Assembly Elections 2017

Punjab: The Lonely Battles of Land and Limb

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Wooed but still orphaned, Dalits are not swayed by the mainstream parties. Rahul Pandita travels in the Malwa region to find out why

THEY SIT ON tattered durries with grubby shawls wrapped around them, trying to soak up what is left of the sunlight of a January afternoon. Though one speaker after another has addressed them for over an hour, the quiet within the gathering of a few hundred Dalit protestors outside the sub divisional magistrate’s office in Lehragaga in Punjab’s Sangrur district is quite inhibiting. Some of them hold yellow and red flags of the unions they are associated with, while others have their hands clasped around steel tumblers with sugary, lukewarm tea.

The man who usually gave voice to their anger is dead. Preetam Singh Chhajli of Chhajli village, part-time labourer, part-time tailor and part-time ‘kaamrade’, passed away during a similar protest a few days earlier. They had waited for him to get up and sing. But then they realised he had died, with his back resting against a wall. Now his body lies in the mortuary of the government hospital at Moonak village; it will be cremated, they say, only after the family receives compensation for his death.

“Many more would have joined us today, but they had to stand in queues outside ATMs,” says Balwinder Singh. Like his turban, his face is worn out too. In October 2016, the dominant Jutt Sikhs in his village broke into his house and severed his old, paralytic mother’s leg with an axe. He and his brother, Balbir Singh, had been leading an agitation for the legally sanctioned distribution of land to Dalits in their village, Jhaloor, which the Jutts resented. A few days later, the 72-year-old Gurdev Kaur succumbed to that grievous injury.

As Balwir Singh rises to address the protestors, the Aam Aadmi Party’s candidate from Lehragaga, Jasbir Singh Kudani, passes by with a group of supporters. They cross the rows of protestors gingerly, and then go canvassing from shop to shop. They do not as much as glance at the gathering. AAP’s Punjab Twitter handle says Kudani is a farmer and an active volunteer of the party. “He is a rich man who was with the Congress till a few months ago. Now, he is in the party of comedians,” says Balwinder Singh, alluding to two prominent leaders of AAP who are former comedians: AAP’s MP from Sangrur, Bhagwant Mann, and Gurpreet Singh ‘Ghuggi’, the party’s candidate for the Batala Assembly seat.

Though Jhaloor is peaceful currently, there is too much tension, says Dev Singh. He is from another village, Balad Kalan, and was badly injured in the Jhaloor attack. He walks with a limp towards a square of sunlight, shivering. “Doojaa chaurasi thha, ji (It was a second 84),” he says, equating the brutal assault on them in Jhaloor to the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi. “Just that they did not put tyres around our necks and set us afire.”

IT IS IRONIC that a Dalit would feel a ‘chaurasi’ redux in a state that’s the citadel of a religion established to unshackle ‘maanas’ (humankind) from the chains of orthodox Hinduism and identify everyone as a single caste (jaat) of humanity. Perhaps more ironic is that Dalits in Punjab would face the repression of Jutts, a backward community which was accepted into the Sikh fold during the time of the faith’s fifth guru Arjun Dev. Jutts had begun to exert control over land from the early 18th century onwards, and during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time, in the glory days of the Sikh Empire that extended from Afghanistan to Tibet, they consolidated their power. Under the British Raj too, the community did well. One of the laws at that time, which forbade non-agricultural castes to own land, helped them steadily ascend the socio-economic ladder.

In the late 19th century, several land movements broke out in Punjab. Prominent among them was the Muzara movement in the then princely state of Patiala, aimed at freeing fertile tracts from the grasp of biswedars (landlords) and distributing it among muzaras (tenants). The movement gained further strength when Communists from the British-ruled Punjab joined it. By the late 40s, the Communists had created armed squads to come to the aid of muzaras wherever required.

The Green Revolution of the 60s also helped Jutts since they were the ones who could afford new agricultural technologies. The Dalits of Punjab remained mostly landless, depending more and more on dominant castes for their livelihood. Today, Dalits constitute about 32 per cent of Punjab’s population, the highest proportion in any Indian state. Over the past few decades, they have been empowered significantly, and a new educated class has risen among them (their literacy rate in the state rose from 41.1 per cent in 1991 to 56.2 per cent in 2001, and has grown since). This is true of other parts of the country as well, but when it comes to land ownership, the situation has not changed much; today, Punjab has the highest number of landless Dalits in India; only 5 per cent among them own land. As the scholar Nicolas Martin has pointed out, high levels of urbanisation have opened up other opportunities for Dalits. But unlike in, say, the Doaba region of Punjab, where international migration has brought new money, in villages of the Malwa region (of which Sangrur is a part), Dalits are still mainly labourers, both agricultural and non.

The state’s Hindus are mostly a trading class and a majority of them live in cities. Jutts dominate villages, and with increasing political consciousness among Dalits, the two communities have been at loggerheads with each other, especially in Malwa.

Across villages in Punjab, there are two types of common land: nazool, which belongs to families who left this part of Punjab during Partition and of families who have no descendants, and shamlaat, owned by panchayats, which adds up to 154,000 acres. Through a regulation act passed in 1961, one-third of this land in every village has been reserved for Dalits. They can take this land on lease through auctions held every year in April-May by the local administration.

CPI-ML said I have joined AAP because of money. I told them I spit on money. Then they said: don’t criticise us

But the ground reality has seen almost no change. The panchayati land, including the reserved portion, has stayed under the control of dominant castes. Even at places where auctions did take place, Jutts often put up dummy Dalit candidates to bid for the reserved land on their behalf. Since these agents would raise the bid prices, other Dalits found the land out of reach, and once a dummy bidder won, control would silently pass on to a Jutt landlord.

Balad Kalan village, on the Patiala road in Sangrur’s Bhawanigarh tehsil, has a long history of Leftist mobilisation—both radical and mainstream. In one corner of the village, a small memorial for Jaspal Singh stands along the boundary of his brother’s farm. He and his other friend from the village, Pawan Kumar, were killed in 1971 at the height of the Naxal movement.

In Balad Kalan, Dalit villagers had been putting up a legal fight for their share of land since 1984. Kaka Singh, 80, remembers that time. “The Jutts were taken aback; they never expected we would go to court,” he says. In order to placate them, they were offered a little of the panchayat’s 375 acres, of which about 125 acres legally belongs to the Dalit community. But they did not relent. “In those days, throngs of activists would come here. To feed them, my mother would borrow wheat from the landlords,” recalls Dev Singh. For every 40 kg of wheat, Dalits would have to return 60 kg to the landlord within six months. But the hold of Jutts on the land remained intact. The case finally came up in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and in 1996 it ordered that both parties stay away from this land. Eight years later, the stricture was lifted, but the land stayed under Jutt landlords who would field dummy Dalit bidders—often alcoholics or drug addicts—to retain their hold.

It was in 2014 that the villagers of Balad Kalan heard of the Zamin Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC), a collective of Left activists leading a movement to reclaim land meant for Dalits. The struggle had begun in 2012 from Seekha village in the neighbouring Barnala district where a few student activists got together and captured seven acres of nazool land. Buoyed by this success, others joined in and the ZPSC was formed in 2013.

In many villages, the Jutt repressor is not a big landlord but a medium-sized farmer. “We call them dhanaads—people who may not have big land holdings, but are able to wrest control of land through political means,” says Sukhwinder Pappi, a ZPSC leader.

In Balad Kalan, thanks to the ZPSC’s efforts, Dalits were able to take hold of most of the reserved 125 acres of panchayat land. But the struggle has not been easy. In 2014, when the police and local administration tried to keep Dalit families away from the auction site, allowing only dummy candidates to be present there, clashes erupted in which the protestors were beaten up; 39 men of the Dalit community and two activists of the ZPSC were arrested and imprisoned for two months.

The auction, which was held at the office of the Block Development Panchayat Officer (BDPO), was a complete farce. Of the 144 Dalit families, six colluded with Jutt overlords. One of them was a man called Omkar Singh who bid Rs 14 lakh for a farm. It later turned out that he had a ration card meant for people living below poverty line. The ZPSC made him partially withdraw his bid and he got only half of what he had first asked for.

Since the administration had to concede defeat, Balad Kalan became a symbol of resistance. ZPSC activists say that their movement alarmed some Ambedkarite groups, and even the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose workers campaigned against them in villages. “They came to Balad Kalan and asked Dalit villagers why they are allowing a Brahmin like me to lead the protests,” says ZPSC leader, Mukesh Malaudh. “But I spent two months with them in jail, which nobody from the BSP has ever done for them. And the poor villagers recognise this.”

In 2016, the ZPSC launched an agitation to reduce bid levels. This led to another bout of violence. But the Committee was able to claim the land again and has now formed a local branch to oversee community farming operations. “This is such a big relief,” says Charan Singh, one of the Dalit villagers in Balad Kalan who was once a sarpanch from the Akali Dal. Since the community grows food grain and fodder now, its womenfolk no longer have to go to Jutt-owned terrain to feed their cattle. “Our women would get up in the morning and hold their forehead in frustration at the prospect of venturing into their fields. They had to bear so much abuse and harassment. Not anymore,” says another villager, Pal Singh. The movement has now spread to 100 villages in Sangrur alone, but has been successful so far in 40 villages.

The 250 Dalit families of Jhaloor village do not own any land. The panchayat has about 50 acres, of which over 16 acres is reserved for them. In May 2016, ZPSC activists thwarted three bids to conduct fraudulent auctions of this land. Afterwards, a forced auction of six acres was conducted by the local administration and the tract was allotted to a dummy Dalit candidate. This only intensified the protest, with Dalits and ZPSC activists uprooting the paddy seedlings sown by the actual landlord.

Clashes broke out in Jhaloor village on October 5th, 2016. As Dalits raised their voices against tyranny, Jutts retaliated with brutal assaults on them. Over 40 Dalits suffered injuries. Since Balwinder Singh and his brother Balwir Singh were at the forefront of the protest, their mother was made to bear the brunt of Jutt wrath. With a leg axed, she died on November 11th last year.

In 2014, when the administration tried to keep Dalit families away from the auction site in Balad Kalan, clashes erupted in which the protestors were thrashed and 41 were imprisoned for two months

The land in Jhaloor still remains out of Dalit reach. But this April, it will be up for bidding again. “There will be more violence,” fears Sukhwinder Pappi. “Many of us have sold off our cattle since it is no longer possible to go to the fields of dominant castes and collect fodder from there. Many have shifted to cities to find work,” says Balwinder Singh.

Dalits across these villages are planning to press the NOTA (none of the above) button on voting machines in the upcoming polls. “All parties have only used us. When it comes to the issue of land, they only serve the interests of Jutts,” he says.

IN THE NEIGHBOURING Mansa district, Bant Singh also feels used. He sits outside his small house in Burj Jhabbar village, behind him a cemented wall on which he has for years scribbled phone numbers of his erstwhile comrades from the Communist Party of India (Marxist- Leninist)-Liberation. He does not need them now.

From where he sits, Bant Singh, who is on a wheelchair since a fierce attack on him by Jutt men eleven years ago, can see a man-size cardboard figure of the Akali Dal chief, Parkash Singh Badal, which hangs from the balcony of a supporter just a few metres away. Right in front of him is the house of a Left supporter who has hung a party flag atop his boundary wall. In response to these signs, Bant Singh has made his daughter put a banner with a smiling Arvind Kejriwal on top their house. Bant Singh, ex-comrade, is now a member of AAP. He says he is done with his erstwhile party. “They sucked my blood with straw. Now that there is no blood, they have withdrawn their straws,” he says. After he left the party, he says, several of its activists have been congratulating him for his decision.

In 2007, a year after he lost both his hands and a leg to the attack, Bant Singh bought a bigger piece of land in the village from his uncle. The land, measuring 15 bighas, stands in a corner of the village, bordering another village. Bant says when he built a boundary wall, it blocked a thoroughfare leading to the house of a local Akali Dal leader, Beant Singh. The two have a history. When he lay badly injured in the fields that January evening in 2006, his assaulters had called up Beant Singh, asking him to pick him up. “He did pick me up and we stayed friends. But once I bought this land, he ensured that my land does not get registered at the local land records office,” says Bant Singh.

About five months ago, the boundary wall was demolished and three bighas of land were taken away from Bant Singh. Beant Singh alleged that Bant Singh had illegally occupied extra land, which Bant denies.

AAP had begun to approach Bant Singh in April 2016. On April 14th, according to him, Kejriwal wanted him to come to Delhi and receive a cheque. “Their MP Bhagwant Mann called me and said he is going to send over a car to take me to Delhi. I consulted my party leaders who asked me not to go. So I didn’t,” says Bant. “If they ever said, ‘Don’t take a piss,’ we wouldn’t,” says Bant’s wife, Harbans Kaur, who sits next to him on a string cot.

For years, party leaders went with him to functions and events, wherever he was called. A few years ago, says Bant, he was invited to Mumbai. A leader of the CPI-ML’s student wing went with them. There, says Harbans Kaur, they were given a gift pack each, one for them and the other for the student leader. “When we returned, we found that our packet was empty. The student leader had taken away the gift inside. I am an illiterate, but the image on the box looked like that of a camera,” she says.

There were events where the organiser would say that only Bant Singh or his son or any other close relative could come. Bant accuses his erstwhile party leaders of impersonating his relatives and receiving cash on their behalf. “From all such events, we only got appreciation letters,” he says. For ten years, says Bant, the party used him by taking him from place to place, from stage to stage, drumming up support for themselves. “But when it came to helping me, they did nothing,” he says. The final straw came in July when he attended the funeral of a farmer who had committed suicide. When he asked the party members there to look at his case, one senior CPI-ML leader told others that they should let him “bark” and then ignore him. “Mera dil toot gaya (my heart broke),” says Bant.

It was around that time that AAP’s local nominee, Najar Singh Manshahia, approached him again. “He told me that Kejriwalji was very keen that I join the party and canvass for them,” says Bant. But later Manshahia came back and told him that the party was thinking of asking two of the accused in his assault case to join as well. “He told me that for victory, the dominant votes were also important and that the accused wielded influence in many villages. I understand the limitations of electoral politics and told him that I had no objection,” says Bant.

A few hundred metres away from Bant Singh’s home, Navdeep Singh is at home, talking to his lawyers on the phone. He is one of the seven accused in Bant Singh’s assault case. All seven have been convicted by a local court in the case (and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, of which they have already served four), but have now put up an appeal before the High Court against the sentence. They are currently out on bail. Recently, Navdeep filed a defamation case against five TV channels and two newspapers for reporting that he was an accused in the rape case of Bant Singh’s daughter (which happened in 2002; three accused in this case are already serving life imprisonment). On December 25th, minutes after Navdeep and his other friend Harpinder joined AAP, they were expelled by the party leader, Sanjay Singh, who claimed he had no idea of their background.

Navdeep says that it is all a lie. “Manshahia came to me and asked me to join. He said he has spoken to the high command and that Kejriwal knows about it,” he says.

AAP’s initial plan was that Bant would join the party at its office in Mansa while Navdeep and Harpinder would be signed up on stage at a local function held in a community hall. But later, Bant was also taken to the event. While his two assaulters joined the party, Bant was made to wait at the entrance of the hall where a siropa was finally offered to him to mark his acceptance by the party. Later, when the media raised questions, Sanjay Singh denied any knowledge of all this.

Navdeep claims that on stage that evening, just before he was inducted, Sanjay Singh asked him where Bant Singh was, to which he replied he did not know. “Sanjay Singh and all other leaders knew very well who we were,” says Navdeep. Later in Chandigarh, Sanjay Singh publicly snubbed Manshahia who tried to open his diary to show him the exact date on which he had spoken to him about the two assaulters. “My people were there and so were eminent Punjab faces like HS Phoolka and Ghuggi. But none of them was consulted on this matter,” he says.

Navdeep has earlier been the district youth president of the Congress party. His mother is currently the Congress sarpanch of Burj Jhabbar. She got 748 votes while her CPI-ML opponent got just 74. There are 400 Dalit votes in the village. In 2008, the man elected the village head was the father of the two others convicted for Bant Singh’s assault, Jaswinder and Yadwinder.

Back in Bant Singh’s house, someone asks him if he thinks he will be used by AAP the way CPI-ML did. “I am an illiterate,” he says. “I know how to fight and how to sing. And I will keep doing that.”