Punjab Assembly Polls: Are Dalits Satisfied With Channi As CM, But Is It Enough For Congress?

Dalits represent 32 percent of eligible voters in the Punjab. Political parties appear to be scrambling for their votes ahead of the 2022 Punjab Assembly elections. Community leaders, on the other hand, complain that promises made in the elections were not kept by the winning parties in the legislative elections.

Among the backward castes in Punjab, 25% are Mazhabi Sikhs and 20% Ramdasia Sikhs. Across Punjab there are 50 seats which are dominated by voters from the Dalit community. Interestingly, the Jat Sikhs, who hold 18% of the total vote, dominate the corridors of power in the state. With the exception of Giani Zail Singh in 1972, chief ministers have generally belonged to the Jat community in Punjab.

Just six months before the 2022 Punjab Assembly elections, the ruling party of Congress appointed Charanjit Singh Channi, belonging to the Dalit community, as chief minister of the Punjab. Many see this as a move by Congress to woo the community. However, Dalit community leaders said the success of the congressional decision depended on how Channi kept the promises he made after becoming chief minister.

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India Today TV visited two predominantly Dalit regions, Rupnagar and Doaba, to learn about the problems the community faced in the run-up to state elections.

The Kanshi Ram effect

In Khawaspura village in Rupnagar district, which is the birthplace of Dalit leader and founder of the Bahujan Samaj (BSP) party, Kanshi Ram, people remember him as a reformer who stood up for the marginalized community.

Kanshi Ram’s family still lives in Khawaspura, preserving his memories and a library in his name. Kanshi Ram’s nephew Balwant said his uncle is the reason the Dalit community is aware of their rights and has not remained just a vote bank.

Kanshi Ram’s birthplace has a memorial made after him by party leader Aam Aadmi (AAP) and Delhi minister Rajendra Pal Gautam. However, Balwant said the villagers requested a school in the village on behalf of Kanshi Ram.

People stand near the Kanshi Ram statue in Khawaspura village in Rupnagar district.

A community center was also built under Akali Dal’s government on behalf of Kanshi Ram. Although the center still does not have a nameplate mentioning Kanshi Ram, the place is used as a primary school.

The villagers turned the community center into a school, as the nearest primary school was a mile away. The children had to cross the national road which was risky because of the heavy goods traffic.

The makeshift primary school lacks basic amenities as many students have to sit on mats in the classrooms.

Harpreet Singh, a member of the Sikh community in Ravidasia, said there was no girls’ university in the area, which made higher education difficult. He said politicians knocked on their doors during the election and made big promises. But after the election, everything was forgotten for five years.

Private higher education

Among the Dalit community there are a large number of Mazhabi Sikhs who are also known as Valmikis. Socio-economically backward, the Valmiki fear that their next generations will face the same difficulties in accessing higher education and benefiting from other basic facilities.

Karnail Singh, Valmiki community member, said: “There is no guaranteed income. Poverty is the biggest barrier to higher education for children. I am not educated enough to know more about government programs for our community. “

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Many like Karnail Singh from the community of Valmiki have a large family but a small house.

Decreased strength of the BSP

Kanshi Ram ran for state elections in the Doaba region and in 1996 formed an alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). The alliance is victorious.

Again in 2022, the Shiromani Akali Dal formed an alliance with the BSP. This alliance aims to win as many Dalit voters as possible in the regions of Malwa and Doaba.

However, in recent years, the share of BSP votes in Punjab has declined. Formerly known as the Party of the Marginalized in Punjab, the party now plays a secondary role compared to traditional parties.

Kanshi Ram’s nephew Balwant said the next generation BSP leaders were responsible for the mess. They did not follow his uncle’s advice and legacy, he said.

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Nikku Ram, member of the Sahib Kanshi Ram Samaj Bhalai society, said the main reason for the decline in the BSP’s vote share was internal struggles within the party. Several BSP leaders left the party to join either the SAD or the Congress.

Kamaljeet, the chairman of a trust working for Dalits, accused the BSP supremo Mayawati, claiming that she had strayed from Kanshi Ram’s ideology, causing the party’s voices to be exhausted in the region.

Lack of political representation

Despite the decline in popularity of the BSP, the people of Khawaspura say they were not sufficiently represented in politics after Kanshi Ram’s death. Balwant said that while the socio-economic situation in the region has improved slightly, the Dalits have not obtained their deserved share in the corridors of state power.

Bhagirath Singh, a villager, said several government programs were not reaching the Dalit community. Dalits are deprived of their basic rights, he said.

He said education and health remain major issues for the community.

Impact of a Dalit CM

Having taken up his post as Chief Minister of the Punjab only a few months after the resignation of Captain Amarinder Singh, Channi appears to have benefited from the doubt among voters in the Dalit community. Many see Channi’s coming to power as an important moment for the community.

Kanshi Ram’s nephew Balwant said it was indeed a major achievement for the community. Balwant said the Dalits were really happy that for the first time a member of their community was appointed chief minister.

A villager said that the Dalit community in Punjab is stronger now that the chief minister is from his community.

Another villager, Lakhvinder, however said that if the new chief minister did not keep all of his promises, it would be difficult to trust a politician.

Kamaljeet, chairman of Improvement Trust, said that despite a large share of the vote, Dalits were denied political representation because they believed the community would vote only for BSP. But now that has changed, he said.

At the same time, Dalit leaders fear that unless CM Channi is empowered to make decisions, there is little to hope that he will further strengthen the community.

Situation in Doaba

The situation is not that different in Doaba. While the Dalit community here is thrilled with Channi’s appointment as chief minister, they believe he must keep his promises to make a difference.

Yoga Singh, a villager from Doaba, said the Dalit community benefits from all central programs, including the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. However, many expressed their dissatisfaction with the state government, mainly over drug issues, electricity tariffs and unemployment.

A villager, Balbir Singh, said CM Channi had promised free electricity but the reality on the ground was different. Many villagers said their electricity bills amounted to Rs 8,000.

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The Congress, which faces opposition to power in the Punjab, hopes to revive its fortunes with the elevation of Charanjit Singh Channi to the post of chief minister. This decision was welcomed by the Dalit community, but local issues seem more dominant than the political perspective.

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