INEQUITY

The Great Betrayal of Bihar’s Landless

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It may yet return to haunt the country, this failure of Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan land reforms
Nobody living in squalid huts of split bamboo and thatched roofs on the banks of a deserted canal on the outskirts of Araria in Bihar will say it, but they are victims of one of the most eulogised land reform experiments carried out in India. This was an exercise led by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, a Gandhian far more effective as a leader than the present- day Anna Hazare.

Those of us who still read in history books of the famous Bhoodan (‘land-gift’) Movement of the 1950s and 1960s—a moral call to large landowners to donate some of their holdings for distribution among the landless—may find it difficult to believe how this experiment turned into a fraud that has left the intended beneficiaries its hapless victims.

“This is a nightmare. I want to go back home,” says Jagni Devi, an 80-year-old widow who lives in one of these huts, having fled her one-room tenement built on a small plot of Bhoodan land she had received nearly two decades ago. On 1 November this year, a local land mafia had demolished her house along with those of nine other Bhoodan beneficiaries— all of Scheduled Caste families—at Ambedkar Nagar, a locality of Araria. While some of the victims have sought refuge in makeshift huts along the banks of a closeby canal, others have left the area in fear of a fresh round of attacks by thugs who want to grab their land.

“The threat is real,” says Jagni’s son, Nathuni Mehtar, “but the administration is with Ajay Jha, who got our houses demolished.”

Ajya Kumar Jha is a local BJP leader and prominent contractor who operates in this region. Dalits of Ambedkar Nagar allege that it is Jha who is trying to grab their land. Despite several attempts, he could not be contacted for his comments for this article. Jagdish Sharma, district secretary of the Bhoodan Yagya Committee (BYC), the Bihar government’s wing that looks after the distribution of land that Bhave persuaded zamindars to turn over to the poor, minces no words in expressing his frustration. “Everybody knows that it was the handiwork of Ajay Jha, but the administration is not ready to take any action against him,” he says, “I am really frustrated by the way the Bhoodan movement has gone haywire.”

Ambedkar Nagar is home to some 74 Dalit families, all settled on Bhoodan land. During the late 1990s, the state government built one-room pucca houses here for 24 of these families under the Ambedkar Housing Scheme. Till recently, this Dalit locality was rather far from Araria town, but over the past decade or so, the town has expanded towards it, pushing up land prices. “For some time, Ajay Jha’s men kept telling us to vacate the land and go somewhere else,” says Dilip Mehtar, another victim. “But, as we refused to leave, they started threatening us. On 1 November, a JVC machine came and demolished ten houses as well as Ambedkar Nagar’s community centre. We went to the police, but they refused to register an FIR against Ajay Jha.”

It was only on 13 November, once the CPI intervened and started staging dharnas at the district headquarters that the local administration swung into action and imposed Section 144, declaring the locality’s land a disputed area. “Even this action was half-hearted, and was aimed at protecting the crime’s perpetrator rather than providing justice to victims,” says Dr SR Jha, district secretary of the CPI.

Though the local administration is yet to file an FIR against Ajay Jha, a deadlock has persisted with the CPI organising protest demonstrations relentlessly at the district headquarters.

“Not just Ambedkar Nagar, more than half the land of Jaiprakash Nagar [of which Ambedkar Nagar is a part], settled on 174 acres of Bhoodan land, is under the occupation of those with muscle power,” says BYC district secretary Sharma. He even submitted written complaints to the district administration in a specific case of occupation-by-force of over one acre by Parmanand Rishidev, the BJP MLA elected from Raniganj constituency in this district. “I gave my complaints as early as April this year,” he says, “But not even a notice has been issued to the occupier of Bhoodan land.”

It is amply clear that in Araria, land reforms have gone into reverse, far removed from what the original movement hoped to achieve. This district, however, is not an isolated case. Vinoba Bhave’s vision has come crashing down in most parts of Bihar, a state where the idea caught on back in those days.

Indeed, after Independence, few Gandhians in India have generated a movement with an effect as far-reaching as Bhave’s. The land acquired from landowners was supposed to serve as the basis for Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of Gram Swaraj—or ‘village republic’. Starting in the early 1950s, Bhave had walked all across the country asking people with land to donate a portion of their holdings for the sake of the landless. Many people responded to the call, but it is now becoming clear that not all of them were earnest.

In an interim report on Bhoodan land, the Bihar Land Reforms Commission, set up by the state government in 2007 under the chairmanship of D Bandhopadhyay, refers to an instance in which the Hathua estate of Saran tricked Vinoba Bhave by donating 100,000 acres of land by virtue of a simple letter, without any other formalities seen through. ‘That it was not folklore was confirmed by [the] District Gazetteer of Saran, published in 1959-60, which reported this incident,’ says the report.

It is no surprise that of the total figure of nearly 650,000 acres of Bhoodan land in the state, over 300,000 acres has turned out either unconfirmed (as in the Hathua case) or unsuitable for redistribution. “Of the remaining land, the Bhoodan Yagya Committee issued utilisation certificates to nearly 350,000 families,” says Bihar BYC Chairman Kumar Shubhmurti. “Of these, nearly 150,000 families still remain dispossessed [of] the Bhoodan land earmarked for them.”

The story of Bhoodan is not just of an experiment, but also of a scam of mega proportions, signifying the death throes of a movement that had once galvanised the rural landscape of Bihar.

“The bureaucracy failed this movement,” says Shubhmurti. “The Bhoodan Act of 1954, under which the Bhoodan Yagya Committee was formed, gives us only the right to distribute utilisation certificates to the identified beneficiaries. Neither do we have the power nor wherewithal to ensure that beneficiaries get control of the land earmarked for them. That is the responsibility of the bureaucracy, which is always apathetic to our demands.”

In its report, the Bandhopadhyay panel also noted that in different parts of the state, a constant complaint was that a number of grantees of Bhoodan land who had parchaas (utilisation certificates) did not have possession. ‘It came out in almost all the thirteen Jan Sunwais (public hearings) held in different parts of the state. It is one of the major causes of social tension which might aggravate itself into social unrest,’ the report says.

By no means is that the only reason for this Gandhian land reform experiment ending up as a fraud. At many places, the BYC itself acts more like a land mafia than an agency for rural empowerment. Take the case of Danapur, a village that is named so because it is on Bhoodan land (dan means donation). The Gandhian leaders associated with the Bhoodan Movement had thought that this village in Marauna block of Supaul district would emerge as a role model of Gram Swaraj. Today, Nirdhan Mandal, an 80-year-old who was one of the founder leaders of Danapur, has given up all hope in the vision of this village. “For long after it was settled in 1963, Danapur was frequented by prominent Gandhians of the time,” says Mandal. “All of them thought that this model village would act as a beacon to achieve Gandhi’s vision of Gram Swaraj. Back then, the gram sabha of Danapur used to meet every fortnight and settle all internal disputes amicably. The very year Danapur was settled, Vinoba Bhave came to Supaul and directed us on how to run this model village. It all seemed a dream come true. But the same people who were supposed to help the village actualise the dream turned greedy and ultimately ruined Danapur.”

Laxmi Chaupal, a Bhoodan farmer of Danapur, says: “Only bribery works in the Bhoodan Yagya Committee office. I paid a bribe of Rs 6,000 to obtain a true copy of my certificate, which I had lost. Many Bhoodan farmers in the village do not have any papers with them simply because they have lost them and are unable to pay bribes to obtain true copies. That is the norm in the Committee office. You pay them a bribe and they issue a Bhoodan certificate in your name. The Committee has become a mafia.”

Today, Danapur stands as a mockery of Bhave’s idea. At one time, it was a village at one with itself. Now the village is wracked by mutual distrust. The fortnightly meetings to settle internal disputes are long forgotten. The office of the village level committee that used to oversee local affairs in Danapur wears a deserted look. It doesn’t even have a signboard in memory of the village’s foundational ideals. Perhaps so disillusioned are its residents that nobody wants a reminder of that legacy. “Hardly a day passes without an eruption of a feud related to Bhoodan land,” says Chaupal. “Land is our life. If the situation is not controlled, something really serious may happen any day.”

Rambalak Choudhary, Supaul district secretary of the BYC, blames Bhoodan farmers for the demise of the land experiment. “The greed of Bhoodan farmers is the basic reason for its failure,” he says. “We don’t have any real power. Instances of forcible occupation of Bhoodan land are common among these farmers, but we can’t do anything to [evict occupiers].”

As in Araria, the forced takeover of Bhoodan land is rampant in Supaul. “Not just in Danapur, most of the Bhoodan land in Koni and Chandragarh (neighbouring villages) is occupied by the landlords of these villages,” says Nirdhan Mandal. “Koni village has over 50 acres of Bhoodan land that was distributed to landless farmers, but none of them could get possession. Similarly, nearly 100 acres of Bhoodan land in Chandragarh was distributed thrice, but the village landlords never let the identified beneficiaries till the land.”

Bihar is simmering. There is enough reason to fear the worst. Hunger, poverty and frustration among Bhoodan farmers may lead to social strife, which, mixed with rampant corruption in the BYC and local administration, may fuel violent outbursts. The irony is that preventing such tension was one of the original aims of the redistribution idea. “Bhoodan was a Gandhian movement that, in some senses, prevented a Communist movement from taking shape in Bihar,” says Hridaya Narayan Choudhary, president of Darbhanga District Bhoodan Farmers Union. “Unless there is a fresh people’s movement, Bhoodan is doomed.”

BYC Chairman Shubhmurti says things would have changed had the state government been sincere in implementing what the Bandhopadhyaya Commission Report called for. “One of the prominent recommendations of the Commission relates to the survey of Bhoodan land,” he points out. “The government has remained silent ever since the Commission submitted its report, fearing that it would upset the status quo in rural areas. Only now, four months back, did I get a letter from the state government asking the Bhoodan Yagya Committee to conduct a survey of Bhoodan land. How can we do that? We have neither the funds nor the machinery to conduct such a vast operation. So we are silent.”

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar may keep up his sound and fury on getting ‘special status’ for the state, but in the absence of redressal measures for the landless, it signifies nothing. The CM’s flip-flop on the Bandhopadhyay Commission, which he had set up in 2007 and whose report he consigned to the dustbin fearing a backlash of landowners, has proven that he is no different from his predecessors in this incapacity to offer a real solution for a real problem. He raised the expectations of the landless only to crush them, and this has had an impact on the countryside that cannot be ignored. The landless of Bihar are restive. Realising how they have been cheated, many are speaking up in response to a call for a renewed land reforms stir issued by the Left parties. Yet, the failure of Bhoodan is not just a story of Bihar. That it fares no better elsewhere was confirmed by Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh a few months ago. Talking to mediapersons in September 2013, the minister expressed concern over the missing records of around 2.4 million acres of Bhoodan land in various states—particularly Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. He also pointed out anomalies in the distribution of this land, saying only half of the total 4.8 million acres of Bhoodan land had so far been redistributed among the landless poor. It’s a sorry record indeed.

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