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

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Deras, Dalits, and Caste Politics in Punjab

Decoding the Channi Experiment

In the 2022 assembly elections in Punjab, where the Aam Aadmi Party registered a massive and historic win, most analyses tended to underestimate the caste factor. The ascendance of Charanjit Singh Channi as the chief ministerial face of the Congress simply failed to impress upon the people. The background of the failure of the Channi experiment by way of examining the multilayered reality of Dalit identity in Punjab is explored in this article.

In the Punjab assembly elections 2022, the ascendance and projection of Charanjit Singh Channi, a Ramdassia Dalit,1 as the chief ministerial candidate by the Congress was broadly perceived as a masterstroke. With the Shiromani Akali Dal, led by the Badals, and its allies already in the dock because of the simmering discontent and anger emanating from the region against the farm bills, the electoral fray looked almost like a cakewalk for the reigning Congress. The Akalis, though, distanced from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and stitched up an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), but it was almost certain that they did not stand to retrieve their lost ground. The Congress, though, was marred with internal squab­bling; still, they looked reasonably assured to regain the political helm of the state. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that made waves in the previous assembly elections remained largely subdued and not many on the ground expected them to do the miraculous work that they eventually did, winning 92 out of 117 assembly seats.

While Channi’s faultless impromptu bhangra performances at various events in the run-up to the election carried a stamp of authentic Punjabiyat, his gentle persona with a humble background and, more importantly, his Dalit status added up to what was seen as the best bet in the current scenario of Punjab politics. That the Dalits of Punjab statistically add up to roughly 33%—the most in the country as far as their numerical prowess is concerned—was seen as a perfect recipe for a successful verdict. Channi also foregrounded his Dalit identity in his campaigns by visiting various deras, including the most influential and powerful, Dera Sachkhand Ballan near Jalandhar in the Doaba region, where he not just announced a bevy of highly ambitious government funded projects2 but also spent a night doing seva or sacred service at the dera in the company of the current dera chief, Sant Niranjan Das.3 It is to be noted that this is the dera that made headlines in 2009 when a visiting sant from the dera, Sant Ramanand, was shot dead in Vienna, Austria and Niranjan Das, the current chief, survived the murderous attack by certain fundamentalist forces. The dera then on became an epicentre of a movement to establish a new religion for the Ravidassias, which they eventually announced in 2010 at their annual congregation at Varanasi, the birth place of Guru Ravidas in Seer Govardhanpur, near Banaras Hindu University (Singh 2020).

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Updated On : 15th May, 2023
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