Guest Post by SHAILZA SHARMA
In the remote corners of Sangrur district of Punjab, 20-something year old women got together during a village celebration of Ravidas Jayanti. These girls from Matoi village had one purpose that day, to declare the formation of their Ekta Club, a club formed with the objective of fighting for equal status, equal opportunities and most importantly, claiming a share in the village land by participating in the annual auction of Shamilat land.
Upon making this valiant declaration, they were bombarded with insults and mocked for demanding their rights. “Who are you to claim rights over land, you are just a bunch of Dalit girls! What will you even get out of owning a piece of land?”, people questioned. To this, the women replied, “It is a matter of legal right and our demands are legitimate claims for what belongs to us. In claiming our legal rights, we seek equal status, satisfaction and self respect”.
Out of this group of ten women were two sisters leading the struggle, Gurmeet Kaur and Sandeep Kaur. They had been at the forefront of formation of the Ekta Club and the fight for claiming Shamilat land.
The Punjab Village Common Lands Regulation Act, 1961 (the Punjab Act)
This was the scene in 2014, a day on which a few Dalit families led by this group of young women, stood up against the upper caste families and farmers of Matoi, to claim their share in the Shamilat land.
Under the Punjab Act, Shamilat land has been defined as inter alia the land used or reserved for the benefit of the village and community. Such land may be utilised for various purposes including constructing schools, drinking wells, roads etc. 30% of the Shamilat land is reserved for families from the Scheduled Castes, 10% for families from the Backward Classes and further 10% for dependants of army personnel killed in war after the independence of India (Reserved Land).
Under the Punjab Act, not only does the Panchayat have unbridled and discretionary powers over the distribution of land, it is a regular practice in villages, to hold proxy auctions for such Reserved Land. The upper caste farmers hire Dalit labourers to auction for the Reserved Land on their behalf, quoting high prices which the Scheduled Caste and Backward Class families are unable to match. The hired Dalit labourer is then engaged to work for the upper caste farmer, on minimal wages. This is the kind of exploitation and outright land grabbing that the Ekta Club and many villages in Punjab, stood against.
In 2008, the movement to claim land began in the village of Benra in Sangrur district. A group of Dalit families fought for and were successfully able to auction for the Shamilat land. Bahal Singh, a resident of Benra explained “the land is now used by all families, we follow a model of collective farming based on rules and regulations formed by a committee. The land is equally divided amongst all families and an extra portion is given to families which own cattle, in order to grow fodder. This fight has had its own challenges, even now the Panchayat creates problems at the time of renewal of lease”. Even with all the hurdles, the ownership of land and control over resources has ushered a sense of empowerment, it has been a true grassroots movement which has gained its legitimacy from the Dalit families’ fight for their rights.
The struggles in Matoi which started in 2014 were strenuous. Sandeep Kaur recalls, “The Panchayat and the upper caste farmers created circumstances which ensured the cancellation of auction on four separate occasions. Our families were victims of harassment and intimidation at the hands of upper caste men. At the first auction, the Panchayat dismissed the women while taunting ‘where are the men of your house, women have no right to participate in the auction’. The sarpanch, at the third auction, deliberately increased the amount of security deposit from INR 1,000 to INR 5,000”. After brutal clashes between the police and the Dalit families, dharnas, constant protests and a year filled with struggles, the women were able to claim rights over approximately three acres of land.
A shooting star
On April 5, 2016 Gurmeet Kaur passed away after suffering from pneumonia for a week. With tears in her eyes, her sister Sandeep remembers Gurmeet, as the girl who was known for her visionary thinking, “With elections around the corner, in one of our discussions she claimed that no family needs charity in the form of subsidies, all anyone needs is self respect and a well paying job”.
Her brother Sukhwinder fondly speaks about Gurmeet’s indomitable spirit, “She devoted all her time to helping people, without any expectations; all she ever wanted to do was enable everyone around her, be it filling job applications for her friends or encouraging her own sister to continue their studies. One time I remember, someone had brought a Bullet motorcycle home and another time a tractor; she learned to ride both, she was a girl with a free spirit who wanted to live a life without limits and boundaries”.
Gurmeet was a shooting star, her magnificent glow lit up her family’s life and of many around her. She was an inspiration, a woman of courage who was unfazed by life’s struggles. Just as a shooting star moves rapidly in the sky leaving its spectators in awe, Gurmeet has left us with her inspirational way of life and spirit. Her ideology and dreams survive in her siblings who wish to carry forward her legacy.
Shailza Sharma is a practicing advocate from Delhi