How Dalit lands were stolen

How Dalit lands were stolen

The British government, on the basis of an 1891 report on the subhuman living conditions of “Pariahs” by James H.A. Tremenheere, Acting Collector of Chengleput, assigned 12 lakh acres of land for distribution to the “depressed classes” of the Madras Presidency to empower them socially and economically. But more than 100 years later, much of this land is in the possession of non-Dalits, and the struggle to reclaim them has seen little progress. An exclusive story on how this tale of usurpation is still being played out. By ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN
“[They are] always badly nourished, clad, if at all, in the vilest of rags, eaten up with leprosy or other horrible diseases, hunted like pigs, untaught, uncared for…. The British administration has freed this clan of a community from the yoke of hereditary slavery and from the legal disabilities; but they still remain at a low depth of social degradation.”

—James Henry Apperley Tremenheere, Acting Collector, Chengleput, 1891.

NOTHING could have portrayed better the subhuman condition of the most disadvantaged social group, the Pariahs, in the then Madras Presidency than an official British document, “Notes on Pariahs of Chengleput”, prepared by the then Chengleput Acting Collector J.H.A. Tremenheere, which he submitted to the British government in 1891. It underscored the need to transform them into a landed community so that they could lead a life of dignity.

When Tremenheere’s report came up for discussion in the British Parliament on May 16, 1892, George Nathaniel Curzon, the then Undersecretary of State for India in England, informed the House that “both the Secretary of State and the Government of Madras are anxious to do all that is practicable to improve the condition of the Pariahs”.

Subsequently, the British government issued a Government Order (1010/1010A of Revenue Department, dated 30-9-1892), passing the Depressed Class Land Act 1892. This historic move, earmarked lands known as Depressed Class conditional lands for untouchables such as Pariahs and Pallars in the Madras Presidency comprising present-day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and parts of present-day Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana and Odisha. These later came to be known as “panchami” lands (land belonging to “Panchamars”—“the deprived”). (Today, any land that is given to Dalits under various State and Central governments’ social welfare schemes is also called “panchami” land.)

This landmark report paved the way for the distribution of land to Dalits in the then Madras Presidency, particularly in Chengleput district. V. Alex, a Dalit intellectual and publisher of Panchami Nila Urimai (The Rights to Panchami Land), a Tamil translation of Tremenheere’s report by A. Sundaram, said the report turned out to be the base for the sociocultural, educational and economic empowerment of Dalits.

Though a few of his predecessors had highlighted the poor living conditions of Dalits and attempted to mitigate their problems with welfare measures such as grants-in-aid and free house sites, Tremenheere was the first officer to make a conscious effort to make them landholders. In fact, before Tremenheere took charge in Chengleput, a Sub Collector, C.M. Mullay, recorded in 1888 the “miserable conditions of the lower castes”. Sadly, he did not receive support from his senior colleagues. The “Pariahs” and the “Pallars” (referred to as “pullahs” in the records then) were treated as slaves under the prevailing caste-based landholding system known as mirasi. Also known as the kaniyatchikaran (landed clan) system, it divorced “Pariahs from the soil”.

Brahmins and Vellalas living in Tiruchi, Thanjavur, Madurai and Tirunelveli were mainly identified as the mirasi castes. Vanniyars in the present-day northern districts and other “shudras” (caste Hindus) were the non-mirasi castes. Tremenheere objected to mirasidars arrogating to themselves “ceri” (Dalit settlement) sites, monopolising land and preventing Pariahs from becoming cultivators. “We have permitted ancient privileges to survive until they have become anachronisms and we have created new privileges. The policy of the state has degraded [Pariahs] and the state must retrieve its mistakes,” he said in his report. The mirasis were not averse to the other caste Hindu groups, such as the payirkarars (caste Hindu crop growers) owning tiny tracts of land. Thus the untouchables remained landless.

In his study “The Question of Land to the Dalits: A Historical Perspective”, C. Jerome Samraj, who is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Economics at Pondicherry University, points out that the colonial government “had to reduce the authority of the ‘mirasi’ castes over those land that [was] left uncultivated to make it available for others who were willing to cultivate.… However, even though land could be freed from the mirasis, the untouchable castes remained excluded from the land-owning classes.”

Tremenheere was fortunate that his report did not meet the fate of C.M. Mullay’s report earlier. He received a copy of the “memorial of the Madras Missionary Conference” held in May 1891 from the Governor of Fort St. George. It described the debasing socio-economic and cultural life of Pariahs and desired “to have the Collector’s report as to the easy means of amelioration of the condition of the Pariahs”.

‘Gentle slavery’
Much before Tremenheere’s seminal study, Christian missionaries were behind many radical decisions aimed at uplifting Dalits, especially Pariahs. S. Anandhi, in her work “Land to the Dalits: Panchami Land Struggle in Tamil Nadu”, points out that the campaign of two missionaries, Rev. William Goudie and Rev. Adam Andrew, in Chengleput and Tiruvallur areas played a key role in establishing the land rights of the depressed classes in Chengleput district in the face of stiff resistance.

The Madras Missionary Conference report dwelt exhaustively on the Pariahs and their living conditions. It said their condition was akin to “gentle slavery”, though the British had declared slavery illegal under the Indian Penal Code in 1843. It was a customary practice then for untouchables attached to land as farm labourers, known as pannaiyals, to be “transferred by way of sale, mortgage or hire” whenever the land was transferred from one mirasi to another. Jerome Samraj cites colonial records to say that this practice existed “in most districts in Tamil region as a form of voluntary contract”.

The Chengleput Collector responded positively to the request of the missionary conference, recording the abysmal living conditions of Pariahs by visiting the “ceris” personally. However, the Board of Revenue almost rubbished his report, calling it an “exaggeration”, since the colonial rulers’ main agenda was not social reform but “revenue maximisation from land administration”, as Jerome Samraj points out. Besides his personal jottings, Tremenheere validated his report by quoting extensively material from various sources and reports in newspapers, including The Hindu, which, in its edition dated August 7, 1891, wrote an editorial on “The condition of the Pariahs”.

Tremenheere, in his report, justified his recommendation to distribute land to Dalits: “The small marginal landholdings, housing, literacy, free labour without force/bondage, self-respect and dignity are the factors that could lead to transformation [in their lives].” The Pariah population, his report noted, was 4.5 million as per the 1881 Census and would be around nine million in 1891, making it a major social group in the State. He recommended, among other things, granting the Pariahs the right to connect to the soil, and providing free houses and schools in the “ceris” and even scholarships for their children so that they can continue their education. Accordingly, the G.O. of 1892 assigned about 12 lakh acres for distribution to landless Pariahs (including Pallars and other untouchables), across the Madras Presidency, though Pariahs were predominant in the area that is the northern region of Tamil Nadu today.

Dalit struggles

With Dalits slowly getting empowered through education and migration, their struggle for land has been an issue since the early 18th century. In fact, the historian-author Rupa Vishwanath, in The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion and the Social in Modern India, notes that but for Tremenheere the Pariah problem would not have come out in the public domain. She also noted, quoting from the Japanese scholar Haruka Yanagisawa’s scholarly work “A Century of Change: Caste and Irrigated Lands in Tamil Nadu, 1860s-1970s”, that even before the British could allot the “Depressed Class” lands, Pariahs who worked in the army and the railways had started purchasing land.

Similarly, even before those reports from the missionaries and the British government, Dalits were waging a grim battle against caste oppression since 1817. The Pallars in Paramakudi in Ramanathapuram district protested against caste Hindus’ domination. They even launched a non-cooperation movement in 1858 against the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and advanced castes.

However, the British order on Depressed Class lands was significant since it officially recognised and documented the condition of the oppressed. To prevent any abuse, the order laid down stringent conditions (Board of Standing Order 15, Special Form D for assignment of land to Scheduled Castes) for allotting land to Pariahs and other Dalit sections.

The order stated that the state-assigned land should not be alienated to any person for 10 years from the date of assignment, and thereafter it could only be sold or transferred to persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes. Thus, between 1918 and 1933, the earmarked Depressed Class lands were distributed to the Scheduled Castes. It said that in case of violation of the provisions, the government was vested with the power to take back the land from the purchaser without paying compensation or refund. However, much of the 12 lakh acres assigned for the purpose reportedly fell into the hands of unscrupulous elements among non-Dalits, especially in present-day Tamil Nadu. It was reported that panchami land given to Dalits, according to a study, was “bought even for a basket of ragi and maize”.

Land reform on paper
In the post-Independence period, no serious efforts were made to document agricultural land, especially in Tamil Nadu as was done in Kerala and West Bengal. In Tamil Nadu, laws that empowered people to own the land they tilled and laws that fixed a ceiling on the number of standard acres one could own remain only on paper even today. Though the Congress, which ruled the State soon after Independence, initiated steps such as forming Harijan cooperative societies, Dalit activists say little could have been expected from the party as it was dominated by “mittadars and mirasdars” (landlords). Even the implementation of the revolutionary Land Reforms Act 1960 could not empower the landless.

Brahmins had migrated to urban centres such as Chennai and the OBCs took their place and emerged as major cultivators-cum-landowners. The change in land-ownership equations had no impact on the status of Dalits, who were retained as labourers. The discrimination became harsher and endemic. “The contradiction that exists between policies and practices exposes the dubious role of vested interests in the State administration and the failure of targeted policy interventions. As a result, Acts such as the one on land ceiling failed to alter the oppressive agrarian structure that has survived since the 11th century,” points out Jerome Samraj.

The Dravidian parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which have ruled the State for the past five decades, are content with a few cosmetic exercises in the area of land reform, while other political parties except the Left show no interest in the issue. “These parties depend on rich landholders and traditional landlords, all belonging to the OBCs,” says D. Ravikumar, senior general secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a Dalit party in Tamil Nadu, and a Dalit writer. He is also the convener of the VCK’s Panchami Land Retrieval Movement. The Dalit parties Puthiya Thamizhagam and the VCK have prioritised panchami land retrieval as their main objective.

Several Government Orders, validating the rights of Dalits over the “Depressed Class” conditional lands (G.O. MS 2217 of Revenue dated 1-10-1941, G.O. MS 3092 dated 12-12-1946 and so on) were passed in the State, but to no avail—the rich continue to retain their grip over the land by forming trusts and distributing parcels of it among their payirkarars and OBCs. Non-Dalits are said to be holding around 3.5 lakh acres of panchami land, though there seems to be no official records on this staggering figure.

Many factors, among them the caste system, are behind the systematic thwarting of moves to assign land to Dalits. One key factor was the way land records were kept. Land record-keeping was a practice traditionally performed by “karnams” (custodians of village records) and was handed down from one generation to the next in their families, and they favoured the landed class. “In many villages, old land documents were either altered or obliterated. Revenue officials had to depend on them for any land-oriented issue,” says Samuel Raj, coordinator of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s [CPI(M)] Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Committee.

As Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M.G. Ramachandran abolished this traditional system of land administration by appointing village administrative officers (VAOs) in the Revenue Department who replaced the karnams. “Though it changed the power equations at the political and administrative levels, it did not help inland reforms, which remain elusive even today. I blame it on the lack of conviction of those in power. The landless languish in poverty,” says Samuel Raj. The State’s measures for land classification and redistribution, thus, remain half-hearted even today. Dalit activists claim that even the “jamabandhi” exercise (settlement of village assets), which every district administration has to conduct once a year, is futile because the administration is not serious about updating the panchami land records in the respective districts.

In 1979, the Tamil Nadu government took up a land survey across the State, the first such major exercise after Independence, with the objectives of regularising, reforming and classifying land, including various conditional land (panchami). But it did not achieve its stated objective. The “Updating Registry Scheme’’ (UDR), as it was called, began on June 1, 1979, and ended on April 30, 1987, without any tangible impact.

Samuel Raj claims that the survey did more harm than good to the landless, especially Dalits. The UDR survey did not restore panchami land to Dalits. “Instead, it was a well-planned conspiracy to dispossess them of their land by exploiting their ignorance. The classification of land as panchami was changed to other nomenclatures such as patta and porombok land in many places,” he says.

Absence of records
In the absence of government records, credible statistics are not available on panchami land in the erstwhile Madras Presidency, and now in Tamil Nadu. In fact, contradictory claims are being made on the availability of panchami land in Tamil Nadu mainly owing to the lack of inadequate information on land. In his work, “State Intervention in the Distribution of Land to the Poor: A Study of Tamil Nadu”, the historian and writer M. Thangaraj of the Dr Ambedkar Centre for Economic Studies, University of Madras, has detailed the injustice done to Dalits. He cites V. Karuppan, a retired Indian Administrative Service Officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre and head of the Dalit Joint Action Committee and Save Panchama Land Movement (SPLM), to say that the extent of total “Depressed Class” land in Tamil Nadu identified so far is a mere 1,16,392.40 acres. Of this, 16,018.09 acres are reportedly under alien occupation.

Ironically, the Office of the Commissioner of Land Administration (CLA), in response to a query made under the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2006, claimed that 1,26,113 acres of panchami land were available and only 10,619 acres were occupied by non-Dalits. An RTI application filed in the late 1990s by Y. Aruldoss, an activist, revealed that the extent of panchami land in the State was reportedly 1,04,494.38 acres, of which 74,893 acres were with Dalits. K. Meyyar, a Communist Party of India (CPI) functionary in Madurai, through his sustained RTI campaign, made the district administration identify panchami land in Madurai district to the extent of 2,843 acres in 2015. Sadly, these are not in the possession of Dalits.

Karanai agitation
Even before the resurgence of the Dalit movement in the early 1990s following the birth centenary celebration of B.R. Ambedkar, and the Dalit resistance to a brutal police crackdown on the Dalits of Kodiyankulam in Tuticorin district in 1995, struggles for the retrieval of panchami land had started in a few pockets across the State, though they remained low-key and disorganised.

The agitation of 1994 in Karanai, a village near Mahabalipuram in Chengleput district, emerged as the focal point for the struggle to retrieve panchami land in Tamil Nadu. This, says Anandhi, “gave a State-level visibility to the panchami land struggle”. A few Dalit youths in and around Karanai began an agitation demanding return of panchami land allotted to the Dalit families in the village, which ended in a police firing that killed two youths. A Dalit activist told Frontline that a senior police officer, now retired, was among the many non-Dalits who owned panchami land in Karanai (see separate story).

Karanai is 15 km from Siruthavur, a village that courted controversy when the CPI(M) and a few other political parties alleged that a bungalow where the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa used to stay was built on panchami and “porombok” land. The issue has been referred to the Supreme Court (see box).

C. Nicholas of the Dalit Mannurimai Kootamaippu (Dalit Land Rights Federation), a Villupuram-based social organisation, claimed that around 700 acres of panchami land had been identified in 1,200 villages and hamlets in the districts of Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Vellore, Tiruvannamalai and Cuddalore. “But Dalits own just a quarter of them today. The struggle to reclaim them has so far resulted in about 30 acres being restored to Dalits. Similar initiatives have been undertaken at other places too,” says Nicholas.

Several struggles to reclaim panchami land are on at various places in the State. Says Murali, a Dalit activist from Salem: “We have submitted innumerable petitions to the Salem District administration to retrieve panchami land and restore them to Dalits. Nothing has happened so far.” The RTI has been an invaluable tool for activists and sociologists taking up land issues.

According to Nicholas, the issue of the panchami land, or any other land for that matter, should be approached legally. “I do not believe in an emotional reaction. Landowning should be viewed as a rights issue. When you confine it to the boundaries of caste, it becomes a caste-centric issue. It will not serve the purpose, as you saw in Karanai. With the RTI around, Dalit activists should make use of it to collect necessary documents and details with regard to panchami land. After sensitising the officials, we must fight our battles for land legally and socially,” he says. This, he says, have yielded positive results (story on page 64).

Court judgments
Active judicial interventions have played a big role in keeping alive the issue of Depressed Class land. Scores of cases relating to them are being heard in various courts of the higher and subordinate judiciary. Some of the verdicts, especially in the higher judiciary, have prompted the government to shed its complacency and take tangible measures to restore to Dalits land illegally transferred from them.

A few judgments stand out. Justice K. Chandru, a judge of the Madras High Court, heard a batch of writ petitions filed by private builders and residents’ associations on the issue of D.C. land that had been alienated from Scheduled Caste people in 1925. In his verdict on November 7, 2008, he observed that evaluation of various legal precedents led to “only one irresistible conclusion that the ‘panchami land’ assigned in favour of the Dalits as a conditional assignment, if violated, can empower the government to resume those lands and such resumed lands can be entrusted to some other beneficiary belonging to the Dalit community”.

He quoted extensively from various judgments and records that were placed before him and told the petitioners that “these lands cannot be sold or mortgaged to anyone for 10 years. These lands may be sold or mortgaged after 10 years to the depressed classes only and any breach of these conditions will be liable to be cancelled.” He dismissed the writ petitions. Nicholas calls it a historic judgment that has empowered Dalits trying to get their land back. “It is a potent weapon in the hands of Dalits who are fighting to get hold of their land,” he says.

Justice Chandru’s verdict was endorsed again in no uncertain manner by the two-member bench of Justice Prabha Sridevan and P.P.S. Janarthana Raja of the Madras High Court six years ago. The bench upheld the single judge’s findings. Delivering the judgment for the bench, Justice Prabha Sridevan quoted extensively the observations of the Supreme Court in Papaiah vs State of Karnataka and others (1996), which Justice Chandru too had quoted, on the question of the right to economic justice under Article 46 of the Constitution.

The said Article “casts upon the state a duty to provide economic justice to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections of society in order to prevent their exploitation”. Article 39(b) of the Constitution enjoins the state to distribute its largesse, (that is) land, to subserve the public good. For the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections, the right to economic justice is a fundamental right for them to secure equality of status, opportunity and liberty.

The bench said: “Economic justice is a facet of liberty without which equality of status and dignity of person [is] teasing illusions.” It reiterated further that the state was under a constitutional obligation to distribute largesse (land) to poor people, especially in rural India, to augment their economic position. “Assignment of land having been made in furtherance thereof, any alienation, in its contravention, would be in violation of the constitutional policy….” The judge also drew attention to a provision in the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. “Despite various measures to improve the socio-economic conditions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, they remain vulnerable. They are denied a number of civil rights. They are subjected to various offences, indignities, humiliation, and harassment,” the judge observed.

Another interesting judicial observation came in a verdict in 2012 in a case relating to the sale of panchami land that had been alienated. M. Gunasekaran, a Dalit from Nemili village in Arakkonam taluk, petitioned the Madras High Court seeking its direction to the Nemili Sub Registrar to register the sale deed of a residential plot classified as panchami land, which he was buying from a non-Dalit, K. Vimalraj. The official had refused to register the sale deed on the grounds that a non-Dalit could not own the panchami land that he wished to sell to a Dalit.

Justice N. Paul Vasanthakumar said in his judgment: “Panchami land given to the depressed class persons cannot be sold by a person belonging to [any] other community, other than a Scheduled Caste, though the buyer belonged to a Scheduled Caste.”

He dismissed the petition. A number of similar judgments on panchami land, delivered in the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court, have been forthright in endorsing the rights of Dalits.

Ineffective committees
Increasing awareness and court verdicts favouring Dalits have forced the State government to issue directives and form special committees to sort out the panchami land issue. In 1991, on a petition filed by a Dalit in Karakathahalli village in Dharmapuri district, which claimed that 3.39 acres of panchami land had been usurped by a non-Dalit, the Madras High Court instructed the State government to restore all panchami land immediately. Consequently, the government issued a G.O. (G1/4868/90, dated 15-7-1991) asking District Collectors and other senior revenue officers to identify panchami land in their respective districts.

About 85,000 acres were identified, but the exercise was suspended midway through, for which no convincing reason was given. A three-member committee headed by a retired judge, M. Maruthamuthu, was set up by the DMK government just before the Assembly elections in 2011. With the change in regime following the elections, the committee was wound up. Meanwhile, on the basis of a petition, the Madras High Court, in an order issued on August 12, 2015, asked the State government to form an expert committee within six weeks to ascertain the status of panchami land in the State.

The AIADMK government constituted a three-member committee on October 8, 2015, headed by the Commissioner of Land Administration, to identify and retrieve panchami lands usurped by non-Dalits and to provide suggestions on how the land could be restored to its original owners. The consensus among Dalits is that the committee has done nothing worthwhile. “When we approached the committee on the issue, it asked us to provide details on panchami land, saying that land records were not available with the State government,” says Samuel Raj.

Though sporadic protests demanding retrieval of panchami land have been reported from across the State, a coordinated movement at the State and national levels has been initiated only recently. The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and the All India Agricultural Workers’ Union (AIAWU) are behind this effort. They have been demanding for a long time verification of the title transfers based on the records available with the Land Registration Department so that panchami land could be identified and handed over to landless Dalits.

The TNUEF and other organisations collected information on panchami land across the State through RTI petitions. As a first step, the information collected was compiled and released at a conference. The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) also urged the government to distribute land to Dalits along with cultivation resources, for which funds from the Scheduled Caste Sub-Plan could be used. In fact, to ensure land rights for Dalits at the national level, an exclusive forum, the National Federation for Dalit Land Rights Movement (NFDLRM), was formed in 2008.

The forum, based in New Delhi and comprising some 250 groups fighting for land for Dalits from 16 States, urged the government to convene a special Parliament session to discuss the issue of land and Dalits. They formed a “National Commission for Dalit Land Rights” to address issues relating to Dalits and the landless to ensure that land meant for Dalits and the landless, such as panchami land, Mahar Watan land and Bhoodan land (land gift movement), were properly distributed and utilised. (Mahar Watan is a type of inam granted to people, mainly Mahars, in Maharashtra. They were treated as untouchables since they did “inhuman” work and for which they received watan, or rights to small piece of land, to do their own cultivation. The watan included share of village produce. The watans were abolished in 1955.)

Dravidian politics

The identification of usurped panchami land is a political hot potato that no major political party, Dravidian or otherwise, in Tamil Nadu, is willing to take up. They fear losing the votes of the landowning OBCs. Ravikumar points out that the VCK’s efforts had failed to mobilise the movement on a mass scale. “We, apart from the TNUEF, have undertaken an exhaustive study and survey to ascertain the quantum of alienation of panchami land from Dalits. We came across numerous instances in which big corporates, industrial houses and even government agencies have encroached upon such land,” he says. According to him, nearly one lakh acres of land have been assigned illegally to non-Dalits. “Chennai city possesses vast tracts of panchami land, which is worth crores of rupees and on which a few iconic buildings stand today,” he says.

Activists and sociologists are sceptical about the retrieval of the Depressed Class land in Tamil Nadu without the support of the State government. Numerous RTI applications, protests, judicial interventions, awareness programmes and public hearings are yet to make a substantial difference to the situation. In 2010, S. Karuppiah, an activist in Madurai, submitted a petition to the Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and to the Chief Minister on the illegal holders of panchami land. M. Jeeva of the Madurai-based Society for Integrated Rural Development (SIRD) claims that OBCs in Madurai district have possessed D.C. land since 1953. The former Madurai Collector U. Sagayam had found that some 700 acres of panchami land in Melur taluk was under the control of granite quarry barons.

The state as usurper
The state, sadly, is a major usurper of panchami land. For example, a primary school in a village near Sholavandan in Madurai district, a man-made pond in Perambalur district and a bus stop in Tiruvannamalai district are located on panchami land. “Even industries are coming up on Depressed Class land, for which nearly 2,000 acres across the State have been assigned,” says Nicholas, referring to the various government proposals for setting up industrial estates and special economic zones (SEZ) on panchami land. The state has, thus, been a partner in crime in permitting agricultural land and allied common land, such as panchami, meichal, eri, natham, reserve forests and odai porombok, to be used for purposes other than what they were meant for—agriculture.

Land to the Adani group
In fact, a tahsildar was suspended in Ramanathapuram district last year for transferring the ownership of 4,000 acres of land, including vast tracts of panchami land, to the Adani group, which has installed a solar power plant near Kamudhi near Ramanathapuram. In the 1901 Census, says Ravikumar, 67 per cent of Dalits in Tamil Nadu were identified as landless. After a century, their status remains the same. It is a sordid tale of deprivation, of how Dalits in villages were, for a century, systematically dispossessed of their land. The denial of their constitutional right to own land effectively deters them from attaining economic and social emancipation.

Dalits in Tamil Nadu, Ravikumar says, are landless. He quotes the statistics of the Agricultural Census of the Government of India of 2010-2011. The census is taken once in five years and the findings of 2010-11 were released in 2014. It details the extent of cultivable land and its holders and also points out that Tamil Nadu has fewer landholding Dalits than Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. According to the 2005-2006 report, 8,84,000 Dalits owned 5,03,000 hectares of cultivable land, while the 2010-2011 data say that 8,73,000 Dalits possess 4,92,000 hectares. “In just five years, between 2005-2006 and 2010-2011, 11,000 Dalits have been rendered landless, losing about 11,000 hectares of land. The 2010-2011 data show that in Andhra Pradesh, Dalits owned 11,00,000 hectares and in Karnataka Dalits owned 10,74,000 hectares of land. In Maharashtra Dalits owned 13,03,000 hectares of land,” Ravikumar says.

He does not hesitate to put the blame on the two Dravidian parties that have ruled the State for more than half a century now. “Had the State government been genuine, the land reform in Tamil Nadu would have been total. The have-nots would have been empowered. Caste atrocities could have been prevented. Unfortunately, it has not taken place,” he says. Dalits, he says, have been deprived of their land and were being pushed into a trap of “hundred days’ work” (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or the MGNREGA).

“These Dravidian rulers know how to keep the socially disadvantageous people docile and ignorant by distributing freebies and implementing populist schemes as short-term benefits,” he says. “One of the remarkable features of the panchami land agitation of the 1990s in Tamil Nadu was that it brought together the land issue of Dalits and their identity politics,” says Anandhi. Tremenheere’s report, Jerome Samraj says, was “remarkable” for the way in which it presented the issue “from the point of view of the Depressed Classes and in a manner acceptable to the superior authorities”.

The Dalit activist and Chengleput-based lawyer A. Asokan, who observes Tremenheere’s birth anniversary every year as a mark of respect to the English Collector, says that but for him Dalits’ dream of owning land would have never been realised. “We Dalits are indebted to him,” he says. But what one needs from the State government, he points out, is identification of the rightful beneficiaries once the lands are reclaimed.

What Ambedkar said rings loud in the hard reality of today too: “We have no land, because others have usurped it.” Tremenheere sums up in his now-famous “Notes” on Pariahs: “With a little land and a hut of his own, able to read and write and free to dispose of his labour as he will, self-respecting and therefore on the road to respect, the future of the Pariah might be very different from that unhappy present which are stories of profound misery, have compelled me to delineate.” That was in 1891, the year Ambedkar was born. Little has changed in the condition of Dalits since then.

http://www.frontline.in/social-issues/social-justice/how-dalit-lands-were-stolen/article9662667.ece

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