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History of land rights movement in Nepal

A rally organised in Surkhet district headquarters Birendranagar demanding establishment Organised Settlement Commission on September 07, 2017.

Background

Land, a predominant physical reality of the Nepali society, is one of the basics that plays a pivotal role in shaping social relations and power structure. Land in Nepal has served as a significant means of meeting both social and economic ends. The land is associated not only with the organisation of economic life of people, alleviation of poverty, hunger and management of livelihood of them. It is also a powerful means to settle the social life of the landless or land-poor people with equality and justice in case the distribution of it is fair and equitable.

In Nepal, landlessness is deeply rooted in a long history of feudal land governance, political complacency and nepotism. A skewed distribution of land and its severe impact on the socio-economic and political life of landless people led them to have various land rights movement over many decades. The movements of the land-poor people in Nepal must be understood in terms of disparities in land ownership. The seed of the movement had been sowed by the feudalistic socio-political organisation and its so-called land tenure system.

Land rights movement in Nepal since 1800 till date is an explosion of latent discontentment of the landless groups against the historical tenure policy and so-called measures of reformation adopted over time regarding land issues. The discontentment of landless tenants, marginal/excluded groups such as Dalits, bonded labourers, indigenous groups, and women exploded in the form of land rights movement in the different historical timeline. They took place in different spatio-temporal contexts. These movements represent the larger grievances of the land-deprived and land-poor groups in Nepal over the land policies and tenure system enforced by the so-called state.

Land rights movement before 1950

The struggle for land rights prior to 1950 was basically limited to the disputes between the central government and rural ruling elites and feudal landlords. In particular, conflicts and contradictions were limited to owners of birta, kipat and other forms of land tenure systems and the central government, around the issues of land tax and inheritance rights. For example, in the strategy of Limbus to protest against the government policies on restrictions of kipat inheritance rights, the Limbus helped the enemy in the 1788-1789 China-Nepal war and some left the territory for fear of state oppression.  The central government called the Limbus to return in a condition that they would be guaranteed their indigenous rights over their custom and kipat land.

Another example of resistance was against the land tax imposed through the ‘Ijardar regulation’. Because of the over-taxation and oppression of Ijardar, not only the ordinary but also the revenue collection authorities and the heads of monasteries migrated to India and some of them went to complain to the central government in Kathmandu against the oppression of Ijardars. As a result, the government was compelled to replace the ‘Ijardar system’ by ‘Amanat’ in Morang and issued an order to the ‘Ijardar’ to collect taxes and levies only at the rates prescribed in 1793 and refund unauthorised collections.

This all shows peasants’ movement had started before 1800 with the struggle against the over-taxation of the state. There has been a sporadic occurrence of various land rights movements since 1800.

It is stated that the protest of the dispossessed birta owners against the 1805 confiscation measures did not remain passive for long, particularly in Tanahun and some other areas in the western hilly region. Violent clashes broke out between them and the government officials deputed to administer the measures. The government understandably adopted a tough attitude towards such opposition. The leaders were arrested and brought to Kathmandu in chains. The protest organised by the birta owners in the western hilly region became so acute in 1805 that the government banned their entry into Kathmandu without passports.

In 1920, a book entitled ‘Makaiko Kheti’ (Maize Cultivation) written by Subba Krishna Lal, a farmer from Kathmandu, was published. Having depicted the terrible situation of the farmers and the agricultural system of Nepal, this book created havoc among the rulers of that time. In this book, Nepali farmers and British dogs were compared respectively to the red and black insects that eat maize. Lal was imprisoned and then killed by the frightened Ranas after the book got published. This incident showed that the unorganised farmers’ movement in Nepal had already begun before the 1950s.

Before 1950, mainly two problems that the peasants were facing were the lack of land tenancy rights and high interest rates for loans. Exploitations of these kinds forced them to make an unorganised agitation against power holders. In 1913 and 1917, the Limbus of Ilam forged an alliance among the Subbas to challenge the government against its policy to abolish the kipat system. Although this resistance was against the state’s policies on central control of land and related issues, it was very much a movement from within and among the ruling elite of different categories at that time and no way a movement from below.

To sum up, until 1950, poor landless people were unable to set an alliance to challenge the state policy as the movement was more unorganised and highly informal in itself.

Photo: Pixabay

Land rights movement from 1950 to 1960

After the advent of democracy in 1950, the favourable political climate as a new paradigm shift offered an opportunity to make an organised movement through emerging political parties along with the groups who resembled the interests and goals of the landless/land-poor people.

The peasant movements since then consisted of two types: spontaneously organised movements and politically motivated movements. In the first category, a movement had started from Somlingtar, Bhaktapur which focused on the non-payment of grains (kutbali). In 1950, there were more organised movements on tenancy rights in Bhaktapur and Kathmandu, against ‘Bataiya’ in Bardiya, ‘Jamindar Birodhi Andolan’(movement against landlords) in Lumbini, and ‘Dharmabhakari Andolan’ in Bara and Rautahat.

For the Bhaktapur movement, a common farmers’ association (Akhil Nepal Kisan Sangh) was formed with the support of all existing parties. In 1951, Basu Pasa, a farmer leader from Bhaktapur, formed a separate organisation called Krishi Sudhar Sangh, accusing the joint association of being controlled by the communists. Pasa raised the issue of the dual land tax system. He said the land tax that should not be collected by the master of the birta owners but only by the central government.

In 1952, a movement named Tamsuk Phatta Andolan (Destroying of Bondage Papers) in Rautahat was started by the poor and landless peasants. Likewise, the ‘Re Nahi Ji Kaho’ (speak respected words to farmers) struggle was launched in Rauthat district against the feudal landlords and their misdeeds.

About the politically-motivated organised movement in the decade, there was a reflection of political movements and their demands. Politically-motivated organized land rights movements were started after the establishment of the Communist Party of Nepal in 1949. The party’s first congress held in 1954 passed a resolution demanding the ‘confiscation of land and farm implements from feudal landlords and distribution to peasants and landless people’. Nepali peasants in some parts of the country were involved in the armed struggles launched by the Nepali Congress and the communist party. This was the first time farmers began to confiscate the land of feudal landlords with the slogan “land to the tillers.” Many fake debts and land mortgage documents were torn up and food grains distributed among poor people, collected by capturing the granaries of the feudal landlords.

The government used nomadic tribes and the Indian Army to suppress these movements, who were pressing the government to form a ‘Land Examination Commission’ in 1952 and ‘Land Reform Commission’ in 1953.

Formally, the first peasant movement started following the formation of the first joint gathering of the communists, the Congress and Praja Parisad (the first political party of Nepal). The then political parties formed the ‘All Nepal Peasant Association’ (ANPA). In 1952, the Agricultural reform association and the Worker-Peasant Association merged with the ‘All Nepal Peasants Association’.

In 1960, a historical farmers’ struggle took place in Dang for which the seeds were sown in the election of 1958. In that election, the slogan of Nepali congress ‘Jagga Kasko Jotneko’ and ‘Ghar Kasko Potneko’ (Land belongs to the tillers and house belongs to the one who maintains it) fuelled the movement. In response, the landlords evicted farmers from their lands.

The overview of the land rights struggle in Nepal would be incomplete without mentioning the name of Bhim Dutta Panta, a hero and freedom fighter. Pant struggled honestly and eventually sacrificed his life for the sake of demolishing the feudal structures so as to attain land rights of all landless tenants and establish dignifying life of all socially exploited bonded labourers- Haliyas and Kamaiyas in Nepal, in particular in the far-western region.

Land rights movement from 1960 to 1990

The introduction of the party-less Panchayat system banned all political movements including the farmers’ movements in 1960. Police suppressed various gatherings of farmers. In suppression, dozens of farmers were killed and injured in the early years, for example in Nawalparai and Morang districts.

This movement created a wave of forest occupation for settlement by landless people in most Terai districts. In January 1971, the army encircled and opened fire upon the squatters of the forestland in and around Morang district. As a result, in 1971, the government introduced Jhora Land Act and guaranteed land rights to the landless people for a maximum of four bigha per family.

The insurgency from 1970 to 1974 in Jhapa is an example of a communist insurgency among the farmers. The popular movement is known as ‘Jhapa struggle’ gave birth to a new way of revolution, in which several landlords and farmers were killed in the struggle. They were inspired by the Naxalbari movement of India and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Since this movement was very much localised within a few villages of Jhapa district, after the above killings the police and military easily suppressed them.

In 1974, there was the Barre Movement in Barre of Argakhanchi district. This was to seizing property from local feudal lords. This was instantly suppressed by the government. The Chhintang Movement of 1979 in Dhankuta was a movement against the local Majhiya (landlords) who were accused of exploiting the local ethnic groups and poor farmers. The poor were forced to give free labour service for at least weeks every year to the Majhiyas. In this struggle, 17 farmers were killed by the landlords with support from the government. The Piskar Movement, 1983, was the movement primarily organised against the feudal Pandeys of Piskar village of Sindhupalchok district. The Bhakari Phod struggle was popular in 1979-80, in which the farmers demanded a reasonable price for their products.

 Land rights movement after 1990

The restoration of democracy in 1990 raised the expectation of landless peasants. They expected that at least they would get the rights of the living. But, their expectations were not met and there was only power-sharing among the political parties. Again, the landlords came to power and there was no change either in land relations or in administration structures. The farmers’ rights were once again neglected. After 1990, the farmers’ associations were again captured by the middle-class people themselves. Hence, the farmers carried out several land rights movements at different times and different places in the country.

In 1993, the Kanara Movement was carried out by the Tharu community for land rights and livelihood. Bur, it was oppressed by the government. Since 1946, Tharus have been fighting for the ensured accessibility and land entitlement. This movement was much localised and limited to the incidence of small rural clashes occurred in a fixed geographical setting however, later it attained a regional and national significance.

Likewise, in 1997, people of Banke and Bardiya carried out the Pitamari Movement and the Bagdari Movement respectively. The government tried to suppress the movements. In the same year, there was the formation of the Kamaiya Concern Group initiated to educate the Kamaiyas for organising their movement.

Kamaiyas were liberated as the Kamaiya Movement expanded in five districts in 2000. In the same year, the Encirclement Movement was organised by landless people in all land-related offices of Sindhupalchok.

In 2004, farmers of Saptari launched a hunger strike for 48 hours demanding the land rights and citizenship certificates. In 2006, a relay hunger strike was held in Sunsari. In the same year, farmers in Dang, Banke, Bardiya, Sunsari, Sindhupalchok, Saptari, Siraha, and Mohottari padlocked land revenue offices in the district. Likewise, in 2007, various sit-in programmes were held at different levels demanding land rights.

Finally, the government agreed to provide land by forming a high-level commission, but the agreement is yet to be implemented. Community Self-reliance Centre’ (CSRC), an NGO, states over 30 major demonstrations were held across Nepal demanding land rights in 2013.

Since 2009, over 40,000 tenant farmers who have filed legal cases for land rights have been waiting to receive their rights and justice. These tenants are entitled to receive 50% of the land which they have been tilling. However, some landlords are putting pressure on tenants to settle their case informally by giving only 20-30% of the land.

The land struggle for tenancy rights supported by civil society organisations started in 1995 and expanded across the country. This movement was successful in addressing the issues of land rights for poverty alleviation, social justice and livelihood security of the land-poor people.

Although there have been many challenges, during this period, more than 20,000 people have received land rights and more than 90,000 people have filed cases for their land rights. The land rights struggle has contributed to empowering the tenants and landless farmers. Today, many tillers’ organisations are established as national organisations that fight for land rights. The evictions by the landlords have been stopped in some parts of Nepal, and the landless and tenants farmers have been united.

The CSRC and National Land Rights Concern Group (NLRCG) are some of the representative social organisations which have been playing a vital role in facilitating and mobilising the landless and tenant farmers including Haliyas, Kamaiyas, Haruwas and Charuwas throughout the country. Likewise, the National Land Rights Forum Nepal (NLRF) operates its land rights activities in a more democratic manner.

Conclusion

This pre-1950 period may arguably be called the ‘first wave of land rights movement’ in Nepal. Likewise, the movement between 1950 and 1960, ‘the second wave’, was relatively more organised due to political changes, but it was merely limited to the mobilisation of large masses of the landless to demand redistributive land reform and seizure of landlords’ granaries.  Similarly, the movement from 1960 to 1990 was much politicized and sloganised; it had been limited to the vested interest of the interest groups and politicians. This movement may be called the ‘third wave’. And finally, the movement since the 1990s as a constructive land rights movement operated under the initiative of civil society organisations arguably be called ‘the fourth wave’ of land rights movement in Nepal whose way forward seems to be quite hopeful.

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Independent researcher Khadka is a lecturer of sociology at Deerwalk Institute of Technology and Lumbini Academy.

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