Absent in Elections 2024: Dalits and the historic battle for land

Caste, big capital, entrenched political influence continues to determine access to to land. Violence is the means to quell  India’s Dalit communities as they struggle to reclaim land that is tilled by them.Punjab, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu have seen emergent movements around Dalit land rights but these are not reflected in manifestos of political formations, yet.
Illustrations : Labani Jangi / https://ruralindiaonline.org

Sabrang India speaks to Gujarat lawyer-activist and MLA Jignesh Mevani and senior activist Nicholas form Tamil Nadu to uncover the rich trajectory of the Dalit community’s struggle for land and resources countrywide

On March 18, 1956, the slogan “Jo zameen sarkari hai, woh zameen humari hai.” rang through for the first time in India. It was by none other than Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar at a seminar for land redistribution. Ambedkar was a votary for control over land and production to Dalits, a social and political movement he had headed pre-Independence in the 1930s.

As India gears up for elections in 2024, 68 years later, this issue hovers on the margins with only a few Dalit movements articulating this core demand that signals structural change, most being caught up in issues only related to identity.

Today, 102 of the total of 543 seats go to the polls in the 18th Indian Parliamentary Election. Of these 102, 39 lie in the state of Tamil Nadu where Dravidian politics rules but the struggle for land for Dalits, especially women is hard. Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh (Bastar), Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra (five seats of the Vidharbha region of which in four land distribution is a key issue, though not articulated), Rajasthan (13 seats), Uttarakhand (all five seats), West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Lakshwadeep, Pudicherry, Udhampur (Jammu) are among the states that go to election. In none of the campaigns by the prominent political parties in various states, has the issue of land distribution been audible or visible.

For over more than a century, the land for Dalits Movement has cost many lives. At the heart of the demand is one for socal equity and economic justice for India’s historically marginalised scheduled caste communities. According to the 2011 census of India, over 71 % of the Dalit community work as landless labourers. Shockingly, this section of India’s most marginalised holds, in total, only about 9 % of agricultural land – despite the scores of agricultural reforms issued after independence.  To emphasise the point, land ownership is itself very much an issue related to caste.

Today in 2024

The road to land ownership for Dalits was and continues to be filled with obstacles. Dalits were offered a semblance of ownership through “community land” arrangements in the pre-Independence era. These lands that they may have gotten after struggling to reclaim them through existing legal provisions are often encroached upon (historically) by upper-caste zamindars, resulting in tense confrontations between them and the landless labourers of the village. Entrenched interests among the bureaucracy and even elected representative ensure that these do not get “cleared” from the evictions. Recognising this historic disenfranchisement over land, and recognising that the community remains vulnerable to social violence despite the existence of laws, ensured the 1989 law –brought in after 38 years of the enactment of the Constitution –addresses this: there is a provision against such encroachments. For instance, Section 3(1) (f) and 3 (1) (g) of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989  recognises wrongfully occupying or cultivating land that belongs to or is allotted to a member of a Scheduled Caste or Tribe, and is an enabling provision, facilitating the transfer of such land as grievous crimes.. It also includes unlawfully dispossessing a member of a Scheduled Caste or Tribe from their land or property, interfering with their rights over land, property, water, or irrigation facilities, damaging crops, or stealing produce. However, district Magistrates and Collectors rarely move an inch to implement the law, neither is their any people’s or political pressure for lands to be vacated and handed over to the Dalits. Today, despite these provisions, there are over 31 conflicts over land that affect the lives of over 92,000 Dalit individuals across the country, according to the Land and Conflict Watch.

In March 2024, a movement, unseen and unheard of in the mainstream discourse, was led by women and driven by the aspirations of Punjab’s Dalit community, who make up about 32 % of the state’s population. These women protested in the state in the form of the ‘Mazdoor Paidal Jodo Yatra’.  The protest raised crucial demands which included the call for land ownership rights, basic housing, relief from crushing debts, fair wages, and an end to the entrenched scourge of caste-based discrimination. This move is crucial because in agrarian states like Punjab constitutes around 85 % of Dalits as landless labourers whereas neighbouring Haryana ranges at a harrowing figure of 92 %.

A polity that lived under the influence of a text like the Manusmriti, depressed castes were systematically denied property rights, which ended up setting the stage for continuing inequality. For instance, in regions like Punjab, these discriminatory legacies have endured even after prohibitions were officially lifted, leaving Dalits excluded from land ownership despite constituting a significant portion of the populations and fighting for the rights promised to them by the law.

For instance, though the Punjab Village Common Lands Regulation Rules was introduced in 1964 and it specified that about one-third of the communal land managed by a panchayat would be designated for use by Dalits. However, in reality, despite this law, the situation for the state’s Dalits remained the same.

Tamil Nadu, a Dravidian state?

Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, about 90% of Dalit farmers are concentrated in the workforce of agricultural labourers.

Nicholas, who is a senior member of the Tamil Nadu Land Rights Federation, spoke to Sabrang India, about the history and present of land right issues in the state, “We started to work on Panchami Land. It is also called “depressed caste land.” It was distributed by the British for socio-economic welfare by Queen Victoria in 1892.”

As per records, it was a report by the acting collector of Chengleput and cricketer James H.A. Tremenheer  on the socio-economic conditions of the ‘pariah’ population that led the British government to enact land distribution law called the Depressed Classes Land Act. This land today is known as Panchami land. According to a ruling by the Madras High Court, Panchami land cannot be sold by anyone who doesn’t belong to the Scheduled Caste group.

However, despite this provision, the actual distribution of land for Dalits started in the beginning of the 20th century. Nicholas, with decades of experience working on land rights, continues, “All over Madras Presidency, including Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala. However, when states were divided after independence, we found out that 1.2 million acres was distributed in Madras Presidency, while only about 300,000 acres of land was redistributed in Tamil Nadu. Furthermore, even when this took place, it was found that most of the land was usurped by landlords.”

Many films have depicted the fight for reclaiming their land in Tamil Nadu. The  Dhanush starrer, Asuran, set in 1976, also depicted the issue. Nicholas further describes the abolition of the The Tamil Nadu Board of Revenue Abolition Act, 1980 through which the posts of Village Munsif and Village Karnam were replaced by  the posts of Village Administrative Officers. However, Nicholas marks one important distinction in this change that made a huge difference.

“After 1978, Chief Minister MG Ramachandrana abolished the Munsif system because landlords were exploiting it. He introduced Village Administrative Officers. Yet, what was unprecedented was now, about 18% of the officers were Dalits due to reservation. Soon they came to know about it as they did not know about the land distribution provisions earlier. Thereafter, it was these Village Administrative Officers who passed on this message to civil society organisations that started to take up this issue in northern Tamil Nadu. However, it was difficult to collect land documents, only a few officers cooperated, and others did not.”

“In 1994, a group of peasant people led by civil society organisations led a march. Two Dalits were shot down on 10th April 1994. It became an emotional issue in the state, and many Dalit movements started to take up the issue of Panchami land.”  However, Nicholas and fellow activists soon discovered that only by systematic means will they achieve justice, after which they formed the Dalit Land Rights Federation in northern Tamil Nadu and collected standing orders of the government. “We mobilised Dalit women in the northern districts and that was an incredible move. In the beginning, it was difficult, but the Right to Information Act of 2005 made it very easy to get the Panchami land documents. The women started to submit claims and petitions for their land. They used to negotiate and land tribunals were set up. Only through this were they able to reclaim Panchami land, but only some parts of northern Tamil Nadu.” 

However, decades on, the figures still remain dismal. According to Nicholas, nearly 90,000 women have applied for land with documents, but only 3,000 women got their land back. “Still this was a big win. The leadership of the Dalit women was unrelenting, they did not compromise anywhere.”

However, the struggle did not end there. There was a new hurdle, a new challenge. “At the same time, Special Economic Zones were passed in 2006. Then the consolidation of land by the state became an issue all over India, including Tamil Nadu. It was given to the corporate sector, and it saw several protests not to use Panchami land for industry. These protests are continuing. At that time, (2006) the Forest Act granted land to tribals. Coastal communities were evicted. The land issue became an issue for all communities following which in 2009, we formed the Tamil Nadu Land Rights Federation, including small and marginal farmers, fish workers, slum dwellers, and tribal people who were displaced.”


“In India, classes arose in the form of caste,” explains elected MLA Jignesh Mevani from Vadgam, Gujarat. He quotes D. D. Kosambi, as he begins, “There has always been an exploitation of castes because of the Manuwadi-Brahmanwadi structure – land ownership is decided by caste. As a nation, we decided to be a socialist secular republic – with this idea came the concept of social justice. Socialism waswas inspired by Marx, Lenin, Dr Ambedkar, Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi. Distribution of land thereby remains crucial to the annihilation of caste.”

Jignesh Mevani, an advocate and human rights activist before he entered mainstream politics and contested elections further elaborates, “However, it is consistently seen that before land can go to the Dalits, the landless, the land tillers, and the OBC and Adivasis, it goes to the corporate class, the real estate mafias etc. Nowadays there is too much focus on identity, little focus on real, material issues. Today the daily income of a farmer is 27 rupees. The combined income of a farmer’s family, with the money from several working members, including those who do odd jobs or work as ASHA health workers, is 10,218 rupees.”

He goes on to cite the case of Gujarat, where he says the rightful land of Dalits is usurped by the “so-called upper castes – even though on paper it may be allotted to the Dalit community, it will still be under the physical possession of the so-called upper castes.”

He also cites the provisions under the SC/ST Atrocities Act, highlighting how existing provisions criminalise encroachment on land owned by Dalits.

It was in 2009, Mevani states that he discovered thousands of acres of land was in such a state in Gujarat. Land was allotted to Dalits only on paper, but possessed by the members of upper castes. Land to the tiller has become land to the tycoons. We have a neoliberal government.” He explains how district magistrates would not even file FIRs in such  scenarios which left members of the Dalit community extremely vulnerable to violence and death.

Battle through Gujarat’s courts

Therefore, in 2009, he filed a PIL in the court, with his lawyer Advocate Mukul Sinha. Following the PIL, the government admitted facts through three affidavits filed before the high court admitting the encroachment, and the non-registration of FIRs in such cases of land encroachment.

That is when Mevani adopted a parallel path, grass root action. “I myself therefore decided to bring out such cases over other districts in the state.” Mevani then conducted a field investigation over three years in the state, discovering scores of cases across the state. These cases, he says, were not new but went back to the 1980s and 1960s. Following his PIL, the ministry of development in Gujarat released a Report which states that over 39% of the land allotted for the Dalit community was encroached upon by Other Castes. Following Mevani’s field investigation, the revenue department further released a state-wide circular instructing civil servants to conduct a state-wide survey and assessment for such land disputes. The first and only Report was finally compiled – however, instead of conducting the actual survey, the concluding paragraph stated that the redistribution of land, in such cases of encroachment, was “huge and gigantic task”; this was the final dismissal of my petition.” The path of justice came to an abrupt end in the courts then.

The Report also noted that over 163,000 acres of land had already been allotted to people belonging to the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe community in Gujarat. Knowing from the ground that this was just a paper achievement, Mevani filed an RTI in 2014 inquiring about the land allotment and the response to the RTI revealed that only 18,000 such people were actually granted the land.

“What this essentially means is that the government is intent on protecting the interests of the so-called upper castes, the ruling class. However, our land struggle has ensured that over 25,000 bighas of land worth over 750 crores is distributed – this was done by the community.” A lawyer by profession, Mevani himself has reportedly represented applicants filing for restitution of their land over 20 times, according  to a report. Citing the struggles wrought in the Una Movement, he concludes, “the struggle continues.”

Mevani, who arose to the fore with his leadership in the 2016 Una movement, cites the example of the changes that can be brought by distribution of land, “U.N. Dhebar was the chief minister. He facilitated the distribution of 12 lakh acres of land to the Patel community. After the transfer of such a huge land parcel, they generated surplus following which people bought more land parcels. This led to the creation of industries, real estate, migration –  not to mention a sizable portion of the community in the Silicon Valley in the USA.

The community,” he adds, “started playing a dominant force in politics as well. Today there are 40 MLAs from the Patel community in the Gujarat assembly. Now, moving to Varna-Vyavasta, today a chunk of the land owning class to which the Indian state carried out land distribution, comprises of Shudras, namely, the Reddys, Patels, Jats, Yadavs, Gurjars. However, the government did not allocate land to the landless Dalits.”

This young MLA from Gujarat, a state not known for values of social justice, cites an example which displays how the community fought for itself, on its own, bereft of the help of the government, “Dr Ambedkar’s close Dadasaheb Gaekwad led a struggle for land rights for the community. Do you know how much land was restored to the community after the struggle? 39 Lakh acres of land. The Congress government had to eventually accept the demands of the movement which saw over 360,000 Dalits being detained and arrested. No one knows about this.”


This pattern seems to follow in many parts of India. In 1958, a movement started in the Konkan area of Maharashtra under the leadership of Dr. Ambedkar for land rights. The most significant land rights agitation was conducted by the Republican Party of India from December 6, 1964, to February 10, 1965, during which over 3 million Dalits were arrested. Following this, the The Bombay Inferior Village Watans Abolition Act, 1958 was launched. This was launched after the abolition of the watan system. The watan system was enacted by the British where they granted lands to certain community, many were granted land and some of them including the Mahar and Ramoshi communities. With the new law the government aimed to assist Dalit families to reclaim land. However, none of this was to avail as much as it should have.

A report by Firstpost records how, at present 2.5 lakh of the total 6 lakh acres of the watan land given to the Mahar and Ramoshi communities is either used by the government or it has been grabbed by upper caste farmers.  Similarly, the  Maharashtra Agricultural Lands (Ceiling on Holdings) Act, 1961 was also introduced by the government which sought to create an upper limit to the amount of land an individual could own. The remaining land, as per the law, would be redistributed first to tenant farmers and then to landless dalits and adivasis. However, there has been reportedly a failure by the government to implement this law. For instance, even today, according to the  2011 census, 81 % of Dalit farmers are agricultural labourers and only 9 % of total land holdings are held by the community in Maharashtra,

How the Dalit land rights movement emerged pre-Independence

Dr Ambedkar time and again raised the importance of land rights for India’s scheduled castes and tribes, especially in initial years of his movement. Babasaheb Ambedkar firmly believed that the ownership of land and its produce was essential for dismantling the caste system and its processes of exploitation. Therefore, the struggle for land rights is not merely a recent event but a chapter within a larger narrative of struggle and resistance, a part of the history that is shaped by historical injustices and the quest for emancipation.

During negotiations for independence with the British at 1931 Round Table Conference in London  Dr Ambedkar spoke valiantly about the issue of exploited classes in India, and the need for them to be socially and  economically independent in an Independent India.  He had raised these issues time and against. He had even formed organisations such as the Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha and Konkan Praant Shetkari Sangh (KPSS, 1931) for the rights of farm labourers. Detailed in the book India: Legacies and Challenges of the Land & Forest Rights Movement, in the 1930s these efforts in fact allowed him to “build a formidable organisation of peasants here that not only mobilised farmers across various caste groups, but also tried to emphasise that long-lasting peasants’ solidarity in India could only be achieved if and when other social questions (of discrimination) are taken up seriously.” In the eight decade after India’s indepdence access to land remains a distant dream for India’s Scheduled Castes, more evidemce if any were needed how deeply entrenched caste disticntions and discriminations still remain.



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