Understanding the History of the Panchami Land Struggle

By Mathur Sathya

John, Ezhumalai, and the Panchami Land Struggle, Art by Sidra.A, 2021

The people when organized have power. And this is true for Dalit movements. Today in Dalit History we explore one such movement — the Panchami Land Movement of Tamil Nadu, a Dalit people’s reclamation struggle for land that had been promised to them by the state.

One needs to go back a hundred years to understand what was owed to the community, that gave a ray of hope, only to be snatched away abruptly. In 1892, J.H.A. Tremenheere, the British District Collector of Chengalpattu , submitted his extensive report on living conditions of Paraiyars (a caste under Scheduled Castes) titled “Notes on the Pariahs of Chingleput”.1 The report carried detailed studies of the deprivation that the community was living through, and ended with policy recommendations to the government in Madras Presidency in order to improve their living conditions. One of it was to give plots of ‘waste’ lands to the Depressed Classes, including Dalits.

In September 1892, the Madras Presidency passed the orders to assign plots conditionally to members of the community. Conditions dictated that these plots could not be transferred to any person who is not a member of Scheduled Castes through sale, gift, mortgage or lease. It is said that up until 1934, land in the order of 1.2 million acres was assigned to members of the community and such plots are known as Panchami Land. In particular, Panchama means the fifth, which can be taken to refer to the the place attributed to ‘Untouchables’ outside the varna system. Hence, the land for Panchamas was named Panchami.

But post-independence from the British colonials in 1947, caste oppressors used the newly attained freedom to steal, encroach and intimidate. The community lost much of the state allocated lands to caste oppressors despite the previous state-mandated conditions for safeguarding.

Big caste landlords pushed Dalits into debt traps, forcing them to give up their land as collateral. In places where that didn’t work, violence was used to drive the Dalits out of their lands.

The new tenancy laws in the 1960s, the Green Revolution, and social development in the following decades gave rise to new emerging section of dominant castes in Tamil Nadu. As a result, people belonging to these castes started taking over Panchami Lands and transacting on them in the 1980s, despite the illegality. Thus building on their privilege generation after generation. With their kith and kin in expanded bureaucracy of the new state, members of the oppressor castes were able to get pattas or officially issued documents to legitimize their claim on the stolen lands. A whole scheme, called the Update Registry Scheme was even launched to renew such old pattas.

These decades also witnessed emergence of an educated section among the Dalit populace, who were increasingly becoming aware and increasingly agitated on understanding the history of Panchami Lands, how they were snatched away from their elders and their still existing rights over it. Many youngsters in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu took up legal methods to identify Panchami land in their villages and reclaim it. Many NGOs, civil society organizations, and, in several cases, the churches in the region got involved in spreading awareness and providing support. This led to the birth of one of the most robust people’s movement in Tamil Nadu, the Panchami Land Movement.

For much of the 1980s, the movement used legal means like petitions to revenue officers, collectors or filing cases. But towards the end of the decade, when bureaucracy and judiciary proved to be indifferent to their calls, they resorted to more assertive methods like installing statues of Babasaheb Ambedkar or even setting up stalls that sold beef in the identified Panchami Land.

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On October 5th 1994, one such installation of Ambedkar statue happened in the village of Karanai in Chengalpattu, which led the district government to order it to be removed immediately. In the events that followed, two youngsters — John Thomas and Ezhumalai — lost their lives with zero warning in a ruthless extrajudicial shooting. Dalits of the village faced harassment for months at the hand of the police. Let down by the state government during land reforms, failed by state bureaucrats that should have upheld the legal safeguards, failed by Gandhian initiatives like the Bhoodan movement, and finally shot at by the police, the ordinary working class people didn’t step down. In spite of all the odds rigged against their favour and rising debt and poverty, everyday women and men braved up to the task of keeping the movement alive. Although the movement is far from having all its objectives fulfilled, it has experienced the taste of success in many villages, and has set an important example and precedent for subsequent generations.

Today, in many villages, owing to the large wage gap between men and women, women are preferred more by landowners for agricultural labour. As a result, men move to cities like Chennai and Bangalore to earn their living and send what they can save to their families back in these villages. Now, one can visibly observe that in most of these villages of northern Tamil Nadu, the Panchami movement is predominantly a women-led one. It has effects out of the land in question too. Women form collectives to help the elderly and widows get their pensions on time, run awareness programs, and letting BDOs and revenue officers in several places know that their actions won’t go unquestioned.

Most times, we feel overwhelmed thinking of leaders like Babasaheb Ambedkar and Periyar, who seemed to have lived amazing and magnanimous lives. We can sometimes feel inadequate to carry on their legacy in the fight against inequality. However, it is important to derive courage from their source of strength — the people. Ambedkar or Periyar are leaders not only because they read so much or wrote so many books, but because they brought people together to lead social movements. It only makes sense to stay connected to the movements of our times, if we wish to keep their light burning.

Mathur Sathya has a Masters in Public Policy from the National Law School of India, Bangalore and is a passionate policy scholar researching issues related to land and caste.

References

1 In Panchami Land Rights: Note on the Pariahs of Chingleput, ed. V. Alex. Madurai, India: Ezhuthu, 2009.

Redefining the History of the Subcontinent through a Dalit lens. Participatory Community History Project