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Friday, February 17, 2012

From the Underbelly of Swarnim Gujarat

Anand Teltumbde
Although I was a participant in the land struggle on 24 January 2011, I thank Rajesh Solanki and Valjibhai Patel of the Council for Social Justice, Ahmedabad for providing the information I needed to write this piece. -writer
Anand Teltumbde ( is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai. 

It was heartening to witness dalits in Saurashtra, deprived of the use of land that was de jure theirs, marching to take possession of it. One was reminded of an event in Mahad on 20 March 1927 when the delegates to the Bahishkrit Conference had marched under the leadership of their newfound leader B R Ambedkar to the Chavadar Tank to assert their civil rights to use its water. Nobody noticed little vibrations on the literal margins of vibrant Gujarat on 24 January 2011 but potentially they could cause significant tremors across the country. In a nondescript village of Joradiary in Vav taluka of Banaskantha district in north Gujarat, practically on the borders of Rajasthan and Pakistan, a procession of 200 odd dalits accompanied by beats of drums and slogans of “long live Ambedkar” marched into a farm under illegal control of a Rabari to restore its possession to a dalit. The Ahmedabad based Council for Social Jus­tice (CSJ), which led this struggle to its cul­mination, was justifiably apprehensive of the beneficiaries daring their upper caste tormentors in taking this bold step and had therefore planned to mobilise dalits from all villages in the taluka at Vav for a public meeting before taking the victory march. Indeed, the beneficiary dalit fam­ily, the de jure owner of the farm for the last 28 years, literally trembled to do a little ritual, to mark the taking of its de facto possession. More such takeovers followed until evening to embolden people to take possession of their own lands, being ille­gally cultivated by the upper castes. In the Vav taluka itself, 35 dalit families bene­fited from the ownership of over 150 acres.

Unknown even to dalits, it was a land­mark event that could verily be likened to the one that took place in Mahad on 20 March 1927 when the delegates to the Bahishkrit Conference there had marched under the leadership of their newfound leader B R Ambedkar to the Chavadar Tank and asserted their civil rights to use its water. Caste Residue of Land ReformsAt the time of transfer of power in 1947, landownership was virtually concentrated in the hands of a few landlords, who were the erstwhile feudal lords. The ethos of the freedom struggle led the new rulers to announce policies like abolition of Zamind­ari and redistribution of surplus land to the tillers. It had a salutary impact in calming and confusing radical peasant movements that demanded land reforms. The glorious Telangana struggle, for instance, was called off by the communists precisely because of these policy announcements, pushing them onto the parliamentary path that, they mistakenly thought, would reach their cherished goal of revolution. Land reforms did take place but in a calibrated and trun­cated manner. Some amount of land was taken from the upper caste feudal lords and distributed among the middle caste ten­ants. No one fully comprehended the far-reaching consequences of this innocuous development, which would change the basic complexion of rural India. The capi­talist strategy of green revolution immedi­ately following it led to the enrichment of these middle castes, who leveraged the economic gain to establish their hegemony over most spheres of national life.

Speaking of Gujarat, U N Dhebar, the chief minister of the then Saurashtra state, had enacted the Saurashtra Land Reforms Act, 1952, giving occupancy rights to 55,000 tenant cultivators over 12 lakh acres of land, out of 29 lakh acres held by girasdars, spread over 1,726 villages, the balance being left for their personal cultivation. Girasdars were mainly upper caste kshatri­yas, known as darbars, literally meaning rulers. Tenant cultivators were mainly Patels by caste, who became the owners of this land. The Patels enriched themselves by undertaking massive cash crop cultiva­tion like groundnut, cotton, cumin and later graduating to setting up cotton gin­ning, oil mills, and other industries. This has been the evolution of the Saurashtra Patel lobby, euphemistically known as telia rajas (oil kings), who came to occupy the dominant position in the politics of Gujarat. With their social capital and state backing, they went on acquiring huge tracts of agri­cultural lands all over the state, most nota­bly in the tribal belt of south Gujarat. Laws were suitably amended to facilitate this acquisition. There were two of the most notable changes in the law. One was the taking away of the eight km limit for an agriculturist to own agricultural land away from his residence, thereby allowing absen­tee landlordism. The second was changing the order of priorities from scheduled tribes (ST), scheduled castes (SC) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) to original land­lords and then others for the right to culti­vate government surplus land.
Through another Act, i.e., the Estate Acquisition Act, the government acquired “uncultivable” and cultivable wasteland, gochar land (village grassland for cattle grazing) and other assets by compensating the girasdars. This huge land that came in the possession of the state became the theatre of the land grab struggle in the early 1960s by dalit landless peasants and agricultural labourers, under the leader­ship of dalit textile workers of Ahmedabad. In the words of Somchandbhai Makwana, an influential leader of that movement, an estimated 2 lakh acres of land was grabbed by dalits and OBCs, which still remains in their possession, albeit without regularisa­tion by the government.

In many cases, dalit and OBC peasants and/or their cooperatives, tilling lands under the government’s ek-sali (oneyear renewable tenure) scheme for several dec­ades, were evicted and the land was reverted back to the “original” upper caste landlords. Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, has been a meek witness over the last three years to many dalit families (mostly from Saurashtra) offering satyagraha on the footpath near the assembly against this intrigue. The amendments to the Acts referred to above emboldened the upper castes and the state machinery to violently evict dalits from the land they had cultivated for decades. In a macabre incident on 27 November 1999 in Pankhan village in Saurashtra, a mob of 800 upper caste men had attacked dalits with swords, spears, pipes and fire arms and seriously injured 60 men and women, effectively evicting them from 125 acres of land.A Strange Struggle for LandIn 1997, santh (title) orders were given for a total of 150 acres to 40 dalits of Bharad village in Dhrangadhra taluka of Surendranagar district. Two of these 40, Devjibhai and Kanabhai (a blind agricultural labourer) asked the upper caste Patel to vacate the land allotted to them. Upper caste landlords responded with violence but were met with serious resistance. Violent group clashes ensued and in one such con­frontation six persons suffered serious injuries. Dalits endured severe social boycott by the upper castes. Devjibhai was apprehended and imprisoned under the Prevention of AntiSocial Activities Act (PASA) for daring to enter the land although he was its de jure owner. It was at this stage that the CSJ stepped in, crea­tively combining legal and agitation strat­egies and got Devjibhai released. It organ­ised an “Ambedkar Rath” through 28 villages over seven days to mobilise dalit support, which culminated in a rally of over 10,000 landless dalits on 6 December 1999, the death anniversary of Ambedkar. The struggle encompassed all 12,438 acres of prime agricultural land declared sur­plus vide the Agriculture Land Ceiling Act, for which 2,398 dalit families and 50 tribal families were given the santh, but not actual possession. The land, apart from being very fertile, was potentially valuable because Surendranagar district was to be the biggest beneficiary of the Narmada irrigation scheme.

A parallel struggle took place in another village, Kaundh, where a young textile mill worker Dungarshibhai of Ahmedabad gave up his job to take up cudgels on behalf of his people in the village. In defi­ance of one of the biggest tyrant darbars in the district, who owned nearly 3,000 acres of land, he drove the tractor on the land given to his family in santh but which was still in possession of the darbar. As the entire group of dalits stood behind him, the darbar allowed Dungarshibhai to cultivate but took away the crop. CSJ filed a criminal complaint and put three darbars behind bars. Dungarshibhai today is revered as an unchallenged dalit leader in Surendranagar district.

These struggles were strange as they were waged by the de jure owners of land for its possession from the illegal holders. While the government eagerly publicised distribution of lands to the SC/ST benefici­aries, it intentionally or otherwise ignored their physical handing over. The process for handing over possession involved the vil­lage talathi preparing the records of rights and the “farmers’ book” along with a rough map of the plot. After receiving these doc­uments from the collector’s office, the District Inspector of Land Records (DILR) had to send surveyors to prepare the final map, physically mark it out and hand over its possession to the beneficiary in the pres­ence of the collector’s representative. This procedure was not carried out in most cases. The beneficiaries were also deprived of Rs 5,000 per acre due to them as per rules. The officers responsible could be punished as per a government notification of 1989 but no action was taken. In case of the SC/ST beneficiaries, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (the Atrocities Act) could also be invoked.

The struggle, led by the CSJ, set the state machinery into action, enabling the dalits in Vav taluka to take possession of their lands. But alas, this impressive strug­gle failed to arouse the enthusiasm of the reservationobsessed middle class dalits, thus revealing the ugly fault line of the “emerging classes” among dalits. Anti-Dalit Attitude of the StateAlthough, like any other dalit episode, this may also be a pan Indian phenomenon, nevertheless Gujarat strangely emerges as a “rogue state” as far as recent revelations visàvis dalits are concerned. A CSJ study of 400 judgments delivered by the special courts in 16 districts of Gujarat since 1 April 1995 revealed a shocking pattern behind the collapse of cases filed under the Atrocities Act: utterly negligent police investigation at both the higher and lower levels and a distinctly hostile role played by the public prosecutors. In over 95% of the cases, acquittals had resulted due to technical lapses by the investigation and prosecution, and in the remaining 5%, court directives were flouted by the gov­ernment. The government’s casual atti­tude was underscored by the statement of its chief minister in the assembly when he stated, contrary to the Rule, that the cases under the Atrocities Act was to be investi­gated by an officer not above the rank of deputy superintendent of police.

One wonders whether this plight of dalits at the hands of the Gujarat government is because of its ideological adherence to Hindutva or because of its neoliberal vibrancy. As it appears, perhaps it is the result of both these mutually reinforcing factors, a kind of vile resonance.

(Courtesy: Economic & Political Weekly, April 2, 2011 vol. xlvi no 14) 

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