The rise of Dalits to power should be seen as part of the historical processes that began in the colonial period
A few days ago, Punjab got its first Dalit chief minister — Charanjit Singh Channi, who belongs to the Ramdasia Dalit community in Punjab. The three-time Congress MLA was hardly a CM contender, and his selection caught many by surprise.
Going by a flat electoral logic, the ruling party’s decision might be read as a safe choice between the Navjot Singh Sidhu and Captain Amarinder Singh camps, or a tactic to attract the Dalit population in Punjab, who might be feeling left behind in the farmers’ protests, largely dominated by Jat Sikhs. The latter presumption might not be entirely wrong, as according to the 2011 census, 31 per cent of the total population of Punjab is Dalit (Hindu and Sikh, both).
But historical developments give us a broader context to understand this phenomenon. Historically, Dalits were, and still are, on the margins of Indian society. Any Dalit assertion and their rise to power cannot and should not be reduced to a limited electoral logic. Doing so would be refusing to acknowledge the much larger historical canvas on which these processes come to fruition. The emergence of Channi did not happen in a vacuum, but is part of a long tradition of Dalit assertion and social reform movements in Punjab, starting from the colonial period.
After the British annexed Punjab in 1849, it went through tremendous changes. The British census solidified and freeze-dried the rather rigid hierarchy of caste, adding its own prejudices and value judgements to the mix, classifying entire communities as “criminals” or “warriors”. No wonder that most Dalits and “untouchable” communities fell into the former category and most of the landed communities into the latter. According to the Simon Commission, the “untouchables” numbered 44.5 million in 1930 and Punjab contributed the highest numbers.
With such large numbers of Dalits, Punjab became the epicentre of many social reform movements addressing the caste question. In 1875, Swami Dayanand Saraswati established Arya Samaj in Lahore, preached against idol worship and initiated the Shuddhi movement — “to purify the impure”. Many other reformist outfits appeared in Punjab, organisations such as Shradhanand Dalit-Uddhar Sabha, All-India Achhutodhar Committee, Punjab Achhut Udhar Mandal, and the famous Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (an offshoot of the Arya Samaj). All of these had different places on the political spectrum but played a significant role in keeping the question of caste, representation and social justice alive.
Another important movement was the Ad-Dharam movement, started by Babu Mangoo Ram in 1926. Babu Mangoo Ram was inspired by Bhakti Sant Ravidas and with his other followers declared themselves neither Hindus nor Sikh. Ad-dharamis later accounted as Ravidasis too, which became one of the influential sub-castes among Dalits in Punjab, to which Channi belongs.
The Dalit assertion went much beyond the political arena into the cultural sphere as well. When the Khalistan movement was at its peak in Punjab, Dalit voices were not quiet. Artists like Amar Singh Chamkila played a significant role in the cultural domain. In later years, Kanshi Ram, the DS4 (Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti) and the emergence of the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) also paved the way for a stronger and more visible Dalit presence in politics. Mayawati becoming the first Dalit CM of Uttar Pradesh became an important milestone.
Although Dalits are represented in almost every political party, most of the time they are confined to the “reserved” portfolios of SC/ST Morchas, Minority cell or social welfare divisions. Having a Dalit occupy the highest post in the state is an act that fulfils the struggle of the Dalit movement.
Anxiety over demography is persistent in Indian electoral politics and almost all the parliamentary parties more or less act accordingly. With that logic, a similar change was done in Gujarat, by making Bhupendra Patel the chief minister. Even so, that this anxiety was felt in favour of Dalit representation — and that too for the first time in Punjab — is significant.
Democracy might not have eradicated caste, but it has given an avenue, however bleak it might be, from where Dalits can and are claiming the share which has been denied historically to them. Channi’s succession should be looked at as an important milestone in the long tradition through which Dalits carved their space in active politics, one step at a time.
The writer is a doctoral scholar at the Department of History, University of Delhi
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