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Need to deepen fight against Modi government, seeking to do away with social existence in rural areas in one sweep

By Suneet Chopra*The hot debate over the land acquisition ordinances of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is not accidental or restricted only to the matter of access to a scarce resource. Land rights, and especially those that we achieved after our struggle for independence from colonial rule, are crucial to our social existence as citizens with equal rights under the Indian Constitution. The denial of any of these rights is an attack on our right as citizens of India.
It must never be forgotten that for over a thousand years we were able to keep a fifth of our population in the shackles of untouchability and semi animal conditions by simply denying dalits land rights in the village. A similar situation prevails in the case of women who may reproduce the family line but are denied the right to land in both the family they are born in and the one they may marry into.
Social marginalization like this may be traditional but it violates our rights as full citizens of a state that claims to be both secular and socialist. Now with scarce resources likely to become even more scarce with a government wishing to hand over everything to corporates, foreign agencies and even mafias, we are left with no alternative but to struggle.
Much of the anger we see in the peasantry today is a result of the fear that the Modi government at the centre is taking away our citizenship of the Indian state and handing it over to corporates, mafias and speculators. That is why the same peasantry that not only gave land for development freely and even its sons and daughters to defend our borders, is resisting the present government’s rush to act as real estate agents for big business.
Today the same peasants who denied dalits and women land rights are coming out in protest against the new legislation. While we support their struggle firmly and actively, we must also demand our right to compensation for work lost in land takeovers, but also the right of landless dalits and women in the villages where they live and contribute to life and production.
We must not only fight this attempt of the Modi government to do away with our social existence in the rural areas in one sweep, but we must deepen our struggle for democratic rights by demanding that land rights for dalits, tribal people and women are a necessary part of our struggle to defend the rights we won with independence and to implement them even more thoroughly.
Any backtracking on this count will also lead to the erosion of our democratic rights as they exist today as well. In this condition we have a situation in which a worker peasant alliance in the rural areas can be strengthened meaningfully.
The struggles going on in tribal areas to protect lands seized from tribal people by the British and never returned to them by independent India are not merely an economic demands but an assertion of their democratic rights that were taken away from them. In the same way, when we struggle for house-sites for dalits in our villages or for land to the tiller, and dalits are half the tillers of the land anyway, so we are fighting for strengthening the roots of our democratic system. In the same way we strengthen it when we demand that women get land rights on the land they till anyway as second-class citizens.
The struggles against the dispossession of the peasants and the tribals by the state today must be integrated with those for giving land rights to landless dalits and women. These are necessary to strengthen the roots of our democracy at the level of our villages and will ensure we do not lose our place as equals in the face of economic fundamentalist policies handing over our fate to a few corporates and billionaires who will then feel free to transport us like cattle and trade us off as cheap labour.
Or worse, let us wander wherever we can, begging for work and becoming targets for human traffickers. This must not be permitted. The human cost of this development will be far greater than any benefit such development delivers.
Even today dalits constitute 28% of the landless while they are only 16.3% of the population according to 70th Round of NSSO Survey. For the Scheduled Tribes the figure is 9.4% landless of 13.4% of the population. For the OBCs the figure is 52.5% landless of a population of 45.4% while others who constitute 24.9% of the population, have only 10.4% landless. This reflects the fact that caste seriously affects the pattern of land ownership and consequently the continued oppression and denial of rights of the lower castes, primarily the dalits.
From this angle, the struggles for land, for work ensured by Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the proper implementation of provisions like reservations for scheduled castes and tribes, for backward classes and women, for equal wages for equal work, for free and compulsory education, free medical aid and food security are all connected with our right to live as human beings in our communities and more precisely as the citizens of a secular, democratic socialist republic based the principle of one person one vote.
It is obvious that in a society based on sharp inequalities, laws will be made to exploit, dispossess and oppress us. But our struggles also have given us laws that we wanted in our interest, like zamindari abolition and land ceilings, Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes, 73rd Amendment devolving power to local government institutions like panchayats, the women’s reservations at various levels in the political system, MGNREGA, Forest Rights and Food Security Acts to name only a few.
But not only are they not being implemented as they should without our struggles, we find powerful individuals backed by the NDA government taking over assets, drying up job opportunities and even trying to make these laws toothless. At such a time we cannot wait and watch. We must fight for the demands of the mass of our rural people from the ground upwards. 
---
*With All-India Agricultural Workers' Union (AIAWU). Excerpts from article published in "AIAWU Bulletin"

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