With the Punjab Assembly polls postponed to February 20 in view of the Ravi Das Jayanti celebrations, the growing significance of politics surrounding ‘Dalits’ in Punjab, which has close to 32% population of the Scheduled Caste (SC) community – has yet again come to the fore.
According to the earlier schedule, polling was to be held on February 14.
The way all mainstream political parties pushed for the change in the voting day in the State shows the importance of Dalit votes for them, who in the run-up to the polls can’t afford to annoy them, and are leaving no stone unturned to woo the community.
After Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), along with its alliance partner Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), on January 10 first raised the demand to postpone the election date, Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi wrote to the Election Commission of India (ECI), asking for the elections to be postponed for at least six days. Afterward, the BJP and its allies – the Punjab Lok Congress and the SAD (Sanyukt) also urged the poll panel to postpone the date of voting.
Soon after the ECI rescheduled the election date, a ‘war’ to take credit for the postponement decision broke among the political parties.
Punjab BSP president Jasvir Singh Garhi alleged that the Congress and the BJP were busy playing petty politics on Dalit issues and termed them “anti-Dalits”. He said it was only after the BSP and the SAD submitted a memorandum to the ECI, demanding the postponement of the election date, the other political parties started to grab the issue. “After we raised the demand only, Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, who himself is from the SC community wrote a letter to the ECI for the postponement,” he added.
The Punjab Congress, on Twitter, posted the Chief Minister’s letter, dated January 13, and claimed that based on his request the polls have been postponed.
Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) State president and Lok Sabha member Bhagwant Mann, in a statement, welcomed the decision. He stated that he had written a letter to Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra, demanding the deferment of the polling date. The BJP also in a statement mentioned raising the demand with the ECI.
SCs constitute 31.94% of the State’s population. According to Ronki Ram, Shaheed Bhaghat Singh Chair Professor of Political Science at Panjab University, SCs in Punjab have been categorised into 39 castes of varying numerical strength, geographical spread, religious and political affiliations, social mobility, status and identity, economic conditions and cultural outlook. “Among them, Ramdasias, Mazhabis, Rai Sikhs, and Sansis follow the Sikh religion. Balmikis are primarily Hindus. The Ravidassias and Ad-Dharmis have recently founded a separate Dalit religion—Ravidassia Dharm. Even though a section of Ad-Dharmi and Ravidassias have established a separate religion, many of them still practise Sikh rituals and follow the social–spiritual philosophy of various ‘deras’ (sects) along with their Ravidassia identity,” he noted. They are mostly concentrated in the Doaba region.
Social outfits’ demand
The demand for rescheduling the voting date was also raised by several social outfits, pointing out that the birth anniversary of Guru Ravidas falls on February 16. And between February 10 to 16, his numerous followers travel from Punjab to Varanasi to celebrate the anniversary. In such a situation, many people from this community would not be able to cast their votes, which is otherwise their constitutional right.
The National Scheduled Castes Alliance accused the Congress government of being ‘ignorant’ of the importance of Guru Ravidass Jayanti. “The Punjab government should have taken into consideration the annual movement of devotees from Punjab to Varanasi and in this regard, it should have advised the ECI beforehand about the inconvenience it might pose if voting is conducted on February 14. The ECI always consults with the State government before announcing the poll process and the Chief Minister, who himself belongs to the SC community, was negligent in performing his duties so as to inform the ECI about the momentous occasion of the Saint’s Birth Anniversary,” it said.