India: Land and life lost in BiharLand and Life Lost in Bihar.
On April 5, Belwanti Devi was shot to death during a protest in a Musahar colony in the heart of Bihar state capital, Patna. The protest was spurred by a land grab in a Musahar Dalit community where she lived with her family. Her family had lived there for more than a century when Jai Niwas Construction Company (or Amit Constructions) grabbed land located on the community graveyard to build a new development. On April 5 when the builders from the company came to start work, Belwanti Devi joined her neighbours and marched to the site to request the builders halt the project. The community was greeted with rounds of bullets from these builders and their cohorts.
The builders did not listen to what the women and people from the Musahar colony were saying; they just opened fire on these poor people. They fired more than fifty rounds. Belwanti Devi was shot and died on the spot and four other people were injured.
The Musahar community in Patna stands to lose what little communal land they have, as part of a broader trend of land grabbing in India: 'For the last 150 years the land has been used as a graveyard. However, when the land was originally donated to the community it was worth very little. Now, as land becomes a sought after commodity in Bihar, it is valued in the millions and has been illegally seized by developers Amit and Alok Paddar. We went and opposed this, as a result, they open fired at us,' said community member Arun Manjhi.
Days of protests and violence ensued. The death of Belwanti Devi and the land grabs that have enraged the Musahar community have received little media attention in the region. Such a blatant misuse of power resulting in the death of a young woman is yet another example of India’s unheard tragedies.
Community witnesses maintain that during the incident, police stood by and made no efforts to stop the violence or to protect unarmed protesters. Many believe that corrupt police are working with the land grabbers. One man stated that police justify their inaction because 'they are Dalits, [and so] there is little they can do'. Though community activism and increased public pressure following the incident resulted in the suspension of a leading officer and the arrest of owner of the company, Amit Poddar, the community is not convinced that local police can be trusted.
The Indian government has been openly criticised for its role in land grabbing and forced evictions and many land reform laws are currently under review. Yet just after the incident, Arun Manjhi said: 'the government wants us Dalits to vacate this land.' This comment is telling, especially in Bihar where Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been often praised for his attention to caste issues and accountability in the police force. In this way, the incident on April 5 has exposed the disparity between claims of good governance by Bihar officials and the experiences of this Dalit community.
For the moment, as the investigation continues, Amit Constructions has suspended building on the community graveyard and local community activists have promised to oppose any further construction.
But with the failure of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to visit the community in the wake of this tragedy, Dalits of Bihar wonder: 'Will the rights of Dalits continue to be suppressed and trampled on?'
Photo: Devi's husband (left).
Watch a video report here.
Download MRG's State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 report, which focuses on land rights and natural resources.