‘Punjab vich up-mukhmantri da auhda Dalit samaj nu den layi Arvind Kejriwalji da bahut dhanvaad (We are thankful to Arvind Kejriwal for giving the seat of deputy CM to a Dalit)’. This message is on hoardings in every village in Payal, a reserved constituency in Ludhiana, with photos of AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal and party candidate Gurpreet Singh Lapran.
AAP’s star campaigner in Punjab is Bant Singh, whose hands and a leg were chopped off after he fought for justice over the alleged gangrape of his minor daughter. The activist sings ballads at their rallies against Dalit oppression. ‘We are going to uproot injustice, even if we ourselves are uprooted… When we ask for our food, we get bullets in return,’ sings Bant and crowds cheer.
At a rally in village Rania, SAD MLA and Gill constituency candidate Darshan Singh Shivalik hits out at the Congress for the 1984 operation on the Golden Temple and the anti-Sikh riots. On December 29, at another public meeting in Raikot for Congress candidate Dr Amar Singh, a local party leader raises the murder of Bheem Tank, a Scheduled Caste youth who was chopped to death in Abohar.
With politics and elections tightly woven around both caste and religion in Punjab, candidates ask how these can be kept away from polls following a recent Supreme Court directive saying “religion, race, caste, community or language would not be allowed to play any role in the electoral process”.
In Punjab, 32 per cent voters are Dalits, and many are followers of deras and babas who have broken away from the tight hold of Jat Sikh-controlled gurdwara politics — with this tension in full play come election time.
Inder Iqbal Atwal, SAD candidate from Raikot (a reserved constituency) and son of Vidhan Sabha Speaker Charanjit Singh Atwal, says, “There is an immediate need for a review petition on this matter. Religion and politics are embedded as co-existing entities in the history of Punjab… Then how can we fight elections without talking about the welfare of Sikh religion?… The Akali Dal is a party which exists for Sikh welfare and justice, and excluding Sikh religion from our campaigning is impossible.”
Inder Iqbal also points out that the reason there are reserved constituencies is that suppression of SC/STs is a reality. “How can I not mention what I will do for them if they elect me?”
Gurpreet Lapran of AAP justifies his hoardings in Payal constituency which thank Kejriwal for announcing a Dalit as deputy CM. “I do not want to disrespect the Supreme Court, but if I am not speaking about Dalits in my speech, then it is injustice to them. I am representing them, being an SC candidate. We cannot speak about their welfare without identifying them.”
Bant Singh adds that while “it is wrong to use religion like the Akali Dal does, it is right to awaken Dalits for their rights”. “We are talking of equality. The Supreme Court should consider this.”
However, Congress candidates say it is not tough to implement the Supreme Court judgment. A former IAS officer and candidate from Raikot, Dr Amar Singh Boparai, says, “I am also visiting Dalit areas and listening to their issues, but not chanting ‘Dalit, Dalit’ in my speeches. AAP is doing it to woo them.” Kuldeep Singh Vaid, former IAS and Congress candidate from Gill, also says, “I am not using Sikhs and Dalits as a tool in my speeches. I am instead talking of agriculture, industries, jobs, education to uplift Dalits.”