By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
A movement of Dalit peasants demanding land reserved for allocation to them under The Nazool Lands (Transfer) Rules (1956) and The Punjab Village Common Lands Regulation Act (1961) that started in Sekha village of Barnala district (part of Sangrur district until 2011) in Punjab in 2014 “has now spread to more than 102 villages in Sangrur district” and some parts of Patiala, Barnala, and Mansa districts, a report by Delhi-based Civil rights organisation Janhastakshep released at the Press Club of India on June 14 has claimed. The Nazool Lands Rules provide that the land be primarily allocated to landless villagers of the Scheduled Caste, the size of the plot depending on whether the land is irrigated, unirrigated, or banjar in nature. Under the Common Lands Regulation Act, the “gift of land” to members of Scheduled Castes and OBCs is for residential purposes.
The struggle started with the capture of seven acres of Nazool land (mostly land escheated to the State Government after Partition) under the leadership of a Punjab Students Union leader in Sekha village (not named in the report for security reasons), the report says. After around 16,423 acres of land “was freed from the clutches of the landlords and rich peasants in about 65 villages”, a Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC) was formed after a conference of Dalit and small peasants of the Jat community in Badrukhan village of Sangrur district in February 2014. The struggle has also seen “an equal and militant participation of Dalit women”. In Matoi village of Sangrur it was Dalit female college students who organised the villagers in 2014.
The ZPSC protested across districts in Punjab on June 7, with “high participation” in Sangrur, according to news reports. The protesters were demanding that the administration provide the reserved Panchayat land for Dalits for farming within a week and the withdrawal of cases, which include among others, IPC Section 307 (attempt to Murder), that were registered against them following a clash between the police and ZPSC in Balad Kalan village of Sangrur district on May 24.
The Janhastakshep report says that several protesters were also allegedly brutally injured during the May 24 clash. The clash had started after two Dalit boys in an inebriated state had “ploughed into their dharna” (the dharna was called to protest against an auction at tehsil headquarters of Bhawanigarh) at the behest of the landlords. The villagers beat up the boys to which “the huge police force mobilised by the district administration” for the auction responded with “a heavy baton charge”, according to the report.
The problem with the auction, the report says, stems from the fact that currently the land remains in possession of Jat landlords who foster “dummy Dalit candidates” during the auction of the land for lease every year. These candidates- a very small percentage of the Dalit population of the village- quote higher prices with the financial backing of the landlords. This price is otherwise “impossible for any other Dalit household to compete with”.
Balad Kalan, located on the Patiala-Sangrur highway, has emerged as the centre for this struggle, according to the report. This is owing to the fact that the Panchayat owns 375 acres of land, whereby the ZPSC has taken control of “a substantial 125 acres” by bidding through representatives of the local ZPSC committee. They have also been able to reduce the auction price for Dalits.
Surprisingly, the report says that in Jhaneri village of Sangrur land was leased for a gaushala at mere Rs 7000 for thirty years period earlier this year. This has prompted the ZPSC to demand a further reduction in the price. The team-members also met the District Collector Mr. Thind, who told them that this particular transfer had happened at a huge loss of revenue to the government but couldn’t inform the team as to what regulation had allowed the administration to go ahead with the decision.
Explaining the political response to the movement, the report says that the BJP and Akali Dal are “openly hostile” to the Dalit peasants. The Congress, which had protested outside the Bhawanigarh police station on June 1, has “largely kept silent on this issue” according to the report. The Aam Admi Party, which has been campaigning regularly in the state ahead of the Assembly elections in 2017, too hasn’t taken cognisance of the protests although Bhagwant Mann of AAP is the MP from Sangrur. The report observes the BSP and the peasant organisations of the Communist parties as sympathetic to the struggle, although news reports suggest that the ZPSC has “resisted” taking support from any political party.
The report further observes that “the economic status and the ownership of productive resources by the SCs in Punjab is grossly out of sync with their numerical strength”. It cites the 2011 census to show that the SC population in Punjab (31.94 percent) is the highest in the country, 73.33 percent of which lives in rural areas. It then cites the 2010-11 agricultural census to show that this huge population owns only 6.02 percent of all land holdings and 3.2 percent area of the state.
The future of the movement, the report says, could include the demand for allocation of remaining Panchayat land to poor peasants at an affordable rent and with security of tenure, which might further include a right to ownership of this land. “Capture of ceiling surplus land held by the landlords and rich peasants is envisaged” for an advanced stage, the report says.
Rajinder Sachar, who chaired the Sachar Committee, also joined the small press conference at the Press Club, where the report was released. Speaking to the team-members who prepared the report, the former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court who is known for his association with civil rights organisations, said that a “reasonable price should be fixed” for the auction of the land. He was also of the opinion that if dummy candidates were being used by rich Jat landlords, a case for fraud could be made to counter such designs.
The Report was prepared by Professor Ish Mishra of Hindu College, Dr. Vikas Bajpai of JNU, and senior journalists Rajesh Kumar and Anil Dubey after a visit to some villages in Sangrur district on the 28th and 29th of May.