Dalit Peasants in Revolt

Harsh Thakor

The Zameen Prapt Sangharsh Commitee (ZPSC) has played the most defining role ever in determining the destination of the upsurge or emancipation of the dalit community of Punjab from enslavement. The movement it inaugurated in 2014 has virtually written a new chapter or defined a new epoch in the history of struggle of Dalit agricultural labour. With detailed or incisive analysis and painstaking preparations it led many a struggle for re-distribution of panchayat land promised to dalits, for cancellation of debts and against grossly unfair prices of agricultural produce or obtain land during auctioning. The efforts of the ZPSC have instilled a sense of confidence or self-respect in the Dalit Community in Punjab .Never before have dalit community members spoken so boldly against the oppression perpetrated on them. A welcome break is now enshrined from the tradition in the Communist Movement that literally dumped the caste question in the dustbin.

In the course of history the dalit Community has been denied fundamental rights. In 1961, the state passed the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act, reserving 33% of agricultural village common land for Scheduled castes, who could get an annual lease through bidding. Rules under the statute were framed in 1964. The implementation, however, was indifferent. The 1961 land regulation act carved out 1/3rd panchayat land rights for all dalit families. Their rights have existed only on paper with ruling parties patronising all steps of ruling castes to deny the dalits their promised rights.31.9 %of Punjab population comprise dalits,more than any state in India. Caste confrontation was propelled to its very zenith with upper caste landlords unleashing merciless attacks on dalits with the patronage of the ruling party. On countless occasions dalit women are molested and upper caste landlords forcibly seize land.In 2014 43 activists of ZPSC were arrested and within a few years the figure of those imprisoned rose to 170.

ZPSC took it's birth in Malwa and then spread like wildfire igniting the spark of combat to engulf other regions of Punjab. It's first spark shimmered after the ruthless attack unleashed by upper caste Jat landlords on dalits in Badli Kalan.

Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Commmitee mainly focused on the issue of the Dalit Community's demanf of 1/3rd share of promised Panchayat land .It advocated a 33year land lease for the dalit Community to replace annual auctioning where dalits were manipulated. The ZPSC made a meticulous survey of the socioeconomic conditions in terms of land relations, wages paid to dalit workers, condition of women and employment.

The ZPSC also seriously raised the issue of the 1970 land ceilings act which prevented anyone from owning more than 17 acres of land. In the course of the struggle many important ZPSC leaders were targeted either being arrested or had their houses raided. Another significant issue is the confronting the debts induced by micro finance agencies .With full fury the dalits have risen up against the attempts of micro-finance companies to enslave them. An issue was also raised confronting the building of an industrial park encroaching dalit land. The organisation has also in the deepest pitch raised its voice against Hindutva fascism .

It was most inspiring to witness the capture of land plots themselves by Dalits through planting of red flags. Applying diligent methodology a network was built in Khaneri,Badli Kalan,Kheri,Garacho etc.and other surrounding areas in Sangrur.A red spark or resistance engulfed many a village in Sangrur-Patiala with Caste and class consciousness reaching a crescendo and vengeance written on the faces of dalits at the intensity of a tornado .

Co-operative farming is now practised by the Dalit community which is remarkable. Crops are grown and cattle grazed collectively,. An 11 member strong village committee was elected to run the co- operative farms.In Jhaneri 60 famiiles were knitted into a single unit.6000 Bighas of land have been distributed by the ZPSC and the land auctioning rate reduced from Rs 440000 to 22000. The interviews of dalit women activists testify the spectacular gains achieved in the last 6 years. They highlight the success of cooperative farming which enables them to earn Rupees 30000 a year.

It is also significant that the organisation now has a general body with regular office bearers.

The biggest hurdle confronting the struggle is the ambivalence of the landed jat peasantry who are basically reluctant to treat the dalit community on equal terms. The ZPSC has opposed a mechanical tendency to only concentrate on class and neglect caste struggle.

Other groups spearheading the dalit agricultural labour movement are the Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union and the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union.The KPMU totally supports the line of ZPSC in terms of incorporating caste struggles. In village Namol it undertook a major land re-distribution campaign. At a smaller scale than ZPSC its struggles spared like wildfire. One of its most important achievements was preventing auctioning of land at most unfair prices. The Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union has been very active in initiating protests for plots, employment, 10 marlas of land etc.but deferred confronting Jat farmers at ground level. It has mobilised gatherings even for demands of housing and electricity. In it's view even if caste factor has so seriously be taken into consideration it cannot replace class struggle or politics. The PMKU firmly feels that until a genuine movement is built up by the landed peasantry and unity forged with landless labour such land capture movements will be of no qualitative avail.What is very positive is the unity of so many revolutionary forces in offering solidarity against repression on the movement of ZPSC with outstanding commemoration programmes carried out on theday of murder of Gurdev Kaur.

One weakness of the movement is the ZPSC calling for NOTA in elections and not properly projecting the revolutionary alternative. The KPMU staunchly adheres to path and slogan of 'Boycott' of parliamentary elections. Both do not comply to the slogan of active political campaign propagated by the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union and BKU(Ugrahan).

Another significant defect prevailing is the absence of a revolutionary movement of the landed peasantry to give a cutting edge to the upsurge of agricultural labour. Thus in term of united front a glaring gap is faced to launch a sustained agrarian movement..Tendencies exist of caste identity politics favouring Ambedkarism.

The movement has greater goals to achieve, said Gurmukh Singh of Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee. "The possession of common land has instilled confidence among Dalits but it can't be their main source of livelihood," he said. "The real change will come with proper implementation of land ceiling law and redistribution of private land. Only then the landless will gain equal status."

Nevertheless it is noteworthy that the ZPSC has created shivers in the spine of the ruling classes and upper caste landlords and forced them to retaliate. Thus the enemy has been hit at its hardest point. It should be the precursor of a genuine revolutionary organisation of peasantry uniting the landed and landless peasantry.

In spite of the turbulence caused by the clampdown Covid 19 Pandemic the spark of dalit struggle still ignites Punjab. In the last month a major resurgence has risen of the struggles of the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee of Sangrur-Patiala, which has encompassed different areas. On June 8th one thousand dalit villagers swarmed in Sangrur like an army and besieged the hose of minister Vijay Singh Singla, demanding reserved panchayat land promised to them.

In Gharachon village of Sangrur majority of Dalit families sat in a prolonged dharna to protest the auction of the reserved land. The protesting Dalit community members alleged that the Panchayat authorities allotted the land to "dummy bidders" planted by the members of the upper caste. This protracted struggle was of great significance to the dalit agrarian movement.

Quoting Mukesh Maloud, the president of the zonal committee of the ZPSC, "Our movement has so far been successful in 55 villages now, in Sangrur and Patiala district, where the Dalits get their share in land through genuine auctions," Mukesh said. He said that there were 55 such villages, Paramjit Kaur Longowal, the secretary of the ZPSC, stated that in Badrukha village around forty Dalit families began cultivating eight acres last year, after they won the rights to the land in an auction. Longowal said that their "democratic struggle" lasted five years but now the families were self-reliant. "We can say that the landless Dalit families in eight to ten villages are totally self-reliant to an extent that they were capable of sharing their stores with a few poor migratory families from other states during the lockdown," she said.

Paramjeet Kaur, a middle-aged widow with two children. stated, "It is the fruit of a five-year-long struggle in which our women bore the lathi blows of policemen several times during the agitations." She added, "Today, we grow vegetables and fodder for the cattle, besides the wheat as our main crop."

Paramjeet's husband Avtar said that before the movement of 2014, "several families here in this village were starving, dependent on, and at the mercy of the landlords who exploited the situation." He added, "Our women also faced sexual harassment during their pursuance to cut fodder from their fields or even from the roadsides." But now, he said, he felt pride in being a part of his historically landless peasantry class that is self-reliant in terms of food grains for survival. "Foodgrains are essential to survive, and we have enough now," he said.


Vol. 53, No. 15, Oct 11 - 17, 2020