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Dalits and Delayed Justice: Land appropriation in the state of Tamil Nadu

Dalits and Delayed Justice: Land appropriation in the state of Tamil Nadu

Lingaraj Azad

Despite living on their own assigned lands, more than 70 conservancy working families belonging to the most marginalized Arunthathiyar caste have been removed from their land by the District Administration at Dalit colony (Gandhi Nagar) in Thoothukudi. The officials in the district revenue administration have colluded with the local money lenders and intentionally destroyed the documents relating to the assignment of land in favor of the conservancy workers belonging to the Arunthathiyar community in Thoothukudi.

 A brief history of Panchami land in Tamil Nadu

Arunthathiyars are amongst the most vulnerable scheduled caste communities in Tamil Nadu and were predominantly involved in manual scavenging work in the last century. It was during British rule in 1892, that the concept of Panchami land came as an important intervention for the Depressed Classes, including the Arunthatiyars,  in Madras presidency who had been landless and subjugated by caste Hindus. It was the then the acting collector of Chengleput, J.H.A Tremenheere, who researched the socio-economic status of the untouchables in Tamil Nadu and according to his recommendations, Government Order No. 1010/10-A (Revenue) was issued on September 30, 1892 and the Depressed Classes Land Act was established. Furthermore, it was decided that twelve lakh acres of land were to be distributed to the “Depressed Classes” of the Madras Presidency to empower them socially and economically and that it could neither be sold nor re-classified according to the clauses of the Government order.

However, the lands assigned in favor of Scheduled Castes were grabbed by the caste Hindus in Tamil Nadu. Even a century later, much of this land is in the possession of non-Dalits and the struggle to reclaim them has seen little progress.

Trajectory of land grabbing from Arunthathiyars in Thoothukudi

After 1947, considering the vulnerable socio-economic life of Dalits, the then government issued several orders for the welfare of the most oppressed communities including the Arunthathiyars. Subsequently, the collectors of all the districts in Tamil Nadu allotted assignment lands in favor of Dalits and other socially oppressed communities. This kind of social welfare policy based on the principles of affirmative action was to ensure socio-economic justice for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In 1956, the then Tirunelveli collector V.R.Raman assigned the piece of land in T.S.No.1154/4 and T.S.No.1155/8 at George Road, Dalit colony, Thoothukudi Town in favor of Arunthathiyars. Subsequently, the Madras government issued government order G.O.(Ms) No. 457/1956 and sanctioned Rs. 5000/- for the basic amenities of the Dalit colony.

In 1956, initially, 97 families belonging to the Arunthathiyar community obtained the assignment lands with the condition that they would not transfer the lands to anyone other than the members of the Scheduled Castes. Thereafter, the Revenue Tehsildar of Thoothukudi issued an AD (Adidravidar) charge patta (land ownership document) in the name of 97 assigned individuals. Further, the then Madras government established a primary school named Hindu Harijan Primary School for the welfare of SC children at Scheduled Castes colony, Thoothukudi, and the Hindu harijan school has been functioning till date.

However, the name of the assigned area was changed from harijan colony to Gandhi Nagar with mala fide intention by the Thoothukudi Municipality to abolish the history of the land assignment. The name change was the beginning of the grabbing of the assigned land by the local money lenders from the Arunthathiyars. After reviewing various related documents, it can be inferred that the Thoothukudi municipality officials and Revenue officials have been intentionally enabling the grabbing of the assignment lands of the Arunthathiyar Manual Scavengers in favor of caste Hindus and caste Christians belonging to Nadars and Paravar communities. The revenue officials have neither inspected the harijan colony nor made a report about the status of assignment land to the government as per the revenue standing orders and G.Os. These inactions and negligence over the decades have led to the wrongful dispossession of the more than 70 Arunthathiyar families from their land.

In his very important judgment in the case of VGM Prem Nagar Kudiyiruppu Vashigalvs. the State of Tamil Nadu, Justice Chandru took excerpts from the British Board of revenue records and demonstrated the casteist mentality of the revenue officials who belonged to the forward caste communities. According to the British Board of Revenue Records, it said that “ the influence of these classes with the official world can hardly be exaggerated. It is extreme with the natives and great even with Europeans. Every office, from the highest to the lowest, is stocked with their representatives, and there is no proposal affecting their interests but they can bring a score of influence to bear upon it in its course from inception to execution”. In the Thoothukudi constituency, the electoral politics has depended on the two intermediate castes nadar and parathavars respectively. The revenue officials and politicians mostly belong to the above-mentioned castes who influence with every corner of the government offices. From ward councilor to tahsildar, caste has played an integral part in grabbing the assignment land at Gandhi Nagar in Thoothukudi.

Forging documents and misuse of the judiciary in recent times

In the same Gandhi Nagar (Dalit colony), more than ten Arunthathiyar conservancy worker families have been forcefully dislocated by judicial order on 28th March 2023. More than 60 police officers went to their homes and vacated them based on the execution order passed by the principal district court of Thoothukudi without evaluating the land records. Daniel, a money lender from the Nadar Christian community, has fraudulently fabricated the sale deeds relating to the assignment land in the harijan colony with the help of registration department officials of Thoothukudi and expropriated the assignment land from the Arunthathiyars. He had been illegally collecting exorbitant interests from the Arunthathiyar families by treating them as its tenants. These families had been living in the assigned land for rent without knowing they were the real owners. They lived in small huts and paid monthly rent to Daniel. After the death of Daniel, his son Charlin obtained monthly rent for the land till 2017.

In the year 2017, when the Arunthathiyars families were not able to pay the rent to Charlin, he filed a petition under the rent control act based on forged sale deeds before the Principal District Munsif Court in Thoothukudi. He went on to obtain a judgement in his favor. At the time of proceedings, the people were not aware of the nature of the land they had been living. Therefore, they were not able to submit any documents regarding the assignment of land in court. After a long legal battle, the people finally lost before the Supreme Court of India. By using this opportunity, the district administration has legally dispossessed more than ten Arunthathiyars families from their land to protect the interest of a single money lender.

Earlier, the victims and Periyariya Unarvalargal Kottamaippu submitted many representations to the district collector of Thoothukudi district Dr. Senthil Raj, and other revenue officials to recover the assignment land from the illegal occupiers but the district administration did not take any action to recover the assignment land from the land grabbers. Instead of recovering the assignment land from the caste Hindus and Christians, the district administration changed the classification of the nature of the land and issued an assignment house-side order in favor of non-SCs.

The Stand of District Revenue Administration

The victim families, belonging to the Arunthathiyar community, frequently approached the district revenue administration to take appropriate action to resume the assignment land from the illegal occupiers but the district collector Dr. Senthil Raj did not take appropriate action to recover the assignment land from the occupiers. Thereafter, the people approached the sub-collector cum Revenue divisional officer of Thoothukudi Mr. Gaurav Kumar to recover the assigned land and protect themselves from wrongful dispossession but he told them that even if it is the assignment land in favor of Harijans, they have the judgment and have the actual rights over the land. But the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India had ruled that to fulfill the purpose of the grant, the land even if it has been alienated from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes grantees whose ignorance and poverty have been exploited by persons belonging to the affluent and powerful sections to obtain sales or mortgages either for a nominal consideration or for no consideration at all, the land should be restored to the original grantee or their heirs. Since then, the Arunthathiyar people have recovered the assignment order which granted their land and they have legal rights to restore the assignment land in their favor. But the district-administration has been strongly refusing to accept the assignment order with the mala fide intention to protect the interest of the land grabbers.

Contrary to the documentary evidence, the village revenue officer Parameswari said that it was not assignment land in favor of Scheduled Castes. As a village administrative officer, she denied any documents relating to T.S.No.1154/4 and 1155/8 in her office. Further, she insisted the Arunthathiyar conservancy workers vacate their houses.

The former Tahshildar of Thoothukudi Town Mr. Selvakumar asked the people as to why have their forefathers mortgaged the land to Charlin and others. At the same time, the Special Tahsildar of AdiDravidar Welfare Department has said that Arunthathiyar community conservancy workers have no rights over the land located in T.S.No.1154/4 and 1155/8 in Gandhi Nagar, Thoothukudi given many Fernando Christian families are living there. Four months later, the social activists asked the Tahsildar of Thoothukudi town Mr. Prabhakar about the assignment land, he said that they have already issued the patta in name of non – SCs. He further argued thatno assignment order had been passed by the government in favor of harijans and that they have nodocuments. Therefore, the Arunthathathiyar community conservancy worker families have been displaced by the district administration, even though G.O.(Ms)No.34/2021 issued by the Revenue Department in Tamil Nadu clearly prohibits the alienation of assignment land to the non -SC/ST persons. The G.O clearly stated that after a conditional assignment of ten years is over, the beneficiary can sell the land only to another SC/ST person and not to anybody else. Even though there are legal provisions to protect the SC/ST persons from the alienation of their assigned land, the revenue officials in Thoothukudi have intentionally refused to take further action to recover the assignment land from the land grabbers.

Even after 7 decades of the birth of Republic of India and the constitution of India, the bureaucracy and revenue administration have been functioning in ways that deny justice to the marginalized castes in the country. Even in Tamil Nadu, the soil of social justice which has a rich tradition of affirmative action and welfare measures for the marginalized communities, the fate of Scheduled castes have been stacked with immense difficulties. The Gandhi Nagar dispossession of the Arunthathiyars from their land is a blatant example of the institutional failure of the executive authorities including revenue administration and also it reveals the deceitful relationship between caste and public administration in Tamil Nadu.


Lingaraj Azad is a practicing advocate at Madras High Court.

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