It was scenes from a recent Tamil film that brought the issue of retrieval of panchami lands for Dalits back into focus in the State. Dhanush-starrer Asuran, which highlighted the issue, got rave reviews from DMK chief M.K. Stalin.
Soon after, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) leader S. Ramadoss claimed that the office of Murasoli, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) mouthpiece, in the Kodambakkam area of Chennai was sitting on panchami land.
Sale or gifting of such lands can only happen between Dalit communities; transactions with non-Dalits are not permitted. Mr. Stalin denied the PMK allegation stoutly. He went so far as to state that if the allegation was proved, he would retire from politics. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami has said officials would probe the claim.
Murasoli land issue: National Commission for Scheduled Castes summons Udhayanidhi Stalin to Delhi
Meanwhile, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionary moved the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), which has summoned the Chief Secretary to appear before it on November 19 in this regard. The DMK has said it would prove that the Murasoli office is not on panchami land — at the right place and time and to the right authority.
The watershed event for the demand to retrieve panchami lands from non-Dalits in Tamil Nadu was the Karanai struggle in Kancheepuram district, back in 1994. It ended in tragedy as two youth — John Thomas and Ezhumalai — were killed in the police firing to quell violence that broke out across the State. The Panchami Land Restoration Movement that was born then has shown little progress 25 years on, as no significant steps have been taken towards securing the lands for the Dalits.
Activist Arungunam S. Vinayagam of Naagar Senai in Kancheepuram district said though there have been several protests across the State, the government officials have not been inclined to return to the Dalits what was rightfully theirs since British rule.
Panchami Nilangal Meetpukuzhu coordinator A.R. Ayyankalai claimed that despite giving specific information about how a non-Dalit family possessed 4.62 acres of panchami land in Valanendal village in Tirupparankundram taluk of Madurai district, the revenue officials had not taken action under the law.
R. Antony, who works for an NGO engaged in panchami land retrieval in Theni district, charges that the attitude of a majority of revenue officials and custodians of the law is to protect the people who are in illegal possession of such lands.
Coming, an Act to bar transfer of panchami land
C. Nicholas, convenor of Dalit Land Rights Federation, cited information obtained under the RTI Act to contend that over 18,400 acres of land in Cuddalore and Villupuram districts are panchami lands. He alleged that the Updating Registry Scheme (URS) had done more harm than good to the Dalits. Under the scheme in 1984, the lands were illegally transferred to private individuals and pattas registered in their name, he claimed.
R. Aruchamy, district secretary of Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) in Coimbatore, pointed out that the State government had not issued any official data or G.O. listing the total panchami lands district-wise. “A man from the Arunthathiyar community in Sulthanpet block is tilling a piece of land [as a labourer] without knowing that it belongs to him,” he said.
Social Justice Party (SJP) president N. Panneerselvam said non-Dalits occupied several acres of panchami lands in Kinathukadavu, Karamadai, Sulur and Perur areas. When his SJP cadre staged a protest on August 28 they were arrested. “The police have not taken any action against those who illegally occupy panchami lands, but they arrested us for protesting,” Mr. Panneerselvam pointed out.
Though multiple panels were constituted in the past to look into the panchami land claims, the only active panel presently is the State-level committee constituted following a judgment of the Madras High Court. It was on a petition by activist Arungunam S. Vinayagam, also State General Secretary of Naagar Senai, that the High Court, in August 2015, ordered constitution of a centralised committee.
Conduct State-wide survey of Panchami lands: HC
Two months later, the Tamil Nadu government, in October 2015, constituted a State-level committee headed by the Commissioner of Land Administration (CLA) with two members — Secretaries of the Revenue Department and Adi Dravida and Tribal Welfare Department.
The objective of the committee was to identify the panchami lands in the State and go into the feasibility of resuming the lands with the idea of re-allotting them to the original assignees or to their legal heirs and to submit a recommendation to the government for taking a decision. But, nothing much has come out of the committee since, though it has held nine meetings until November 2018.
A senior official said that the committee was still in the process of obtaining land details from the District Collectors. Perusal of the minutes of those meetings suggest that the committee has decided to look into the panchami land claims in agricultural and vacant lands while those that have been constructed on would be dealt with separately.
Since the nomenclature was different during British times, many officials in the Revenue and Registration Departments are not aware that they need to identify lands classified as ‘government inam’ , ‘depressed classes’ lands’ and ‘cheri natham lands’ as panchami lands. They are not aware of the details of the Revenue Standing Order (R.S.O.) No: 15-41, which deals with panchami lands, alleges Mr. Vinayagam.
Though the ‘A-register’ revised in 1911 and then later in that decade has entries of government inams and other lands granted to the Depressed Classes, the changes made in the 1980s removed such entries and have made ambiguous entries that have made the task of identifying panchami lands even more difficult.
Informed sources said that these panchami lands were even converted as temple lands and later corrections were made to make it appear as if they were lands that could be sold. Though these panchami lands cannot be sold to non-Dalits, such transactions are registered by Registration Department officials overlooking rules.
“Kancheepuram land administration officials said there was ‘nil’ panchami land in that district. It was exactly where the Karanai firing took place for panchami lands. Can you believe it?” Mr. Vinayagam asks.
A District Revenue Officer (DRO) from a southern district, requesting anonymity, said though rules do not permit sale or gift of panchami lands to non-Dalits, “in many cases, the person attempting to possess such a property, approaches the courts and obtains orders ex parte.”
Another major challenge in redistributing the panchami lands is the big question of who gets what after retrieving the lands from illegal occupants. In one instance in Villupuram district, after the District Collector retrieved panchami lands, the land could not be distributed as there was confusion as to which family would get what.
Even as it is widely accepted that all lands that were distributed following the 1891 report and meant for the Dalits are considered panchami lands, Mr. Vinayagam contends there are 14 type of lands which have benefited Dalits and need to be protected. Besides the lands given to Dalits during British rule, other lands have been given to them too before and after Independence as cheri nathams, vettiyaan maniyam, thalaiyari maniyam, vanaan maniyam, chakkili maniyam, thookiri maniyam, panchami tharisu, besides lands distributed under government Acts and schemes, says Mr. Vinayagam.
Another major challenge is when the lands are occupied by the State government or the Central government. Many land development schemes and programmes prepared and implemented by government agencies are failing to ascertain whether panchami lands are involved while earmarking lands for various government projects.
Transparency and coordination between land-owning departments is key.
Assistant Professor C. Jerome Samraj of the Department of Economics in Pondicherry University said: “More than being a genuine challenge, it is a wilful act of negligence on the part of officials to demand documents from Dalits for proof.”
When the government agencies are the custodians of land documents, they cannot put the onus on the Dalits to produce documents, he pointed out. Mr. Samraj contended that even when leaders of various political parties raise the issue within their party, it is only “considered as a request for mercy for getting lands and never as a matter of right”.
L. Murugan, Vice Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), said he has, during his meetings with officials of the Tamil Nadu government, urged that serious steps be taken to retrieve the panchami lands from non-Dalit occupants.
The need for strong political will is paramount, says D. Ravikumar, General Secretary of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). “Since all the necessary documents are in the custody of the government, if there is political will, it can do so in no time,” he contended.
Once the lands are retrieved from illegal occupants, they should be registered in the names of Dalit women, argued activist Burnad Fathima, who has been advocating for the rights of Dalit women for over two decades now. “When Dalit women work equally hard as the men on the land, they are naturally entitled too,” she added.
Mr. Vinayagam is of the opinion that the officials involved in the task — District Collectors, District Revenue Officers, Village Administrative Officers and officials in the Sub-Registrar’s office should be given training to identify panchami lands.
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Who are Panchamars and what are panchami lands?
- Based on an 1891 report on the poor living conditions of ‘pariahs’ by then Acting Collector of Chengleput James Henry Apperley Tremenheere, the British in 1892 assigned 12 lakh acres of land for distribution to the ‘depressed classes’ of the themn Madras Presidency to empower them socially and economically. | Influenced by 1891 report of The Hindu
Sale or gifting of these lands can happen only between Dalit communities and transactions with non-Dalits are not permitted.
- Since the lands are assigned to the ‘depressed classes’, the present day Dalits or Panchamars, the lands are presently known as panchami lands.
- While some believe panchamis mean the deprived, others claim it translates into ‘those from the fifth category’, since the four-varna caste system with Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras did not include these depressed classes.
Some of the earlier panels that went into claims of panchami lands
- Judicial commission headed by retired High Court judge M. Maruthamuthu
- Justice K.P. Sivasubramaniam Inquiry Commission that probed land on which Jayalalithaa’s Siruthavur bungalow was built
- S.D. Somasundaram Committee that was set up to probe panchami land claims
Then and now
- About 12 lakh acres were assigned ‘depressed classes’ in the then Madras Presidency, based on a report from Acting Collector of Chengleput James Henry Apperley Tremenheere. But, RTI replies suggest only about 1.86 lakh acres are presently identified as panchami lands by the Tamil Nadu government.
(With inputs from L. Srikrishna in Madurai, S. Prasad in Villupuram and R. Akileish in Coimbatore)