The wide wheat fields are a Dalit woman’s workplace in rural Punjab. Everyday, she criss-crosses through them, jumping over ditches, looking carefully for stray fodder growing for her buffaloes. She looks along bunds and edges of the big farms. When she finds what she needs, she gathers them stalk by stalk and puts them into a dupatta she has tied on her back. She then carries the bundle hastily to her bicycle, ties it to the back seat, and rides the mud track back home.
These open fields she visits everyday are also daunting. She often hurries through them, praying a zamindar doesn’t spot her.If he does, she prays harder that he is having a good day so he doesn’t call her names or assault her.
Punjab is one of India’s most agriculturally prosperous states, where the green revolution and mechanization in agriculture became hugely successful. But this success did not trickle down to the state’s Dalit communities. While 5 lakh hectares of Punjab are under agricultural cultivation, according to India’s Agricultural Census 2015-16, Dalits, whose percentage in Punjab is the highest at 32 percent (the national average being 16 percent), own only 3.5 percent of private farmland. Vast swathes of land are owned by a single dominant caste of Jutt (or Jat) farmers across the Punjab-Haryana region of northwestern India. Historically marginalized and not allowed to own land, Dalit people continue to live a hand-to-mouth existence.
This landlessness has meant that Dalit women, whose lives and work depend directly on the land, are harassed and humiliated. However, since 2014, a movement to reclaim land for Dalits, led by Dalit women, has swept through Punjab.
A movement led entirely by women
Most Dalit men in the villages go out to work as daily wage labourers in construction, or have petty trades in towns nearby, and do not engage in caste occupations. It is women who bring fodder from the fields, work as harvesters, and do domestic chores. This regularly brings them in direct contact with upper caste people.
“Women would be in tears narrating their experiences of how upper caste men would feel entitled over lower caste women. Particularly when they go out to get fodder, being abused is not at all an extraordinary thing; it is part of everyday life,” said Paramjeet Kaur, a young activist with the Zameen Prapthi Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC).
The ZPSC has been the primary organisation that has mobilised Dalits for land reclamation. They filed a Right to Information (RTI) application and found that there were 15 districts in Punjab and 123 villages in the district of Sangrur that had Nazul lands — lands formely belonging to Punjabi families from the erstwhile Muslim majority state abandoned during the partition to go to Pakistan that, unbeknownst to a lot of Dalit people, can be alloted to Dalits for cultivation under The Nazool Lands (Transfer) Rules, 1956.
Other than Nazul lands, the Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act, 1961, reserves 33 percent (1/3rd) of panchayat land for Dalits, who can acquire it on lease through a yearly auction. It is the reclamation of these lands that has become the main focus of the movement in Punjab. Upper-caste farmers continue to farm on these though only Dalits can participate in the auctions — proxy or dummy Dalit candidates are often bribed to grab these lands and hand them over to zamindars to farm on. A well oiled nexus of police, officials and landlords had made this the routine.
The ZPSC, along with farmers’ unions, actively disseminated information on land legally available to Dalits in several villages. The community began to organise, launching its first protest demanding that the zamindars return their lands in 2014. In this short span of six years, Dalits have reclaimed 2800 acres of land in 57 villages in Punjab.
“In the beginning, people did not even like hearing that Dalits could own land, especially in villages. They would laugh it off and ask us, ‘What law are you talking about?’,” said Kaur. “In Balladh Kalan [the first village where ZPSC helped reclaim land], they were more aware and a little better economically, so they began asserting themselves. From then, the news spread that Dalits had the right to 1/3rd of panchayat land and then there was a feeling that this was possible. The big thing was that women were leading.”
According to a study by Punjabi University’s Dr Gian Singh on women rural labourers in Punjab, when asked about sexual harassment at the workplace, 70 percent of the respondents were quiet. “They are silent because they will not get labour work if they raise the [their] voice. Sexual harassment hampers women’s constitutional rights to equality and dignity,” Singh told the Indian Express.
Kaur explained that the women were pushed to the wall, “They were suffocated from within with the treatment they were receiving. The women felt if only they had their own land, why would they be sexually abused just to harvest some grass for their cattle?”
Kaur, who as a social worker tried to organise women for other causes such as inflation and hike in school fees, said women were meek and would not want to put themselves out there with the burden of managing their households and children. Many were victims of domestic abuse at the hands of alcoholic husbands as well. But in their struggle for land, these issues became secondary.
“They were earlier scared of the police, but now they didn’t bother,” Kaur said. “They have had legal cases slapped on them. Even with children, they have protested all night, even during summer nights when it was so hot. They would finish their work and then come to the agitation, all because they were determined to have their land.”
But the demand for land has come at a cost, and has even been met with resistance and retaliation by upper-caste landowners.
“Some resist openly, some covertly, but everyone has tried to oppose it,” Kaur said. “They can call a Dalit for their work and underpay them. Even if dalits want to buy milk, the upper-castes want to barter work for it instead of money for milk. That way they can exploit them more, get them to mop and sweep their houses. ”
ZPSC President Mukesh Malaudh recounted what Dalits endured in Baladh Kalan, the first village where ZPSC attempted to reclaim land in 2014. Of the 354 acres of common panchayat land, the Dalits could farm on 118 acres. But the land auctions were marred by a collusion between the officials and the zamindars, while simultaneously blocking Dalit participation.
When villagers protested, the police resorted to violence. They baton-charged the protestors, injuring many in the process. 41 protestors, including Malaudh, were arrested and remained in prison for 59 days. But Dalits who were free continued to protest in public places everyday until the officials finally relented. They struck a compromise — the Dalits would use the land for six months and the upper-castes for six months. This is a first, small victory, but an important one that set the momentum for future struggles.
There have been violent clashes between Jutts and Dalits in many other villages as well. As many as 300 active members of the ZPSC have cases filed against them. People have been injured and attacked with batons, bricks, scythes, and knives.
In one violent confrontation in Jhaloor, when protestors gathered for a night rally, drunk and armed Jutts ambushed over 100 Dalit villagers, and even threatened them, saying, “We’ll teach your daughters a lesson for asking for land,” according to Kaur, who was in the rally.
Houses were vandalised; women, children, and animals were attacked. An elderly Dalit woman, Mata Gurudev Kaur, eventually died after her leg was almost severed with an axe.
Boycotts by upper-castes
Landowning upper-castes have resisted the movement with various boycotts. Sanctions against Dalits are blared from a loudspeaker in the village gurudwara. These restrictions include people not being able to sell milk to Dalits, not providing employment opportunities for Dalits, and restricting Dalits from picking vegetables or fodder from the fields or using the water from the tubewells. pper-castes who break these boycotts and interact with Dalits have to pay a fine.
“In 2017 the zamindars acquired land by installing a dummy candidate in our land auction,” said Jagtar Singh, a 48-year-old electrician from Tolewal, who started farming in 2016 for the first time in his life. “Our protest was met with intense violence. My wife’s finger was broken and my aunt was attacked on her side.”
When Singh learnt that Dalits could access 1/3 panchayat land, he said that he felt cheated and betrayed that he hadn’t known it before. “What they detest is that we are now organised, they are afraid no one will do their work,” he said.
Some men who attacked protestors were booked under the SC/ST Act, but more arrests were made of Dalits who were targeted.
“When it was time for the land auction, we were asked to withdraw the SC/ST cases and negotiate with the accused to participate in the auction. We protested again and were finally able to gain lease for 1/3 land for a yearly sum of ₹ 90000,” he said.
Life after land
In villages where Dalits have been successful in reclaiming land, their lives have been changing. In Balladh Kallan, Dalits have formed an 11-member committee that oversees sowing, harvesting, and marketing of surplus produce. Dalits farm collectively, and profits and expenses are shared by the community. More recently, they have also bought a tractor worth ₹3.75 lakh. From earning ₹300 as daily wage for menial labour and some occasional MGNREGA work (a government scheme that ensures 100 days of wage employment), Dalits are now working for themselves for the first time. Each family receives five quintals of wheat per year and a trolley of fodder and makes a profit between ₹10,000 and ₹15,000 per year.
“Before 2014, we had nothing. Now we save because we don’t have to buy grains,” said Paramjit Kaur [different from ZPSC’s Paramjeet Kaur], a retired anganwadi teacher who now farms along with her husband . Earlier, people had to depend on the zamindars, and standing up to them meant fear of extermination or that they couldn’t borrow money from them.
According to a 2017 study, around 68 percent of agricultural labourers in rural Punjab borrow money from big farmers at high-interest rates. Being landless also means that they are usually unable to show assets as collateral to acquire bank loans.
“Things are changing. Now that we have land, we are filled with so much courage that we can take on anyone – we can fight anyone, we were afraid before. We work in our own fields, we don't have to go to anyone's fields. Our daughters and daughters-in-law are not afraid to go to the fields, they can go whenever they want, including night time. We are leading a life of self respect. We are equal to the Jutts now,” Kaur said.
The Dalits who have reclaimed lands, and begun farming, are even in a position to help others. During the COVID-19 lockdown, they donated surplus wheat to the homeless and those in need. Dalits who had sold off their cattle, because they could not maintain them, have now bought buffaloes and do not have to buy milk.
According to ZPSC’s Paramjeet Kaur, Dalit women are more politically aware now. They know who the officials are, and can navigate the system better to get their work done. “They know what the government's job is and this awareness doesn't just come from reading, it comes from life experience. In villages such as Bharo, Bhatiwaal Kalan, Balladh Kalan, and Kular Khurd, women have also stood for the panchayat [village council] elections,” she said.
“Our granaries are full. We have wheat to eat, we are paid for the rice we cultivate,” said Singh.
“But more than the material changes, imagine that in this world we have a piece of land to call our own. Land is so vast, now there's also a small portion for us. We will not let it be lost.”