A poll-promise of free land, made just over a month ago, has ignited a stormy peasant uprising in Punjab, which is threatening to spin out of control.
Egged on by communist leaders, landless Dalit Sikhs have laid siege to vast tracts of government land, prompting a widespread police crackdown since May 21 and arrest of over 1,000 people, according to the CPIML-Liberation.
Three districts of the backward Malwa region — Singrur, Bhatinda and Mansa — are on the boil. Punjab has the country’s largest Dalit population of 28.9 per cent.
Farmhands are fighting farmers, but from farms, the hostility often extends to faith. On May 24, the murder in Vienna of a leader of the Dera Sach Khand sect — which has a massive following among Punjab’s Dalits — sparked violent clashes.
The current standoff resulted from an election promise by the current Akali Dal-BJP government to implement the Punjab Land Consolidation and Fragmentation Act, 1961 and give free land to Dalit Sikhs from one-thirds of panchayat-owned estates.
“Three of my sons and their wives were arrested. One is still in jail,” says a 70-year-old Kartar Kaur of Diler Singhwa village in Mansa district. Braving a sweltering sun, she sat on a day-long protest in Delhi on Tuesday.
The protesters struck a deal with the government on May 19, demanded land allotment within three months and NREGA or job cards within one month. The government agreed on one condition: they must vacate all illegally-held land.
The protestors did not agree, saying land would be freed only when land would be legally allotted to them. This sparked the crackdown on May 21.
Delhi-based Kavita Krishna, who organised the protest in Delhi, said the agitation would continue until land is allotted. “They don’t want to eke out a living off the land anymore, said activist Manisha Sethi, adding, “They want the land.”
The matter has reached the high court, with two petitions being filed following these arrests. Notices have been issued to the Punjab Home Secretary, Hashmit Singh of the Revolutionary Youth Association, who is backing these Dalits, told HT from Ludhiana.
Malwa region, the epicentre of the uprising, has been largely untouched by the spoils of the Green Revolution that has turned Punjab into the country’s food bowl.