ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Dalit Politics and Its Fragments in Punjab

Does Religion Hold the Key?

The enigmatic marginality of Dalit politics in Punjab, despite having the highest proportion of Scheduled Castes, partly exposes the limitation of numbers as indicators of social dynamics in a democracy. The key may lie in the critical role that multiple religious traditions play within the Dalit community across regions in Punjab, inhibiting a larger Dalit consolidation. Ethnographic profiles of three distinct, organic Dalit intellectuals in Punjab show their convergence in accepting B R Ambedkar as a political icon but divergence on the latter’s prescription of conversion to Buddhism.

The author would like to acknowledge the anonymous referee’s comments on the article, Mark Juergensmeyer for introducing the author to Manohar Lal Mahey, and Mahey himself for supporting and sharing his insights in the field. Thanks are also due to the Ambedkar University Delhi for a minor research grant to complete the author’s ongoing study in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.


Dalit politics in Punjab is an enigma. If numbers matter in a democracy, how does one make sense of the near total absence of Dalit politics in a state with the highest population of Scheduled Castes (SCs) in India, pegged at 32% (Government of Punjab nd)? Moreover, besides the numerical strength and substantial diaspora or non-resident Indian (NRI) support base, the region boasts of a formidable line-up of home-grown revolutionary Dalit ideologues, such as Babu Mangu Ram, Kanshi Ram and others.1 Dalits in the Doaba region of Punjab,2 especially in and around Jalandhar, with their strong economic standing courtesy the traditional leather business, have always had a high level of social awareness vis-à-vis the question of identity and politics.3 B R Ambedkar had visited this area after he resigned as the law minister in 1951, and enjoyed a huge following in the Bootan Mandi locality, which was the hub of the leather trade, including some of the prominent business families of the region. Many of Ambedkar’s associates during his Delhi stay, through the late 1940s and 1950s, were from this area.

There are standard reasons to explain this enigma. The most prominent being the dominance of the landed community of Jats and other castes.4 In other words, it is argued that because of the Jat Sikh dominance, the Dalit community was never able to chart its own independent, political journey. They continued to express themselves either through the Shiromani Akali Dal or the Indian National Congress, the two dominant political parties of the state, again largely led by the Jats. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), as the perceived face of Dalit politics, has been reduced to a mere footnote in the larger text of Punjab politics, with its vote share falling drastically from 16.32% in 1992 to 4.9% in 2012 and 1.55% in 2017 (I P Singh 2017). Economic and materialist explanations notwithstanding, the role of religion as a factor in determining the status of local Dalit politics has not been adequately addressed. Of late, the mushrooming of deras in the region, as a site of Dalit consolidation and propagation of Ambedkar’s ideology and thoughts, has once again brought the theme of religion into focus (Ram 2004, 2007; Singh 2011, 2017b; Juergensmeyer 2000).

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Updated On : 1st Sep, 2018
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