Like every year, the Bootan Mandi area of Jalandhar has become the main hub for the celebration of Sant Ravidas Jayanti.
The Satguru Ravidas Dham, which is located in this area, has been illuminated with thousands of devotees coming to offer their prayers. Devotional hymns are being played from the Darbar Sachi Sarkar Dargah near the Ravidass Dham. There is a huge fair with at least two large enclosures dedicated to joyrides.
Then the nearly two-kilometre stretch between Guru Ravidas Chowk and Satguru Kabir Chowk is completely packed with food stalls, kiosks selling masks, trinkets, and toys and there's even a tattoo parlour and a small DJ set-up with disco lights.
Nearly all the buildings in the area – residential or commercial – have been lit up. A procession was also taken out on this stretch in the evening of 15 February.
With elections in Punjab due later in the week, political parties are competing for space in Bootan Mandi to put up their posters and flexes.
Almost every major candidate contesting from one or the other of the four seats in Jalandhar city features in multiple posters.
But it's not just candidates, even the business establishments, schools, and local churches have put up their flexes.
In this piece we will give you some glimpses of the Ravidas Jayanti celebrations at Bootan Mandi and also look at what Ravidassia voters in the area have to say about the upcoming elections in Punjab.
The Importance of Bootan Mandi: Early Hub of Dalit Entrepreneurship
The presence of the Guru Ravidass Dham makes Bootan Mandi an extremely important site for the Ravidassia community.
But the importance of the area goes beyond this. It has also been the birthplace of Dalit entrepreneurship in the early 20th century.
Seth Kishan Dass, born in a Chamar family in Jalandhar in 1896, travelled to Kolkata as a young man and worked in leather factories there. He was quick to pick up the trade, came back, and invested in the leather and tanning business in Jalandhar. He was hugely successful and went on to become one of the most influential business persons in the city.
His success inspired several other members of the Chamar community to join the leather business and become 'Seths.' Members of the community also began immigrating to Europe and North America, creating a sizeable and influential diaspora.
Seth Kishan Dass was a close associate of Babu Mangu Ram Chaudhary – founder of Ad Dharmi movement. He also played a key role in bringing Babasaheb Ambedkar to Bootan Mandi during the 1951 Punjab elections. Dalit leaders and entrepreneurs of Jalandhar remained among Babasaheb's most steadfast supporters in the north.
Seth Kishan Dass' grandson Avinash Chander is the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) MLA from Phillaur, while the son of another important Ad Dharmi leader Master Gurbanta Singh is Congress MP from Jalandhar Santokh Singh Chaudhary.
Support for Channi, BSP and AAP Coexists
We met Mr Jagdish, a resident of Bootan Mandi a day before the Ravidas Jayanti celebrations began in full flow. He was kind enough to invite us to his home for a glass of water and tea.
In his 60s, Jagdish is a professional painter of houses. Like many in the area, he has worked abroad for several years.
"I have a passport since 1982 and I've used my passport for all these years in different countries without putting my surname. When I work in different countries, no one cared what my surname was," Jagdish told us proudly.
His son works in Europe in the hair-cutting business and has come home presently for a break.
On being asked about the elections, Jagdish has positive views about Chief Minister Charanjit Channi, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as well as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
"It is a blessing of Guru Ravidas that a chief minister (Charanjit Channi) from such a background will be contesting elections in this auspicious week. We wish him the best."Jagdish, a resident of Bootan Mandi
According to him, Channi becoming CM didn't happen in a day, rather it is the result of years of effort from the community.
Channi is from the Ramdasia community, closely linked to the Ravidassia.
"Yes, Sonia Gandhi's son (Rahul Gandhi) made him (Channi) CM and he deserves credit for that. But this didn't happen in a day. It is the result of several generations of hard work from the community in different fields," he says.
This long-term view of political change has also shaped Jagdish's view of AAP and the BSP.
"Kejriwal (AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal) is an honest man and I respect him. But he won't attain success this early in Punjab. It's just been five-seven years. Even a great leader like Kanshi Ram struggled for several decades and yet couldn't make a significant dent in Punjab's political scene. After his death, Mayawati tried and even she didn't succeed," he said.
"Kanshi Ram and Mayawati have both made so many sacrifices for the community. Many of Kanshi Ram's dreams are yet to be achieved."Jagdish, resident of Bootan Mandi
While in Jalandhar city, Ravidassia support for Congress is still significant, there has been some erosion in nearby areas like Kartarpur. Here a number of voters expressed disappointment with sitting MLA Chaudhary Surinder Singh, including Ravidassia voters
"The MLA hasn't done anything. This time we may vote for change and give a chance to jhadoo (AAP's symbol)" says Chander, standing near the massive furniture in Kartarpur.
Politics Around Ravidas Jayanti Celebrations
The pictures being sold in the stalls reflect the composite icons in the Ravidassia community. The main figures featured in these pictures are Babasaheb Ambedkar, Sant Niranjan Das and Sant Ramanand Dass of Dera Sachkhand Ballan, and Gautam Budhha.
Dera Ballan is the main Ravidassia dera.
Sociologist Santosh Singh, who has written extensively on the Ravidassia community, says that the scale of the Ravidas Jayanti celebrations, especially the pilgrimage to Sant Ravidas Janamsthan in Varanasi increased significantly following the 2009 assassination attempt on Dera Sachkhand Ballan head Sant Niranjan Dass in Vienna.
While Niranjan Dass survived, an important leader of the Dera – Ramanand Dass – was killed in the attack.
The 2009 incident intensified Dera Ballan's assertion of a separate Ravidassia identity.
Now the trains ferrying pilgrims from Punjab to Varanasi and back on Ravidas Jayanti are funded entirely by Dera Ballan.
Every political party in Punjab has been courting the Ravidassia vote and Dera Ballan in particular.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also tried to cultivate this section since he contested elections in Varanasi in 2014. Even on 16 February this year, he took part in a Kirtan at the Ravidass temple in Delhi.
Punjab CM Charanjit Channi went to Varanasi for the celebrations.
This time, all the political parties in Punjab came together to request the election commission to postpone the polling date in the state. Initially, the Election Commission had announced 14 February as the polling date for Punjab but then it shifted it to 20 February following the petition from parties.
This decision did reflect the influence of Dera Ballan over political parties.
"So many people would have gone from here to Kashi for the celebrations. How would they have voted? It is good that the elections have been postponed," Jagdish says.
While most voters didn't credit any one party in particular for the move to postpone elections, a few did attribute it to Channi.
"Have elections ever been postponed in this manner? This must have been Channi's initiative," said Ravinder, another resident of Boota Mandi.
Many in the community are divided between supporting Channi, the first Dalit CM of Punjab, or backing the BSP at a time when it has a decent chance of winning some seats or supporting the AAP's promise of change.
Often all three sentiments exist within the same person, as we saw in the case of Jagdish.