India File

No man's land: Dalit women in Maharashtra take on patriarchy, casteist forces to claim cultivation rights

Radheshyam Jadhav | Updated on January 28, 2020

Mangaltai Kamble remembers the day, at least 18 years ago, when she decided to take control of the small patch of village grazing land and cultivate it to feed her family. Villagers laughed at the illiterate Dalit woman and taunted her that she had gone mad.

“You want to become a farmer by cultivating barren land full of stones and weeds?” they asked and Mangaltai had no answer. The upper caste villagers in Ghargaon in Osmanabad district of Marathwada region were certain that Mangaltai would bang her head on stones in the grazing land and die in frustration.

Farmers who had hundreds of acres were not able to earn profit from cultivation owing to frequent droughts, which led to crop failures. Along with drought, news of farmer suicides had become ‘routine’ in the region. But gritty Mangaltai never thought of ending her life as an answer to poverty.

Mangaltai and Sunanda Kamble

She had the other two options. The first was to continue to reel under abject poverty and work as a farm labourer in the farms of landlords in the village who treated her and other Dalits with contempt as they were untouchables. Many Dalits worked as bonded labourers and survived on the leftover food of villagers.

The second option was to work and earn something for her family. She had one skill — cultivation. But there was no land to cultivate as, like other Dalits, she was a landless labourer. She decided to take control of the small patch of village grazing land to cultivate. Anyway, thousands of hectares of government land remained uncultivated and politicos had already grabbed much in the name of cooperatives and educational institutes.

Mangaltai wanted her husband Dashrath to take the initiative to get control of the land but he refused, fearing a backlash from the villagers. So she encouraged her neighbour Sunanda Kamble to join her. The duo marched to the village grazing land and measured the land with a rope and took control of about two acres each. They wanted to hire a tractor but the tractor owner refused to help them.

It took about a month for the duo to clear the land for cultivation. But the real challenge was to start cultivation. The drought-prone area of Osmanabad had meagre irrigation facilities and drought was perennial. They had no money, water or resources, for cultivation.

By then Mangaltai and Sunanda had encouraged other women to join them and take control of the land. They even formed self-help groups. During the monsoons, they relied on traditional knowledge to select food grain and vegetable seed varieties that would grow on less water. The target was clear. To grow to survive and ensure that their children don’t go to bed with their stomachs empty. Eventually, the menfolk too joined them.

Interestingly, this was not happening in Osmanabad alone. Dalit women in several other parts of the Marathwada region too came forward to take control of village grazing land for cultivation. As landless Dalits turned cultivators, (upper caste) villagers and local leaders turned furious. Dalit bastis were set on fire, crops were destroyed, and they used police force to throw the cultivators out of the land.

Adding fuel to the fire, a Dalit movement was started in the 1970s demanding the renaming of the Aurangabad-based Marathwada University after Babasaheb Ambedkar. Massive violence erupted in the villages and Dalits were at the receiving end.


We’re not ‘encroachers’

Decades after she took control of the village grazing land, Mangaltai distinctly remembers every moment of the struggle she and other Dalits carried out all these years. “We had no option other than to cultivate. We are human beings and want to live like human beings. The government can keep the land reserved for cattle. But what about human beings?” she asks in a resounding voice. “If men are not ready to fulfil their responsibilities, women should take the reins. Why depend on anyone when we know that we have to dare to do things,” she says. “I am not an encroacher. I have fought for my right to live with dignity and will continue to fight till my last breath.”

The land Mangaltai cultivates is still government land in the records and officials keep visiting her field, threatening to destroy the crop and insisting that she quit farming.

“Recently, the forest department wanted to clear our crop on the pretext that the government wants to carry out a plantation drive on the land. I stood in front of the JCB and told the driver not to move even an inch further,” says Sunanda. Another woman, Jijabai Kamble, was about to jump on the JCB machine as the driver looked set to enter the field. Soon, the officials had to withdraw.

For Mangaltai, Sunanda, Jijabai and other women in Ghargaon, land has become a symbol of resistance and development with dignity. “We don’t cultivate to earn a profit. We cultivate to earn a livelihood and educate our children,” says Sunanda. Lakhs of Dalits in Marathwada have become cultivators by controlling grazing land. However, they don’t get any benefits of government schemes meant for farmers, including loan waivers, crop insurance and compensation for crop damage. The government considers them encroachers.

But, as a matter of fact, the occupation of grazing land cannot be simplistically seen as an illegal act. From the pre-Independence era, the Dalits in Marathwada have been allowed to hold grazing land and cultivate it. The Maharashtra government made the holding legal in 1972, 1978 and in 1991. However, the majority of cultivators were left out of the legalisation process because they could not prove, in 1991, that they cultivated the land — they don’t get any legal documents including 7x12 extract, electricity bill, and registration of crop, insurance or compensation. Also, agitations by Dalits to demand land titles were not taken on police records. The government needs to conduct a survey and issue another Government Resolution (GR) that those who were left out of the legalisation process will be covered now and land titles will be transferred to them.

Fight for dignity

A few km from Ghargaon, Geetabai Gaikwad is clearing weeds in her field at Ranjanai village. She cultivates four acres of grazing land and says that it is only because of the land that she could educate her three daughters and a son. On many occasions, villagers have tried to destroy her crop by having cattle graze in her field, but Geetabai has not given up. She hopes that one day the government will issue the order and the patch of land will be transferred to her.

Rooted to the cause Geetabai Gaikwad in her field at Ranjanai village. Photo Radheshyam Jadhav   -  Radheshyam Jadhav


“When the government transfers the land, the land title must have my name as well”, she insists, adding that all these years she has fought for the land along with her husband. “Why should only men be the owners of the land when women have equal rights?” she questions. Cultivation has not only helped Dalits to free themselves of oppression and inhuman traditions but has also given confidence to Dalit women, she says.

“We have got freedom because of our land,” says Parvatibai Khetre from Jikthan village near Aurangabad. After the death of her husband, Parvatibai has been part of the land movement, and was jailed for holding agitations and staging a march for land rights. “Land has given us basic rights — social dignity and economic freedom. Now we don’t have to beg for work. Some of us still work as labourers but on our own terms”, she says, adding that because there are no resources, including water and government support, the majority of grazing land cultivators cultivate during the monsoon that is just enough to fulfil basic needs. “If we get support from the government like other farmers, we will do much better,” she declares.

Parvatibai Khetre and other women farmers


Women like Parvatibai have led the movement from the front. They have stood up to the violence unleashed by upper-caste men, the police and government officials. They cultivated barren grazing land and developed a successful model of farming with the help of natural resources and ensured a sustainable income for their families. Awakened women started questioning oppressive traditions and this came as a shock to Dalit men who could have never thought that they would have to face questions or consider them their equals.

In Dukde village, women asked their husbands why they (women members in the family) always ate last and that too in a subservient posture? “You cannot fight injustice by discriminating against your own women,” — this was the argument Dalit women put forward in their own families. Today, many of these women eat with male members of their families.

Kantabai Mulmule, another Dalit woman from Morwad village, defied the community diktat that bars widows from wearing jewellery or colourful clothes. She wears the bindi when she wants to.

“In the 1990s, when the land movement was rejuvenated by Eknath Awad, it was Dalit women who were at the forefront to take control of the grazing lands in villages and cultivate. Women formed self-help groups to support each other and they mostly relied on traditional organic farming to cultivate as they had no other resources. Today, we have formed the Savitribai Phule Mutual Benefit Trust to help these self-help groups,” says Vishwanath Todkar, one of the prominent activists in the Land Rights Movement in Marathwada region.

He adds that the land rights movement led by Dalit women has given them self-confidence and they are decision-makers in their family. The women who used to face all kinds of abuses when they went to work as farm labourers are today independent.

Dalit men admit that women in the community have led the revolution and men have got benefits from it. Youngster Dadasaheb Gaikwad, who has a degree in commerce, is one of them. He is the first graduate in his family. His grandfather and father worked as a sal gadi (labourer hired for a year in lieu of money). His grandfather took control of a grazing land in Diksal village and it changed the course of life for the next generation. “My elder brother has completed his Masters. We don’t have jobs, but yes, we are proud to hold degrees” he says, with beaming eyes. Dadasaheb wants to practise modern farming once he gets the title in his name. Dalits holding on to the land have stopped working as sal gadi, says Dadasaheb, adding that the system was no less than bonded labour.

Beed-based activist Ashok Tangde says that the Land Rights Movement has mobilised over 50,000 Dalit families to file claims of land title ownership. But the shadow of violence hovers over Dalit land cultivators as, in many villages, the village politicians and panchayat members are keen to ‘remove encroachment’ from government land.

The roots of the movement

Raosaheb Kasbe, a prominent scholar who has studied Dalit movement in India, observes that many North Indian States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have remained ‘backward, violent and victim of caste war’ and one of the main reasons for this state of affairs is that these States failed in land reforms.

There is a caste-wise division in these States where upper caste are landowners and lower caste are land labourers. The class struggle between landowners and land labourers has acquired the form of caste combat and Ambedkar was very much aware of the ground reality.

Ask Mangaltai or any other grazing land cultivator from where they got the idea of controlling grazing land and cultivate for livelihood and they answer, unanimously, “Amchya Babasaheba kadun” (from our Babasaheb).

On February 23, 1941, Ambedkar addressed backward class members in Tadawale (Dhoki) village in Solapur district. He castigated the Nizam of Hyderabad who ruled Marathwada during the pre-Independent era, questioning the socio-economic and educational backwardness of the backward class population in the region. Ambedkar gave the clarion call to fight for land rights, saying “Untouchable people are starving even as lakhs of acres of government land is lying (uncultivated)”. The conference approved the resolution seeking government-owned forest land for Mahars and Mangs (dominant Dalit communities in Maharashtra).

BS More, one of the Dalit leaders from the Marathwada region, had written to Ambedkar regarding rights for Dalits to cultivate wasteland owned by the government.

In 1953, Ambedkar wrote to the Nizam government’s Agriculture Minister in this regard, but there was no reply. He asked his followers to take control of the government land and start cultivating and the agitation started in the Marathwada region. By 1958-59, the movement spread to other parts of Maharashtra and women were leading the movement along with Dalit men. Many were jailed, with their children.

Activist Ashok Tangde claims that they have a record from Nizam’s archives which states that Dalits were conferred with grazing lands in Marathwada villages.

In 1964-65, Ambedkar’s confidant Dadasaheb Gaikwad launched a massive movement across India to claim government land for cultivation for landless labourers. Over 3,40,000 landless people were jailed across India. This was the biggest movement by Dalits in India after Ambedkar’s death in 1956. The movement came alive again in 1990 under the leadership of Eknath Awhad under the banner of Jamin Adhikar Andolan.

The stalemate

On August 14, 1972, the Revenue and Forests Department of the Government of Maharashtra issued a Government Resolution (GR). It mentioned the government survey which revealed that the government’s wastelands, forest lands transferred to the Revenue Department and the grazing lands were heavily encroached upon.

The survey also revealed that “Most of the encroachers belong to backward classes and are landless agricultural labourers who belong to the weaker sections of the society”. It added that almost all of the encroachers have no other source of livelihood, except the land unauthorisedly occupied by them. “Having regard to large number of encroachers who have occupied Government lands and the fact that they belong to the weaker sections of the society and have made encroachments out of economic necessity and will be put to a great hardship if their only means of livelihood is taken away, Government is of the view that a lenient view of the unauthorised action on the part of the encroachers should be taken”, added the GR. The government decided, “As the matter of grace the encroachments existing at present i.e. those made upto the 15th August 1972 on the Government lands vesting with the Revenues department should be settled as a special case”.

On December 27, 1978, the Maharashtra government decided that agriculture encroachments on government land which existed by March 31, 1978, should be regularised. However, between April 1, 1978, and April 14, 1990, about 1, 08,915-hectare government waste and grazing land was encroached by 84,230 backward class people, states the government record. In November 1991 the government issued another GR regularising these encroachments.

But the majority of them failed to provide any proof of cultivation and were deprived of the government’s scheme.

“Some of the grazing land cultivators have started cremating their family members on the land where they cultivate and are constructing small tombs. This is an effort to prove that they hold the land and would be proof if the government asks for it, of future generations” says Sunil Kamble, an activist in Osmanabad. “Recently we held a conference of grazing landholders. We plan to meet Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to resolve this issue,” said Vishwanath Todkar.

“If we are encroachers, what about politicos and bigwigs who have swallowed huge tracts of lands? I’m not going to give up my land. I’m going to die here,” says Mangaltai, who is ready to fight a long battle to claim her right to cultivate and live as a human being. She has not read Ambedkar’s writings but has imbibed his message ‘educate, organise and agitate’ which has reached her through songs of the Ambedkarite movement.

Published on January 28, 2020

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