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From The Underbelly Of Swarnim Gujarat

By Anand Teltumbde

07 April, 2011

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 drum 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), who 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 strategized to collect Dalits from all villages in 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 last 28 years, literally trembled to do a little ritual, to mark the taking of its de facto possession. More such take-overs 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 would be benefitted by the ownership of over 150 acres.

Unknown even to Dalits, it was a landmark event that could be verily 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 new found leader Dr Ambedkar to the chavadar tank and asserted their civil rights to use its water.

Caste Residue of Land Reforms

At the time of transfer of power in 1947, the land ownership was virtually concentrated in the hands of a few landlords, who were erstwhile feudal lords. The ethos of the freedom struggle led the new rulers to announce the policies like abolition of Zamindari and redistribution of surplus land to tillers. It had 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 would never 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 brought in huge enrichment to these middle castes, which leveraged it to hegemonize most spheres of national life.

Speaking of Gujarat, UN Dhebar, the chief minister of the then Saurashtra state had enacted the Saurashtra Land R eforms A ct, 1952 , g iving occupancy rights to 5 5000 tenant cultivators over 12 lakh acres of land, out of 29 lakh acres held by Girasdars , spread over 1726 villages , the balance being left for their personal cultivation . Girasdars were mainly upper caste Kshatriya, known as Darbars , literally meaning rulers. Tenant cultivators were mainly Patels by caste, who became the owners of this land. The Patels enriched them by undertaking massive cash crop cultivation like groundnut, cotton, cumin and later graduating to set 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 but most notably in the tribal belt of south Gujarat. Laws were suitably amended to facilitate this acquisition. Two of the most notable changes in Law were: 1. taking away 8 km limit for an agriculturist to own agricultural land from his residence thereby allowing absentee landlordism and 2. changing the order of priorities from ST, SC and OBC to original landlords and then others for the right to cultivate government surplus land.

Through the other Act, (Estate Acquisition Act), the government acquired ‘uncultivable' and cultivable wasteland, gochar land (village grassland for cattle grazing) and other assets by compensating Girasdars. The huge land that came in possession of the state became theatre of the land grab struggle in early 1960s by Dalit landless peasants and agricultural laborers, under the leadership of Dalit textile workers of Ahmedabad. In the words of Mr. Somchandbhai Makwana, an influential leader of that movement, estimated 2 lakh acres of land was grabbed by Dalits and other backward castes, which still remains in their possession, albeit without regularization by the government.

In many cases Dalit and OBC peasants and/or their co-operatives, tilling lands under the government's ek-sali (one year 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 since last three years to many Dalit families (mostly from Saurashtra) offering satyagrahas 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 land they have cultivated for decades. This had manifested into a macabre incident on 27 November 1999 in Pankhan village in Saurashtra, in which a mob of 800 upper caste men had attacked Dalits with swords, spears, pipes and fire arms and seriously injured 60 men and women and effectively evicted them from 125 acres of land.

 A Strange Struggle for Land

 In 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 six persons suffered serious injuries. Dalits endured severe social boycott by the upper castes. Devjibhai was apprehended and imprisoned under PASA (Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act) for daring to enter the land although he was its de jure owner. It was at this stage that the CSJ stepped in. CSJ creatively combined legal and agitational strategies and got Devjibhai released. It organized “Ambedkar Rath” through 28 villages over seven days to mobilize Dalit support, which culminated into a massive rally of over 10000 landless Dalits on 6 December 1999, the death anniversary of Dr Ambedkar. The struggle encompassed all 12438 acres of prime agricultural land declared surplus vide the Agriculture Land Ceiling Act, for which 2398 Dalit families and 50 tribal families were given the santh before 3 to 10 years, but not the 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 was articulated in another village Kaundh, where a young textile mill worker Dungarshibhai of Ahmedabad gave up his job to take cudgels for his people in village. In defiance of one of the biggest and tyrant Darbars in the district, who owned nearly 3000 acres of land, he drove the tractor on the land given to his family in santh but which still was in possession of the Darbar. As the entire dalits stood behind him, the Darbar allowed Dungarshibahai 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 the 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 publicized distribution of lands to the SC/ST beneficiaries, it intentionally or otherwise ignored their physical handing over. The process for handing over physical possession involved village talathi preparing the records of rights (7/12) and ‘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 final map, physically mark it out and hand over its possession to the beneficiary in presence of the collector's representative. This procedure was not carried out in most cases. The beneficiaries were also deprived of Rs 5000 per acre due to them as per rules. The officers responsible for it could be punished as per a government notification of 1989 but no action was taken. In case of the SC/ST beneficiaries, Atrocities Act also could be invoked.

The CSJ struggle set the state machinery into action, enabling Dalits in Vav taluka to take possession of their lands. But alas, this impressive struggle sadly failed to enthuse the reservation-obsessed middle classes of Dalits, revealing the ugly faultline of emerging classes among Dalits.

Anti-Dalit Attitude of the State

Although, like any other Dalit episode, this may also be a pan Indian phenomenon, nevertheless Gujarat strangely comes out as a piece of villain in recent revelations vis-à-vis Dalits. A CSJ study of 400 judgements 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 distinctly hostile role played by the public prosecutors. In over 95 per cent of the cases, acquittals had resulted due to technical lapses by the investigation and prosecution, and in the remaining five per cent, 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 Atrocity Act was to be investigated by an officer not above the rank of DSP.

One wonders whether this plight of Dalits at the hands of 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!

Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai tanandraj@gmail.





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