Indian State, Land Politics, and the Dalit Political Imagination of Gurdial Singh

Narender Kumar ( teaches English at Ram Lal Anand College, University of Delhi.
30 October 2019

This article makes an effort to understand Gurdial Singh’s contribution to Indian literature in general and Punjabi literature in particular. He was a trailblazer who brought caste to the forefront in Punjabi literature by portraying a Dalit as the protagonist in his very first novel Madi da Diva (1964) – a trend that he continued later as well. It was a trend-setting moment in the history of Punjabi literature. His writings explore various issues pertaining to land distribution policies which are interlinked with caste.  

Life pays in full measure to those who withstand its ebb and flow. Gurdial Singh was one of those who lived through hardships to get the real ‘taste of life’. He was born into a poor carpentry family on 10 January 1933 in Bhaini Fateh village located in Faridkot district of Punjab. His family survived on a meagre income earned by making and carrying out repairs of bullock carts and other wood work. He was forced to drop out of school in Class VIII to work as a labourer to supplement his family’s earnings (Singh 1999:107). His experience as a labourer first in Shimla as a carpenter and then in Jalandhar as a water-tank maker, and later as an untrained teacher at a village school made him realise how those who have control over means of production exploit the skilled and unskilled labourers. Due to a frail physique, he could not continue long as a daily-wage labourer. 

Singh found refuge in a private school plus college (National Giyani College) where he worked as a teacher (Singh 2000: 86–90). Despite the acute financial hardships, he had to go through, Singh managed to qualify the Giyani, an exam of Punjabi literature, besides the matriculation exam. During his days at National Giyani College, he was an avid reader of the Punjabi magazines Lalkar and Preetladi which stoked his interest in Punjabi literature (Singh 2000: 60). He was appointed as a temporary teacher first and then as a regular teacher later on at National Giyani College. After attaining an M.A. in Punjabi Literature in 1967, he served as professor of Punjabi Literature at Punjabi University Regional Centre Bathinda, before retiring in 1995 (Singh 2000: 188).  

Gurdial Singh began writing in 1955 and his first short story “Bhaganwale” was published in 1957 in a magazine called Panj Dariya. He announced his foray into the Punjabi literary world with the publication of his first novel Madi Da Diva (1964). The novel generated a debate among Punjabi academicians, and it was praised for being a trend-setting novel in the Punjabi fictional world (Vinod 2006). Before Gurdial Singh, there were some novelists like Nanak Singh and Sant Singh Sekhon who made some references to marginalised subjects in their works. For example, Nanak Singh’s novel Chitta Lahoo (1932) and Sant Singh Sekhon’s novel Lahoo-Mitti (1949) referred to caste only partially.  But Gurdial Singh took a road that was not explored by his predecessors and presented Jagseer, a Dalit, as the protagonist of his first novel. Never before was a Dalit presented in the lead role, as the Punjabi literary scene was dominated by upper-caste writers who never deemed it fit to project lower-caste characters as protagonists. This portrayal was not merely a representation, rather it was a way to propagate or contest the popular image of a particular caste, race or ethnic group, which Jean-Paul Sartre aptly calls “writing [as] a purposeful reflection” (Sartre 2012: viii). Singh thus broke the continuum, which hitherto in the popular image of Punjab a lower caste individual meant not more than a simpleton or naive. Therefore, his writing gained significance for championing the reformative agenda to dispel the popular notions that had been extremely discriminatory towards the marginalised.

Indian State and Land Politics

Gurdial Singh’s fiction represents the miserable conditions of the lower castes in Punjab. Starting from Madi Da Diva, Singh questions landownership rights. Like in other Indian states, thr upper castes owned most of the land in Punjab. As is widely known, it all stemmed from the Manusmiriti, the ancient Hindu legal text, which did not provide property rights to untouchables (Olivelle 2005:107). In the novel, Thola works as a siri— a bonded agriculture labourer— with a landlord. Impressed by services rendered and sacrifices made by Thola in creating his estate, the landlord gives away a piece of land to him. The transfer is made orally, and it was a time when one required no paper to stake claim to one’s rightful property. Following in the footsteps of his father, the landlord’s son, Dharm Singh lets Thola’s son Jagseer retain the land. But Dharm Singh’s son Banta snatches away the land from Jagseer, who still works for the same family as a siri. Banta refuses to part with his ancestral land like his father and forefather.      

Land is one of the crucial issues that Gurdial Singh brings to the fore in his works, as also attendant conflicts between the landholding Jats and landless Dalit communities. The novel was published in 1964, and the 1960s was the period when the mechanisation of farming came about. This began to alter the socio-economic relations among various castes rapidly. Productivity shot up by several notches in 1960s in comparison with the previous generations. Per hectare production of land increased tremendously and the increased production saw a sharp upswing in the land prices. In line with that, moral values have certainly changed in the Indian context. Earlier, people used to keep their word, as Dharm Singh did in Madi Da Diva, but the entry of capital changed the mode of thinking and material comforts became more important than moral values. Rapidly increasing land value determines Banta’s morality. As he says, “These days, people are ready to die for a single penny but my father has given four bigha land free of cost to a siri.  . . . says, ‘our farm!’ Are you brother-in-law of farm? Did you buy the farm with your father’s hard-earned money? (Singh 2010: 14–98)

Capital is an aspect that determines Banta’s actions. His action points out to the underlying transformation that was taking place in the society, from the strong commitment towards moral principles to enticing material comforts. But there are other aspects too which determine his actions, such as the caste normative, which proscribes lower castes from holding land. Such normative dates back to the days of the archaic Manusmriti, but gets propagated in the name of religion which became the essential part of the Indian psyche. After independence, the Constitution has replaced the caste normative and none is compelled to follow the caste normative. But constitutional rules work only when people accept them as beneficial for the whole humanity. Since caste rules are couched in rituals and religion, constitutional rules have done little to dent the entrenched caste normative. Caste rules are interdicted but such rules are very much ingrained in the upper-caste psyche and they practise them in everyday life. Banta, being familiar with the caste rules, cannot imagine a siri to be a landowner.  

The removal of Jagseer from the given piece of land also questions the Indian state’s attitude towards the marginalised subjects. Of course, Dalits have been deprived from land rights and economic benefits from time immemorial. But now, India is a democratic state which means that the state should be the custodian of all resources in its possession, but is that true? Most of the resources in India are still in the possession of the upper castes and the lower castes remain resourceless like in the pre-colonial and colonial India.  The novel points out to the biased attitude of the India state which introduced land distribution policy after independence, but who got the land? Dalits who actually work as the tillers did not get the land. In the novel, Banta and Jagseer represent two different castes: one, the upper castes, who have been made owner of the land by the state but do not work on the land; two, Dalits who cultivate the land, but have been deprived from the ownership rights by the state.  So, the state is the central agency which discriminates against Dalits.

His second novel Unhoye (1966) exposes how the upper castes established dominance in government machinery during the colonial period. The novel raises many questions such as how the merchant class/Bania caste, who used to be petty shopkeepers in the villages began to migrate to urban places such as grain markets, which came into existence after canalisation and transformation in agriculture production. At a larger level, it also reflected the shift of merchant classes from the opportunities enabling survival to profit-making big businesses. They migrated to urban spaces and captured the investment opportunities in the emerging mandis. Banias, being economically sound and politically mobilised, took advantage of the newly implemented modern education policy of the British Raj.  Christophe Jaffrelot confirms how Banias reaped the fruits of modern education policies and consolidated themselves as bureaucratic capitalists in the colonial state (Jaffrelot 2010: 104). Gurdial Singh’s narrative of the Banias’ migration from villages to emerging mandis, reminds of the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. Earlier, land used to be the determiner of someone’s social status in the villages and landlords used to be the choudharies. But with the emergence of mandis the old feudal system began to dismantle, and power began to shift from landholding community to the merchant class, which became the determiner of agricultural production in the state. Septimus Smet Thorburn in his book Musalman and Money-Lenders in the Punjab analyses how moneylenders recognised rapidly increasing value of land and how they victimised the small farmers who took loans on high rates of interest and when such farmers found it difficult to clear the debt, the moneylenders grabbed the land (1983).   

The novel represents two categories of the merchant class: first, that works as aadti/shopkeepers in the mandi and second, that has become part of the government machinery as reflected in the novel in the form of vazir (judge) and other government employees. Now the merchant class, being part of the government machinery, works as bureaucratic capitalists, and aadtis (moneylenders) control the agriculture market. So, the merchant class to some extent established control over the state during the colonial period. Therefore, the state machinery (police and judiciary) as depicted in the novel worked in the favour of the merchant class.

The novel exposes how the state works against the working class as the house of the protagonist Bishna is confiscated by the state which wants to create a road to facilitate the grain market in the area.  The state is ready to compensate for the site that it wants to acquire, but being emotionally attached the protagonist does not want to sell it at any cost. He makes the argument that the house is registered in his name, and remains steadfast on his decision -“It is up to me whether I sell it or not?”  And this is the central question throughout the novel carrying with it many other questions embedded in it.

State Mechanism and Repressed Resistance

The merchant class, being an educated group, held major administrative posts in the colonial government and turned bureaucratic clout in their favour. Singh’s novel Unhoye makes us realise that the state is “an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of order, which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes” (Lenin 2010: 9). The removal of the carpenter Bishna from his house in the novel exposes that the state favours a particular class. Though it is his ancestral house and registered in his name, yet the state confiscates the house in the name of development as it wants to develop a grain market in the area where the house is located and the house comes in the way of the proposed road to the market. The whole state machinery — police, court and bureaucracy- works against the protagonist. Bishna says, “The government confiscated our house which was registered in my name. We were handcuffed like dacoits. All our household stuff had been handed over to Choudharies. We came out on parole. What crime did we do? . . . Is it not injustice to us?”  The way, the state functions in the case of Bishna confirms that the state is a “force of repressive execution and intervention ‘in the interests of the ruling classes’ in the class struggle conducted by the bourgeiosie and its allies against the proletariat, is quite certaily the state and quite certainly defines its basic ‘function” (Althusser 2001: 137).   

 If we look at the historical account of Punjab as documented by the British colonial officers such as S. S. Thorburn (1983), H. Calvert (1925), Malcolm Lyall Darling (1932) and scholars such as Ian Talbot (1988), Himadri Banerjee (1982), Imran Ali (1988), J. S. Grewal (2011) and Indu Banga (1997), we notice that Punjab’s social structure began to change with the introduction of landownership rights by the British Raj. Before independence the British Raj favoured the Jat community as it was the major source of army recruitment in the state (Ali 1988). This favour secured a place for the Jats in the state government machinery during the colonial period.

After independence the power was transferred to the Congress party which was dominated by the elite Brahmins and Banias. There was a sense of hatred among the peasants against the Congress in colonial Punjab, as one of the leading peasant leaders Chhotu Ram reflects, “The so-called Congressmen in this province are a gang of traders and capitalists, who are working not for the liberation of the country but to grind their own axes (Gopal 1977: 116).” But after independence the peasant leadership negotiated with the Congress and slowly began to share power with the Congress. This is because of the compromise that emerged between the peasant and the Congress leadership that the land distribution policy, which was introduced in 1950s under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, could not be implemented in the north Indian states. And the policy remained only on paper as the landlords, politicians and the bureaucrats from the landholding community did not implement it (Walisky 1977: 432-442).

Another novel Anhe Ghode Da Daan (1976) also questions land ownership rights. A landlord appoints Dharma, a Dalit, as the gardener for his new garden. The landlord shifts the family of Dharma from the village to the garden where the family is given a piece of land. The family has been living in the garden for a long time and now the second generation of the family is looking after the garden. But the landlord has sold the garden to some industrialist who wants to establish an industry in the place of the garden. This shift from agricultural economy to industrial was started with the onset of the Second Five-Year Plan (1956-1961) under the leadership of Nehru (Frankel 2005: 113-115). But the policy had serious consequences for the Dalits. As portrayed in the novel, the piece of land given to Dharma is usurped by the industrialist who bought the land from the landlord. When landlord brought Dharma from the village to garden, he promised to give that piece of land to Dharma. As earlier it was mostly oral promises which were mostly honoured, but with the introduction of the court of law, the legal document became the only way to claim one’s ownership on the piece of land. Dharma, being illiterate and economically vulnerable, does not ask the landlord to transfer the piece of land in his name. Being illiterate he still believes in the “promise” and that was the reason he was convinced by the words of landlord and moved to the garden.  Now neither the landlord nor the industrialist wants to listen to him. The industrialist with the help of the police destroys Dharma’s house and gets him and his son arrested with false allegations.

A few members from Dalit community want to get them released from the custody, and they approach the sarpanch to request him to accompany them to the police station. But the Sarpanch who belongs to the Jat community fools them by saying, “You go ahead, I am coming with other panchayat members (Singh 1976: 34). Neither the sarpanch nor the police listen to them. Rather the whole system, the bureaucracy, judiciary and panchayat stand united against a Dalit. The unity of bureaucracy, judiciary and local landlords shows how the whole social and political system discriminates Dalits.   

The green revolution and the mechanisation of farming uprooted Dalits from the villages and forced them to find survival in the emerging urban spaces. Dalits until then were either working in farms or reared sheep at saamlat (common land) to fend for themselves. With the increasing value of land, the upper castes grabbed even the common land, making those dependent on such tracts of land high and dry. Gurdial Singh brings the attention of his readers to the same through a Dalit who grazes sheep and herds goat, but finds it difficult to survive with this traditional profession as there is no land on which to graze the herd. So, they are forced to leave the traditional profession and find a survival in urban spaces. The rising ghettos in the urban spaces narrate the story of forced migration. These unskilled migrated Dalit labourers end up working for a class that has already established itself in the government machinery, either in the form of politicians or the babus.  A sizeable number of them become domestic helps, drivers, conductors and clerks and are employed in petty jobs that pay little but extract labour that is excruciating both physically and mentally. What has changed? This is the question that disturbs any sensible and sensitive human being who knows how Dalits have been victimised in the name of caste and development.

Impact of Gurdial Singh’s Work

The impact of Gurdial Singh’s representation of caste in his works can be noticed among the educated Dalits who are demanding equal share in the resources of the country. The current Dalit leadership, intellectuals, and activists have begun to demand equal share in the resources of the state. This is the change that has taken place in the Dalit political imagination which emerged with the publication of Gulamgiri (1873), a major critique of Hinduism. This is the book that exposes the politics of Hindu mythology and inspires Dalits to generate alternative discourse. 

As things stand today, it is fair to say that Dalit movement today is not just confined to seeking reservations for educational and employment opportunities, but it has come to demand an increasing share in the resources of the country. There is a growing awareness among the young, educated Dalits that, caste is a human creation to enslave a group of people and to protect the interests of the dominant groups.

This awareness among the Punjabi Dalits can be noticed from the incidents that take place in their everyday life. For example, there is a village called Talhan near Jalandhar. The village has a population of 4,500, out of which 25% are Jats, 65% Ravidasia and the rest belongs to other serving castes. In 2003, a conflict emerged between the Ravidasia and Jats over the question of representation in the Gurdwara managing committee. The Gurdwara is not just a place where people worship rather it has its own economy. And this economy is controlled by the dominant caste Jats. Dalits, protesting against the dominant caste Jats, wanted equal representation in the managing committee (Jodhka 2003).  

Gurdial Singh’s fiction played a significant role in shaping the Dalit political imagination after the 1960s, especially in Punjab. His narrative has mobilised a large number of people from the marginalised community. As a result, a significant number of Dalit writers have emerged on the Punjabi literary horizon.  His contribution to sensitise his readers about the questions of caste, class, and gender in Indian literature in general and Punjabi literature in particular will remain uncontested.


Narender Kumar ( teaches English at Ram Lal Anand College, University of Delhi.
30 October 2019