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

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Internal Caste Cleavages among Dalits in Punjab

Punjab houses the highest number of Scheduled Castes in comparison with all other states in India. Despite the common nomenclature—SCs, Dalits are sharply divided into 39 castes. This caste heterogeneity impacts their upward social mobility and political mobilisation in multifarious ways.

[Caste names are used in the article for academic analysis. Any offence caused by such an exercise is deeply regretted.]

I would like to thank Pritam Singh and Pramod Kumar for their encouragement and academic support. Pampa Mukhrejee, Chandan Awashti and Nirmal Singh provided me the much desired information; my thanks to them. Equally to Seema, Sahaj and Daksh for keeping me free from the home front.

The Scheduled Castes (SCs) constitute 31.94% of Punjab’s population in comparison to 16.6% in the entire country.1 This share varies from 32.07% to 42.51% in many districts of Punjab with 57 villages having 100% SC population. In the other 4,799 villages (39.44%), their share is 40% or more.2 Consequently, Punjab has 25% share in reservation against 15% SC reservation at the national level. However, this extraordinary numerical strength does not manifest in the electoral performance of their own political parties like Scheduled Castes Federation/Republican Party of India/Bahujan Samaj Party (SCF/RPI/BSP). One reason behind this dismal performance could be the division of SCs into numerous castes scattered across varied religions, deras and sects. Another possible reason could be the weak Brahminical influence on Punjab, due to the visible and hidden role of the transformative character of the Islam and Sikh faiths, which unlike in the Hindi region could not motivate the SC leadership to build their own strong political party. Yet another could be the accommodation of various popular SC leaders in prominent places within the mainstream political parties.3

Like elsewhere, the SCs of Punjab are not a homogeneous category. They are divided by the same logic of graded caste hierarchy that separated them from the various categories of upper castes as per the Brahminical social order epitomised by the varna system. In the varna hierarchy, Shudras, the last varna, are considered to be lowest in social status. However, SCs are placed even further down the line; lower than the Shudras (artisan castes). In fact, SCs are not included at all within the varna system. They were/are contemptuously called avarnas (beyond varna) or Ati-shudras/achhuts4 (untouchables). Though in general parlance the SCs are called Shudras, they differ from them in that the latter are not considered untouchables.

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