Land and caste

Published : Jun 29, 2012 00:00 IST

Disputes over common village land between Jats and Dalits build up tension in a Haryana village.

in Hisar

A playground, a public space and redistribution of common village land. These are the three elements in a dispute that has driven a wedge between the landless and the landed communities in Bhagana village in Haryana's Hisar district. When this report was written, on June 4, some 125 Dalit and Backward Caste families, including women and children, had been squatting on the premises of the district secretariat at Hisar for some 10 days, braving the sweltering heat. Some of them had their livestock with them. They claimed that they felt unsafe in their homes at the village. It is a peaceful protest, and the administration does not deny it. They have a right to protest, says Deputy Commissioner Amit Kumar Aggarwal, who is also a qualified doctor.

The dispute in Bhagana began in 2011 when the gram sabha of the village panchayat decided to distribute 280 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land in and around the village, including the common village land called Shamlat land, among the residents. The move, according to informed sources, was in response to the Haryana government's announcement that 100 square yards of land would be allotted to every BPL (below poverty line) family. But that announcement had been made before the Congress returned to power for a second term. No State government initiative on distributing land in Bhagana village, however, materialised, and the gram panchayat decided to take matters into its own hands last year.

The common village land was distributed in proportion to the land that the residents already owned. This meant that the Dalit families, which were mostly landless, ended up with less than 100 square yards each. They were also asked to deposit Rs.1,000 as registration fee. Karamveer, a Dalit youngster studying for a bachelor's degree in business administration, said: We gave it willingly but learnt later that there was no registration fee for BPL families. The dominant caste group in the village, most of its members belonging to one family, managed to corner most of the redistributed land. Karamveer's father was a daily wage worker, and the young man, too, works on farms.

In February this year, the socially and numerically dominant Jat community in the village decided to lay claim to a playground that the Dalits had used for years. On February 23, the Jats uprooted the trees that the Dalits had planted around it and levelled the seating arrangements they had installed. The Jats claimed that the playground was also part of the common village land. The Dalits felt otherwise. Our children used to play football here. They were trained by some of our youth. The adjoining area was greened and there were seating arrangements, too, for spectators. We used to hold sports events regularly for the children, said Karamveer.

When the Dalits made a representation to the government, the Jats were angry and allegedly ordered a social and economic boycott of them. A Dalit resident said: The shopkeeper in the village was told not to sell to us; the common village pond was denied to our buffaloes. The Dalits also alleged that despite the administration providing security (a posse of policemen have been posted at Bhagana), a young man called Shamsher was beaten up only because he dared to ask for the wages for the work he had done.

The dominant community is in no mood to relent. We told them that their children can play in the stadium of the school. Why should they have a separate playground? Yes, we divided the Shamlat land and gave the poor families 100 square yards each. We decided that those who owned one acre of land would get 60 square yards from the Shamlat land. We wanted to divide the playground land as well. That they did not allow, said a member of the Jat community.

The Jats contend that their population has grown and land is scarce, but those people, meaning the Dalits, keep on getting land. They wanted to make an Ambedkar Chowk in the middle of the village. Today they are making a chowk. Tomorrow they will sit on our lands, said Raja Choudhary. The Jats of Bhagana vehemently deny that they engineered a social boycott of the Dalits.

Another bone of contention is a 250-square-yard piece of land in the middle of the village. The Dalits and some members of Backward Castes went to court under the banner of the Ambedkar Welfare Samiti claiming that the land was theirs as they had been using it. The gram sabha won the case in the court after the land records were dug up. As per the land records, it was called Ahlaan Paana Chowk. Immediately afterwards, the Jat-dominated gram sabha built a wall around the piece of land and put up a sign that announced Ahlaan Paana Chowk. The wall sealed off entries to at least two Dalit homes. This happened in mid-April.

A Dalit youth from the village said, The common land in the middle of the village can belong to anyone. How can a six-foot wall be constructed, preventing access? Suresh, whose home has been affected, said: There is a narrow passage of three feet now for me, my livestock and my family to enter. Is this justice? We do not have a separate shed for our buffaloes. We share a common roof with our animals.

The conflict is not the only one of its kind. It is just one of the many disputes that have characterised the State over the past decade. In Khanpur village in the same district, when an agricultural labourer asked for his wages, his buffaloes were taken away forcibly by the landlord. He and his wife managed to appeal to the Deputy Commissioner with help from the All India Agricultural Workers' Union. The district administration intervened and ordered an inquiry.

But there are many others who do not reach the office of the district administration and therefore cannot hope for redress. At the time of the last harvest, in Kheri Locham village in the district, women agricultural workers refused to work after some people misbehaved with them. It is alleged that tractors were driven over their legs in retaliation. Such incidents are viewed as isolated ones and therefore not given much importance. A year ago, not far from Bhagana, at Mirchpur village, Dalit homes were torched and two people, an old man and a disabled girl. The agitation that followed dragged on for more than a year.

Bhagana is located not very far from the epicentre of the recent agitation by Jats demanding reservation in the Other Backward Classes category. With the administration preoccupied with how to contain the reservation movement, which is expected to erupt again in September, it is not surprising that conflicts like the one in Bhagana are not taken seriously. But the mood for a confrontation is slowly building up.

Omwati, 69, who finds it difficult to join the protest in Hisar because of her age, says that the number of such conflicts has gone up in the last 10 years. Another Dalit villager, Dilbagh Singh Khokhar, said: Tensions have gone up as we have prospered. Some of our young people are employed in the government. We wear good clothes and so we have to hear all kinds of insults. Ke paa gaya hai Dedh [what has he achieved]' Dedh chamal raha hai [the Dedh is glowing a lot]' or Dhedhan ki chadh gayi' [it has gone to the Dedh's head] are some of the insults we hear regularly. . Dedh' is a commonly used derogatory term for Dalits in the State.

Ram Avtar, president of the State chapter of the All India Agricultural Workers Union, also spoke of how things had changed. Earlier, he said, Dalits often worked for the Jats without wages: they chopped wood, ground wheat, fed livestock and even made shoes. Sometimes, they got buttermilk for clearing dung. These days, they misbehave with Dalit women if they refuse to do work for free. If Dalits protest, they refuse them work, saying that they do not do it properly, he said.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) initiated changes in the economic and social equations in villages. Though much of the work under the scheme was cornered by unscrupulous sarpanches for their cronies and members of their own castes, and though muster rolls were often fraudulently prepared and payment was irregular, Dalits and members of the Backward Castes did get employment under this scheme.

An inquiry into fraudulent muster rolls in Mujadpur village had implicated the sarpanch and her family members. Earlier, Dalits used to work day and night and get paid Rs.2,000 for the entire year. Now, with the NREGA, things have changed and they do not do that kind of work anymore. And as it is voluntary and for a specific number of hours, they feel more free, said Dilbagh Singh, who had taken up the NREGA fraud case. But in Bhagana, for the last one and a half years, there has been no NREGA work. The Deputy Commissioner has promised to start such work very soon.

The atmosphere in Dalit and Backward Caste families in Bhagana is despondent. I was just born in a wrong family, rues Omwati. She said that earlier for every seven or eight bundles of grass she prepared she would get one free. I don't do that work anymore, she said. The Dalits fail to understand why the administration is so helpless in giving them a fair deal.

The Jats of Bhagana blame the stand-off on Virender Singh Bhagoria, a potter by caste (listed in the Backward Caste category), who is leading the Dalits. We let our Dalit brothers work on our fields. We gave them land to build their houses. We need their labour. Our children do not do agricultural work anymore, a Jat villager said. Bhagoria, who was with the protesters in Hisar, told Frontline he had nothing to gain personally from the protest. I am from that village but do not live there anymore. But when I learnt what was happening, I decided to help. The Jats want to occupy the Shamlat land as well. They called a panchayat meeting but we didn't go as we knew what usually happened at such meetings. We filed no FIR [first information report] but just a complaint to the administration, and they want us to apologise for that, he said.

He said that the administration wanted the Dalits to patch up with the Jats and return to the village. Our children play better, our youth study better, and they do not like this. They abuse our children in the school playground, that is why we have a separate playground, he said, showing photographs of sports events held on the now-demolished playground. They took pictures when the trees and the flower beds and pots were being levelled by the machines.

They didn't take any action against them for cutting trees. When a Backward Caste sarpanch in a nearby village cut a tree, he was suspended. Here so many trees were cut down. There was no action by the administration, Bhagoria said, articulating what many others felt. It was generally felt that the administration gave members of the dominant community a free hand and expected the victimised communities to abide by the rule book.

The Deputy Commissioner says we should compromise. But that means we have to apologise, and for what? Bhagoria asked. Ishwar Singh, an electrician, spoke of the alleged social boycott. They do not let me enter their homes. If I speak out, they threaten to slap a fine on me, he said. Kamla, a member of the potter caste, said that she and others like her were not allowed to collect clay to make pots. A carpenter, Sanjay, said that members of the dominant community owed him a lot of money for the work he had done for them.

The administration keeps a close watch on journalists visiting Bhagana and the site of the protest. We keep an eye on all the visitors. And as soon as we know it is a media person, we ensure that they get to see the administration's point of view, said a member of the Public Relations Department. The Deputy Commissioner claimed that only 40 families were sitting on protest, while the rest were in the village.

But a shopkeeper from the village, who did not want to be named, told Frontline that his business had suffered as some 150 families had left the village.

The Deputy Commissioner said: There has been no mass atrocity. There is a dispute over the two-acre land used as a playground and the land used for common purposes owned by the gram panchayat. They decided to make a boundary and they were well within their rights to do so to protect it from encroachment. Excavators were used to demarcate the land and not to level the playground, he said. As for the trees that were cut, he said that even the Dalit families had carried away a share of the trees for themselves. My main objective is to restore peace.

But peace always comes at a price. Neither should the onus for maintaining peace be placed on the victimised community alone. The price for peace is very high in Bhagana and elsewhere in the State where such conflicts are on the rise. And it does not take very long for a conflict, if left unattended, to become a mass atrocity.

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