Punjab’s Dalits: Seen But Not Heard

By paying lip-service to Dalits without addressing their real concerns, all political parties have invisibilised Punjab’s largest oppressed community

Seen But Not Heard

All the significant parties in the fray in the Punjab elections this year have made a big show of offering greater representation to Dalits. The BJP kicked-off this trend last year by announcing it would appoint a Dalit chief minister if elected to power. The Congress shuffled its chief minister just 111 days before election dates were ann­ounced, choosing Dalit leader Charanjit Singh Channi for the post. The AAP and Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) have CM faces from the general category, but both were forced to promise a deputy CM from the Dalit community, as it forms the largest vote bank in the state.  

These developments have brought Punjab’s caste equations into the national spotlight. But on the cold winter night of February 15, a conv­ersation with Bikkar Singh, a young Dalit, made it clear to this reporter that although all parties are eager to gain the support of Dalits, they do not want to address the real issues facing the community. The lip-service has been necessitated simply because they form 33 per cent of the state’s population, and no party can afford to ignore such a huge constituency.   

Bikkar Singh says, “The development being offered by all parties is limited to doling out gra­ins and pulses for free, offering handouts of Rs 1,000-2,000 and constructing drains and streets in Dalit neighbourhoods. Nobody talks of impr­o­ving our quality of life, our houses and our sha­re in the different means of production in this country.”

Bikkar has been a member of the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (Land Rights Struggle Committee) for the past three years, waging a struggle to ensure that Dalits of Pun­jab’s Malwa region get a share in the panchayat lands (village commons). He had accompanied me to the nearby village of Tolewal so that I could understand the issue of “Dalits’ share in the mea­ns of production” as he had described eloq­uently. In 2019, Dalits of Tolewal had seized one-third of the village’s panchayat lands.

Over 60 years since the Punjab Vill­age Common Lands Act was passed in 1961, Dalits in 95 per cent vill­ages have not been able to assert their rights on these lands.

On the morning of February 14, members of the community gathered in the Ravidas Dhar­a­m­sh­ala in the village. There, Dalit farm labourer Ran­jit Singh (44) said, “In 1961, the state passed the Punjab Vill­age Common Lands Act, reserving 33 per cent of panchayat common lands for schedu­led castes, over which Dalits could bid and get an annual lic­ence. It has been over 60 years since this law was enacted, but even today in 95 per cent vill­ages, Dalits have not been able to assert their rights on these lands. Eager-for-votes part­ies do not utter a single word on this issue. Dur­ing our long struggle to snatch our rights on this land, we have faced brutality all along.”

Singh points to Maya Devi (56), sitting next to him, and says angrily: “The heads of these wom­en were split open.” Maya Devi, also a farm lab­ourer, now spe­a­ks up. “Bhai, so what if we were hit by sticks? At least by fighting we became own­­ers of land. Now we can produce fodder for our cattle and enough grains to fulfil our needs.”

This village’s Dalits currently have documen­ted ownership of 5.5 acres of land, which they farm collectively. Bikkar says: “Apart from pan­chayat common lands, there is also the issue of nazul land (unused government land). In 1956, Dalit farmers were given a part of these lands for agriculture, but today, most of them have been occupied by powerful people. Despite rep­eated attempts, Dalit peasants have failed to rec­laim these lands. Even after so many years, they have been denied land ownership, but in this election, no party has promised to ensure these rights for them.”

Across villages of Punjab’s Malwa region, the last 10 years have witnessed numerous movem­ents to claim the land reserved for Dalits, while other hamlets have seen Dalits struggle to claim land to build houses.

Blue angst Dalit students protest dilution of SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in Chandigarh, 2018

Just 3 km from the city of Sangrur, in Kheri village, Dalits have been fighting for many years to take possession of lands they were allotted a decade ago, to build houses. Darshan, who lives in a single room on a pucca road next to a drain, says: “Ten years ago, 65 families of our village were assigned plots measuring 5 marlas (aro­u­nd 1,400 sq ft), but we have still not been given possession. In fact, the markers which were est­ablished for our lands have been destroyed. Both Akalis and Congress have been in power since then, but we have not been offered a resolution. Dalits of the village are being forced to live on 10-20 yard plots. No political party is ready to speak on this issue.”

Darshan takes us on a visit to the houses of other Dalit families in the village. Nearly all families live in matchbox-­sized houses. In each house, the wom­­en recount their daily struggles. Some narr­ate how MNREGA work is not available to them, others say their children’s education has been aff­ected since schools were shut down due to Covid and they don’t possess a smartphone.

Punjab’s Doaba is where cas­te and relig­ious movements are centred. In Malwa, only a small area is active, that too, over minor issues of village commons, etc.


Pointing at election posters on the dilapidated wall of a house, Darshan says: “All leaders are busy in name-calling each other, asking for vot­es by belittling one another. But no one talks of our real issues.”

When asked whether major political parties were actually discussing the iss­ues of Punjab’s Dalits, Jatinder Singh, a professor of political science at Patiala’s Punjabi University, respo­nds: “There is no mention of the problems of Dalits in the 11-point agenda of the BJP-led alliance, incl­uding Punjab Lok Congress and SAD (United). The five promises of AAP include free educat­ion, health and monetary grants for wom­­en, but do not talk about distribution of res­ources and representation in government institutions. SAD (Badal) has nothing to offer except a Dalit deputy CM. The Cong­ress is clai­ming to be the biggest well-wisher of Dalits, sim­ply because of a Dalit CM candidate. The so-called party of the Dal­its, BSP, is completely absent from the political theatre. No established party is raising the real issues of the Dalit community.”


He underlines the actual demands of Dalits: “Quality education, healthcare, land redistribution, fair auction of panchayat lands, housing land, full implementation of MNREGA, memb­ership in cooperative societies, and providing modern machinery to urban sanitation workers are some of the issues that should definitely form part of the electoral agenda.”

As a voter in the Punjab elections, Gurdeep hig­hlights another reason behind the silence of big parties on issues important to Dalits: “Actu­ally, there has been a lack of sustained social mov­em­ents on caste-based discrimination and violence in the state. Social movements of the oppressed classes are fragmented in their curr­ent form. The Doaba region is the centre of cas­te and relig­ious identity movements. In Malwa, only a small area is active over issues of panc­h­ayat lands, housing plots and fighting abuse. In the Majha area, there are just a few minor move­ments of the community. As a result of the lack of continuity and cohesion in social movements, political parties are able to maintain a distance from the real issues of oppressed classes.”


All political parties are eager to attract a third of Punjab’s population to their camp, but none wants to touch their real concerns. The real problems being faced by the Dalit community are now­here to be seen in election campaigns, manifestos, debates or speeches at the rallies of these parties.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Seen But Not Heard")