Reversing reforms?

Print edition : October 21, 2011

In Haroa, North 24 Parganas, armed gangs backed by policemen raided peasant homes soon after the elections. They set fire to "alaghars", little bamboo huts erected over waterbodies of fisheries to prevent theft. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The beneficiaries of the land reforms in West Bengal get pushed out of their land under the new regime.

MOGHAI MUNDA is dead. No one is there to mourn him but his distraught parents and his young wife who seems to have lost her power of speech. But it is a significant death, even if it is ignored by the ubiquitous media and, therefore, by the world at large. Like the tip of an iceberg, it enables us to measure the immensity of the change that has taken place and is still going on in West Bengal after the Assembly elections.

Moghai Munda belonged to the Adivasi village of Harapur, Panchshotopara, in Sonarpur, South 24 Parganas. Adivasis in this area were closely associated with the land reform movement of 1967-69 led by the Kisan Sabha and had, for all these years, retained their hold over the agricultural land their families had been tilling for several generations. The land had been vested and their rights recorded, but they had not yet obtained their pattas. According to Bikash Munda, the panchayat pradhan, nine and a half bighas of alienated land had been won back in a lawsuit by two Adivasi brothers, Rajan and Sajan, from one Shashibhushan Naskar in 1972, but in spite of being in possession of a court order, they were forcibly made to surrender this land in the same year. They recovered their right to till the land during the Left Front regime, but the dispute persisted. Now, with the political change in the State, the heirs of the erstwhile jotedars are keen to get the land back. The Adivasis of the area say they have been receiving threats. They also allege that people hostile to them have been gathering bamboo sticks, shovels and choppers at a local quack's dispensary in preparation for an attack.

On June 15, there was a scuffle between Ajit and Robi, cousins of Moghai, and a neighbour, Gopal Naskar, and his family, over putting up a boundary around a small piece of land. Soon after, Gopal Naskar allegedly gathered a crowd of 50-60 Trinamool Congress workers from nearby villages. Armed with the weapons collected at the dispensary, they entered the Adivasi neighbourhood of Panchshotopara and started beating up men and women and pulled down mud walls of the houses. In the words of Kakoli Munda, they came like a sudden storm and wrecked everything in five minutes.

Moghai, who had just returned from the field and hardly knew how matters stood, was set upon by several men who beat him up brutally, threw him into a pond and went on beating him with sticks and shovels until he lost consciousness. Three other people, including a woman, were severely injured. Other women, including Moghai's elderly mother, were abused and physically threatened. The men went into hiding but the women came back later in the afternoon. Moghai was rescued by some women and was later taken to Chittaranjan Sebasadan Hospital in Kolkata, along with the other injured persons.

The police visited the site of the attack that afternoon and recorded the statement of both parties, but nobody was arrested. Stories were circulated alleging that the fight was one between drunken members of the Munda community. Gopal Naskar's family lodged a case of snatching ornaments, not just against Ajit and Robi, but even against Moghai. The assailants, with whom some members of the erstwhile jotedar family had been associated, planted Trinamool flags on the nine and a half bighas of land that was in dispute and another two and a half bighas tilled by Adivasis.

LAND REFORMS IN West Bengal led to extremely high levels of agricultural growth in the 1980s. Here, farmers cleaning paddy at a village in Kuntighat, some 50 km north of Kolkata, in November 2009, ahead of Nabanna, a harvest festival.-DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP

Moghai came home a few days later. But he had sustained kidney injuries and had to be readmitted to hospital with fever. He died in hospital on July 28. An FIR was lodged again after Moghai's death and a post-mortem examination was conducted. Since he had been discharged from hospital before he was readmitted, the case will depend largely on earlier medical reports. As for the land that is in dispute, the Adivasis were unable to gain access to it when we visited the area.

The incident is not unusual, but it is important because it signals a changed situation in more ways than one. A very large number of roughly similar incidents take place today all over West Bengal, transforming the State's overall landscape. In the villages covered in this study in North and South 24 Parganas, Burdwan and Birbhum districts, we found that the Adivasis and the Scheduled Castes, who were the major beneficiaries of the land reforms of the Left Front regime, are now the most vulnerable to eviction. Muslim pattadars were scarce in the places we visited, except in Burdwan, but there are many media reports showing that they, too, are getting evicted in large numbers. A major part of the land that was vested during the previous regime was distributed to the landless, and pattas were given to them. But in some places, those who had been tilling the soil for generations could not be given pattas because of ongoing litigation. But, as we found in Haroa in North 24 Parganas, the court recognised their right to till the land even while the case was sub judice. Now pattadars, and of course those who do not have pattas for the land they are tilling, are being targeted. They had been safe in the earlier regime.

In many places, bargadars are also affected. In Kakutia in Bolpur block, Birbhum district, we were told that 12 bighas of rayati land owned by a man in Bagdipara had been given in barga. But now that land has been taken over forcibly by local Trinamool men, the registered bargadars have no access to the land. Santosh Dhara and his brothers in Jankar village in Burdwan had inherited barga rights from their father on seven bighas of land. When working on this land recently, they were attacked with sticks and hatchets by 50-60 TMC men. Santosh Dhara and his wife were severely injured. Abdus Sukur of Burdwan told us that the small plot of rayati land owned by him had been taken away and given to a man who owned more than one acre (0.4 hectare) of land.

Such illegal redistributions after forcible occupation are rampant, as we found in Barorpara in Mahadebpur mouja (revenue unit) in Burdwan district. All the people who possessed the land in question after about 200 legitimate pattadars had been evicted had already been in possession of more than four or five bighas of land. But here, and in other districts too, poor landless persons from other villages are being inducted by the assailants in their teams and made to till the occupied land with the legally untenable promise that they will be given pattas.

The affected persons with whom we spoke in the four districts were invariably very poor. The small plots of land for which they had received pattas provide only supplementary incomes. For a part of the year, they work as agricultural and non-agricultural workers. The patta land is only an insurance against absolute poverty. In Haroa, after the harvesting season, the inundated land is used for cultivation of fish. The pattadars here lease out the land for a part of the year to other local people who run fisheries.

Atashi Mondol, Bimala Sardar, Parul Munda and Pano Sardar from Banstola village in Haroa said that they worked alongside their men to till the patta land. For the rest of the year, they collect crabs and shrimps from the inundated land and sell them. Their families had the land vested in their names after a long struggle only in the 1990s, and they got pattas in 2000. Earlier, after harvesting the single crop, the women had to migrate to other parts of the district, even outside; but in the last few years, according to them, the need for migration had declined. Since July 9 this year, in Tentulia mouja alone, the entire vested area consisting of 1,265 bighas, including 508 bighas given in patta to 1,205 peasants, has been occupied by armed gangs carrying TMC flags and backed by the police. Altogether 3,000 peasants tilling the land have been evicted in this mouja. Similar evictions have taken place in the neighbouring Nebutola Abad mouja and Munshirgheri mouja; in the last mentioned, Adivasis are in the majority. One woman told us: What can we do? We must starve or start migrating once again.

Wherever we went, we asked our respondents about the identity of the intruders. Were they from the same village? Were they strongmen employed by the erstwhile owners of the land? Did they have any political identity? To the last question, the invariable answer was that they came with Trinamool flags and planted them on the occupied land. To prevent retrieval, armed men kept watch over the bheris (fisheries) near Chhowani Bazar in Haroa where we met the peasant women. Here, since land reforms had taken place late, things had not settled down and the jotedars often sent their henchmen to create trouble. After the last elections, they are backed by Trinamool contingents.

In Kakutia, Birbhum, the situation was different. We were assured by the villagers that the area had always been peaceful. The jotedars lived in Burdwan and the villagers were not even sure whether they had a hand in the latest trouble. The troublemakers were local men empowered by the new political equations. In Bagdipara, a woman told us that one Abul Rahim came with a tractor and intruded upon her family's land, telling her to push off; if she wished she could till a plot on the other side. But since that land was unusable, she has been now deprived of her means of livelihood. Generally, when occupation takes place, armed outsiders lead the gangs; but often, as in Sonatikuri in Bhangar, South 24 Parganas, familiar faces from nearby villages swell the ranks of the intruders. As one peasant told us, the Trinamool is creating divisions among the poor, inciting one section to deprive another of its established right to the land through illegal occupation.

What is the role of the police and the administration? It varied from one place to another. In Kakutia, people ran indoors when they saw our car, thinking we were from the police. They would not come and speak to us fearing that they might be arrested. Most of them refused to give us their names. The story we heard is that since some local Trinamool strongmen were trying to displace legitimate pattadars, the villagers had represented to the BLLRO's (Block Land and Land Reforms Officer) office asking that the measurements of the land may be taken again. On the day when this work was going on, an armed gang led by the strongmen started throwing bombs and crackers on the field, disrupting the work. But when their ammunition was exhausted, the villagers caught two of them and gave them such a sound thrashing that they had to be hospitalised. The police, who had not interfered so far, now swung into action and arrested 19 persons from the village, although according to the villagers only one of the arrested persons had been named in the FIR. When we visited the village, many of the adult males named in the FIR were still absconding while those who had started the trouble went scot-free. Meanwhile, the land in question, about 25.5 bighas, was either lying fallow or being tilled by people who had no legal title to it. In some cases, since the pattadar was absconding, the land lay uncultivated.

ILLEGAL REDISTRIBUTION Of land has been taking place in Burdwan on a large scale. Here, a CPI(M) supporter's home after an attack.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In Haroa, the collusion of the police with the forces of eviction was more blatant. Here, soon after the election results were out, armed gangs recruited by the Trinamool, with the active support of some local jotedars, started infiltrating the area under the pretext of recovering contraband arms; they were supported by a huge police force and the Rapid Action Force (RAF). After being unable to find any arms, they set fire to the alaghars (little bamboo huts erected over the waterbody of the fisheries to guard against theft), damaged whatever property they could and took possession of the bheris. The peasants, unprepared and unarmed, could not resist this onslaught. But a few days later, desperate because the season for cultivation was passing, they came out in large numbers and tried to occupy the land that was theirs by right. The intruders initially retreated, but they soon returned with six vehicles filled with armed police to back them up. According to the women, many of whom were standing by, both the police and the members of the armed gang immediately started shooting and in the melee three Adivasi peasants, Kanai Sardar, Bonko Sardar and Saharab Sardar, got injured, allegedly by bullets fired by Trinamool men. The peasants told us that they would have succeeded in recovering their land that day if the armed police had not intervened. False cases have been lodged against a good number of them. Only four persons were arrested on the complaint of the peasants, and they were released the next day.

In Sonatikuri, the Kisan Sabha was much more active and it extended support to the 150 peasants who had been evicted from about 400 bighas of land for which they had pattas. About a couple of weeks after the initial occupation, the peasants marched in strength, armed only with bamboo sticks, and recovered their land, although cases were lodged against a large number of them. They, accompanied by a strong contingent of women, also gave a representation at the police station.

A second attempt to evict them forcibly was also resisted, and this time the police intervened and both sides were called to the police station. Then the BDO also called both parties, heard the deposition of the peasants, and gave the verdict that those who had pattas must be allowed to till the land. The peasants of Sonatikuri are determined that they will rather die than give up the land that has been theirs to till for the last three or four generations. It cannot be denied that the positive presence of the Kisan Sabha and the more neutral attitude of the administration have helped them to retain their land.

There is a general impression that the land reforms of the Left Front regime only benefited their own people. Hence the easy verdict that these beneficiaries are now being paid back in their own coin. However, land reforms in West Bengal from the 1960s took place only through a long-drawn struggle by poor and landless peasants under the leadership of the Kisan Sabha. It is through this struggle that large sections of peasants attained rights to the land and also developed a firm loyalty towards the Left. But there is evidence that even people with different political affiliations attained these rights during this time. In our study we did not find a single person who had benefited from the reforms without legal entitlement; they belonged uniformly to the ranks of the poor. However, as in the case of Moghai and his family, we found that some people who had been in the land struggle had not so far received pattas, often because of legal entanglements. The number of the landless grew through the 34 years of Left Front rule, too.

In a changing situation, political affiliations turn fragile and new social conflicts are generated. It is now recognised by the Left that its failure to tackle the land question in the new context was one reason for the erosion of its base among the rural poor. Ironically, Moghai and his family were not Left supporters. After Moghai's death, his family members were even taken to the residence of the present Chief Minister to seek justice, but to no avail. The involvement of local Trinamool supporters in the attack was sought to be covered up.

Land was a major issue in the electoral campaign of the Trinamool, but its stand on the land question is not at all clear. Indications are that it is not going to honour the results of the land reforms of the earlier regime. In the present situation, when the disastrous effects of neoliberal policies in the agrarian sector are already making land alienation a widespread phenomenon, there can be no doubt that the distress of the rural poor in West Bengal will be aggravated if the factor of widespread eviction through force is added to it.

(Visits to the locations were organised by Punarnaba, a forum.)

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