Late on Monday night, Parbat Parmar, a 50-year-old Dalit, committed suicide during a protest outside the Junagadh District Collector’s office. While the protest began just days ago, Parmar’s struggle dated back to 1991, when he was reportedly forced out of his village, Sandha, in Junagadh district of Gujarat, after he and some other Dalit families tried to cultivate tracts of land.
The ongoing dharna for farm land was launched by nearly 200 Dalits from Sandha village on October 12. On Monday evening, Parmar and two others, Jignesh Rathod and Chandu Parmar, consumed poison. Parmar died hours later, while the other two were discharged from hospital late on Tuesday.
Inspector Bahadursinh Jadeja of C Division police in Junagadh said they were taken by surprise. “Their protest was symbolic, so they did not require permission,” Jadeja said. “We have registered a case of accidental death and a probe in under way.”
Parmar’s son Manoj, 19, said they, too, were shocked by the turn of events. “We were sitting on dharna for days, and the authorities did not listen to us. All of a sudden, my father and two others took the extreme step,” he said. Besides his son, Parmar is survived by his wife and five daughters.
While Junagadh Collector Rahul Gupta could not be contacted, sources said he has assured the protesters that their demands would be addressed.
For Parmar’s relatives and other Dalit families of Sandha, however, the issue that began 25 years ago may not be that easily resolved. These families were reportedly forced to flee the village when people from other communities took umbrage as they sought to cultivate tracts of land. Parmar was allegedly assaulted by seven people.
Parmar and his family fled to Bhayavadar town in Upleta taluka of Rajkot district, where he worked as an agricultural labourer. He and some others moved court. In 2000, a local court ruled that the Dalits were trying to cultivate “gauchar” (pastoral) land, which cannot be allotted for cultivation. The seven people, including current sarpanch Nana Balach, who were booked for assaulting Parmar, were acquitted.
After the attack on some Dalit men in Una in July, which sparked statewide protests, Parmar, along with many other Dalits in the region, revived their demand for agricultural land. “Following the Una incident, we decided to fight for land. The Una incident gave us courage,” said Dahya Rathod, Parmar’s relative.
According to Balach, 17 Dalit families currently live in Sandha, but in the wake of the Una incident, 86 Dalits — present and former residents — submitted applications for land.
“We prepared a file and sent it to the Collector’s office for action,” said Yusuf Gujarati, the village revenue clerk.
The 750 bighas of land on the outskirts of Sandha, part of which some Dalit families tried to cultivate in 1991, are now back in focus. “Around 250 bighas are under encroachment (by non-Dalits), and the panchayat and district administration are turning a blind eye. But they won’t allow Dalits to cultivate small plots of that land to earn their livelihood,” alleged Deven Vanvi, who is leading the current protest.
“Parmar and the others did not inform us or the authorities that they would attempt suicide. On Monday, the Collector told us that the matter would take some time to be resolved. The trio were probably overcome with emotion,” said Vanvi.
Balach, however, denied any encroachment, and said he would not protest if the administration allots the land to Dalits. “But there is a court order against it, and I will not give any written permission,” he said.
Mangrol mamlatdar Harilal Trivedi said most of the Dalits had been allotted land earlier. “In 1971, majority of the Dalit families in Sandha were given land by the government. But after the trouble in 1991, most of them shifted to Bhayavadar. So far as their demand for fresh allotment of land is concerned, there is a court order against that land,” said Trivedi.
Meanwhile, Minister of State for Home Pradeepsinh Jadeja said: “The protesters were demanding gauchar land. The Collector had explained that there is a procedure to be followed for allotting gauchar land. However, they could not understand that, because of which this incident has occurred.”