In February 2013, Ramabhai Chamar took loans from his friends and painstakingly collected Rs 11,100. His widowed neighbour, Hemaben Vankar, did the same. Together, they submitted Rs 22,236 to the revenue officers of Sami block in Gujarat’s Patan district.

They hoped the money – a mandatory fee for the application of government land grants – would bring them what they had been petitioning for since 2009: an eight-hectare plot of agricultural land in Dudkha village that they claim was gifted jointly to their forefathers at least a century ago by the former king of the region.

“From the time of my grandfather, our families have worked on that land, and even today we farm on it,” said Chamar, a 49-year-old Dalit farmer and labourer. “But on paper, our land belonged to the government, and we just wanted it to be re-granted so that the papers could be transferred to our names.”

Paying the fee in 2013, however, was just the beginning of a five-year ordeal for Chamar and Vankar. “We must have made at least 30 trips to [state capital] Gandhinagar and many more to the collector’s office, but our application was gathering dust in the revenue department,” said Chamar.

When the two families finally got their land titles, it was under dramatic circumstances that made national headlines: Bhanubhai Vankar, a retired government bureaucrat and Dalit rights activist, set himself on fire outside the Patan collector’s office on February 15, to protest against the state government’s delay in processing Chamar and Hemaben Vankar’s land re-grant application. He died of his injuries the following day, triggering protests by Dalits in Patan and neighbouring Mehsana district. At one protest march on February 18, member of Parliament and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani was detained along with 100 others.

On February 20, a day after Bhanubhai Vankar was buried, the Gujarat government approved Chamar and Hemaben Vankar’s application and formally handed over the land papers to the families.

Government officials and Bhanubhai Vankar's widow hand over the land re-grant papers to Hemaben Vankar and Ramabhai Chamar at a condolence meet on February 20.

The caste factor

Government officials claimed Chamar and Hemaben Vankar’s land re-grant had been approved purely on “sympathetic grounds” in light of Bhanubhai Vankar’s death. “Their application was under consideration, and some missing information was still being investigated,” said a mid-level official in the Gujarat government’s revenue department. “The delay was a matter of process, it had nothing to do with caste.”

Chamar, however, alleged that he and Hemaben Vankar had been sidelined because of their Dalit identity. “Bhanubhai told us that three other land re-grant cases from our taluka had been approved soon after they paid the money, but those three families were not Dalit,” said Chamar, who had also attempted to immolate himself along with Bhanubhai Vankar but was prevented from doing so by the police. tried to verify Chamar’s claim but he, along with other Dalit social workers in the area, claimed that Bhanubhai Vankar alone was aware of the details, since he had been helping the other families too.

However, 30 km from Patan, Dalits residents of Vanagala village said they, too, had been struggling for their land rights for a decade whereas their Other Backward Classes neighbours had faced no trouble in getting possession of the land allotted to them.

Two lands, two stories

Jagdish Chamar, a 43-year-old landless plumber, is one of 35 Dalits in Vanagala who were allotted two acres each of surplus government land in 2007. “The collector granted the land to us on paper, but till now, we have not been given possession of the land on the ground,” he said. “All 35 families have been allotted one large plot with one survey number, so we cannot take possession of it till they divide the plot into holdings for each family. So the land is just lying empty, while we could have been cultivating on it.”

In the past 10 years, Jagdish Chamar and the other families have made numerous trips to government offices at the block and district levels, but their wait continues. “Two other families in our area, who are from the OBC Thakor caste, managed to get possession of their land soon after it was allotted on paper,” he said. “Why are we Dalit families not getting our land then?”

Jagdish Chamar, a Dalit resident of Vanagala village, has been fighting for his land for 10 years.

The two Thakor families live in Bhavanipura, a village adjacent to Vanagala that falls within the same revenue jurisdiction. Raghu Thakor, one of the two land grantees, admitted that unlike the Dalit families, the Thakor families were given possession of the allotted land in 2007 itself. Their plots are situated far from the plots allocated to the Dalits. For the past decade, Thakor’s family has been growing mustard, castor, jowar and other crops on their land.

“But we got only one acre of land, while the Dalits got two,” said Thakor, whose father is the sarpanch of Bhavanipura. “Besides, our Thakor people used to have a lot of land in this area. But the government took most of it and gave it to the Dalits, because we didn’t have our names on the land papers. How is this fair?”

According to political scientist Ghanshyam Shah, such resentment towards Dalits is rooted in the fact that Gujarat’s land redistribution efforts have seen more Dalit beneficiaries than those from the Other Backward Classes. This is understandable: at least 60% of the state’s Dalit population is landless, as per a 2016 analysis. In comparison, just 11.3% of the state’s population comprises landless agricultural workers. The landlessness among Gujarat Dalits is higher than the national level – 45% of the Scheduled Caste population, according to the Socio-economic and Caste Census of 2011.

“It’s a mixed picture that changes from village to village,” said Shah. “Dalits have been the most disadvantaged, and in many places they have got more land than others. In some places, Dalit beneficiaries have got land titles but not possession, and in some other places, Dalit families have also got possession of their lands within a year or two.”

Raghu Thakor received possession of his land soon after the allotment was made on paper.

A history of deprivation

The cases of Ramabhai Chamar in Dudkha and Jagdish Chamar in Vanagala represent two different land regularisation efforts of the Gujarat government.

According to Ramabhai Chamar and Hemaben Vankar, their eight-hectare plot is a type of inami land – property gifted by erstwhile princely states to subjects who served the rulers well. In 1955, the Indian government enacted various state-level laws to abolish this system of inami lands, with the intention of preventing feudal landlords from exploiting their tenants. However, land-occupying tenants were allowed to re-acquire the plots they had been cultivating by applying for a re-grant and paying a one-time service charge.

Jagdish Chamar, meanwhile, was allotted land under reforms introduced through the Gujarat Agricultural Land Ceiling Act of 1961, which caps the total irrigated land a farmer can hold at 16 acres (32 acres for non-irrigated land). The surplus land is meant to be redistributed among landless citizens from the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.

Gujarat’s alleged failure to successfully redistribute these land holdings is one of the foundations of recent Dalit activism in the state, particularly Jignesh Mevani’s movement for land rights for Dalits. Activists say most land allotments to Dalits are largely on paper, leaving the beneficiaries to spend years petitioning for actual possession. Mevani has also been rallying community members to protest against cases of Dalit land being encroached upon by members of more dominant caste groups.

In 2012, in response to a public interest litigation in the Gujarat High Court, the state government claimed it had already allotted 1.6 lakh acres of surplus land under the Agricultural Land Ceiling Act to more than 37,198 landless people in the state, including 17,163 from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. But in 2014, a Right to Information investigation by Mevani revealed the state had in fact distributed land only to 18,000 grantees, of which around 17,000 were from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. “But most of them have got possession of the land only on paper,” said Mevani.

When asked the revenue department official about the number of land distribution applications it is yet to process, the official claimed this information was not held at the secretariat level. “This information changes from day to day, so the records are maintained by the collectors,” the official said.

Ratilal Makwana, an activist with prominent Dalit rights organisation Navsarjan and a social worker in Patan district, said he did not have an exact number of Dalits in his region struggling to get possession of the land allotted to them, but that the number was not small.

“In this last week after Bhanubhai’s self-immolation, I have received at least 150 calls from Dalits across the district asking for help to process their applications for land rights,” said Makwana. “This is why so many people came out on the streets to protest for Bhanubhai’s sacrifice.”

At Bhanubhai Vankar’s home in Mehsana’s Unjha town, his widow Indira Vankar had only one thing to say: “My husband sacrificed himself for the Dalit community, but next time, the government should act before anyone has to die.”

Hemaben Vankar of Dudkha village got possession of her land after a long struggle.

All photographs by Aarefa Johari