The hookahs are out, and singers are belting out Haryanvi folk numbers. Around 200 people have already assembled at Rakhi Khas for the day’s protest organised by the Rakhigarhi Sangharsh Samiti.
Around the twin villages of Rakhi Khas and Rakhi Shapur, together known as Rakhigarhi, are hillocks, or mounds, that archaeologists believe contain over 5000-year-old mysteries of the Harappan civilisation. Archaeologists say this is the second most important Harappan site after Dholavira in Gujarat.
But the villagers are unimpressed. They have gathered to protest that they are no longer interested in the excavations, particularly if it means they will be displaced from their homes and land. “Every Chief Minister who has visited our village has shown us big dreams, telling us this would become a World Heritage site one day. But this has turned into a black snake for us, all set to displace us from our homes,” says Ranbir Singh, a villager participating in the protest.
The protests began late last month after the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) sent eviction notices to 201 villagers. In the notices, the ASI said the villagers have “encroached upon the protected area” on the various mounds and “raised unauthorised and illegal construction within the protected area” notified by the government.
And now, support for their cause from the Rakhi Barah Khap has bolstered the mood and even guaranteed a meeting with CM Manohar Lal Khattar. The grouping of 12 khaps in the area wields influence in 17 surrounding villages.
“We have our khap’s headquarters here and khap leaders been resolving disputes of villagers for centuries. Residents of all 17 villages are prepared to do and die to protect houses of Rakhigarhi residents,” says Suresh Koth, president of the Rakhi Barah Khap..
The support from the Rakhi Barah Khap means attention of political leaders and government attempts at pacifying them. Koth said a delegation of the Rakhigarhi Sangharsh Samiti has been invited to meet CM Khattar in Chandigarh on Friday.
“Haryana Finance Minister Captain Abhimanyu, who is also the local MLA (Narnaund constituency) has arranged the meeting with the CM,” said Koth.
When contacted, Abhimanyu told The Indian Express: “The government will try its best to protect the interests of the villagers and may locate them to an alternative site, if required.”
Local BJP leaders say the opposition may make it a political issue ahead of the polls and opposition leaders have already started offering support to the agitators. However, Koth said, “This is not a political agitation but there is need of political will to resolve the problem. We have formed Rakhigarhi Sangharsh Samiti to continue our struggle.”
“We would listen their point of view patiently. I have sought a detailed report from the Narnaund SDM about the site and encroachments around it,” said Praveen Kumar Director General of the Haryana Archaeology and Museums Department.
Just 150 kms from Delhi, the ASI has carried out several excavations in the area since the mid-1990s. The most recent digs were carried out by the Archaeological Department of the Haryana government in collaboration with Pune’s Deccan College. The state government is also planning an on site museum to display the finds.
All these years, the residents of the two villages cooperated and supported the archaeological endeavours at Rakhigarhi, basking in the attention, and excited by the prospect of international tourism. But the eviction notices have abruptly changed the mood.
The villagers who have received notices say they have been living in the area for almost four decades, predating the ASI’s notification. The villagers say they suspect the ASI’s plan is to get the entire village vacated.
“Officials say the excavations at the Harappan site will make us famous across the world. But how will our village become famous if the entire village is going to be displaced from the site,” say Ranbir Singh, a retired teacher.
The villagers are not ready to accept that structures facing removal are “illegal”. “When I was sarpanch in 1985-86, the panchayat had passed a resolution to distribute the shamlat (common) land among the villagers to protect it from encroachments,” says Ramkesh Sharma. However, Sharma admits the proposal did not get approval from the Panchayat Department.
Villagers also complain of uncertainty after the eviction notices.
“I don’t have any alternative land if we are evicted from our 100 square yard house,” says 50 year-old Jagdish, a member of the village’s Valmiki community. Shabho Jangra, a 55-year-old woman, said: “My husband is not well and the eviction notice has upset him further”.
According to Koth, the villages are not ready to relocate to an alternative site. “There are sites here of local deities, old ponds and temples which are source of faith for us. How can we leave this place? We have already given up 50 acres of land for historical excavation. Now why are they (authorities) adamant to dig the entire village? Why can’t they scan the entire village with the help of satellites?”asks the khap leader.
Villagers trace their ancestry in Rakhigarhi back to about 700 years. “Rakhi Khas was set up by Sheoran gotra men while Rakhi Khas by Maliks as this site was situated at a considerable high spot and was safe from the floods. We have emotions attached to the village. The officials want to search old culture but that should not be at the cost of the existing culture,” says Rajkumar Sheoran, 49, an agriculturist.
Koth says relocation would throw up “practical” problems. “If the officials offered them flats in lieu of their existing houses, where would their buffaloes go,” he says.
“The villagers don’t want any compensation or rehabilitation but only demand that the land on which their houses stand should be denotified,” said the khap leader.