Dalit or Christian? Caught between two identities in Punjab

“Hallelujah! “, “Bole So Nihal”. The two slogans have often been raised together at rallies during the ongoing election campaign in Gurdaspur, the district with the largest Christian population in the state. However, recognition during campaigns aside, the Christian community of Punjab, which has a significant presence in the pockets and among the rank and file members of the party, again failed to secure tickets from any party. dominant state policy.

According to the 2011 census, Christians make up 1.26% of the state’s population, and there have been no community MPs in the Punjab Assembly in recent times.

Punjabi Christians fall into three distinct categories. The first whose ancestors adopted Christianity in British times; the latter, generally the poorest and most illiterate, who are more influenced by the deras they follow and their gurus; and the third, and largest group, Dalits who practice Christianity but have not officially converted.

No big leader or church has influence over the whole community.

Christian leader Rohit Khokhar, a former general secretary of the BSP which is now part of the Aam Adami party, said nearly 98 percent of the community members are of Dalit origin. Although they have embraced Christianity, many are not caste free, he said. “The caste remains whether the religion is Sikh or Christian.” These groups are entitled to reservation, which is one of the reasons why many do not want to officially convert.

Khokhar believes that when it comes time to vote, what they decide would be simple. “If there is a problem of religious persecution, a person would vote as a Christian. If there is a problem of Dalit rights, they can vote as Dalits.

Roshan Jospeh, who was the Gurdaspur District Congress President until two months ago and is now in Akali Dal, said the community has been gradually turning away from the Congress. “As Chief Minister, (Akali Dal veteran) Parkash Singh Badal started celebrating Christmas as a state-level function in 1997,” Joseph said, adding that this had gone a long way in cementing the community support.

In another overture to the community, the Akali government in 2014 appointed Anwar Masih, a Bikram Singh Majithia loyalist, to the subordinate service selection committee, which recruits for the government.

However, in 2020, Masih was convicted of recovering 197 kg of heroin from a residential building he owned. And according to Khokhar, the Christians now feel betrayed by the Akalis, for having let down one of their own.

Claiming an “APA wave” in the state, including among Dalits, he said what could cause a small dent is if Congress appoints Dalit leader Charanjit Singh Channi as chief minister of Punjab and now his CM face . “It is possible that part of the Dalit vote, which was supposed to go to the AAP, will go to Congress.”

However, Channi’s gathering for the Christian community in Gurdaspur on December 18, 2021 was considered a flop. Joseph said it was because people were angry at his removal as chairman of the district convention committee.

Salamat Masih, chairman of the Christian Welfare Board and one of the organizers of a rally for Channi on Dec. 16, also expressed his displeasure with Congress. “Congress promised the community a seat before the 2017 election, but didn’t give one. He is being tested in these elections,” said Salamat Masih.

Having failed to secure a ticket, some Christian leaders are running as independents. Among them is Domnic Mattu, who disputes Dera Baba Nanak.

Mattu said he approached both AAP and Amarinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress for a ticket but was turned away. “When there was no hope for the party in Majha, the AAP had given Christian community leader Peter Masih a ticket in 2019 from Gurdaspur parliamentary constituency. But in this election, while the party is in a better position, it hasn’t given anyone a ticket.

Peter Masih had 27,744 honorable votes against BJP-aligned Bollywood star Sunny Deol and Congress bigwig Sunil Jakhar. Deol had won.

Independent contestant Sonu Jaffar from Ajnala said he was also denied a ticket. “There are about 42,000 Christian votes in Ajnala out of a total of 1.50 lakh. I had requested a ticket from the AAP this time. I was expecting a ticket from Congress in 2017. It’s discrimination against the community that no party gives them a ticket.

Khokhar said Christians in the state were caught in a vicious circle. For fear of losing reservations, depriving them of the few opportunities they have, many do not officially register as Christians. “That is why the accurate representation of the Christian community is not reflected in government data. This is also the reason why parties don’t give us tickets,” he said.

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