At first glance, Gurkanwal Bharti appears like any other teenager — a college student who talks animatedly about her singing idols and her dreams of making it big in Bollywood.
But the 17-year-old is possibly the biggest celebrity in a city known for its iconic Haveli Dhaba. Bharti — known to millions of her fans as Ginni Mahi — is the face of a wave of Dalit assertion sweeping Punjab that may change the course of assembly elections next year.
“I’m inspired by Babasaheb and Ravidassji and sing shabads to explore their revolutionary thoughts of equality and justice,” she says.
Dalits form a third of Punjab – the highest of any Indian state – but have had little political representation.
“We have culture, literature and political consciousness but parties have used us. There has never been a Dalit CM,” says writer SL Virdi, surrounded by a galaxy of Dalit writers, leaders and historians in the dhaba.
Punjab has had a long history of anti-caste drives, starting from the 1920s, when Mangoo Ram Mugowalia organised Dalits, who started calling themselves ad-dharmis.
“Our faith is not Hindu but ad-dharm. We are not a part of Hinduism, and Hindus are not a part of us,” is what they told the British.
An egalitarian Sikh philosophy based on communal “langar” and “sangat” further helped many in the community make rapid strides.
Today, the chamars (traditional leather workers) have formed their own defiant Ravidassia sect that has separate gurdwaras and doesn’t hesitate in flexing its economic and political muscle.
But despite the sporadic prosperity – and literacy levels doubling in the last decade – experts say Dalit lawmakers have been largely ineffective.
“All parties have marginalised Dalit leaders and cut them down to size,” says Ram Lal Jassi, a community leader, pointing at representatives of the Akali Dal, Congress, BJP and Aam Aadmi Party across the table – trays of tea and pakoras separating them.
The Dalits are divided primarily into the chamars, valmikis and other small sub-castes, who all backed the Congress in the decades that followed Punjab’s formation in 1966. But the tide began to turn in the militancy-hit 1980s and despite the Congress boasting of a long list of past Dalit leaders, it has performed poorly in Doaba region in 2007 and 2012.
The Akali Dal has gained but suffers from an anti-Dalit image stuck on its coalition partner, the BJP. “Besides, the Akali swear by the anti-caste Guru Granth Sahib but gives Dalits less power,” says Virdi.
The Aam Aadmi Party has surged to fill this gap – its four Lok Sabha seats won on the back of large Dalit support. Last month, party chief Arvind Kejriwal announced the deputy chief minister will be Dalit if AAP won.
This has angered other parties. “This is an electoral show. Why didn’t Kejriwal ensure a Dalit CM in Delhi,” asks former Congress minister Joginder Mann.
Sitting opposite, AAP’s Chandan Grewal starts laughing. “We are just two years old, why are you scared of us?” President of the safai workers union, Grewal is one of many ground-level leaders the AAP has tapped. “I’m here today because of Babasaheb.”
There is widespread disenchantment with the two main parties, who are seen to be interested in maintaining status quo. And status quo isn’t good for the community.
Despite cultural and economic progress, Dalits own just 3% land and any attempt to expand influence is brutally suppressed. Last month, upper-caste Sikhs thrashed Dalits and vandalized homes in Jhuloor, killing one, after demands of possession of land. A Dalit man was chopped up a month before to settle local scores.
Experts say dominant communities are angry because Dalit incomes are rising at a time the rest of the state is in a slump. The money has transformed local hierarchies, Dalits are buying properties, moving into upper-caste neighbourhoods and moving abroad.
“Scheduled castes have begun to assert for equal rights and a share from the resources in the exclusive control of dominant caste groups,” says sociologist Surinder Jodhka.
The Akalis are quick to deflect blame for the backlash. “Caste discrimination is least in Punjab so even small incidents make big news. The government always raises Dalit issues,” says Akali MLA Pawan Tinu.
But not everyone is convinced. “ There is a blood feud for land as many small industries have been ravaged by globalization and Dalit bastis cannot compete with big firms,” says writer Des Raj Kali.
The once-bustling Boota mandi has shrunk to nearly a tenth of its size as successive governments have refused patronage to local traders with few tannery units surviving the onslaught of foreign synthetic leather.
“Our incomes fell because of no government support and hostility from cow protection groups and RSS. We will vote as Babasaheb told us,” says Mukha Danav from Firozpur as he wheels in a big cart of animal hide for the daily auction.
This is second of the five-part series ‘Dhaba Bites’ ahead of the assembly elections.