Punjab Election 2022: Dalits hold the key to majors’ poll prospects in state

The political parties’ faith in the Guru apart, they wanted sufficient time for Dalits whose vote-bank holds the key in Punjab for being one-third (32%) of the total population of three crore.

Rajesh Moudgil | Updated on: Sunday, January 23, 2022, 10:42 PM IST

Punjab ELection 2022: Dalits hold the key to majors’ poll prospects in state | Photo Credit: ANI
Punjab ELection 2022: Dalits hold the key to majors’ poll prospects in state | Photo Credit: ANI

No prizes for guessing why all political majors in Punjab ran to the Election Commission of India seeking postponement of the assembly election by six days in the wake of Guru Ravidas Jayanti, when his Dalit devotees flock to Varanasi, his birthplace, to pay obeisance.

The faith in the Guru apart, the parties wanted sufficient time to woo the Dalits who constitute one-third (32%) of the state’s total population of three crore.

There are other straws in the wind. Immediately after snapping ties with its old ally, the BJP, over now-repealed farm laws last year, the Shiromani Akali Dal had joined hands with the Bahujan Samaj Party and announced that if elected they would have a Dalit deputy chief minister.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government, which had already gauged the Dalits’ might and hence not only made Vijay Sampla, a Dalit, a Union minister but also had a Dalit minister in the coalition government led by its erstwhile ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), before 2017.

In September last year, the Congress, too, in a smart move made Charanjit Singh Channi, the state’s first Dalit (Ramdasia) chief minister, after removing two-time chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh, a Jat Sikh, because of bad blood within the party.

However, there is a catch in the poll matrix -– despite constituting a huge vote chunk, Dalits continue to be a divided house.

Prof Ronki Ram, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chair Professor of political science, Panjab University, Chandigarh, who is visiting professor (Faculty of Arts, Business and Social Sciences), University of Wolverhampton (UK), puts it in perspective.

Despite the surge for two decades under the leadership of Kanshi Ram, who also hailed from the Ramdasia community, the key stakeholders had failed to throw up a dynamic leader in Punjab. Kanshi Ram, too, had shifted his focus to Uttar Pradesh in later years with Mayawati as his political heir.

Interestingly, the Dalits in Punjab are scattered over 39 castes and five religions – Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists – besides being members of several sects and faiths, such as Ravidasias, Ramdasias, Kabirpanthis, Balmikis, Radhasoamis, Sacha Sauda to name some.

Among these 39 castes, two caste groups constitute about 80% of the total SC population (31.94%, 2011 Census). The two caste groups comprise four castes – Balmikis (sanitation workers) and Mazhabis (Dalits who have taken to Sikhism), chamars (leather workers – Ramdasias and Ravidasias), and Ad-Dharmis (a lower Dalit strata). Each of these two main caste groups consists of over 40% of the SC population.

Half of the 25% reservation in the state is for two castes - Balmikis and Mazhabis - and 12.5% for the remaining 37 castes, adds Prof Ronki Ram, who has also authored several books on Punjab Dalits.

Prof Ashutosh Kumar of the department of political science, Panjab University, says that even though the Dalits had been a divided lot, the BSP had cornered up to 16 % vote share during different elections in the 1990s. However, it was for the first time in the state, during the two consecutive SAD-BJP governments till 2017, that the vote share of BSP had shrunk to about 1.5 %.

The political scientists further opine that even though Dalits from Jalandhar and adjoining districts have been progressive and going abroad for the last three generations or so, most of the others have remained poor, thus leading them to different ‘Deras’ for support, or to side with political parties, so as to have a say through the 34 reserved constituencies in the 117-seat Punjab assembly.

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Published on: Sunday, January 23, 2022, 10:42 PM IST