Chandigarh/Sangrur: Landless Dalit labourers in Punjab, say, they are done waiting for what’s rightfully theirs.
In a recent meeting of Dalit labourers and their leaders in Sangrur district’s Tolewal village, Bhupinder Kaur, a landless Dalit labourer, addressed those present and told them how the higher caste Jat Sikhs as well as authorities have been trampling upon their rights for years, despite repeated intervention of the Supreme Court.
Kaur was referring to the failure of successive governments to ensure proper implementation of the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Rules, 1964, which stipulates that one-third of the land in every Panchayat of Punjab be allotted to Dalit labourers for a year through annual bids. And to register their protest, those in Tolewal village have decided to press the NOTA button when the 13 constituencies of Punjab go to polls in the final phase of Lok Sabha Elections on 19 May.
This village on the Malerkotla-Nabha Road has a population of nearly 1,115, out of which 328 are Dalits.
In fact, Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC), an organisation that is uniting Dalit labourers in the Malwa region of Punjab, over the issue has been able to convince the community’s members in more than 60 villages to press NOTA on 19 May.
Sidelined and ignored
Despite several attempts and agitations, Dalits in India have not been able to smash the caste barriers that create hurdles in their social and economic upliftment, leaving them out of the development story. The biggest example of social discrimination with Dalits in Punjab is the tradition of two gurudwaras — one for the ‘outcasts’ or Dalits, and the other for the rest of the Sikhs — in almost all villages.
Further, not getting their stake in one-third of the common land in all villages makes them economically weaker.
Section 6(1)a of the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Rules, 1964, stipulates that one-third of the cultivable common land proposed to be leased for a year shall be reserved for the Scheduled Castes.
Dalits have, however, alleged several times that the rules are not being followed and higher caste Jat Sikhs, who are the traditional farmers in the state, keep taking over the land through their proxies or dummies. A visit to villages in the Malwa region proves this allegation true.
A never-ending fight
Beant Singh, the Sarpanch of Tolewal village, said that government after government has failed the Dalits in the issue of land rights, and hence, the community has decided to go for NOTA in this Lok Sabha election.
“Neither the BJP nor the Congress has come to our rescue. We have no option but to fight this tyranny our way,” he adds.
As per the law, it is the Panchayat that is supposed to allot the land to Dalits, but the situation in Tolewal is the opposite. Though Beant is the sarpanch of Tolewal, being a Dalit, he has to fight for his community’s rights as he doesn’t have the support of most members of the Panchayat.
With all 13 constituencies of Punjab going for polls in the final phase of Lok Sabha polls on 19 May, this decision of Dalits, especially those in the Malwa region, which comprises 11 of the state’s 22 districts, can have a significant impact on the election results, especially considering that most political parties have been trying to woo the community.
The Dalit population in Punjab is around 32 percent with the highest concentration being in the district that are part of the Malwa region. While only 6.53 percent of non-Dalit families in Punjab are in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category, the percentage of Scheduled Caste BPL families is 25.6 in Punjab.
The reason Dalits feel the need to press for land rights in the state is because the number of operational holdings with Dalits in Punjab is 63,480, a mere 6.02 percent of the total, and are spread over 1,26,966 hectares, just 3.2 percent of the total area of the state; 85.54 percent of these holdings are unviable as they are smaller than four hectares, as per government figures.
In comparison, Jats, who are traditionally from the farming community, hold large chunks of land in the region. They generally employ agricultural labourers, mostly Dalits, in their farms. Out of the total 10.93 lakh land holdings, Jat community own most of the land in the state.
Most of the top political leaders of the state, including Punjab chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, are also Jat Sikhs.
Taking matters into their own hands
Gurmukh Singh, general secretary of ZPSC, said the decision to reject all political parties and opt for NOTA was taken after considerable deliberation.
“Dalits in Punjab have been suffering for centuries even though their numbers are high. Jat Sikhs don’t want to loosen their grip on agricultural lands despite legislations in favour of Dalits. We have to fight this mentality; after all, Sikhism was founded on equality and justice," he said.
Gurmukh also pointed out that though only Dalits can take part in the auction for the one-third Panchayat land, “Jat Sikhs ask their Dalit workers to participate in the process by paying them a small amount. Later, the same Dalits sow crops on the land for their masters.”
Most Dalits lack money and as a result they cannot take part in auction as individuals. Though Dalits, in the past, were able to get the common land in some villages of Malwa region by pooling their resources (money) and making group purchases in the auction, such cases were few.
In 2014, 60 Dalit families of Kular village in Sangrur pooled Rs 3 lakh together to bid for four acres of Panchayat land in 2014 for one year lease.
"Despite repeated attempts Dalit families were not able to get common land in the village for agricultural purposes," says Sandeep Kaur, a resident of Kular village, adding, "We decided to pool our resources to get the land and were successful."
The case was seen as a victory of Dalit rights, and now Dalit families in Kular pool money every year to get the land in the village. However, availability of large chunk of lands is crucial for the success of initiatives like this so that the allotted land is viable for large number of Dalit families.
A ZPSC member from Mansa district, Amreek Singh, said the government never made Dalits aware of this land right of theirs. “Only recently have Dalit organisations come together to make the community aware about their rights. That’s why we have lost faith in governments," he added.
In May 2016, a major clash had taken place in Sangrur’s Balad Kalan village, after the police lathi-charged Dalits protesting against the auction process that year, which they claimed was a farce.
"The police and administration were apparently working under the influence of some landlords of the village, and as as a result they lathi-charged us," claims Swarn Singh, a Dalit from Balad Kalan, who was among those injured in the incident.
Interestingly, Dalit women, are not shying away from campaigning against political parties. They have been going from village to village, urging Dalit voters to press NOTA during the polls on 19 May.
Ramandeep Kaur, a Dalit woman and member of ZPSC who is campaigning in favour of NOTA in Tolewal village, says that she is doing it for a better future of her two children.
"I was not able to get education because of poverty. I do not want that my children's education is also hindered due to lack of money. We will never be able to ensure a bright future for our children by being agricultural labourers," said Ramandeep.
Gurpreet Kaur, another Dalit from Balian village which has a substantial Dalit population, says that agricultural land was accumulated with the high castes in Punjab for centuries.
"Almost all Dalits have agreed in our area that they will press NOTA and will not vote for any party. These political parties have only given us promises and taken our votes, now we will not vote for them," she added.
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Updated Date: May 17, 2019 16:15:45 IST