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What Guru Ravidas’ legacy means in Punjab elections, and why politicians are vying to claim it

As PM Modi, Rahul & Priyanka Gandhi pay homage on Ravidas Jayanti, all political parties this poll season have tried to cash in on fierce Dalit pride symbolised by the Guru.

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Phillaur, Punjab: For weeks, war has been waged on Punjab’s streets by legions of volunteers, armed with brooms and mops, working to annihilate even the last specks of dust. Bright streamers attached to poles form a canopy over entire neighbourhoods, and tents have been pitched to shelter and feed the thousands gathered for the birth anniversary of Guru Ravidas.

The mystic poet-saint’s birth anniversary is the most significant festival for many Dalits across the state and beyond — but this time, with Punjab going to the polls on 20 February, it has a special political significance.

Images of the Guru, sharing space with B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, make up the mainstay of posters put up by all political parties in Dalit neighbourhoods, asserting community pride and identity. In some posters, the candidate aspiring to be elected to the legislative assembly gets just a little space in one corner. 

However, away from reserved constituencies and Dalit-dominated areas, the election posters take on a more familiar form: important political leaders take place of pride.

Guru Ravidas has a hallowed place in the Sikh cannon — several of his verses are included in the Adi Granth — and also form the core of the separate, Ravidasia faith, which has a large Dalit following. Ravidas’ message of equality and justice, though, has been crucial in empowering historically-oppressed communities to forge a separate Dalit identity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, politicians have scrambled to honour the Guru’s legacy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered prayers at the Shri Guru Ravidas Vishram Dham Mandir in Delhi’s Karol Bagh Wednesday on the occasion of Ravidas Jayanti, while Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra visited Varanasi, the saint’s birthplace. In Punjab, politicians across parties have emulated them.

Also read: Ravidas Jayanti & the Dalit vote — why Punjab parties got EC to shift polling date by 6 days

‘Earlier Dalit was a gaali’  

The Ad Dharm movement of the 1920s, scholar Ronki Ram has recorded, was credited for sowing the seeds of Dalit consciousness in the state. Dalit castes like the Chamaars had been empowered by the First World War demand for leather goods, and the movement gave their fledgling economic strength ideological shape. The image of Guru Ravidas was used to project a newly conceived Dalit cultural space in Punjab.

Guru Ravidas’ image, poetry, illustrations of power and glory were used as part of this movement. Dalits built temples, memorial halls, gurudwaras, educational institutions in his name — creating, moreover, a network of community assets.

Speaking to ThePrint, M. Rajivlochan, a teacher at Panjab University, explained that historically, people in Punjab did not vote on the basis of caste. He said that there was a possibility that Dalit voters might be energised by chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi, who is Dalit — but added that governance issues would also matter. 

The postponement of voting (from 14 February to 20 February) because of Ravidas Jayanti, Rajivlochan recently wrote, “underlined the new worth of Dalits in public life — and their distinct religious practices”.

“Earlier Dalit was referred to as a gaali (abuse),” said Usha Rani, a schoolteacher in Phagwara. “It is good to have a representative of ours in the highest office. Maybe one day Punjab will also have a female Dalit chief minister.”

Politics and Dalit pride

Dalits in Punjab — who make up the highest share of the population of any State, at 31.5 per cent — have historically never supported one party. When the Congress made Charanjit Singh Channi the chief minister, it hoped that Dalit communities of all shades and religions — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists — would rally around him.

For many in Phillaur, having a Dalit chief minister is a source of pride. “Channi is pro-poor, he’s very people friendly — plays cricket with them, goes to people’s houses, eats at dhabas,” said Gulchand, a 22-year-old first-time voter. “Earlier, the chief minister would have fifty cars surrounding him. Channi has gone from bottom to top, unlike the Captain [Amarinder Singh], who went from top to bottom,” he added.

The sentiment isn’t universal, though. In Talhan — the scene of savage Dalit-Jat caste clashes in 2003 — truck driver Jasbir Chal proudly identified himself as Dalit. “I am a Chamaar,” he said, “and we will vote for someone who is from us, and takes care of us. Everyone here votes for the Bahujan Samaj Party.” 

Across parties, politicians are seeking to cash in on these sentiments. Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal has announced that Delhi government offices will only have posters of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh — both Dalit icons. The Bharatiya Janata Party has promised it will appoint a Dalit chief minister, if voted to power. The Shiromani Akali Dal, long identified with the dominant Jats, has promised a Dalit deputy chief minister.

However, AAP has also reached out to Dalit voters, foregrounding education, employment and anti-corruption as community concerns.  

Ashu Sahota, an AAP leader in Phagwara, who was formerly with the Congress for over two decades, argued that Channi had “done no work, and only made announcements”.

‘Don’t have faith in anyone’

Large numbers of Dalit voters, though, seem frustrated with all parties. 

Mamta, a daily wage labourer in Adampur, explained that during elections all parties come folding their hands, asking for votes. And for the remaining five years the people are left folding their hands, running from pillar to post.

“When it rains the roof falls down. With great difficulty my father built a latrine for us in the house. Nobody has helped us throughout these years. We have voted for everyone and seen. I don’t have faith in anyone — not Channi, nor AAP or BSP,” she said.

(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)

Also read: How Christianity is growing among Mazhabi Sikhs & Valmiki Hindus in Punjab’s villages


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