His family has abandoned him. The government doesn’t bother much about his cause. And those around him look at him with pity. But none of this deters Master Vijay Singh from persisting with his 19-year-long dharna — the longest-ever by a single individual in the country, according to Limca Book of Records 2015. His demand: return 4,000 bighas of land in his village Chausana, in Shamli district, UP, from the mafia to the government, so that it can be used for the benefit of the villagers.
Singh’s site of protest — and home — is a small corner in one of the corridors of the Muzaffarnagar collectorate (Chausana was part of Muzaffarnagar district till 2010). White sheets, used in cement bags, serve as curtains around this small, yet airy space, spartan as it is with just two mats, a gas stove, a vegetable tray, few utensils, a steel trunk, and a string on which white clothes hang. “I am a Gandhian and wear only white,” says the 54-year-old as he cools himself with a hand fan, his “home” having no electric fan or cooler.
Singh, clad in a kurta and lungi, has shoulder-length hair and a long, flowing beard. Showing an old photograph in which he is sitting at the same protest site but is clean-shaven, and clad in trousers and shirt, he says, “I was a 33-year-old young man when I began my dharna. And look at what I have become now,” he says.
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Singh’s story began on a hot summer day in 1994 in Chausana when he was returning home from the government school where he taught Economics to Class XII. Walking past a poor part of the village, he heard a boy tell his mother, “Please borrow aata from someone so that we can eat roti today.” “That sentence changed my life,” Singh remembers.
He could not sleep that night and three days later, he resigned. For the next eight months, he would make frequent trips to Muzaffarnagar, 70 km from Chausana, and study his village’s land records available with the collectorate. “I would always hear people talk about land being usurped by the mafia in our village. I connected the boy’s sentence to this illegal loss of land and began my research,” says Singh, who belongs to a well-off family of farmers, and owns 21 bighas of land.
His effort uncovered 4,575 bighas in Chausana to be in illegal possession of musclemen in connivance with government officials — 1,100 of these belonged to the owner of his school, former MLA Jagat Singh and son of then pradhan Babu Ram. “The land records exposed the Thakur sahabs, Chaudhry sahabs and Khan sahabs of the village,” he says.
Singh then shot off aarop patras to the Muzaffarnagar DM, the UP home secretary, and the Centre. In the meantime, the mafia offered him “400 bighas of land for free to back off”. When he refused, they threatened to kill him. In 1996, he “escaped bullets at the Muzaffarnagar railway station”, while his associate and fellow villager Dheer Singh was allegedly “killed” by the mafia. “He was found hanging from a tree in the village. I tried to lodge an FIR but the police said it was a case of suicide,” he says.
Singh was afraid he “would be similarly eliminated”, so on February 26, 1996, he perched himself in front of the DM office in Muzaffarnagar and sat on dharna. “This, I thought, would also get the officials to not sit but act on my letters,” he says.
It would take another 11 years before the officials would “act”. In 2007, Singh travelled 600 km on foot to Lucknow — stopping at various villages in between to educate people about land mafia — to meet then UP Home Secretary JAIN. “He was a nice man and pulled up the district authorities for not looking into my complaint. He also ordered an inquiry into my accusations, which were found to be true,” he says. A year later, 300 bighas were confiscated from the mafia, and the CB-CID and the Muzaffarnagar ADM filed 136 cases — civil and criminal — against various musclemen.
However, till now, “not a single hearing has been held in any of these cases”, he says. And the 300 bighas of land in his village remain un-used. In 2012, when the UP government changed hands from the BSP to the SP, Singh undertook another 20-day journey on foot to Lucknow to meet newly-elected CM Akhilesh Yadav. After much persuasion, Singh managed a 30-minute meeting with Yadav. The CM ordered a committee be set up to look into the matter.
The committee, he says, was established, “but has done no work”.
Singh admits his “mission has met little success” largely due to his non-violent ways. “Had I burnt a bus or gheraoed a minister’s home, my demand would have been met long ago,” he says. But he feels no sense of defeat or impatience. “I have become a corpse. I feel no pain,” he says, adding that he would continue his dharna “till Chausana becomes a model village, where all public land is used for public benefit, or distributed to villagers”. Citing the UP Zonal Act, he says that “each villager is entitled to a patta for agricultural use for 99 years”.
A typical day for Singh includes making a quick breakfast of two rotis, heading to the land records department in the same complex “to look for new land grab cases in villages” and meeting a stream of visitors till evening. Some are villagers who come with complaints of land grabbing; he advises them on where to go for what documents and helps with filling of forms, some are curious journalists, and some are “two-minute sympathisers” — those “who say nice things but offer no real support”.
Singh receives no offer of donations that could help him hire a lawyer to file a petition or form an NGO. He only receives gifts in kind, like a smartphone that a well-wisher gave so that he doesn’t have to go to the cyber cafe to use the Internet. (He uses email and runs a blog, though he hardly updates it, and even opened a Facebook account to spread word about his protest, but found the site “too indecent” to use it for his cause).
Sympathisers also give him “living expenses” — Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 which he spends only on vegetarian food. (He makes do with only three sets of kurta-lungi). Till three years ago, his family would send the same amount every month. “My family began loose talk about me. They called me insane.
But I don’t blame them for cutting off ties. I did not support them financially, I did nothing for them,” he says, adding that “they did not support my cause either”. He shares “an economic relationship” with his wife, two daughters — one doing MSc, one B.Ed — and a son who is studying BSc. “They will, after all, inherit my land,” he says.
In all these years, he has gone back to his village only once, in 1999, when his father passed away. Villagers though still keep in touch. One Rajesh Kumar, a low-caste labourer from Chausana, says “Masterji is helping me with getting back my four bighas usurped by a Thakur”. Initially, some villagers tried to support him, but following Dheer Singh’s alleged murder, and “police harassment”, they backed off.
At the Muzaffarnagar electorate, Singh is respected and felt sorry for in the same vein. Typist Rajneesh Jain says the “bechara is doing good work”. Advocate Dharam Pal Singh says, “while his effort bore little fruit, the ex-MLA Jagat Singh keeps switching parties for protection.” Rammehar Rathi, a lawyer and member of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, is more frank. “His intentions are good, but nobody takes him seriously anymore. Earlier, I and some other advocates had met the DM for his campaign. But how long can one
stand up for him?”
In 2008, the Muzaffarnagar Police withdrew three constables it had previously provided for Singh’s security. In 2012, then DM Surinder Singh asked him to shift out, as Chausana was now part of Shamli district. But Singh pleaded, saying the campaign was now a state-level matter after a high-powered committee was set up. The DM, later, got transferred. Even the mafia, says Singh, has stopped threatening him.
But Singh is hopeful. “I wake up fresh every morning, with no regrets,” says the idealist animatedly. Three months from now, he plans to walk to Delhi to meet the Prime Minister. And if he succeeds in his mission in his lifetime, he will return to teaching. “But not in my village. I cannot live with my family. I will go somewhere very far.”