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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Dalits happy with Channi as CM but is it enough for Congress?

Dalits make up for 32 per cent of the eligible voters in Punjab. Political parties appear to be jostling for their votes ahead of 2022 Punjab Assembly polls. Community leaders, on the other side, complain that the promises made during elections have not been fulfilled by the parties winning the assembly polls.

Among the backward castes in Punjab, 25 per cent are Mazhabi Sikh and 20 per cent Ramdasia Sikhs. Across Punjab, there are 50 seats which are dominated by the Dalit community voters. Interestingly, Jat Sikhs, who have 18 per cent of the total vote share, dominate the power corridors in the state. With the exception of Giani Zail Singh in 1972, chief ministers have generally belonged to the Jat community in Punjab.

Barely six months ahead of 2022 Punjab Assembly election, the ruling Congress party made Charanjit Singh Channi, belonging to the Dalit community, as the Punjab chief minister. Many see this as a move by the Congress to woo the community. However, leaders from the Dalit community said the success of Congress’s move depended on how Channi delivered on the promises he made after becoming the chief minister.

Read | Fractured but most sought after: The story of Punjab’s Dalits this election season

India Today TV visited two Dalit majority areas Rupnagar and Doaba to find out the issues faced by the community in the run up to the state election.

The Kanshi Ram effect

In Khawaspura village of Rupnagar district, which is the birth place of Dalit leader and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) founder Kanshi Ram, people remember him as a reformer who stood up for the marginalised community.

Kanshi Ram’s family still lives in Khawaspura, preserving his memories and a library in his name. Kanshi Ram’s nephew Balwant said his uncle was the reason why the Dalit community was aware of their rights and did not stay a mere vote bank.

The birthplace of Kanshi Ram has a memorial made after him by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and Delhi minister Rajendra Pal Gautam. However, Balwant said the villagers had been demanding a school in the village in Kanshi Ram’s name.

People stand near the statue of Kanshi Ram in Khawaspura village in Rupnagar district.

A community centre was also made during the Akali Dal government in Kanshi Ram’s name. While the centre still does not have a name plate mentioning Kanshi Ram, the place is being used as a primary school.

The villagers converted the community centre into a school as the nearest primary school was one-and-a-half kilometres away. Children had to cross the national highway which was risky due to the movement of heavy vehicles.

The makeshift primary school lacks basic amenities as many students have to sit on carpets in the classrooms.

Harpreet Singh, a member of the Ravidasia Sikh community, said there was no college for girls in the area, making higher education difficult. He said politicians knocked on their doors during the election and made tall promises. But after election, everything was forgotten for five years.

Deprived of higher education

Among the Dalit community, there is a huge chunk of Mazhabi Sikhs who are also known as Valmikis. Socio-economically backward, Valmikis fear that their next generations might have to face same difficulties in attaining higher education and availing other basic facilities.

Karnail Singh, a member of the Valmiki community, said, “There is no guarantee of income. Poverty is the biggest roadblock to higher education for children. I am not educated enough to know more about the schemes by government for our community.”

Also Read | Captain vs Congress: How Amarinder plans to take on ruling party in upcoming Punjab polls

Many like Karnail Singh from the Valmiki community have a big family but small house.

Declining strength of BSP

Kanshi Ram contested the state election from Doaba region and in 1996, formed an alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). The alliance was victorious.

Yet again in 2022, the Shiromani Akali Dal has formed an alliance with the BSP. This alliance eyes to gain maximum chunk of Dalit voters in both Malwa and Doaba regions.

However, over the last few years, the BSP’s vote share in Punjab has declined. Once known as party of marginalised in Punjab, the party now plays a second fiddle to mainstream parties.

Kanshi Ram’s nephew Balwant said the next generation leaders of the BSP were responsible for this mess. They failed to follow the guidance and legacy of his uncle, he said.

Also Read | Punjab polls: Jobs crisis, inflation are main issues in Amritsar | Ground Report

Nikku Ram, member of Sahib Kanshi Ram Samaj Bhalai Society, said the biggest reason for the decline in BSP’s vote share is the infighting in the party. Several BSP leaders left the party to join either the SAD or the Congress.

Kamaljeet, the chairman of a trust working for the Dalits, blamed BSP supremo Mayawati alleging that she has deviated from Kanshi Ram’s ideology, leading to the depletion of votes for the party in the region.

Lack of political representation

Despite the BSP’s declining popularity, people in Khawaspura say that they have not been adequately represented in politics following the death of Kanshi Ram. Balwant said while the socio-economic situation in the area has improved marginally, the Dalits did not get their deserving share in the power corridors of the state.

Bhagirath Singh, a villager, claimed that several government schemes were not reaching the Dalit community. The Dalits are being deprived of their basic rights, he said.

He said education and health continued to remain major issues for the community.

Impact of a Dalit CM

Having taken over as Punjab chief minister only for a few months after the resignation of Captain Amarinder Singh, Channi seems to have benefit of doubt among the Dalit community voters. Many see Channi’s rise to power as a significant moment for the community.

Kanshi Ram’s nephew Balwant said this was indeed a major achievement for the community. Balwant said it made the Dalits really happy that for the first time, their community member was made the chief minister.

A villager said the Dalit community in Punjab was stronger now as the chief minister belonged to their community.

Another villager Lakhvinder, however, said unless the new chief minister delivered on all the promises he was making, it would be difficult to have faith on any politician.

Kamaljeet, chairman of improvement trust, said despite having a sizeable vote share, the Dalits were deprived from political representation as there was a belief that the community would only vote for the BSP. But now, this has changed, he said.

At the same time, the Dalit leaders are apprehensive that unless CM Channi is empowered to take decisions, there is not much to hope that he will further empower the community.

Situation in Doaba

The situation is not so different in Doaba. While the Dalit community here is elated over Channi’s appointment as the chief minister, they feel he needs to deliver on his promises to make a difference.

Yoga Singh, a villager in Doaba, said the Dalit community benefitted from all central schemes, including the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. However, many expressed unhappiness with the state government, mainly over issues of drugs, power tariffs and unemployment.

A villager, Balbir Singh, said that CM Channi promised free electricity but the ground reality was different. Many villagers said that their electricity bills went up to Rs 8,000.

Also Read | Where does the BJP go wrong in its ties with the Sikhs

The Congress, which is facing anti-incumbency in Punjab, hopes to revive its fortunes with the elevation of Charanjit Singh Channi as the chief minister. The move has been well received by the Dalit community, but local issues seem more dominant over political optics.

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