for dalit rights
It started with
a gurdwara. It became an epic struggle, and ended in a great victory.
Vikram Jit Singh tells the story of Talhan’s
resistance which can change the face of Punjab
In the village square
two massive black and white rams laze under an ancient peepul tree,
bellies drooping after having ravaged the lush crop of a Talhan landlord.
They are the most piquant of the symbols of dalit assertion that identify
the community in this famous battleground of caste warfare. These two
rams are the offerings of a grateful dalit community to
the Pir Samadhi in the village square for having protected the
lives of their men, women and children who waged an epic battle with Jat
Sikh landlords and a heavy police contingent for six hours in June 2003.
Where We Are: A dalit mansion in Talhan
Photo Nitin Kumar
Bolstered by NRI money,
rich dalit families and youth of Talhan drive around in Toyota
Qualises and Maruti Zens, smoking King Size Filter cigarettes
Talhan hit the headlines in 2003 when a forceful assertion of the majority
dalit community of Chamars took on the Bains and Randhawa Jat Sikh landlords;
they wanted a share on the governing committee of the samadhi of Shaheed
Baba Nihal Singh, a local carpenter who died digging a well. The samadhi,
which draws offerings of Rs 3-7 crore annually, became a preserve of landlord
families who gobbled up a substantial portion of the offerings. Though
the dalits form more than 60 percent of Talhan’s 5,000-strong
population, local ‘traditions’ ensured that they were denied
a share in the committee.
The landlords, in league with radical Sikh organisations and the Shiromani
Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, attempted to keep out the dalits by
razing the samadhi overnight and constructing a gurdwara on it, but the
dalit quest for a say in the governing committee could not be eliminated.
Today, two dalit Sikhs with flowing locks and beards represent the confidence
of a community that has added social and political power to its long-acquired
economic independence. Significantly, Talhan also has a dalit woman, Inderjit
Kaur, as the village sarpanch.
Talhan’s bloody caste clashes and the partisan role of the Jalandhar
administration are well known, but what is remarkable is the transformation
of a community whose profile does not fit into the stereotype woven by a
prejudiced society. Silvery locks and bushy eyebrows distinguish Chanan
Ram Pal, president, Talhan Dalit Action Committee. “We fought a
war for swabhimaan (self-respect). The teachings of Guru Ravidas and the
access to modern education inculcated in us this desire. We are an economically
independent community, many of our people are nris who send money from
Dubai, the West, etc. Here, we do not work for landlords, we are self-employed.
Like any other caste, we too are the offspring of Punjab. We drink its
water, we live on its food. We are as good as anybody,’’ says
Pal, his serene voice betraying none of the fiery temperament he displayed
when he wielded lathis in the great battle of 2003.
This assertion of the Chamars is vindicated by Pal’s erstwhile opponent
and leader of the landlords, Bhupinder Singh Bains ‘Bindi’,
who is a village sarpanch and member of the Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara
notions of untouchability, which was a Brahmanical concept, no longer
prevail. Earlier, poor Chamar families were dependent on us, for example,
for taking the molasses’ waste. Now they stand equal to us, with
many of their children becoming Class I officers earning fat salaries.
While the sons of landlords refuse to work on the land, the children of
the Chamars study and get good jobs. In contrast, our sons are
getting hooked to drugs as they idle their time away,’’ explains
Honge Kamyaab: Dalit schoolgirls Neeru (right) and Amanjyot,
who fought along with their elders against landlords and the police
Photos Nitin Kumar
Bains admits that the landlords dominating the committee of
the samadhi were corrupt. “Every Sunday, the gulak was opened.
Of the Rs 5-7 lakh in offerings, Rs 1-2 lakh was pilfered. The committee
was against having Chamars as members as it was an old tradition.
It is wrong to think like that. The dalits got very upset when they asked
for some money to celebrate their festivals and the committee dominated
by us doled out just Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000. The dalits wanted to become
part of the committee; they fought a four-year battle in court. Today,
with the dalits around, everyone keeps a watch and corruption in the shrine
has been curbed,’’ says Bains.
Not just the pesky rams, the dalits’ opulent houses are an eyesore
for the landlords as well. Bolstered by nri help, rich dalit families
of Talhan drive around in Toyota Qualises and Maruti Zens, smoking King
Size Filter cigarettes.
So strong is the sense of dalit pride and solidarity that after winning
the 2003 battle, dalit youngsters painted their homes and motorcycles
with the slogan, Putt Chamar De (proud sons of Chamars) in retaliation
to the Jat slogan, Putt Jattan De.
A self-employed unit at Talhan sponsored by the Punjab government
employs 80 dalit women, who sew soccer balls for a Jalandhar sports goods
Each woman earns Rs
2,400 per month. This self-employment for dalit women has meant that they
no longer undertake menial chores in the landlords’ houses, where
sexual exploitation was common in the past.
Must Have Their Rights: landlord Bhupinder Singh Bains
Women, kids and youth
recollect with great pride that historic day in June 2003 when
they found they could fight back — and win. ‘I threw
bricks at the zamindars and the police,’ says Neeru, a student
“Our educated youngsters saw the TV programme on the government
scheme. We met the officials. The soccer ball sewing unit was also
set up, where we teach the women to sew. It has given us so much independence,”
explains Ram Lubhaya, member, Action Committee and the driving force behind
the sewing unit.
Women, kids and youths recollect with great pride that historic day in June
2003 when they found they could fight back — and win.
“I threw bricks at the zamindars and the oppressive police. Our
enemies cut the power supply to ensure our tubewells didn’t work
and we didn’t get water in the battlefield. But children rushed
buckets of water using our handpumps and salt for the fighting youth
to combat teargas shells. I just wanted to give them back what they had
given us all these years,’’ says Neeru, a petite Class vii
student with pigtails and a toothy grin.
Housewife Jagdish Kaur, too, was in the thick of things. “I realised
when all hell broke loose that my children were also in the fight. I picked
up a tawa and joined the fight, blocking bricks. I threw back soda bottles
and bricks. I did not listen to my brother in the police, and he ran away
screaming when I gave him a round of stones. I was taking out my anger
on them. For three-four years before the 2003 fight, the landlords
had been taunting us in the fields when we went to defecate or get fodder
for our cattle. I am proud to say that not for once did I lose my
nerve in the battle,’’ says Kaur.
Ravi Kumar was a ‘sweet 16’ when he took them on. He swells
with machismo: “We, the Chamar youth, had only one thought. Let
us bash the hell out of these guys. Had the police not been so partisan,
we would have inflicted heavy casualties on the landlords.”
Though Pal and the dalit elders stress that the village is peaceful, it
is evident that the rift runs deep. The spark of revenge is still
nurtured in many a heart. “The landlords still nurture their humiliation.
They use every opportunity to provoke us,’’ says Lubhaya.
But Talhan remains a precious landmark in the historical victory of a
protracted struggle, not so rare anymore in the rural hinterland of unequal,
prosperous and boisterous Punjab, where dalit assertion is becoming as
real as dalit power. This is the rising which is refusing to end.
18 , 2006
Indians of the gutter society, eternally condemned. Not anymore, writes
Amit Sengupta. The uprising is not a revolution, but
it is no less
for Dalit, D for defiance
dalits of Haryana are redesigning a new universe, Basharat
Peer reports from Gohana
Who Didn't Bow Down
Torso Flaming With Spirit
After his daughter was raped, dalit singer Bant Singh fought back
for justice. He now lies without his limbs in a Chandigarh hospital.
But thousands of dalits are rallying in Punjab’s Mansa, in an
unprecedented uprising against the Jat Sikhs, reports Vikram
Every night, Bant Singh, a revolutionary singer admitted in the trauma
ward of the PGIMER at Chandigarh regales the ward with inquilabi songs
and stories of his struggles
Scores for Dalit Rights
started with a gurdwara. It became an epic struggle, and ended in
a great victory. Vikram Jit Singh
tells the story of Talhan’s resistance which can change the
face of Punjab
Lot, My caste