Sunday, December 19, 2004

Dalit Tillers' 15-year fight for land

Kashipur (Uttaranchal): As 78-year-old Subedar Jasram got up to receive an award here, his misty eyes revealed everything about his 15-year-long struggle for getting back 1,168 acres of land.

Jasram and 150 families are still struggling to get their land entitlement despite a favourable verdict from the Supreme Court in February this year, says Grassroots Features. The struggle of the Dalits of Ambedkar Gaon in Shaheed Udham Singh Nagar district is a long history of betrayal and justice denied. The families were forcibly evicted in 1991 when the entire administration raided the village with bulldozers and trucks.

Women, old men and children were dragged out of their huts and put under arrest. When people resisted the move to demolish their huts and crop, they were beaten up. The brutal assault was mounted in connivance with a private company.

The Dalits were tilling land that was declared surplus by the Commissioner of Kumaon Division under the Uttar Pradesh Land Ceiling and Zamindari Act, 1973. About 878.67 acres was declared ceiling surplus land and 250 more acres were declared surplus in the name of a school.

The poor peasants, mostly Dalits, began to till the land in accordance with the provisions of the Land Ceiling Act under which any landless peasant would have ownership title of the land that he had been tilling for the past 20 years.

As long as it was wasteland, no one really bothered. But when the Dalits created a village there, Ambedkar Gaon, and the land became fertile, a private company claimed the land and approached the local administration.

Before the Dalits could get the land redistributed in their name legally, the private company moved the Allahabad High Court against the injunction of the Kumaon Commissioner.

Justice R.B. Mehrotra, who delivered the judgement in 1995, not only rejected the petition but also asked the state government to compensate the victim families for Rs.1 million.

The order was challenged in Supreme Court and in all these cases the Dalits were a party.

In 1997, social activists Vidya Bhushan Rawat and Namita Rawat who went to the spot on a fact-finding mission were targeted by upper caste Sikhs who were allegedly staying illegally in the disputed area.

As for Jasram, his credibility came under threat as people came to believe that he was receiving illegal gratification and not doing anything for them.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat started visiting Kashipur and Harinagar where most of the displaced families were staying. He advised them to form the Ambedkar Gaon Dalit Sangharsh Samiti so that the case could gain more weight in the Supreme Court.

"We had to fish out the old papers from the Registrar of the Supreme Court... Since it is difficult for poor people to pay a lawyer, they look up to NGOs like us to fight their cases," said Rawat.

While the case was continuing in Supreme Court, people in Harinagar started facing economic boycott.

Jasram's son, who was a resident of Harinagar, died in between and his paralysed wife passed away in April this year. In spite of these personal losses, Jasram did not let his morale sag.

And then good news followed.

"By justifying the ceiling law, the Supreme Court has clearly mentioned that the ceiling land given to the Dalits was right. Unfortunately, so far no action has been taken," says Rawat.

The Delhi-based Social Development Foundation (SDF) decided to honour Jasram for his commitment to the cause of the displaced Dalits of Ambedkar Gaon.

"I am happy my struggle has been recognised but sad that despite all efforts the state continues to deny me justice," says Jasram, with tears in his eyes.

Source: Indo-Asian News Service, Dec 19, 2004

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