They have been waiting 5,000 years. They have marched thousands of miles. They are asking once more. Brijesh Pandey brings back stories from a historic march.

Photographs by Vijay Pandey

Forward march Jan Satyagrahis cross a bridge over the Chambal

LATE ON THE evening of 9 October, the Ministry of Rural Development reached a 10-point agreement with the Jan Satyagraha, the March of the Landless led by the NGO Ekta Parishad. There would be a new law, the government promised, guaranteeing 10 cents (a unit of area) of homestead land to every landless and shelterless poor family.

Agricultural land would be transferred to landless people in economically backward districts. Rigorous implementation of PESA — the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act — was committed to, with the ministry agreeing to empower gram sabhas as per the authority given to them under the law. A task force on land reforms will soon be constituted — a partnership of government officials and civil society activists — headed by Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh.

Protection and assigning of land belonging to the landless poor and specific groups of deprived people — Dalits, tribals and nomads, for instance — is part of the agreement. So is the guarantee that vulnerable aboriginal groups, without proof of commencement of occupancy of a particular tract of land, will be exempted from furnishing such documentary evidence. The Forest Rights Act will be amended for this purpose.

That agreement brought to resolution the demands, pain and anguish of a year-long march that both crossed and shook the heart of India. It was one year; by another reckoning though, it had been 61 years. The roots of Jan Satyagraha go back to an early summer day in Andhra Pradesh on 18 April 1951. Acharya Vinoba Bhave, devotee of the Mahatma, was on a visit to the then (as now) strife-torn Telangana region. Visiting Pochampalli village, he asked local Dalits (or Harijans as they were then called) why they had taken to brutal violence. He interacted with 40 Dalit families, trying to understand their motivation. They told him of their pain. They had been promised land; if the government delivered on its promise, they would renounce violence.

Vinoba asked them how much land they required. The families asked for 80 acres: two acres per household, just enough for a home and a small farm. A rich landowner who was part of the crowd suddenly got up and agreed to donate 100 acres. This was the start of the Bhoodan (Gift of Land) Movement. Vinoba travelled across India, seeking Gandhian-style renunciation and parcels of land that the traditional rich would donate and transfer to the historically deprived. It became the largest such effort in history.

‘We have been living inside the forests for ages. Now, the forest ranger wants to throw us out. They deliberately let stray cattle run amok in our fields and destroy our crops. They also beat and threaten us, saying that if we don’t leave on our own, we will be forcibly kicked out’

What happened to that land? How did the story end? Sixty-one years later, on 2 October 2012, birthday of the Mahatma, Sargun Masomait, a 35-year-old tribal woman from Jharkhand, began marching towards New Delhi from Gwalior. She was part of a group of 40,000 people — tribals, Dalits, nomads, nowhere people with no land of their own, the wretched of the Indian earth, out to claim their dignity; or to reclaim it. Sargun’s family received 95 decimals of land ( just short of one acre) as part of the Bhoodan Movement — but she doesn’t know where it is.

“I have 95 decimals of land in my family’s name,” says Sargun, “but I don’t know where it is. I have the papers. I have approached the district collector, the SP and they assure help but do little. For the past five years, I am even paying revenue and getting a receipt for that. When I go to the collector, he says if the receipt is there then the land must also be there. He says he will help, but nothing has happened.”

A mother of two, Sargun is gritty and determined. This is her second march; she was part of a similar struggle in 2007 as well. For the organisers of the march, her story is telling. “Forget giving land to these people,” says Mrityunjay, one of the coordinators of the padyatra, “imagine the powerful landlords even usurp the land given to them by Vinobaji and the State does nothing. How crude can it get?”

The case of Sargun Masomait is symptomatic of what hundreds of thousands of tribals, Dalits and other landless people face all over India. These people are a stark reminder of the limits to notions of development. For them, State oppression is not distant, textbook trauma. Rather, it is an everyday and close-to-the-bone verity. The police officer, the forest ranger, the sub-district official — these are the local tyrants who have helped a neighourhood overlord grab their land.

‘Forty years ago, the government gave us some land for cultivation. However, 10 years ago, the sarpanch and the village mukhiya forcibly evicted us. I have approached the police, tehsildar and collector but nobody listens. In 2007, I had protested in New Delhi but nothing happened’

And why is this land important? It is not necessarily because of its economic value — some of the holdings are too tiny for anything more than subsistence agriculture. Yet, the very ownership of this land, the ability to touch it, and play with the dust in her hands gives Sargun and many like her a sense of dignity and entitlement. These are people and families, remember, that have never owned land, not for 5,000 years of Indian history. That is why it is emotionally empowering for them.

WHAT TRIGGERED the final leg of the Jan Satyagraha, a march of 40,000 people from Gwalior to New Delhi, resolving to cover the 340 km in 27 days? It was a sense of betrayal; the government had once again backed out from long-promised land reforms. The padyatra was led by PV Rajagopal of the Ekta Parishad, who has undertaken four such yatras to Delhi in the past eight years. The padyatra started from the Mela ground in Gwalior, reaching Morena on day three. The frontline was a group of dancing tribals, as dazzling in their presence as the sea of humanity behind them. One side of the highway was engulfed in the green and white flags of the Ekta Parishad.

It was at Baba Devpuri, the scheduled stop for the day after a 12 km walk, that the precision-planning of the yatra became evident. Planned a year in advance, participants of the march were divided into nine groups, named for the great rivers of India — Mahanadi, Chambal, Narmada, Cauvery, Brahmaputra, Betwa, Ganga, Godavari and Saraswati. Each group had a distinct flag, other than the overarching green-and-white banner. Every group of 1,000-2,000 persons had 10-15 cooks, who moved in advance and had food ready at the halt points.

The jan satyagrahis ate only once a day and the meal was around 5 pm. By 7 pm, one side of a 6-7 km stretch of the National Highway resembled a village fair, with tubelights (powered by generators), blaring loudspeakers and people from various tribes enjoying themselves by dancing, singing and just catching up. Ambulances were at hand to attend to the sick. From the other side of the highway, these 40,000 people seemed a happy bunch. Till one started talking to them.

‘One of Asia’s biggest power plants is to come up in our village. Last year, district officials sent a proposal through the gram sabha for acquiring our land. We said no. Then they made people from other villages sit in our place at the gram sabha. They are trying to illegally usurp our land’

Ram Kishore Baheliya was one such person. Released from jail just two days before the start of the march, Baheliya, 55, lives in Mahorba village in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh, and is a worried man. “I have all the documents, sir. But the forest ranger is not willing to let me stay there,” he says. “I have been staying in that area for the past 40 years, but now they want to throw me out. They don’t give me a patta (deed) and instead say that my community, the Baheliyas, are a criminal tribe. We are not criminals but no one is listening to us.” Weird, Britishera pseudo-ethnography not only frequently throws such people into jail, it has tribals, who have been living in a forest for centuries, cruelly evicted from their homes in the name of forest conservation.

Shatrughan Khairwar, 30, belongs to the Khairwar tribe. For centuries, their ancestors cut Khair wood, but under the forest rules now they can’t cut trees, therefore they have shifted to cultivation. Shatrughan’s family, along with 38 others, has been living in the forestland of Nawan Ganv of Mahasamund district, Chhattisgarh, for 40-50 years. “When we asked the forest ranger about the patta (deed) of our land,” Shatrughan remembers, “he asked us to come with him to the forest. He said the patwari would be coming to give us the patta. That particular place had several trees cut. He told us if we told senior officers that we had cut these trees, it would be proof of the fact that we had been living in the area for long. He also made us sign some document. Now for the past few years, we have been fighting court cases as they have booked us for cutting trees in the forest.”

AT 6 AM in the morning, there was a buzz among the yatris. Today is a special day, as instead of the regular 12 km, they would have to walk 20 km, to make sure that they cross the Chambal bridge. People were getting ready, bathing, drinking tea and preparing themselves for the marathon. By 7 am, dal nayaks (people who are in charge of 100 people) started calling out names of those in their cohort. By 7.30 am, the yatra was on its feet, as it were, and ready to advance. One couldn’t but admire the tenacity and spirit. There was a decent police bandobast on the other side of the highway to ensure traffic was not disturbed. Senior police officers of the area had already reached the spot and were interacting with the organisers. The police was full of praise for the way satyagrahis had behaved all along. A senior police officer sighed, “If only all political rallies went like this. We only have to take care of the traffic.”

‘We were living in the forests for a long time but we were kicked out. Now we are forced to live very close to where the municipal corporation dumps waste. That area is unsuitable for living. We are working as bonded labourers in a mango orchard. We want our land back’

At around 9 am, the rally started for its destination of Mania police station in a very smooth, orderly fashion. Forty thousand people had camped overnight, but when they left, not a trace of litter remained. As the mercury rose, the water tanks assigned to each group made their mandatory rounds and people rushed to fill their plastic bottles. As the marchers reached the Chambal bridge, the dal nayaks started talking about the historical significance of the location. Walking briskly, with several members of his family and village, was Bisahu Ram Gond, 55. He, along with 70-75 families, had been living in the forest region since the 1960s but is threatened with eviction as his house fell just outside Barnawapara tiger sanctuary in Chhattisgarh, he said. Now the government intended to relocate villagers inside the tiger sanctuary to the land hitherto occupied by Bisahu and the others.

It was illogical, and obviously has made Bisahu angry: “We have been tilling that land for the past 50 plus years. False cases were slapped on us; we were made to run from pillar to post before we could feel settled. And now all of a sudden, the government has decided that these Adivasis are less important than Adivasis inside the sanctuary. Who does these kinds of things?”

Somebody else had a similar question. Bhagwan Ram Sirdar belonged to Mahora- Sarastal village in Chhattisgarh. He had been named in an FIR on charges of attempting to destroy the register of the sarpanch. His crime, he said, was that he raised his voice against “unfair tactics” on the part of a nearby IFFCO power plant. According to Bhagwan Ram, “These people, in connivance with the sarpanch and local administration, were forging signatures of most of the villagers. When I protested against this, an FIR was lodged against me, alleging that I tried to tear the register of the sarpanch, which had all the signatures. What is shocking is that in a meeting called by a senior administrative officer, they were openly asking villagers to take some money and settle the issue. Is this how you want to grab our lands?”

FOR MANY of the marchers, the struggle was an old and gruelling one. Memories of the march of 2007 were strong and even after the agreement with Jairam Ramesh, there is only cautious optimism. A majority of the Adivasis and Dalits TEHELKA spoke to were quite clear that they are pitched in for a long battle with the government. If New Delhi backtracks, as it did in 2007, they will again march to Delhi. Rajagopal, who has been at the forefront of several such agitations, is wary of the government’s sincerity, and with reason.

Rajaji, as he is known among his followers, has undertaken four such marches since 2004. Each time, the UPA government promised to look into his demands, only to ditch him. It was in 2004 that he first met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, along with Nirmala Deshpande and the late Arjun Singh, and explained to him the urgency of land reforms. Nothing came out of that meeting. In 2006, they again marched to Delhi and told the government that they would return in 2007, but with 25,000 people. The pressure seemed to work. In 2007, the government announced the National Lands Reform Committee and the National Land Reform Council, with the prime minister as chair and Rajagopal as a member. The Forest Act too was finalised.

“We came back celebrating,” says Rajagopal. But little did he realise that well begun was only half done. The promised pace of work started slackening. He kept writing to the prime minister but without effective response. In 2010, Rajagopal led 12,500 members on a yatra from Gwalior to Ramlila Maidan in Delhi and then Parliament. “I wrote to the prime minister,” he said, “that if bureaucrats had to look into everything, then what was the point of the Land Reform Council? You have promised us land reforms in front of 25,000 people, and I think you have lost your moral right to be in power.”

Fed up with the delaying tactics of the government, Rajagopal and Ekta Parishad announced that they would start a one-year march from Kanyakumari on 2 October 2011, and march to Delhi with 1,00,000 people. They travelled thousands of kilometres to reach Gwalior on 28 September 2012. Meanwhile, with the appointment of Jairam Ramesh, as the Minister of Rural Development, things began to move. He met Rajagopal in January 2012 in Raipur and promised to energise the Land Reforms Council, which hadn’t met once since its creation in 2007.

“On explicit assurance from Jairam Ramesh, I ended my yatra 10 days early and met the prime minister on 25 September,” says Rajagopal, “for four days we met daily and discussed the whole agreement, drafted it, redrafted it, changed the commas and full stops, improved the grammar. Till the 29th, everything was all right. Jairam attended almost all the meetings. On 29 September, the meeting ended, the document went to the press and we just had to sign. Then all of a sudden I got a call from Jairam saying, ‘I am sorry but I can’t sign the document. There is pressure from the top.’

THREE DAYS into the renewed march, the Ekta Parishad again heard from Jairam. Could they meet once more on 8 October? It was another false dawn. Two days later, however, an agreement was reached. The government was keen to avoid a gathering of the dispossessed in Delhi and a public relations disaster of the type that accompanied the Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev protests. It was also conscious of wanting to present politically correct credentials. As Manish Tewari, spokesperson of the Congress, said, “The Congress party has always put forward the interests of the agrarian community and the downtrodden. The present Land Acquisition Bill, which is under consideration, aims to balance social justice with economic development. And if somebody has a grievance, the UPA government is extremely sensitive to such issues.”

However, some of Rajagopal’s associates are already talking of a broader, more expansive agenda. According to Ulka Mahajan of the Sarvahara Jan Andolan, “We are working against a system that believes in grabbing land from the landless for SEZs, for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and petrochemical complexes. We fought for 20 years to get the Forest Rights Act. A change in system is required. With one rally, it is not going to happen. The need is to immediately stop alienation of land from the oppressed class, the Dalits and the Adivasis. To do that, all that the government needs to do is to implement the existing land reforms legislation: the Land Ceiling Act, Tenancy Act, Tribal Land Restoration Act.”

As retired bureaucrat and social activist EAS Sarma emphasised it, it was only the pressure of marching throngs that scared and moved the government. “The land records are in a mess,” he said, “there are many tenants whose land rights are not recognised and therefore they cannot get bank loans. There are millions of farmers who are cultivating on government land but do not have land pattas. The government should survey that land and divide it up among the landless in the presence of villagers.”

That is more than what even Jairam Ramesh and, in fact, the UPA government can perhaps promise. Nevertheless, the dispossessed have almost reached the gates of the capital — the deal concluded as they neared Agra. Depending on how one saw it, they had waited a few thousand years, 60 years or eight years (since the Ekta Parishad began the current round of agitations). They were and are not willing to wait any longer.

Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]