New Internationalist

The Frontline Village

Issue 081

Redistribution land can cause serious problems between one group of rural workers and another. NEERJA CHOWDHURY reports from an Indian village that has become a symbol of the struggle between castes.

The opposing sides.. Left: the Harijan spokesman Prabhuji, 'This ist he first time for centuries that our families have owned land.' Right: for the landowning Jats, Choudhary Ram Gopal, 'The land belongs to the whole village. Why should it be given only to 120 families?'

After an hour’s bumpy ride past mushrooming colonies outside Delhi, the e bus dropped us at Kanjhawla. The village wore a sleepy look in the mid-day August sun. Yet under the surface quivered an uneasiness the police posted at the entrance indicated all was not well. Turbanned peasants sat around the tea shop making desultory conversation. I could feel their suspicious glances following me as I made my way down the beaten path leading to a clump of huts. A fierce controversy has raged in this particular village since 1970 when 120 untouchables - now called Harijans - and other landless families were each given an acre of what had been common village grazing land. It was a decision of the administration in Delhi.

A volley of protest followed, led by the Jats, who are the dominant caste in the village. They formed a Kisan Sangharsh Samiti (Farmer’s Struggle Committee) and challenged in court the government’s right to distribute village pasture land to a few families.

In principle, the court upheld the Jat farmers’ contention, though the judgement was vague about what should be done about the land that had already been given to the 120 families. As a result, the verdict was interpreted differently by both parties. The Delhi Administration held that these families could not be evicted; the farmers maintained otherwise. Conflict resulted. Violent incidents occurred. The government sent a police battalion last year to Kanjhawla to ensure that the Harijans were allowed to till their newly-possessed plots of land.

In an obviously poor part of the village, I entered a home. A Young girl was sitting in the courtyard mending old clothes, flies buzzed around two buffaloes tied in a corner. I discovered later that Harijans are not even allowed to tie their animals outside their homes, so strong are the Jat feelings against them.

Without saying a word the girl motioned me to sit on a cot. In a couple of minutes other members of the family had arrived. It turned out that 75-year old Prabhuji, the elder of the family, was considered one of the leaders of the village Harijan community.

A family’s first land

‘This is the first time in centuries that our family has owned land,’ Prabhuji began. Traditionally Harijans used to drag dead animals from the homes of high caste Hindus, remove the hides and make shoes. But working with leather was considered a lowly job. As a result, they were shunned and treated as untouchables by other communities.

In order to acquire social acceptability they gave up this work - a movement that in fact started in Kanjhawla in the mid-forties and spread to other parts of the country. Prabhuji and his family started working as labourers in other people’s fields. With pride he told me that he visited Iran, Iraq, Syria and Egypt when he was in the labour corps of the Indian Army during the Second World War.

‘The land we have now acquired,’ he explained, ‘was only given to us on a five-year renewable lease which will come up for decision again next year.’ By now neighbours had crowded in, each one wanting t o have his say. All that could be heard was a babble of voices. Admonishing them with a gnarled forefinger, Prabhuji restored some semblance of order. But he could not quieten his wife.

‘The government could have regularised our land, instead of just giving it to us for five years at a time. We went to see Indira Ghandhi about it. We touched her feet. She promised to do it. But it was just words, words, words.’

With no implements of their own to cultivate their land, they have to depend on government tractors. But often the Block Development Officer (BDO), the local government functionary, sends it months after they have requested it, despite the fact that they deposit hire charges in advance. ‘For instance, the tractor came yesterday, when we had asked for it three months ago,’ complained Prabhuji, whose aged wife, son and daughter-in-law help him in the field. ‘By then it was too late. The land was completely dry and we could not sow anything, He added cynically, ‘The BDO is a Jat, after all!’

Prabjuji views with suspicion policemen posted in the village to help them. ‘They are here only for appearances sake, not to support us.’ Vividly he recalled the afternoon of July 7 last year when he was working in his fields. A band of Jars armed with rods came and beat him (and other Harijans) till he was unconscious. ‘The Deputy Superintendent of Police stood a few hundred yards away, his face averted. Despite our repeated efforts no case was launched against the culprits.’

He accuses the Jats of having bribed the police Pra bhuji slowly lifted his ‘ left arm and said ‘It is still sore’. Then he pointed to 25-year old Rajjo standing in the doorway, her face partly covered, but listening intently. ‘They broke her husband’s left leg.’

Initially the Harijans of Kanjhawla were not organised. Politically not very conscious, and fearful of the Jats who have 2,300 of the 3,000 village votes, they depended solely on the government to protect them. It was only after the Jats became militant that the Harijans also banded together to form a Struggle Committee of the Landless. Harijans from neighbouring villages all collected money and offered help. Kanjhawla has now become a symbol of a fight. Similar struggles are being waged in other villages of the region.

Jats arrive at Kanjhawli from all over India to offer non-violent protest. There are arrests every afternoon. Right: A Harijan family in Kanjhawla: 'Wehn will our lot be improved?'.

The Jats confer

Leaving the Harijan part of the village, I walked on, past the post office, to a building at the door of which swung a little board announcing ‘All India Kisan Sangharsh Samiti’. White clad Jats sat around perusing the day’s newspapers. Over the next half-hour the room filled up with weather-beaten men - farmers who had come from the neighbourhood to confer about the next phase of their struggle.

Choudhary Ram Gopal, Vice-President of the Samiti, took charge of the conversation. Pulling out legal documents and printed pamphlets in Hindi and English, the bespectacled farmer went over the intricacies of the legal battle they are fighting to evict the Harijans. For the last 18 months the Jats have offered non­violent resistance and have courted arrest every day. Every afternoon a bus awaits any number from a dozen to a hundred outside the police post to take them to Tihar jail in Delhi from where they are released four days later. Jats arrive from all parts of North India for the relay arrests.

Explaining their opposition to the distribution of land, farmer Choudhary said, ‘The land belongs to the whole village. Why should it be given to only 120 families? It should be equally distributed among all.’

A younger Jat was more frank when he said ‘It is better to give this land to the Jats who have the means to cultivate it. What is the point of giving it to people who dont even have implements?’

However, what was not articulated but lies deep in the Jat sub-consciousness is a prejudice against the Harijans. ‘How can these untouchables own and cultivate land which is our hereditary right? They are here to serve us; that is what they have done over the centuries.’

A symbol of status, wealth and power, land remains the most coveted possession. Yet nowhere has the failure of Indian Government been more striking in the last thirty-two years since independence than in land reform. Tension in the countryside today, previously attributed to caste factors, is also related to the land question. Caste and land can no longer be viewed as separate issues.

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