Rights

What Brought the Dalits’ Fight For Land To the Streets

The surplus land taken from feudal landlords in the past is required to be distributed among the landless in Gujarat. However, until now the allotment has only been done on paper.

Jignesh Mewani at Saroda village. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Jignesh Mewani at Saroda village. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Ahmedabad: In a press release circulated around midnight on September 30, the Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani stated that the “rail roko” that was declared on October 1 was being called off. The “rail roko” (block trains) agitation was planned for 12 pm at Maninagar, the former constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to build pressure on the state government regarding the demand of the Dalit community to hand over the land allocated to landless Dalits under the Agriculture Land Ceiling Act. However, Mewani informed that the government has agreed to initiate talks with the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Samiti and that Pradipsinh Jadeja, Gujarat home minister, has assured to address all their demands.

One of the demands was giving five acres of land to each landless Dalit.

The Gujarat government initiated land mapping at the Saroda village of Dholka taluka of Ahmedabad district on September 20 in a move that came as a relief for the landless Dalits of the village who had waited for nearly a decade for the rightful ownership of their land.

In 2006, a total of 115 landless Dalit families of Saroda village were allotted 222 bigha of land under Agriculture Land Ceiling Act (ALC). However the possession remained only on paper and worse, it had been encroached by people of higher caste. For nine years these landless Dalits have been running between government offices to submit memorandums, have been taking out rallies in protest and sitting on dharnas – all in vain.

It was only after the Dalit movement – under the banner of Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch – gained momentum that the state government woke up to address the issue in one village and on September 20 initiated land mapping at Saroda village of Dholka taluka of Ahmedabad district.

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On a day of ongoing Dalit protests. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

“Abiding by the law, they [Dalit landless villagers] should have been given possession in 90 days. But here we are in a state where it took nine years to initiate the process of mapping even,” said Mewani.

This is not just the story of one village, this is a statewide issue in Gujarat of a rightful allotment of 56,873 acres of land to landless people belonging to schedule caste, schedule tribe.

The activist and lawyer late Mukul Sinha took up the issue for the first time in 2010. He filed a PIL in the high court of Gujarat where initially, the land issues of two districts – Ahmedabad and Surendranagar – were mentioned. Later, Mewani – who is also a lawyer practicing in the high court – took the case in 2015.

“I have been working on the issue of landless Dalits in the state since the year 2009. During those days I was able to find out that acres of land was allotted to the Dalits, but [only] on paper. The process of measurement and sanad had not been initiated anywhere and hence there was no actual possession of land by the rightful owner,” said Mewani, explaining how the movement brewed up.

“There are two provisions of land allotment in the state, the Land Ceiling Act – where surplus land taken from feudal landlords in the past are to be distributed among landless – and distribution of waste lands under Agricultural Land Ceiling Act. However, the Dalits of the state have not been given land under the provisions till now,” he said.

“It is as if the government is mocking the poverty of the landless Dalits here. I myself have run between offices with memorandums and request letters. All went unheard,” he adds.

Interestingly, Praveen Rashtrapal, the Congress MP from Gujarat, had raised a question in Rajya Sabha seeking a report of the number of the landless Dalits in the state who have actually been actually allotted land between 2007 and 2010. In response to the question, Shishir Adhikari, the then union minister for state for rural development, had provided the information that 56,873 acres of land had been already allotted to landless villagers in Gujarat between the said years.

Following the statement of the minister, Mewani filed an RTI seeking information from the Ministry of Rural Development on who had provided such data to the central ministry.

In response to the RTI, all that the Ministry of Rural Development stated was that the question should be addressed to the revenue department of the state instead. Mewani, seeking information from revenue department, filed more RTIs, however, he did not get any response.

It was then that Mewani finally resorted back to the PIL that was filed regarding the issue and decided to take it further in the court. He merged the matter of the 56,873 acres of land with the original petition of issues of the two districts of Ahmedabad and Surendranagar, thereby raising the issue of landless Dalits of the entire state.

Prior to that, three affidavits were filed on behalf of the state government before the high court in 2012. In one affidavit, the Gujarat government denied any knowledge of allotment of 56,873 acres of land and mentioned that the state had never claimed the above fact. It also said that the petitioner (Mewani) should inquire about such a fact from the Ministry of Rural Development. In fact, in the affidavit the state claimed to have allotted 1,580 acres of land in Gujarat.

“It is still a mystery as to how a minister claimed allotment of 56,873 acres of land in Gujarat in Rajya Sabha,” Mewani said.

Another affidavit that was filed during the same time by the Sub Divisional Magistrate of Chotila of the Surendranagar district admitted that other people were illegally occupying the land allotted to the Dalits in the district and stated it to be the reason behind why the authorities had not been able to give the possession of land to the Dalits. In a third affidavit, the Ahmedabad district collector submitted a similar statement.

“The encroachment of land meant for Dalits by people who are non-Dalits is an offense under the Atrocity Act. However, no FIR has been filed against anyone till date,” informed Mewani.

“From 2012 till 2015, I have been gathering data from all over the state and found that nowhere has the process of measurement been initiated nor sanad had been done and hence there was no physical possession of the land by Dalits. I was able to convince the court about the situation in the process of arguing the PIL,” he added.

In course of the case, the revenue department had written to the district collectors to take a stalk of the ground situation in the respective districts and to personally verify each case of landless Dalit. Apart from this, the high court also constituted a team of three nodal officers who were to undertake the same task.

Ironically, instead of carrying out the task, the team of nodal officers in their first and only action report to the court stated that gathering and verifying of the data sought by the petitioner Mewani was a mammoth and impossible task, and hence the petition should be disposed.

“This was a statement completely unheard of in the history of governance of India that government officers should request as such to the court,” said Mewani.

Meanwhile, the revenue department submitted a reply to the PIL in the court claiming that 1,63,880 acres of land had already been allotted to the 37,198 grantees in Gujarat, including 17,163 grantees belonging to SC and ST.

However, the claim fell apart when Mewani filed an RTI in 2014 seeking detailed information of the said land allotment. The 225-page reply to the RTI showed discrepancy in data as compared to the earlier report submitted by the department.

“In response to the RTI, the data that the revenue department provided me that includes details of all districts except Ahmedabad, adds up to a total of 18,000 grantees only,” adds Mewani.

“Gujarat has a history of discriminating against the Dalits. When Saurashtra Land Reform Act was formed in the year 1952, people of Patidar community were given 12 lakh acres of land and nothing had come in share of Dalits even then. Later we had so many land laws, but Dalits are still landless in Gujarat [and are] forced to manage two square meals by doing menial jobs.”

The land issue lies at the core of this movement and so the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch is demanding five acres for each Dalit in Gujarat, informs the Dalit leader.

“The movement that has brewed up in last two months was an evidence.”

“What choice we had, if not to take to the streets and fight?” in Mewani’s question reverberate the voice of each Dalit who is now a part of the movement.