There can be no social change and revolution without addressing the livelihood concerns of Dalits.
With the 2019 general elections approaching, political parties have started making their final moves to woo Dalits again. This month, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cooked 3,000-kg Samrasta (or harmony) khichdi at its Dalit rally in Delhi, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) announced their alliance in Lucknow to keep their votes intact.
In this battle of devising a favourable caste arithmetic for winning elections, landlessness—a major issue for rural Dalits—seems to be missing once again from the electoral discourse.
According to Census 2011 data, a majority of Dalits do not own land and work as agricultural labourers—that is, 71 per cent of Dalit farmers work for wages on others’ land. In most districts of Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, more than 90 per cent Dalit farmers are agricultural labourers.
This means rural Dalits fail to gain from the benefits and concessions provided in successive Union budgets, since policies such as Minimum Support Price (MSP) are more likely to benefit farmers who own land, and not agricultural labourers. This reflects the social structure that prevails in rural India.
The distribution of land in Indian villages determines various social groups’ economic position and power relationship. Landlessness among Dalits has historical roots, as the caste system expressly prohibited them from owning land for centuries. It has left a majority of Dalits dependent on higher caste landowners. Not having their own means to survive makes them vulnerable to injustice and exploitation at the hands of powerful high castes in villages. Many are still restricted to dehumanising jobs such as manual scavenging, rag-picking and the disposal of animal carcasses.
Any opposition by Dalits to the atrocities committed by higher castes or deprivation, leads to ex-communication from villages and thus causes challenges to their basic existence.
The political mobilisation of Dalits, in the last four decades, has taught them to demand social recognition, call for equal respect—and given them a sense of identity.
Yet, despite being revolutionary in nature, the politics of identity has its limitations.
Even Gandhian movements like Bhoodan to Communist Party-led mobilisations have engaged with the issue of land, but they refused to recognise that it also has a caste dimension.
Academics Radha Sarkar and Amar Sarkar have noted in their article in the EPW that this line of politics has neither led to proper redistribution of land nor has it addressed ‘exploitative economic relations’ in rural India. More than 70 years after Independence, rural Dalits still have a long road ahead before they can enjoy economic empowerment.
Successive Congress governments in different states like Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh have made laws related to land reforms, especially land ceilings. During her tenure as UP chief minister in 2002, Mayawati had made attempts to bring ‘radical pro-Dalit land reforms under which stringent steps would be taken against illegal occupants of land allotted to Dalits and backward castes. In his election campaign in 2014, Narendra Modi had promised that the coming decade will be of Dalits, backward castes and tribals. But the data shows that all attempts and promises have failed to deliver a radical social change.
In his article Dalit Emancipation and Land Question, Ishan Anand used data from the 70th round of Land and Livestock Holdings Survey of the National Sample Survey Office to ‘throw empirical light on landlessness among Dalits and the availability of excess land for redistribution’. Anand’s analysis shows that ‘more than 75 lakh hectares of excess land is available for redistribution, with a ceiling limit of eight hectares’.
It expresses the need for another set of land reforms in India.
Need for land redistribution
The rural reality of India shows that ‘landownership has been a source of self-respect and a claim to respectful treatment from others’. Respect for Dalits can be secured only through ‘a direct intervention in the labour relations between them and other castes’.
Land redistribution, therefore, remains an important component of social justice. It is tied to the dignity of India’s most oppressed and marginalised communities.
In recent years, few have raised the demand for giving five acres of land to landless Dalit households as a means to resolve the crisis of rural livelihoods. While giving five acres of land to Dalit households will not completely resolve the crisis of rural livelihoods, it will provide an opportunity to the socially-deprived sections to move away from the oppressive rural structure—and prove to be an important step towards eliminating economic deprivation.
BR Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution, while speaking at the Constituent Assembly on 4 November 1948, had described the social structure in villages as ‘a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism’.
His words remind us that there can be no social change and revolution without addressing the concerns of the rural Dalits.
The state’s role in fighting this entrenched inequality is crucial. It is only then that Indian democracy can claim itself to be successful.
The author is an LLM student at Harvard Law School. He tweets at @anuragbhaskar_
This article has been updated to reflect additions to the author’s argument.