The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Clashes block Punjab peace bid

Talhan, June 8: Sectarian violence continued for a fourth successive day in this village on the outskirts of Jalandhar, with five persons being injured as Jats and Dalits clashed early today with batons, stones and other weapons.

Jalandhar superintendent of police Rakesh Kaushal said the situation was tense but under control. He added that the administration was expected to lift the curfew in some city areas but not in the village.

Today’s violence is a setback for the administration which had begun a peace bid by getting members of both communities to start a dialogue. Politicians flitted in and out of the village, holding talks with the communities. Social security minister Joginder Singh Mann, who visited the affected areas, held outsiders responsible for the violence.

Chief minister Amarinder Singh, who was in the city yesterday, was kept away from the village by senior district officials for security reasons.

Trouble began on Thursday when Dalit youths entered a Jat-organised religious fair in Talhan. The youths allegedly teased Jat girls, leading to a clash which snowballed into a major confrontation. The clashes spread to Jalandhar where a few buses and trucks were set afire and trains stopped and stoned. District authorities said one person was killed, but mayor Surinder Mahey insisted two people have died.

The lifestyle of Dalits, who are in a majority in Talhan, is a world removed from the plight of their cousins elsewhere in the country. Talhan has clearly shared in the prosperity of the Doaba region, fuelled by remittances from NRIs and by the green revolution. There is a statue of a Boeing on the lane from Grand Trunk Road leading to the village, paying tribute to the hundreds of thousands of people who have moved from Doaba to discover wealth in Europe or the US.

Sectarian trouble began a decade ago when the Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Samadhi Sthal, a shrine to a local Sufi saint, began to attract pilgrims from Punjab and abroad. Offerings, estimated to be around Rs 5 crore annually, were used to set up a new building to house the shrine, managed by Jats. The Dalit demand for representation on its managing committee sparked trouble.

Dalits obtained a court order allowing them to participate in elections to the shrine’s managing committee. Jats refused to respect the order and the matter went back to court. On January 14 this year, Dalits procured another court order allowing them to participate in elections. The Jats walked out.

This resulted in all 13 committee posts going to Dalits. The tactic was intended to force a bargain and a meeting was called five days later to arrive at a compromise. Instead, a fight broke out. Policemen, mostly Jats, at the shrine responded by attacking the Dalits with batons.

A portrait of Sant Ravidas was allegedly torn by Jats and the board at the shrine replaced by another proclaiming the building to be a gurdwara. Jats threatened to boycott the Dalits and sent a letter to the sarpanch claiming Dalits had abused them.

Things have been tense ever since and Thursday’s incident was just the spark needed to trigger widespread violence.

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