Moderator of the Church of North India calls upon the government to protect untouchables driven from village commons
The Moderator of the Church of North India has urged the government to protect the rights of India’s rural untouchable, or Dalit, to use common lands — protecting them from the predation and exploitation of upper caste landowners. In a press conference held on 11 May 2016 the Most Rev. P.K. Samantaroy, Bishop in Amritsar, urged the government to investigate an incident in his diocese where Dalits clashed with local farmers over the use of common land. Under the provisions of the Punjab Village Commons Land Act of 1963, one third of the commons — land owned by the state in trust for locals — is to be set aside for use by Dalits. However, Dalit activists say the law is seldom honored, as local farmers often hire a Dalit go-between to rent their land on their behalf from the government, technically meeting the law’s requirements but forcing the Dalit community to work as day laborers. In a 28 Jan 2011 decision India’s Supreme Court held the enclosure of commons land was unlawful. In his 12-page decision Justice Markandey Katju noted: “Since time immemorial there have been common lands inhering in the village communities in India. … These public utility lands in the villages were for centuries used for the common benefit of the villagers of the village such as ponders for various purposes, e.g., for their cattle to drink and bathe for storing their harvested grain, as grazing ground for the cattle, threshing floor, maidan for playing by children, carnivals, circuses, ramlila, cart stands, water bodies, passages, cremation ground or graveyard, etc.” However, the court found that since independence in 1948 “in large parts of the country this common village land has been grabbed by unscrupulous persons using muscle power, money power or political clout, and in many States now there is not an inch of such land left for the common use of the people of the village, though it may exist on paper.” While the government was permitted to set aside a portion of the land for the use of Dalits or tribal peoples, it could not permit the alienation of commons land from the public trust, or allow public land to be monopolized by the powerful. At his press conference this week, Bishop Samantaroy urged the government to uphold the court’s ruling citing a recent incident in his diocese. Members of a Dalit community sought to block men working for local landowners from enclosing a commons they were using as a dump. The 1500 square yard plot was the only place the Dalits could dispose of waste as their homes were without plumbing or drainage systems. However, the land was next to fields cultivated by local farmers who wanted to enclose the land and turn it over to agricultural production. A melee ensued and 34 people were injured, including two wounded by shotgun blasts the bishop said. Daniel Das, director of the diocese’s Socio Economic Development Programme noted the government had not only failed to provide basic sanitation for the Dalit community, but they failed to protect them when their peaceful protest against the enclosure was met with violence.