Dalits and land issues
ON December 25, 1927, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar led a historic mahasatyagraha to defy a ban imposed by caste Hindus on Dalits drawing water from public sources. More than 10,000 Dalits participated in it.
Exactly 41 years later, on Christmas Day in 1968, 44 Dalits were burnt to death by upper-caste landlords in Kilavenmani village in the then undivided Thanjavur district for demanding higher wages under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Three decades later, as the events of the last few years, especially in southern Tamil Nadu, have demonstrated, Dalits continue to be victims of caste (and class) violence. That this is the situation in a State where 'Periyar' E.V. Ramasamy led a revolutionary social reform movement against caste oppression is a tragic irony. It demonstrates that caste oppression has tenacious roots and a material basis. Unsurprisingly, the Communist parties have played a major role in fighting caste and class oppression against Dalits; they have posited the Dalit struggle on class issues and a materialist understanding.
The social reform movement led by Periyar and the Left-led struggles against class and caste oppression have contributed to a democratic upsurge among Dalits; they have also led to a measure of economic and social advance among Dalits, through policies of caste-based reservation and other developments.
However, certain fundamental structural features serve to perpetuate a system of social and economic inequality against Dalits in Tamil Nadu, as in most other States. The most important of these is Dalits' relationship to land and other productive assets. Two-thirds of the State's population lives in rural areas, and the proportion is marginally higher among Dalits. An overwhelming proportion of Dalits in the rural workforce are agricultural labourers with little or no access to land.
A recent study of Tamil Nadu's economy by Professor K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) notes: "... while there has been a substantial transfer of land ownership from the upper castes to the middle and lower castes, access to land remains very low for the Scheduled Castes. This is particularly true for landholdings in higher size classes, and for holdings with better quality irrigation like well irrigation."
Professor Thangaraj, also of the MIDS, notes that data from the Population Census of 1991 and the Agricultural Census of 1990-91 show that while Dalits accounted for 19.18 per cent of the State's population, their share of area operated was only 7.1 per cent. In a Tamil booklet, "Thamizh Nattil Nilamum Sathiyum" (Land and Caste in Tamil Nadu, LRSA Publication, Chengalpattu, 1998), Dr. Thangaraj argues that not only have Dalits not benefited significantly from land reforms (in fact, "land reforms" in Tamil Nadu, as in practically all States except Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura, have led to little redistribution of land from large landlords to the landless), but even the lands assigned to them during colonial rule (the so-called depressed class land or panchami land) have been partially appropriated by non-Dalits.
The Government of Tamil Nadu announced that 1999 would be observed as the year of eradication of untouchability. Yet, efforts to mobilise opinion against the practice of untouchability in its several manifestations received little support from local administrators and officials. A case in point was the official response to the findings of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) in Dindigul and Pudukkottai districts. A survey by the AIDWA in Oddanchatram taluk of Dindigul district showed that tea was served in a separate glass for Dalits in 25 of 30 villages visited. The survey also brought out evidence of caste Hindu hairdressers refusing their services to Dalit customers. Yet it has not been easy to get officials at local and district levels to take action to end such practices.
In Pudukkottai, a conference of Dalit women organised by the AIDWA in April 1998 listed numerous instances of the practice of untouchability and other forms of discrimination against Dalits in the district and brought it to the attention of the district administration. Yet in May 1999, the District Collector denied the well-substantiated claims of the AIDWA.
Clearly, there is a need to raise the level of awareness about the social oppression of Dalits. It is important to secure the widest possible consensus, cutting across the political spectrum, to ensure the success of a campaign of social mobilisation against untouchability. Alongside these steps, a thoroughgoing land reform programme is necessary to ensure the elimination of caste oppression in the long run.