Monday, 2 February, 2009

Dalits fight to reclaim their lands in Pallikonda panchayat

Dalit farmer Venkatesan, 31, recently reclaimed two cents of land his ancestors owned opposite the village temple, only to find the government cancel the patta, succumbing to pressure from upper caste groups in his village. A few kilometres away, Muniyamma, 65, a Dalit widow and a mother of five sons won back two acres and 10 cents of agricultural land that was her father's, after a protracted battle in the courts and a tense standoff outside. These are not isolated incidents but a case of Dalits uniting for their rights and rightful property in the face of a well-entrenched caste system that obstructs their attempts to rise up the social hierarchy.

For Venkatesan, a recent convert to Christianity who owns five acres of agricultural land and has donated 50 cents to build a church funded by Korean missionaries, the two cents of land at the heart of Agaram village for which he is waging an uphill struggle should not be so significant. But having grown up facing discrimination for being born a Dalit, his land opposite the Gangai Amman Kovil symbolises the open challenge he has thrown - both to the Hindu religion and the 300 family strong upper caste Naidus of the village. He has successfully mobilized his community of 45 Dalit families to stand up and protest. Unhappy with his hut coming up opposite the temple, the upper castes petitioned the government to cancel the patta on the grounds that he was unmarried and thus an unwelcome influence near the temple.

Though frail and infirm, the deep, hard lines around the eyes of Muniamma, a resident of Kadalaikulam village, tell us the story of a brave woman who returned from exile to reclaim her ancestral property. The original patta of her land, recovered by Dalit activists from the local village office, had her deceased brother's name on it and the A-Register had her father as the original owner. Muniamma had migrated to Bangalore unaware of the lands she owned until the patta was recovered. After a spirited court case, she took possession of the land from the Vanniyar usurper. But upper caste farmers surrounding her land blocking irrigated water; her lands are dry and yield nothing but a few mangoes. "Once the patta in my brother's name is transferred to me, I will take a loan for a borewell," Muniamma says. "My two acres of land will fetch above Rs.20 lakhs, but I have lived all my life without a land to call my own and I will never let it go."
Muniamma dug in and took her soil - now she needs to dig for water

At the neighbouring Karungali village, landless Dalits belonging to 75 families have united to press for their rights to a huge swathe of agricultural land, classified as Depressed Class land in the pre-Independence era, but now in the illegal possession of the Yadava community. Their demand for one acre of land per Dalit family from the available 150 acres that rightfully belongs to them is pending with the Revenue Department, while a civil case is being fought simultaneously in the courts. Their leaders Ravi and Magendran say that the Dalits' combined efforts will not end with the land reclamation and they plan to start co-operative farming once the land becomes theirs to cultivate.

A poignant example of the alienation of Dalits from their lands is the story of Kandhaneri village. The Dalits petitioned the Vellore district collector for a graveyard in 1995 after the existing 10 cent cemetery that stood on rocky land made the digging of further graves impossible. The government acquired 69 cents of land in 1997 from the village head, Sivalinga Gounder. However he refused to let go of the land, complaining that no compensation was offered to him but in reality he is yet to collect the amount. The Dalits went ahead and buried two of their dead with police protection in 2005. The Vanniyars responded in gruesome fashion by planting crops over the grave. An act the Dalits view as an insult because they treat their dead with the reverence reserved for gods. Ravi, the leader of the Kandhaneri Dalits says, "My father donated the land for the village school and water tank, which are used by all castes in the village.” What hurts Ravi and his people more than the civil authorities' refusal to evict the usurper, is the Vanniyar reluctance to repay an old favour.

Though aided in their legal struggles and democratic forms of protests by Dalit Mannurimai Kootamaippu, an organization active in Vellore and Thiruvannamalai, the success achieved by the Dalits profiled above is a tribute to their unflinching courage. Their fight against the humiliating and dehumanizing practise of the caste system continues while running the grave risk of injury and even loss of life. One step at a time, they are breaking down the barriers that hinder their progress, without losing the belief that their caste rivals will accept them as equals one day. Perhaps, this is why they refuse to take up violence. But one wonders how many more landless Dalits live in Vellore district slaving for others, ignorant of the fact that they once possessed land, while the land records which could prove their ownership catches dust and attracts termites in musty village offices.

P.S: Reporting done during a weeklong stay in Vellore district as part of course work.