In 1935, Karuppu Sakili received a piece of 1.75 cents of land under denotified category at Pudupalam village in Avinashi in Tiruppur district. The small piece of panchami (denotified) land, allotted to the ‘depressed community’ by the British, was the first piece of land owned by the family, belonging to Adi Dravidar community, a Scheduled Caste community in Tamil Nadu. The panchami land provided safety and security to Karuppu Sakili and his family. However, a few decades down the line, what the family had to face was encroachment, caste oppression, exploitation and harassment over the same piece of land.
As Karuppu Sakili passed away, the land was passed to his next generations and it continued to provide financial support to the family. The family used to farm on the lands and they were managing their livelihood with the produce. Suddenly, the rains failed in 2004 and they stopped agriculture on the land. That was the first time they felt insecure about owning a barren land — a feeling that they continue to live with even today.
The panchami lands were allotted by the British under the Depressed Class Land Act in 1892. The Act states that 12 lakh acres of land, allotted under the scheme, cannot be sold, leased, given as a gift or pledged for the first 10 years and after the expiry of 10 years, the denotified land can only be transferred to the people of the depressed classes.
More than 125 years later, the panchami lands are ‘owned’ mainly by people of other castes and a delay of framing a legislation in Tamil Nadu has pushed more people of depressed classes to fight a ‘never-ending’ legal battle.
The panchami lands are being transferred in the name of non-Dalits and non-tribal population by taking advantage of the poverty of the downtrodden, many victims allege. The lands are also encroached upon or fraudulently transferred in the names of influential people with the help of district-level officials, victims added.
Even in the case of Karuppu Sakili, the land was allegedly encroached upon and fraudulently transferred. Members of the family, the next generation, were allegedly beaten, injured and chased out of the village for legally claiming the ownership of their own land from the encroachers. The 1.75 cents now ‘belongs’ to an influential person belonging to the Backward Class community, even though the land documents continue to be under Karuppu Sakili’s name.
In the 1990s, the land owned by Karuppu Sakili was allegedly discreetly encroached upon by a man from the Gounder community. However, as they were using the land for farming, Perumal, the great-grandson of Karuppu Sakili said the man called Ganapathy could not use their land for construction.
But as soon as the farming activity stopped in 2004, his henchmen allegedly entered the land and started attacking Karuppu Sakili’s grandsons. “My uncles ran for their lives that day, and immediately started submitting petitions to Tahsildar, the Collector and the Chief Minister’s cell in Tamil Nadu Secretariat. However, the situation did not change,” alleged Perumal.
That was the last day they were able to visit the land, since the man then fraudulently transferred the property to his wife's name and started the construction of a school on the land. “They assigned henchmen to attack us whenever we tried to go there,” Perumal alleged.
“They tortured us and used slurs. He addressed us as slaves. He asked us, ‘Why do you need land?’ His relatives once hurled stones at me and my uncles. We could not face the torture after a point and we left the village,” Perumal alleged.
“In 2008, we tried to lodge a police complaint, but the henchmen started attacking us again. We have been giving petitions for more than a decade but a case has not been registered. That’s the reason why we have moved court now. Though the case is ongoing, the construction of the school building continues and they are using our land to park their school vans,” he said.
Pannerselvam, a lawyer and president of Social Justice Front, is helping Perumal’s family fight the legal battle. Pannerselvam said, “The fraudsters are creating a duplicate document and converting the pattas of the land to their name. The chitta and adangal (land documents) will continue to have the name of the original owner and that will be shown as proof. These pattas will not be valid but yet they do this, by suppressing the actual beneficiaries for temporary benefits.”
The lands of the Scheduled Tribes have also been encroached upon by people who are not from the tribal or Dalit communities. Currently, resorts and ashrams have allegedly been built on the encroached lands in Anaikatti.
Malan, of the Anaikatti Tribal Association, alleged, “The lands were encroached upon 40 years ago, and by now, the land has reached two or three different owners. All the encroachers say they paid money and purchased the land, but their claims are not true. They all just possess a false patta and the district officials are not stopping the transfer of property, due to the fear of political parties.”
Lawyer Pannerselvam also alleged that an ashram and a politician had encroached upon land belonging to the SC and ST people. “Meanwhile, the actual owners of these lands have been forced to sleep on the streets or at burial grounds because their lands have been taken away,” he alleged.
The Tamil Nadu government is yet to identify all the panchami land in the state. A report in The Hindu said, the Tamil Nadu government has identified 2.5 lakh acres of panchami land in the state and 30% of the lands are with people who are from non-Scheduled Castes communities. However, there is no unanimity among officials on the issue and the process of identifying all the panchami land is still continuing.
The irregularities in re-registering the panchami land in Tamil Nadu are stark, compared to the neighbouring states, since a law is yet to be formulated in the state.
The difference between Tamil Nadu and the neighbouring states is that Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have legislations in place to protect the denotified land. The Kerala Restriction on Transfer by and Restoration of Lands to Scheduled Tribes Act, 1999 restricts the transfer of lands by Scheduled Tribe members in Kerala and restores possession of lands alienated by the depressed classes. Karnataka also has the Karnataka Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prohibition of Transfer of Certain Lands) Act, 1978.
The lack of legislation in Tamil Nadu forces people to depend on the Supreme Court or High Court in the state for getting their lands back. The Supreme Court has already ruled that the transfer of SC and ST lands requires a nod from the government.
The Madras High Court in 2008 had also upheld the state government rule which said that if the land is sold to a person who is not a Dalit nor hails from the SC/ST community, the government is liable to take ownership of the land without any compensation or refund. The order also states that if the land is gifted, sold or leased 10 years from the date of grant, or is sold, gifted, leased or passed down to a person who is not a Dalit and or is not from the SC/ST community, the government will revoke the entitlement for the land.
However, the order has not been implemented and the lawyer Pannerselvam has alleged that it is the government officials who indirectly help with these transfers. “The guideline value of these properties should be zero, which means the land cannot be sold. But some Village Administrative Officers do not mention this land as ‘zero’ and hence the people ‘buy’ them. The government and denotified land should be mentioned as zero to stop others from buying,” he said.
To put an end to this, Panneerselvam has now sent a representation to Tamil Nadu government to draft and introduce a legislation. “The complainants are being threatened by the officials. They are not acting on the case. All neighbouring states — Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala — have legislations that declare selling of panchami lands as illegal. Many lands were retrieved from influential people and given back to the SC and ST communities. Hence, we have sent a representation, following which we will urge the Madras High Court to table the case seeking that a legislation be drafted,” he said.
(With inputs from Sudhakar)