Writing a new chapter in the struggle for the much denied dignity, millions of people from historically discriminated castes marched on the roads throughout the breadth and width of the nation almost bringing the country to a halt, living up to their call of a complete ‘Bharat Bandh’. Marking nationwide unity amongst the Dalit community, protestors rallied together against the dilution of the Prevention of Atrocities against Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes commonly referred to as the SC/ST Act.
The protest saw massive support from the community as the agitation stretched from Himachal Pradesh to Maharashtra . The impact of the strike was most felt in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab where the agitators allegedly turned aggressive while they tried to enforce their strike.
A heavy crackdown by the police resulted in the unfortunate death of nine Dalit protestors. Hundreds of agitators were also detained while several complained of physical torture by security personnel.
This outburst of Dalit anger finds provocation from a recent Supreme Court judgment. On March 20, a bench of Justice A.K. Goel and Justice U.U. Lalit said the past three decades have seen complainants — who belong to the marginalised sections of society — use the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 to exact “vengeance” and satisfy vested interests. According to the SC directive, action against public servants accused of aggression towards the marginalised communities can only be taken only after the appointing authority provides permission in writing and in general cases, arrest can be made only after a Senior Superintendent of Police investigates into the accusation. The court ruling further relaxed the provisions for granting anticipatory bail to the accused.
People from various quarters have criticized these changes fearing that they will nullify the protection to Dalits and tribal communities from casteist slur and discrimination.
The protests that followed however should not be seen in isolation but is the culmination of the deep-rooted anger that has been brewing over the years amongst the Dalits.
It is no secret that Dalits have been eking out their livelihood from low paying jobs which are termed as less dignified by the Indian society following the caste hierarchy which prevents them from taking any other jobs of their choice.
They have hence been a historically disadvantaged community as they were never allowed to own any assets.
Ashok Kumar Bharti, Chairman of National Confederation of Dalit Organisations said, “As Dalits hardly own land and are forced to do menial work, they incline towards government schemes for livelihood to get out of vicious cycle of poverty. But the central government’s midnight stunts like GST, demonetisation destroyed the cash economy which created large-scale unemployment. And, along with other causes, unemployment is a major reason behind the agitation.”
Land rights has been the objective of Dalit struggle and in recent times young leaders from the community have been pressing hard for them. In September 2016, the Gujarat state administration started mapping out the land around Saroda village in Ahmadabad district. The state Government was forced to initiate this process of handing over allotted land to Dalits of the village following a massive protest led by young Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani. 115 Dalit families of Saroda village are reportedly entitled to get 220 bighas of land if the Agricultural Land Ceiling (ALC) Act is implemented in the state in practice.
Speaking to Hind Kisan, Jignesh Mevani accused Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for neglecting land right of Dalits. He said, “Dalits constitute only 7 percent of the population in Gujarat so electorally they do not hamper the BJP here. As the upper caste and upper-class nexus control the administration, they are hell-bent on not transferring land holdings to Dalits.”
Mevani has been demanding 5 acres of land for every landless Dalit family and his demand is not unfounded. While asserting his demand, he refers to the ALC Act for redistribution of land in the state. According to the Act, a farmer can own not more 16 acres of irrigated and 32 acres of non-irrigated land, and the rest is given to ex-servicemen, Dalits, Adivasis (tribals), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and landless families.
But the leader alleged that the redistribution of land remain only in papers as many Dalit families have land in their names but they never had the possession of the land.
While there has been an increase in landholding and operated area in the country over the years, Dalits primarily remain wage workers as only 29 percent of the them own land.
As per government of India data on operational holding, landholding increased from 129.22 million hectare in 2005-06 to 138.35 million hectare in 2010-11 which is an increase of 7.06 percent. The operated area also increased to 159.59 million hectare from 158.32 million hectare during the period.
According to data by the Census 71 percent of SC farmers are ‘agricultural labourers’ — which the census refer to those who work for wages on land they do not own and only 29 percent from the community are cultivators. That figure is much lower among other groups: 47% for Scheduled Tribe farmers and 41% for non-SC/ST farmers, reported Hindustan Times.
Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani accused the government of creating more landless Dalits. “By acquiring land for the industries the government actually forcing hundreds of Dalits part ways from their land”, said the independent MLA.
The NSSO data 70th round report on Land and Livestock Survey indicated that as much as 58.4 percent of rural Dalit households do not own any land. This proportion is much higher than from any other social groups. Though the situation is relatively better in tribal dominated states as far as land ownership is concerned, the states with feudal histories Dalits are more likely to work for wages.
“Haryana, Punjab, and Bihar, where more than 85% of Dalit households do not own any land other than the plot they live on. More than 60% of Dalit households are landless in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Kerala, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Odisha. The Socio Economic and Caste Census points out that ‘landlessness and dependence on manual casual labour for a livelihood are key deprivations facing rural families’, making them far more vulnerable to impoverishment”, the Hindustan Times analysed in an article.
At a time when wages for agricultural labour have not increased in years, earnings of the community have remained stagnant.
Adding to their woes are the latest revised wages for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act. 10 states are set to see no wage hike for 2018-19 while the wages will remain unchanged in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh even when the wage under the scheme is less than the minimum wage.
As the community hardly owns land and ends up working at agricultural fields of others often facing discrimination at the hands of their employers, the government’s ambition of doubling farmers’ income is less likely to reach the Dalits of the country.
With falling wages, mounting agrarian distress and the dilution of measures protecting their rights, will the government have any excuse to their defence if the systematically oppressed Dalits take on the streets asserting their constitutional rights and bring the country to a halt once again?