Will Punjab have a Mayawati equivalent Chief Minister ?

by Apr 20, 2023Blogs0 comments

Did you know that the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshiram was a Ramdasia Sikh? He chose to pursue a social revolution in Uttar Pradesh (former Chief Minister Mayavati was his protege) but not his home state Punjab!

Actually, from the time the state of Punjab was formed in 1966, it probably had only two non-Jaat chief ministers i.e. Giani Zail Singh (from the carpenter community of Ramgariya Sikhs) and Charanjit Channi (from the Chamar community of Ramdasia Sikhs). Chamars are followers of Sant Ravidas.

Inspite of being only about 20% of Punjab’s population against the backward classes of about 30% the Jaat Sikhs assume a share of power i.e. disproportionate to their population. Most farmers are Jaat Sikhs and thus a big recipient of free power, that was introduced by the Akali government in 1997-98, and central government subsidy.

The powerful Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Community (SGPC) that controls all gurdwaras in undivided Punjab (barring Haryana) is indirectly controlled by the Akalis because it derives substantial support from Jaat Sikhs.

Across parties, every chief minister has to be a Jaat Sikh. One hoped Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) would think differently but they too succumbed and appointed a Jaat Chief Minister. The reality is that most Chief Ministers are focused on the most powerful and fellow community in the state.

At the outset I must state that I have nothing personal against the Jaat Sikh community but some things needs to be told. In fact I admire the 1960’s generation for their contribution to the Green Revolution. This article seeks to provoke thought and not cast aspersions on any community or people.

So the question is, were Jaats always so powerful in Punjab?

The answer is No. The ten Gurus were Khatris (simply Kshatriyas). Guru Nanak was a Bedi, Angad a Trehan, Amar Das a Bhalla and the rest were Sodhis. Jaats came into prominence with Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule.

I wonder if this Jaat desire to control Sikh religious affairs is because they hold a grudge against the Khatri community because the Khatris deprived them of the Guru gaddi. “Baba Buddha, a Jaat, was made to do tilak of gurus but was never assigned the supreme religious position,” says a scholar from Punjab.

Further, Jaat differences with Bhapas (Khatri-Arora Sikhs) also arise because Jaats see themselves as the original followers of Khalsa (founded by the tenth Guru in 1699) as against the Bhapas who were later entrants into Khalsa. What they forget is that there were nine Khatri Gurus before and including the tenth.

So how did the Jaat Sikhs become such a powerful community in Punjab?

Initially, the Khalsa followers were mostly Jaats (were considered low caste then). Though others considered themselves Sikhs, they held back since they were not followers of Khalsa. The birth of Khalsa resulted in the rise of Jaat power in Punjab. Khalsa was raised to fight Mughal oppression and persecution of Hindus and Sikhs (who then were considered part of the larger Hindu community).

They got more known with the advent of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule and victories against the Afghans. Further, the British were grateful to the Sikh princes for assistance received during the mutiny of 1857 and seeing the bravery of Sikh armies realised, that they could be an effective buffer between Afghanistan and India.

Thereafter, British made caste the basis of land ownership and tacitly supported the division of Punjab into Sikh and Hindu. Also read How the British Divided Punjab into Hindu and Sikh

The British wooed the Jaats so, “The area specifically chosen for the Sikhs was a tract known as nili bar, irrigated by the Chenab canal. Colonization officers scoured Sikh villages in the districts of Amritsar, Ludhiana and Ferozpur to pick up the best farmers. The settlers were given heritable and inalienable rights of occupancy. The vast majority of Sikh colonists were Malwa Jats with a sprinkling on non-Jat agricultural tribes.”

The caste divide was created in the Indian Army too. A Jaat Sikh regiment and a Sikh Light Infantry for Mazhabi Sikhs were created.

Another reason for rise in their power was that Jaats controlled SGPC since its inception in 1925. Plus, barring two every Chief Minister of Punjab, since the state was formed in 1966, has been a Jaat Sikh.

Thus, the Jaat Sikh community became powerful by virtue of being land owners-farmers, political power and control over Sikh religious affairs.

Another view by Prof Harish Puri is, “The large scale entry of the Jats by the time of the Sixth Guru, tended to alter the caste equation in the Panth. The Jats constituted the rural elite who dominated the rural Punjab. By the 18th century the Jat constituency was preponderant among the constituent groups in the Panth (McLeod 1975: 10).”

Jaat Sikhs have disputes for e.g. between themselves on land but stand united when a third party is involved as we saw during the farmer’s agitation. They are both nationalists and separatists (biggest proponents of the Khalistan Movement). Clan loyalty is strong within India and Pakistan Punjab. Perhaps i.e. why Navjot Sidhu embraced General Bajwa (a Punjabi Jat Muslim) during a visit to Pakistan.

So what is the present?

The powerful Jaat Sikhs have not paid adequate attention to all sections of society.

Thus, a devoted Khatri Sikh laments, “SGPC definitions of a Sikh make Sehajdharis, Patits and non-Amritdharis second class Sikhs because they are unable to be elected to the SGPC management but are duty bound by its rules and expected to contribute money and labour (sewa).” A 2016 amendment disentitled Sehajdharis from voting in the elections of SGPC and managing committees.

Most agricultural land is owned by Jaat Sikhs. Dalits own only 3.5 per cent of Punjab’s private farmland, according to the Agriculture Census of 2015-16.

A lot is made about the rising popularity of Deras that essentially attracts followers from the poorer, backward and non-Jaat sections of society.

I earlier wrote, Why Dera Sacha Sauda draws followers . Here is an excerpt, “The Green Revolution of the late 1960s benefited Jaats the most as they were the dominant agricultural caste. In the prosperity that followed, the backward classes and poor were left out. To add to their woes was the insecurities caused by the extremely violent Khalistan movement of the 1980s. Deras existed earlier too, but the external environment increased the insecurity. The need for a support system and to be part of a larger community was felt. It is this vacuum that deras like Sacha Sauda filled. They made the poor feel secure, cared for, loved, provided a support system and gave them dignity.”

Further, the backwards e.g. chamars are not treated well. According to a Punjab based scholar, “They are considered pariahs in all matters. Sikhs generally used the epithet Sant for Ravidas, denying him the status of Guru, which they kept only for their own ten gurus. While Ravidasis take pride in being chamars (as did their guru) Sikhs continue to consider chamars as low caste. Inter-dining, intermarriage between two communities is still not accepted, although the elite among them enjoys a better social status by virtue of their political or economic power.” Rajput Queen Meerabai was a follower of Sant Ravidas.

Ajoy D wrote in The Wire, “Their crematorium, gurdwara and even the playground is separate from that of the Jat Sikh families. There aren’t any water pipelines running through their colonies while there is an abundance of water in the lands owned by the Jat Sikh families.”

Today, when one says Deras are a threat to Sikhism, it means they are a threat to Akali Dal controlled SGPC.

The SGPC (that was created to manage Gurdwaras in Punjab) has assumed the role of spokesperson of the Sikh Panth.

Thus, SGPC expresses disapproval of Sant Ravidas or any other living Guru for e.g. Nirankaris.

“The Nirankaris believe in the formless God-Nirankar-who can be reached through a “God-realised soul” or “satguru”. Trouble began in 1951, when Satguru Avtar Singh proclaimed himself a living guru in the presence of the Adi Granth (the Sikh holy book, which is considered to be a living Guru).” (ThePrint Rivalry between Sikhs and Nirankaris is nearly a century old)

The cause of differences between orthodox Sikhism and Nirankaris are limited to the latter’s worship of gurus other than the ten gurus recognized by Sikhs. They also disapprove of militant Khalsa. 1 Pg. 125

As a Punjabi Khatri, I believe that no current Guru should compare himself with the respected Ten Gurus. If your thoughts and karmas are good, devotees will follow you as we see with modern day Gurus.

On the Ravidasias note this. Indian Express report,“An attack in 2009 during a religious congregation in Vienna, which the current chief of the Dera Sant Niranjan Das survived, but in which one of the sants was killed, became a watershed moment. In Varanasi, on the birth anniversary of Guru Ravidas in 2010, the Dera and its sants declared Ravidassia as a new religion.”

Ravidassias believe in Ravidasia Dharm. It is a Panth, like there have been many in India. “Dera Sachkhand or Dera Ballan has emerged as a major centre for the articulation of the Ravidassia identity in Punjab.”

So let us stop assuming that SGPC represents the entire Sikh community?

Unless Punjab has a Chief Minister who is able to look beyond his community/vote bank politics, carry all sections of the society with him/her, stop appeasing whilst addressing genuine concerns and break the stranglehold of the SGPC over Sikh affairs, my beloved home state is bound to die and conversions will be rampant. Punjab needs social reform.

It is resident Punjabis who have to take the lead, the Centre can do that much! A better version of Mayavati needs to rise in Punjab.

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