In a Rajasthan village, a woman sarpanch stays at home, while her husband conspires with the Panchayat to grab land belonging to Bheel tribals.
The sun is at its zenith and only when you come really close can you see the broken remains of what used to be the house of Dharmesh Bheel and his family. The clear skies invite winds and the dust enters Dharmesh’s eyes. He touches the empty ground where his house stood till recently and applies the sandy earth to his forehead.
“This had been my family’s house for 42 years and there are not even stones left now,” says a bleary-eyed Dharmesh. His wife has shifted to her father’s house and Dharmesh and his father stay in a neighbour’s house.
Dharmesh lost his ancestral house in a conspiracy supported by the Panchayat in his village Beeladi in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh district. It all began in October this year when the Public Works Department started extension of an old grovel road under the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana. The department conducted survey and laid pillars along the houses of tribal Bheels which did not interfere with their houses.
The village is home to 27 Bheel families, out of which 3 families live outside the village, by the river. After independence, the Government, recognizing the vulnerability of the Bheel tribe, allotted some land to the community in 1964 as a part of the land reforms. “Ever since we were allotted this land, the upper caste Rajput and Jat families in the village have had their eyes set upon this land,” says Gangaram Bheel, a village elder. The Bheel community members say that this particular stretch of land is very fertile and many times in the past, the upper caste landlords have offered them land elsewhere. But the Bheels refused to shift. “They destroyed our crops and even declared a social boycott but we did not part away with our land. How could we? We have nothing else,” says Dharmesh. In October this year, the plan to extend the old grovel road offered an opportunity to the landlords to grab the land belonging to Bheel tribals.
On October 26, the government excavator ran over Dharmesh’s house and destroyed it completely. It also made trenches on both sides of another house in preaparation to uproot it. The entire operation was overseen by Lal Singh, the husband of the village sarpanch, Lad Kanwar. “Lad kanwar is just a rubber stamp; for all practical purposes, her husband calls the roost,” says a villager. “After destroying my house, Lal Singh took away all the stones that formed the walls of my house, and the wooden rods also,” alleges Dharmesh.
The Bheels then approached the local administration including the Police and the SDM. The Police, according to the Bheels, accepted the complaint but took no action. The SDM, however, tried for a compromise between the two parties. “The sarpanch’s husband said that he will give land elsewhere to the displaced families. We told him to give it to us in writing,” says Bhanwarlal, another Bheel villager. That did not happen. What happened instead was something that the Bheels had been fearing for years.
On the night of November 10, the Bheels received a notice from the Panchayat that next day in the morning their ‘illegal’ houses and fields will be evacuated. When Bheels and labour activists complied a response and tried to submit it to the sarpanch, she refused to accept it. “She said that she had no knowledge about this case and would accept it only after consulting her husband who was not home at that time,” says Madan, a labour activist. The Bheels then pasted their response on the door of the Panchayat office.
Next day, the Bheels and the labour activists tried to reason with the sarpanch’s husband (the sarpanch never came herself) that it was totally illegal for the Panchayat to displace the Bheels. Panchayati Raj act clearly states that the Panchayat has executive powers only and doesn’t have the judicial power, which is a must to order evacuation of people. When the upper caste landlords realized that they had no legal standing, they decided to install fear among the Bheels. Late in the night, around 150 upper caste men, belonging to the Rajput, Keer and Jat castes, descended upon the Bheel houses and attacked their inhabitants. They were also joined by their women who surrounded the houses, armed with sickles. The Bheels and a few labour activists who were present there were beaten up by lathis. Some of them escaped in the fields and were later rescued by the Police. 2 Bheels and 6 activists sustained serious injuries and three of them had to be hospitalised. The attackers also allegedly destroyed the crops of the Bheels before falling back.
On December 6, a Bheel maha rally was organized in the village against the attack. On the same day, the upper caste landlords also organized a similar rally, alleging that the Bheels were trying to usurp their lands and were trying to vitiate the atmosphere at the behest of ‘outsiders’. Beeladi village is just a few kilometers inside from the super highway – also known as the Golden Quadrilateral project – that joins Delhi to Mumbai.
Noted social activist, Aruna Roy, who addressed the Bheel maha rally, demanding rights for the tribals, says, “Development has become an euphemism for grabbing the land of the poor and the downtrodden.”
A survey, conducted just before this episode, by two non-Governmental organizations in Chittorgarh district states that 1,389 bheegas of agricultural land, belonging to various Bheel families in 92 villages is currently in the possession of upper castes.
The social boycott may have dispirited them, but the Bheels have resolved to continue the fight. The first step, of course, is to rebuild the broken house. “Where do we get new stones for the house now,” asks Dharmesh’s father, as he sits cross-legged on a neighbour’s cot. Would the Vijay Raje Scindia government care to ask this question, and few others, to the ‘rubber stamp’ sarpanch of Beeladi?
(This report first appeared in The Sunday Indian)