Caste Oppression, Land Struggles

   Dalits, Land, Law and Government

Dalits’ struggle for their share in Panchayat land in some districts of Malwa region of Punjab, particularly district Sangrur and some pockets of Patiala is in the news in Punjab. This struggle has left a deep impact in political and cultural fields. Feature and documentary films has been produced, plays have been written and staged. Poems and lyrics have been composed and sung and stories have been written about this struggle. Not only that, writers, actors, dramatists, singers and artists came on the streets of Sangrur in support of this struggle at the time of brutal repression in village Jaloor. This struggle became a problem for all ruling class parliamentary parties. These were stunned. Bahujan Samaj Party which has its vote bank among dalits was severely opposing this struggle on social media; on the other hand was forced to include this demand in its demand charter during its march in Nawan Shahr. Congress, another party having its vote base among dalits, tried to destroy this struggle by resorting to all sort of cheap propaganda against the Zameen Prapti Sangarash committee, the organization spearheading this struggle and trying to wean Dalits away from the path of struggle. Aam Admi Party whose leader Bhagwant Mann was the member parliament from Sangrur seat, did not utter a word in support of Dalits even at the time of barbaric attack on dalits in village Jaloor. All revolutionary organizations came out strongly in support of the struggle. Revisionist CPI(ML)-Liberation tried to take mileage from this struggle by separately holding a small rally at Lehragaga block headquarter after Jaloor episode but stayed away from a prolonged and pitched struggle on the issue. But no party could simply ignore it.

Communist organizations and mass organizations under their influence strongly supported this struggle but the struggle also intensified debate on the question of mode of production in Punjab. Punjab was the first state where imperialist model of agriculture misnamed as Green Revolution was implemented. Punjab is considered to be a model of green revolution. It was considered that mode of production in agriculture in Punjab is largely capitalist and land question is resolved and scope of land struggle is nil. But this struggle on issue of land after the struggles on land in Gurdaspur and Amritsar districts, particular the struggle on land in Khanna Chamara village in Gurdaspur where two peasants were killed in a clash, kindled a debate on mode of production in agriculture and there being no scope of struggle on land was proved to be a myth.

Indian sub-continent is the only region in the world where society is in the iron shackles of caste system. This is the basis of socio-economic system. Eras have changed, rulers have changed over the period of centuries but caste system has not changed. Baba Nanak, Bhagat Ravidas, Kabirji and many other saints of bhakti movement raised their voice against caste system but this could not impact it much. The religion which is in the name of Guru Nanak is itself enmeshed in the caste system. There is not only caste system prevalent in Sikh community, they have separate gurdwaras (religious centre) on the basis of caste where devotees belonging to that specific caste pay respect. In certain Deras run in the name of Sikh religion there are separate utensils for dalit castes in the langar (common kitchen) which was started by Guru Nanak to eliminate caste and people belonging to all castes were mandated to sit in single row on the ground for eating langar. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, Savitri Bai Phule, Periar Swamy, Baba Mangu Ram, Dr. Bheem Rao Ambedkar and Babu Kanshi Ram tried in their own ways to change this predicament but their efforts bore little fruit and caste system could not be eliminated. Ambedkar achieved constitutionally guaranteed reservation in place of separate electorate as a result of compromise with Gandhi, who was deadly opposed to separate electorate for Dalit castes (Depressed Classes) and went on fast unto death in Pune jail demanding the scraping of separate electorate. Reservation in education and jobs has helped a section of dalits to improve their lot to some extent and has resulted in emergence of a middle class among the dalits. But this is limited only to a small section of dalits. Large majority of dalits in rural India are still living in hellish conditions. Even Dr. Ambedkar realized late in his life that he could not do anything effective for dalits residing in rural India. He repentantly said this at Agra in his speech in 1956. Dr. Ambedkar had this realization but Ambedkarites of today refuse to recognize this hard fact. These Ambedkarites represent the class interests of newly developed middle class among Dalits which rose as a result of reservation and their whole concern is reservation and filling of backlog. They are unable to grasp the importance of land in elimination of caste system. To understand the importance of land and Dalit struggle for land, one has to scientifically understand the caste system.

Communists have been debating whether this caste system is phenomenon of structure or of superstructure? Most of them considered it to be a phenomenon of superstructure. But fact of the matter is that caste system has its roots in structure and is spread in the superstructure. What does it mean? Its roots in structure means that dalits are devoid of means of production. Main means of production in rural area is land. Dalits being landless is at the root of caste system. Essence of its expansion in super structure is endogamy. Edifice of caste system stands on two pillars, one is the dalits being devoid of means of production i.e. land in countryside and the second is endogamy. Caste system cannot be destroyed and caste cannot be eliminated without removing these two pillars. For destroying caste edifice it is essential to dig out its roots, means dalit getting their share in means of production i.e. land in rural area. Cutting the roots is the immediate task whereas struggle to end endogamy will be complete with the revolution in culture. Thus Dalit struggle for land is the most essential and immediate task for elimination of caste. Because this struggle hits at the very root of the system, so all the protectors of this system, Congress, Akali Dal and all ruling class parties, government, police and civil administration jointly pounce upon this struggle to suppress it. But, if society is to advance forward, if people of India are to progress, this struggle must succeed.

Is this struggle a revolt against the system? No, yet it is a struggle within the legal sphere and within the system. In Punjab this is perfectly within the parameter of Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Rules, 1964 and Punjab Panchayat Raj Act. Panchayat land is given on lease for cultivation. Punjab Village Common Lands Act provides that one third of the Panchayat land will be reserved for leasing out to dalits. But in reality the practice was that rich belonging to upper caste lease this land in the name of some poor Dalit generally employed with them on yearly or half yearly basis. Law of land was openly flouted. But, dalits of village Balad Kalan started struggle to have their share in Panchayat land on lease. They faced severe repression. They were lath charged and were injured badly. Forty three of them, including the leadership of organization, were put behind bars for more than three months under serious provisions like section 307, attempt to murder. But organization fought stubbornly, got the land and also got the arrested released unconditionally. Next year this struggle spread to almost fifty villages. In village Jhaneri landlords attacked agitating dalits with fire arms but were resisted and rebuffed. In year 2016 clashes and confrontation took place in many villages. In village Jaloor landlord mobilized on caste basis and attacked the Dalit habitat. Houses of leaders were destroyed, people were injured. An old lady, mother of a local leader, was injured so badly that she died in the hospital. This attack was with active connivance of police and civil administration. But dalits finally succeeded in getting their share of land. This struggle and organization has spread to nearly hundred villages. Now first phase of this struggle is over as dalits in most of villages are cultivating their share of land though upper caste people are resisting in some villages. Supporters KMPU were attacked and injured in village Mimsa. They are fighting for the same demand. But first phase is by and large complete.

Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee moved on and tried to develop this struggle further. In village Tolewal of Malerkotla tehsil of Sangrur district, sarpanch and one panch were elected who were supporters of ZPSC. In three villages named, Tolewal, Dhandiwal and Mullowal dalits demanded that their share of land be leased out for thirty three years. But administration rejected this demand terming it as illegal. Dalits in these three villages took a different course. Gram sabhas in these villages were called which, beside transacting other business, adopted a resolution giving dalit share of panchayat land for thirty three years on lease at a reduced rate. Administration even without rejecting this resolution formally, tried to auction dalit share as usual, for one year. In Tolewal, Congress and Akali landlords joined hands and tried to get auction held. But dalits stubbornly resisted this effort and a clash took place where more than a dozen Dalits including women were severely injured. Police, openly siding with landlords, refused to take statements of injured dalits being treated in the hospital. Court also supported landlords and granted bail though case was registered under that Act and sections which were non bailable. Whole state machinery is openly siding with landlords and standing against dalits. They assert in media that this struggle is illegal. But this struggle is perfectly legal. We shall examine the legal position.

Land vested in Panchayat is governed under Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act 1964. According to section 6, sub section 1, part A, “One third of the cultivable land to be leased out, shall be reserved for scheduled castes only.” (translated from Punjabi original)  Government revenue officials argue that it does means that land shall be leased out for more than a year but why do Dalits ask for a lease of 33 years? Punjab government issued a land lease policy on May 9th 2014.  Section 1 of this policy says “This policy shall be called village land lease for 33 years land leasing policy. In brief, it shall be known as village land lease policy.” Article 6 of this policy provides for leasing Panchayat land for 33 years. “Where land is to be given for public welfare and social security like cow shelters, de-addiction centre, old age home etc. land can be given on lease for 33 years.” Thus policy clearly says that land can be given on lease for 33 years for the purpose of “public welfare and social security”. True it gives some examples of such purposes but it does not mean that it restricts the concept of public welfare and social security to the examples mentioned there.

Now the question here is, does leasing land to dalits for 33 years fall within the sphere of public welfare and social security? Dalits are a section of population which has been forced to live in slavery like conditions since so many centuries as they are devoid of any means of production, particularly land. They have to face oppression and suppression. Generally, dalits rear milk cattle to supplement their income, as labour is not assured for whole of the year. They need fodder and grass etc. for the cattle. They have to get it from the fields which are owned by upper caste people as dalits are landless. Generally, Dalit women have to go to the fields for getting grass and they have to face humiliation, sexual harassment and are even raped sometimes. Abuses to dalit women in the fields are common. Hence, land for Dalits, particularly Dalit women, is a question of social security. As it is not for one or few individuals but for a large section of population which is one third of total population, so it is also a matter of public welfare. So leasing dalit share of Panchayat land for 33 years comes perfectly within the preview of land leasing policy issued by Punjab government in2014.

Thus it is clear that decision of Gram Sabhas of three villages is not illegal and certainly not a revolt or rebellion as is being portrayed by civil and police administration. It is perfectly within the scope of law. Government and local administration should have taken it with open mind and deeply consulting concerned legal provisions and accepted the resolutions of three gram sabhas. But government is bent upon to not accept the genuine demand of dalits. Government is trying to push auction with brutal force. As a result dalits in Tolewal had to suffer. Old ladies and many others are suffering in hospital without proper treatment, police is not doing the needful. Young among the Dalits are forced to stay away from their homes in fear of attack by landlords and being arrested under false cases foisted on them by police. What is the reason for the adamant attitude of government on this issue? It seems that government wants to quell any type of resistance by Dalits. For that purpose it is trampling law under its feet and going out of the way to mobilize people on caste basis.

Are Dalits demanding something in violation of law? Does law provide auction of Panchayat land only for one year and not otherwise. As we have earlier stated that Dalits are demanding only that which is provided by the land lease policy of Punjab government issued on May 9, 2014. Apart from that there are provisions in the Act itself which provide for leasing panchayat land for more than one year. Section 6, part 2 of Punjab Village Common Lands Regulation Act provides “Common land of village cannot be leased out for more than three years and uncultivated land having shrubs etc. in it cannot be leased out for more than seven years”. It means that land under cultivation can be leased for three years and land not under cultivation and needing reclamation can be leased for seven years. Why government is insisting on leasing for one year only. It is nothing but anti dalit bias of state machinery. Further part three of section six of the same act stipulate that Panchayat land “can be given for ten years for setting up an industrial unit”. Now the question is, if land can be given to a capitalist for purely earning personal profit, why it cannot be given for the benefit of the people standing at the lowest rung of the ladder in society for centuries together, which can be a catalytic agent for radical progressive change in the society. Further part four, section six of Punjab village common lands act provides that “Panchayat common land can be leased for 15 years to the fish farming agency and a person sponsored by it for ten years.” In face of these provisions, government insistence on auction for one year is clearly unjustified. This whole episode reflects the anti dalit bias inherent in the whole state machinery.

Resolution for giving land to dalits for 33 years was passed by general body meeting of gram sabhas, whose two meetings in a year are mandatory, but that does not invalidate the resolution, because gram sabha is a higher institution than gram panchayat. A panchayat has to submit its report on a development project before gram sabha and get it passed. If rejected by gram sabha, it has to prepare a fresh report. Panchayat has to present its budget before gram sabha and get its approval. Panchayat is responsible before gram sabha. Failure to call session of gram sabha within time limit earns disqualification for panchayat. Relation of panchayat and gram sabha is like relation between executive and legislature, envisaged in the constitution. Gram sabha is legislature and panchayat is executive, government. As legislature is above the executive similarly gram sabha is above the Panchayat and its decisions (resolutions) have more sanctity and legal authority.

Section 199 of Panchayat Raj Act empowers director panchayat department to reject any decision or resolution of panchayat, but it has no right to reject the resolution of gram sabha. In fact none of the provision in Panchayat Raj Act empowers any authority to reject the resolution of gram sabha. Block development and panchayat officer has sent resolution to district panchayat officer and he in turn has forwarded it to director panchayat department. Director has rejected the resolution of gram sabha of village Tolewal in complete disregard of law. He has exercised a power which is not vested in his office by any provision of law. This episode exhibits one thing very clearly that baton of law is only for poor and labouring masses; it is completely toothless at the doors of ruling classes at all level including the ruling classes at village level.

Government and district administration are well aware of the fact that resolutions adopted by gram sabhas at villages Tolewal, Dhandiwal and Mullowal are perfectly within the law but they are trying to suppress this struggle with brute force. Why? Because they clearly understand that with this struggle for 33 years this dalit movement is advancing to the next phase of the land struggle. They are perfectly clear of the direction of this movement. This struggle is ultimately moving towards getting land with permanent possession and further, ownership right. It is for the redistribution of land and share in means of production in rural Punjab.

The fact which the government understands very clearly, dalits should also grasp this fact. Their struggle cannot remain confined to their share in panchayat land. A year or so before Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee issued list of landlords around Sangrur who have land much beyond the ceiling limit provided by the law. There will be many more in this district only. Dalits should identify those and initiate struggle for capturing their surplus land, beyond the ceiling limit. This is also struggle within the parameters of law, because keeping land beyond the ceiling limit is violation of law.