Rupinder Kaur: Caste in Pataal Lok, Panjab and the Diaspora

Pataal Lok (2020) is a crime investigation Amazon Prime series produced by the Indian film actress Anushka Sharma. After its release, earlier this year, many Indians and diaspora Sikhs took to social media to air their disdain on the portrayal of jatt Sikh men in the context of caste discrimination and violence. Rupinder Kaur is a British Panjabi poet and artist and is outspoken on social media about issues concerning the Panjab, the Panjabi diaspora and its politics. She shares her views and reactions to the online backlash of episode three of the show. 

Using my voice to talk about caste is not new to me. I have been vocal in my peer groups since as far back as I can remember but more so on social media over the past few years. I have always found it strange to see people in the diaspora stipulating on caste when it comes to dating or even making friends. What’s more ridiculous is that if you are critical of caste (as am I), then ‘you must be a non-jatt hating on jatts’. An accusation extended to me more than once. 

This thinking among the jatt community is something I do not understand. Despite being born into a jatt family, caste was never something my parents addressed as a sense of pride. I was always taught to judge people on their merit and individuality. Caste does not come into it. 

I watched Pataal Lok when it first released. The show addresses a dark and sinister side to India by looking at casteism and communal issues. In the third episode (A history of violence) of the show we witness the gang-rape of a lower caste Sikh woman by jatt Sikh men. The conversations online regarding this episode quickly revealed just how many Sikh jatts are not yet ready to have a proper dialogue on caste or to admit to the fact that caste discrimination and violence in our community is a real issue. 

Instead, the issue of caste was conflated with religion to suggest that Sikh men or “our men” can’t rape. This was the prevailing discussion. Not the blatant casteism being exercised that then results in the gang-rape of a Sikh woman from a dalit caste by jatt men. Manjinder Singh Sirsa, the president of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee also tweeted this

The dalit woman shown in this episode has no voice. She says nothing before being gang-raped and nothing after – what about addressing the way she was portrayed?

Panjabi diaspora and caste

As it has been seen, cases like Bant Singh have not been widely spoken about by the community. This leads to a lack of awareness of the seriousness of caste in the Panjabi diaspora. Bringing up Pataal Lok again I have seen many diaspora youths on social media arguing that this show has been made to defame Sikhs. The same show was also termed ‘Hinduphobic’ by many upper caste Hindus. One twitter user responded to my tweets about the show claiming that India was defaming “sikh jatts” … thus completely erasing the gang-rape of a dalit Sikh women. 

It is important to note that caste is also an issue across the entire South Asian subcontinent. In countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh caste divisions do exist and each community there will hold a variety of experiences related to the issues of caste that this then brings forth. 

When we talk about Panjabis, particularly those in the diaspora, there is a desire to live within this utopian bubble that everything is perfect in Panjab, just like the heavily romanticised Panjabi films and Panjabi songs we see about jatts. These films and songs are the fantasy that many youths like to imagine about the Panjab. That too without visiting the state, or without spending any real time there aside from a family wedding – experiencing Panjab as a holiday. The real, raw side of Panjab is often ignored. Films like Udta Punjab (2018) and shows like Pataal Lok bring some of the pressing social issues to the forefront, albeit through script and screen. 

Bhangra lyrics and the idea that the jatt community are judged for taking pride in their agricultural roots and history

Panjabi music is full of misogyny and castiest commentary. There is no denial in that. The truth is that many Panjabis probably fail to recognise what is being said in our songs. Until you don’t break down the meanings of the songs, you will never be able to tell. For many it’s just ‘oh the beat is nice, I’ll jam along and dance to it’. Singers argue that this is what people want from them – a good beat to bhangra to. A few years ago Jasmine Sandlas did create some meaningful music with singles like ‘Maachis’ and ‘Musafir’ which I did really enjoy. However, it was only songs like ‘Sip-Sip’ and ‘Bamb Jatt’, songs using alcohol and caste in their lyrics, that seemed to bring her fame in the community. These narratives clearly sell. Jasmine is a talented artist but one does question some of her more problematic lyrics. Moreover, there are a number of Panjabi bhangra artists, namely men, that sing about alcohol and jatt identity in excess – thus adding to this patriarchal connotations. 

Panjabi singers need to realise that they can create music that doesn’t just have to be “jatt this, jatt that,” you can have good meaningful lyrics and create good songs without the addition of caste or jati, used in problematic ways. 

Harmanjeet is one such example. He writes great meaningful lyrics in today’s age and many of his songs have met with a huge global success. His song ‘Laung Lachi’ has become India’s most watched music video. I’d like to add that being proud of who you are as an individual is different to constantly saying “we as a community are proud we are jatts” “I am a jatt”, with which comes a tone of “we are better than everyone else”. It is with this sense of authority and pride that being jatt is spoken of and is just another way of putting others down because you believe you are superior. 

I have no problem with jatts that are proud of their agricultural roots, however it would be interesting to see how many of them can actually farm like their ancestors did. I know I certainly can’t. 

Using Twitter to address caste

Growing up, caste has never been an issue in my household. My parents have always encouraged me to have friends from all walks of life and to always treat people with respect. Caste does not mean anything.  In our recent conversations regarding marriage (which is probably miles away) my parents have said they have no problem with me marrying out of caste, as long as the person is good hearted. Perhaps that is why caste has never been something that flags up to me when I start talking to someone. However I am aware that many young Panjabi jatt women that do fall in love with men from different castes are often frowned upon by their family to the extent that if they choose their lover, they will be disowned, even here in the diaspora.  

The older I got I began to understand Panjabi more and more. As I attempted to translate the songs, I quickly realised how terrible some of these songs are. To see that there has been no real progression is quite sad.  What you listen to and what you consume does have an impact on the way you think and the way you see things.  Today, seeing how the Sikh Panjabi youth interact with each other on matters of caste is showing no real signs of progression, the narrow minded thoughts still exist to date. Many will still make caste-inflected jokes without realising how big of an issue caste is. Back in India Dalits get killed, Dalit women get raped, I don’t understand how you find caste not to be an issue; and it is not even about overreacting, it is simply about just being aware. I personally don’t think I do anything much I just call out what I believe is wrong. 

Your viral twitter thread from 2018 and the use of social media to challenge the way the diaspora debates caste

I can’t remember what exactly triggered me first to write that tweet and then to continue it on to a thread, but I was quite baffled with the fact that youths my age or even younger have created this community of “brown Panjabi twitter” where they just continuously tweet about being “jatt” and nothing else. It always goes viral. There are major issues in the diaspora and the subcontinent that need to be addressed and caste being one of the most important. Often, when it has been addressed critically, by myself and others online, many have felt like we are overreacting. Flash forward from that thread in 2018 to 2020 and it is a real shame to see that things have not developed much at all. 

Social media has surely helped to address issues that many are not comfortable with talking about on an ordinary basis. However, is it enough – especially given that many simply refuse to believe or just choose to remain blindly ignorant to caste as an issue within the Panjab, the diaspora and across the subcontinent? There needs to be more alternative voices and narratives coming forward to critically talk about caste and call it out whether it is through writing tweets, blogs or posting more on other social media platforms like your own writing page Raveeta – one that actively calls out caste. 

Caste and Gurdware

I find it strange that there are some Gurdware that are seen as a “jatt gurdware” and often by asking what Gurdwara do you go to is a way of trying to find out what ones caste is. A friend of mine who is a tharkan used to attend a “jatt gurdwara” and her family were often looked down upon and eventually they decided to go to the local Guru Ravidass Gurdwara instead. There are also ramghairya Gurdwaras. Again, I don’t understand why Gurdware have been named after castes, or somehow became a certain caste’s Gurdwara. 

Community Change

The major problem is in how many refuse to accept that caste is a predominant issue in the Panjab and its diasporas. While Sikhi rejects casteism, Panjabi culture is heavily dominant on the narrative of jatts, be it in the folk stories or folk songs. As a community we need to realise that this is an issue and then we can start to have critical conversations around caste in other dominant castes (e.g. Tharkan/Ramghariya) in the Panjabi community too. I hope things can change within this generation, if only at least to enable the next generation to step forward with refreshing thoughts on their perspectives of caste, and to truly realising the irrelevance of staying within it and the problems that this causes.

Disclaimer: This post has been edited by RaveetaWrites with permission from the author. 

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The featured image is the campaign poster used by International Dalit Solidarity Network