A Growing Movement in Jhaloor Illustrates How Dalit Villagers in Punjab Are Reclaiming Their Right to Panchayat Land

29 November 2016

On 28 November 2016, Gurdev Kaur, a 72-year-old Dalit woman from Jhaloor, a village in south Punjab, was cremated. She died as a result of injuries sustained during an attack on 5 October. Against the backdrop of a long-standing dispute over agricultural land in the village, the Jutt Sikhs of Jhaloor had mounted a brutal assault on Dalit villagers. They had beaten up members of the community, and vandalised the latter’s homes—breaking windows, household appliances, and water pipes—and even injured cattle and pets. The Jutts had groped, molested, and beaten up Dalit women. Over 40 Dalits were severely wounded: nine had suffered head injuries; one villager’s arm was broken, while another’s jaw was dislocated. During the onslaught, Gurdev’s leg was broken and nearly hacked off, and multiple bones were crushed. She succumbed to her injuries on 11 November. Since the attack, Jhaloor has become the epicentre of a burgeoning mass movement. At her funeral, Gurdev’s body was wrapped in a red flag—an allusion to communist ideals—and flags bearing the insignias of the Zameen Prapti Sangarsh Committee (ZPSC) and the Bhartiya Kisan Unions—informal, left-oriented coalitions of landless labourers and marginalised farmers in Punjab. Thousands attended her cremation, and swore to continue the movement in her name.

On 11 October 2016—the day Dussehra was celebrated this year—my wife Lakshmi and I drove down to Jhaloor. We reached the village at about 3 pm. Upon our arrival, we enquired about the attack at a tea shop called Sonu Sweets. The shop was located next to a rest house named Ravidas Dharamsala, in the vehda, the Dalit section of the village. Within a few minutes, a group of nearly 40 men and women from the community had gathered around us. One of the men suggested that we move into the closed courtyard of a nearby house. I later found out this was because we stood at the site of the attack. The men and women were nervous because we were in plain view of members of the police, many of whom were milling about the rest house in the aftermath of the attack.

Once we reached the courtyard, the men told me that their community was being subjected to an informal social boycott: the Jutts had refused to buy milk from the Dalits, leaving the latter unable to procure fodder for their cattle. The Jutts also forbade doctors from treating those who had been wounded in the attack. The Dalit villagers said that their milk and food supplies were fast depleting. Fearing another attack, several families belonging to the community had locked their homes and fled Jhaloor, while many others had sent their young daughters away to relatives in other villages. A few farmers with small land holdings, who had supported the Dalits in their clash against the Jutts, had left as well.

Over the next hour, the men told me what had transpired on the day of the attack. Meanwhile, Lakshmi went into another house. There, she met several women from the gathering, one after another. Later, she told me, “Each woman took me indoors and stripped to show me big marks on their bodies—purple and blue blood-clots under their breasts, on their backs, buttocks, and inner thighs.” The women told Lakshmi that their husbands were in jail, they did not have medicine to treat themselves, or buy milk for their children. They had not spoken about their wounds, one of the women added to Lakshmi, because they were ashamed.

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The attack in Jhaloor is one in a long and fast-growing list of caste-based clashes in rural Punjab, which has sustained a feudal system for decades. In most villages, Jutt Sikhs, historically a land-owning caste, maintain an oppressive stronghold over a majority of the farm land, often through fraudulent practices and violence. This leaves the Scheduled Caste communities in the state—which form nearly 32 percent of the population—with little avenues for employment. In a predominantly agrarian society, land is a necessity, not only for producing crops, but also as a source of fodder for cattle, for creating manure, for dry wood and straws to light chulhas, and in many cases, for ablutions in the absence of toilets in houses. Many Dalits who either work on Jutt-owned land or collect fodder from it, are subjected to abuse. Women from lower-caste communities often face verbal, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the landowners—an ordeal, many of them said, they would be less likely to face if they could own or work on their own land.

In 1961, through the Punjab Village Common Lands Regulation Act, the Punjab government decreed that a third of every village's panchayat land—government-owned land that is managed by the panchayat and allocated to villagers via public auctions—would be reserved for members of Scheduled Caste communities. Today, this comes up to nearly 51,000 acres of Punjab’s 1.4 lakh hectare panchayat land. But despite the reservation guaranteed by law, those from dominant castes continue to keep lower-caste communities away from the land set aside for them. This is done through various methods. For instance, since only members of Scheduled Caste communities are allowed to bid during the auctions of the panchayat land reserved for them, Jutt farmers regularly hire Dalit villagers to act as dummy candidates, often in collusion with revenue officials and the panchayat, whose responsibility it is to oversee the process. Given that most Dalits are unable to afford the high land rates, these candidates win the auctions on behalf of the farmers from the dominant caste. Once the candidate has won the land, the Jutts take it over, often employing Dalit villagers to work as serfs.

But in the past few years, various Dalit farmers’ collectives in Punjab have rallied together to demand ownership of the land they are entitled to. In 2008, young Dalit men from Benra—a village in Punjab’s Sangrur district—mobilised the village’s 250 Dalit families. They pooled in money to enter a bid—for an auction that was due later that year—for a nine-acre tract of land. The families came together under the banner of a farmers’ collective called the Kranti Pendu Mazdoor Union. During the summer and monsoon months, through day and night vigils, the members of the community guarded the land so that no Jutts could occupy it. In late 2008,when the auction was held, even though the authorities in Benra did not extend any help to the Dalit collective, it managed to secure the bid for the land. A 65-year-old woman who led the vigils told a reporter from India Today that they “forced, and even carried away” proxy candidates from the auction. The collective also succeeded in forcing the administration to grant it a cut in land rates. Since then, the families that formed the collective have been farming on the land together, growing wheat and paddy along with fodder for their cattle.

In 2014, Dalits from the village Seekha in Barnala district, wrested control of the seven acres of land that was reserved for them, from the upper-caste farmers who had been occupying it. In this effort, they were helped by members belonging to the Punjab Students’ Union, a collective of student activists. The activists and the farmers picketed the office of the block development officer and held protests until the administration agreed to hand the land over to them. That same year, through a struggle that spanned several months, 143 Dalit families from Balad Kalan village succeeding in claiming their right to the 121 acres of panchayat land that was reserved for them in the village, even though revenue officials and the police attempted to intimidate them. In June 2014, Dalit villagers from Balad Kalan came together to ensure that an ongoing auction of the reserved land would not be subverted by upper-caste villagers or the revenue officials. The villagers were met by nearly 500 riot policemen, who lathi-charged them and beat them up severely. The police charged 41 men belonging to the Dalit community under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including an attempt to murder. The men were incarcerated without bail for 59 days. Protests broke out throughout the state, and continued until the state administration and panchayat agreed to surrender control of the land, in late August. Sukhwinder Pappi, a member of the ZPSC who participated in the struggle at Balad Kalan, said that the post-harvest calculations conducted by the organisation showed that a Dalit family in the village earned close to Rs 10,000 from the land each season. “Now that isn’t a sum for which Dalits and activists have faced the state violence, been in jails and hospitals,” Pappi told me. The greater reward, he said, was one that could not be quantified: dignity.

Meanwhile, news of the protests in Benra and Balad Kalan has spread through many districts, and inspired other landless Dalits to rise in protest. Janhastakshep, an activist coalition that includes professors from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, conducted a fact-finding mission on the caste conflicts in villages in Punjab. In June 2016, Ish Mishra, a member of Janhastakshep and a professor at Hindu College in DU, published their findings on his blog. Mishra stated that in about 65 villages in the Malwa region in Punjab, Dalit residents have been agitating for their right to panchayat land, and that they had succeeded in as many as 16 villages in Sangrur alone. In April 2015, the ZPSC organised a Mahapanchayat to discuss how such collectives across Punjab could be strengthened. A report published on the website of the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist, noted that in 2016, Dalits in 44 villages launched protests to obtain their share of panchayat land. In nearly 40 villages, the report stated, the agitators secured the land, but in at least three villages, the movements were unsuccessful.

Jhaloor is one such village. Although 250 of the 600 families residing in Jhaloor belong to the Dalit community, they do not own any of the 2,300 acres of land in it. Most Dalits in Jhaloor eke out a living by tending to cattle and selling products such as milk, working for Jutt farmers, or through other petty trades. The panchayat land in Jhaloor is nearly 50 acres. The 16.5 acres of land reserved for Scheduled Caste community is split into three parts, of which only one part—about six acres large—is cultivable. The other two plots, of 6 and 4.5 acres each, are located at quite a distance from the village and are not cultivable. Relying on the villagers I met, as well as a report that was released by the Association for Democratic Rights (AFDR), a Punjab-based human-rights watchdog organisation whose members visited Jhaloor on 10 October, I was able to piece together an account of the events that led to the violent attack the Jutts launched on 5 October 2016.

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On 10 May 2016, after the revenue officials and administration at Jhaloor failed in three of their attempts to conduct auctions because of protests led by the ZPSC, they decided to hold a forced auction of the six acres of cultivable land reserved for those belonging to the Scheduled Caste community. The auction was conducted in the presence of police officials. Jugraj Singh, a Dalit, won the six acres for Rs 2.62 lakh. Jugraj later told the AFDR team that Harvinder Mangu—a Jutt landlord—had lent him the money to buy the land. He also said that he had no prior farming experience. According to the account he gave the AFDR team, Jugraj did not own a tractor or any agricultural implements either—he was planning to borrow all of these from Gurdeep Babban, another landlord. Effectively, the AFDR found, Jugraj had stood in the auction as a dummy candidate for Babban.

According to the report, when the administration gave Jugraj the land, many Dalit residents of the village, aware that Babban would control it, camped on it for a month in protest. In the second week of June, the police forcibly evicted them. Subsequently, Jugraj, with help from the landlords, planted paddy on the land. A few weeks later, the Dalit villagers uprooted the paddy seedling as a mark of protest. In the meantime, the AFDR report states, six members of the Jhaloor panchayat wrote to the Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) of development, asking for a revocation in the decision to allot the land to Jugraj since he was a dummy candidate. They received no response. (The AFDR report, released on 25 October, also notes that the ADC later denied receiving any such letter.) Members of the ZPSC told the AFDR team that they submitted multiple memorandums to the block-development and panchayat officers as well as the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), requesting that the false bid be cancelled. Several Dalit villagers recounted, they protested in front of the office of the block-development officer on 10 and 11 August. The AFDR report noted that the members of the community repeatedly demanded the cancellation of the bid. By early August, Jugraj had planted paddy on the land again.

By 29 September, the outcome of the bid remained unchanged. That day, the Dalits uprooted the unripe paddy in protest once again. For this, the AFDR report noted, the police booked several members of the community under Section 452 of the IPC—trespassing with the intent to harm. On 2 October, a group of Jutts attacked the ZPSC leader Gurdas Singh’s family in Jhaloor and injured the son of Prakash Singh, a Dalit member of the village panchayat. They also beat up two other members of the community and vandalised their homes. The victims were hospitalised, but the police did not register a complaint against the Jutts.

On 5 October, Sukhwinder Pappi of the ZPSC and the men I spoke to in Jhaloor told me, the ZPSC organised a rally outside the office of the SDM in Lehra, a town nearly ten kilometres away from Jhaloor, to demand that the land be handed over to the Dalits in the village. Members from the community in Jhaloor and neighbouring villages attended the demonstration. According to Nirbhay, a Dalit man in his thirties who had stayed back in Jhaloor that day, at about 2 pm, while the protest was ongoing, the village gurdwara’s loudspeaker crackled. Nirbhay said the announcement said: “All Jutts should gather with arms and reach Lehra SDM office.” about 50 Jutts—drunk and armed—arrived at the venue of the protest. Afraid that the Jutts would attack them, the Dalit villagers said that they expressed their apprehension to the police. The police officials told the AFDR that they asked the group of Jutts to go back to Jhaloor. The tehsildar assured the villagers that the police would protect them, and arranged for a few policemen to escort the protestors back to the village. Four policemen—three constables and a Station House Officer (SHO)—escorted the seven vehicles that were ferrying the villagers back. The AFDR report states that the SHO did not continue beyond Moonak, a village located just before Jhaloor. Several villagers I spoke to told me that the constables did not enter the village either.

Nirbhay told me that the protestors, including those from other villages, arrived in Jhaloor at about 4.30 pm. “The announcement being made on the gurdwara’s speakers changed,” he said. It now said: “The Dalits have killed Gurdeep Babban. A thousand Dalits are coming to the village,” and, “We must teach them a lesson.” Upon reaching, the villagers saw around 250 drunken Jutt men, young and old, had climbed the rooftops of the houses around the Ravidas Dharamshala. Nirbhay told me the men were armed with stones, bricks, scythes and rods. As the 200-odd Dalit women and men entered the village, the Jutts launched an attack on them. They pelted stones on the unarmed villagers climbing down from the vehicles and broke seven chota haathis—a name used to describe a vehicle similar to a tempo, but which can carry more people. The Jutts showed no signs of relenting—they broke open doors and windows, entered the houses, and beat up whomever they could lay their hands on: women, children, cattle and domestic pets. They broke household objects and electric meters, cut open water tanks, and plucked out taps and pipes. Pappi told me that members of the ZPSC called the police, but officials took more than an hour-and-a-half to reach from Lehra—a journey that usually takes about 15 minutes on a motorbike. Even after the policemen reached, several Dalit villagers told me, they waited outside the village while the attack continued.

The home of Gurdev Kaur, a 72-year-old Dalit woman who was cremated on 28 November 2016. Gurdev died as a result of injuries sustained during a brutal attack launched by the Jutt Sikhs of Jhaloor, a village in south Punjab, on its Dalit residents.
AMANDEEP SANDHU

The AFDR report observes that the house of the ZPSC leader Balwinder Singh—Gurdev Kaur’s son—was specifically targeted. A group of Jutts entered through the roof of the house, and beat up the members of his family. Gurdev, who was of frail health, was lying on a cot in her courtyard and was unable to move. The Jutts attacked her with axes, almost severing her leg. She went into shock and was later admitted to a hospital in Chandigarh. Manjit Kaur, a Dalit woman, told the AFDR team that the Jutts “were looking for Balwinder Singh’s brother, Balbir Singh, of the Punjab Farmers’ Union. They ransacked my trucks and stole Rs 30,000, which I had kept for my new-born girl.”

The Dalit women told Lakshmi the Jutts uttered obscenities to women and stripped naked in front of them. They harassed, groped, molested and beat them up. According to the AFDR report, the Dalits said that the Jutts asked them, “Will you join the protest against us?” They then attacked the homes of those who said yes. Jaspreet Kaur, who works as a sweeper in the village school, said that while the Jutts beat them, they repeatedly said that they wanted to put the Dalits “in their place.” She added that, when the attack was ongoing, several Jutt women helped Jutt men identify the houses that belonged to Dalits.

The report also notes that, according to the ZPSC, over 100 Dalit villagers were trapped in Jhaloor. Upon the SDM’s assurance, the report says, the men and women came out that night in groups of five and seven. The police took them to the hospital, but arrested several Dalits the next morning. Although close to 40 people were injured and in need of medical attention, many did not go to the hospital for fear of being arrested. Some among those who were receiving medical care left the hospital without the doctor’s consent.

According a police officer that the AFDR spoke to, 86 cases were registered after the attack. Of these, only 18 were against the Jutts. On 6 October, the report says, the police took 50–60 Dalit men into custody and illegally detained them until the next day. It also noted that 17 men from the community, who were named in the cases registered after the protestors uprooted the paddy and after the attack on 5 October, were arrested.

Not unlike the Dalit Asmita Yatra that culminated in Una, Gujarat in August and the Chalo Udupi march that was carried out in Karnataka in October, the Dalits in south Punjab, under the aegis of the Jhaloor Kand Jabar Virodhi Action Committee, organised a massive rally on 21 October at Lehra Gaga, a set of twin towns near Jhaloor. Close to 5,000 people attended the demonstration. Members of the ZPSC; the Bhartiya Kisan Union in Ugrahan; the Punjab Khet Mazdur Union, which mobilises landless workers; among others, attended the protest to express their solidarity with the Dalits’ cause.

Yet, neither the protests, nor the issue of caste-based discriminations and landlessness have found any mention in the manifestos of the political parties that are currently campaigning for the upcoming elections in 2017. The silence from the political machinery in Punjab is simultaneously astounding and unsurprising, especially when one considers the relevance of Sangrur, the constituency in which Jhaloor falls. Various union leaders, and villagers—both Jutt and Dalit—told me that Gurdeep Babban is “Dhindsa’s man”—referring to Parminder Singh Dhindsa, the minister for finance and planning in the current state government, led by the Shiromani Akali Dal. Babban’s proximity to a prominent minister would explain the inadequate measures taken by the police to ensure the safety of the Dalits. Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, a former chief minister of Punjab and a member of the Congress, belongs to a village called Changali Wala—less than 15 kilometers from Jhaloor. Several people told me, Bhattal visited Jhaloor on 3 October, and expressed solidarity with the Jutts. She left without even meeting the Dalit villagers. Bhagwant Mann, a member of parliament who belongs to the Aam Aadmi Party, was elected to the Lok Sabha from Sangrur, in 2015. Mann, too, has remained silent on the issue of panchayat land.

On 7 October, Rajesh Bagga, the chairman of the Punjab Commission for Scheduled Castes, ordered an inquiry into the violence by constituting a committee comprising the Lehragaga SDM, superintendent of police and the deputy superintendent of the police. The ZPSC rejected the formation of the committee, alleging that Bagga had only met the Jutts who had instigated the attack, and that he only went to meet those who were injured and being treated at the civil hospital, even though it had not admitted the Dalits. Till date, the commission has not met any of those who were attacked.

When Gurdev died, on 11 November, the police was forced to register her death as an instance of murder. A family member told me that the family had decided they would not allow a post-mortem until the perpetrators of the crime were arrested. Since 12 November, Dalit villagers, along with the ZPSC, have held daily protests outside either the district collector’s office, on Barnala road, or outside Dhindsa’s residence. Several union leaders and journalists present at these protests noted that, unlike other rallies in rural Punjab, these protests have seen as many women in attendance as men.

On 15 November, the administration bent slightly, and released the 17 Dalits who had been imprisoned on 6 October. Students in Chandigarh and Patiala, writers and intellectuals, and ordinary citizens have joined cause by raising their voices and protesting as well. But none of the perpetrators have been formally arrested, nor have any politicians addressed the issue.

On 26 November, the agitators held a meeting at Moga. They decided to accept Gurdev Kaur’s body and cremate her with full honours. News of the funeral has spread widely on social media, and hundreds of people have vowed to continue the struggle as a mark of respect to Gurdev Kaur. Like the struggles in Benra and Balad Kalan earlier, the outcome of Jhaloor’s resistance, which has now found a face, will likely shape the struggle for justice taking root in other villages in the state. The landless Dalits in Punjab are no longer willing to hide their wounds.

Amandeep Sandhu Amandeep Sandhu is working on a non-fiction book on Punjab.

Keywords: caste Punjab caste violence caste discrimination Panchayat land Jhaloor
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