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A man who once worked as an unskilled labourer in Saudi Arabia and became a voice of Dalit assertion in Punjab is now a member of the Union Council of Ministers
No, he says, they didn’t oppress him. Not in the sense that they slapped him, or imprisoned his cattle for venturing into territory marked for ‘upper castes’, like in the case of Lalu Prasad Yadav of Bihar, a leader who broke caste barriers to emerge as a political leader. There’s a story Lalu’s brother tells, of how he once jumped onto a buffalo from the front; and of his rage at his disenfranchisement; and how there was no food; and how they lived in shanties in segregated quarters; and how it sometimes pushes one to break the status quo.

Vijay Sampla, a Dalit and first-time Member of Parliament from Hoshiarpur, says he was also angry once.

In the room we meet him in, there are many men. Mostly muscular men, and they surround Sampla, who is shortly going to leave for Chandigarh. Someone has passed away, he says, and he must offer condolences. He will then take a train to Delhi. His muscle-men say he is very down-to-earth, and gets on trains without any qualms. Most of the young men here want to join politics. They like doing good, they say. It is exciting that a Dalit who owned so little and had almost nothing going for him has made it so big in politics. It is as if Sampla’s success has renewed their hope. They can make it, too, they feel. There’s a change coming, they say. And in their faces, there is an assertion of identity. No longer are they ashamed of being born ‘lower caste’. It is the sign of a nation achieving maturity.

Sampla often has to shuffle between Delhi and his constituency in Punjab, Hoshiarpur, but is now at a relative’s house in a village near Jalandhar to meet and greet people; Robin Sampla, a distant relative, is about to get married.

The house is an amalgam of new wealth and acquired taste. The upholstery is garish, and the tiles and walls shine in different hues. For the time that the MP is there, he sits stiffly, and tries to answer questions. The young men nod at most things he says. His nephew Amit Sampla is here too. He works with him. Already, he has risen through the ranks of the party; he smiles, and seems to know how to tell stories of the rise of a man who once worked in Saudi Arabia as an unskilled labourer. The son Sahil Sampla, he says, is a lawyer, and doesn’t involve himself with politics. Of course, they are against dynastic politics. That’s why Vijay Sampla got here in the first place. He had sensed a vacancy.

The Dalit leader and Minister of State for Social Justice says it wasn’t caste oppression that turned him against the prevalent politics, but more an opportunity he sensed in the fractured politics of Punjab. He spearheaded the BJP’s Dalit cell, and worked hard to win the Hoshiarpur Lok Sabha seat, his first election. The strategy made use of caste networks, and familial connections. They drew up lists, and went house to house. It worked.

Sampla wasn’t very political when he was growing up. His father passed away when he was in school. To look after the family, his elder brother Ravi Sampla, a jovial man who laughs easily, took up his father’s position at the local telephone department. Vijay Sampla quit school to work odd jobs, and later, through an agent, went off to Saudi Arabia as an ‘unskilled labourer’.

Signboards in this village—Sofi Pind—don’t have names. They have tags of places: like ‘London NRI’. The alley is narrow, and full of these, which, his brother Ravi explains, signify the family’s socio-geographical map. They speak of the gurdwara nearby, where they offer small toy planes as part of their worship ritual. For years, they have been migrating overseas. As plumbers, drivers and workers—to the Middle East, and now to Europe. Life in India was tough. Working overseas allowed them to buy things, dress how they wanted to. There was a time Vijay Sampla loved clothes. Now, he only wears white kurtas, and a Nehru jacket. Monotonous, his wife Sudesh says, but it is a choice. He is now a political leader, and in the hallowed precincts of Delhi’s power circles, he must look the part. It is bland, but a political career demands sacrifices, she shrugs.

A peon nonchalantly walks into the A wing of New Delhi’s Shastri Bhawan with a bunch of almost-wilted roses, and places them in a chamber marked for the minister. Sampla’s chair is covered in a white towel, as is the cultural code here; his is pure white. Three men are waiting for him, sipping tea. His personal assistant Brijesh is on a call. He says the minister barely sleeps three hours a night. “There is so much work to be done,” he says.

When the invitations for the swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhawan were despatched, Sampla only had four. On the first, he wrote ‘Vimla’, his mother’s name, and on the second, his brother’s. The third and fourth were marked for his wife and daughter. Later, they arranged for more, but the order of his choice spoke of his loyalty to his family, and an expression of gratitude for his brother, who quit his job to take over the family business and let Sampla go ahead with a political career. “He is like God,” Vijay Sampla says of Ravi.

People call him just to tell him about their problems. It is nice to have these conversations, he feels, even if nothing is to be done. “If it makes them happy just speaking to me, I am for it. I can’t disappoint them,” he says, as he prepares for his next meeting.

He was just a common man, and he never thought he would be sitting here and taking Union decisions. In the days when he was a plumber in Saudi Arabia, he would sleep in cramped rooms in bunker beds, endure other hardships, and survive on stale rotis. He had to let go of his dreams. Now, in his office, he says he was always inspired by three men: “Ambedkar, Vivekananda and Lal Bahadur Shastri.”

He goes on to narrate an oft-quoted incident from Vivekananda’s life: while on a foreign tour, someone asked the Hindu seer about his clothes, and he said, “In your culture, a tailor makes gentlemen, but in our culture, character makes gentlemen.” “That’s what he said,” says Sampla, “I was once fond of ties so much that I wouldn’t take them off, and now I don’t wear them at all. My life is dedicated to the nation.”

There is a narrow lane in the village. Just off a slightly broader one with a little stream, a noisy one, with water fighting past discarded plastic bottles and polythene bags. It is not picturesque, this village. The radio is forever advertising Fair & Lovely, and playing songs that remind one of Yo Yo Honey Singh. There is a local bar called You n’ Me. There is machismo in the air.

Somewhere in this narrow lane is the little house that the family lived in for years before the brothers decided to move to a new one. Sampla bought a house in the city, and his elder brother moved to another part of the village where cars could make their way. A staffer’s family lives in the old house now.

The neighbourhood women speak about the village, their aspirations, and the cost of it all. Men go away, and their wives wait. They return, and there’s not much to do. Certain things, they say, are beyond their control. And then, there are drugs, and their consequences. Unemployment is high, they say. “You will see most of houses with the signboards of some other country. It means one of the members is away,” one of them says. “It is not like they are making a lot of money. They sweep floors, or do odd jobs, but they manage to earn a bit more. But a trip back home erases the savings, and you are back to square one. It does nobody any good.”

The MP’s brother, three years his elder, says the village is 85 per cent Scheduled Caste. Ravi Sampla recalls Vijay as a naughty child, and how they never thought he would become an MP. It was an unusual ambition. One of their first major struggles with the hierarchy of caste came with the Talhan incident of 2003, which marked him out as a potential leader for parties looking for candidates to counter Punjab’s dynastic politics. The state has a high Dalit population, and that year Talhan, a village on the outskirts of Jalandhar, saw an outbreak of communal tension between Dalits and the dominant Jats Sikhs over the gurdwara management committee. Dalits had demanded fair representation.

The gurdwara’s site was once the grave of Baba Nihal Singh, a ‘backward’ caste saint. It became a Sikh house of worship in 1953, and since it wasn’t under the charge of the Amritsar-based Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, an independent 13-member committee controlled its affairs, one led by ‘upper castes’ even though the village had a Dalit majority. Dalits wanted at least two seats on the committee. A court endorsed this demand, but when the 2003 polls were held, ‘upper castes’ boycotted the Dalits. Locals remember how Jats forbade their community members from talking to Dalits, who were asked to build their own gurdwara (as is the case in most parts of Punjab). That was when Vijay Sampla intervened, he says, and began negotiations with Jats to maintain peace.

Nonetheless, on 5 June, the Jat-Dalit violence broke out, leading to the police opening fire and imposing a curfew. The death of a Dalit man in the clash led to protests in nearby towns as well. Nerves stayed taut for quite some time, and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the state’s Chief Minister Amrinder Singh were greeted with black flags when they visited. “In my village, there was no tension between Jats and Dalits,” says Sampla, “Talhan was where I started my political career.”

Sampla was then the BJP’s state vice-president. “Look, the case wasn’t so serious,” he says, “But the administration handled it badly. A place of worship had been usurped. Even the Supreme Court had said we could enter.” The situation needed to be handled with love and empathy; heads, not guns.

For Sampla, there was no turning back after that. The BJP must have seen potential in him to oppose the Congress in the region, and this year he defeated the former Punjab Pradesh Congress president Mohinder Singh Kaypee by 13,000 votes to win Hoshiarpur’s reserved seat. This was hailed as a Dalit success in Punjab politics, and the BJP was ready to lay claim to the state’s 32 per cent Dalit vote. Sampla’s future as a politician was assured.

Women sit in a courtyard, wrapped in shawls, and tell stories of their disenchantment. But there is hope, they say. The man understands. After all, Sampla is one of them. And he knows what it means to have sons go out, and go beyond, and return to be claimed by drugs because there is so little to do in Punjab. Unemployment is a big malaise here, and educational facilities here are poor.

It is a surreal place. While the signboards belong to another space, the laments are their own. The elder brother sits and nods. The younger brother was away for 11 years, and he left when he was young. He thinks he failed in some way to keep him in school. Sampla is only a matriculate, but then, he says, life has taught him more than textbooks could. All the deprivation, insults, and failed aspirations.

In 1976, their sister got married and left for England. The elder brother stayed back, and Sampla left for Dubai in 1980, and in 1988, he got married. A year later, he returned. A son was born, and he brought back with him a VCR and a television, which he sold off for Rs 26,000, opening a hardware shop with the money. In those days, they didn’t even have a toilet at home. They built one in 1983. It still stands in this house with a courtyard. The rooms are still the way they would have been. Green-coloured walls, and small windows. It is dwarfed by the high-rises—with tiled exteriors and ungainly tinted glass windows and granite and marble balconies—that have come up with the locality’s new wealth.

The old house stands as testimony to the rise of a common man, Sampla insists. This is the story that matters as a marker of their humble origins. “We had no playground, and he has built us one. He built a school, and he will build more things,” says Ravi Sampla, as he opens the door to the house after an extended struggle with the lock.

The schools here have only Dalit children as students. The landowning ‘upper castes’ send their children to private schools. There is an ITI college coming up, and other such things that define development, focused on the underprivileged. An equal footing is what people need, says the brother.

A few more people join us. They are proud of Vijay Sampla. The recount how heartily they celebrated the occasion when he visited the village after his induction into the Council of Ministers. They decked up the village in bird lights and made rangoli patterns. Local halwais made special sweets, and women dressed up in their brightest best to hail the man who had defied the rules of power and won.

Sampla was once a trade union leader in a little market here, and then became the sarpanch. They used to call him ‘boss’ back then. He was unafraid. He would climb trees, and shake off unripe mangoes, and when a scary-looking guard came, he would dare him to catch him, and run. In many ways, the village was defiant. For many, Dubai and other places abroad were an escape from casteism. There was a time they had to disguise their names to hide their origins.

A battle yet to be won is the one against drugs. In the alleys, and in the streets flanked by fields on either side, the smell of marijuana wafts in the air. It is also visible in people’s eyes, which are often blurry and unfocused, and evident in their sentences, unhurried and languorous. There is also something they call ‘white powder’, and it is a menace, one that came from outside, people say. There are various conspiracy theories about how drugs arrived here, but it is here, and many are hooked.

On the streets in the dusk, there are young men who emerge from school buildings, or fields, and their gait betrays intoxication. They wear the latest fashion, and with earphones plugged in their ears, vanish into the night. “There’s no scope. Punjab has no opportunities. The land is less, and nobody wants to be a farmer,” says Ravi Sampla.

The brother walks with a slight limp, and is enthusiastic about explaining everything. In the BJP, he says, they saw a window. They could at least try to make progress. It is how politics is supposed to work—for people’s upliftment. “We were honest. We didn’t claim or make money. If you want to move ahead, you will have to be honest. Word travels fast, and your reputation can be discredited. The state’s Doaba belt was Congress, and now it is a BJP fortress,” says the brother. “We stay away from corruption.”

At first, he was not convinced of his brother’s entry to politics, but he understood it. “Unke muqaddar se sate hai,” he says. “At the time, I asked him, ‘Why BJP?’ He told me the other parties were occupied. This is the only party with no such baggage of dynasty, and we can create our space here as SC/STs. Akali Dal has a stronghold, but it can’t win without the BJP. Besides, BJP has brains. It can work out the calculations, and knows where to strike.”

The BJP needed Dalit leaders of stature. In the beginning, Sampla was given a car, a Maruti 800, and it was a status symbol at the time. More than anything, his nephews enjoyed going to relatives’ houses to show off their new acquisition, laughs Amit Sampla, Ravi’s son, who is now secretary of the BJP Yuva Morcha. “It was fun,” he says.

Vijay Sampla, who was the state Khadi Board chairman from 2008 to 2012, joined the BJP in 1997. Meanwhile, the family worked on their hardware store, took a franchise for Binani Cement, and then worked their way upwards.

For the elections, the nephew says, they followed no established protocol. They relied on instinct. It worked. It will work in the future, he says. “We have the people with us. We eliminated barriers. We said, ‘Everyone should have access to the leader.’ Even the security that he has now, we are reluctant to use. But it is there, and we try to still be welcoming,” the nephew adds.

Hoshiarpur isn’t far from Jalandhar. There, locals have his mobile number, says Amit Sampla. Sometimes his uncle would say he seldom gets the feeling that he is a Member of Parliament. But that is just in jest, he adds. When people drag him by his hand to their houses, he hardly ever resists. It is their goodwill that got his uncle where he is, he says, and the minister can’t say ‘no’ to anyone. He is too polite, he says, and smiles.

Religion isn’t too far from the discussion. Robin, who says he isn’t Vijay Sampla’s ‘blood relative’, invokes the name of God, and says all that’s done is done in the Almighty’s name.

It is what everyone says, usually, while making a case for ‘samaj seva’.

“When he sees injustice, he would stop it,” Robin says about the minister.

For a reporter looking for anecdotes, this isn’t very helpful. But this is the way they describe him during elections.

On the way to his residence, there are posters that hang on solitary lamp posts to indicate where he lives. As you come nearer, the leader’s presence begins to make up for his absence. His face stares at you from poles, and from walls. There is an understated assertion in all this.

His old mother Vimla is out in the porch tending to some work. She has become forgetful, and says only that her son is a big official, grinning all the time. She is confused by questions about her famous son, and the grandson explains she doesn’t understand what I am asking, but is happy to be his mother.

Again, the room is full of photos, and flowers. Bouquets wrapped in pink and gold, and stacked against the wall. Flowers are another subtle assertion of position.

Sahil Sampla, the 1989-born son, has stayed away from politics so far, but isn’t sure how long that will last. Already, his life is getting influenced by his father’s rise as a leader. Sometimes, he and his mother have to attend some sort of ceremony, and then he has to wear a political uniform.

It was a sad life for his father, Sahil says. The day his own father passed away, they lost a sister who was close to the father, and they cremated them the same day.

Sudesh, then a petite young woman, would write long letters to her husband abroad, posting as many as four mails a week. “He had such a personality,” she says. “I had cried a lot when he was leaving.” She fetches a few old albums, and shows photos of the two of them courting in gardens in Chandigarh, and elsewhere. She was demure, and smiled shyly. He was quite the charmer.

She was so glad that he returned, and conditions started improving only after 1997.

Sahil remembers an incident of his father coming home frustrated about a delay in some processes, and saying he may just start changing things himself. And then he joined politics. Vijay Sampla was the sarpanch from 1997 until 2002, after defeating Balwinder Singh of the Congress, and in the meantime, also became the SC Morcha President. “When I was born, I was born in a plumber’s house,” says Sahil, “When he joined politics, he could not attend to the business, which was doing well, and uncle had to take over, so my father could be released to pursue his political ambition.”

But then, family life also suffered. They were all patient, they say. “We had come out of poverty. There were times when my mother would sit at the shop, and even I worked there, but our uncle did everything for us—paid our fees, ran the whole house,” says the son.

They are about to leave for a wedding. Sudesh sits with her hands in the air. She has just applied mehendi, and is a little sad that her husband won’t be there with her. But she is used to it.

Sahil had to go meet him in Hoshiarpur the day before because by the time his father would be home, there would be several other people around to meet him.

“You know, my father loves gadgets. He is only a matriculate but he can fix anything, and he is very good with the iPad, and other things,” says Sahil. He is proud of him, he says. And it comes out in unusual ways, this pride. Like when he gets calls from Saudi Arabia or America from journalists wanting to write about the story of his father: a Dalit who was once a plumber in Dubai and now a minister in the Modi Government.

They say the appointment was a surprise because Modi chooses members of his team carefully.

“It is an honour,” says the son. “You must not have heard of the surname Sampla before. Now, you hear it. He has brought us recognition.” But there are times when Sahil feels sad. “We were very happy, and so many weeks were spent in accepting congratulations,” he says. “There are people around us always. It changes so suddenly.”

Not long ago, they took a vacation in England. That was a fun time, but there is a time crunch now. Everything needs to be squeezed in.

They will get a quarter in Lutyens’ Delhi, and Sudesh says she will visit, but Jalandhar is where she is most comfortable and this is where she will continue to live.

It seems there is a world in these albums, and her expressions get even more animated when she points to his photos of yesteryear— him in a jubba, him in a denim jacket, him in a tailored suit.

“He used to tell me stories of his days. In the evenings, he could not even open his fist. They were coarse, and they hurt with all the labour he had put in during the day. A friend would massage him with hot oil to make him feel better,” says Sahil.

Sahil never misses any of his father’s speeches. That way, he can learn more about him. There’s hardly much time to dwell on such things in the house anymore. It is via the TV set that he learns of his father’s way of having dreams fulfilled. He misses him, it is clear. He doesn’t say it. The wife doesn’t say it either, and the old mother only grins.

But in all this, among the dying flowers in this bright room, there is nostalgia. Of earlier days. Of simpler times. Of family, and worldly talk.

Back in Delhi, in the Shastri Bhavan office, the roses have been placed in glass vases, and Vijay Sampla poses for a photograph before he rushes off for more meetings. This is how it is, and this is how it shall be.