Print edition : May 12, 2017

NO discussion on panchami land in Tamil Nadu is complete without a mention at least of the palatial farmhouse that the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa used to visit in Siruthavur village near Chengleput in Kancheepuram district. The bungalow was in the eye of a storm after political parties and local people alleged that it stood on land grabbed from poor agricultural labourers, besides “porombok” land of the government. This high-profile land-grab controversy brought the issue of panchami land to centre stage after the Karanai protest.

In 1968, the then Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai distributed 53 acres of land to 20 landless agricultural workers, a majority of them Dalits, in Siruthavur under the Central government’s Settlement of Land to Landless Agricultural Labourers Scheme, with a bar on its sale for 25 years. The beneficiaries were selected through a resolution passed by the village panchayat.

Each family was allotted 2.50 acres of land and a 10-cent plot to construct a house. Plough animals and loans for digging wells and buying farm implements were also provided. The majority of the beneficiaries belonged to the Adi Dravidar community. But over a period of time, many of them had sold their land. The bungalow in question was reportedly built on these pieces of land. A group of villagers, mainly the beneficiaries of the scheme, alleged that their land had been usurped by a few powerful persons who cheated them and made them pledge their land deeds under the ruse of distributing loans against the land. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), along with the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and a few other Dalit outfits, took up the issue. “They are yet to get their land back,” said E. Shankar, the CPI(M)’s Kancheepuram district secretary.

Later, these “outsiders”, Shankar claimed, built the bungalow on a area of around 150 acres, which included government “porombok” (wasteland) land, “odai” and “eri porombok” (waterways and tanks), and also land of Dalit beneficiaries. Tamil Nadu State secretary of the CPI(M), N. Varadarajan, told the media then that the land had been “illegally transferred to some who were close to Jayalalithaa, when she was in power, between 1991 and 1996, and a bungalow, which she was frequenting, has been constructed on it.”

In 2006, by which time the bungalow had been built, the CPI(M) urged the then DMK government of M. Karunanidhi to restore the land to its original title holders. On the basis of a memorandum it submitted, the Chief Minister constituted an Inquiry Commission headed by Justice K.P. Sivasubramaniam, a retired judge of the Madras High Court. It was given two months’ time to wrap up the inquiry. Agitations were also held at many places in the State to retrieve the occupied land. Dalit leaders, including Thol. Thirumavalavan, demanded that all transactions relating to those 53 acres in Siruthavur should be reviewed with retrospective effect from 1967.

Thirumavalavan told the media then that the pieces of land were first owned by the family of a former Indian cricketer, who sold them to a Tamil musician, who, in turn, sold them to a private firm. The only dissenting voice then was of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko, who said the Inquiry Commission was “unnecessary”. Reacting to the allegations, Jayalalithaa had said that the farmhouse did not belong to her or to her close friend V.N. Sasikala. “It was taken on rent,” she claimed.

The Sivasubramaniam Commission went into the circumstances that led to the land grab. Formed on July 27, 2006, it submitted its 813-page report in two volumes, containing the statements of 40 witnesses, to Chief Minister Karunanidhi in February 2010.

The panel exonerated Jayalalithaa, saying that there was “no material to suggest that Jayalalithaa was involved in land grabbing”. However, it held that V.N. Sudhakaran and Ilavarasi, both related to Sasikala, were beneficiaries of an “illegal transfer of patta on a single day”.

The property, it noted, was in the name of Bharani Beach Resorts Private Limited. The Commission contented that the alienation of land belonging to Dalits was void and it was within the power of the government to resume and restore them to the Dalit owners. But the buyers of the land in Siruthavur, including Bharani Beach Resorts Private Limited, claimed that the bungalow stood on “porombok” land of about 30 acres and not on land of the landless Dalits. They told the panel that they were prepared to face legal proceedings under the provisions of the Land Encroachment Act.

The government, accepting the findings, said steps would be taken to resume the land and distribute it to deserving Dalits. But the State could not implement the recommendations of the panel since the owners of the land went to the Supreme Court in appeal against the very formation of the Inquiry Commission. Shankar told Frontline that the court had refused to stall the Commission’s proceedings. “Even after many years, the recommendations of the Commission have not been implemented. The land is yet to be surveyed and distributed among the landless. No government seems to have taken any interest in sorting out the issue. The status quo is being maintained,” he said.

The issue of land grab in Siruthavur is far from over. A Chennai-based anti-corruption activist group, Arappor Iyakkam, submitted a petition to the Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu, on February 9, accusing AIADMK general secretary Sasikala and her family members of having usurped government and private land in Siruthavur, Payanoor and Karunkuzhipallam villages of Thiruporur and Kancheepuram blocks. Around 112 acres of land in the area have allegedly been encroached upon, with the State police providing round-the-clock security even today, it claimed.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran