The price of patriotism

Print edition : November 01, 2013

Pritam Singh and his son working in their cotton field in the Kothara region of Kutch.

Bhajan Singh with his son Trilochan Singh. He settled in Kutch in 1966. Photo: pictures: venkitesh ramakrishnan

Surinder Singh Bhullar in his farm.

Jasveer Singh (in trousers), Chamkavu Singh and Sadhu Singh and other farmers of Jura village. Sadhu Singh and Chamkavu Singh took up cultivation in the village in the early 1980s.

The Gujarat High Court stalls the Narendra Modi government’s plan to evict Sikh farmers who were invited to settle in Kutch to develop agriculture and safeguard the country’s borders. Text and Photographs

THE Gujarat government hosted a grand conference titled “Vibrant Gujarat Global Agriculture Summit” in Ahmedabad in the second week of September. It was a conclave of farmers, farm produce companies, corporate houses that manufacture agricultural equipment, and agricultural researchers and scientists. The State government brought together approximately 4,500 farmers from different parts of the country, selected the “most progressive farmers” from over 500 districts, and gave each of them a cash award of Rs.51,001. All the farmers were hosted as state guests for three days and were accommodated in two-and three-star hotels. The government bore their travel expenses. Many dignitaries, including Chief Minister Narendra Modi, addressed the conference. The central message that was sought to be sent out by the whole exercise was that Modi and his government were front runners not only in building infrastructure and attracting corporate investments but also in agricultural development and farmers welfare. A large number of those who attended the summit did go back with this impression.

However, even as the event was under way, farmers in Kutch district, mainly Sikhs, made it clear that they were not enamoured of the conference or its central theme. Sab kuch dikhava hain (it’s all mere pretence) was the refrain of their representatives at the conference. According to them, the State government employed vile and foul means to divest them of the land that they had rightfully held for many decades, and possibly hand it over to friendly businessmen and industrialists.

Surinder Singh Bhullar, a spokesperson of the aggrieved farmers, said, “Even the Gujarat High Court passed an order on June 22, 2012, against freezing the land accounts of Sikh farmers but the Modi government is not ready to enforce the judgment. Instead, it has gone on appeal against the ruling. Its only objective is to appropriate approximately one lakh acres [40,000 hectares] of land belonging to over 700 Sikh farmers.” In fact, their resentment had been growing for months and Narendra Modi himself had referred to it in his Independence Day speech in Bhuj, the headquarters of Kutch district. He said he recognised the contribution made by Sikh farmers to Kutch’s agricultural growth and assured them that they would not be forced to leave the place they had made their home. “We hoped that this would signal the implementation of the High Court order. But, days and weeks passed and nothing happened. That is when we felt Modi’s statement was mere lip service. Nothing has changed. The government is persisting with its appeal, prolonging our misery. The government’s move means that we are in physical possession of the land but cannot exercise any legal right over it. We cannot get agricultural loan or any other benefits. The objective obviously is to make us give up our land or force us to sell it at distress price. This is indeed an ingenious way of land grab,” Bhullar told Frontline. This “ingenious” plan was initiated in 2010 when the district administration started freezing khedut khatas (agricultural accounts or land records) citing violations by the farmers. The premise was that the farmers were holding land in violation of the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Land (Vidarbha Region and Kutch Area) Act, 1958, which had been re-emphasised by the Gujarat government through a government circular that was originally issued in 1973 (which stated that purchase or acquisition of agricultural land by non-farmers of Gujarat or persons from other States shall be deemed illegal). The district administration’s interpretation of the Act and the circular was that any sale of land to non-agriculturists in Gujarat, even if they were agriculturists in another State, was illegal. The Sikh farmers of Kutch were unilaterally declared agriculturists belonging to another State, which meant that they could not be considered agriculturists in Kutch. Interestingly, none of them was asked to present or prove their credentials, nor was an opportunity provided to them to explain their legal status. They were notified through advertisements in newspapers that their land had been frozen.

History of sikh settlements

Clearly, this unilateral order did not take into consideration the history of Sikh farmer settlements in the Kutch region. Their first entry into the region was the stuff of which patriotic tales are made. Kutch came under attack from Pakistan during the 1965 war. India, under the prime ministership of Lal Bahadur Sastri, won the war. After the war, it was felt that the barren, unoccupied stretch of land in Kutch was a security threat that needed to be addressed by settling population and enhancing economic activity, including agriculture. Thus, the Sikh farmers of Punjab were given land and invited to settle in Kutch to advance agriculture.

“The government’s intention at the same time was to guard the border and make the barren land fertile. In all, 454 Sikh farmers were given land free of cost,” a senior State government official said. Many of the aggrieved farmers are descendants of these early settlers.

“We have lived here for generations, toiled hard and dug deep for water in the saline soil. Our forefathers introduced cotton crop in the region, which is now a major source of income for the district and the State. The success of our forefathers attracted more and more people from Punjab and Haryana to Kutch. People like me are more Kutchi than Punjabi. I studied in Gujarati medium, can read and write Gujarati like any other local, and yet all this was not taken into consideration when my land was frozen,” Jasveer Singh, a young farmer said.

Another aggrieved farmer, Bhajan Singh, prefaces his interaction with this correspondent in chaste Kutchi. Asi hedaja haiyu (we belong to this place), he says in a voice tinged in ethnic Kutchi. Only his turban and beard betray his Sikh identity. Kutch has been his home since 1966, when he came with his father Gopal Singh at the age of 16. Gopal Singh was invited by the government to settle in the region and was given 30 acres (12 hectares) of land in 1965.

“This is our homeland”

“That land was in Khari-Kowda, barely 20 kilometres from the Pakistan border. Forty farmer families were brought from Punjab and Haryana to settle there. Only hard, saline water was available in the region then. Yet, the families cultivated there for 15 years. Later, many of them, including our family, moved into other parts of Kutch. We sold our land in Punjab to buy 20 acres [8 hectares] in Sumarasar village. We have been cultivating here for over three decades. Here, too, the land was barren and the water was hard when we settled, but we held on and strove on because we had a larger parcel of land than in Punjab. It is through our efforts that this once-barren land has turned lush green. By any yardstick, this is our homeland. My son Trilochan Singh and grandson Prince Deep Singh were born and grew up here. They are more comfortable speaking Kutchi than Punjabi. That is, four generations of committed tilling, mending and nursing the land that is dear to us. But all of a sudden, the Gujarat government has decided to deem us foreigners.”

Bhajan Singh is indeed upset, but at one level he perceives it as a cycle of injustice that is perpetrated on the farming community from generation to generation by the powers that be. He says his great-grandfather, too, was subjected to a similar injustice in present-day Faisalabad in Pakistan.

“There, too, our family had turned barren land into lush green through hard, committed labour, but in 1947, when India became independent, we were told that the land that was our home for some 50 years was no longer ours. We were ordered to move into new unknown regions, where once again we had to start from scratch. Perhaps, the government may now ask us to go to the Chinese border in Arunachal Pradesh in order to act as a buffer against incursion in that region,” Bhajan Singh says wryly.

Such expressions mixed with anguish, anger and sarcasm can be heard from across the Kutch district. In the Kothara region, referred to locally as mini Punjab, this correspondent travelled to 25 villages and met scores of Sikh and Haryanvi farmers who have been cultivating there for decades but have been listed as non-agriculturists through the newspaper advertisement.

Sadhu Singh and Chamkavu Singh of Jura village, who bought land and took up cultivation in the village in the early 1980s, have a slew of documents to prove their legal authority over the land as well as their continued existence in the village.

“We started cultivating here in 1982 and the registry for the land was also done the same year. We are standing in that very same plot. But, nobody has come to inspect our physical presence here or check our documents. Instead, a completely arbitrary decision has been thrust on us,” Sadhu Singh said.

“You cannot get a crop loan once the record is frozen. Also, the crop cannot be sold in the organised sector. It has to be sold to private traders at a lower rate while borrowing from private moneylenders at a higher rate,” Pritam Singh of Kothara said.

Bhullar told Frontline that in the days immediately after the freezing of the khedut khatas, the farmers tried to plead with the authorities to change the decision. “Many of us were told that we were not even farmers in other States but were mere businessmen indulging in land dealings,” he said.

Middle-level officers in the State Revenue Department in Ahmedabad repeated the argument. (Senior officers, including the Revenue Secretary, were not available for comment despite repeated attempts to contact them.) One middle-level officer pointed out that the list of frozen accounts included those of 100-odd Gujaratis and that Sikhs were not targeted specifically.

The Sikh farmers and those who support them in their legal and social struggles on the issue do admit that the list contains some non-agriculturalists and a few non-Sikhs. “But that again only points to the ingenuity of the land grab. Put the names of some non-farmers and non-Sikhs in the list, point to them, highlight their cases and say that the entire list is populated by people like that. No rocket science is required to know that more than 90 per cent of those aggrieved, are real farmers, and that too small and marginal ones. All that you need to do to ascertain this is to travel across Kutch. Obviously, the Modi administration does not want to do this,” barrister Himmat Singh Shergill, who is representing the farmers in the Supreme Court, said.

Shergill pointed out that the full Bench of the High Court had stated categorically that it was not impressed by the submissions of the Advocate-General that the State did not possess sufficient machinery to verify the genuineness of the certificates given by the other States regarding a person’s status as agriculturist in those States.

“In our opinion, when the State government is prepared to accept the certificate granted by other States as regards the quantum of agricultural land held by an agriculturist in other States as genuine for the purpose of ceiling, there is no reason why such certificate as regards their status as agriculturists cannot be relied upon,” the court had ruled, setting aside the decision of the Kutch Collector to freeze the land accounts. It also set aside the 1973 circular, which facilitated the freezing of land accounts.

Yet, the government is persisting with its intent through an appeal in the Supreme Court and false promises made at public meetings. Bhullar and Pritam Singh told Frontline that several farmers had sold their land at throwaway prices fearing action. There are also allegations that some land mafia dons are putting pressure on farmers to sell their land at bargain prices. “They tell us that even if it is frozen they will get it [the sale] done,” said Pritam Singh.

While land grab is the obvious fallout of the freezing of land accounts, many observers, social analysts and even businessmen suspect a larger game plan. Kutch is the largest district in India and the region has been witnessing high industrial investment in the past decade. Between 2001-06, that is, after the 2001 earthquake that devastated Bhuj, Kutch attracted industrial investment worth nearly Rs.20,000 crore. A five-year tax holiday was given to start new industries before 2005 in order to rehabilitate the earthquake victims.

An office-bearer of the Gujarat chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) told Frontline on condition of anonymity that the State government had formulated a new land assessment and mapping policy for Kutch to put industrial growth on faster track. “It proposed to speed up the process of conversion of agricultural land into non-agricultural to expedite the setting up of industry in the district.” The official also said it was common knowledge that a major chunk of private sector investment in Kutch in the last decade was beneficial to the Adani group, considered to be close to Modi.

“At this point of time, it is not clear how the frozen land will be used. But, clearly, there is a plan to convert agricultural land into non-agricultural land. The plight of the Sikh farmers could well be just a piece in a larger jigsaw puzzle,” the official said.

While these surmises are doing the rounds in Kutch and Ahmedabad, the “Kutchi” Sikhs are continuing their struggle with the hope of finding a just solution to the injustice meted out to them.

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