Punjab’s protest pop: How the Dalits are telling the world they’ve arrived

Inside a tiny recording studio, atop a kirana shop in a village in Nawansheher, singer Roop Lal Dhir and his music director are discussing the merits of a Lamborghini over any limousine. It’s a choice that matters — Dhir’s last big hit was about a young man driving a Hummer, and ‘killing it’ with his rustic, Punjabi swag.

The young Chamar boys of Doaba want a feel of the good life, says Dhir. Fast cars, big houses, foreign locales. If in his album,‘Putt Chamaran Da’(Son of the Chamar), the boy driving a Hummer wanted to study and become a “district collector”, this time round, he seems to have finally arrived. “Now, in this song, the boy has a Lamborghini, a Bullet, and even a horse at home. And he’s the talk of the town in Sydney,” Dhir, 55, explains a line from his upcoming single, ‘Keda chak luga time chamar da’(No one can take away the chamar’s destiny).

Pride and Prejudice

Across Punjab’s Doaba region, comprising of the districts of Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawansheher and Kapurthala, where Census numbers point to the highest SC population in the country – Punjab has 32 per cent SCs, and most of them are concentrated in the region of Doaba – a sub genre of Punjabi music, locally referred to as “chamar pop” is changing the narrative of caste-based identity politics in the region.

In the world of “chamar pop”, caste consciousness and pride is expressed in its aspirational and assertive lyrics, foot-tapping beats, and the iconography of B R Ambedkar and Guru Ravidas, a 19th century Chamar saint.

“It’s always been about them…. The Jats. Their songs, their music, their histories. Look at Josh TV [a popular Punjabi music channel]. Full of their stuff. But we also have cars, big houses, a history, a Guru. So we make songs about it,” says Dhir, who says he started making “chamar pop” back in the 80s.

This story of the cultural assertion of the chamars, however, is rooted in the state’s Dalit politics, particularly the Ad-dharmi movement started by Mangu Ram Mugowalia in the 1920s. Mugowalia belonged to the Chamar caste, and was a member of the Ghadar party in the US, from where he came back to Punjab to initiate a movement against the caste system. In 1931, the Ad-dharmi movement got some success when they were recognised as a separate caste distinct from the Hindus, in the Census that was initiated by the British, says JNU sociologist Surinder Singh Jodhka.

However, the move was opposed by Gandhi, who wanted them to be clubbed under Hindus, and in 1935, in the famous Poona pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar, he succeeded in doing so. The Ad-dharmis were compelled to accept this — if they didn’t, they would have to forego the benefits of reservation, says Jodhka. By now, however, they had developed a separate religious and social identity as followers of Ravidas.

In his work on the subject, Jodhka also underlines that Chamars of Doaba — sub-category among the SCs, not including the Valmikis or the Mazhabis – also gained significantly from the arrival of the British cantonment in Jalandhar, raising the demand for leather goods, and the Chamars, who worked with raw animal skins, made good of the opportunity. Members of the caste also migrated to the West, where too, the enterprising community managed to do well for themselves.