Junagadh: Sandha, a village in the Mangrol taluka of Gujarat’s Junagadh district, is home to about 35 Dalit families. For generations, the only way they have earned two square meals a day has been by working as labourers on the land of ‘upper caste’ landlords.
The Dalits have no say in their wages. Usually, the landlord who owns the most land decides how much the labourers will be paid in a given year. This been the system in Sandha for years now.
Since October 13, a group of Dalits had been camping in front of the collector’s office as a mark of protest against the government, demanding that they be given the farm land that they say was allotted to them years ago. When no official from the office of the Junagadh collector came to meet them, three of the protestors attempted suicide by consuming pesticide on October 17.
While one of them, 50-year-old Prabhatbhai Munjabhai Parmar, passed away at the Rajkot civil hospital around midnight, the other two, 25-year-old Jignesh Rathod and 33-year-old Chandu Parmar, have recovered and were discharged from the hospital on October 19.
According to the protestors, nobody from the government or district administration has met the family of the deceased yet. However, Prabhatbhai’s last rites were carried out amidst tight police security on October 19 in Sandha.
Prabhatbhai is survived by his wife, mother, five daughters and a son. He was a landless Dalit who used to work as a labourer in the field owned by an ‘upper caste’ landlord. Like other Dalit labourers in the village, Prabhatbhai’s monthly earning varied from Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000. He was waiting for the government to hand over the piece of land that had reportedly been allotted to him years ago.
“In a village like Sandha, there is no other means of employment except to work as a labourer on somebody else’s field. We get paid Rs 80-100 every day. We have been living this life for generations now,” Dayabhai Rathod, a landless Dalit in the village, told The Wire.
“Once, every year, the landowners decide how much our wages will be for that year. We have no say in it as it is their land we work on. We have no choice either,” he said.
“Raja-shahi ke zamane se chal raha hai ye yahaan. Maine aise hi dekha jabse paida hua hun. Azadi ke bad kuch khas badla nahi (The feudal system still being practised here. I have seen it like this since I was born. Nothing much has changed after independence),” 33-year-old Dayabhai added.
“One person’s earnings are not enough to feed a family. Many times women also join us to work as labourers. There are a few who have left for cities in search of jobs,” narrated another villager.
“Every time we would approach the collector’s office, the only response would be that the higher officials would be apprised of the matter. The collector would tell us that he can’t resolve the issue,” he added.
Following Prabhatbhai’s death, the villagers have called off the protest. Reportedly, Rahul Gupta, the Junagadh collector, has assured the Dalits in a written notification that a kuchhery (court to settle the land issue) shall be held from March 2017 and the issue shall be resolved.
The collector, who was unavailable for a comment, reportedly issued this notification on the evening of October 17, after the Prabhatbhai, Jignesh and Chandu attempted suicide.
However, this is not an isolated tale of one village. Dalits across the state have been waiting for allotted land to be handed over to them for over a decade. What they have in common are stories of helplessness while they run between government offices, submitting memorandums and staging dharnas in protest.
While about 100 Dalits were camped in front of the Junagadh collector’s office, Dalits from the Saroda village were protesting in front of the collector’s office in Ahmedabad, demanding the same. The day three Dalits attempted suicide in Junagadh, 200 Dalits who were staging a protest in front of the Ahmedabad collectorate were dealt with using excessive force by the city police. Women and elderly protestors were dragged to the police van by male police.
Two days after the incident, on October 19, 150 Dalits, including members of Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (RDAM), spent the whole night in front of the collector’s office in the Surendranagar district.
“The movement is gaining momentum again. The government has not initiated talks as assured to us last month. If the process of measurement is not initiated in the next 15 days, we are planning a rally where all Dalits will march naked or we shall block the Chotila- Rajkot highway,” said Jignesh Mevani, convenor of RDAM.
“We shall also demand compensation for the family of Prabhatbhai Parmar. He was the sole earner in a family of eight,” Mevani added.
Incidentally, this is the second instance of Dalits attempting suicide in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. After the incident of the flogging of Dalit youths in Una in July this year, seven Dalits consumed poison as a mark of protest. One of them, 23-year-old Yogesh Sarikda of Moti Parabadi village in the Rajkot district, died in a hospital in Ahmedabad.
The Una flogging incident opened a floodgate of Dalit protest across Gujarat and resulted in an order to set up a special atrocity court to handle SC/ST atrocity cases in 16 districts. It has also resulted in the beginning of land measurement in an area of Saroda village and distribution of ‘sanat’ in Jarawela and Odu villages.
But for Prabhatbhai, the battle is over. The system has failed him and his family. There is hardly time to grieve for the 16-year-old son, the youngest of all siblings, who will take charge of the ‘duty to earn’ for the family after his father’s demise. He, too, is going to be a labourer on someone else’s land.