In the “Jaat” chapter of his book Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines, the author and journalist Amandeep Sandhu draws on his travels in the state to document caste relations there. His observations include incidents of caste discrimination he witnessed at a gurdwara at the Maddoke village to recording details of a land movement which saw Dalits—who comprise 32 percent of the state’s population—attempt to wrest back control of land reserved for them, from upper-caste owners who had occupied it.
On 11 October 2016, Sandhu travelled to the village of Jhaloor, where, though 250 of the 600 families belong to the Dalit community, they do not own any of the 2,300 acres of land in the village. He learned that six days earlier, Jutts had mounted a brutal assault on Dalits, against the backdrop of a long-standing dispute over agricultural land reserved for the Scheduled Caste community. While the Jutts constitute only about 25 percent of the population in the state, they own most of the land and dominate the political and social life. Sandhu explains that one aspect of this incident that continued to haunt him was the fact that “Jatts had used the village gurdwara to make divisive announcements, rally their men and prepare for attacks on Dalits … on the one hand, Panjab was battling incidents of sacrilege of holy texts, on the other, the Jutts and Akalis were misusing the gurudwaras, supposedly places of truth, justice and equality.”
Most Dalits in Jhaloor eke out a living by tending to cattle and selling milk, working for Jutt farmers, or through other petty trades. The panchayat land in Jhaloor is nearly 50 acres. The 16.5 acres of land reserved for the Scheduled Caste community is split into three parts, of which only one part—about six acres large—is cultivable. The other two plots, of 6 and 4.5 acres each, are located at quite a distance from the village and are not cultivable. Relying on the villagers I met, as well as a report that was released by the Association for Democratic Rights (AFDR), a Panjab-based human rights watchdog organisation whose members had visited Jhaloor a day before us, I pieced together an account of the events that led to the violent attack the Jutts had launched on 5 October 2016.
On 10 May 2016, after the revenue officials and administration at Jhaloor failed in three of their attempts to conduct auctions because of protests led by the ZPSC [Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee is a committee to fight for land rights], they decided to hold a forced auction of the six acres of cultivable land reserved for those belonging to the Scheduled Caste community. The auction was conducted in the presence of police officials. Jugraj Singh, a Dalit, won the six acres for Rs 2.62 lakh. Jugraj later told the AFDR team that Harvinder Mangu—a Jutt landlord—had lent him the money to buy the land. He also said that he had no prior farming experience. According to the account he gave the AFDR team, Jugraj did not own a tractor or any agricultural implements either—he was planning to borrow all of these from Gurdeep Babban, another Jutt landlord. Effectively, Jugraj had stood in the auction as a dummy candidate for Babban.
According to the report, when the administration handed over the land to Jugraj, many Dalit residents of the village, aware that Babban would control it, had camped on it for a month in protest. In the second week of June, the police had forcibly evicted them. Subsequently, Jugraj, with help from the Jutt landlords, planted paddy on the land. A few weeks later, the Dalit villagers uprooted the paddy seedlings.