By Ch. Narendra and Anjali Lal Gupta
At a public meeting in Andra Pradesh state (south eastern India), over 1200 Dalit women, men and children came come together to demand land reform in India, especially women’s right to land.
The centuries-old caste system in India treats Dalits as “untouchables” – the word literally means “oppressed people”.
There are around 100 million Dalit women in India who make up a large chunk of the country’s workforce and agricultural labour.
Few own land. Nor do they have any right over resources. They often go hungry and face the issues of untouchability and sexual violence.
Around 600 Dalit women set out from districts all across Andhra Pradesh, sometimes travelling for 12 hours crammed into vehicles.
“The discomfort didn’t matter as we have to tell what we’ve achieved and what we are up against,” says 25-year-old M Lakshmi Devi, a Dalit woman activist and farm worker.
Their journey ended in Hanumanthunipadu village near the coast where they were joined by 600 Dalit men and other activists on a march organised by the Dalit Employees Forum and ActionAid partner Andhra Pradesh Dalit Samakhya (APDS).
The women marched shouting slogans like ‘Vardhillali Dalit Mahila Poratam’ (Dalit women’s struggle will yield success) and ‘Prati dalit mahilaku 5 acrala sagu bhumi ivvali’ (Five acres of land to every Dalit woman).
Land will end hunger
Releasing a poster entitled ‘Let us fight for 5 acres of land for Dalit women’, ActionAid India Director Prof Babu Mathew (far left in picture) said, “Men must understand this demand. A woman is an important member of our society. If she owns land that would help put an end to social inequalities and discrimination.”
The demands were:
Provide 5 acres of agricultural land to every Dalit landless woman
Provide 5 cents of homestead land to every Dalit family
Stop violence and discrimination against Dalit girls and women
“I know at least 40 Dalit women in my village living with hunger. Land is absolutely necessary,” said M Lakshmi Devi.
Homestead land is crucial to improve the basic quality of life, according to Prof Matthew. “Nobody can evict you if you have your own permanent home and that would help you fight for other rights,” he said.
Later this month, APDS and ActionAid will present the first two demands to chief minister Y. S. Rajashekhara Reddy, the elected head of the state government.
Speaking of the need to address violence against women, Prof Mathew said “We can’t fight with dominant castes and bureaucracy if we remain fragmented within our homes. Being violent at home will not help,”
APDS started the very first campaign for Dalit women’s land rights in five districts of Andhra Pradesh in 2007. Since then it has secured about 7000 acres of land for around 5000 Dalit women.
This success is inspiring Dalit activists all over the country to launch a countrywide campaign in April this year.
Dr. B. R Ambedkar
The public meeting also saw the unveiling of Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s statue in the remote sleepy village, 400 kilometres away from state capital Hyderabad. Dr. Ambedkar was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution.
He is an iconic inspiration for Dalits, as being a Dalit himself Ambedkar spent his whole life fighting against social discrimination instated by the Indian caste system. APDS Founder President Swami Das exhorted Dalit families to teach their children about Dr. Ambedkar’s vision.
“The very presence of Dr. Ambedkar’s statue in a village creates awareness and gives strength to Dalits and other oppressed communities,” he says.
D Vijaya Lakshmi, an official overseeing child development initiatives run by the government, hailed Dr. Ambedkar’s contribution to the political, social and educational growth of marginalised groups.
“Thanks to him many women are able to occupy higher positions in the country including those of the President, Prime Minister and Chief Ministers,” she states. Bathula Ademma, a village council president stressed the need for women to assert themselves in the development programmes. “Women need to come to the forefront,” she declares.