The Ekta Club comes of age

The rebellion by agroup of young women over common land in Sangrur exemplifies a newly assertive Dalit youth. The author witnesses the clash of the castes in Punjab.

Author- Aman Sethi

Photoessay- Shovan Gandhi

The middle-aged Sikhs, seated on plastic chairs in Matoi village's panchayat office, take dainty sips of Limca and try their best to ignore the tall, slender, 24-year-old woman dressed in a floralkurta,redsalwar,blue and white polka dotdupattaand red flip-flops. Sandeep Kaur sits 10 feet away from the men, on the floor, chanting slogans from behind a cordon of burly policemen.

"The auction for 17bighas[3.4 acres] of panchayat land reserved for scheduled castes is open," mutters Jasbir Singh Bhanju, Matoi's block development and panchayat officer (BDPO).

"Thieves!" Sandeep interrupts. "Thieves, thieves, thieves."

ThePunjabVillage Commons Land (Regulation) Act of 1961 allows panchayats to rent village land to the highest bidder on the condition that a third is reserved for the scheduled castes and auctioned separately. Yet, for years now, villagers allege and government officials privately admit, dominant Jat-Sikh farmers have subverted the process by bidding for the reserved lands through Dalit intermediaries.

This summer, auctions have been disrupted in at least five villages in Sangrur alone. On Friday, 12 people, including four women and seven policemen, were hospitalised in a clash between villagers and the authorities during the auction of 100 acres of reserved land at Balad Kalan, 20 km from Matoi. Punjab's Minister for Rural Development Sikander Singh Maluka is investigating the unrest in Sangrur as he fears the movement could gather momentum across the state, says his aide.

Thirty two per cent of Punjab's population is Dalit, the highest proportion in the country, and inter-caste friction is often sparked by rival claims to village resources. Yet, activists say, most violence slips beneath the radar until the conflict spirals out of control; in part, because the police are reluctant to register complaints under theScheduled Casteand Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.

In 2009, for instance, 1,300 mostly Dalit landless labourers were arrested when the administration cracked down on an agitation for homestead plots for poor families evicted from panchayat land. In 2003, two clashes broke out - one over the control of the finances of a shrine in Talhan, Jalandhar and the other over the right to till common land in Hasanpur in Sangrur.

In Matoi, a routine exercise in rubberstamping has turned into a public confrontation between dominant castes entrenched in Punjab's bureaucracy and theEkta Club, a group of 10 youngDalit women, all aged between 18 and 24, who assemble each week at Sandeep's beauty parlour.

On the streets, a crowd of Jat men hums with quiet menace; at the auction, theJat sarpanchof Matoi sits alongside Jat officials and Jat policemen. The two Dalits present say they are here to make bids with their own money.

Amarjeet Kaur, a homemaker, says she has sold her bridal jewellery to bid for the right to till this land for one year.

Why? "Just."

The other bidder, Parsha Ram, is a landless labourer who says he will take a loan - "at whatever interest rate" - to grow "something or the other".

The bid opens at Rs 7,000 per bigha. Parsha Ram offers Rs 7,100; Amarjeet looks to the Jat farmer sitting behind her and makes a winning bid for Rs 7,200 once he nods his assent.

"No Dalit has this much money," Sandeep says, "These people are stooges for the Jats. Stop the auction!"

But this auction is over. "There is no proof that upper caste Sikhs are behind this auction," Bhanju tells me before driving off in a red SUV, "There is no truth to these allegations."

Fifteen minutes later, a mob of lathi-wielding men bursts out from village sarpanch Jora Singh's home. I watch in horror as three Dalit men are thrown to the ground and pummelled with sticks, fists and kicks to the head. The police take their time before bestirring themselves.

"Now you know everything about our village," says Sandeep, shaken but defiant, "Now you know why we are fighting for our land."

But what will she grow on the land? "Weeds."

Amarjeet Kaur, in a green and pink salwar-kameez, makes the winning bid for Rs 7,200 at the auction at Sangrur’s Matoi village

The story of Punjab's green revolution is a story of rice and wheat: season after season, cycle after cycle, year after year. But it is also a story of landlessness and weeds.

When rice was first planted in Punjab in the 1960s, farmers were warned that weeds likeEchinochola colona, commonly known as jungle rice, would reduce crop yields.

"The Jats employed us to weed the rice fields," says Sandeep's mother, also called Amarjeet Kaur. "We would keep the weeds as feed for our buffaloes."

Once herbicides like butachlor and glyphosate became popular, there were no weeds left to gather. Like 88 per cent of Punjab's Dalit population, Sandeep's family has no land to grow green fodder on, and so her mother and aunts spend several hours a day scurrying along irrigation culverts and private farms in search of fodder.

Amarjeet never let Sandeep work in the fields; instead she put her daughter through school, taught her sewing, and pushed her to apply to college.

"It's not safe," says Amarjeet, "Sometimes girls are harassed in the fields; sometimes they are physically abused. And each time, the upper castes insult us in the most humiliating way."

For years, the collection of weeds was something the family didn't talk much about. Sandeep studied, her brother and father worked as labourers, and Amarjeet kept her daily tribulations to herself.

Sandeep finished school and began a bachelor's degree in arts along with a diploma in accountancy. She set up a boutique to sew clothes on order, did a beautician's course and opened a parlour in the same space. She surfed the Internet on her brother's cellphone and was shocked by the casual abuse hurled at her community.

"Initially I would read the insults online and cry every day," she says. "But then I began writing back."

In 2012, she gathered 10 other Dalit girls from the neighbourhood and formed the 'Ekta Club' to empower Dalit girls in Matoi. As a first step, she gave them all sewing lessons to become financially independent, and when they heard of the brutal assault on a young paramedic in Delhi in December that year, they decided to fight sexual harassment in all its forms.

"We didn't know where to begin," she recalls. And then one day last year, Amarjeet came home wiping her tears with one hand and clutching a bundle of weeds in the other, and Sandeep found her cause.

"We decided to collect money and bid for land in the panchayat auction," she said, "We would grow enough fodder for the village and no one would have to endure the humiliation of scrounging for weeds on Jat farms."

The girls were humoured, then patronised. Finally, when they raised close to Rs 1,25,000 and began lobbying other Dalits to stop fronting for the Jats, they were subjected to intimidation.

"Thesarpanchsaid, 'Tell the girls to back down. No one will marry them; they will be humiliated in front of the whole village'," Amarjeet recalls, "We told him our girls would marry whom they wanted to."

In May this year, the panchayat organised its auction for reserved land and set the floor price at Rs 8,200 per bigha, or Rs 41,000 per acre. "We asked them to start the auction from Rs 3,800 per bigha so we could also participate," Sandeep says, "but they refused, so we protested and the hearing was cancelled." Soon after, Sandeep says, thesarpanchthreatened to have them jailed for threatening the peace of the village.

In a telephone interview, Jora Singh refutes all these allegations.

"The auction price to rent land begins from the winning bid of the previous year," says J P Singhla, joint director of the department for rural development and panchayats. "This year we have set a target of raising collections from auctions by 25 per cent."

The problem is that years of fraudulent bidding have raised the price of scheduled land to the point where few Dalits can afford to bid, and so the administration - with its insistence on raising rents - plays into the hands of the dominant castes.

Singhla doesn't see it that way. "The person signing the form is a Dalit. We have no proof he is fronting for someone else," he says. "This tendency to demand lower rents is like a virus."

The attack on Dalit men soon after the auction

"This year it is a few villages in Sangrur district, but if we bend under pressure, it will spread through the entire state," he adds.

Activists from the Zamin Prapti Sangharsh Committee, a loose coalition working on land rights in Punjab, says that Dalits across Punjab have agitated for access to common lands for decades. Yet, the movement gathered significant momentum only in 2009 when the Dalits of Bhendra, a village an hour's drive from Matoi, organised themselves as the Kranti Pendu Mazdoor Union and bid for nine acres of land. "We convinced our people that it was not in our interests to act as agents for the Jats," says Bahal Singh, one of the union's founders. "The administration initially refused to lower the rates, but finally it relented."

Each year, the union puts forward three of its members who bid against one another for the land by raising the price by a nominal amount. No matter who wins, the whole community collectively grows fodder on the land.

This year, the union leased the land at Rs 18,000 per acre - half the rent demanded by the Matoi panchayat.

"For Rs 400, any Dalit can harvest the fodder grown on 1 biswa [0.05 acre] of land," says Amarjit Singh, the union president. "The land is limited, so no one can harvest more than 10biswas[0.5 acres]."

Seven acres are planted with feed, while the remaining two grow rice or wheat depending on the season. The cereal is sold at market price and the proceeds are used to run the collective and employ a worker at Rs 85,000 a year to weed, fertilise and water the fields. Any surplus is used for the community.

"After our first crop we saved Rs 70,000, which we spent on buying a crockery set for weddings and functions," Bahal Singh says, "Wedding caterers sometimes refuse to rent crockery to Dalits or charge us extra, so we decided to buy one that the community could share."

"It sounds strange when we say we are growing weeds," he admits, "But this field has transformed our lives."

In May this year, the Dalits of Bopur, another Sangrur village not far from Bhendra and Matoi, decided to bid for their land as well. Bopur lies along the Haryana border and is dominated by Jat Hindus rather than Sikhs.

"The Jats responded by imposing a social boycott on us," says Krishan Singh Jassal, a Dalit resident of Bopur.

An audio recording of a speech, purportedly delivered on a loudspeaker on the night of May 16, announces a fine of Rs 21,000 for selling milk or ghee to a Dalit, Rs 11,000 for employing a Dalit and a reward of Rs 500 for informing on anyone who breaks the boycott.

"The worst was they banned us from using the fields," says Jassal. "No one in this village has a toilet." On May 21, Jassal alleges, the priest of Guru Ravidas Temple, a saint revered by Punjab's Dalits, was caught relieving himself on panchayat land claimed by a Jat. "The priest was beaten and stripped naked," Jassal says.

"Caste oppression in Punjab is not obvious - like, say, in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar," says Satpal, a Dalit academic working on social boycotts in Punjab. "In Punjab, there is no oppression until you try to challenge thestatus quo.Then they come at you at full force." In an interview, Lehar Singh, the sarpanch of Bopur, admits that an announcement of boycott had been made by "mischievous elements", but claims it was never enforced. "No one attacked the priest. If anything, the Dalits are boycotting us by refusing to work on our fields," he says.

This Tuesday, the National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the Punjab government on the social boycott in Bopur.

A few days before the auction in Matoi, I asked Sandeep if she was worried that the Jats of her village might impose a similar boycott. She dismissed the possibility, explaining that Matoi's proximity to the town of Malerkotla meant her people were not dependent on the Jats for employment.

But a day after the violence in Matoi, I receive a nervous phone call. "We complained against the Jats for attacking the boys and abusing us. We had to sit ondharnaoutside the police station before they finally registered an FIR," she says, "So they've imposed a social boycott against our families."

Over the telephone, Jats tell me Sandeep is right; they had received a call from Jora Singh, the village sarpanch, asking them to sever all ties with Sandeep's family. The Jats say they will not obey the call for boycott. Jora Singh denies these charges.

"I'm not afraid of the boycott, nor are my parents," Sandeep says. "We have a toilet in the house, my brother works in Malerkotla, and my father will get green fodder from his Muslim friends. We don't need these people; we never will."

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