When Religion And Caste Collide In Punjab

Sujatha Gidla, in her column The anatomy of a Dalit labourer's murder, printed on 7th November in this publication, expresses her fury at liberals' lack of response over the terrible killing of Lakhbir Singh at the Singhu farming accident site. We must be outraged by the loss of human life, but the author's arguments are highly problematic and need to be answered.

Gidla believes the assassination was carried out as a result of Sikh dissatisfaction with the choice of a Dalit as Punjab's temporary chief minister (CM). The Sikh population, which has traditionally had no division between Church and State, has reacted positively to Channi's nomination, which is full-time rather than "temporary." In Punjab, politics and religion are yet inextricably linked. Giani Harpreet Singh, the acting Jathedar (top monk) of the Akal Takht, the Sikhs' highest spiritual body, is a Dalit Sikh, and Channi's nomination establishes a desirable situation in which the state administration and church are both led by Dalits Sikhs.

Dalits make up roughly a third of Punjab's population, thus they aren't politically unimportant. The Akalis, the state's next major legislative force, teamed up with Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and proclaimed that their vice chief minister will be a Dalit before the Congress went one step further and fired Amarinder Singh, the country's foremost influential Jat Sikh politician.

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No one can claim that caste divisions and daily prejudice do not exist in the Punjabi community. Sikh culture is not casteless, even though the Sikh religion is. A one-size-fits-all strategy to class relations all across the nation, on the other hand, presents hazards. Brahminism, for example, is still associated with caste discrimination among protesters, even though Brahmins are a marginalised population in modern-day Punjab. In comparison to what happens in the cow belt and elsewhere, one could claim that caste prejudice among Punjabi Hindus is benign. Upon that plantation, it's not unusual to see a Bihari employee, a Savarna Hindu with his farmland back home, being moderately dominated along by the Jat homeowner's Dalit Sikh associate, a landless individual, who affirms himself as the citizen, talks Punjabi, and behaves the Sardarji well before bhaiya, as particularistic heft trumps hierarchy.

Especially inside the Dalit fold, classes and sub-castes abound, making the issue of class too complicated to be reduced to a simple binary of caste Hindus/Sikhs and Dalits. It's up to the cops and other authorities to determine if the Singh murder was a random act or a plot, but it's far-fetched to suggest, as Gidla implies, that Dalit Sikh men killed a Dalit Sikh man in retaliation for a Dalit Sikh man attaining CM.

The suspects who openly confessed said they were punishing Singh for desecration, implying that the motive was spiritual instead of caste-based. Though this doesn't render the act any less heinous, it's fair to presume that if Singh had been an upper-caste individual, the Nihangs, a virtually mediaeval warrior cult dwelling on the outskirts of society, might have assaulted him in the same way. It's no wonder that the mediaeval endures in a nation where most of the mysterious, esoteric, and old persist.