The protests in Punjab can be seen as an effort to make the government of Punjab accountable.
The Sangrur parliamentary constituency, which goes to the polls on June 23, has become a key testing ground for the extent to which rural workers, and especially Dalits, can use the political process to press their demands. The seat fell vacant when incumbent Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann of the Aam Aadmi Party was elected to the Punjab legislative assembly from Dhuri earlier this year.
Agricultural labourers are demanding that the state government fix minimum wages for manual paddy transplantation at Rs 6,000 per acre and daily wages at Rs 700. This is the first time in the recent history of Punjab that the demand for minimum wages has been brought up in such an organised manner and at such a large scale.
On June 9 and 10, more than 10,000 Dalits, primarily agricultural labourers, participated in three different protests in Sangrur city. Two were organised by left-leaning agricultural labour unions and one by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The majority of the protestors were women workers.
While all three protests focused on the issues facing Punjab’s Dalit labour force, especially in rural areas, the immediate objectives and tactics used were different.
BSP’s political protest
The BSP organised its protest rally in front of the chief minister’s residence, as a show of strength before the by-election. The mobilisation centred on the demand to fix minimum wages.
Addressing the gathering, Kuldeep Singh Sardoolgarh, BSP in charge for Punjab, said, “Bhagwant Mann became the chief minister of Punjab with the votes of the large Dalit population. It is they who handed him the green pen to extricate them from their plight.” Then, he accused Mann of apathy towards the poor and asked if his nib is broken now.
Sardoolgarh warned that if the people are capable of giving Mann his ‘green pen’, they are equally capable of taking it back.
He argued for a middle-ground on the question of minimum wage for labourers, suggesting that arrangements could be made to have farmers pay Rs 5,000 and the Punjab government could add Rs 1,000 to make it Rs 6,000.
BSP state chief Jasvir Singh Ghari, too, addressed the gathering and mocked the present state government, saying, “Majh vech k ghodi layi, dudh peeno gaye lidd chukni payi (We bought a mare by selling cattle, now we are not only deprived of milk but have to clean her shit too).” This local idiom was well received by the protesters, who chanted its second part in unison. .
Ghari also criticised the AAP government in the state for not implementing reservation in the ongoing recruitments to various government departments. He added that not a single Dalit-mazdoor was elected as a Rajya Sabha MP from Punjab in the recent elections, which means that the community has been deprived of representation in the upper house for the next six years.
Although the BSP is in alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and is backing the latter’s nominee, Kamaldeep Kaur, as a joint candidate for the Sangrur bypoll, members of the SAD remained completely absent from the protests.
S. Sukhbir Singh Badal appeals to all Punjabis to shed differences and give one chance to Bandi Singhs languishing in jails for more than 2 decades to be reunited with their families. He canvassed for Kamaldeep Kaur Rajoana in Bhadaur, Barnala, Mehal Kalan & Malerkotla today. 1/3 pic.twitter.com/8eFRv1KTAD
— Shiromani Akali Dal (@Akali_Dal_) June 9, 2022
Interestingly, while the candidate herself was camped in the same city, she did not attend the protest rally either. Kaur is the sister of Balwant Singh Rajoana, who was convicted for the assassination of Beant Singh, former chief minister of Punjab.
While announcing her candidature, SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal said that Panthic (Sikh) organisations, the Bandi Sikh Rihai Committee (Committee for the Release of Sikh Prisoners) and the BSP were consulted while selecting Kaur.
Kaur’s election campaign is focused on intensifying efforts for the release of Sikh prisoners who remain behind bars beyond the term of their sentences. This issue, however, has little resonance among the Dalit community, especially labourers, and the SAD seems oblivious to their immediate demands and concerns.
AAP’s broken promises to the Dalit community
The other protests, led by different agricultural labour organisations, were held on two consecutive days. While the June 9 rally was held at a grain market in Sangrur, the June 10 protests also took place in front of chief minister Mann’s residence.
Apart from the two main demands – of minimum wage and reservation for Dalits – these organisations also demanded that those instigating social boycotts across Punjab be charged under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Social boycotts are often used as a suppressive tactic when Dalit agricultural labourers demand an increase in the minimum wage, common land, residential plots and so on.
The protestors also urged that the various charges slapped on the protesting labourers be dropped.
Other demands included waiver of all their debts from government and private institutions, like microfinance companies, that the Land Ceiling Act be implemented and surplus land be distributed among the landless.
The brewing resentment among the members of the Dalit community was starkly visible, stemming from the perception that the chief minister treats farmers’ unions differently from Dalit labour unions.
The protesting members of the Dalit community expressed their discontent with Mann by stating that he not only met the farmer union leaders, but also hugged them; changed the dates for paddy transplantation after consultations with them; announced financial assistance of Rs 1,500 per acre for farmers who will sow paddy directly by using machines; and even reduced the price of liquor.
Mann has ample time to do all of the above, they said, but no time to listen to the problems and demands of the poor labourers. They said his election promises are turning into mere gimmicks.
Speaking particularly of the direct seeding of rice through machines, as mentioned above, Dalit protesters said that the process will reduce work opportunities for agricultural labourers, yet, the government has not considered any compensation for them.
The poor Dalit community sees Mann as being unconcerned with their hardships, even though they voted him to power hoping that he would improve their conditions.
Why the demands of the Dalits matter
It is important to understand why the protesting Dalits are seeking the government’s intervention. The ownership of land still plays a significant role in the socio-economic and political positioning of the various communities residing in villages.
The landowning castes, primarily the Jatt-Sikh community in Punjab, are in a position to dictate their terms. They need not approach the government while fixing the selling price of wheat husk or wages for paddy transplantation.
Conversely, landless Dalit agricultural labourers in Punjab have no footing to bargain with the landowning castes In fact, raising their voice may even lead to physical violence, as Dalits in several villages have experienced in the past.
That is why Dalit labourers are asking the government to take their side and make minimum wages legally binding on the peasantry. In fact, they are trying to get the state government to play a more important role in their daily lives.
Irrespective of different party affiliations, ideologies and tactics employed in these protests, the participation of the rural Dalit community in these rallies symbolises their assertion as citizens, demanding basic minimum rights from the government. These protests reflect a rise in their political consciousness and have the potential to mitigate intra-caste tensions that prevail within the Dalit community.
Ahead of the Sangrur bypoll, the protests can be seen as the efforts of the Dalit community to make the state government accountable. This firm response from Punjab’s most vulnerable rural workforce can thus also be seen as a deepening of democracy.