Jagjit Kaur, 35, a Dalit resident of Qila Nau village in Faridkot district of Southwestern Punjab, has not cooked a single meal since March 25, when the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 began. Her husband, a mason, has been left jobless by the outbreak like millions of informal sector workers in India, and the family has no money or rations.

This family, like many Dalits in rural Punjab, would have starved if the five gurdwaras in Qila Nau had not shed entrenched caste practices among Sikhs to reach out to the marginalised community. All of them are now sending food to the homes of the indigent Dalits struggling for food and essentials.

“Almost all of them are daily wage labourers and are dependent on money that they earn every day,” said Saudagar Singh Ghudani, the general secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, a labour organisation. “If this situation continues, it is the Dalit workers who will suffer the most.”

Caste discrimination is rampant in Punjab even though Sikhism preaches equality: There are separate places of worship and cremation grounds for Dalits in most villages. They may enter gurdwaras meant for Jat Sikhs to offer prayers but cannot join other worshippers in the langar, the community kitchen where meals are cooked for worshippers. Dalits are also not allowed to touch vessels used for religious ceremonies at these gurdwaras.

However, the pandemic appears to have worn down these caste practices, even if temporarily, we found in our travels across Sangrur, Mansa and Faridkot districts. In several villages, we saw Jat Sikh gurdwaras sending langar to Dalit homes, though all congregations, including religious, have been banned during the lockdown.

Dalits form 32% of Punjab’s population. Of the total Dalit population, 59.9% are Sikhs and 39.6% Hindus. Upper-caste Jat Sikhs are fewer in number – 25% – but have political and economic clout. Jat agriculturists own large swathes of land while Dalits possess only 63,480 or 6.02% of the 1.1 million operational land holdings in the state. Of the 523,000 families living below the poverty line in Punjab, 321,000 or 61.4% are Dalits.

The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, a Sikh body that manages the gurdwaras, has asked that the langar be served to Dalits in need. “The principle of Sikhism, ‘Sarbat da bhala [welfare of all]’, is being fulfilled now,” said Paramjit Khalsa, a member of the committee in Barnala district in Southern Punjab. “All gurdwaras are serving the poor. The [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] has asked everyone to come and make donations so that no poor [person] sleeps hungry.”

Food being sent to the homes of the Dalits in Qila Nau village in Southwestern Punjab. Credit: Arjun Sharma/IndiaSpend

Covid-19 has been able to wear down centuries-old social divides based on caste, said Mahi Pal, the state finance secretary of Dehati Mazdoor Sabha that works for Dalit workers in Punjab. “Discrimination, poverty and malnourishment are problems we have been fighting for years,” said Pal, himself a Brahmin but a leading figure in Punjab’s Dalit agitations. “Unless we fight it, we cannot empower Dalits to exit the vicious circle of poverty. What this crisis has taught us is that no one is above humanity and individuals have to help each other irrespective of caste.”

Fuelled largely by migrant workers returning from abroad, Covid-19 has flared across Punjab, registering 167 positive cases and 11 deaths as of April 14.

Staying alive

Up to 35.88% of Punjab’s labour force consists of Scheduled Caste workers, as per official data. Of this, 79.20% are “main workers”, i.e. those who work for six months or more, and 20.80% are marginal workers, i.e. employed for less than six months. Most of them are agricultural labourers or engaged in low-wage, manual work.

Amrit Singh, 48, Dalit and resident of Balad Kalan village in Sangrur district, used to earn Rs 300 a day working as a mason. He would travel to the town’s labour hub, already hit by the impact of demonetisation for contract jobs. Singh can no longer do so.

“The local gurdwara is providing food to us twice in a day,” he said. “The strict lockdown in Punjab makes it impossible for me to travel to the labour hub. But the village youth, from across castes, are distributing langar on which we survive.”

Gurdwaras, as we mentioned earlier, tend to be assigned to specific castes among Sikhs. Mazhabis, the numerically strongest among Scheduled Caste Sikhs, have their own gurdwaras as do the Ravidassia Sikhs, another Scheduled Caste. Ramgarhias are a subgroup among Other Backward Classes and they too have their own gurdwaras in some parts of Punjab.

Renewed hope?

Qila Nau has a population of over 4,400, of which more than 2,200 – 50.60% – are Dalits. There are five small gurdwaras and a big one and of these one is reserved for the Jat Sikhs, one for Dalits and the remaining are open to all, as per village sarpanch Amaninder Singh.

“However, all religious places have come together in the fight against the coronavirus,” he said. “Most Dalits in the village work as daily wage labourers and have no means of earning at this time.”

Help is also pouring in from abroad, with non-resident Indians, mostly Jats, sending money for rations, said the sarpanch. The food is cooked in the gurdwaras and served to the Dalits twice a day –including rice, chapatis and vegetables.

Upper-caste villagers have become kinder, less stringent about caste divisions and more generous to the Dalits, said Daljit Singh, 40, a resident of Hirewala village in Mansa district in Southern Punjab bordering Haryana. “We are receiving help not only from the local gurdwara but also from well-off upper-caste families,” he said. “I wish this harmony continues even after the disease [Covid-19] is over.”

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.