Outsiders in Kutch’s mini-Punjab: Sikh farmers battling for their land

784 Sikh farmers have been told that they are not entitled to their land.

Published: January 5, 2014 12:09 am

Bhajan Singh,62,remembers the time curious villagers turned up to see a borewell his father Gopal Singh had dug up. The year was 1969 and it was the first time Sumrasar village,near Bhuj in

Kutch district,had had a borewell. Few had ever seen it work,as they depended entirely on rainwater for the barely one crop they harvested a year.

Originally from Pakistan,Gopal Singh had migrated to Amritsar during Partition. He moved to Kutch,then a barren,deserted area,400 km from Ahmedabad and the last district of Gujarat on the Indo-Pak border,four years after then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appealed to countrymen to settle there. Shastri issued the appeal during the India-Pakistan war of 1965,arguing that populating the border region would be strategically advantageous for India,deterring intrusion from the other side. On the PM’s call,a large group of migrants poured in,and between 1965 and 1984,the Gujarat government allotted land officially to 550 people of Punjab,Haryana and Rajasthan in the district. Of them,390 were Sikhs. They settled across the district,not very far from the local villages,in the middle of their farms. Gopal Singh was part of the group that came from Punjab.

Nearly 45 years later,this part of Kutch,which continues to receive Sikh migrants,stands out from the rest of the district. On the strength of the legendary Sikh entrepreneurship,a green pasture rests there now,referred to as “mini Punjab”.

A tremor went down this region then in 2010,when the Kutch District Collector sent them a notice that their plots were being frozen as they were outsiders and couldn’t own farm land in the state,nor transfer it. Essentially,it meant they couldn’t sell or purchase land any more,or get bank loans for agricultural processes,and that they could be evicted anytime.

Bhajan Singh says his father couldn’t take the shock. “The saddest part of our story is that after years of turning barren land fertile,it has been frozen. My father,who retired from the Army after fighting wars with Pakistan,was alive till 2010 when the district collector’s notice came. It hurt him badly. A year later,he died.”

Last month,after pressure brought on by the protesting farmers,and because of the compulsions of the BJP to keep ally Akali Dal in good humour,the Narendra Modi government defreezed land records of 52 farmers. Bhajan Singh’s name was not on the list. A minister has now promised that the case of those who migrated to Kutch between 1965 and 1984 would be given consideration.

Singh owns about 30 acres of land in Sumrasar,and is well known locally for his efforts to save wild animals. His father Gopal Singh was initially allotted land near Khavda village,which is close to the Pakistan border,but as the land there was not good for agriculture,he sold it a decade later and shifted to Sumrasar.

“There was no issue raised by the government then,” Bhajan points out.

It was on October 22,2010,that then district collector

M Thennarasan sent notices freezing land of 784 individuals in Kutch,of whom 245 are originally from Punjab and Haryana. The rest are from Rajasthan,Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The notice,labelled ‘Freezing the agriculture accounts of outsiders of Gujarat state’,stated “it is instructed not to do mutation on the basis of 7/12 certificate of farmer of registered documents until the next instruction” under the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Land Act,1948.

While all the 784 face eviction,a group of Sikh farmers took up the fight,approaching the regional officer,who rejected their case. In 2011,the matter reached the Gujarat High Court. When a larger bench of justices presided over by the chief justice ordered in favour of the applicants,the state government went to the Supreme Court.

According to the farmers,the interpretation of the state government that an outsider or a farmer owning land in another state can’t buy land in Gujarat is wrong,and that it was violative of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.

“The state government is also trying to juggle the figures of people affected. This is not just about 800 to 900 people. In fact,the government has increased the number. The issue is whether a non-Gujarati can buy land in Gujarat or not. There were no such rules till today. The government has cited a circular issued in 1973 that says only Gujaratis can buy land. But this is not an amendment or even a notification,just a circular,” says Himmat Singh Shergil,an advocate who is representing the farmers in the Supreme Court.

In their affidavits,the Sikh farmers have stated that Kutch has a complex history. After Partition,a decision was taken to build a major port in Kutch,today known as the Kandla port. With this port came Gandhidham,which would go on to become a refugee camp housing many people from Pakistan over the years. At that time,Kutch was not a part of Gujarat. Both Bombay Province and Kutch were independent states. It was the then Maharaja of Kutch who gave land for the Kandla port and Gandhidham township,at a token price of Re 1.

The farmers point out that Gandhidham was essentially developed by people who were not originally from Kutch,or what would become Gujarat. From 1948 to 1960 (the year Gujarat was carved out of Bombay Province),people were invited or migrated to Kutch. The farmers also point out in their affidavit that their forefathers moved to Kutch at the government’s invitation,into an area lacking even basic infrastructure,and were given land by the authorities for agricultural activities.

Spread over 45,652 sq km,Kutch accounts for 45 per cent of Gujarat’s territory and is the largest district of India. It has two patches of desert,a 405-km-long coastline and shares the international border with Pakistan. Traditionally,Kutchhis are known as traders but the main occupation of people is agriculture and cattle breeding. In the past few decades,agriculture has thrived in western Kutch,with the cultivation of cotton and groundnut as well as mango and date flourishing in Mandvi,Abdasa,Mundra,Nakhatrana,Bhuj and Abdasa.

Agricultural officers of the district unambiguously laud the efforts of Sikh farmers in developing agriculture in Kutch. “They have brought more land under irrigation and have done great work in cultivating cotton and high-quality groundnut,” says former district agriculture officer Anil Patel.

Of the 245 Sikh farmers of Punjab and Haryana origin who stand to lose their land,175 or 71 per cent have their fields in Mandvi,Nakhtrana,Bhuj and Abdasa,the richest talukas in agriculture.

“The arrival of farmers from Punjab and Haryana brought lots of changes in terms of technology. The migrants introduced wheat to the region as well as threshers for harvesting. Cotton crop also saw a boom,” says Kirti Khatri,a senior local journalist,though adding that the lack of water means locals too can’t do without innovative farming.

The Kutch Cotton Association (KCA),a body of cotton traders,ginners and processors,attributes the increase in acreage under cotton cultivation as well as overall production to the Sikh farmers. “Before they migrated to Kutch in 1967-68,the total production of cotton in the district was around one lakh bales (of 165 kg each). By 2012,this had touched five lakh bales annually,” KCA secretary Shirish Haria says,adding that this was due to their use of groundwater and the introduction of BT cotton in the late 1990s.

Another change happened after the 2001 earthquake,when a number of Sikh farmers from Punjab and Haryana who did not own land in the district started cultivating cotton by leasing land from local farmers.

The local leaders of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh also give Sikh farmers credit. “Tracts of land near border areas in Lakhpat and Abdasa talukas were barren. It is to the credit of farmers from Punjab and Haryana that cotton is the most popular cash crop in the district,” says the president of the outfit’s Kutch district unit,Shyamji Mayatra,adding that he fully backs the Sikh farmers’ demand to defreeze their lands.

Even today,a borewell or tubewell in a field is a clear indication in these parts that the land belongs to a Sikh farmer; locals prefer wells.

“They asked us why we were piercing the heart of the motherland,when we started digging borewells. Eventually,they realised that this was an effective way of irrigation,” says Surendra Singh Bhullar,the de-facto leader of the protesting farmers.

Nights are normally breezy in Mandvi,a coastal town. On moonlight nights,the house of 70-year-old Bhullar is just a tiny speck on his 40-acre land  nearby and its cotton crops. Bhullar is among the later migrants to Kutch,having arrived from Jalalabad,Punjab,a decade ago. He lives with his two sons and their families. A well-kept stable nearby houses five buffaloes,while a Sonalika tractor and a couple of cars stand outside.

Bristling at the order of the district collector,Bhullar says: “This is an insult. We are farmers and all we know is farming. Where will we go if we are forced to sell our land?”

He believes that eventually they will get to stay but worries “due to the politics that is going on”. “Modiji says we are outsiders. Aren’t we Hindustanis? How can you snatch the land we worship like our mother? Isn’t Modiji going to Punjab to seek votes? Will people there not vote for him because he is an outsider?” Bhullar says angrily.

Calling the move a conspiracy between the government and land sharks wanting to buy their plots,he asks: “Where was the government when we bought land and started farming here? If we were outsiders,why didn’t the government machinery object to the deals we did? We bought land via proper channels,with proper documentation,and we paid taxes.”

Rajinder Singh,65,lives in Paiyagam in Abdasa taluka,where Sikhs make up all the migrant farmers. Singh sold the few acres of land he owned in his native Sangrur district in Punjab to buy about 30 acres of land here around 10 years ago. Land in Kutch is cheaper compared to Punjab,he points out. “I am not afraid of anything except that the government might force me to sell the land and go back to Punjab,” Singh says.

Harjeet Singh of Paiyagam village says their association with Kutch doesn’t date back to just 1965 but “centuries”. “Our forefathers used to tell us about the Lakhpat gurdwara (in Lakhpat taluka),and there were also trade links with Sindh through the port here.”

Harjeet’s situation is worse as the land he tills is in his father’s name,who passed away two years ago. “My brother too died last year. We want to transfer the land ownership but the authorities don’t listen to us,” he says.

The Sindhu river,now in Pakistan,earlier flowed through Lakhpat on way to the Arabian Sea. Once a major port city and a business hub connecting Sindhu and Kutch,Lakhpat — meaning “prosperous” — has few signs now of its bustling past. One of those is the Gurdwara Shri Lakhpath Sahibji,revered by the Sikhs,especially of the Udasi sect,who throng here around the year. Guru Nanak is believed to have halted at Lakhpat on his way to Mecca and Medina nearly five centuries ago,and this gurdwara has what are called his charan padukas (wooden slippers).

The earthquake of 2001 had damaged the gurdwara,and it was renovated later. Three years later,it was declared a protected site by the Archeological Survey of India and won the Asia Pacific Heritage Conservation Award for the year 2004 from UNESCO. Local as well as Sikhs settled abroad contribute funds for its upkeep.

“It is said that after Guru Nanakji came here,lots of people asked him to name the place. It was around 1495. He named the place Lakhpat,saying the place will have earnings of one lakh everyday. And that’s what happened. Lakhpat emerged as a port city,” says Kashmir Singh,the gurdwara caretaker.

The gurdwara is located inside a fort,surrounded by ruins of mosques and temples,and houses where hundreds live. It has also acquired another distinction: this is where Abhishek Bachchan and Kareena Kapoor’s debut movie Refugee was shot.

In their defence,the Kutch district administration says it is not picking and choosing Sikh farmers. “Land accounts of 784 farmers across the district have been frozen,of which only 245 are Sikhs. On the other hand,of the 550 individuals allotted land by the state government from 1965 to 1984 for rehabilitation after the war,as many as 390 were Sikhs,” says a top revenue officer.

The officers also claim that the notices have gone out after all these years to farmers as they came across the “discrepancy” in land records only three years ago. Collector Thennarasan relied on a Gujarat government circular of 1973 barring people from other states to buy agricultural land in the state,and seeking action against those who held land by virtue of such status.

However,the farmers contend that the Gujarat Land Ceiling Act,1960,took into account land held by an individual in other states too to arrive at the land ceiling limit for the state and,thus,recognised the agriculturist status of individuals of other states as well.

While the district administration maintains nobody has been evicted,Section 84 of the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act 1948 — one of the legislations it has acted under — does provide for summary eviction of those occupying land unauthorisedly.

According to the Statistics Department of the district,33.90 lakh hectare land is cultivable in Kutch. As of December 2012,there were 1.90 lakh farmers cultivating 7.92 lakh hectares. There is another aspect to this controversy: prices of land have been appreciating since 2001,when industrial houses made a beeline for Kutch after the state and central governments declared tax holidays for five years in the wake of that year’s devastating earthquake.

Big corporates like Asia Motor Works,Jindal Saw,Solaris ChemTech,Electrotherm,Suzlon,Welspun,Tata Power,Jaypee Cement,Parle and Anchor Electricals set up units in Kutch. Adani’s port at Mundra is fast emerging as one of the biggest ports of the country.

Consequently,the landscape of the district has undergone tremendous change. Incidentally,much of the industrialisation has happened in talukas that are agriculturally advanced,such as Bhuj,Anjar and Mundra. “Land is available in Kutch in abundance at rates 10 times lower than other parts of the state. We have one of the best transport infrastructure in the country and groundwater is also not a problem. So,the district remains a good destination for industries,” says Rajesh Bhatt,president of the Chamber of Commnerce and Industry,Kutch.

That,farmers suspect,is one reason their land is being coveted. Most of the farmers have big plots,stretching across hundreds of acres. The Statistics Department puts the average landholding at 4.15 hectares per farmer.

“This is a ploy of the state government to rob Sikh farmers of their land and to sell it to industrialists. Look at what has happened in Mota Layja village in Mandavi. First they froze a land account,then defreezed it and later sold it to a private company,” says Surendra Singh Bhullar. Officials refuted the allegation.

With Modi harbouring national ambitions,and with the BJP’s long-lasting partner Akali Dal making protesting noises over the notices to Kutch Sikhs,the Gujarat government is in damage-control mode. A function to mark Guru Nanak Jayanti at Lakhpat last month,attended by thousands of Sikhs,saw state ministers in attendance for the first time. Education Minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama and Minister of State for Law and Justice,Pradip Chudasama attended,along with popular BJP Amritsar MP Navjot Singh Sidhu.

Bhupendrasinh Chudasama assured the Sikh farmers at the function that they would get their “rights” as they too had contributed towards the development of the state. “Sikhs living in any corner of Gujarat are Gujaratis first. (They are) the soul of Gujarat. Sikhs have contributed to the development of Gujarat and,thereby,Kutch.”

On December 13,land accounts of 52 farmers were defreezed by the government. Kutch’s Resident Additional Collector D B Shah said these lands had been given to landless labourers for farming.

However,others have been left disappointed. “Rights of those allotted land by the state government between 1965 and 1984 would be protected. But those who are not agriculturalists and those who are recognised as agriculturalists in other states cannot,according to the laws of Gujarat,purchase agricultural land in Gujarat. However,the matter is sub-judice and we shall abide by the verdict of the Supreme Court,” says Bhupendrasinh Chudasama.

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