The novel coronavirus pandemic has managed to do something that successive governments, social activists, and even fear of law couldn’t. It has managed to bury the caste faultlines that run deep in Punjab, especially in the rural areas, at least for the time being.
Sample this: The State SC Commission that used to receive on an average 100 complaints of caste discrimination, torture and atrocities on dalits every month, has not received more than 4 or 5 complaints in the nearly month-long period that the state has remained under curfew amid a nationwide lockdown in wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Villagers, in fact, are putting aside their differences as they unite to fight the invisible enemy.
Tejinder Kaur, Chairperson, SC Commission, confirmed as much. “The complaints still pending with us are regarding discrimination in distribution of ration. One complaint is about harassment of a Dalit in Gurdaspur due to which he allegedly committed suicide, and another is about creating hurdle in cremation of Bhai Nirmal Singh at his native village Verka. Otherwise, people are not coming to us with complaints of torture, caste-based remarks, or discrimination at work place,” said Tejinder Kaur.
The stories of solidarity and exclusiveness are now pouring in from all parts of the state. In Phoola village of Bathinda, a physically challenged landless resident refused to accept the packet of dry ration when approached by Bharti Kisan Union (Ugrahan). Shingaara Singh Maan, president, BKU (Ugrahan) said, “He said that he already had one week’s supply and instead asked us to visit a family from a upper caste, who, he said ‘will never ever ask for help’ but were in need.”
Manjeet Kaur (33), widow of Jagmail Singh who died after being tortured and forced to drink urine, by four men from upper caste, and had to leave her Changali Kalan village, now lives in Dhandiwal village of Sangrur about 50 km away.
“We faced discrimination in Changali Kalan. Now I am staying at my nephew’s house. Things seem to have changed now. People, cutting across caste divide, are coming out to help the needy. Nobody asks whether you are a dalit or from the upper caste,” she says.
Her nephew Gurdeep Singh adds: “Villagers are making list of needy people and they are being helped irrespective of the caste. Our only enemy is coronavirus and no one else”.
Mukesh Malaud, president of Zamin Prapati Sangrash Committee( ZPSC), concurs with Gurdeep. “Differences are secondary now. We have a common enemy in coronavirus. There were some complaints of discrimination in ration distribution at Tolewal and Kheri village in Sangrur. Some Dalits had protested by beating thalis. After that some 25 houses were provided ration,” says Malaud.
The Pendu Khet Mazdoor union and BKU (Ugrahan) have diverted Rs 50 lakh fund meant for struggle rallies and dharnas to provide relief to people. Lachhman Singh Sewewala, president, Pendu Khet Mazdoor Union, Punjab said, “In every village, a list has been made about all the needy households. It doesn’t matter which caste or community they belong to. We are handing them packets with two kg sugar, 10 kg wheat flour, 1 kg daal, 1 kg oil, bathing soap, detergent, and spices”.
Mandeep Singh Sirinan and Balwinder Singh Kothaguru, bot dalit leaders of Pendu Khet Mazdoor Union and residents of Kothaguru village of Bathinda, say there are several farmers who are under debt. “Their lands have been mortgaged. Most of them are from upper castes. They never come forward to ask for ration, but we know that they are in need. So,we go to their houses and drop packets of ration. We maintain a logbook with dates on which the ration was delivered, so that we can approach them again when it runs out,” Kothaguru said.
Dalits make for nearly 32% of Punjab’s population as per 2011 census, which is the highest percentage among all the states.
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