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For Dalits, a landless tryst with destiny

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on November 13, 2020 Published on November 13, 2020

Keep safe: Ganpat Chavhan holds up the bronze badge of his father, who as village watchman got land from the colonial rulers in Achakdani, Solapur   -  IMAGES: NIHAR GOKHALE

Thousands of Dalits and other marginalised groups are fighting to regain land that was bequeathed to them by British colonial rulers and snatched away by free India

* Land grants for Dalits — known as Panchami lands — were made in Madras presidency under the Depressed Classes Land Act, 1892

* People from the Ramoshi and Dalit Mahar communities received land grants known as ‘Watan’ in lieu of salary for services to the colonial administration

* Researchers estimate that about two lakh hectares of land grants — roughly five times the area of Chennai city — were taken away in present-day Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh

Ganpat Chavhan emerges from a dirt track, riding a battered motorcycle, and skids to a halt on the dry, rocky soil. Shading his wrinkled face against the afternoon sun, he points to a flat surface ahead of him. “This was our farm. That was the well,” he says.

“And under that tree,” he adds, now pointing to a lifeless stump, “was where we children played while our parents worked the land.”

Chavhan, 76, belongs to the Ramoshi community, a former nomadic tribe in western India. Sometime in the 1940s, before Chavhan was born, the colonial British government granted Chavhan’s father a large tract of land for his work as the village guard in Achakdani in Maharashtra’s Solapur district.

The family grew food on 25 acres, Chavhan says, and achieved a level of prosperity not seen in generations. Elsewhere, too, thousands of people from the Ramoshi community and the Dalit Mahar community — who were considered among the lowest castes, the so-called “untouchables” — received land grants known as ‘Watan’ in lieu of salary for services to the administration.

The first such land grants for Dalits — known as Panchami lands — were made in Madras presidency under the Depressed Classes Land Act, 1892. Watan and Panchami land grants were a landmark in history as Dalits had been historically denied the right to purchase or own land, explains Sukhadeo Thorat, professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a former chairperson of the University Grants Commission.

In Achakdani village, land grants known as Watan were taken over by the forest department for a tree plantation drive, but the land remains fallow

 

After Independence, the state government of Bombay (the precursor to Maharashtra state) promised ownership title to all Watan land grantees. But few got the titles, even as the government reportedly took over the lands for public projects or individuals grabbed them. Chavhan’s land was taken for a tree plantation project in the early 1970s, pushing him into daily wage work.

Researchers estimate that about two lakh hectares of land grants — roughly five times the area of Chennai city — were taken away in present-day Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Today there are offices, shopping malls, and farmhouses on these lands, as research by the National Federation for Dalit Land Rights Movements shows, while people like Chavhan are daily wage workers.

For Dalit communities, it was lack of land that kept them in occupations that tied them to the caste system. For the formerly nomadic groups, right to land is the key to a better life. For both, land is a source of not just livelihood but also dignity.

In India, at least 60 per cent Dalits and 90 per cent nomadic groups still do not own land, according to the Socio-economic and Caste Census 2011 and the National Commission for Nomadic Tribes report in 2008, respectively. And the loss of Watan and Panchami lands post Independence has been seen as especially unconscionable.

“These are our own lands and yet we don’t have them,” says T Vincent Manoharan, chair of the National Federation for Dalit Land Rights Movements, which represents over 100 grassroots Dalit land movements in 14 states. The struggle to get these lands is a maze of paperwork and red tape.

The road to Chavhan’s village is dotted with the region’s well-known pomegranate farms and ponds built by the government to conserve water. These waterbodies rise from the ground like terrifying anthills, the shimmering water inside them all but invisible to a bystander.

When we arrive at Watan land, however, there is neither water nor pomegranate in sight. Dust rises over an arid landscape. Dirt tracks disappear behind thorny shrubs. Chandu More, the local Dalit land rights activist who is driving me in a Maruti 800, fumes every time he loses his way among the dirt tracks.

Chavhan, though, looks fondly at the landscape. I notice tears, but can’t tell if it is the sun. After a brief tour, we settle under the shade of a lone neem tree.

His father, Pandurang, ran errands for visiting British officials and, as the village watchman, wore a bright red uniform, complete with a cummerbund and a bronze badge that said ‘Rakhwaldar, Solapur’.

On the land granted to him, which lay fallow on the outskirts of the village, the Chavhans grew jowar (millets), matki (moth beans) and tur (pulses). Ganpat grew up playing in the fields, which he remembers as lush green.

They continued to farm the land even after the British left in 1947.

In 1958, the Bombay state government passed the Bombay Inferior Village Watans (Abolition) Act and transferred all Watan land to itself. It promised to “regrant” it to the grantees after they filed an application and paid a one-time tax. District collectors were directed to issue notices to the grantees and publicise the Act. In Achakdani, though, the Ramoshi and Dalit grantees — about 10 families, by Chavhan’s estimate — had no idea about the law.

An application filed for restitution of land by the descendant of a Watan grantee

 

One day, in 1975, government officers knocked on their doors. They said the government needed the land for a few years to plant trees and would return it, remembers 50-year-old Dhanaji Chavhan (no relation to Ganpat), whose father was another Watan grantee. He says none of them were sure if they had any right to object. “People thought it’s okay; anyway it was originally sarkari zameen (government land). Anyway they are going to return it after planting the trees.”

To earn a living, the grantees moved to work in brick kilns and sugar cane fields in the nearby Kolhapur district. Ganpat Chavhan went with his wife and two sons.

As he grew older, he was unable to continue with the hard labour and became a domestic worker in a large household in nearby Pandharpur town. His sons had no schooling and eventually became domestic help or construction workers.

Over the years, Chavhan and others tried to get their land back, especially whenever they returned to their locked-up homes in Achakdani for festivals. State politicians occasionally raised the issue, too.

But there was no sustained effort to press their demand as they busied themselves with earning a livelihood.

 

A soft-spoken man in his early 60s, Lalit Babar had grown up in a Dalit family in Sangola, studied up to college and worked in a bank in Mumbai. Around 10 years ago, he took early retirement and returned home to campaign for Dalit rights and Watan land.

Babar researched village land records and found that an estimated 945 acres of Watan land were in the name of government departments or private persons in Sangola alone. He estimates that in the Solapur region roughly one lakh acres of Watan land may have been diverted this way.

The government took advantage of the fact that the grantees could not read or write, Babar tells me from his one-room office in Sangola town.

People also felt unsure of raising any demands as they were still under the impression that it was a government grant, he adds.

Babar stresses that he does not know a single Dalit Watan-holder with a land title.

In Tamil Nadu, Dalits have faced a similar fate with Panchami lands. A state inquiry commission in 2010 stated that a seaside farmhouse used by former state chief minister J Jayalalithaa was built partly on Panchami land. In late 2019, the feature film Asuran about Panchami land sparked fresh debates and new allegations that the office of the opposition DMK party’s mouthpiece Murasoli in Chennai was also on Panchami land.

Yet, getting the land back has been an uphill battle.

In Solapur, Babar began mobilising Watan land grantees from 2011, and organised protests in Mumbai and raised the issue before government bodies such as the National Task Force on Land Reforms, which visited Solapur in 2013.

The movement wants to engage with the government and build awareness rather than filing expensive and time-consuming litigations, Babar told me. In Tamil Nadu, Panchami land grantees have held protests and, in some cases, forcefully occupied such lands.

Ganpat Chavhan heard of the movement in 2016 and began visiting the Solapur district collectorate, four hours away by bus, along with other grantees like Dhanaji Chavhan to seek help from the administration.

“They either tried to mislead us or didn’t understand the issue,” says Dhanaji. Help finally arrived in the form of one official who belonged to a farming family, he says.

This official advised the Chavhans to prepare family trees on affidavits, and find historical records.

They travelled to Pune’s state archives and retrieved copies of British-era Watan records. The documents were in Modi, a Marathi script in disuse since the 1900s.

Chavhan even made photocopies of the bronze badge from his father’s uniform.

In 2017, a tehsildar in the district headquarters wrote to Chavhan that the land was now with the forest department under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and could not be “diverted for other uses” without approval from the Central government.

The Chavhans are amused by this. The forest department had planted trees on the Watan land but did not maintain them. Only a few neem trees survived.

“If they wanted trees, they could have asked us to plant them,” Chavhan says. “Farmers here anyway do that.”

In 2018, Ganpat Chavhan moved back to Achakdani to ensure the movement did not lose momentum. “The government shouldn’t think that nobody is here,” he says. He works as a domestic help for a wealthy farmer in the village for ₹200 a day (the mandatory wage is about ₹400).

Chavhan spends some of the money on food, and most of it on tuition and books for his grandson, whose father, Chavhan’s eldest son, is a sand mining worker in Mumbai and cannot afford to support his child.

Chavhan hopes that if he can get the land in his name, his family can finally live together.

Nihar Gokhale is an environment and development journalist

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Published on November 13, 2020
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