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The Politics of Land & the Besieged Lot # #


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The Politics of Land & the Besieged Lot##

Goldy M. George


  1. The Debate of Land & People

We are in a crisis; the crisis of life, the crisis of livelihood, the crisis of sustainability and so on. The state is helpless. As this crisis is further intensifying the prime point of discussion today is the people-land-livelihood relationship and some of the conflicts and its co-relation and how the indigenous people of the land are adversely affected. Human life is highly concentrated on his relationship with land, forests and other resources. So far the poor are concerned it is not merely a livelihood base but beyond that they have an emotional attachment and spiritual relationship with it. Hence the basis of the growing unrest is because of the outgrown alienation of relationship with the primary life resource.1
Land issue has been never free from debates, which continues to this day. In India this debate has taken different forms in different places based on the specific character of the locality. Earlier the debate on land reforms was concentrated over issues like what should be the ceiling limit, at what size do landholdings attain viability, or whether tenancy as a practice should be allowed to exist under regulated conditions, or eliminated altogether and so on so forth. There has been, particularly in the neo-liberalization era, a noticeable shift both in the tenor and the content of the debate.2
In the colonial period, the Zamindar's property rights were conditional; the colonial state honoured the rights of the Zamindars as long as they paid the revenue. On the other hand, the actual tillers were never in the scene. They were only as the tenants of their masters or otherwise worked for their masters in their land. Soon after the independence in most of the areas this land was appropriated by the Zamindars as their private property.3
One of the major questions related with the whole issue is the manner in which the state has approached this issue. Even after 62 years of independence the state – despite the fact in change of governments under the auspices of different political parties – has almost failed to address this issue in an absolute way. This raises an array of question on the very character and approach of the state, rather the ruling class towards the poor and working class or the proletariats of the country.
Land is by and large related with the production and distribution of resources on earth. Thus the character of control and management of resources is closely linked with the development of a social system. As relation of property in the means of production drifts, for example land, the nature of relations among people in this process also alters.
On the one hand the sheer persistence of monumental social, economic and political problems of India, provides attestation to the clear exploitative interests of her ruling class and on the other, perhaps tragically, to the seldom-realised goals of its social justice movements. Currently there is a great euphoria among the upper segments of Indian society regarding the wondrous opportunities being made available by "liberalising" her domestic economy. This opening up of the economy to mostly western capital is not but the slow and sure surrender of her economic and political sovereignty.4
A close examination of various land reforms laws has shown that the present legislative measures have become so complex that a graduated or phased program of implementation according to priority attached in each problem in various areas was what was really absent in it. Beneath the undercurrents of the dominant landholding system of Zamindari, land reforms and land distribution become more harsh and formidable  in the newly arisen socio-political context. One of the classic instances of this is the countrywide struggle on the question of land distribution between the rich landholders and the landless poor across the country,5 both in the pre and post independence era.


  1. Land Holding Pattern

The beginning of regularly assessed land revenue may fairly be traced to Akbar's settlement, which began in 1571 AD. There had been some earlier attempts, but those attempts were neither systematic not had the details. There was another great settlement carried out by the Mohamaden kings of Dakhan (south), but that was almost a replica of Akbar's settlement.
In the survey settlement of year 1571 AD the land was classified in the following categories:


  1. Pulaj or Pulej land: The land that was continuously cultivated and did not require fallow.

  2. Phirawati (rotational) land: The land, which requires periodical fallow.

  3. Chichar land: The land that lay fallow for three or more years, or rather flooded or otherwise bad, and could only be occasionally dependent upon for crop.

  4. Banjar Land: The land that has not been cultivated for five or more years and considered waste.6

These categorizations were further classified into best, middle or average and worst. The share of government, as a rule, was one third of the average produce on each of these kinds of land. The average was calculated as one third of the aggregate produce on one bigha sample spot. Since the collection of revenue was through a chain of intermediaries, known as Zagirdars, the record of right aspect was rather weak. The extensive data in Ayin-i-Akbari gives detailed account of assessment of revenue payment, but was blind towards the actual tillers of land.7 De facto the extensive record keeping contributed to assessment of land revenue in terms of money at a later stage, and that had become substantial or principal source of state's wealth, even before the British took over.


Till the consolidation of their power and successful expansion, the British government claimed the share in produce of land by ancient law. Gradually the government conferred the right to decide about share upon itself. Between the years 1770-86, some British administrators tried to apply western concepts and definitions regarding land revenue, which failed miserably.8 The system that developed in Bengal as a consequence of the compromise between western concepts and the power of the local elite had formed the basis of the famous permanent (Zamindari) settlements. This system had formally acknowledged intermediaries between government and the actual tiller for the purpose of revenue assessment and collection.
With the gradual expansion of the British Empire in India, the administration in different parts experimented with different systems through a trial and error method. Finally, by the second half of the nineteenth century, the land revenue system that has evolved in British India could be categorized as following:


    1. Zamindari

This system had one person for every estate, with whom government held the settlement for the purpose of revenue collection and in return such person was vested with proprietary interests in the land. Indeed he controlled the whole bulk of land, including which others were operating or cultivating. This power was extensively used through an unbridled process of expansion of territory by many Zamindars. Thus an individual became the sole proprietor of large area. Always there was an untold or unwritten understanding with the British government on this. The British supported this expansion to the perimeters of another Zamindar, since it always added unruffled surplus revenue to their treasury. Virtually this was the consolidation of British revenue and reserves and the Zamindars not only acted as mediators but also as mentors too.9
The British did little in the beginning to interfere with the existing land holding system. The East India Company's rule recognized all grants before 1765 A.D. in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa as valid.10 A century before the British rule, the Zamindars had developed themselves as practical landlords and the position became hereditary in course of time. It was perhaps the inevitable course of history. But it was during the British rule that in Bengal for the first time the private right on land to Zamindars was legally granted as a matter of policy and thereby revenue farmers were recognized as owners. This was done with the recourse for the colonial rule in India. The Zamindari land revenue system generally conferred the right of private ownership of land on persons who belonged to the upper strata of the society. Many farmers became owners and the process continued in several ways.11
Each Zamindar was fully entitled to bring the vast area of wasteland under the plough by his own tenants so that in the course of time he became its owner. Such appropriated areas were called khamar-nij-jot or sir land. The land purchase or mortgaged in of fresh land went on increasing the size of personal estates. Unpaid rent or arrears of rent were followed by the seizing of the land by the landlord who claimed proprietary right on it. Apart from this each Zamindar got some land exempted from revenue for his private subsistence, which was known as nankar. There was a marked difference between the old Jagirdari and Zamindari under the British rule. While the former system implied certain conditions of service without giving proprietary right, Zamindari system on the one hand made those conditions obsolete and on the other provided the ownership right to Zamindars.

    1. Raiyatwari

This system had evolved from the idea of surveying the districts and dealing with the village and the Raiyat. The underlining principle of this system was that each man was free to hold land, subject to payment of the assessed rent. In fact, for the purpose of ascertaining the revenue payable from every cultivator every year, an annual account was prepared through a simple process known as Annual Zamabandi.

    1. Mahalwari

In this system, the government dealt with estates held under one title consisting of the whole of village or portion of several villages. Such estates were popularly known as Mahals and were quite different from western concepts of estate in terms of ownership and possession. In a way under this system the unit of assessment was estate or the group of holdings under one title. The Mahals can be of various types. For example:


  1. Local area held under a separate agreement for the payment of revenue, and for which a separate record-of-rights has been framed.

  2. Any local area of which the revenue has been assigned or redeemed, and for which a separate record-of-rights has been framed.

A third clause empowers the government to constitute any grant of land under wasteland rules, a separate Mahal. In British India of early twentieth century 57% of privately owned agricultural land was covered under Zamindari system; 38 percent by the Raiyatwari system; and 5 percent by the Mahalwari system.12


It is important to understand these categories of land revenue systems because the revenue system had direct bearing on land records. While the Zamindari system continued to be based on intermediaries, the records maintained in Zamindari areas remained silent about record of rights of the actual tiller. In Raiyatwari areas, due to attempts for state's direct contact with the actual holder through Annual Zamabandi, the records did have the mention of record of rights of the cultivators. In the Mahalwari system, however the community's customary practices provided security to individual landholders in the context of a record of rights.


  1. Land & social groups

Primarily India is an agriculture-based country, and agriculture has been the cornerstone of her economy for many centuries. The peasantry used to have a need based production in almost in every part of the country. In early days there was no master servant relationship, people used to toil and earn their day-to-day bread. Nor there was any disparity or dispute over properly since everything was in common and for all. People lived in communities and had a common sense and feeling of caring, sharing and co-operation. Barter system existed in most parts of ancient India for long. Hence to large extent there was a subsistent economy, even among the rustic poor.
This community feeling was battered with the offshoot of agriculture as a major economy and source of capital accumulation. Surplus production ceased to be shared with the have not and a new phenomena of storing the surplus gradually coined and synthesized. Production and distribution based on the value of exchange changed the situation upside down. This had severe implication to unpredictable magnitude. Man engaged more in conquering and subjugating others and their resources. Those who succeeded this attempt emerged as the eventual winners in every sphere – particularly land, property and other resources. Hegemony of those winners still continues in a major part of India.
Land is a productive asset but people are more emotionally attached with the land in many ways. For many it is the symbol of their freedom. To some it’s the image of their fight against the upper caste. It’s also the icon of reiterating the lost identity. To many it’s an image of self-determination, co-existence and community feeling. But to the corporate sector and agents of development it is a commodity to be consumed. The state also takes side with these so-called think tanks. Land can be purchased and sold for commercial purpose. Or even it could be acquired forcefully. The common man of the country sacrifices himself for the relish and enjoyment of the elite.


    1. Land & Dalits

The owners of the land are today landless; that is Dalits. Historically they are one of the long persecuted humanities betrayed of rights over land and any form of resources. In most part of the country Dalits are either small or marginal farmers or landless. Analysing it from the historical viewpoint they could be termed as the first plebeians of ancient India.
In Chhattisgarh caste system is not only as strong as in the rest of North-India but remained as the primary factor in the distribution of resources too. It is also decisive in appropriating the power relations not only terms of political power but also in terms of Dalits rights over any resources at large. It has exacerbated division within society. Due to the social system of betrayal of land or resources or employment, large numbers of Dalits migrate. Sizeable number among them falls in a trap of bonded labourers too. Their life condition is wretched and extremely inhuman. Women and children are subjected to atrocious harassment, sexual abuse and torture, particularly in the migrated workplace.
Looking back at the land struggles of the past, the participation of Dalits in land movement quite sizeable in various parts of the country, particularly in the violent movements. In fact the character of the ruling class towards the Dalits was the same in almost every part of the country. One of the principal reasons of the Naxalbari march, by hundreds of rustic poor and landless peasants taking up arms in their hands, was the growing unrest among the Dalits against the upper caste Hindus in West Bengal.
This process was very attractive bringing rural Dalit youths under its fold and therefore it had a heavy replication in various parts of the country, where the masses were brought under the banner of Marxist-Leninist movement towards the end of sixties. Hundreds of youths came under its fold, as it entered the scene as the only alternative to the dominant crisis. Thus in Bengal, Bihar and in parts of Andhra Pradesh the Marxist-Leninist movement became a movement of Dalits. However the ideology of Dalit as the lowest social strata and original inheritors of the land could neither be recognised nor gain any momentum within the movement.
In Bihar Musahari and Bhojpur were the first places where the silence of the peasants were decisively broken. Heroic Dalit figures like Jagdish Mahto, Ram Naresh Ram, Bhutan Musahar, Rameshwar Ahir, and Dr. Nirmal Mahto were some of the early leaders struggling to ignite the single spark that would light the prairie fire. By late seventies many central and some northern districts of the erstwhile Bihar (now in Jharkhand) were raging with the peasant struggles. Four reasons have come to dominate the armed struggles in Bihar. The first and perhaps the most successful reasons has been the relentless struggle on social issues. 64% of Bihar's population is composed of the backwards and Dalits,13 the majority of whom have nursed a justifiable historical grievance against the upper caste (13%), who dominated the economic, cultural and political structures. The constant battle waged by the rural Dalits in acquiring social dignity or "Izzat" against the bloodthirsty and avaricious behaviour of upper caste landlords and rich farmers has been indefatigable and quite measurably successful.
However non-of these movements emerge into a Dalit land movement with a perspective of social change in the basic fabric of the structure. One prime factor of the failure of the Indian working class movement was that upper caste bourgeoisie who never wanted to change the basic social frame mostly led it. Therefore the realisation of change in the Brahminical social order could not be internalised.14
At present a strategic method of further seizure of land and property is lucid and visible. In many places the land occupied by them is deliberately targeted under different guise such as rural development programs, building schools, road construction, etc. Another method is through the intervention of middleman, who provides them with loans during the occasion of marriage, death, birth, festivals and celebrations, and in return mortgage the land. Many such cases have come into light.
With the arrival of privatisation policy, the employment facility under reservation is wiped-off the surface. Battering the growing consciousness among the Dalits is the primary agenda of this. It is by all means to put the Dalits into more and more trouble. If we look at the rate of migration of Dalits, it has gone up to alarming heights. As globalisation and fascism compliments and strengthens each other, it also affects the land-property relationship. Caste polity is corroborating its grip in new forms and the people stand without much of options. Outbreak of communal tensions is also aimed to make the Dalits realise that they are Hindus; thereby to bring them under the Hindutava fold. This will divert the Dalits from the core issues of being powerless, landless, resourceless, etc.


    1. Land & Adivasis

Both land and forest have indispensable part in the wholesome life of Adivasis. In the past few decades there has been a gradual “weaning” away of Adivasis from the forest.15 Adivasi culture and economy, in addition to being intimately linked with forests, have also a close relationship to land. Land was not a private property it was the common or community property. As Dr. Ram Dayal Munda puts it, the spirit among Adivasis was that the land does not belong to an individual, neither a woman nor a man; its transference by an individual will be illegal.16
In the wake of these enforced changes in culture and economy, most of the Adivasi communities are faced with a whole spectrum of problems, land alienation being the major one among them.17 The spectrum of issues faced by the Adivasis, specifically related to the land and forests, cannot take any concrete remedy unless there is a serious intervention. In a nation where thousands are landless and only a few handling the chunk of land resources, the equitable distribution of land seems impossible. True socialism cannot be practised under the existing circumstance. Land Ceiling Act hasn’t been properly implemented in India, specifically in Adivasi areas.18 The gravity of the problems of Adivasi land alienation has again underlined the need for renewed and vigorous efforts to intervene on various fronts in order that Adivasis are not alienated due to the so-called development. This calls for serious measures, legal, administrative and socio-economic to effectively deal with the problems of alienation of Adivasis and protection of their interests and rights in such lands.19
Land alienation also leads to the state of depeasantization. Analysing the history of Adivasis it is clear that they were never a working class community in its classical sense. Classes are groups of people, of which one can appropriate the labour, owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy. What basically determines the difference between classes is their relationship to the means of production.20 Based on this analysis of class society, one cannot term or classify the Adivasis simply as the working class by virtue of owing land or working on land. However it puts them into the category of small farmers and mostly they do not sell their labour power to the bourgeoisie.
But recent Adivasi history testifies to the fact that a sizeable number of them are being dispossessed of their land by mega projects (dams, industry, and mines). At the national level, although they are only 8% of the population, 40% of the total displaced is Adivasis. In terms of numbers, out of about two and quarter crore displaced persons since 1950 (till 2000), 85 lakhs are Adivasis, of them only about 30 lakhs have been offered some type of compensation, and the remaining 55 lakhs have been left by the wayside.21 This is the proletarianisation process taking place through which an ethnic group is being transformed into an exploited class.


    1. Land & Women

This is one of the most crucial issues in the whole question of land. Historically women’s rights have been determined by the patriarchal social system. The caste system substantiated it to the greatest extend. Indian women constitute one of the most vulnerable and exploited sections of people in the world. The country has one of the lowest sex ratios in the world; 1000 males to 923 females. Only 39.5% of women are literate. There is one dowry death every 102 minutes, a rape every 54 minutes and kidnapping or abduction every 43 minutes. Indian women on an average have 8-9 pregnancies, of which six live births can be expected, with 4-5 children surviving.22
Violence on women is at alarming heights in all parts of the country. They are neither a part of the decision making process nor have any say in the existing power structure. Hence it is a conscious, organised and strategic way of pushing them into the abyss of poverty by refuting them the right to property and right to access and control over livelihood resources. Ironically this has not come-up impulsively in any of the prominent land movements in the country. Non-of the movements have raised the issue of women’s right over land, property or livelihood resources. Perhaps one of the only movement during which the women within the movement raised their voice for land rights was the Bodhgaya movement.
In fact there was an ongoing struggle on one hand under the profound leadership of Vahini, and on the other hand a serious debate on women role and women's participation in resource management was on prairie within the movement. While the Vahini activists conceded the male bias in their approach, there was a prolonged debate on why women should have independent land rights, before the perspective of the male peasant activists underwent a change. The role of women in Vahini could be seen from two ends  one is their overwhelming role and participation in the land movement in Bodhgaya and another is their fight against male domination within the organisation. The former is significant since it was perhaps the first time that a large number of women came out into the street to fight for their rights.23
In a traditional feudal society like Bihar where women are only destined to remain mute and almost fear to open their mouth in any decision making process, it was a revolutionary step for the women to get into such a tremendous act. The second one is more important as the overall leadership in Vahini reflected the dominant patriarchy in practice. Even within a movement women had very little space to speak and join in the decision making process. As usual the male chauvinists were vibrant and the protest of women for their space within the movement and also for their crucial rights as human beings. In other words it was a profound affirmation of women both inside and outside the movement.24
The Bodhgaya women's ability to ultimately overcome these multiple layers of opposition appears to have depended on the interactive effects of several variables. First is the strength of women's participation in and their considerable contribution to the struggle, which over time was recognised by the men as not merely supportive but crucial for a movement's success. Second was the growing solidarity among women and their articulation of their gender specific interests as distinct from those of the men of their class and community. Third the involvement of some middle class women activists with a feminist perspective in Vahini and four the process of discussion in which women insisted on their demands and persuasively countered opposing arguments.25
One of the crucial parts of it was the Bihar state conference of Vahini in February 1982, attended by some Bodhgaya activists (both peasants as well as Vahini members) a decision was taken that women should be given land in their own names in any future distribution. Subsequently, in two villages, lists were drawn up to give land only to women and widowers, with the unanimous approval of the villagers. However, the district officer in charge of registering the titles was no precedent for this and that land could only be given to heads of households, who in India were usually men. The villagers, however, adamantly refused to take any land unless it was given in the names of the women. It took a while before land was finally allocated in the names of women in two villages.26
However this is not the same in the case of other land struggle in the country. From this one cannot make a general conclusion that women’s land rights struggle has won the battle. Hence this can be only taken as a model of women’s land struggle for further study, reference and analysis. However in this present context the whole process of globalisation-liberalisation is battering the women to the greatest extend. They are the first victims of poverty. Hence it has to be called the feminisation of poverty.
Quoting to Dr. Marry Pillai, poverty is deprivation and degradation which means deprivation of basic needs and degradation of human values. Women are the first victims of both deprivation and degradation.27 Globalisation enlarges these gaps and substantiates poverty. And it escalates. The breathing space that existed on land rights within the existing structure has erased. Hence a new strategy needs to be planned on women’s land rights movement.

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