MUZAFFARPUR/NEW DELHI: Anari Devi, a 61 Year old landless Dalit woman is fighting for life in Shri Krishna Medical College Hospital in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Before being admitted here the old woman along with her comrades was fighting the local administration against forceful evacuation from a land on which they had been living for more than fifteen years now in Runnisaidpur, village of Sitamarhi district in Bihar.

Anari, is one among many Dalits who were sitting on agitation in the village against evacuation of a 10.7 acres of ceiling surplus land on which 316 Dalit families had been living since 2003, before being targeted and attacked by land Mafias.

Bihar government runs a programme, Dakhal Dakhani under which landless Dalits are allowed to take possession of the land on which they had been living. It is under the same scheme that the Dalit families have been claiming ownership of this land since they have been inhabitants here for more than 15 years now. However, members of the Dalit community claim that the local administration is hand in gloves with the upper caste land owners, and do not want them to get this tract of land. Several efforts have been made in the past to remove the Dalit families from their homes.

Against this onslaught of the upper castes in the village, the Dalits under the leadership of the All India Kisan Sabha had been organizing a movement to get possession of the land. According to Awadesh Kumar, secretary of AIKS, Bihar, his organisation had been successful in getting a notification from the district administration for possession of the land for the Dalit families. However, after a concerned official went on leave due to illness, the new Block District Officer Saroj Baitha declared the older notification null and void under pressure of native land owners and Mafias.

“Our organisation had been able to get a notice issued for the land to be officially handed over to the Dalit families living on it. However, after a new BDO took charge over here, he declared the older notification null and void and called for the entire process to be initiated again at the behest of local land owners. It is after this that our outfit organized the Dalit families living on this land again and started an agitation on January 10 under area leadership of Dharmendra Yadav of AIKS”, Awadesh told The Citizen. After initial reluctance to listen to their demands, the BDO called Dharmendra for a meeting with him on January 16.

“I was called for a meeting a day before the Chief Minister was to visit the area. However, I feared a crackdown on protestors in my absence and decided to stay back and nominated others for the meeting. It was then the Mafias in collaboration with the BDO, tried to get me killed by hurling handmade bombs at the agitating people. In the process, dozens of Dalits including the old woman Anari Devi were severely injured. We immediately rushed many of them to Muzaffarpur and more serious ones to Patna Medical College Hospital,” the Kisan leader informed The Citizen.

According to the Dalit families and leaders of AIKS, more than dozen of Dalits have been admitted in hospital across Muzaffarpur and Patna after this violence but the Bihar government is trying to cover up the incident so that the issue does not get media attention before the Lok Sabha elections.

“The apathy of the state government is so much that when we went to meet Anari Devi in Muzaffarpur, we saw her without a blanket in this cold. The state government has shown no empathy towards Dalits in this entire episode and shamelessly tried to cover up the incident, “said Lalita Devi, another member of the Dalit community who is also part of the current protest.

According to leaders of the AIKS, out of many others injured in the attack Anari Devi and Binda Sahni are extremely critical right now.

When The Citizen contacted the BDO, Saroj Baitha, he denied all allegations levelled against him and rather claimed that there was an incident of fire in which some of the Dalits had sustained injuries.

“Yes, it is true that I found something fishy in the earlier notification of allotting the land to people living here and restarted the entire process for the sake of transparency and fairness but this entire blame game against me for instigating violence against the Dalits is baseless and is carried out at the behest of the communist leaders of the area. These people got burns after an incident of fire amid the protests ,“ Baitha claimed.

Dakhal Dehani was launched by the first Dalit Chief Minister of Bihar, Jitan Ram Manjhi who had launched a programme to distribute three decimals of land to people belonging to the Maha Dalit community. Despite the political upheaval in the state, Dakhal Dehani survived the shift in political alliance and governments. However, the activists believe that after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar opted for the BJP, the impact of this scheme was largely curtailed. There is no concrete data to measure its impact so far.

An official of the Land and Revenue department told The Citizen over conditions of anonymity that he did not know of many recent incidents where “occupied” land had been handed over to Dalits in the past one year or so. Even the Bihar Economic Survey for 2014-15 mentions the programme only in passing. At the same time it talks about other land distributions schemes at length. Corroborating this,locals asserted that pressure on Dalits to evacuate the land has been steadily increasing.

Renuka Devi, an inhabitant on the land currently in conflict, told this reporter, “We were happy when we got to know about the programme. Nevertheless no paper formalities ever took place but we were never threatened to vacate either. In the last one year the pressure to evacuate has been building up upon us terribly. The government and administration should understand that being Dalits not everyone welcomes us to live with them. We are not just living here but also cultivating the land. Some of us grow wheat and corn on it.’’

The secretary of AIKS Awadesh believes that this shift in Nitish Kumar’s attitude towards Dalits and extremely backward communities is recent, more evident after he allied with the BJP in government.

“Nitish Kumar cannot afford to have a very pro Dalit face after aligning with BJP which is a party that serves upper caste interests. He is actually in a fix. He can neither do away with pro Dalit measures nor actually enforce their implementation. He is just being indifferent. “Awadesh explained.

The history of land reform movement in Bihar is not new and neither is the conflict and violence around it. After Jawaharlal Nehru initiated land reforms in 1950, it met with massive opposition in Bihar since the Congress leadership in the state was largely from the land owning class. In the 1970’s and 80’s land for the landless was a central demand of the Naxalbari Movement. In the 90’s when backward caste leader Lalu Prasad Yadav became the Chief Minister of the state, he transferred titles of lands to Dalits living in the state. Unfortunately owing to large scale illiteracy and backwardness among members of the community, the land given to them remained so only on paper whereas the actual control remained in the hands of Upper Caste land owners.

Like his predecessors, land reform was a major electoral agenda for Nitish Kumar too. He instituted the D. Bandyopadhyay Commission to initiate reforms. The commission recommended allotting about 0.66 acres of farmland to most backwards. The report was never implemented and Dalits in the state are still subjected to violence when they demand titles on lands they have been living on.