The Neglected Children of Punjab
Lakhimpur Kheri, UP's largest district and home to the largest population of Sikh farmers in the state has had a long antagonizing history with the upper caste-driven Hindu trader community that loves to hate the Sikhs or the 'Panjabis', as they call them.
The ugly side of the caste and religious conflict often sprouted its head in the form of crude offhanded comments and the struggle for political power and dominance.
By Gunjeet Sra
The day union minister Teni made his now infamous speech, threatening to ‘discipline’ the protesting farmers who welcomed him with black flags at a public meeting, I was sitting snug some 500 km away, comfortable in my own cocoon, having left my home and the real world behind for a couple of months of mental peace. Quite pleased and basking in the privilege of switching off. For almost a year, the farmers protest had loomed large over my head. It constantly played out in my home, in conversations, in participation, on video. I also personally blamed my obsession with getting a video interview on the farm ordinances right on the emergency C-section that I had to endure. So when my phone rang with the inflammatory video, I merely blinked.
Lakhimpur Kheri, UP’s largest district and home to the largest population of Sikh farmers in the state has had a long antagonizing history with the upper caste-driven Hindu trader community that loves to hate the Sikhs or the ‘Punjabis’, as they call them. Some of who have now been around for almost a 100 years. When my great grandfather first stepped foot in Terai, it was post partition at the behest of his wife’s family who were already settled in village Chandpura in the Kheri district. When he decided to buy land in Palia, it was a hunting ground, surrounded by small villages that were dominated by upper caste Hindus that thrived off exploiting and oppressing the Dalits.
The first time he tried to till his fields, he did so surrounded by villagers chanting, “sardar ko khet nahi jotne denge.”
But he persisted. Jungles were cut, a Gurudwara was made, a school came up, langar was started in homes to welcome more refugees from Punjab as they set up their new homes and eventually a thriving community that lived off the land came to be. A sugar mill was lobbied for, and local politics thrived with these new leaders, a robust community of new ideas in an old world. In the end, the upper caste traders did learn to live with their Punjabi counterparts albeit grudgingly, in a very quid pro quo manner.
The ugly side of the caste and religious conflict often sprouted its head in the form of crude offhanded comments and the struggle for political power and dominance. In 1984, things almost came to a head but cooled off when the agitated Hindu community realized that most Punjabi families had trained marksmen. At the time, some people from my family had written to the Sikh student federation, letting them know about the dangers of radicalization for the community outside the home state of Punjab and even had meetings with them to discuss the same. “Think of yourself like Dasvandhi for the cause,” had come the indifferent reply.
In the early days of the notorious Gill raids and the TADA cases in Punjab, all those who couldn’t flee the country, ended up in the Terai. Our homes became battlegrounds as non-sympathizers but eventually we came out of it stronger. Then the green revolution dream burst and as farming became harder and harder, the immigration begun. Soon we were a microscopic representation of the community that our forefathers had left behind, with each home preparing someone to go abroad for greener pastures and better life. Land holdings became smaller, the debts became bigger and the upper caste dominance became stronger.
Last time I walked into a bank in Palia, I saw an old Sikh man mortgaging his gold (and I wish I was making this up), but it’s a fact that farming just isn’t a lucrative profession anymore. And it’s a hard fact that your monetary status determines your socioeconomic position and the power you hold in society. Sikhs of Terai happen to be on the wrong side at the wrong time. With extremely poor national and state representation, they are against a party, supported by a majority of people who see them as outsiders who’s day of reckoning has finally come. The year worth of bile that has been building up has resulted in electing leaders like Ajay Mishra. Do you think a union minister could have done this to anyone else and gotten away without a resignation? Teni’s son’s mowing down of farmers in broad daylight and then lying about it can be seen as a direct allegory of mowing down a certain community and “disciplining” them in the large scheme of things, just like he had threatened to do so in a very public speech a week prior.
So what do we do now? The fact is, like many of my neighborhood aunties like to say, “sardara na bada maara ho raya.”