When they came to the barren border areas of western Gujarat’s Kutch region after the 1965 war with Pakistan nearly five decades ago, the 100-odd Sikh families did so because then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri wanted people from this hardy and industrious community to settle alongside Pakistan.
Each family was given 48 acres and in the years to come they were joined by more and more Sikh farmers and others from Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The barren land was soon turned into productive acres of cotton, wheat and oilseeds.
Today, 5,000 families — mostly Sikh — cultivate 100,000 acres in Kutch. But after having nurtured the land for generations, they were told by the Narendra Modi government in 2010 that they had no rights on their land.
Provisions of the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Lands (Vidarbha Region) Act of 1958 were invoked to deny these farmers any right to the lands in their possession for decades.
“Almost 50 years after my family settled here, I am now given the feeling that I am an outsider,” said 65-year-old Surinder Singh Bhullar, who owns 26 acres and an orchard in Mandvi tehsil, Kutch.
He went on to add: “This is our home. We will not go anywhere from here. We have given our blood and sweat to Kutch and turned barren lands fertile. How can anyone evict us from here?”
But the BJP government in Gujarat is bent upon getting the ‘outsiders’ to leave. After the high court upheld the farmers’ rights to their lands, the Modi regime approached the Supreme Court, where a hearing is due on August 27.
Though delegations of Sikh farmers sought to meet Modi soon after the Gujarat government began freezing — disallowing them from buying, selling or mortgaging — their land in 2010, it was only last Sunday that the CM met Sikh farmers for the first time.
And far from offering them any relief, Modi told them tersely that the law would take its own course.
In Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which proudly proclaims to be a party of peasants and runs the state government in coalition with the BJP, is in a dilemma. Its top leaders, SAD president and deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal and CM Parkash Singh Badal, are treading cautiously.
They have assured full support to the farmers and have formed a committee to meet Modi on the issue but don’t want to rub the BJP strongman and chief of its poll campaign committee the wrong way.
SAD spokesperson Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, however, was openly critical of the Gujarat government. “It is highhandedness on the part of the Modi government that the issue of these farmers is not being sorted out. They had purchased land and paid registration charges to the local administration. They can’t be divested of their rights.”
The Congress party in Punjab alleged that Modi wanted to grab land from the farmers and hand it over to industrialists.
But Vimal Purohit, the advocate who fought the farmers’ case in the high court, has a contrary view. He said the Modi government wanted to save the agricultural land from being transferred for industrial purposes.
Whatever be the Gujarat government’s reason, the Sikh farmers of Kutch are now looking to the apex court with a mixture of hope and apprehension.