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How Congress MP’s Panthic seat jibe at Akali-BSP exposed caste fault lines among Punjab Sikhs

Congress MP from Ludhiana Ranveet Bittu had questioned Akalis leaving ‘Panthic’ seats of Anandpur Sahib & Chamkaur Sahib to the BSP for 2022 Punjab polls.

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New Delhi: Allocation of Punjab’s ‘Panthic’ or ‘pious’ seats to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), primarily a Dalit political outfit, by its alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), has triggered a political debate in the state, exposing fault lines in what’s supposed to be a casteless Sikh society.     

It all started with Congress MP from Ludhiana Ranveet Singh Bittu taking a jibe at the SAD and questioning why it left the Anandpur Sahib and Chamkaur Sahib seats for the BSP. Anandpur Sahib is among the most sacred Sikh sites and is also the region where the last two Sikh saints, Guru Teg Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh, lived. Chamkaur Sahib is where Guru Gobind Singh fought the Mughals and houses several gurdwaras that are a tribute to the Sikh saint. 

The SAD and the BSP slammed Bittu on 14 June for making “casteist” remarks and insulting Dalits, who constitute 32 per cent of Punjab’s population. 

A delegation of SAD leaders on 15 June also complained to the Punjab State Commission for Scheduled Castes. On Monday (on 28 June), Bittu sought to put a lid on the controversy, tendering an “unconditional apology” to the Commission but the controversy has brought to surface the usually underplayed issue of casteism in Sikh society.

“Varna system clearly says who is pious and who is not pious. Ranveer Bittu’s comments should be seen as Jat Sikhs’ discomfort with the rise of Dalit politics, which is never represented adequately in the chief minister’s office and cabinet secretariat, despite the community having large numbers,” Dalit activist and advocate Dr S.L. Virdi told ThePrint.

Political commentator Professor Ashutosh Singh of the Chandigarh-based Panjab University said Bittu’s remarks should not be seen in isolation. 

“At Singhu and Tikri borders, they are farmers but back at their villages, they are divided along caste lines. Jat Sikhs are the landholders. Despite being divided politically, they dominate the religious and political affairs of the state,” Ashutosh said.

“Bittu’s remark is not an isolated statement. It reflects the sentiment of the community he represents. By saying this, he is trying to emerge as the community leader of Sikh Jats.”

Bittu’s remarks come in the backdrop of political parties in Punjab increasingly wooing Dalits. The BJP has promised the chief ministerial post for Dalits, while the Akalis have promised the deputy CM’s post for the community. This apart from the Akalis allying with the BSP for elections next year. 

Also read: Is Punjab next Assam, MP? What Amarinder-Sidhu spat says about Congress in power

No roti-beti ka rishta among Jat and Dalit Sikhs

Professor Surinder Singh Jodhka, who teaches sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, also pointed out that while Dalits are landless labourers, the Jat Sikhs are landholders and dominate Punjab’s politics. 

“Dalit Sikhs and Jat Sikhs have separate gurdwaras. The discrimination might not be as visible as in UP, Bihar or Haryana in that Jats may allow Dalits to enter gurdwaras but they won’t allow them to make prasad,” he said. 

Gurdeep, an Ambedkarite and a research scholar at Panjab University, said all this is against the tenets of Sikhism.  

“If we go by the doctrine of Sikhism, there is no place for caste,” he said. “So a very small population who are true believers of Sikhism, don’t discriminate, but a large population follows the Hindutva model of casteism.” 

Professor Jodhka seconded him. “For tokenism, a Dalit Sikh is appointed as the head granthi but it remains largely symbolic. There is no roti-beti ka rishta (won’t eat together or build relationships through marriage) among them.”

Dalits not a monolith

Punjab has the highest proportion of Dalits in the country — they are 32 per cent of the state’s total population, according to the 2011 census. 

They are, however, not a monolithic group. There are 39 communities classified as Scheduled Castes in Punjab, and all of them are at odds politically. 

For example, Ramdasias, who converted to Sikhism, were the so-called lower castes in the Hindu caste system. There is still a section among Ramdasias who are followers of Hinduism. 

But a large section of the community is now a part of the Sikh establishment. BSP founder Kanshiram was a Ramdasia Sikh. The community is dominant in the Doaba region, a BSP stronghold.

Another influential sub-caste are the Ad-harmis who are known as Ravidassias. They broke away from mainstream Sikhism and now follow the Ravidas Panth. They worship Guru Granth Sahib, Ambedkar and Ravidas together.

Along with this, there are the Mazhabi Sikhs who are dominant in the Malwa region. 

Valmikis, deemed as Hindus by the state, constitute 11.2 per cent of the scheduled caste population in Punjab. They have migrated to the state’s urban pockets.

“If we look at voting patterns, we can see that Dalit Sikhs such as Mazhabi, Ramdasia and Rai Sikhs vote for the Congress, Akalis and Communists,” Professor Ashutosh said. “In urban areas, where Valmikis are in good numbers, they opt for the Congress or the Akalis. Until and unless there is a hyper conflict between Dalits and upper castes, they will not go for Mayawati in Punjab.”

Also read: What Sukhpal Khaira’s ghar wapsi to Congress says about Amarinder Singh’s politics

The Jat Sikh dominance 

Jat Sikhs, the single largest caste in the state, are around 20 per cent of Punjab’s population, according to the 2011 census.  

Punjab has always had a Jat Sikh CM after 1977 irrespective of the party in power. 

“Jats have substantial representation in all the parties be it Congress, SAD or even BJP,” sociologist Dr P.S. Judge of Panjab University, said. “Dalits are divided on caste, political and religious lines. If there are Valmikis then there are Mazhabis. Jats may be politically divided but they are not uniformly divided.”

The farmers’ protest, Judge said, has changed political equations. 

“Due to a perceived vacuum in Punjab’s politics in the backdrop of farmers agitation, the legitimacy of the Akalis and Congress has gone down. Hence, the focus has shifted to a Jat Sikh vs non-Jat Sikh battle,” he added.

Professor Ashutosh, who has been observing state’s politics for over two decades, agreed. 

“Caste has become a political category lately. Aapke kitne aadmi hain (How many people do you have)? If you have the numbers, you will be given representation,” he said. “Bittu’s comment could also be seen as part of his personal rivalry with the Captain (Chief Minister Amarinder Singh). It could be because Sikh farmers are angry with every party.”

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

Also read: 117 seats, no Sikh leader: BJP’s 2022 Mission Punjab begins with hunt for credible local faces


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