We walk. For the good earth that is ours

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They have been waiting 5,000 years. They have marched thousands of miles. They are asking once more. Brijesh Pandey brings back stories from a historic march.

Photographs by Vijay Pandey

Forward march Jan Satyagrahis cross a bridge over the Chambal
Forward march Jan Satyagrahis cross a bridge over the Chambal

LATE ON THE evening of 9 October, the Ministry of Rural Development reached a 10-point agreement with the Jan Satyagraha, the March of the Landless led by the NGO Ekta Parishad. There would be a new law, the government promised, guaranteeing 10 cents (a unit of area) of homestead land to every landless and shelterless poor family.

Agricultural land would be transferred to landless people in economically backward districts. Rigorous implementation of PESA — the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act — was committed to, with the ministry agreeing to empower gram sabhas as per the authority given to them under the law. A task force on land reforms will soon be constituted — a partnership of government officials and civil society activists — headed by Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh.

Protection and assigning of land belonging to the landless poor and specific groups of deprived people — Dalits, tribals and nomads, for instance — is part of the agreement. So is the guarantee that vulnerable aboriginal groups, without proof of commencement of occupancy of a particular tract of land, will be exempted from furnishing such documentary evidence. The Forest Rights Act will be amended for this purpose.

That agreement brought to resolution the demands, pain and anguish of a year-long march that both crossed and shook the heart of India. It was one year; by another reckoning though, it had been 61 years. The roots of Jan Satyagraha go back to an early summer day in Andhra Pradesh on 18 April 1951. Acharya Vinoba Bhave, devotee of the Mahatma, was on a visit to the then (as now) strife-torn Telangana region. Visiting Pochampalli village, he asked local Dalits (or Harijans as they were then called) why they had taken to brutal violence. He interacted with 40 Dalit families, trying to understand their motivation. They told him of their pain. They had been promised land; if the government delivered on its promise, they would renounce violence.

Vinoba asked them how much land they required. The families asked for 80 acres: two acres per household, just enough for a home and a small farm. A rich landowner who was part of the crowd suddenly got up and agreed to donate 100 acres. This was the start of the Bhoodan (Gift of Land) Movement. Vinoba travelled across India, seeking Gandhian-style renunciation and parcels of land that the traditional rich would donate and transfer to the historically deprived. It became the largest such effort in history.

BIHARI SINGH, 65 MADAI KALA, UMARIA DISTRICT, MADHYA PRADESH  ‘We have been living inside the forests for ages. Now, the forest ranger wants to throw us out. They deliberately let stray cattle run amok in our fields and destroy our crops. They also beat and threaten us, saying that if we don’t leave on our own, we will be forcibly kicked out’
BIHARI SINGH, 65
MADAI KALA, UMARIA DISTRICT, MADHYA PRADESH
‘We have been living inside the forests for ages. Now, the forest ranger wants to throw us out. They deliberately let stray cattle run amok in our fields and destroy our crops. They also beat and threaten us, saying that if we don’t leave on our own, we will be forcibly kicked out’

What happened to that land? How did the story end? Sixty-one years later, on 2 October 2012, birthday of the Mahatma, Sargun Masomait, a 35-year-old tribal woman from Jharkhand, began marching towards New Delhi from Gwalior. She was part of a group of 40,000 people — tribals, Dalits, nomads, nowhere people with no land of their own, the wretched of the Indian earth, out to claim their dignity; or to reclaim it. Sargun’s family received 95 decimals of land ( just short of one acre) as part of the Bhoodan Movement — but she doesn’t know where it is.

“I have 95 decimals of land in my family’s name,” says Sargun, “but I don’t know where it is. I have the papers. I have approached the district collector, the SP and they assure help but do little. For the past five years, I am even paying revenue and getting a receipt for that. When I go to the collector, he says if the receipt is there then the land must also be there. He says he will help, but nothing has happened.”

A mother of two, Sargun is gritty and determined. This is her second march; she was part of a similar struggle in 2007 as well. For the organisers of the march, her story is telling. “Forget giving land to these people,” says Mrityunjay, one of the coordinators of the padyatra, “imagine the powerful landlords even usurp the land given to them by Vinobaji and the State does nothing. How crude can it get?”

LAGNI, 55 RAIMUDA, MAHASAMUND DISTRICT, CHHATTISGARH ‘Forty years ago, the government gave us some land for cultivation. However, 10 years ago, the sarpanch and the village mukhiya forcibly evicted us. I have approached the police, tehsildar and collector but nobody listens. In 2007, I had protested in New Delhi but nothing happened’
LAGNI, 55
RAIMUDA, MAHASAMUND DISTRICT, CHHATTISGARH
‘Forty years ago, the government gave us some land for cultivation. However, 10 years ago, the sarpanch and the village mukhiya forcibly evicted us. I have approached the police, tehsildar and collector but nobody listens. In 2007, I had protested in New Delhi but nothing happened’

The case of Sargun Masomait is symptomatic of what hundreds of thousands of tribals, Dalits and other landless people face all over India. These people are a stark reminder of the limits to notions of development. For them, State oppression is not distant, textbook trauma. Rather, it is an everyday and close-to-the-bone verity. The police officer, the forest ranger, the sub-district official — these are the local tyrants who have helped a neighourhood overlord grab their land.

And why is this land important? It is not necessarily because of its economic value — some of the holdings are too tiny for anything more than subsistence agriculture. Yet, the very ownership of this land, the ability to touch it, and play with the dust in her hands gives Sargun and many like her a sense of dignity and entitlement. These are people and families, remember, that have never owned land, not for 5,000 years of Indian history. That is why it is emotionally empowering for them.

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