A young boy dangles from the top of a tamarind tree. “Pick the ripe ones,” Dwarkabai Namdeo Mohite calls to him, from the doorway of her house, followed by a warning: “Be careful!”

It is evening, and the wall behind her catches the sunlight, shining like molten silver.

The house is four walls and a roof, erected with metal sheets on the hard earthen ground. Most houses in this neighbourhood of Kole village are like hers; some more dilapidated than others.

Dwarkabai is unsure of her age. Her neighbours say she is 70, she looks 80, and her laugh is that of a little girl’s. Her husband died early on and she has no children. She lives with her sister’s family in Kole — the same village where her father lived too.

Since she stopped working, her only source of income is a widow’s pension of Rs 600 per month. For unexpected expenses — mostly of a medical nature — she depends on her sister’s son, who works as a daily wage labourer.

When she still could, Dwarkabai worked as an agricultural labourer in the fields of Marathas, Lingayats, Dhangars and Malis — above her in the caste hierarchy. Dwarakbai is a Ramoshi — a Dalit. The people who own land here are upper caste, she says. “We are the ones who work on this land. Till a few years ago, they would beat us upon flimsy pretexts. We would get paid a tiny portion of the grain that we’d cultivate.”

Dwarkabai mentions repeatedly that she owns over 2.5 acres of land. Land that was part of the watan awarded to her grandfather Nana AppaMohite, she says.

“But the government is sitting on my land.”

***

Before Independence, rulers, including the British, awarded land to persons of certain communities for their services. These lands were called watan or inam land. In Maharashtra, land gifts were given to those of the priestly caste, Marathas, Chaugules, among others. They also awarded land to Mahar and Ramoshi communities, now categorised as Scheduled Castes (SC).

These Dalit communities were awarded land for their services such as cleaning villages, management of dead animals, delivering government documents, protecting villages as watchmen, etc, says Lalit Babar, general secretary of the National Federation of Dalit Land Rights Movements (NFDLRM).

After Independence, the government abolished the watansystem, through the enactment of the Bombay Inferior Village Watans Abolition Act, 1958. However, the Act recognised Mahar, Ramoshi and Matang (a small population in Maharashtra) communities’ need for this land for sustenance.

Historically, ownership of land has been very low amongst the Dalits.

Even today, only nine percent of total landholdings are held by Dalits, who form over 18 percent of the population. And most of them— over 61 percent of landholders among the SCs— are small and marginal farmers. Over 71 percent of Dalits involved in agriculture are labourers and don’t own land (as per the 2011 Census). For non-SC/ST, this number is 41 percent. This is why Dalits often bring barren wasteland or village common lands under cultivation. Maharashtra has witnessed a long Dalit struggle for common lands.

***

Dwarkabai remembers how, as a young girl, she’d frequent the village watan land. “I have worked on that land with my own hands.”

Her family, like most Dalit families, cultivated with resources— oxen, ploughs and water— owned by the upper castes. In return, they paid them a portion of the crop.

Her eyes close and her head tilts as she recounts how her family grew bajra, jowar, sesame, and green gram. The land was fertile. There was a pond close by, a rarity in this drought-hit region. “We grew enough to last us the whole year.”

Her family’s land is part of a single plot of 660 acres that was awarded to Mahar and Ramoshi communities of eight villages in Sangola block of Solapur district. The 660-acre is part of a bigger 945-acre watan plot— 660 acres for Dalits and 285 acres for other upper caste communities. The 1958 Act cancelled entitlement to this land for upper castes, but made a provision for re-grant for Dalits.

However, despite the provision of re-grant in the 1958 Act, no Dalit family actually made a claim for it, even as they continued to cultivate the land.

“We are illiterate; we didn’t know about this law,” Dwarkabai says, as her sister Sakhubai nods in agreement.

Her neighbour Mukund Ramchandra More adds, “Who had the courage to go talk to the sarkar? And the money to pay for the process?”

So the land slowly slipped away from their hands. In 1973, the government started using their land for a cattle breeding project. The government didn’t notify the families since it didn’t consider them owners of this land. They came to know about it only when government officials started frequenting the place to measure it.

Machindralava ChandanShive of Gaudwadi says, “I never imagined that the land my forefathers cultivated would be snatched from me.”

Out of fear, most families stopped cultivating the land, Dwarkabai says.

***

Today, out of 6.28 lakh acres of Mahar and Ramoshiwatan land across Maharashtra, 2.5 lakh acres is either used by the government or grabbed by upper caste farmers, according to a 2016 report by the Dr Ambedkar Sheti Vikas Va Sanshodhan Sanstha (ASVSS), an NGO. The government has used this land for public purposes like hospitals, schools and railways or has just left it vacant, the report mentions.

“This is illegal and forceful encroachment of Dalit land,” says Babar.

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In 2002, the revenue department issued a directive to return two acres of Ramoshiwatanland to its original owners. These two acres of prime land in Pune were being used by the state-owned Maharashtra State Sheep and Goat Development Corporation (MSSGDC). The district collector had rejected the application of the 13 original owners asking for the return of land. The Revenue minister Ashok Chavan overruled him. The MSSGDC appealed in the High Court. Finally, on Chavan’s insistence the corporation relented, the Times of Indiareported in 2002.

Babar says that the state government has issued directions that unused acquired land, originally belonging to SC communities, should be returned. This should be followed for watan land as well, he adds.

“In Sangolablock, we have identified 5,220-acre watan land,” says Babar. “Out of this, 3,000 acres is occupied by the government, mostly the forest department. The upper caste occupies only a small portion — about 300 acres— in this block, since the land is not very fertile, rainfall is scanty and irrigation facilities are scarce. The areas with more fertile land, better rainfall or irrigation facilities like Pandharpur have more illegal occupation by upper castes.”

Some of the 660-acre plot awarded to Mahar and Ramoshi communities of eight villages in Sangola is used by the Animal Husbandry department for a cattle breeding project. The remaining is under the control of the forest department. A huge portion of the land lies vacant today.

Yogesh Kharmate, the tahsildar (block level revenue officer) of Sangola, refused to comment, when asked about the extent of this land being used by the government and the possibility of it being returned to Dalit families.

The diversion of the 660-acre land has deprived 537 families— 154 Ramoshi and 383 Mahar— in eight villages, noted the ASVSS study. Only 46 out of 810 Dalit households in these villages hold titles of any (individual, not watan) land.

In Dwarkabai’sKole village, eight persons of the Ramoshi community were awarded 100 acres of watan land. The land is now supposed to be divided among 18 families (all legal heirs of the eight original awardees), making her entitled to 2.5 acres.

***

The saga of Dalits reclaiming watan land goes back to 1972. Solapur district saw a severe drought, followed by starvation deaths. Dalits also faced a social boycott by landholding Marathas, who stopped employing them as labourers, says Babar.

With no other option for sustenance, Babar and a team of activists led Dalits, to cultivate a plot of 90 acre watan land. The land was in possession of 35 Mahar families, who didn’t cultivate it for lack of resources.

Other Dalits, inspired by this, began cultivating watan land in their possession in 22 other villages. Babar continued to work on ensuring Mahar and Ramoshi communities use watan land to generate income and founded the ASVSS in 1987.

Gradually, their agenda included reclamation of watan land. In 2013, the ASVSS, along with NFDLRM and Dalit VikasParishad, started organising Dalits in Sangola to reclaim watan land.

In August 2013, they organised a public hearing in Sangola in the presence of the tahsildar, and two members of National Land Reform Task Force. They presented a study on watan land possession in Pune, Satara and Solapur districts that showed that a lot of watan land had been illegally transferred. They demanded that this land be given to the families of the original awardees. The task force members also visited the 660-acre watan plot in Sangola.

This development enthused Dwarkabai. She dreamt of a secure and independent old age. She, along with her sister Sakhubai, submitted her claim to the watan land.

***

It was a muggy morning on 12 August 2013. Dwarkabai walked the 5 km that she had run across many times as a young girl. She reached the watan land, in a portion close to Junoni, one of the eight villages.

It had been close to 40 years since she last set foot here. This is where she took “Pahile Paul (the first step)” to reclaim her land.

“I was thrilled when they brought a tractor to cultivate the land,” she says. “I sowed seeds of bajra. I also did manual labour to build a shed.”

Over 300 families from the eight villages, led by women, collectively cultivated a two acre plot. “It was symbolic; a way of assertion and reclamation,” says Archana NathaaHowal of Budhehal village, who led a group of women from eight villages. “We just wanted to let the government know that we are the owners of the land and now we are here to reclaim it.”

3

But disaster struck. After two months, in October, when bajra seedlings had painted the two acre plot green, government officials destroyed the crop, says Archana. “The cattle breeding farm officers also destroyed the tin shed we had built there.”

1

Above image: Archana Nathaa Howal with her family in her house at Budhehal in Sangola

Dwarkabai was heartbroken, but she did not give up.

***

As a single woman and landless labourer, Dwarkabai did not possess many documents. She started putting together her identification papers. She dug out papers to establish that the land she is claiming is part of Ramoshiwatan; her grandfather was an awardee of this watan; and to prove she is one of his legal heirs.

All this took her over nine months. It involved running around offices, getting snubbed by officials, and holding several protests. “All this cost me quite a lot of money,” Dwarkabai says, “but I had to do this.”

Garajaahekhaaye la (I need it to feed myself).”

Gathering these documents was part of the community’s strategy when it organised to reclaim the land.

They made formal claims but the government delayed action. Babar says the revenue authorities, with a the flood of claims, recognised that the land belonged to Ramoshi and Mahar people but still raised many issues over the re-grant. “They said the land is in the name of the communities and not as individual titles; or that the original awardees are dead and it is difficult to identify their legal heirs. In many cases, they held the documents of the claimants insufficient.”

Now, the community decided to support their claims with proof of ownership and other relevant documents. They began collecting records of land awards, preparing family tree charts to establish heirs, and holding meetings to discuss plans and outcomes.

They also took to the street. Between 2013 and 2018, Dwarkabai, along with hundreds of women including Archana, travelled to Solapur, Nagpur and Mumbai and held several demonstrations. After the Pahile Paul crop was destroyed, in December 2013, they protested at VidhanBhavan (winter assembly) in Nagpur. They submitted memorandums to revenue offices and the then MLA.

The year 2015 saw further action. Between August and October, several gram sabhas passed resolutions to reclaim watan land. They also got the watan plot mapped and constructed a tin shed. They held a dharna at the tahsildar’s office in Sangola. The ASVSS organised people in 13 other districts to submit memorandums to the collectors.

By January 2016, family trees were completed and the families in eight villages were in a position to establish their claim to the 945-acre plot of watan land. In October 2017, land claimants held a hunger strike in front of the tahsil (block revenue) office and 500 of them sent letters to the Chief Minister. They also participated in the Bhumi AdhikariYatra, a demonstration for land rights in December 2018 held at Dindori in Nashik district.

Prabha Yadav of ASVSS, who helped organise the protests, says that women led this movement.  “It was women who came out in huge numbers to protest in the cold winter and in the scorching sun. It’s they who led the Pahile Paul movement.”

“It is because we, the women, are affected the most by the lack of land,” says Archana. “Men go out in search of work. We are left behind to scrape through poverty and live with humiliation.”

***

The government is not willing to part with watan land under its possession, says ND Kamble, a retired government official based in Mumbai, who has independently worked on several cases of reclamation of watan. “When people claimed their land, the land was in government control and the land record titles clearly showed the state government as its owner. They said no one could claim it.”

Shahjee Londe of Sangli says the government officials attempt to hide the truth about ownership of the Dalit workers on watan land. Londe, a retired school teacher, has been taking up cases of reclamation of watan land. He has no formal training in law but has educated himself to argue cases in favour of Mahar and Ramoshi families both in revenue and civil courts.

Kamble has successfully got two watan land claims settled in favour of Mahar families in Ahmednagar and Sangli districts so far.

Sangola MLA Shahajibabu RajaramPatil says he hasn’t heard of the issue regarding the problem in re-grant of watan land. “People should definitely get the land but, I’ll have to look into what exactly the laws say on this and what the procedure is.” On people’s pending applications over re-grant of land, he says: “Nobody has ever approached me with a complaint regarding re-grant of this land. If I receive these applications, I can take it up.”

Despite little success, the struggle to reclaim watan land is informed by what access to land can do to the deprived communities.

In Hatid, less than 30 km from Dwarkabai’s village, 14 Mahar families, who own titles to once-watan land, collectively farm 35 acres of land and share the profits.

These families earn more and have better opportunities, says Archana, because they own the land. “With land, we would also have the option to feed ourselves, without toiling in others’ fields or working in far off places.”

The ASVSS is looking to make this a model for development of all watan land that they’re hoping to reclaim. If divided amongst all owners, watan land would leave families with very small plots. It wouldn’t be viable for them to cultivate it or get loans. “If they use it collectively as a community asset, they would earn better. Also, it would give them better security against occupation by upper castes or the government,” says Babar.

In August 2018, the ASVSS got on lease a 90-acre watan plot in Dongargaon, the same land which Dalits started cultivating after the 1972 drought. The plot is owned collectively by 35 Mahar families.

Not all of the 90 acres is fertile, which is often the case with watan land, says Yadav. “That’s why we’ve taken up various kinds of projects on it. We’ve used the fertile 35 acres to grow crops like chana, bajra, and jowar, and plant 1,000 pomegranate saplings. The rest of the land is used for watershed development projects and a small model organic farm.” In June 2019, they started a small cattle (goat, sheep, chicken) rearing project on 2.5 acres, which currently has 75 goats, 15 lamb and 30 chicken.

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A small cattle-rearing farm on the Mahar watan land in Dongargaon

Over 120 Mahar women from the 35 owner families are shareholders in the project and receive a share in the profit, Yadav says. “The profits haven’t been big yet but this is just a start. We’re also looking to make it a farmer produce company.”

6

***

Dwarkabai doesn’t expect a positive response from the upper castes when Dalits get the land but is more disconcerted over why the government is not returning poor people’s land. “I need it to sustain myself. If I had land, I could earn money,” she adds,“also some dignity and status in the village.”

She stares at the ground. “Aamchijameenamhalamilalipahije (It’s our land and we must get it),” she murmurs.

And, then, suddenly, she bursts into “ladenge, jeetenge (we’ll fight, we’ll win).” It’s a slogan she learned and chanted at protests to reclaim the land.

4

She raises the slogan several times till other women from her neighbourhood join in.

Dwarkabai beams, a broad toothless smile.

***

Dalits in Sangola affected by land occupation for cattle breeding farm and by forest department

(Source: ASVSS study)

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