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Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019

Landlessness takes away Dalits’ legal and official validity as Indian citizens

Citizenship requires entitlement to resources. The community must stake claim to State-owned land.

analysis Updated: Jul 01, 2019 09:00 IST
Suraj Yengde
Suraj Yengde
According to the recent data published by the Census of India, 71% Dalits are landless labourers who work on  land they do not own.
According to the recent data published by the Census of India, 71% Dalits are landless labourers who work on land they do not own.(Ravindra Joshi/HT PHOTO)
         

We must face the fact. And the fact is: our krishi pradhan desh (farming-prime country) is also a jaati pradhan desh (caste-prime country). If we merge these two phenomena, a toxic cocktail emerges, which is the reality of the country right now: a jaatiya-krishi pradhan desh (caste-prime farming country) responsible for creating more poverty, increased atrocity, and low productivity.

Dalits are not independent in India. They are a displaced people, exiled in their ancestral land, wandering about as stateless subjects. This landlessness takes away their legal, official and constitutional validity as the Indian. The community is desperately in need of a second freedom — which must be material freedom, and not merely on paper. The first step towards becoming an empowered Indian citizen is the ownership of land.

Citizenship requires entitlement to resources, and land is the primary resource. It helps secure dignity. Without land, you are constantly exposed to insecurity. It grants the poetic right of belonging, a powerful declaration of self. It is an assurance and a fallback option.

In many ways, it provides confidence to the subalterns to think beyond their confines. In a country where the majority of social and economic relations are derived from land and land-related occupations, landlessness is a permanent disadvantage.

In fact, most of the current problems Dalits face comes down to their landlessness. This gives exclusive right to landowners to continually question the legitimacy of Dalits and their belonging. Belonging, not just in a spatial sense, but also in an existential one. Dalits have to constantly make an effort to belong. This belonging is their desperate attempt to claim equality. However, every attempt made by Dalits to secure land and, thus, gain independence, is thwarted and looked down upon by the resource-owing landed-class-privileged-caste people, who are an integral part of the caste-state.

The Agricultural Census of 2015-16 reported that Dalits own only about 9% of the total agricultural land.

According to the recent data published by the Census of India, 71% Dalits are landless labourers who work on land they do not own. In rural areas, 58.4% Dalit households do not own land at all. This gets grimmer in Dalit-dominated states such as Haryana, Punjab and Bihar, where 85% of them are at their landlords’ mercy. The corresponding number is 60% in the case of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, West Bengal, and Odisha. In many districts in Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, 90% of Dalit farmers are agricultural labourers.

Of the above 60% landless Dalits in Maharashtra, my family is one . They left their Marathwada village two generations ago in the hope of finding security and a better future as millworkers in Nanded. Having no land to fall back on, the only option was to move to a big city en masse and squat in the swamps, which forms the present-day slums of India.

Dalits migrate to cities to occupy the lowest-paying jobs. They work as maids, construction workers, security guards, or do odd jobs as casual labourers. The Socio Economic Caste Census of 2011 reported that 8.33% landless Dalit households derive their income from manual causal labour. Many of them turn to begging.

They find no incentive in villages and agrarian oriented economies. Thus the only option left for the community is to find jobs in the service sector—mostly government ones. Every so often, a Dalit graduate is seen preparing for competitive exams. Because it is the only avenue open for Dalits. All the other sectors have closed their doors to them.

The issues raised by director Pa Ranjith about landlessness — he recently said that Raja Raja Chola-1 was responsible for forcibly taking away land from Dalits — should make every Dalit and non-Dalit think hard. The legal and legislative recourse available to Dalits is unbounded. The former Planning Commission has been continuously pushing for land reforms since the 1950s. Since 1961, several legislative interventions have put a ceiling on land from 10-54 acres. But most Dalits are still landless.

However, with the advent of Brahmin-Bania (including neo-Kshatriya and neo-Bania) caste capitalism in contemporary India, the ownership of Adivasi’s land also remains questionable. It is only apt for the landless across the castes, religion, region, tribes and ideologies to unite and usher a revolutionary call to own the 72-lakh acre surplus land across the country. Without which, the government’s policies are merely a way to hide real issues.

The preamble promises a radical imagination of justice in an unjust society, liberty in the wake of suppression of expression, equality amid inequality and fraternity in a country divided over 7000 castes and sub-castes across all the religions. It’s about time we live up to Constitutional ethos.

Suraj Yengde is an author of Caste Matters and a fellow at the Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School
The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 01, 2019 09:00 IST

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