As India enters the third phase of a nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic, the true scale of the devastating effect it has had on the livelihoods of millions is yet to be fully computed. The hardest hit have been the most vulnerable and marginalised sections—migrant workers, landless labourers, daily-wage earners, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. It was in this context that on 23 April, Gurmukh Mann, a social activist from the Sangrur district of Punjab, wrote to me. Mann, who works on Dalit rights, said, “There are only two ways to survive: the first is an example shown by the people of Balad Kalan village who fought for their rights over the panchayat land, which today led to their drums full of food grains in this severe crisis of the coronavirus pandemic; and the second path is to spread out your hands like a beggar standing in a queue that actually suits the interests of the regimes and the landlords.”
Mann has been involved with movements that organise the landless for over a decade. He had also sent a few images of his “comrade land-tillers” standing in the fields of Balad Kalan. Mann and the fellow farmers hail from a community known as Mazhabi Sikhs, comprising Dalits who embraced Sikhism over three centuries ago. The term was coined by the colonial British administration to categorise them as a separate Scheduled Caste community amongst the Sikhs. One of the men in the images was Avtar Singh, who stood beside a newly bought tractor, holding a red flag that depicted his Dalit community’s belief in Marxist ideology. “Actually, it is roti that matters for survival, and those who have roti do not die of hunger. We now have cattle and fodder for the cattle as well,” Avtar told me.
In 2014, these landless peasants of Balad Kalan first raised their voice for their statutory right over one-third of the village-panchayat land, derived from the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act, 1961. The legislation was aimed at consolidating and regulating ownership and rights over village-commons lands in the state. A year later, 188 landless families from the Mazhabi Sikh community won the rights to manage 118 acres—one-third of the total 354 acres of the village-panchayat land of Balad Kalan—on lease in a cooperative model. The families were divided into three groups based on the amount of land allotted and today, each family earns Rs 18,000 biannually, from every crop yield. This is in addition to what the families utilise from each harvest for their consumption. The model has been so successful that even in the midst of the lockdown, the community hired a fellow landless Dalit man, Madan Singh, to plough the 118 acres after the wheat harvest. Madan is paid Rs 11,000 a month besides five quintals of wheat from the harvest, a monetary share from the paddy crop and rights to procure a fodder for his two cattle heads. According to Mann, the landless Dalits’ successful struggle for self-reliance is what ensured their survival during the lockdown which has left most of India’s informal workforce destitute.
According to Section 6 (1) (a) of the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Rules, 1964, “one-third of the cultivable land proposed to be leased, shall be reserved for giving on lease by auction to the members of the scheduled caste only.” Mann told me that till 2014, politically influential landlords in the village used to misuse this provision by forcefully fielding their nominee from amongst the Dalits during the auction. He said the landlords then practically cultivated the land themselves, “with the poor successful bidder named in papers only.” He told me that year, the landless Dalits objected to the farce of the auction and were lathi charged by the police in response.
“We organised them and posed a heavy resistance to such a superficial auction for the first time in 2014. There was heavy deployment of cops when the dhanaad”—landlords—“with their majority in the panchayat attempted to stage manage the auction for the second time at the premises of the block development and panchayat officer at Bhawanigarh.” About ten kilometres from Balad Kalan, Bhawanigarh is the seat of the tehsil headquarters. Mann said that “it was our women who were on the forefront to bear the lathi blows.”