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Panchami Lands: Right to Land, a Distant Dream for Dalits in TN

Neelambaran A |
Dalit organisations are planning an agitation to reclaim Panchami lands in possession of other communities, says TNEUF.

Chennai: The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) is gearing up to launch an agitation in February 25, 2020, to reclaim Panchami lands allocated to dalit communities across the state.

Announcing this at a conference held in Tiruvallur on November 10, TNEUF alleged that Panchami lands allocated to dalit communities between 1892 and 1933 are now held by other communities against a rule that was devised when these lands were distributed. 

An estimated 12 lakh acres were distributed in the erstwhile Madras Presidency to improve the socio-economic status of the dalit communities. The organisation claimed that less than 10% of the allotted land are held by the dalit communities at present.


The history of Panchami lands dates back to more than a century ago. The lives of dalits (referred to as Depressed Communities during the British period) were equally worse then. They were treated as slaves and were denied every basic right by the caste Hindus. They lived in temporary tents in poramboke lands at the mercy of landlords called ‘Mirasu’. These landlords then had rights over the poramboke lands which the governments then did not question. What’s more, the government paid compensation to the landlords for the poramboke lands held by them.

Landlords were having a free run against all established laws of the land backed by officials, which continues even during this period. The law enacted to abolish slavery vide the Indian Slavery Act, 1843, did not deter landlords from practicing it. Dalits were treated like slaves in the farmlands and were even sold along with the property they owned. =

Even worse, dalits and their settlements were part of the sale deed made by the Mirasu families. 

K Samuvel Raj, general secretary of TNUEF, while speaking to NewsClick, said, “Members of dalit communities, particularly of the parayar caste, were treated as slaves by the caste Hindus. In a document of land deal registered in 1882, a document written by Parthasarathy Mudhaliyar states that the wetlands, empty lands, groves, wells, poramboke land, trees, hidden treasures, stones, slaves and Paracheri (Parayar hamlets) belong to the buyer and his dynasty. The deed equates the stones and the people of the Parayar community, which clearly shows the way they were treated during the period.”


The Madras Famine of 1877 resulted in huge loss of lives in the British Presidency of Madras, while the Bombay presidency was also severely affected by the drought. The depressed classes were the most affected, as they were denied any right to land and hence getting food became an uphill task.

A few missionaries who visited Chengalpattu in 1879 understood the plight of dalits and wrote to the Deputy Collector and Director of School education about the sorry state of affairs. They recommended allocation of land and including them in the education system to end the tragic status of the community.

The arrival of James Henry A Tremenheere as Collector of the then Chengalpattu district came as a blessing for the community amidst British atrocities. The collector, after detailed examination of the status of the community, submitted a report to British government on the need to empower the depressed communities by providing education, land for housing and farming. 

The British parliament passed a legislation on October 5, 1892, to distribute around 12 acres to the depressed classes in the then Madras Presidency. Tamil Nadu is reportedly home to nine lakh acres of Panchami land after the division of linguistic states.


Considering the pitiable socio- economic status of the dalit community, a government order 1010/10-A was passed to allocate lands, incorporating stringent regulations on selling or leasing the lands. The Panchami lands shall not be sold, leased, pledged, mortgaged or pledged for the first 10 years, it said. Even after 10 years, the land should be sold only to members of the depressed community, and any sale violating this rule was defined invalid in the order itself.

The revenue department was instructed to classify the panchami land as DC (representing the allocation to depressed class) in the registers along with other type of lands. In the fourth column of the ‘A’ register maintained by the revenue department, the specification still exist. But, in due course the lands were registered, sold to other communities with the support of the officials, allege dalit organisations. They also allege that several private companies, factories, apartments and even government offices at present exist on panchami lands. 


Landlords had an influence on the judiciary and the administration, so they could literally do anything they wished to. There was no force strong enough to stand up against their atrocities. They continued amassing land by throwing out dalits from these lands for one reason or the other.  

“The landlords tactfully let dalits to carry out farming in the lands in their possession and then drove them out once the crops were. After putting in several months of hard work, Dalits were left to live at the mercy of such landlords for even food”, Samuvel added.

As per dalit rights organisations, less than one lakh acre of land in TN is held by dalit communities. After several years of oppression, the struggle to reclaim these lands got a fillip during the last decade of the 20th century. Dalit organisations installed a statue of Ambedkar in a panchami land in Chengalpattu on October 4, 1994. The subsequent struggle on October 10, resulted in the loss of two lives in police firing, even as several judicial fights ensued and the struggle continues.

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