Asi hedaja haiyu (We belong to this place),” says Amarjit Singh in chaste Kutchi, and he means it. Kutch has been his home since 1968. His father, Ajayab Singh, was in the first batch of Punjabi Sikhs who settled in this border district in Gujarat. Amarjit owns a prime piece of land on the main road in Bhanada, Abdasa, which he tills. He gets a good crop, his children are doing well and the price of his land has been appreciating steadily. But he is a worried man. “Who knows, next could be my number,” he says.
The district administration has frozen the records of a large number of Sikh and Jat farmers, citing a government circular in 1973. The circular says any sale of land to non-agriculturists in Gujarat, even if they are agriculturists in another state, is illegal. Kutch is governed by the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Land (Vidarbha Region and Kutch Area) Act, 1958, which allows only agriculturists to buy land.
The administration started freezing land records citing violations in 2010. While the villagers say records of more than 1,000 farmers have been frozen, District Collector Harshad Patel says only 784 accounts, including that of 164 Sikhs and 100 Gujaratis, have been frozen.
The Sikhs have taken the matter to the Shiromani Akali Dal and burned Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s effigy. Some Congress MPs have requested Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to intervene. A few months ago, a member of the National Commission for Minorities visited the Sikh farmers and heard their complaints.
Sikh farmers from Punjab settled in Kutch on the request of the Union government after the Indo-Pak war in 1965. The government’s intention was to neutralise the Muslim population that dominated the villages on the Indo-Pak border, guard the borders and make the barren land fertile. “Four hundred and fifty-four Sikh farmers were given land free of cost,” says Patel. They tilled hard and dug deep for water in the saline soil. In fact, they introduced the cotton crop in the region, which is now a major source of income for the locals. Seeing their success, more Sikhs came. So did the Jats from Haryana.
Asked how ineligible people got land in Gujarat and how they could pay stamp duty of documentation, Patel says documentation was between private parties. About their entry in revenue records, he says, they could have faked certificates stating they were farmers and the administration came to know about it only later. “These people whose land has been frozen are traders or businessmen and not farmers,” he said.
In 2012, the farmers moved the Gujarat High Court, which decided in their in favour. It set aside the district collector’s order to freeze the khedut khatas (agricultural accounts) of the appellants until further instructions on the ground that the appellants are agriculturists belonging to other states. The High Court in its judgment quashed circular no. TNC/1073/58184/J of the revenue department dated April 4, 1973. The Gujarat government has challenged this in the Supreme Court.
“You cannot get a crop loan once the record is frozen. Also, the crop cannot be sold in the organised sector. It has to be sold to private traders at a lower rate while the borrowings from private moneylenders is at a higher rate,” says Gurpreet Singh, whose father, Sukhdev Singh, purchased land in Kutch in 1980.
Joginder Singh Kamoj, 65, bought 30 acres of agriculture land near Kothara in 2005 after selling his three acres in Punjab, which was not sufficient for him and families of his two sons. “Agriculture land in Gujarat is cheaper than in Punjab,” he says. Now he is in a trap: “If my land record is frozen, who will buy it? If at all someone buys, it will be at half the rate. With that, what will I be able to purchase in Punjab?”
Farmers say many of them have sold off their land cheaply fearing action. Atmaram Chaudhari, a farmer, sold 120 acres. There are allegations that some agents put pressure on farmers to sell their land at bargain prices. “They tell us that even if it is frozen they will get it done,” says a farmer. District Collector Patel, however, says he has not come across any such complaints.
For many of these farmers, land is the only thing they have. “It is a wrong notion that Sikh farmers are rolling in riches,” says Gurmail Singh, a farmer. In the last couple of years rains had not been good and the crop got destroyed last year because of the late rains, he said. And they question the legality of the discrimination in identifying farmers based on states. “My children are born here. Why should I go elsewhere? In Punjab, we will have to go and work as labourers. I am an Indian citizen. Why are norms not same in the entire country?” asks Laxmidevi, 25.
Former chief minister Suresh Mehta, who hails from Kutch, says law should be same for all and necessary amendments should be made.
Evidently, the district administration is executing a well-thought-out plan by systematically freezing accounts in different villages. Kuldip Chaudhari, a farmer, says it is a divide and rule policy. “If all of a particular village are targeted then the issue will be highlighted,” he says. By targeting people of different villages they are trying to ensure that the Sikh farmers do not unite, says Gurpreet Singh.
The controversy is a setback for Modi, who has been trying to improve his image outside Gujarat in his bid to be the prime ministerial candidate of the National Democratic Alliance. Reportedly, Modi has told Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal that his government was not to be blamed for the action against the farmers as it was based on a notification released in 1973.
Gujarat Congress president Arjun Modhwadia says the 1973 notification, issued by a Congress government, was to prevent ‘benami farmers’. But these farmers are genuine, he says, and the state governments in the past have given a lot of facilities to them.
The farmers are little bothered about the politics of the issue. “All that we want is that our lands are not frozen and we get justice,” says Udham Singh, a farmer in Parjau village.
The Sikhs and Jats from Punjab and Haryana came to Kutch and changed the place. They brought about a green revolution in the arid land and have been trend-setters in agriculture. And they gelled well with the local communities. Now they are looking at an uncertain future.
Originally Published By: Nandini Oza/Kothara, Kutch of Manorama Weekly