Dalit Collective: The Unity of Struggle to Fraternity of Commune Life
For the last two years, the villages of Malwa region of Punjab are witnessing a new caste/class conflict between the landless Dalits and landowning upper caste rich farmers in collusion with the administration. The rise of Dalits for their rights is partly owing to the steep rise in Dalit consciousness in terms of scholarship and assertion. In about 65 villages, the Dalits are agitating for their rights. Though the Dalits have acquired access to their share of Shalmat (collective) land through protracted struggles only in over a dozen of the over 12,000 villages of Punjab, yet the Dalit Collectives that emerged from the experience of collective crusade for their land rights, have been eyesore of the upper caste rich farmers, who have been fraudulently occupying and cultivating the Panchayat land reserved for Scheduled Caste The Dalits of Balad Kalan, who after acquisition of the land through valiant struggle undented by severe repression have been doing Sanjha (collective) farming, a novel way of egalitarian commune-building from below without any directing authority from above, on the Panchayat land reserved for the members of SC community. Their united struggle under the banner of Zamin Prapti sangharsh Committee (ZPSC) had foiled the prior practice of usurpation of the land by rich farmers in 2014. This year again the Sarpanch (village head) in collusion with revenue and development officials were again trying to enact the farce of auction through proxy claims on 24th May 2016. The protest against it by the Dalits under the banner of ZPSC was brutally attacked by Police seriously injuring many protesters including women.
Janhastakshep, concerned with the gravity of the situation, resolved to send a fact-finding team to study the ground reality. The team consists of Senior journalists, Rajesh Kumar and Anil Dube; Vikas Pajpey, Assistant Professor at JNU and Ish Mishra, Associate Professor, at Hindu College, Delhi University. The team visited 3 villages, Balad Kalan, Baupur and Khedi and interacted with various cross-section and telephonic interview with the district collector, who was not available to meet in person.
Punjab has 2 categories of Shamlat land belonging to village Panchayats. Nazul land was constituted by the land of those who migrated/fled to Pakistan after the partition and of those who die without leaving behind the legal heir. The other is the common village land called Panchayati land. Consequent to the land struggles (1946-52), known as Mujara movement in Punjab and its aftermath, The Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act, 1961 was enacted that mandatorily reserves 33% of all available Shalmat or common land in all the villages Panchayats. But in reality the upper caste farmers in complicity of village Sarpanch and revenue and development officials have been invariably hosting dummy SC claimants to deprive the most Dalits access to the land. The Nazul/Panchayat land can neither be sold nor bought. The Nazul land is one time allotment but the Panchayat land is auctioned yearly. On papers 56,000 acres have been allotted to Dalits but practically remained under the occupation of rich farmers.
The Benra struggle: The new beginning
This state of affairs of deceptively grabbing the common land reserved for Dalits by the upper caste rich peasants continued uncontested in any substantial way till 2008, when Behal Singh of Benra village mobilized all the 250 Dalit families of village under the banner of Pendu Mazdoor Union. The united mobilization of Dalits created an awareness of their rights and the importance of the strength of unity among the ‘wretched of the earth’. This created an atmosphere that finding a SC dummy by upper caste rich farmers became impossible. They collectively got the 33% of land on collective lease. The 9 acres leased at lowered rates proved to be life line for the Dalits in terms of self-respect and human dignity. The fresh memories of being co-victims, realization of the strength of unity and experiences of collective struggles gave them insight of collective ownership, production process and equitable distribution. This became the experiment-field of creating a model of Dalit Collective and its advantages. The land was too little for cultivation of food grains as each family’s share would be just 10 Bishwa. In a planned departure from the traditional paddy-wheat cycle, the Dalit Collective collectively cultivates fodder crops – Chari (sorghum) and Berseem (clover) round the year. As has been said above the access to the land is not so important for the Dalits owing to the little shares of each family, it’s more important in terms of the self-respect and dignity.. The landless Dalits, particularly women had to go to for off places to collect fodder weeds for their cattle. The green weeds became confined to the banks of the canals and their distributaries and the fringes of the fields of the landowners. The women going to the fields of the upper caste (generally Jat) for weeds had to face disdainful contempt and many kinds of insults including physical and verbal abuses. Now they have their own fields and do not need to go to the landowners’ fields. As was clear from the reactions of all the women we met during our visit, this gave them the sense of self-respect and confidence to fight for their rights may what come. Thus this struggle gave the idea of new collective, probably the first of its kind in the recent history of the country. The Dalit Collective that emerged from this struggle created a precedence and model for collective ownership of means of production, its working and distribution of the product. An elected committee of 11 members manages the collective production process and the equitable distribution with sufficient saving for the bidding year after year. The idea of the Dalit Collective can play the foundational role in building rural communes whenever revolutionary transformation of society takes place.
The idea of Dalit Collectives became the driving force and immanently innate feature of all the subsequent land right movements of Dalits. The Benra experiment for over half a decade did not expand into other areas but its ideas spread all over the Punjab, particularly in the Malwa region, creating a panic among the rich farmers who have been deceitfully cultivating the land earmarked for Dalits.
Shekha: The setting
The second phase of land acquisition by Dalits began in 2014 with claiming and occupying 7 acres of land by the Dalits of Shekha, in Barnala district, under the guidance of the students’ activists belonging to Punjab Students Union (PSU). As told by Sukhvinder Singh Pappi, the leader of the Punjab Naujawan Bharat Sabha, the PSU activists came to know by examining the government documents that the Dalits (mostly landless), have never been practically accessed the reserved land. The initiation and participation of students in land movement is a good omen for future. In Shekha village, the students mobilized the Dalit families made them aware of their legal rights over the 1/3rd of the village common land and equipped them with idea of collective lease. They identified the land from the documents, occupied it and fenced it with red flags. They held Dharnas and protests at BDO/DDO offices and succeeded in getting occupation on the land, through collective lease in the annual auction that legally belonged to them but was occupied by higher castes. This victory was not as important in terms of economics as in terms sociology. It saved them from humiliation and indults at the hands of the upper caste big, middle and small farmers.
In Shekha after acquiring the land through struggles, the Dalit families began Sanjha Kheti (collective farming) on the pattern of the Berna village’s Dalit Collective, once again refuting the prevalent notion of self-seeking individualism. This collective ownership and collective labor process has provided the Dalits a platform for labor socialization in Marxist terminogy. It is not only economic gain for the mostly landless Dalits but more than that, it is the gain in terms of dignity and self-respect. Owing to mechanization of farming and use of herbicides, the weeds for fodder became scarce. They could be found only on the forage along the canals and on the fringes of the agricultural lands. The Dalit women going to collect fodder weeds to the fields of Jat farmers were usually insulted with physical and verbal abuses and casteist contempt. Once they have access to land and grow fodder crops, they save themselves from such abuses. Therefore for Dalits, it’s not merely economic but social struggle for human dignity. One of the peculiarities of this land movement is that it is not only supported but initiated by the students with continuing active participation. In order to coordinate various movements, and spearhead new ones, an organization on the principles of democratic collectivity, an organization Zmain Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC) was formed after prolonged deliberations. It adopted the red flag with thde sun in the center as it flag of struggle and construction. ZPEC henceforth became the revolutionary organization that is leading the movement for liberating the reserved Shalmat land for Dalits in many villages of Sangrur, Barnala, Patiala and other districts of Malwa. Most important has been the struggle in Balad Kalan, the center of the present controversy, where the size of the Panchayati land is huge, 375 acre with 125 acres reserved for the SC community. Henceforth the Dalit movements for access to their share of Shalmat land has been steadily spreading in, many villages of the 5 districts of Malwa region – Sangrur, Mansa, Jullundur, Barnala and Patiala.
Balad Kalan: Consolidation
After success in Sheka other villages too witnessed the rise of Dalits for collectively claiming the Panchayati land reserved for the SCs. Rise of Dalits in Balad Kalan holds special significance for 2 interlinked reasons. The first is the size of the land. Total Panchayati land is 375 acres of which 125 acres are reserved for yearly auction to the SC community. Secondly, just because of the size of the land and assertion by otherwise subdued Dalits on it, made the rich peasants who had been by deception and fraud reaping the fruits of that land and hence it faced the brutal repression police and the administration in complicity of the rich farmers. For all these years after the passage after passage of the law regarding this in 1961 till April 2014, the Dalits of Balad Kalan remained deprived of their land rights. The awareness among the Dalits of the village of the might of the Dalit Collectives motivated them towards the collective crusade for the rights and they organized themselves into an unit of ZPSC and held protests and launched protracted agitation for their rights. There were lathicharged beaten up leading to seriousies injuring many men & women. 41 people were detained for 59 days, as is the usual method of breaking the strike, charged under various IPC charges including attempt to murder. ZPSC took a decision of not applying for bail of the arrested agitators but to pressurize the government to withdraw the false cases through agitations. There were protests for their release all over Punjab. Eventually the struggle yielded fruit and the Dalit Collective formed under ZPSC won the battle and secured the release of the comrades and the lease of the land. That proved to be a historic victory.
The 54 year old Karnail Singh was overwhelmed recollecting the experiences of those days. He was among the arrested agitators. His forearm was severely injured in brutal lathicharge that needed stainless steel prosthesis and still pains. He feels that pleasure of the access to land after working for generations as laborer on the fields of Jat Zamindars. It brought about a new spring in the lives of the 143 Dalit families of Balad Kalan. As Sandip Kaur, who had been badly beaten up by male cops in the thighs and back in brutal police action on 24th May 2016 to break the protest, recalled the inhuman insults inflicted of the Jat Zamindars whenever they went to collect weeds for the cattle in their fields. The access to land was a kind of emancipation. Notwithstanding the pain of nearly fresh injuries she proudly expressed her determination not to lift the collective occupation of land and to fight till the end.
The activists of ZPSC visited the village and held the meetings with Dalits and made them aware of their rights and the experiences of Dalit Collectives. On June 27, 2014, all the Dalits of Balad Kalan came out came out of their homes to battle a 500-strong posse of Punjab Police men called out to support panchayat and revenue officials attempting to subvert the auction of 125 acres of common land reserved for lease to SCs. "They were brutal," says Paramjit Kaur, 40, who spent weeks in a coma after a particularly vicious policeman repeatedly pounded her on the head with his baton. Balad Kalan became a precedent of transformation that is overtaking rural Punjab, quietly but firmly challenging, even demolishing, age-old caste equations. Dalit Collectives like in Balad Kalan have managed to take control of common land legally reserved for Scheduled Caste communities in as many as 16 Sangrur villages.
The Dalits had already the experience of advantages of Sanjha Kheti (collective farming) in relatively smaller pieces. Applying that experiment at a relatively larger scale was a challenge that the Dalits Collective of the accepted and carried on successfully in the advantage of all. It proved to be vitally advantageous vis-à-vis individual farming as practiced by rich and middle upper caste farmers. The guiding principle of collective is the common ownership of the means of production, collective labor process and equitable distribution of the product. The successful implementation of Dalit Collective that is not only an economic unit but the social and cultural unit too, has provided an alternative model to self-seeking individualistic perception of humans. It has also provided a platform of socialization and organization and association with other Dalit Collectives that have already come up in over dozen of villages and join hands with upcoming such movements. The functioning of the collective is supervised by an elected committee of the Collective that manages the efficiency in production and equitable distribution after saving the money for next auction.
This year as mentioned above, the administration connived with the village Sarpanch representing the interests of the Jat farmers tried to subvert the auction through proxy claimants. Once again all the men and women of Dalit families and their supporters from outside and the members of other collectives came out on Roads and blocked the road at Bhawanipur and once again they were brutally attacked by the Police. Like in 2014, this time too male Police dragged and beat up women along with men. 4 girls were going to attend coaching classes, despite all their pleadings; they were dragged and brutally beaten up with rifle butts and lathis. 8 people are arrested with the usual charges of attempt to murder, obstructing lawful authority et.al. At the time of writing this report they are still in Jail. The women’s participation is quite encouraging. Out of around 400 protesers, half of them were women. May what come, Dalit Collective is determined not to give up their legitimate occupation of the land and have begun the process of cultivation of the Kharif crop. The threats of the withdrawal of MNREGA and BPL cards, arrests and false cases have not been able to dent into their courage and determination to fight for their legitimate right to land. The Balad Kalan ZPSC President, Kishan Singh categorically told the team that their struggle was not for any charity from the government but regular work.
Badau: Study to Struggle
In Badou, we met the villagers in Raidas Dharmshala whose walls were decorated with quotations from revolutionary Punjabi poet Pash; Che Guerra and Bhagat Singh. A ZPSC whole timer Pirthi Singh Longowal from Longowal village of the district is camping there as a whole timer of ZPSC to consolidate the Dalit awakening and organization and take the experiment and struggles of Dalit Collective to other villages. In the villages where Dalit Collectives are active, as told by Prithi Singh during our visit to the village, they plan to open libraries. On being asked about priority for library he quoted Ambedkar’s famous teaching that to end the suffering one has to struggle and to struggle one has to study as struggle without knowledge is doomed to fail. Here too 22.5 acres for 180 families is not enough for forming the food grain and hence they too adopted round the year fodder crop cycle. Team went the field with greeneries all around the pump in the middle. A year ago when ZPSC launched the movement, the stotry of Police and Zamindar brutality was the same as at Balad Kalan. Many including 3 women were injured. The Police did not spare even the rag picker women.
At the time of writing this report, Sukhvinfer Singh of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha telephonically informed that in Badau, Janedi and Grachon villages the Dalit Collectives have eventually been allotted the land of their share and Balad Kalan and other villages there is status-quo. The Dalit Collective is spreading fast. As yet Dalits in more than 16 villages have gained the access to the Shamlat land and movement is on. Sukhvinder also informed that in attempt to expand the Dalit Collective to other villages, Pirthi Singh reached Mandera village near Longowal. As they were holding the protest meetimg Police cracked down and arrested him along with 13 others. They are still in Jail. In the struggle
During the 2014-15 land movement under the leadership of ZPSC, according to Basheshwar Prasad from the Associaton for Democratic Rights (AFDR), Punjab, over 250 acres of Shamalat land reserved for SC has been occupied by the Collectives. The villages having Dalit Collectives include Bijda, Namod, Kalara, Chandeli, Bavpur, Janedi and others.
The Dalit Mahapanchayat
The ZPSC, in order to consolidate the gains and spread the movement to other parts of the Malwa region, organized a Dalit Mahapanchayt in March 2015 ahead of the auction in May. It was attended by the delegates from 80 villages of the 5 districts mentioned above. The strength of the Panchayat and revolutionary deliberations alerted the Jat farmers and the administration about the possible rise of Dalits in other villages. Their fear was not baseless. Collectives came up in few more villages’ including Matoi in Sangrur district. In continuation of the Mahapanchayat, ZPSC and various other peasants’; students’ and human rights organizations have given a joint call to protest the Police action and demand the withdrawal of fake charges on the agitators and their release along with the main demand of access to the land to Dalits reserved for them, district headquarters of Punjab. On 20 March 2016 there was another ZPSC convention in Grachon village in which Dalit Collective had won the lease of the reserved Panchayat land. The convention was attended by over 400 Dalits from 102 villages. It pledged to carry on the land movements for the Dalit Collective in all the villages of Punjab. The movement is opposed by Bhartiya Kisan Union And Punjab Kisan Union as they represent the interest of the rich farmers.
Ever since, many meetings and convention attended by Dalit representatives of various villages from Sangrur, Mansa, Barnala and Patiala districts have been organized with purpose of elevating radical Dalit consciousness and awareness about their land rights and advantages of Collectives. The ZPSC held a meeting of 80 villages but attracted people from over 100 villages. In 2015 the meeting in Mansa at PSU Office was attended by over 1000 delegates. Another convention of 4,000 Dalits from 102 villages was held at Grachon village. One of the common agenda of all these conventions and meetings has been occupation of the reserved land and creation of Dalit Collectives as not only economic but also as socio-political platform and educational center for the radicalization of Dalit consciousness.
Janedi: The rational rebuttal of criminal attack by Zamindars on the Collective
Janedi village is another village where the Dalit Collective was able to secure the lease of the reserved land and to institutionalize the collectively farm. The collective was attacked by the goons of the Zamindars. The goons were beaten up by the members of the collective and their guns snatched and deposited in Police station and Police was forced to arrest few goons. There was a murder in Baupur in personal rivalry; the leaders of the Collective were arrested in false cases. One of the accused named in the 24th May is already in Jail.
Dalit Collective in Matoi : Women’s Empowerment
One of the special features of the movements of these Dalit Collectives has been participation of women in significant number. In the protest gathering of over 400 in Dalad Kalan on 24th May number of women was well over 200, according to the villagers we talked to. Another significant feature has been the initiative and participation of students. Learning about the Dalit Collective of the Shekha village, created on the initiative of the students of Punjab Students Organization (PSU). Few female students under the leadership Sandip Kaur of Matoi village in Sangrur sought to experiment of Dalit Collective in her village. She mobilized the educated Dalit girl from her college and other villages in 2014 and led a protracted agitation and finally won the lease of 17 Bighas of farmland reserved for SC communities. Like Shekha, Berna and Badou, the Matoi Collective also adopted to cultivate fodder crops round the year. Now the women of the village no longer needed to forage for fodder for the cattle.
Khedi: The Travesty of Social Justice
The case of Khedi is mind boggling. 56 Dalit families were allotted residential plots in 1976 but they never got its notification and hence the possession. Punjab & Haryana High Court gave a judgement that if the house on the plot is not built within 3 years of allotment the land shall be taken over by the Panchayat. It is only during the land movements in other villages, the students associated with PSU explored the reality. The Dalits have identified from the documents and occupied the land under the banner of ZPSC. For all these years it had been leased for agriculture. The allottees were made aware of their rights by ZPSC. Learning about the experiences of other movements and Collectives, the Dalits organized them into Collective and occupied the land, erected tents under the red banner of ZPSC with the ZPSC red flags marking the boundaries. Octavian Nakshtra Singh, an ex-army man, oozing with confidence, narrated how they confronted the attackers. There was some quarrel between two families of the village for which the Sarpanch’s husband, acting as the de-facto Sarpanch, on the behest of the rich upper caste farmers accused the agitators and Police lodged FIR against 18 people and confiscated a Scooty and a motor bike from 2 Dalit boys. 4 People are still in jail.
The Sapanch’s husband terminated 4 women’s work from the MNREGA project and threatened them with withdrawal of their BPL letter. It is to be noted that these 4 women are from the families whose houses were demolished for road construction without any compensation as they didn’t have any land documents. They also don’t figure in the list of 56 allottees. It is also to be noted that the ZPSC of Khedi have in principle have resolved to accommodate these families too. The Sarpanch’s husband, when confronted took the plea to be SC himself and counter questioned us why the issue is being raised only now? The position in the village is reserved for SC and Woman. The Dalits are camping in the open enduring the heat and wind but the pleasure of struggle for rights keeps them untired. All the men and women were unanimous in their determination to fight till they breathe last.
The Collective Kitchen
The other Collectives practice collective ownership of land, collective farming and equitable distribution Near, Khedi has Collective kitchen of 200 people. Each member contributes one’s share and the collectively cook and dine. They have constructed Raidas temple adjacent to common kitchen where plenty of utensils and plates can be seen. In the context of propagation of individualism, as the ruling principle of society, the collective kitchen is a model and inspiration of collective ventures.
The Role of Police and Administration
The role of the administration has always been against the Dalit agitators and tp break their united struggle all kind of repressive actions including violence by Police and registration of false cases against the agitators. (Details from Vikas’s draft)
· The notion that agriculture in Punjab has transcended feudal social relations to capitalist stand refuted by the prevalent caste biases, particularly against Dalits.
· To fulfill its constitutional obligations under the Directive Principles of the State Policy, the Punjab Government passed legislation in 1961 to reserve the allotment of the 1/3rd of the collective land in every village for SC communities. But this reservation had remained futile for over half of a century, as in practice, the Dalits remained landless and their share of land was fraudulently appropriated by the high caste farmers using dummy/proxy Dalit claimants in connivance with the administration, Police and politicians.
· With the rise of Dalit scholarship and assertion owing to historical reasons during the last 3 decades, there have been corresponding rise in the Dalit consciousness and awareness among them about their constitutional rights.
· As a matter of pleasant surprise, after the precedent of Benra Dalit Collective, the initiative of Dalit mobilization for their rights was taken by students indicating future alliances of radical movements.
· The participation of women has been significant alluding to rose in the feminist consciousness in the rural Punjab. The movement for claim and occupation of the Panchayat land reserved for Dalits in Matoi by female students, not belonging to any organized group, is incredible, symptom of a dialectical unity of Dalit and feminist consciousness that needs to be channelized.
· The administration and Police have always sided with the rich farmers to crush the Dalit demands for their legitimate rights in the collective land. The not only aid and abet the usurpation of rights of Dalits by upper castes but actively participate in perpetuating the fraud, using the government machinery and its coercive apparatuses.
· When the determined, fearless might of the collectivity of the oppressed, with ‘nothing to lose attitude’ rises for the right, no repression can stop it. Eventually it would have its way, as exemplified by Dalit Collectives of ZPSC.
· The functioning of the Dalit Collectives and the solidarity among its members is a strong refutation of the privatization model of development.
1. Review of land reforms implementation and redistribution of the land.
2. Survey of all the collective (Shamlat) land and allotment of 1/3rd of it to real and not the fictional Dalits.
3. Immediate recognition of the claim of residential plots of the Dalits of Khedi.
4. Release of all the agitators, withdrawal of false cases against them and action against the Policemen who mercilessly thrashed men and women.