Tuesday, January 24, 2012

[ZESTCaste] Caste arithmetic could play decisive role in Punjab polls


Posted: Tue, Jan 24 2012. 9:28 PM IST

Caste arithmetic could play decisive role in Punjab polls

Caste divisions have become accentuated in recent years leading to a
rise in the political influence of the deras
Siddharth Singh

Malle Walan (Faridkot District): The local Congress party candidate is
a veteran of many electoral campaigns. Avtar Singh Brar—a former
education minister—is trying to tell a small gathering of Dalits not
to succumb to the blandishments of liquor and money while deciding
whom to vote for. His hint is not subtle: his opponent is a liquor
baron who is not a local.

Loyalty factor: A roadside vendor sells portraits of Dalit leaders and
other items before the start of an election rally to be addressed by
Mayawati, Uttar Pradesh chief minister and head of the Bahujan Samaj
Party. By AP

Loyalty factor: A roadside vendor sells portraits of Dalit leaders and
other items before the start of an election rally to be addressed by
Mayawati, Uttar Pradesh chief minister and head of the Bahujan Samaj
Party. By AP

Many in the audience sport tattered clothes, and there is a general
sense of despair around them. Still, the Dalits here have been
fortunate in one sense at least. They have not experienced the
violence that many others have in scores of villages in the state.

Not far from Malle Walan lies Sadhe Walan, a village where supporters
of the Dera Sacha Sauda—a religious sect—bore the brunt of an upper
caste, mainly Akali, attack in 2007. Today, the 15-odd families who
are followers of the Dera lead a scared existence. "I cannot forget
that day. It was a Sunday and we were getting ready for a congregation
when a group of 40-odd men with swords rushed at us. We had to run
away from the village just to save our lives," says Malkiat Singh, a
Dera follower who runs a small grocery shop in the village.

"Today, everything seems normal and villagers greet each other. But
it's difficult for me to forget and forgive what happened. If Babaji
(the head of the Dera) tells me to vote for some party, I will obey
him. So will all the other followers," he adds.

Also See | Domain of influence (PDF)

The conflict in the Malwa region—the state's political heartland as
also its agricultural powerhouse—today is between the followers of the
Dera Sacha Sauda, literally "the encampment of the true stuff", and
the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the lead party in the ruling coalition.
The SAD is the party of Sikhs in general and Jats in particular. The
followers of the Dera, led by self-styled godman Gurmit Singh Ram
Rahim, are mostly Dalits or economically marginalized Jat Sikhs.

Deras, or religious sects, are an integral part of the political
fabric of Punjab. They mostly cater to the needs of marginalized
castes that find little sympathy in mainstream Sikhism. This is ironic
as Sikhism was launched as an egalitarian religion that was not based
on the caste order. While this idealistic state has never been true of
Punjab, caste divisions have become accentuated in recent years and
today all manner of deras have mushroomed. Over time, their following
has increased and so has their political clout. In the Malwa
region—the part of the state south of the Sutlej river—Dera Sacha
Sauda is the dominant dera and holds sway over millions of largely
socially and economically marginalized persons.

The Dera commands great support in the region that sends 65 members to
the 117-member Punjab legislative assembly. In most of these seats, it
can make or mar the fortunes of candidates. It is not surprising that
all parties seek its support assiduously. In the last assembly
elections, in 2007, Dera supporters voted en masse for the Congress.
Soon after the SAD-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance won, violence
broke out against Dera supporters in rural Punjab. The caste
polarization created due to this violence is a determining feature of
electoral politics in Malwa today. Politically, the Malwa region is
pivotal to the fortunes of any political party that aspires to power.

The other two regions of the state—Majha (north Punjab) and Doaba
(literally the region between two rivers, in this case the Beas and
Sutlej rivers)— account for 52 seats. The Dera has electoral influence
in 35 assembly constituencies, making its support vital for any
political party.

The Dera now faces complex political choices. On the one hand, if it
orders its supporters to vote against the SAD-BJP combine and the
coalition comes back to power, the political consequences can only be
adverse. On the other hand, if it tells them to vote for the SAD-BJP,
it will be in trouble for a different reason: the Dera is
headquartered in Sirsa in Haryana, where the Congress party is in
power. In addition, the Dera chief is embroiled in various criminal
cases and is also being investigated by the Central Bureau of
Investigation. There is a danger of "heat" being applied by either of
the rival parties in case the Dera miscalculates and supports the
wrong party. At the moment, it is hedging its bets.

"We have not taken any decision so far. A final decision will be taken
on Friday. We have conducted two surveys to gauge the political
situation. We are assessing our options in a block-by-block and
constituency-wise manner. A unified decision to vote for a single
party is unlikely," said Gurbaj Singh, a member of the sect's
seven-member political advisory committee. He throws a none-too-subtle
hint on the likely choice: "What has happened in Punjab in the past
five years is not hidden from anyone. Our supporters were targeted
primarily because they are economically weak and belong to the
marginalized sections of society."

Irrespective of what the Dera decides, voters in rural Punjab are a worried lot.

"If the SAD comes back to power, it will make sure that Punjab will
become another Bihar," argues Harbans Singh Johal, the sarpanch
(headman) of Dhalleke, a village in Moga district that bore the brunt
of attacks against Dera supporters. "Our panchayat was suspended by
the district administration because we refused to toe the SAD line. A
reign of terror was let loose on us. Imagine the sight when 200 men
armed with swords and lances rush towards you and a posse of
policemen, led by no less than the senior superintendent of police
just watch and do nothing," says Johal, a Jat. He says SAD's strategy
is to polarize the Dalits and the Jats and reap electoral benefits. He
says his village will vote solidly for the Congress.

The story is repeated in village after village in the Malwa belt. In
Jaitu in Faridkot district, the site of a famous anti-British
agitation in princely India, Prof. Gurdial Singh—a Jnanpith
Award-winning novelist—has observed these events with disquiet.
"Nothing has changed. Earlier, there was direct exploitation of
Dalits, today, the form has changed but the nature of that
exploitation remains the same. Princely leaders like Amarinder Singh
(a former chief minister and a Congress leader) sip tea in Dalit
hamlets but this is all for votes. The only difference between the SAD
and the Congress is that one wants to polarize votes in the name of
religion, the other wants to do that in the name of development.
Between the two, the Dalits have nowhere to go."

Punjab is not the violent, secessionist, province it used to be
decades ago. But its politicians have not learnt the lesson that
violence and political mobilization based on religion never pays.



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