While the battles fought by the farmers of Marathwada are well documented, not many know about the relentless fight that marks the rise of Dalit women farmers in the drought-affected region.
These Dalit women farmers have joined hands to fight and stake their claim on the ‘gairan’ or the common grazing land for cultivation.
To establish a context, the fight for land rights of Dalit farmers began under the leadership of the late Eknath Awad, one of India’s most respected Dalit leaders, across eight districts of Maharashtra including Jalna, Aurangabad, Latur, and Beed. Kantabai Ichake, a septuagenarian from Marathwada, has now emerged as one of the leading voices at the forefront of the land rights movement.
Kantabai recalls how Dalit women across Marathwada were mocked by most villagers when they got together and asked for the barren common grazing land in the village because they want to cultivate it. “You will bang your heads on the rocky land and die they said,” she told the Times of India.
Even though they were disheartened by the unkind attitude of the villagers, the women did not give up. Armed with farm equipment they got to work, and it only took them a few years to convert the arid, dusty and barren patches of land into wide open lush green fields. However, this was the calm before the storm. When the women farmers claimed ownership of the land they were successfully growing crops in, villagers belonging to upper castes were angered by the freedom, prosperity and disturbance in the traditional power structure and decided to stop the women from tilling the soil.
While some villagers employed mobs to destroy the crops, others burnt Dalit hamlets and stooped low enough to attack women and children as well. However, even through all this, the women stood undeterred as they truly believed that nothing could stop them from claiming their right to the land.
Speaking to TOI, Kantabai said, “People do not realise that the fight is not just about our livelihood, it is also about our rights and dignity. We will continue our fight. We are not scared of the struggle. We will continue to demand that the government transfer land titles to our names. The government says that ‘gairan’ land belongs to the village, and it must be kept for grazing cattle. Is the government more worried about cattle than us?”
While there has been a constant debate about the ownership of this land in Marathwada, the Jamin Adhikar Andolan (JAA), a land rights movement established in the 1990s, claims that the common grazing land belonged to the Dalits during the pre-independence struggle. The claim has been supported by various land activists who state Marathwada, during pre-independence era came under the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad, where ‘gairan’ lands were given to the Dalits. They uphold the claim by providing the Nizam’s order from old archives as evidence. The JAA, therefore, demands that land titles for the Dalit farmers be made jointly in the names of the husband and wife.
Ashok Tangade, an activist with the JAA movement, explains how this fight for land rights is breaking old practices and establishing new ground in the Indian agriculture scenario. “Throughout history, land ownership has been restricted to people belonging to upper castes, but these movements have encouraged thousands of Dalits to take up agriculture as a source of living. This has changed the socioeconomic dynamics of the Marathwada villages, especially, in the case of Dalit women. Today, they grow enough to feed their families and are no longer vulnerable to exploitation,” he told TOI.