallel rise of ‘Dalit Pop’, also known as ‘mission singing’. Following the Ambedkarite principle of Assertion of Dalit Identity, singers go against the ‘Jatt-centric plot’, and proudly reclaim their own identities, which were previously forbidden.
Ginni Mahi, a 23-year-old singer, sings about the legacy of Babasaheb Ambedkar and about her community. Her song ‘Danger Chamar’ takes inspiration from a real-life incident when her classmate asked her caste, to which she replied that she was a Chamar. The classmate replied that she should not be near them because they are ‘dangerous’. Roop Lal Dhir is another singer who is part of this modern Dalit Resistance Movement, which takes place in the form of art and music.
The rise of ‘mission singing’ has provided a medium for representation, dissent and proud reclamation of identity.
Yashna Kumar is a student at Christ (Deemed To Be) University, Bangalore. Views are personal.