Written by Harnoor Mann
Trigger Warning: This article contains a brief mention of sexual assault in subsection “Caste, Agrarian Transformations, and Liberation Struggles in Rural Punjab.”
Kisaan Mazdoor, Ekta Zindabaad
On November 26th, 2020 the largest mass strike in history was launched by farmer and laborer trade unions throughout Punjab and Haryana in response to the Indian government passing three agrarian laws. They made their way to the capital city of New Delhi, pushing past war-like barricades, tear gas and violent police forces employed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) government. The BJP has secured several consecutive elections campaigning on a neoliberal Hindutva agenda, maintaining the supremacy of a single nationalistic Hindu identity across India.
The privatization laws remove government safeguards that normally provide farmers with a set price, or minimum support price (MSP) for crops and allow corporations to hoard commodities in an unlimited stockpile. The dismantlement of the public system forces farmers to bargain directly with private buyers. No legal recourse, or way of holding these powerful groups to account is provided in the laws. “Supply and demand” is an euphemism employed to conceal the fact that the market will inevitably be swayed by large corporates, not a just “invisible hand.”
Refusing to stay within assigned protest grounds, the protestors have settled just outside of Delhi for over two months. Many of them bear bone-chilling nights under the shelter of their trolleys, formerly used to transport crops and farming materials.
With recorded estimates of millions joining, these sites have swollen into makeshift cities. The distribution of thousands of educational pamphlets constructs a consciousness amongst the protestors, speaking to the organizing power and acuity of the masses. Sikh principles of radical egalitarianism are on full display; the institution of langar (common kitchen) nourishes all present with free, shared meals. There are creative forms of seva, or labor undertaken with the purpose of asserting sarbat da bhala (welfare for all). Libraries with texts spanning Punjab’s history of revolution against tyrannical forces are constructed overnight. Newspapers, such as the Trolley Times, are born in Delhi, combatting the BJP’s disinformation campaign and attempts to brand the protestors as terrorists.
The slogan of this movement–Kisaan Mazdoor, Ekta Zindabaad, or long live farmer-laborer unity–serves to highlight the unique bond that has been forged between landowning farmers (kisaan) and landless, often exploited laborers (mazdoor) in challenging a common oppressor.
The kisaan are fighting to secure a price for their crops; the mazdoor are here because their fates are conjoined. This is a class struggle; it is also a caste struggle. The kisaan is usually a Jat, upper-caste, with all the social privileges that affords, while the mazdoor is a Dalit, treated as subordinate by other castes.
Caste has a preeminent quality; in its shifting origins and manifestations across the world, it stratifies people into fixed socioeconomic and cultural arrangements. Despite widely held beliefs that caste is an artifact belonging to another world or even only South Asian ethnic groups, caste-based discrimination drives the construction of oppressive systems around the globe, including in the United States.
In bearing witness to the expanding city, Randeep Maddoke, a Dalit filmmaker and activist, recognizes a transgressive growth in the existence of class, gender and caste contradictions amongst the protestors.
“In this city, all people are in one home. This new flourishing city is Begampura, as Ravidas Ji had said. There is no smaller person; no upper caste; no poor; no Dalit,” said Maddoke in an interview with Dalit Camera.
The divisions have not been erased. No caste system can be fully dismantled in a matter of months. What stands out is a revolutionary quality in how the kisaan and mazdoor share facilities and a common fight for their hakk (rights) in this new city.
Begampura is a city imagined in the bani (scriptures/hymns) of Bhagat Ravidass Ji, a guru born to a lower-caste family in the 15th century. Today, they are included in the Adi Granth, or Sikh religious text.
It is a city without sorrow, where everyone is equal. The project of building Begampura is underway.
Navyug Gill, assistant professor in the Department of History at William Patterson University, says Begampura is an immensely rich concept.
“There is a tendency to think about struggle and future oriented movements as having to engage in a kind of radical break from the past, and embrace a new sort of alternative modernity. What Begampura does for us is to say our history gives us resources to rethink the future,” Gill noted.
Investing in this hope calls for an examination of how the regional trajectories of agrarian Punjab and caste have influenced historical struggles for land and liberation.
Caste, Agrarian Transformations, and Liberation Struggles in Rural Punjab
One of the earliest codifications of caste is in the Manusmriti, an ancient Sanskrit text part of the Hindu code. It predates colonial-era rule by thousands of years and details a pyramid-like hierarchy of descending castes as follows: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (military), and Vaishyas ( farmers and merchants ), also known as the pure savarnas. The “polluted” avarna communities do not belong to these castes and are relegated to “untouchables”. Through liberation movements, a powerful, self-asserted name has replaced “untouchables”–Dalit, meaning broken.
This overly simplistic breakdown does not account for the thousands of sub-castes molded by regional socializing forces and societies, but a fact remains: Dalits, along with other backward classes (OBC) and Adivasis (indigenous peoples of India) are exploited along cultural, social and economic lines.
In Punjab, Sikhs constitute a majority in religious makeup of the overall population. Punjab has the largest percentage of Scheduled Castes (SC), or nearly 32% according to Census data. The caste system in the state consists of Jats, Khatris, craftsmen castes and Scheduled Castes, in descending order. Regional caste dynamics and stories on the ground tell us that cultural specificities are mired in casteism. For instance, proximity to Hindu texts cannot be used as a sole explanation for caste violence in Punjab, nor can any sweeping scriptural sanction.
Sharanjit Kaur, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at UBC and co-curator of the Sikh Heritage Museum located in the National Historic Site, Gur Sikh Temple in Abbotsford, BC, Canada, says that the Sikh scriptures explicitly negate concepts of purity and impurity (themselves Brahmanical concepts) that are often ascribed to Dalits, with the earliest texts instead rejecting the idea of social stratification.These egalitarian and revolutionary foundational concepts of Sikhi, invoked in gurbani, are not enacted within broader Sikh contexts.
“These systems are so entrenched, in blocking Dalits from ownership and participation that even our Sikhi can’t abate it,” said Kaur.
Present-day caste violence in Punjab, especially as exhibited by land-owning Jats is cemented by a process of agrarian transformations.
In the 1850s, British rule brought about a system of ownership tying private property to caste. After independence in 1947, India was heavily dependent on foreign powers, including the US for food aid. This support was conditional on a reorganization of the agricultural sector. Calls from laborers for the ruling Congress party to redistribute land and address power asymmetries between peasants and landlords were ignored. Instead, during the Green Revolution of the 60s, capital-intensive technologies and high-yield seed varieties were introduced to Punjab. Punjab was chosen for this experiment in developmental capitalism in part due to a system of canals constructed during colonial-era rule. While initial gains were lucrative for larger landowners, most farmers went into significant debt to procure the means for production. The minimum support prices (MSP) of crops were not adjusted in accordance to inflation. The use of pesticides and aggressive extracting practice has degraded environmental and human health; the Malwa region of Punjab is regarded as the cancer belt of India, and an epidemic of farmer suicides has devastated the state.
Despite the shared interests of the kisaan and mazdoor in addressing these issues, subordinate castes have been historically blocked from accessing power by landowning Jats. According to the 1961 Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act, 33% of common village land is allocated for SCs. Dalit communities in Punjab receive threats of immediate violence and physical attacks when they ask local leadership to follow these provisions. Jats will often go so far as to place “dummy candidates” of their choosing up for bidding on land during yearly auctions.
In this context, vibrant Dalit liberation movements have emerged. The Zameen Prapt Sangarsh Committee (ZPSC) has spearheaded land redistribution campaigns, empowering Dalit communities to successfully demand their rights. To date, their mobilization efforts have led to co-operative farming settlements for families across Punjab. After years of struggle, they are the pioneers of Jat-Dalit solidarity, as evidenced by their partnership with the state’s largest farmer union, the BKU.
Today, Dalit women are at the heart of the Kisaan Mazdoor movement, using their years of experience fighting labor exploitation to mobilize farmer and laborer unions across lines of religion, caste, and gender. Under a regime that has historically criminalized dissent, they are also disproportionately the targets of state-sponsored brutality and violence.
Nodeep Kaur, a 23-year-old Sikh, Dalit woman and trade union activist from Punjab was forcibly detained by Haryana police from the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (a union of farmers and laborers) tent on the Singhu border.
In an interview with Opia Film days before her arrest, she says farmers and laborers are unified.
“Farmers and laborers are tied to each other, and we are both falling backwards,” said Kaur.
Her sister and lawyer say she has been sexually assaulted and tortured in police custody for over 20 days. Several trade unions and South Asian diaspora community leaders have issued statements demanding her release.
Paradoxes of Equality
Outside the imagination of the farmer-laborer unions mobilizing across Punjab, many landed Jat farmers deny Sikh participation in caste-based discrimination. Public narratives of equality, invoking Sikh egalitarian practices such as langar and seva as well as the scriptural rejection of caste, conflict with realities on the ground.
The casteist mind is an infernal circle.
Natasha Behl questions how SC communities can take political action in a society ridden with such contradictions in her dissertation— “Politics of Equality: Caste and Gender Paradoxes of the Sikh community.” In her fieldwork, she interviewed people who promulgate a religious belief in caste equality while justifying caste differentiation. These arguments range from perceived self-isolation of SC communities to perpetrators of casteism having an “incomplete adoption of Sikhism.”
Fauja Singh, a 55-year-old lower-caste man shares with Behl how SC Sikhs are not allowed to take responsibility in gurdwaras, Sikh religious spaces for learning and worship:
“We built the gate for the gurdwara, we had the gurdwara painted, and we had the doors installed.” They have more property, and therefore they stay at the top, they stay ahead at the gurdwara. If I try to make myself visible in the gurdwara, if I try to take the lead, then some people within the gurdwara will try to uproot me and they will say to me – not directly, but indirectly, in their casual language – that I should remain within my limits; that I should do this, not that; I should act this way, not that way. And I understand this. I don’t want anyone talking negatively about me, so I stay within my limits.”
South Asian diasporas carry on these practices, and Hindutva’s ideological violence takes root in spaces dominated by upper castes. Organizations such as Equality Labs document the ongoing caste apartheid outside of India through data-driven, personal storytelling that highlights cultural specificities.
Sharanjit Kaur says it is the responsibility of Sikhs around the world to push against these concealed human rights violations with questions.
“When people make blanket statements, ask them: why are there Mazhabi gurdwaras? The heart of the Guru Granth Sahib Ji (Sikh scripture) says there is no caste and yet we have caste-based gurdwaras. These are our communities,” said Kaur.
In the last months, the global Sikh-Punjabi community and its allies have led rallies, developed reporting original to the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora and taken actions in solidarity with the Kisaan Mazdoor movement.
In California, the Jakara Movement organized a car rally that halted traffic on the famed Bay Bridge. Tens of thousands of Sikh-Americans in jeeps, cars, trucks and the occasional tractor rallied across the state to support their kin in Punjab.
Navyug Gill says these actions demonstrate a new era in Sikh-Punjabi politics for globalizing causes and act as a civilizing force for communities in the West.
“As we engage in solidarity actions here, the people that we live among see us and recognize us perhaps for the first time. They ask, who are those people? And why are they protesting? So they learn a little bit about us,” noted Gill.
We don’t have Begampura in the present, added Gill.
“It was always an ideal, it was the horizon for us to orient ourselves towards. And so we can say that that inspiration is from within our Quam (global Sikh community). It’s within our own itihaas (history), and we can draw on that to confront the present.”
Edited by Jonathan Raj