The news of the first Dalit Sikh chief minister in Punjab on Sunday surprised many of those distressed by the existence of the caste divide in Punjab. A member of the Dalit community has been appointed at the top post for the first time in the state’s history. This signals the Congress party’s push ahead of the 2022 assembly election, further emphasising the significance of castes in India.
Charanjit Singh Channi was sworn in as the new chief minister of Punjab by the Congress party earlier today. He was the minister for technical education in Capt. Amarinder Singh’s cabinet prior to the appointment.
“It gives me immense pleasure to announce that Sh. #CharanjitSinghChanni has been unanimously elected as the Leader of the Congress Legislature Party of Punjab,” tweeted the Punjab Congress in-charge, Harish Rawat. The appointment of Channi follows the resignation of the former CM, Capt. Amarinder Singh. Channi’s appointment was a shocking choice for most as other notable names such as senior leader Ambika Soni, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, former Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief Sunil Jakhar, and current Punjab PCC chief Navjot Singh Sidhu were also on the radar.
Channi is a member of the Ramdasia Sikh community, which is a Dalit community. Born in a poor family in the village of Makrona Kalan near Chamkaur Sahib in 1972, he went to a public school near his home for his primary education. Channi has served three terms as a member of the Punjab assembly for the Chamkaur Sahib constituency. The Punjab government’s website discusses the hardships Channi’s family experienced, saying that Channi’s father had to struggle immensely to provide his family with economic security for which he had to migrate to Malaysia. Channi returned to Kharar town and started a business of tent houses, where he also played the role of a tent boy.
After his family settled in Kharar, Charanjit Singh Channi completed his matriculation at the Khalsa Higher Secondary School. India Today notes that he attended Sri Guru Gobind Singh College in Chandigarh for higher education. He obtained a law degree from Panjab University in Chandigarh after graduating from there. Channi further went on to pursue a Master’s degree in Business Administration from PTU Jalandhar and is now completing his doctorate at Panjab University. He has represented the university three times in the sport of handball and received a gold medal in the Inter-University Sports Meet. Furthermore, he continued to play handball at a national level.
As a child, Channi was coached in politics by his father, Harsa Singh, who was also the sarpanch of his village’s gram panchayat and later a block samiti member. As a student, Channi worked with many political groups and was a member of many political parties as part of the students’ union. During his first official election as a politician, he was elected to three consecutive terms as a member of the municipal council. He was elected to the assembly three times between 2007 and 2017. He became a member of the legislative assembly for the first time in 2007. In addition, Channi had been the leader of opposition in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha in 2015 and 2016.
Channi is facing a #MeToo charge for allegedly sending an offensive text message to a woman Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer. Although the officer never filed a complaint, Channi had clarified that the matter was “resolved“. However, the case re-emerged in May 2021 when the Punjab State Women Commission sought a response from the state government.
Capt. Amarinder Singh, who is a Jat Sikh, holds the highest position among Punjab’s leaders and is the titular Maharaja of Patiala. On the other hand, Channi, who is a three-time member of the Punjab legislature from Chamkaur Sahib, belongs to the Ramdasi Sikh community among the Dalit populations in Punjab.
Punjab is home to 32 percent Dalits, and has a 14 percent population of the Ravidasi community. In light of the upcoming assembly election, Channi’s appointment is significant. It can give the Congress an opportunity to undo the damage caused by the polarisation between Jat Sikhs and other communities in the state. The farmers’ union rallies against the new agricultural rules by the Centre contributed to the polarisation, often violently. However, this is a high-risk bet for the Congress. The selection of Channi as CM could push the Jat Sikh vote bank towards the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Only 18 percent of Punjabis are Jat Sikhs, yet they have dominated the state’s politics and culture for the past 60 years. Channi may be a close aide of the Gandhi family but he lacks the pan-Punjab appeal and has strained relationships with the Jat Sikh leaders of the Punjab PCC.
One of the most difficult tasks that Channi will face, will be to anticipate any harm Capt. Singh could cause the party just before the assembly election. The BJP has welcomed the Patiala royal to join its ranks. It will also be interesting to see how Channi will assure the vote banks across community lines for the Congress. In addition to winning Hindu voters who had been unconvinced by Navjot Singh Sidhu’s radical Sikh stances, Channi will need to win over those who were subsequently apprehensive based on his advisors’ controversial statements including those about Kashmir. Channi’s appointment could signify the start of a new generation of Punjab politics or yug parivartan. However, it will be challenging as he does not have a lot of time to demonstrate it before the next election.