New Delhi: As many as 116 Dalit farmers from Gujarat approached Chief Minister Vijay Rupani this week for protection over an alleged threat to their life from upper-caste “encroachers”.
The farmers, who belong to Rapar and Bhachau talukas of Kutch, allege that their upper-caste counterparts have, for 35 years, been preventing them from taking possession of land given to them by the state government for farming.
Tensions came to a head earlier this month when a Dalit sarpanch named Manji Solanki was murdered allegedly by members of the upper-caste Kshatriya community on 19 June. Solanki was allegedly targeted four times before the fatal attack, including a knife assault on 3 March 2018.
Solanki was given police protection after the March 2018 attack, but it was withdrawn two months later, on 17 May, and he had reportedly been appealing for protection ever since.
“Over the last one year, three Dalits have been killed,” Independent MLA Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit, said at a media interaction in Gandhinagar Monday.
“The latest being Manji Solanki, whose application for police security had been pending… I fear that the 116 Dalits from Rapar and Bachau from Kutch district may get killed if they try to take possession of their land.”
However, Kutch superintendent of police Saurabh Tolumbia said the situation was “not yet as serious as Jignesh Mevani is trying to project”.
“Though there are some problems, police can’t do much about them as the matter is primarily concerned with the collectorate and revenue department,” he added.
Land for the landless
Under the Gujarat Agriculture Land Ceiling Act 1960, the state government set a limit on the amount of land a person could own, and acquired surplus agricultural land from landowners for distribution among landless persons and agricultural labourers.
“Since 1983-84, the Gujarat government has allotted around 75,000 acres of land [under the Act],” said Neel Vinzuda, a Dalit farmer and member of the Kutch Zamin Wapsi Andolan, a body fighting to reclaim the land for Dalits.
“The land declared surplus under the Gujarat Agriculture Land Ceiling Act was primarily allocated to landless Dalits. Apart from this, more than 50,000 acres of surplus government land has also been allotted to Dalits,” he added.
“In many of these landholdings, members of upper castes have refused to leave… The lands officially under the names of Dalits are still under the control of upper-caste farmers, most of them Rajputs and Kathis, who ruled Saurashtra before Independence.”
“In many of these cases, Dalits are paying revenue to the government on encroached lands still being cultivated by landlords,” he added.
According to a report by India Today, the Gujarat government ordered an investigation in 1997 into complaints of big farmers keeping Dalits from cultivating the land allotted to them. The status of the inquiry is yet unknown, said Vinzuda, adding that “no action has been taken on the ground”.
The struggle for Dalits to reclaim the land has been long, and often bloody. In February 2018, Bhanubhai Vankar, a farmer demanding physical and legal possession of land allotted to Dalit families by the state government, set himself on fire on the premises of Patan collectorate.
Mevani, along with representatives of several land rights organisations, met Governor O.P. Kohli about the issue Monday. Speaking to the media later, he said the governor had assured them that he would take “necessary steps in the matter”.
The Gujarat government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is yet to issue a statement on the matter.
Babubhai Lakhubhai Jebalia of the BJP Kisan Morcha, the party’s farmer wing, said there was no threat to Dalits in Saurashtra or Kutch, adding that the community didn’t practise farming anyway.
“As far as land possession is considered, the land was allocated on the grounds of practising agriculture… If nothing had happened on those lands for a few years, the government would’ve taken it back anyway. So they have to present a fresh case rather than rake up such arguments,” added Jebalia, who hails from Botad district in Saurashtra.
Aarethiya Santokben Bhachubhai, a Congress MLA from Rapar, told ThePrint that “the issue of Dalit farmers not getting possession of land allocated to them is real”.
“We support Jignesh Mevani in this movement… The governor has assured action this time, but promises have repeatedly not been followed on the ground,” he said. “This time, if the government doesn’t take action, we will lead a statewide protest along with every other party supporting the cause.”