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REVIEW OF RURAL AFFAIRS

Rural Elites and the Limits of Scheduled Caste


Assertiveness in Rural Malwa, Punjab
Nicolas Martin

The decline of caste-based territorial dominance is


widely reported to have given Scheduled Castes more
autonomy, but also allowed them more space for
political assertion. This paper, drawing on ethnographic
fieldwork in the predominantly agrarian region of Malwa
in Punjab, illustrates how SCs are often loudly pressing
demands upon political leaders and bureaucrats.
However, the paper also illustrates how they still do not
wield meaningful power in village panchayats. A
wealthy class of farmers that is increasingly involved in
urban business uses a combination of party connections,
cash and coercion to capture and maintain power at
their expense. Such farmers frequently use their political
influence to bolster their business interests and to
appropriate state resources such as village common
lands. The evidence presented here suggests that when
SCs mobilise to demand their rights, they are still careful
not to challenge dominant interests.

Nicolas Martin (nicolas.martin@ucl.ac.uk) is senior research associate


at the Department of Anthropology, University College London. He has
recently published a book titled Politics, Landlords and Islam in Pakistan
(2015).
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ith 29% of its population belonging to the Scheduled


Castes (SCs), Punjab has the highest proportion of
SCs in any Indian state. Nevertheless, neither the
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) nor any other SC political party
wields significant power at state level, and it is parties dominated
by farming and trading communitiesthe Congress Party and
the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)that control politics in Punjab. The ruling SADa Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
ally in power since 2007is dominated by sections of the
agrarian and industrial bourgeoisie, and has in recent years
reached out and given government posts to sectors of the
Hindu urban bourgeoisie traditionally associated with the Congress (Gill 2014). The BSPs inability to become a significant
political force in the state has been broadly explained with reference to divisions within the SCs between Ad Dharmis, Mazhbis and Ravidasias. Moreover, Kumar (2007) has argued that
the BSPs ideological discourse against issues of purity/pollution has found little resonance in a state where Brahminical
values were never particularly dominant.1
Unable to gain a share of political power, Sharma (2009)
argues that SCs increasingly assert themselves through grassroots mobilisation. The SCs may not be capturing political
power, but they are often asserting their cultural distinctiveness
in a variety of ways and resisting Jat dominance in panchayats
and in gurdwara management committees. It is not uncommon
to see cars with stickers proudly proclaiming their owner to be
the son of a Chamar (Chamar ka puttar), and many SCs are
flocking to religious institutions known as Deras (Sacha Sauda,
Nirankari, Radhasoami, Divya Jyoti, Bhaniarawala) that
promise the equality and inclusion that the Jat-dominated Sikh
panth has reportedly failed to foster. SCs are also increasingly
asserting themselves in rural areas at the village level, and
Jodhka and Louis (2003) have argued that the rising incidence
of caste conflict in Punjab is symptomatic of this trend. Most
famously the Ad Dharmi attempt to wrest a share of control
over the management of a popular, revenue-generating shrine
in Talhan resulted in violent conflict. In this caseas in the
case of Jethumajra where conflict erupted because SCs wanted to
drain their water into the village pond against the wishes of the
Jatsthe SCs demands were fulfilled.
In the more backward agrarian region of Malwa it is less
clear that they are gaining a meaningful share of power at the
local level, but it is nevertheless the case that all major political
parties are now assiduously courting different SC communities
for their votes. Up until around 1980, the SCs in Punjab tended
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to support the Congress because, unlike the Jat Sikh-dominated


Akali Dal, it was ostensibly committed to secularism, the
removal of untouchability, and to the implementation of pro-poor
policies. However, the subsequent rise of the BSP in the Doaba
region eroded SC support for the Congress Party. This support
was further undermined when the Akali Dal subsequently
obtained a share of the SC vote through an alliance with the
BSP and by shifting its agenda away from communal concerns
and towards issues of development.
Akali leaders and party workers told me that their partys
electoral success over the past decade was partly due to its
increasing attention to the SC vote. This involved the creation
of new schemes such as the Atta Dal scheme, 400 instead of
200 free units of electricity for SCs, the Shagun scheme for
poor brides from all communities, and old age pensions
ranging from Rs 250 to Rs 400 per month. Additionally, Akali
politicians throughout the Punjab have been disbursing grants
for SCs to build gurdwaras, cremation grounds, and also to
improve roads and drains in their neighbourhoods.
On the ground in rural areas it is clear that SCs are, broadly
speaking, benefiting from this profusion of schemes, and that
they are more likely than ever to press demands upon the state
and its representatives. An influential Congress Party worker
from the Jat Sikh farming community in Patiala District even
claimed that SCs were becoming so demanding and assertive
that he foresaw a revolution. During one of many conversations, he told me a story about how he had found some Ravidasia
women cutting mustard (saag) in his fields without having
ever asked him for permission to do so. When he had asked
them what they were doing, they allegedly answered: If we
dont take from those who have, who can we take from? He
said that such behaviour would have been unthinkable 20
years ago. However the reason they had chosen his fields, and
no one elses, was that the women knew he would one day
approach them for his votes, and that he risked losing these if
he refused them this one little favour. This was effectively a
demand for patronage, rather than a form of revolutionary
assertion.
The claim, frequently voiced by Jat farmers, that an SC
revolution has taken place is arguably a way of neutralising SC
critiques of caste and class inequality (Jeffrey, Jeffery and
Jeffery 2008). While SCs are undoubtedly pressing for more
patronage, and have become less submissive, they are not
doing much to challenge growing political and economic
inequalities, exploitative labour relations, and to improve education and healthcare. In fact the SCs in the chairmans village,
as in most of the villages I visited, had never exercised meaningful
political power at panchayat level despite constituting more than
half of the village population. In this articledrawing on
roughly 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork, case studies and
interviews around the topic of local politics in villages
surrounding a tehsil in the Patiala District of the MalwaI
show how while traditional forms of caste dominance have
been eroded, wealthy and enterprising Jat farmers now control local politics and state resources at the expense of SCs. My
examples show elite reassertion in rural areas affects most SC
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communities, regardless of their sometimes starkly different


socio-economic statuses.2
Agrarian Change in Rural Malwa

Whereas agriculture accounted for 58% of Punjabs gross


domestic produt (GDP) in 1971 it accounted for only 24% in 2011
(Gill 2014). Moreover, between 1991 and 2001 agricultures
share of employment fell from 39.36% to 30.02%. In Punjab,
as in neighbouring Haryana (Jodhka 2014), this means that
people across all socio-economic strata increasingly engage in
off-farm work. This has undoubtedly eroded the territorial
dominance of traditionally dominant castes, but new, spatially
expanded, patterns of domination have emerged. However,
these new patterns of domination are now contingent upon
elite access to state-based networks of power.
High levels of urbanisation in Punjab mean that many
villages are within commuting distance from medium and
large towns where there are employment opportunities in smalland medium-scale industries, services and construction, and that
rural Punjabis can for the most part permanently reside in their
home villages without resorting to circular migration (Breman
2011). This is even true of Malwa, a region that is considered
backwards in comparison to even more industrialised and
urbanised regions of Punjab. However, unlike in Doaba where a
number of SCsChamars in particularhave prospered in the
leather industry and thanks to international migration, many
SCsthose who have not set up independent businessesin
rural Malwa still engage in both agricultural and non-agricultural wage labour. They frequently engage in a combination of
seasonal agricultural work in both the fields and in grain markets (loading gunnysacks during the wheat or rice harvest), factory work in agro-industries wherever available, and in services
at restaurants and wedding halls. By and large, SCs do not migrate to other Indian states for work; with the notable exception of
when they accompany combine harvesters as far afield as
Chhattisgarh for the wheat and rice harvests. Since 2009 work
under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act (MGNREGA) has also become an option, particularly
during periods when no better paid employment is available.3
Overall, despite the fact that less than 5% of the Punjabs SCs
own any land, most of them now have access to amenities and
consumer goodsincluding televisions, refrigerators, washing
machines and motorcyclesthat were far beyond their reach
30 years ago. According to the State Development Report on
Punjab (2002), in 1981 31.28% of all households in Punjab were
kaccha, whereas in 199394 the number had come down to
12.40%.4 In 2014, in tehsil X of Patiala District I was unable to
find a single SC who still lived in a mud house. Of course Jat
houses are much larger, better located, have better drainage
and well paved alleyways than SC households, and much more
likely to be equipped with running water, bathrooms and
latrines. Nevertheless a number of SC households now have
latrines and access to some form of communal running water
supply. Moreover, while the SC literacy rate in 1991 was 41.1%,
this had risen to 56.2% in 2001, and is likely to have risen even
more since then (Sharma 2009: 30).5
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The picture for the predominantly Jat farmers is one of


increased class differentiation. Gill (2014) argues that while a
number of small farmers have undergone a process of downward social mobility and of growing indebtedness, those with
more than four acres have diversified their incomes and
prospered by setting up commission agent businesses, shops and
real estate agencies. While their farm incomes may be stagnating, astronomically high land pricesup to Rs 4,00,000 per
acrealso mean that they own a significant amount of capital.
They are also the ones to benefit the most from free electricity
to run tube wells for irrigation and free canal water. Gill
calculates that such farmers receive 94% of state subsidies
meant for farmers. The wealthiest, with over 10 acres, also
tend to add politics to their various business activities. They
are people who spend their days supervising their rural
and urban business, and travel all around Punjab to cultivate
their networks of influence by attending weddings, funerals
and friendly drinking sessions. To host distinguished guests
and to project their social standing, they build large mansions
with a vast array of modern household appliances. Their
children go to private English medium schools where they
cultivate contacts and prepare for a future in business,
politics or even migration to preferred destinations such as
Canada or Australia.
However, even Jat farmers who have prospered far more
than most SCs in significant measure thanks to state policies
and connections, claim that it is SCs who now rule Punjab and
as evidence point to the multitude of government schemes
being implemented for them. They also complain about how
they demand increasingly costly liquor and growing amounts
of cash for their votes during elections. Many even claim that
SCs are soon going to take over completely because they have
higher birth rates than the Jats.
It nevertheless seems undeniable that Jats can no longer
command corvee labour, and that they face difficulties finding
both temporary and permanent labourers. All the farmers that
I spoke to complained about rising wages and the scarcity of
labour, and many blamed the mgNREGA scheme for this.
Wealthy farmers with over 10 acres of land complained about
the difficulty, and rising cost of obtaining reliable attached
farm servants.6 They claim that good farm servants are no
longer available, but also that they are likelier than ever to
take their advances and then run away or even take them to
court on the basis that they are practising slavery. While these
claims clearly indicate that Jats no longer take their control
over SC labourers for granted, it is nevertheless the case that
Jat cultivators still get away with exploitative practices, such
as arbitrarily deducting daily wages. Moreover, the extent to
which farm servants escape and default is probably highly
exaggerated.
Both SCs and Jats told me that few labourers would escape
without paying their debts because farmers in their home
village would subsequently refuse to hire them. Jats can also
still deny SCs access to their fields to go to the toilet or for
access to fodder, although these traditional sanctions seem
likely to become less effective with time. Many SCs still do not
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have access to latrines, but these are slowly becoming more


commonpartly thanks to government schemesand they
are likewise less reliant on gifts of fodder because many of
them no longer own any livestock. Perhaps more importantly
nowadays, members of the dominant castes can often make it
difficult for SCs to gain access to state benefits such as mgNREGA,
pensions and subsidised grain and pulses. In some extreme
cases it is even possible for influential Jats to use police
contacts to entangle labourers (and also anyone else who
opposes them) in fake and spurious police charges.
Between 2013 and 2014 I did nevertheless find out about
three cases in which attached farm servants had indeed taken
their employers to court for practising debt slavery. The only
one of the three that I was able to locate was a Ravidasia who
was unwilling to discuss the matter with mepossibly because
he feared sanctions from the Jats in his village. But my discussions with their ex-employers indicate that their labourers had
in fact exploited elite factional struggles to take them to court.
Many villages I visited were riven by acrimonious, and sometimes violent, factional rivalries between competing village
leaders. In order to harm each others interests, rivals sometimes encouraged each others farm servants to not only escape
and default, but also to take their employers to court for practising debt bondage/slavery. They aimed to make their rivals
lose money, and also to entangle them in lengthy and potentially costly court cases. The wealthiest landowner and businessman in tehsil X, who owned 200 acres, a paddy processing
plant and a commission agent business, had lost five out of
seven farm servants and had five court cases registered against
him by his factional rival who also happened to be a lawyer.
Another wealthy farmer lost three of five farm servants in this
way, and yet another lost his only attached farm servant also
in this manner. Perhaps this indicates that political competition
increasingly allows SCs to exploit factional rivalries within the
dominant caste, but it also indicates that they still lack the
means or the organisation necessary to independently challenge
rural elites.
Panchayat Politics and the Dominant Caste

The Panchayati Raj Act of 1993 has been described as part of a


broad neo-liberal trend whereby the role of governance was
taken away from the state and given to society (Mathur 2013).
Its goal was de-bureaucratisation and greater public sector
efficiency, and the idea was that empowering citizens to make
local government more responsive and accountable would
achieve this. Crucially, it was hoped that reserved panchayat
seats would play a crucial role in empowering the SCs/STs as
well as women. Here I argue that while rural elites were
always likely to capture panchayati raj institutions, SAD political
interference in panchayats is currently playing a decisive role in
EPW is grateful to Surinder Jodhka who has been Guest Editor of
this issue of the Review of Rural Affairs. The members of the
advisory group of editors for the biannual Review of Rural Affairs
are Ramesh Chand, Surinder Jodhka, Duvurry Narasimha Reddy
and P S Vijayshankar.

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allowing them to do so. I show how this has facilitated corruption, and thereby helped further bolster the dominance of the
more privileged sectors of the farming community.
Jats may no longer directly control SC livelihoods, but in the
majority of the 10 villages that I studied sarpanches belonged
to the class of wealthy farmer/businessmen described above.
In a setting where contesting panchayat elections often cost
upwards of Rs 10 lakh it is not surprising that these wealthy
Jats-dominated panchayats. In the weeks just prior to elections,
they spent large sums of money hosting drinking parties in
their courtyards, but also sending bottles of whisky out to supporters. Right up to polling day, people, particularly SC labourers,
turned up to their houses and assertively demanded gifts of
liquor. Some voters demanded illegal poppy husk (Bhukki),
and candidates discretely sent them kilo packages worth
around Rs 1,000 via local motorcycle couriers. In addition to
receiving grants from politicians, many candidates spent their
own money in order to fix gurdwaras, temples, cremation
grounds, gutters and village alleyways. Several sarpanches
also told me that they had to continue spending significant
amounts of money organising political rallies for their party
once elections were over.
Very few if any SCs, or even poorer farmers, could afford to
spend so much money. Just as importantly, very few SCs had
the contacts, the mobility, or even the knowledge to act as effective
sarpanches. The wealthy Jats who dominated panchayats spent
their days in town socialising with businessmen, bureaucrats
and politicians, and frequently travelled long distances to
attend, among other things, weddings and funerals. This allowed
them to cultivate the contacts and friendships necessary to get
things done: it not only increased their ability to secure grants
and other favours for villagers, but also their ability to further
their own business interests. Contacts and friendships in high
places made it easier for them to obtain the various licences
necessary to run their businesses, but also keep the authorities
from prying into their business practices. As I will discuss
below, it also allowed a number of sarpanches and their
supporters to capture village common lands.
Few SCs had the time or the money necessary to build such
networks, and many claimed that this meant they could never
be effective sarpanches. As a result SCs only rarely controlled
panchayats, even in cases where they constituted the overwhelming majority of the village population. In general, they
only became sarpanches when the law reserved the seat for
SCs, and even then they tended to act as proxies and rubber
stamps for Jat patrons. I found about four clear cases in which
SC sarpanches were or had been the attached farm servants of
Jat farmers who actually held the reigns of power. As such
they were easier to control, and ready at hand to sign documents
necessary to run the panchayat. I also found out about several
cases in which panchayats had been nominated through consensus (sahmati) in order to avoid wasteful expense on elections and
to prevent the escalation of factional conflict.7 SCs told me that
although they were consulted, it was wealthy and politically
connected farmers who had ultimately decided matters. Finally,
just as SC sarpanches tended to wield limited political power, SC
40

panchayat members (panches) also tended to act as rubber stamps


for the decisions of Jat sarpanches. Nor did SCs have the chance to
vote on key panchayat decisions during gram sabhas because
few, if any, villages ever held them. Several sarpanches, and
two panchayat secretaries, told me that they were pointless
exercises but that since they were compulsory they created fake
entries in panchayat registers claiming that they had taken place.
In light of the above it is clear that by virtue of their wealth,
education and connections, the dominant Jats were in a
particularly strong position to capture panchayati raj institutions
(see, for example, Jeffrey 2001). In what follows, however, I
suggest that political interference in panchayats further
facilitated this process, and thus bolstered the political and the
economic power of rural elites at the expense of the SCs.
Panchayats in Punjab are highly susceptible to meddling by
the political party in power, as they are in many other states
(Mathur 2013: 43). Governments here use panchayats to
secure votes during provincial and national elections, and
tend to direct development projects towards loyal party
supporters, and even to help them harass rivals or unruly
subjects. Moreover, there is a widespread perception that
corruption and the use of intimidation and violence is on the
rise. My informants, but also vernacular and English language
newspapers, frequently claimed that the Punjab was under
goonda raj. Gills (2013) work suggests that this perception is
founded on concrete developments. He argues that state
repression during the counter-insurgency period in Punjab
decimated farmer and labour unions and reduced politics to
the exercise of raw power through money and muscle power.
In particular, he shows how the ruling SAD has sought to
secure both political power and its members significant
business interests by issuing gun licences to supporters, protecting goondas, and intimidating and harassing opponents.
Ruling Parties and Control over Panchayats

My research on panchayats likewise indicates that ruling SAD


politicians use harassment and intimidation when they seek to
secure their partys stranglehold over particular panchayats, or
when they are determined to give power to a particular village
leader. If, for example, a panchayat is equally divided between
Congress and Akali panches, and is unable to obtain the
majority necessary to pass resolutions, I found widespread
allegations but also concrete evidence that incumbent Akali
politicians use the police to coerce opposition panchayat
members who cannot be bought. This method is most likely to
be used against SC opposition panches who lack the party and
police connections, and the money, necessary to defend
themselves. In one village a Jat sarpanch told me that the local
Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) had told him to first
try and persuade a Mazbhi Sikh panchayat member to join his
faction with a bribe, and that if this did not work he would
either threaten him with fake police charges, or get him
roughed up by some local goondas.
While I never found out what happened to this particular
panchayat memberbecause my fieldwork came to an end, I
discovered another case during the 2013 panchayat elections
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in which a Sainsi sarpanch was successfully threatened into


resigning from his post. Balwant8 Singh, the previous incumbent,
had been sarpanch for eight consecutive five-year terms and his
son had become one of the personal assistants of the powerful
local MLA. Balwant owned 12 acres of land, had captured and
cultivated more than half of the 12 acres of village common
land, and ran a commission agent and pesticide shop in town.
The reason he had reigned supreme for so long was that thanks
to his high-level contacts he had created a captive vote bank by
providing the Sainsis, who constituted slightly more than half
of the village population, with the police protection necessary
for them to distill and sell alcohol, as well as to trade in poppy
husk.9 In 2013, however, he had decided to move on and agreed
to hand over the panchayat to the family who owned the most
land in the village and who had controlled the panchayat until
Balwant had taken over 40 years earlier.10
However, things took an unexpected turn after the position
of the village sarpanch became reserved for an SC candidate.
At this point both Balwant and the prospective sarpanch
decided to hand over the panchayat to a Sainsi named Goggi
who was expected to subsequently resign and hand the
panchayat back to the Jats. The Sainsi community agreed to
this arrangement. While many in this community complained
about how Balwant had prospered on their backs and at their
expense,11 they thought that a Sainsi sarpanch would lack both
the knowledge and the contacts necessary to be effective, and
to protect their illegal business activities. However, the Sainsi
who was selected proved less malleable than expected. He and
some of his followers decided that it was the Sainsis turn to
control the panchayat and that he would not resign as agreed.
The prospective Jat sarpanch suspected that the opposition
Congress leader in the village, who controlled about a fifth of
village votes, had something to do with this change of heart. To
make him step down he first tried persuasion, but when this
failed he asked Balwant, whose connections were well
known, to threaten him with fabricated police charges. And
then, two days after the threat was made, the SC sarpanch
resigned and the seat was handed over through village consensus without holding elections. While the Sainsi sarpanchs
refusal to bow to the upper castes may suggest increasing
assertiveness on the part of the SCs, the whole event illustrates how rural elites can counter this through their control
over the state apparatus.
Admittedly the latter case involved no more than a threat.
However, it is important to emphasise that such threats were
entirely credible and that there were cases in which even
wealthy and influential opposition Congress politicians had
been embroiled in fake police cases. For example, during the
block samiti elections of 2012, Rajinder Singh, a wealthy
Congress Party leader with close ties to the Patiala royal family
was badly wounded and subsequently embroiled in attempted
murder charges after he and his followers attempted to resist
the capture of a rural polling station by a leading Youth Akali
Dal goonda. Rajinder Singh had been campaigning on behalf
of a Ravidasia candidate for the position of block chairman,
who was too scared to campaign himself. The latter told me
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that the leading Akali goonda in tehsil X had threatened to


beat him and his brother up if he dared to campaign. He said
that he was a poor man with a family to protect, and that he
did not have the resources to resist the SAD.
The fact that Rajinder Singh ended up badly beaten and had
to face fabricated police charges after confronting Akalis who
had captured a polling station clearly indicates that the
Ravidasia candidate had good reason to be afraid. When I
reached the polling station in question, the few police officers
present appeared indifferent to the fact that SAD party workers
had prevented Congress supporters from voting, and that they
were inside generously feeding the polling officers. Eventually,
after gathering a critical mass, the Congress workers started
protesting. Shortly thereafter, young SAD supporters, armed
with iron rods and Sikh ceremonial swords, attacked the protesters. Rajinder Singh received a blow to his head with a
metal rod and spent the subsequent night in a hospital in
Patiala. While he was in hospital, SAD supporters placed
attempted murder charges against him, and later boasted to
me about how the local SAD MLA had helped them do this.
Panchayat Capture, Accountability, and
Village Commons

As already indicated, SCs are now entitled to a large number of


government schemes and resources. However by virtue of their
control over panchayatsbuttressed by political interference
dominant castes are able to appropriate a significant share of
these resources and to subvert or block certain schemes. Here I
will first focus on the issue of village common lands, and then
explore some aspects related to SC access to the mgNREGA
scheme. I choose to focus on the mgNREGA scheme in particular because SCs in tehsil X have mobilised to secure their access
to the scheme. This mobilisation, I suggest, clearly illustrates
both increased SC assertion and its limits.
Most villages own some shamlaat zameen which villagers
are entitled to rent from the panchayat on a yearly basis.
Approximately a third of this land is reserved for members of
the SCs, and the money generated from its lease is meant to go
to the panchayat and spent on village development. However
most villages appear to generate little income from their
common lands, and few SCs ever get their allotted share in it
because most of it has been under the kabza of upper caste
Jats, who in some instances do not even pay the usual nominal
fee to cultivate it. The Jat families who have effectively been
encroaching upon this land for up to half a century often feel
entitled to it because they often improved it by levelling it and
by placing tube wells upon it, and some farmer unions, such as
the left leaning Daconda Union, demand that this land be
permanently handed over to the farmers who possess it.
In the majority of cases it appears that Jats are paying
something to cultivate the land, but this fee is far below going
market prices for the lease of land. I found that in a number of
villages people were paying no more than Rs 8,000 per year
while rental prices for irrigated agricultural land in parts of
Malwa had now reached an unprecedented Rs 40,000. Moreover
I found that a black market in shamlaat zameen had developed
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in at least one village I visited. Shamlaat zameen was being


traded, but at rates far below the market rate for private land
since it was not possible to obtain legal ownership over it.
These things can happen because panchayats, in collusion
with panchayat secretaries, never hold the open auctions (kulli
boli) mandated by the Panchayati Raj Act for the lease of village
common lands.12 I also heard about sarpanches violating
regulations by holding the auctions in their houses without notifying everyone in the village. I also learnt that sarpanches
often used proxies to outbid other villagers during open auctions and subsequently cultivated the land themselves while paying a rent that was far below the bid initially made. They could
get away with this because they controlled village accounts
and because few people ever took the trouble of going through
them and potentially antagonising the sarpanch.
Gaining control over the village commons was one of economic
incentives for becoming a sarpanch. The village of Fatehpur in
tehsil X, for example, possessed 186 acres of land and a single
politically connected family controlled 86 acres of it for 50 years
until 1986. Khems family only owned four acres of land, but its
control over the panchayat had allowed it to capture this land
and become one of the wealthiest in the village. In 201314
Khems family had a large three-storey mansion equipped
with all the newest appliances including a large flat screen
television, two new four-wheel drive cars and a new tractor. In
1986 the family lost control over much of this land because a
rivalNirmal Singhhad become sarpanch and had obtained
a court order to clear the land of encroachers. Nirmal Singh
allegedly went on to redistribute the land among his own
dominant caste allies. However, Khem Singh had good
connections with the powerful local MLA and when he came
back to power as sarpanch in 2008, he, in turn, managed to evict
Nirmal Singh and his allies from this land and to subsequently
recapture some of it and the revenues it started generating.
Khem effectively took advantage of the fact that the ruling
SAD was attempting to boost both village and state revenues
by clearing common lands of encroachers and by installing
tube wells on it. During my fieldwork, this policy had only been
implemented in a couple of villages. After it was implemented
in Fatehpur, land rents rose from Rs 8,000 per acre to Rs 40,000
per acre. This yielded yearly revenue worth Rs 4,80,000 and
Khem used a large part of it to fix all the village gutters, and to
pave its alleyways with cement bricks. Nevertheless, both
opponents and supporters grumbled about how he had nevertheless managed to capture 10 acres of common land. He had done
so by ensuring that no tube wells were placed on village lands
adjacent to his own. This meant that only he could irrigate this
landthanks to a tube well on his own adjacent landand
that he could pay a much lower rent because the land was not,
technically speaking, equipped with tube wells. Many also
claimed that Khem was appropriating a share of the new revenue stream but that there was no way of holding him to
account. They told me that he kept the village records at
homeas most sarpanches didand that people were too
scared to file a right to information (RTI) request to find out about
village finances because Khem was well connected in the SAD.13
42

A number of Ravidasias in Khems village claimed that even


if the Jats allowed them a share of village common lands, it
had now become too expensive for them to rent. However, in
other villages where the government had not cleared village
common lands, they also claimed that even if they obtained some
they would not have the agricultural implements, or even the
knowledge, necessary to cultivate it. It is nevertheless clearly
the case that they were deprived of a potentially significant
income supplement. Until about 20 years ago a lot of village
common land was uncultivated and SCs used it to graze their
livestock, but the scramble for the village commonsas for
land of any typehad deprived them of the possibility of owning
any livestock (Jodhka 2014). The dwindling number of SCs who
now owned livestock either depended on gifts of fodder from
Jats, or needed to purchase it. On this score, I also found that
wealthy sarpanches used gifts of free fodder to attract votes,
particularly in the run-up to elections. The capture of the
village commons thereby contributed to SCs having to depend
on dominant caste charitycharity that was frequently politically motivated.
MGNREGA and SC Assertion

As elsewhere throughout India, farmers were broadly opposed


to the mgNREGA scheme because they claimed it raised the
cost of labour by reducing its supply. Most Jat farmers also
opposed it because they claimed that it failed to produce anything of value and allegedly made SCs lazy. Why, they asked
rhetorically, should SCs work in our fields if they can obtain
Rs 184 for doing nothing? So Jat farmers who controlled
panchayats frequently failed to facilitate the implementation
of mgNREGA. In many cases Jat sarpanches could afford to
merely ignore the schemes existence because SCs could not get
organised to enrol themselves independently, or because they
were only vaguely aware of how to gain access to the scheme.
SCs often believed that Jats were opposed to the scheme because they wanted SCs to continue collecting cow dung for
them, and so that they could continue lending them money
on interest.
When panchayats did make the effort to facilitate the mgNREGA
scheme they sometimes did so in order to derive political and
monetary benefits. It was widely claimed that during the brief
period before direct bank payments to mgNREGA workers were
instituted, sarpanches used to steal a significant proportion of
the mgNREGA funds put in their care. With the advent of direct
bank payments this was no longer possible, but some
sarpanches nevertheless found new ways to obtain both
monetary and political benefit from the scheme. SCs in several
villages told me that sarpanches made access to mgNREGA
contingent on political loyalty, and that some even put their
farm servants on it in order to save money on wages. Others
told me that sarpanches would only accept to sign them up if
they agreed to pay them half of the money that had been
disbursed into their bank accounts. In other cases the deal was
that the sarpanch would get half the money in exchange for
listing mgNREGA workers as present when they were in fact working elsewhere, or at home resting.
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REVIEW OF RURAL AFFAIRS

The most visible SC political organisation in tehsil X did not


have more than 500 members and was set up by two literate
and middle class Ravidasias in order to fight such abuses.
Despite being a relatively small union, it was highly visible
because of its vociferous leader Sukhbir Singh who claimed to
lead over 50,000 SCs in the state.
Sukhbir Singh claimed to have left a comfortable police post
in order to do service (seva) for the poor. He claimed that he
could have easily made lots of money and spent his days in
air-conditioned rooms socialising with big people (bare log),
but that he had opted to brave the heat and the dust because he
could not stand the sight of little children going hungry.
During his various rallies, Sukhbir Singh grandly claimed that
his aim was to assist the needy and the poor in all aspects of
their lives. He exaggeratedly claimed that the police knew that
if they raised even a single finger against an SC, 50,000 of his
followers would start pelting stones at the local police station.
However despite his rhetoric, Sukhbir focused almost exclusively on the mgNREGA scheme, and never seriously raised the
key issue of elite control over panchayats, or even elite control
of village common lands. Moreover, despite his claims neither
the police nor the local SAD nor Congress leaders felt threatened by him, and frequently dismissed him as a fraud, a troublemaker and even a clown. This probably worked to Sukhbirs
advantage because the powerful did not appear compelled to
take action to rein him in.
To gain followers Sukhbir Singh greatly exaggerated the
extent of his influence and contacts, and even claimed to know
Rahul Gandhi and addressed him by his first name. He was,
however, careful not to claim ties to influential provincial leaders
because it would have been easier for people to verify such
claims. Rahul Gandhi, he alleged, had agreed to raise mgNREGA
payments from Rs 184 to Rs 1,000 per day, and to pay Rs
1,00,000 to everyone who had not been given mgNREGA work
between 2008 and 2012. He also claimed that he would ensure
that mgNREGA workers received pensions of Rs 3,000 per
month, and that rural SCs would obtain government jobs and five
marla plots of land to build houses on. Sukhbir frequently organised rallies, and roadblocks, where he voiced these unrealistic
demands mixed in with the occasional more realistic one. He
even frequently took up to 400 union members with him to
Delhi to voice these demands.
There was a great deal of bluster and bluffing in what Sukhbir
did and said, but he did nevertheless provide SCs with a valued
service. Sukhbir undeniably played a role in raising his followers
awareness about their rights under the mgNREGA scheme, and
also in helping them secure these by helping with paperwork
and intimidating bureaucratic procedures. Some SCs told me
that if it had not been for him, the mgNREGA scheme would
never have been implemented in their village.
However, many people quit the union because they felt that
Sukhbir Singh was leading people astray, because they
believed that he used the Rs 200 union membership fee that he
charged to lead a lavish lifestyle, and because in exchange for
enrolling people onto the mgNREGA scheme he had asked some
of them to hand over half of the money when they went to pick
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vol l no 52

it up at the bank. They claimed that his Delhi protests


were also moneymaking schemes and that he took a Rs 20
commission on every passenger that travelled with him
(meaning that he could make Rs 8,000 with 400 passengers).
Perhaps most importantly, during the 2014 national elections
he was widely alleged to have taken a Rs 6,00,000 payment
from the local Congress in exchange for the votes of the
members of the union. This was despite the fact that he
repeatedly told his supporters that he was not involved in
party politics because it was dirty. A couple of days before
polling, however, he told his followers that voting for the
Congress constituted the lesser evil because the SAD/
BJP alliance threatened to withdraw their various state
benefits.
Conclusions

The breakdown of traditional patterns of upper caste territorial


domination, and deepening electoral competition mean that SC
voters can no longer be taken for granted. SCs are arguably
receiving more from the state than they ever have. Nevertheless,
while rural elites may no longer control SC livelihoods, they
have reproduced their power through state-connected networks
of influence, and that they continue to control provincial
politics. The latter has allowed them to use political party
interference to marginalise SCs at the panchayat level. This
does not mean that SCs never occupy elected posts at local
level, but as Jan Bremans (2007) work on Gujarat illustrates,
even if they do it is still likely to be members of the rural elite
who ultimately wield power. What this means is that SC access
to state resources, to justice and even to personal security
often remains contingent upon political loyalty to their dominant
caste patrons. In turn, this means that well-positioned members
of dominant castes in Malwa continue to prosper at the expense
of many SCs. Not only do they receive a disproportionate share
of state resources through official policiesincluding free
electricity for irrigation and subsidised grain pricesbut also
unofficially through corruption and, among other things, the
capture of village commons.
It is nevertheless true that SCs have become more assertive
in pressing for entitlements and patronage, but the case of
Sukhbir Singh illustrates the limits of their political assertiveness.
It shows how while SCs are often loudly pressing their demands
on government, the scope of these demands appears to be
rather limited. Sukhbir Singh, besides his unrealistic demands,
merely pressed for the proper implementation of the MGNREGA
scheme, but did not address broader labour issues, continued
Jat dominance of panchayats, pressing issues in education and
healthcare, or even the capture of the village commons. Given
that local politicians backed by the ruling SAD frequently
harassed political opponents and insubordinate SCs it is
perhaps not surprising that SC leaders like Sukhbir Singh kept
their demands narrow. Had Sukhbir Singh sought to challenge
elite control over panchayats, or even their appropriation of
the village commons, he would probably have had to face
significant harassment at the hands of the police or of SAD
goondas. While Jats were broadly opposed to the MGNREGA
43

REVIEW OF RURAL AFFAIRS

scheme, its implementation was more of an inconvenience


than a grave threat to their interests. When the scheme was
implemented, it was implemented outside periods of peak
demand for labour and therefore did not affect the number of
labourers available to Jat farmers when they needed them.
Moreover, the SAD leadership actually wanted the scheme
implemented in order to attract the SC vote, and was therefore unlikely to help sarpanches in any bid to block it. Finally
the fact that local politicians dismissed Sukhbir as a fraud
and a clown probably worked in his favour, and it is conceivable that Sukhbir was happy with this image precisely because it neutralised the extent to which he was perceived as
a threat.
notes
[The author is a co-investigator in a project
funded by the European Research Council and
UK Economic and Social Research Council
(ERC2011-StG - N 284080AISMA and the
UK Economic and Social Research Council)
entitled Democratic Cultures in South Asia
based at the University College London Anthropology Department. The research for this
paper was carried out as a part of this project,
and took place in the Indian Punjab between
February 2013 and May 2014.]
1

See Jodhka (2004) for a discussion on Sikhism


and the relative absence of Brahminical values
in Punjab.
2 Throughout Punjab Mazhbi Sikhs, former
scavengers, continue to be the poorest and
the most marginal, whereas Ravidasia and
Ad Dharmi Chamars have prospered to a
greater extent, as have Tarkhans, Lohars and
Barbers who have managed to set up private
businesses.
3 MGNREGA paid Rs 184 daily, which was less
than the Rs 250 male labourers could make on
other jobs.
4 It is reasonable to assume that the majority of
kaccha houses in 1981 belonged to SCs and
therefore that the increase in pakka housing
has disproportionately benefited them.
5 There are, however, large differences in the literacy rates of different SC communities: in 2001 the
Adh Dharmis had a literacy rate of 76.4%
whereas the Mazhbis had a literacy rate of
42.3%.
6 Between 2013 and 2014, advances for attached farm servants ranged between Rs
50,000 and Rs 1,00,000. Moreover farmers
claim that it has even become difficult to obtain Bihari labourers because MGNREGA has
allegedly makes it possible for them to stay in
their home in Bihar for longer stretches of the
year.
7 Gill (2014) found that in the 2013 panchayat
elections 16.78% of panchayats were elected
through consensus.
8 Both characters and the names of villages have
been changed to anonymise my informants.
9 The Sainsis told me that he warned them of
forthcoming police raidsof which he was notified in advance by friendly police officersand
allowed them to hide their poppy husk stocks
in his fields and even in his house.
10 The prospective sarpanch owned 40 acres.
11 They claimed that in exchange for protecting
them from the police they had turned a blind eye
to his capture of the village commons, and to his

44

To get things done then, Sukhbir Singh could not afford to


threaten the existing balance of political and economic power.
In fact he even had to cooperate with the very political system
that he decried as corrupt. There was clearly an element of monetary self-interest in his delivery of votes to the opposition Congress, but this was also arguably a strategy that could help him
eventually secure access to the political patronage of influential
Congress leaders. Other SC leaders who were far less prone to
bombast than Sukhbir Singh were also accused of taking money
in exchange for votes. The fact that the same was also allegedly
true for various farmer union leaders seems to indicate that most
local political leaders were constrained to work within a system
that was increasingly dominated by money and muscle power.

personal appropriation of funds meant for


village development.
12 In recent years, however, the cash-strapped
Punjab government has started the process of
clearing the land of encroachers. The idea is to
produce more income from village common
lands, and thus reduce the need for the provincial government to provide grants, but also to
provide the cash-strapped provincial government with money since approximately 20% of
the income from these lands will go to the
government.
13 According to the panchayat act, village records
was meant to be accessible to the public but
this was rarely the case. Furthermore many
people did not want to file RTIs because they
cannot be filed anonymously and people feared
retribution on the part of the person they were
investigating.

references
Breman, Jan (2007): The Poverty Regime in Village
India, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (2002): State Development Report on
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Gill, Sucha Singh (2013): Gun Culture in Punjab,
Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLVIII, No 8,
pp 1618.
(2014): Changing Economic Structure, Emergence of New Political Class and Elections in
Punjab, unpublished manuscript.

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Fingers: Caste and Dominance in Rural North
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