Chandigarh: The Election Commission (EC) of India Monday — in a rare move — changed the date of polling for the Punjab assembly elections from 14 to 20 February, after various political parties requested the six-day postponement.
The parties, including the ruling Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), all cited a common reason: the birth anniversary of Sant Ravidas, which falls on 16 February and is marked by a huge congregation of his followers at Varanasi.
In a press note Monday, the ECI said, “Commission has received several representations from state government, political parties and other organisations drawing attention regarding movement of a large number of devotees from Punjab to Varanasi for participation in Sri Guru Ravidas Ji Jayanti celebrations, which is observed on 16 February 2022.
“They have also brought to notice that a large number of devotees start moving for Varanasi around a week before the day of celebration and keeping the poll day on 14 February 2022 will deprive a large number of electors from voting.”
Guru Ravidas, a 15th-century-born poet, philosopher and Bhakti saint, is considered the guru of a large section of Dalits, also called Ravidasias.
In his letter to the ECI, Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, who is himself a Dalit, wrote that at least 20 lakh followers of Guru Ravidas from Punjab would congregate at Varanasi from 10 to 16 February to mark his birth anniversary, due to which they might not be able to vote.
The BJP and its allies — the Punjab Lok Congress headed by Captain Amarinder Singh and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Sanyukt) — and the AAP supported Channi’s move.
Why the move
Dalits constitute 32 per cent of Punjab’s population — the highest such proportion in any state — and no party can afford to have even a small part of this demographic either distracted or out of state on polling day.
According to Professor Ronki Ram of Panjab University, Chandigarh, an expert on Dalit issues, Ravidasias are the most prominent Dalit community in Punjab.
“Out of the 39 SC castes in Punjab, the four major castes of Chamar (23.45 per cent), Ad-dharmi (11.48 per cent), Balmiki (9.78 per cent) and Mazhabi (29.72 per cent) constitute 74.44 per cent of the total SC population,” he said.
“Chamars are further divided into Ravidasias (leather workers) and Ramdasias (weavers). The Ravidasias are the most prominent for several reasons. They utilised the availability of reservation in education well, and are the most upwardly mobile. Many went abroad and constitute a large section of the NRIs from Doaba,” he added.
As a result, Ronki Ram said, they have “become financially well to do”.
“They have invested in Guru Ravidas deras and now have substantial social capital. They are also networked and as a community enjoy political clout,” he added.
With multiple internal divisions, Dalits in Punjab have never voted en bloc — their votes are generally divided among a number of parties.
However, according to Lokniti-CSDS data, Dalits have consistently preferred the Congress over the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), and even the AAP (which made its assembly election debut in 2017).
In the 2017 assembly polls, 41 per cent of the Dalit Sikh vote was cast in favour of the Congress, followed by the SAD at 34 per cent and 19 per cent to AAP. Similarly, 43 per cent of the Hindu Dalit vote was in favour of the Congress, followed by the the SAD (26 per cent) and AAP (21 per cent).
The Congress also has another reason to bank on the Dalit vote in the upcoming polls: the party has now given the state its first Dalit CM in Charanjit Singh Channi.
This time, the SAD has tied up with a Dalit-led party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). However, the BSP’s independent vote bank has been depleting over the years, although the party is expecting a better performance in the upcoming polls, supplemented by the cadre of the Akali Dal.
Who was Guru Ravidas?
Guru Ravidas, a Bhakti movement saint, was born near Varanasi in the 15th century. He was a poet, spiritual leader, and social reformer.
“Ravidas was born into the Chamar caste, also known as Kutbandhla, one of the Scheduled Castes (SC) in Uttar Pradesh. Chamars are known by their profession of leather and tanning. They were oppressed and their touch and sight were considered polluting by the upper castes. Ravidas revolted against this inhuman system of untouchability. He adopted bhakti as a mode of expression for his revolt,” said Ronki Ram, quoting from his research paper.
Guru Ravidas’s poetic hymns are also included in the holy text of the Guru Granth Sahib (considered a living Guru by the Sikhs).
“Ravidas holds a special place in the heart of Dalits, as he was one who unleashed a frontal attack on the traditional practice of caste-based social exclusion and oppression. Belonging to one of the lowest castes, his iconic figure continues to act as a catalyst in the emergence of a separate Dalit identity in Punjab,” said Ram.
“Ravidas, as a spiritual figure who Omvedt (Gail Omvedt, an American sociologist) boldly called ‘the bhakti radical’, commands a massive following among his caste fellows, especially the Chamars in Punjab, who consider him their guru. They have built temples, gurdwaras, bhawans (memorial halls), educational institutions/ chairs, cultural organisations and hospitals in his name all over Punjab,” he added.
The Sachkhand Dera at Ballan in Jalandhar is the largest dera of Ravidasias in Punjab. Every year, trains full of devotees from this dera head to Varanasi to mark the guru’s birth anniversary.
One of Channi’s first visits after he became CM in September last year was to the Sachkhand Dera Ballan, where he was welcomed by the Dera chief. Channi has also promised to establish a research institute to study the life and teachings of Guru Ravidas.
In August, state Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu had also paid obeisance at the Sachkhand Dera Ballan.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)