The fact of landlessness being a major source of deprivation is well documented, and even admitted by the Indian Government (Mohanty, 2018). The social group that is worst affected by landlessness in India is the Scheduled Castes, who constitute 16.6% of the nation’s population while having a sharing of merely 9.23% in landownership[i]. Dictated by social order of the caste system, restrictions had been imposed on people of Schedule Castes or the Dalits from owning land in pre-colonial and colonial times. Although independent India constitutionally scrapped such caste based restrictions, they continued to be landless because of social sanction. Attempts at land reforms to change their socio-economic conditions failed for the most part, and only marginally succeeded in few places (Mohanty B. B., 2001). With state actions proving to be inadequate, many theorists speculated that caste system would be rendered powerless with advent of free market in India and it would definitely change material conditions and landholding of Dalits. This notion was not only echoed among neoliberal scholars, but among Marxists too (Agarwal & Levien, 2019) While Marx himself did not share this reductionist view, the speculations over free market have been proven to be wrong. More than two decades after the liberalisation of the Indian market, 71% of Dalit farmers still remain landless agricultural labourers. This phenomenon of Landlessness, as some argue, stands in the way of Dalits realizing the fullest of their citizenship. [ii]
The situation is not any better in the State of Tamil Nadu (TN) – while the Dalit share in population is around 20%, their share in area of operational holdings is just 7.8%.[iii] What is unique to TN is that the colonial government towards the end of the 19th Century had made an attempt to change this scenario by granting land to members of the social group to the tune of 1.2 million acres in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Lands distributed under this scheme were named as Panchami Land (since Dalits were called Panchamas).
History of the Land Struggle
In pre-colonial Tamil Nadu, the dominant agricultural labour relations were defined by the Kaniatchi system. In this system, the Brahmins and the Vellalas were kaniatchikars (landowners), while people belonging to Shudra castes were payirkarars (tenant farmers) and the Dalits who were Untouchables were adimais (slaves) (Shah, 1985). After the introduction of Ryotwari system, many tenant farmers gained land rights for the first time, but the Dalit populace remained landless. In the year 1892, J H. A. Tremenheere, then District Collector of Chingleput, prepared a report titled ‘Notes on Pariahs of Chingleput’ elaborating on their living conditions with enormous details. At the end of the report he recommended to the British Government that granting of uncultivated land to Dalits would uplift their deprived state. Bear in mind that this was not at all an egalitarian act of generosity, as Tremenheere himself mentioned in the last chapter of the note that this measure was suggested so that newly landed social group would cultivate these lands enabling greater revenue generation for the British government (Alex, 2009). The colonial government agreed to his recommendations and on 13th September, 1892, Madras Presidency passed Government Orders 1010 & 1010A to assign waste lands to Depressed Classes with few conditions. The conditions restricted sale of these lands to people of other social groups to safeguard these lands from being taken from the Dalits. Grants continued until 1930s and the total area of land granted is estimated to be 1.2 million acres (Ravikumar, 2009).
Despite this, in post-independence India much of these lands were either grabbed from Dalits forcefully or bought off from them by landlords after pushing them into debt traps (Rajasekaran, 2017). Starting from the 1980s, several Dalit organizations has mobilised people to protest against these atrocities. The struggle took a violent turn in 1994 when two youngsters in Karanai village were shot dead by the police, and this incident catalysed the movement for reclaiming Panchami land in Northern TN (Samraj, 2006). Since then activists have proactively engaged in identifying the locations of allotted lands and details of unlawful occupiers. Large parts of the lands are occupied by dominant castes for cultivation of both water intensive and other crops. Encroachers have setup several industrial establishments on these lands, and many educational institutions also take up adjacent Panchami land. In 2014, a huge scam worth of Rs.16000 crores came to light which showed large part of the land used was Panchami Land, with alleged involvement of officials and politicians.[iv]
State Action: Serial Failures
During all these events there were a number of state interventions which failed on varying extents that require our attention.
First count of failure is from The Holdings Act, 1950, which was supposed to protect these lands from being sold to people who are not SC/STs. Lands were still being sold to dominant caste groups, which only means enforcement of the law was very poor.[v]
Second count of failure was the poor design and implementation of land reform which was supposed to help Dalits as majority of them was landless. In most states throughout India, exemptions in the ceiling acts were a problem since they provided a mechanism for big landowners to evade acquisition by the State. TN was notorious in this, giving 26 different exemptions which systematically provided loopholes for landlords to slip away. TN also faired very poorly during the “reforms” in placing appropriate provisions to prevent Benami and Farzi transactions, entered into by landlords to keep land within their circle (Ashokavardhan, 2005).
Third count of failure is an unintended outcome of an unrelated policy action by the State government. In the mid-80s, revenue department implemented a scheme called Update Registry Scheme through which old Pattas could be renewed. But landlords belonging to dominant caste groups who had been illegally occupying Panchami Land legitimised their unlawful possession by getting Pattas in their name for those pieces of land as well. To this day, this administrative loophole poses the biggest obstacle even in retrieving land that is identified as Panchami land and taken to court (Rajasekaran, 2017).
Fourth count of failure relates to the three government committees since 1991 formed to study and recommend action on Panchami land – once directed by court and twice after protests and pressures by activist – yet, the State could not even properly identify the area of Panchami land under unlawful occupation.[vi]
Fifth count of failure is not particular to Tamil Nadu but all of India. Prof. Wadhwa, in his work for the government in 1989 and a revisit of the work in 2004 in response to Dr. Arun Shourie, highlights that current land record system which does not ensure title on registration, has badly impacted marginalised communities. People belonging to SC communities do not have the resources to fight decade long litigations when their land is taken to court by the occupiers (Wadhwa, 2002).
And there are allegations from activist working with Dalit communities that State Government is deliberately allocating these lands for expansion of SEZs in the last few years.[vii] This could be attributed as the sixth count of failure in securing Dalits’ right to possession of Panchami Land.
Finding a comprehensive solution to all these lapses could be an overwhelming exercise but what needs to be pondered over is wherefrom the solution, or rather requirements for the solution come from. This brings us to the next and the most important section.
The Subaltern can Speak!
In her much quoted and lauded work ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak explores this question[viii]. Reminding oneself about instances like Nangeli and several other struggles of Dalits in the history, perhaps could make one view the question in different light. But the perception that begs such question is far from being insignificant in the public discourse. Take for example the blockbuster Bollywood movie Article 15. The Dalit character Nishad is a revolutionary who fights for not just the issue central to the movie but all problems of Dalits in the area, having to be always on the run, giving up comforts and desires of a normal life. Even the case that movie revolves around would have been shelved forever, had he not take up arms and finally dying in the struggle. But he is shown to us as the side character while the upper caste police officer who dealt with the case with the maximum risk being losing his job is the protagonist or as the public calls him – Hero.
D. Ravikumar, Member of Parliament of Villupuram constituency, argues that such a tendency to ignore the Dalits’ voice is not all too uncommon in writing of history even in modern times. In his book, Dalitgalum Nilamum [Translation: Dalits and Land] that deals with history of Panchami land, he accuses historians and policy researchers of totally ignoring more than half a century of struggles by various Dalit and Adi-Dravida organizations against the colonial government before finally getting the Panchami land order in 1891. He asserts that it is as though the colonial government gave the land out of benevolence, not in responses to the protests and persuasion by the Dalits. A simple comparison to exemplify the foregoing could be contemplating how the Indian public would feel if history taught in schools claimed Indian Independence as an act of benevolence by Colonial government, completely removing the century long freedom struggle from the syllabus.
From our fieldwork experience it is evident that this is not just in the case with academia or movies but with everyday reporting in media too. In an interview with a community mobiliser named Muthulakshmi, an elderly women in her late 70s from the village Sirupanaiyoor of Villupuram District, we learned that they received Patta for 15 acres of Panchami Land after almost a decade of protests using various innovative methods. But paper-cuttings of reports from local newspapers they preserved showed that government came forward being unable to bear with deprivation Dalits go through and granted the land. All of this brings the doubt if Spivak’s question really has any truth to it in the context of Dalits or if it is cultural hegemony in all forms of discourse that actively supresses the voice of the subaltern. Tamil Cinema in the past two years has been answering the question powerfully with an array of movies on Dalit Land Rights, some of which have made a splash in the political discourse.[ix]
Perhaps the solution should begin from policy designers and lawmakers making conscious effort in listening to and documenting the articulation of these communities in State communications.
Now the next important question that warrants our attention is “Even if we find a solution to retrieve these lands, would it be useful for the community?” This is a concern some experts have on the grounds that the-terms-of-trade for agricultural produce is hedged against small farmers[x]. When we posed this question to Mr. C. Nicholas, Chairman of Dalit Munnurimai Kootamaipu (Dalit Land Rights Association), he explained that they are aware of the market constraints on the farmers but the main purpose of the retrieving the land is tying people to the movement that would get them the collective strength to voice out their claim for their rights. He feels that if they do not get the lands, they would have to migrate to cities as casual labourers, and the scattered diaspora would be more vulnerable than they are now. But above all these reason experts’ gave us, one of reasons from the people we met in the village moved us and highlighted how deep the problem is. Sivagami, a woman in her early 80s from Pavandhur Village told our team
Madras HC too observed this phenomenon in a recent judgement and blamed the government of promoting casteism.[xi]
Lastly, all that mentioned here seen so far and the absence of policy recommendations in the essay only point to the need for an in-depth policy research to come up with a policy framework where the multitude of prevailing concerns could be taken into account, respecting the complexity of the issue and participation of the affected community.
(Fitting to the stereotype of engineers, Mathur Sathya is a former Computer Engineer who ended up doing all things except engineering, present one being pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy. In the celebration that’s the war against death, Mathur hopes to pull others like and unlike him into the festive and he hopes Public Policy will give him the wand to ward off the social inequalities that stand in their way. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Notes[i] Household Ownership and Operation in India, NSSO 70th Round, 2013.
[ii] Landlessness takes away Dalits’ legal and official validity as Indian citizens by Suraj Yengde, Hindustan Times, https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/landlessness-takes-away-dalits-legal-and-official-validity-as-indian-citizens/story-1QeT0Tjwp3dbdJjI93OXQJ.html
[iii] Agricultural Census 2015-16
[iv] Sandhya Ravishankar (2014). Probe underway in Rs 16,000 crore granite scam in Tamil Nadu: What modus operandi was adopted?, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/probe-underway-in-rs-16000-crore-granite-scam-in-tamil-nadu-what-modus-operandi-was-adopted/articleshow/45589213.cms
[v] Rajasekaran, Ilangovan (2014). How Dalit lands were stolen, https://frontline.thehindu.com/social-issues/social-justice/how-dalit-lands-were-stolen/article9662667.ece
[vi] Jaganath, G. (2015). Panel created to retrieve occupied panchami lands, https://www.deccanchronicle.com/151013/nation-current-affairs/article/panel-created-retrieve-occupied-panchami-lands
[vii] Dalits to reclaim panchami lands by occupying the, The Hindu, 30th August 2013.
[viii] From ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture London: Macmillan, 1988.
[ix] Kaala (2018) and Vada Chennai (2018) dealt with the issue of land rights from people living in slum areas and evictions in Mumbai and Chennai respectively. Both the movies bluntly put the question “development for who?”. Manusanganda (2019) revolves around a Dalit youngster going through harsh struggle in getting burial ground for his deceased father against the dominant caste group in the village. Asuran (2019) shows the violent struggle a Dalit family is pushed into by dominant caste plotting to grab the Panchami land under family’s possession. Merku Thodarchi Malai (2018) shows the life of landless Dalit tea-estate worker losing the land he buys after years hardwork owing to exploitation and debt trap.
[x] This question was posed to Dr. J. Jeyaranjan, a famous Economist from TN, in a meeting arranged by Centre of Media Persons for Change
[xi] Madras HC slams TN govt’s move to build separate burial ground for Dalits in Vellore, The News Minute, 26th August 2019, URL: https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/madras-hc-slams-tn-govt-s-move-build-separate-burial-ground-dalits-vellore-107848#:~:text=The%20Madras%20High%20Court%20on,caste%20segregation%20through%20this%20action.
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