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In Champaran where Gandhi became 'Mahatma', Satyagraha against zamindars is still a crime

Catch Team | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:47 IST

This year's Gandhi Jayanti has special significance for Bihar as it marks the beginning of the countdown of the centenary year of the Champaran Satyagraha.

In 1917, Mahatma Gandhi had come to the region after repeated calls for help from Raj Kumar Shukla, an indigo cultivator. Satyagraha was his tool to alleviate the sufferings of tens of thousands of landless serfs, contract labourers and poor farmers who were forced to grow indigo and other cash crops instead of the food crops, which were necessary for their survival.

Gandhiji successfully returned from Champaran with sobriquets 'Bapu and Mahatma'. His efforts led to more compensation and control over farming for the poor peasants of the region, and cancellation of revenue hikes and collection until the famine ended.

However, the Satyagraha did nothing to rid Champaran of the landlords whose atrocities far exceeded those committed by the British rulers for a century. Hundreds of tales of their ruthless tyranny have found their way to folklores.

But, the oppression of the landowners has not ceased even seven decades after independence. Around 20 jailed satyagrahis hold testimony to this fact.

Present day revolution

In the current political discourse, dominated by liquor prohibition, Shahabuddin and Markandeya Katju's controversial remark, few leaders or social groups have bothered to address the plight of these people.

Comprised mostly of daily wage labourers and landless Dalits or Mahadalits, these are the activists of 'Bihar Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan', a group that fights to spread awareness among the landless on their entitlements, collectively demand land and pressurise state officials to implement the laws.

Pankaj, the leader of the group, is also currently lodged in jail with his comrades. He is known across Bihar for waging struggles against zamindars to protect the land rights of Dalits and Mahadalits.

After participating in the 'Sampooran Kranti' movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) in 1974, Pankaj was associated with 'Chhatra Sangharsh Vahini'. And ever since, he has dedicated his life to the cause of poor farmers in Western Champaran.

The Tiranga campaign led by Pankaj has set an example across the country. Every Independence Day and Republic Day, Pankaj and his activists come out with tricolours and place them on lands that rightfully belong to the poor. All this done in a totally Gandhian fashion - without even a shred of violence.

Brave causes

These brave satyagrahis had been campaigning for prohibition long before it became a political tool. They had also been pitching for some radical reforms like the right to recall public servants holding key posts in the government.

Yet, far from finding support from the government that claims the legacy of JP, they are being incarcerated.

The why

We tried to find the reason for their imprisonment from Sidharth, a young social activist from Bettiah, who is fighting for the release of Pankaj and his associates.

According to him, the ground for the arrests was prepared on 3 November, 2015, when Pankaj and Mahadalit activists were harvesting paddy crop that was cultivated by them.

The zonal officer had earlier supported their cause but later prevented the harvesting, citing the imposition of Section 144 on the plot of land in question.

Pankaj and other activists responded by deciding to deposit the crop produce in the government treasury. Nevertheless, an FIR was registered against Pankaj and hundreds of other activists by that evening.

The Bagaha administration slapped over a dozen charges against them, including an attempt to murder.

The CJM, ADJ, as well as DJ courts, rejected the anticipatory bail applications of the accused, forcing them to surrender. A total of 18 people surrendered including Pankaj, Amar Ram, Sohan Ram and Bahadur Manjhi.

"The entire administration turned against these people just at the accusations made by a zonal officer. There was no evidence to prove the serious charges levelled against them. The authorities claimed to possess video recordings indicting the accused, but it has not been produced till date. However, the treatment given to these activists in jail was even more shocking. They were treated as criminals," alleges Pankaj.

The story

The background of Pankaj and his group's decision to reap the paddy in the area is rather old. In 1970, the Land Ceiling Act came as a ray of hope to thousands of farmers in Champaran. But, it also threatened the centuries-old hegemony of landlords, one of whom was Markandeshwar Singh, the owner of the sprawling Badgaon estate.

The estate was found to be in possession of 144 acres of excess land. Consequently, the proceedings for redistribution of this land began under the Ceiling Act. The landowners took the matter to the court where it lingered for over two decades.

In 1991, the court passed a verdict ordering distributing of this land among 224 peasant families.

However, the zamindar lobby managed to get a stay order from the high court. The local administration was always tilted in favour of the landowners. It prevented the farmers from taking possession of the land citing the high court order.

The turning point in the case came two years ago when the state government constituted a committee for land reforms. Ironically, Pankaj represented the Champaran region in the committee. He came across shocking revelations regarding the disputed land in Badgaon estate during the workings of the committee.

The case of the missing documents

It came out that the high court had passed several other instructions with the stay order. These directions could have immensely helped the farmers, but they never reached Champaran. The zamindars had apparently managed to make the relevant documents disappear.

Pankaj raised the matter with the Principal Secretary of the Land Reforms & Revenue Department and apprised the chairman of the Land Reforms Committee.

The chairman wrote to the Bettiah DM, who, in turn, wrote to Pankaj expressing dismay that he had gone to the higher authorities with the complaint. However, the latter's answer did little to assuage the grudge of the DM.

Then came the 'Dakhal Dehani' movement, an agitation supported by the state government for expediting the process of providing tenancy to landless Dalit community.

It was under this movement that Pankaj and his associates had cultivated paddy in the land that the Badgaon estate had refused to forfeit.

No rights

"This is not a simple land dispute. It proves how Dalits and Mahadalits are still deprived of land rights, which is central to the cause of their emancipation. While all political parties pay lip service to their welfare, those who actually raise their voice are languishing behind the bars. The story also proves how the draconian zamindari system is still a harsh reality in Champaran," lamented Professor Prakash, a local political observer.

Rajkishore Sah, the zonal officer who had complained against Pankaj and other activists, refused to comment. "All I want to say in the FIR copy. I have nothing more to add," he replied curtly.

Nevertheless, everybody of any consequence in Champaran agrees that while the movement led by Pankaj might not have changed the destiny of poor farmers, it has shaken the citadels of many powerful landlords.

Pankaj's group was instrumental in the formation of Parchadhari Sangharsh Samiti, a group of backward caste farmers fighting for their land rights. Phoolkali Devi, an illiterate Mahadalit woman from Siswa Mangal village, was its first chairperson.

In 2009, the Samiti successfully freed around 375 acres of land from land owners in Siswa Mangal Jogapatti area. It happened under the leadership of Phoolkali Devi.

The Parchadhari Sangharsh Samiti also reclaimed the land near Gopalganj-Nautan road to building a 'Gandhi-Ambedkar Gram' that houses many Mahadalit families, who are now farming the land.

Shake up the system

"It is difficult to find a Gandhian-like Pankaj, not only in Bihar but across the country. He is incarcerated because the landlords of Champaran feel threatened by him. The zamindars are afraid to lose the vast swathes of land they continue to hold against the law," said Ashok Priyadarshi, a land activist who has worked for years in Bihar.

"Pankaj has the knack of going to the root of the matter. He has been instrumental in submitting at least 21 lakh applications to the state government on behalf of the people who have been wrongly deprived of their land rights," he added.

The figure given by Ashok Priyadarshi is staggering enough to wonder why land is not the most important political issue in Bihar. He believes that one day the issue is bound to rock the state politics.

"The powerful bureaucrats and leaders know this fact. This is why they want to keep people like Pankaj under check," said Priyadarshi.

Catch has learnt that the issue of the persecution of these activists was also brought to the CM's notice. He is reported to have talked to the Bettiah DM but chose to believe his version without verifying it from the ground sources.

Root of the problem

The inequity in land possession has always been one of the major reasons behind many problems plaguing Bihar. This was the reason Nitish Kumar had declared land reforms soon after he came to power for the first time.

The Bandopadhyay Committee was formed to suggest modalities of the reforms. The impact was palpable on the ground and there was a halt to the periodic massacres, which were a direct fallout of the land struggle.

However, Kumar's intentions never fructified in reality. The report submitted by the Bandopadhyay Committee is still biting dust.

"There are 3.5-4 lakh claimant families of land under the Bhoodan initiative. Out of these, 1.5 lakh families are yet to get the possession of land. Those who have occupied their land are so powerful that system does not act against them. Therefore, Satyagraha remains the only option to fight against them. Falsely implicating people like Pankaj will adversely affect the land reforms in the state," feels Kumar Shubhmurti, the chairperson of the Bhoodan Committee and a land activist.

Like Shubhmurti, Priyadarshi also feels that inclusive development in Bihar is not possible without land reforms.

There is no doubt that the release of Pankaj and his associates from captivity will only strengthen the land reform process. There are few pockets left in Bihar for Satyagraha in any case. Bettiah is one of them, but the administration seems inclined to muzzle them in every way possible.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 2 October 2016, 3:38 IST