Champaran redux

Carrying out a different kind of Satyagraha this time.

Notwithstanding the centenary celebrations of the Neel Satyagraha in Champaran, the epicentre of the first satyagraha undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi in the country, another similar movement is brewing in the region. The protagonist is the same—landless farmers struggling to reclaim land that supposedly belonged to their ancestors.

When the British were leaving the country, the land they had taken from kings and peasants to undertake captive farming of indigo to was soon become worthless to them. To profit from it one last time, they sold around 40,500 hectares (ha) in Champaran (now comprising East Champaran and West Champaran districts) to industrialists and landlords. Around 16,100 ha was bought by sugar mills.

Post Independence, the state government passed the Bihar Land Reform (Fixation of Ceiling & Acquisition of Surplus Land) Act, 1961, which put a limit on land one could own. The Act divided land in different categories on the basis of its quality and set separate ownership limits for each. The excess land was to be distributed among landless farmers after 1971—the deadline for marking out land and the allottees.

"This was done, but only on paper. A large number of farmers never got possession because landowners would take the matter to court where it would drag for decades," says Pankaj, a 70-year-old Gandhian in West Champaran district. "The current protests are in response to this denial of justice. In West Champaran, nearly 55,500 ha is under illegal possession of landlords, industrialists and mills," he adds.

According to the Bihar department of revenue, the state has around 1.7 million parchadharis or people who have been allotted land under the Act, while the figure for West Champaran is 0.16 million. The department claims that only 12,000 people in West Champaran are yet to get possession, but Pankaj puts the number at 50,000.

A total of 42 cases pertaining to land are pending in the Betiah district court. Harinagar Sugar Mill in West Champaran, for instance, owns around 2,104 ha. Of this, 2,023 ha should have been under the possession of farmers.

"We will organise a satyagraha at Harinagar Sugar Mill on June 10," says Sohan Ram, coordinator of Lok Sangharsh Samiti, a Champaran-based non-profit formed in 2002 to fight for landless farmers. "The protest will be completely non-violent and we have already informed government officials concerned," he adds. The non-profit has over 3,000 registered members who have signed a five-point declaration of adhering to non-violent means of struggle. The members are also aggrieved parties. Lok Sangharsh Samiti has organised seven satyagrahas since 2008 and has decided to keep 2017 as the deadline to resolve the matter. They say that satyagrahas have immensely helped their fight on an issue that was in limbo for the past 40 years. In the satyagraha, these farmers march to a designated farmland with the tricolour and sow seeds to claim ownership.

Sohan Ram shares his experience of a satyagraha in his village Salaha in West Champaran in 2015. After informing all the parties, including the Chief Minister's office, more than 100 farmers cultivated rice on over 20 ha owned by Dhruveshwar Singh. When the harvesting season arrived, the government imposed Section 144 to prevent the protesters from harvesting.

But they did. Following this a case was filed against 19 people and they were jailed for four months. A total of 167 ha owned by Singh has been distributed to the village residents but they are yet to take control because the matter is in court since 1992.

Noordin Mian, resident of Salaha and one of the participants at the satyagraha, says he was allotted 0.4 ha in 1991-92 but is still fighting to get control of the land. There are nine members in his family and working as a labourer is their only option. Similar is the case of Vishnu Ram, a 75-year-old farmer. He says he was allotted 0.3 ha in 2002 and is yet to get possession. He has been attending proceedings at Bagaha court, 40 km from his village, every month. "It is difficult to attend court when you are earning your living as a labourer," he says. The Salaha satyagraha gained a lot of publicity in the state and more people joined the movement. In their next meeting held at Lauria village in February this year, over 5,000 people participated. "We never expected such a crowd," says Pankaj.

Legal maze

The landowners have protracted the case using all means at their disposal. Not only have they contested the case from district-level courts to the Supreme Court, they have also used a special law that was framed to help the poor. As per clause 45B of the Bihar Land Reform (Fixation of Ceiling & Acquisition of Surplus Land) Act, 1961, the litigants can approach the Bihar revenue department for grievance redressal even if they lose the case in the Supreme Court. The clause was framed because the government expected farmers to lose court cases. But not a single farmer across the state has used the clause; instead 21 landowners from West Champaran used it after they lost cases in the Supreme Court, says Pankaj. The landowners' cases were so weak that just two officials of the revenue department resolved 38 cases in 45 days—all in favour of farmers, he adds. The Bihar government deleted this clause in September last year.

The farmers are more hopeful now, particularly after Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar assured them that his government would take concrete steps to resolve the situation. In March this year, the Chief Minister's office invited Pankaj to discuss the centenary celebration of the Champaran Satyagraha. Pankaj says that he raised the issue of farmers' struggle and the Chief Minister asked his officials to find a solution in a limited time-frame. Gandhi ji showed us the path of passive resistance and non-violence, and it is the best way to exhibit our strength, says Prakash, another Gandhian and retired professor in Betiah. The farmers will win this fight easily if they just continue to follow that path, he adds.

(Views are strictly personal.)
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