Print edition : August 29, 2008

Some members of the 30 Dalit families who on August 4 resumed cultivation on the land allotted to them, at Ittikkal Agaram village.-PHOTOGRAPHS: V. AYYAPPA

For the Dalits of Ittikkal Agaram, Tamil Nadu, trying to cultivate the land allotted to them has been a struggle against caste-Hindu hostility.

SEVEN decades after the kisan movement took root in Indian soil and 60 years after Independence, land for the tiller, the slogan of the leaders of the nationalist and Left movements, remains a dream for a large number of farmers, particularly Dalits.

Dalits account for one-fifth of the countrys population and about 75 per cent of them depend on land for survival, mostly as landless workers. In many parts of the country, neither the abolition of untouchability by the Constitution nor legislation such as the stringent Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, has been able to do much to help Dalits fight discrimination and get their rightful share of land. Land, a prime asset and a symbol of social and economic status in rural areas, remains one of the most relevant factors in atrocities against Dalits.

Caste-Hindu landowners are intolerant of Dalits acquiring land. Dalits inability to access land makes them socially and economically vulnerable. The pernicious caste system only helps to perpetuate Dalits miseries, class-wise and caste-wise. As elsewhere in the country, this happens in Tamil Nadu, too.

Thousands of acres of land allotted to Dalits by the pre-Independence government in response to their request were illegally appropriated by caste-Hindu landlords and others over the years. Researchers have shown that the much-talked-about land reforms, particularly the land-ceiling Acts, mostly benefited cultivating tenants and, at best, a small segment of marginal farmers. Agricultural workers, the bulk of them Dalits, have been left in the lurch.

They have to depend solely upon the scarce distribution of pattas for government-owned poromboke land, often fallow. Even when they manage to get land, they have to confront the hostility of caste Hindus, who fear that giving land to Dalits will deprive them of their workforce.

The dominant caste-Hindu group places cruel and illegal hurdles when Dalits attempt to take possession of the allotted land and begin cultivation. Soon frustrated, many Dalits surrender the land and go back to their old masters as agricultural workers. A few of them, however, muster the courage to overcome the hurdles.

Ittikkal Agaram, about 15 km from Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu, provides a classic example. Members of about 30 Dalit families on August 4 resumed agriculture on land allotted to them, more than a year after they had stopped cultivation unable to bear the violent attacks and destruction of crops.

This was made possible when Dalits in neighbouring villages gave them a helping hand and activists of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, led by M. Dharman, the Secretary of its Krishnagiri unit, and D. Raveendran, Secretary of the District Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), extended the moral support that the villagers badly needed. This kept the detractors at a distance for the day.

But how long can this continue? The Revenue Department and the police should take steps to help Dalits assert their rights by expediting the process of issuing pattas and extending protection to them, said Dharman. He added that had the administration acted on court orders in time, the rights of Dalit landholders could have been restored long back.

For the Dalits of Ittikkal Agaram, it has been a strenuous and long struggle since March 1976 when the Tahsildar of Krishnagiri issued a notification allotting 182 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectares) of poromboke land at their village for distribution to Ellappan and 61 other landless workers who had applied for land, three acres to each. Theirs was a harrowing tale, in which they were subjected to mindless violence, humiliation and unbearable financial losses.

Leaders of the predominant caste-Hindu group in the village, Vellala Gounders, were placing roadblocks at every stage to frustrate the Dalits. When the land was identified, they prevented the Dalits from taking possession of it, by letting loose a reign of terror. A number of beneficiary families started giving up their rights.

Caste-Hindu landlords exploited the situation by appropriating a sizable part of the allotted land using their money power and social status. However, some more Dalit families mustered courage over the years and started farming, defying the landlords.

They faced the wrath of local bigwigs and suffered heavy losses because of crop damage caused by their rivals. Physical violence was also used against them. Dalits undertook agricultural operations on and off on their land. Of the 186 acres allotted to Dalits, 120 acres are now in the possession of non-Dalits.

This went on for over 25 years. The families that were allotted land were not given pattas as promised at the time of allotment. In 2004, a new problem arose. The Forest Department claimed that according to its records, the land allotted to Dalits as poromboke land was forest land; it described the occupants as encroachers. Six occupants took the issue to the Madras High Court through a writ petition. When the Forest Department sought to evict the Dalit and other occupants, the court was moved for an injunction against eviction. The court order restrained officials from evicting the occupants pending disposal of the petition, giving them a two-year respite.

In August 2006, the court, while disposing of the original writ petition, directed the petitioners to approach the Forest Settlement Officer (FSO) within three weeks to settle their claim over the land in their possession. The forest authority was directed to pass appropriate orders, regarding the possession of land and settle the claim as per Section 10 of the Tamil Nadu Forests Act, (1882) within a period of two months.

The court also directed, Till such time, or till the date of passing an order by the Forest Department, the possession of the petitioner should not be disturbed and they should be permitted to remain where they are.

On September 29, 2006, the FSO of Krishnagiri, acting promptly on the courts direction, held that the occupants had been allowed to use the land, shown in village records as untaxed fallow land, for agricultural purposes since 1976 and that they had no land other than the occupied land. The FSO held that the occupants could continue to use the land for agriculture. He also identified 30 occupants and recommended that they be given pattas after necessary changes were made in the classification of the land.

Although this verdict ensured the continued use of the land by the Dalit allottees, there has been no development in the grant of pattas.

In September 2007, when there was another move from caste Hindus to get these land users evicted with the connivance of forest officials, the Dalits approached the court and got another injunction. Disposing of a writ petition on November 22, 2007, the High Court directed the Revenue Divisional Officer of Krishnagiri to consider within eight weeks the representation of the petitioners (Dalit occupants of the land bearing survey number 168/2) made on October 23, 2007, that land pattas be issued to them in view of the FSOs recommendation made to that effect. Nine months on, the State government is yet to issue pattas.

Raveendran told Frontline that his party had petitioned the district administration to act on the court directive. We have pressed the authorities to issue pattas to other similarly placed claimants. We have given a list of 120 eligible people, who can also be allotted land under the State government scheme, he said.

What is more distressing than the delay in issuing pattas is the governments failure to take action against the oppressive caste-Hindu landowners who have been preventing the Dalit allottees, through questionable means, from enjoying their lawful rights over the land, despite repeated petitions from them. Encroaching upon ones land and causing damage to ones property is an offence even under common law.

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act states: Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, wrongfully occupies or cultivates any land owned by, or allotted to, or notified by any competent authority to be allotted to, a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or gets the land allotted to him transferred; wrongly dispossesses a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe from his land or premises or interferes with the enjoyment of his rights over any land, premises or water, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to five years and with fine. (Section 3 (1) (iv), (v) and (xv) of the Atrocities Act.) Timely intervention by the state could have done justice to the victims and spared them of prolonged litigation.