Sangrur: As farmers returned from the borders of New Delhi, victorious after the repeal of the three farm laws, they found poll-bound Punjab caught up in another stir, this time led by agricultural labourers, mostly landless Dalits.
In a historic first, the Sanjha Morcha, a forum of seven farm workers’ unions, disrupted railway services on 12 December and, again, on 20 December. Their key demands were 200 days of work annually at Rs 700 per day under the rural employment guarantee scheme, waiver of power bills and loans from microfinance companies, repeal of the union government’s amendments to labour laws and allotment of residential plots to workers.
An estimated 20,000 workers blockaded 17 rail routes across 12 districts, including Amritsar, Mansa, Jethuke and Pathrala in Bathinda, Goleewala in Faridkot, Tapa in Barnala, Ajitwal in Moga, Chowkimaan in Ludhiana’s Jagraon constituency and Phillaur in Jalandhar.
Under the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act, 1961, in every village, one third of land vested in the panchayat (rural local self-government body) is reserved for Dalits. The Sanjha Morcha is agitating against what it claims is a ‘betrayal’ by the Charanjit Singh Channi-led Congress state government on distribution of government lands to Dalits. Among the ‘dummy auctions’ they opposed was a recent incident in Gurdaspur in north Punjab where landlords allegedly fielded proxies to have land allotted to them at the panchayat-level auctions.
Punjab has a heavily skewed ownership of land. Big landowners, who own or operate more than 10 acres, make up 5.28% of the state’s peasantry (the national average is 0.57%). It is also the state with the highest proportion of Dalits, with 31.9% of the state’s population belonging to scheduled castes, according to the 2011 Census.
The 2015-16 agricultural census found that Dalits control only 3.59% of the state’s private farm land.
The Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC), an organisation of Dalit agricultural workers in Punjab, has lent external support to the farm workers’ agitation. In Malerkotla in Sangrur district, its members disrupted an event attended by Congress state president Navjot Singh Sidhu. The ZPSC had participated in the farmers’ protest in a similar capacity.
Since 2014, ZPSC has staged militant struggles for control over government lands earmarked for Dalits.
We spoke to a key organiser of the protests, Gurmukh Singh, 43, the ZPSC’s district secretary in Sangrur, to understand the many meanings of the slogan ‘kisan mazdoor ekta zindabad’ (long live farmers–workers unity) that animated the farmers’ struggles. A Dalit himself, Singh joined the Punjab Students Union while pursuing an MA in economics and dropped out of a PhD programme to pursue labour activism full time.
With Dalit protests festering through the last decade, Singh, as an organiser, has had a slew of cases filed against him, including attempt to murder, the cases piling up since he joined the ZPSC in 2014. He has never been arrested.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Now that the farmers’ struggle has been withdrawn with the repeal of the three contentious farm laws, how do you reflect on the role of landless agricultural workers and Dalit organisations in the farmers’ movement?
Dalit organisations in Punjab supported the farmers’ struggle at the Singhu and Tikri borders. The ordinary Dalit did not. Both have their own reasons for this. Dalit organisations, be they of the Left or the Right—including those aligned with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Backward And Minority Communities Employees Federation or even non-governmental organisations—want the Modi government to be defeated. They know that our place in society will be pushed further back with the advance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which openly endorses Manuvad.
So these groups tried to organise people and go to Delhi. We did this too. We’d been in the struggle since its inception but after the incidents of 26 January, we thought that stronger measures had to be taken to support the movement. We went village to village and organised rallies, street plays and meetings to mobilise people to join the struggle on Delhi’s borders.
We encountered two challenges while doing this. Firstly, we did not have the means. Farmers had their tractors and trolleys, but travelling to Delhi is quite expensive for daily wage labourers. We had hoped to mobilise 2,000-3,000 people, but neither were we able to raise sufficient funds nor did we receive the support we had anticipated.
The second reason is that caste is as big a factor in Punjab as it is in other states. Just months before the agitation began, during the (first) Covid-19 lockdown, the state faced a scarcity of migrant agricultural labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh who come here during the sowing season. Punjabi landless workers, most of whom are Dalits, demand higher wages than those who come from other states. This became a bone of contention. Jat farmers refused to pay locals more than what they pay migrants. They closed ranks and announced through the village gurudwara that so-and-so is the rate fixed for sowing wheat and anyone demanding more would be boycotted. Several villages implemented such social boycotts because the upper castes are dominant in the countryside.
Rural Dalits were greatly antagonised by this conflict when the three farm laws were introduced. So when the struggle started, they naturally stayed away even though there were several clauses in the laws against workers’ interests.
One met several Dalit agricultural workers at the protest sites. What explains their presence then?
Let me give you an example of a village called Gharachon where our organisation is relatively strong. When the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (a forum of farmers’ organisations spearheading the agitations) called for a Punjab-wide bandh, the ZPSC supported the appeal and tried to enforce it in all four districts where we work. At Gharachon, we campaigned for a mobilisation at the Sangrur district headquarters. Three people turned up from the village. The same day, a farmer organisation active in the area called for a mobilisation in Bhawanigarh. More than 300 Dalits turned up there without any workers’ organisation present.
We asked some members what went wrong. Then they explained, “See, we did not wish to go, but we could tell you so since this is our organisation. How do we refuse them? We need their work, we take loans from them. So we answered you in broad daylight. But when the sardar came around after dusk, we had to go along.”
I’m sure this is not an entirely new phenomenon for the ZPSC. How has this antagonism between upper caste farmers and Dalit farm workers played out in Punjab?
Before the Green Revolution, the rural landless could find work locally. They were thrown off the fields as farming became mechanised. Sufficient industrialisation did not take place either to absorb this unemployed populace. The labour class in Punjab, particular among Dalits, is under tremendous pressure today. ZPSC’s rise would not have taken place had this pressure not existed. They had left the land to look for jobs in industry but there were no jobs. Now they are back in the villages but what will they do here without land? When we raised the demand of land for the Dalits, it picked up.
Our work initially considered the question of food security and the lack of a working Public Distribution System (referring to leakages and exclusions in the functioning of the National Food Security Act). Then a comrade brought a land dispute in his village to our attention. That’s when we came to realise that this was a wider phenomenon. We came to know about nazool lands (tracts outside municipal limits that had been escheated to the government) that should be given to Dalits. Cooperative farming by Dalits had been introduced on nazool lands—through the Nazool Lands (Transfer) Rules, 1956. There was also the issue of panchayati lands. A third of land under the panchayat, reserved for Dalits, is to be leased out through annual auctions—this is also valid across India. But when you go to a village and ask for land, the Jatts will not give up control without a fight.
The rates of panchayati land are high. Upper caste farmers bid on these lands through their proxies and most Dalits are unable to compete with them financially. In 2014, we tried to set up a model by putting together the sum needed and winning the rights over panchayati land in Balad Kalan village in Sangrur district. Gaining actual control over the land was a different affair. There was a major struggle. FIRs were filed against us and many of our members went to jail but, ultimately, we managed to retain control over the land. We have tried to set up group farming by Dalits on these lands using shared agro-inputs and farm tools.
We heard that there are 40 or so FIRs against you as well, that you are a wanted man.
(Laughs.) When it was limited to a single village, the state government sought to bury the matter. They adjudicated in our favour despite opposition from the local landowning community. But after the initial victory, we started generalising this form of struggle. The next year, the movement spread to 16 villages and, the year after that, to more than 40. That’s when the state took notice and they sided with the upper caste landowners to try and stop us.
In 2016, in a village called Jhaloor in Barnala district, we won the panchayati auction but were attacked by Jat Sikhs who did not want to let go of the land. We were prepared to defend ourselves but couldn’t hold our ground when the police came to help the landlord’s bouncers. The state sided with them despite us being legally entitled to the land. Much of our leadership was imprisoned. To threaten a local organiser, his mother’s leg was chopped off and she was martyred.
After this attack, a number of farmers’ unions stood with us. Be it the Kirti Kisan Union, Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU)-Ekta Ugrahan or BKU-Dakaunda, many Left-affiliated unions lent support—all but those aligned with the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the CPI–Marxist. In fact, they claimed that we were ‘disturbing peace’ in the area. The right wing unions sided with the upper caste farmers.
After a series of protests, the administration tried to broker a compromise. As we were still in possession of the land, they asked us to vacate and take compensation for the casualties. We turned down the money but offered to leave the land on two conditions, that those involved in the violence be penalised as per law and, that the 32 Jat men named in connection with the murder come to the Dalit beda (ghetto) and apologise. The matter is still ongoing.
That’s the other thing. Farmer organisations regularly stage protests, gheraos and roadblocks, and the government is forced to concede them this space. When Dalits take the lead in a struggle, state repression is much higher. During hearings related to a land dispute, a judge called up the superintendent of police (SP) in an open court to ask what he should do with the matter. Imagine that—a judge asking the police what to do with an accused. Caste is present in every institution.
Organisers with ZPSC have FIRs and PO (proclaimed offender) warrants piled up against them to the point where we have lost count. Because Punjab has a legacy of mass movements, they are unable to arrest us without unleashing open terror—we openly go for public meetings and even take delegations to government officials. As and when we heighten the struggle, such as for enacting stricter land ceiling laws, these pending cases will be used to crush us.
At the moment, we have been raising already-legal demands to allot nazool and panchayati land to land-starved Dalits in governmental documents. We are now demanding that these panchayati lands be leased for 33 years on a cooperative basis, as is done for other public works such as building hospitals or colleges, instead of the current yearly auction system. Our immediate objective is to expand organisationally across Punjab, outside the Malwa region where we are now concentrated. Such a struggle will not be built in a day.
Dalits make up almost one third of Punjab’s total population but own only 3.5% of its private farm land. Why have anti-caste organisations not been able to organise their discontent?
Many Dalit organisations have been active in Punjab after Kanshi Ram’s movement in the mid-80’s. Political outfits such as the BSP have been allied with the Akalis (the Shiromani Akali Dal, a former partner in the ruling National Democratic Alliance). Organizations like BAMCEF (an outfit of public sector employees) and the DS-4 (the popular abbreviation for the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, another Ambedkarite organisation) are also active. Many bureaucrats and businessmen in these organisations enter political life after retirement. But they have not been able to develop an active cadre force of political whole-timers. That is much more difficult.
They have focused on reservations for Dalits and Adivasis in employment and education, but have not picked up the issue of reservation in land ownership. We believe that all means of production must come under the ambit of reservations for the historically oppressed, like the Dalit Panthers fought for in Maharashtra.
But BSP and BAMCEF run slander campaigns against us, that we are vitiating the atmosphere. They say that Babasaheb (Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar) told Dalits to get educated and look for jobs in the city. As a result, they distance themselves from the land question. But Babasaheb told us to become educated, to agitate and get organised. There will never be sufficient jobs for Dalits in the cities in the foreseeable future.
The Left must read Dr Ambedkar. We have only read what the state has made accessible to us (the 17 volumes of his writings and speeches compiled by the government of Maharashtra in 1979) or what BAMCEF popularises. Till his last, Babasaheb regretted that he could not do enough for the Dalit in the village.
You mentioned that some farmers’ unions have earlier supported ZPSC’s struggles. How far have they succeeded in annihilating caste sentiment among their membership?
In the Jhaloor case that I was speaking about earlier, BKU - Ekta Ugrahan had an active unit in the area. You could say they are a Left organisation. They went beyond symbolic solidarities and actually turned up in significant numbers at our protest. But what happened as a result is that their unit soon got disbanded. Their membership drifted to right wing unions. It is only during the current protests that they’ve been able to rebuild their organisation in the region.
In truth, Communist revolutionaries are still grappling with the question of caste in Punjab. We manage to build either farmers’ organisations or workers’ unions in an area. Many, particularly the Kirti Kisan Union, have resolved to side with the rural working class during conflicts and oppose the social boycotts of Dalits. But the result is that they lose their influence among upper caste farmers. Farmers hesitate to pick up the red flag.
From the time of Banda Singh Bahadur (a Sikh ruler in the 1600s), there have been significant land struggles in Punjab. As a result of this, a large number of Jat farmers today own a bit of land. That is also why small and middle farmers made up the bulk of the protestors. They know that corporations will swallow their land if these laws are implemented. But we often find that when disputes arise, small farmers are the least inclined to side with the landless despite their interests being more closely aligned. More often, they will lead the charge at the behest of larger landowners from their caste. We continue to demand that along with one and half acres to each landless family, three acres of government land should also be allotted to small farmers.
And small farmers among the Jats haven’t responded to your calls?
No. Only during the Covid-19 lockdown we saw a number of multinational microfinance lending companies rack up huge margins at extractive interest rates by preying on the insecurity of the landless. Even a section of small farmers were affected by this. We took up their demand that these loans be waived given the income losses people were facing. Women who manage the household’s expenses were the most aggrieved. As a result of this struggle, three Jat women who participated in the movement later joined our organisation. They are the first non-Dalit members of ZPSC in all these years.
(Sourya Majumder is a researcher associated with Migrant Workers Solidarity Network.)