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In their own voice: The uphill struggle of Adivasis and Dalits for land rights in rural Gadchiroli

In their own voice: The uphill struggle of Adivasis and Dalits for land rights in rural Gadchiroli

Ankush Uttam Helode

History is replete with evidence of all social, economic, and state institutions exploiting Dalits and Adivasis every day. And this mental trauma is invisible to all those who are the reason behind it, but still, these brave communities are fighting against these operative criminal institutions. I personally have so many experiences of exploitation by these institutions. A few weeks ago, I and my comrade Jayanti went for our two-month summer internship to understand the issues and problems of Dalits, Adivasis, and women of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra.

Amongst the plethora of problems, we found a few of them very terrifying. I wish to discuss two of them in this article for people to recognize the exploitation of the historically oppressed communities.

Belgaon Ghat is a small Tola (a small village) located in the eastern Korchi Tehsil of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra.  Adivasis and one Dalit family are the natives of Tola.

During our field visit, we engaged with the locals, to understand what difficulties they face in claiming land under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. If any villagers have documents related to land before December 2005, they can claim the land and they will get it legally in their name: this is the provision of the FRA.

We got to know, Adivasis and Dalits had started to claim their land before 2010 but still their documents are being rejected.

A Dalit man from the village underwent a 13 years struggle for getting legal rights to his land, which his ancestors had cultivated for many years and he had all the documents as evidence.

This Dalit man started to claim the land in 2010 and he tried more than 6 times; however, his form was rejected by the government officials, though he has all the required documents. First, his form was rejected by the sub-division office, then he went to the district office for justice, then he knocked on all the doors of hierarchical institutions for justice. But still, his claim was rejected without giving any justified reason. Yet, he believes in democracy as he is not alone in facing these problems, there are so many citizens facing the same.

During our interaction, we felt that because of this state oppression, their view towards the state is a little negative and they might be supportive of anti-democratic activities. Gadchiroli is the place where anti-democratic activities happened every day, we saw the aggressiveness among the people who have faith in democracy, but not in any government or any bureaucratic institutions that represent the state at the grassroots. These negative feelings stem from their experiences of exploitation experience they have at the hands of the representatives of the State.

My comrade Jayanti made an important observation during the field concerning the State exploiting the Dalits, Adivasis through the process of documentation. There are so many documents needed for the claim of land, and during this process, they feel alienated. Is the state helping citizens or exploiting them because this alienation might push them to support anti-democratic activity? This was an excellent argument by comrade Jayanti.

The first story indicates the exploitative activities of the representatives of the State, and the second is about how an upper caste Patil tries to maintain his upper-caste identity. These efforts to maintain the status quo provide a fertile ground for the caste hierarchy in India. The incident happened in Mahajan Tola, a small Adivasi village in Kurkheda Tehsil. One upper caste Patil has more than 100 hectares of land and also a small tank. He does not live there but his small empire is there and Adivasis work on his land. The land where the tank was situated was earlier owned by the Adivasis but Patil’s father appropriated the land and built the tank. In the rainy season, the lake gets filled up with water, and the Adivasis’ crops get affected every year but they do not get any compensation from the State nor from the landlord Patil.

The state compensates only those who have land in their name, so the Adivasis who have been living and cultivating it for generations do not get any relief. The landlord Patil went to the court to claim the land of Adivasis in his own name, but the Adivasis had been cultivating that land far before the Patil existed. On the basis of his caste status and economic power, the landowner can manage to do anything to maintain his status quo in the village and hierarchy of caste. Now this is a fight for status between the landlord Patil and Adivasis, and in Indian society, status is more important than anything else. For Adivasis, this is a battle of livelihood, existence, rights, justice, and democracy, but for the Patil, it’s a battle for maintaining his caste status in the hierarchy, and the village. Adivasis opine that in this battle, democracy will lose and caste will win, because caste status can corner democratic power, and this complexity between caste status and democratic power pushes many citizens to take up activities against democracy. 

The Indian upper caste communists argue that many anti-democratic activities happen in India where caste has no role. This epistemic blindness toward recognizing caste as the real problem, over all social problems, is restricted to communists in the Indian subcontinent. After the colonial state, the Indian state is nothing more than an upper caste state. Kaviraj argues that the state is omnipresent. If I consider this argument, then I can claim that the caste system is everywhere and omnipresent and thus represents the Indian state.


Ankush Uttam Helode did his B.A Political Science from Garware College, Pune. Now he is pursuing Master of Arts in Public Policy and Governance from Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

Written with editorial inputs from Abhishekh Shrivastava, who is pursuing Master of Arts in Public Policy and Governance,  Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.