THE seeds of trouble were sown three years ago when the then chief minister Mayawati declared the formation of Udham Singh Nagar district in the Kumaon region of Uttar Pradesh. Now it has grown into a full-blown harvest of discontent, with rich Terai farmers and big businessmen up in arms against the inclusion of Udham Singh Nagar in the proposed hill state of Uttaranchal. Their primary fear is that they will lose their land once the new state comes into existence and land ceiling laws are implemented.
The statement issued by the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) that the land mafia will be dealt with severely after the formation of Uttaranchal has only added to the farmers' fears. Farmers and rice mill owners—there are around 400 rice mills in the district—are worried that the land ceiling limit in the new state will be brought down to 3.5 acres per person, against the existing limit of 12.5 acre. But the fact of the matter is that there are farms as big as 2,000 to 3,000 acres in Udham Singh Nagar.
According to a rough estimate, 600 families control 35 lakh acres of agriculture land in the Terai belt. The land owners include big politicians, industrialists and film stars. Forty farmers own the bigger holdings. Prominent among them are Punjab chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, Banta Singh Bentkhedi, Rana Bhupinder Singh, Devraj Goyal and Harbans Singh Dhillon. Other 1,000-plus acre farms include the Khurpiya farm, Prag farm, Jat farm and Calcutta farm.
In the past 50 years no government has implemented the land ceiling in this region effectively and the rich have been having a virtually free run. Interestingly, these farmers have invented novel methods to hold on to their illegally occupied land. Common methods used: divorcing one's wife on paper so that the woman becomes a claimant to the property; buying different tracts of land by changing ones father's name for the records; showing minor children as major; using the name of dead or non-existent people as the owners of a property; floating a family trust and forcing Buxa tribals to "donate" land to the trust (Buxas cannot sell their land by law but they can always donate); and forcefully occupying land (a majority of farmers keep armed musclemen with legal or illegal weapons).
The farmers lead a lavish lifestyle and sport swanky cars, magnificent houses with modern fittings and granite/marble floorings. Many of them are green card holders who go to the US every year for holidays. For instance, Harinder Singh Dhillon alias Laddi has a big farmhouse near Bazpur town. His parents and brother stay in the US and as he says, "I have a green card and I go every year to the US to renew it."
Realising that it would be difficult for the BJP to backtrack on its stand on the status of Udham Singh Nagar, a new idea of 'Greater Uttarakhand' is being floated. Dhillon says he is not against the formation of a hill state but wants a 'Greater Uttarakhand' comprising some districts from the Rohilkhand region so that "we don't get outnumbered by the hill people in the state assembly".
Says Karamjit Singh, another big farmer from Vikrampur village: "We came here from Pakistan with torn clothes and worked hard. After so many years, just as we have started to enjoy life, this issue of implementing the minimum ceiling of 3.5 acres has come up." He doesn't agree that the farmers used suspect methods to acquire land: "The Tharus and Buxas didn't know the importance of the land. They sold their land and we purchased it."
The farmers insist that they are well within the limits stipulated by the Land Ceiling Act. But sources say that as chief minister Mayawati had ordered a list of big farmers. The list was duly prepared but it has been kept under wraps since then. Prakash Singh Badal, who has brought the issue on the national headlines himself, has a vested interest in the Terai. Only last month he sold around 100 acres in Dohra Namuna near Bazpur town. Harjinder Singh Cheema, head of the UP unit of the Akali Dal (Badal), is also a big landlord and owns papermills. He was accused of hobnobbing with the terrorists during the height of militancy in Terai. He floated a trust called the Gyani Dilbagh Samajik Sewa Evam Dharmarth Trust, to which a Buxa tribal was made to 'donate' his land.
It is not as if only Sikh farmers are opposed to Uttarakhand, there are several non-Sikh farmers too. But the vocal support provided to them by Sikh leaders from Punjab has led to the popular perception that the fight is between the Sikhs and Others. In fact non-Pahari farmers with small land holdings have no objection to the inclusion of the Terai in Uttarakhand. Says Baldev Sharma of Sultanpur Patti: "A handful of farmers want to circumvent the land ceiling, that is why they are opposing Uttarakhand." Another peasant S.S. Singh Chandel, a Himachali, echoes: "There is no question of Pahari or Punjabi; it is the fight between amir and garib (rich and poor)."
But the fiery utterances in favour of the rich farmers made by Badal, CPI(M) general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet and former Union minister Bal-want Singh Ramoowalia has only lent credence to the notion that it is a Sikh versus Pahari issue. Last month Surjeet declared at a public meeting in the district headquarters Rudrapur that "the Paharis are culturally different from the Terai people, let them have their Uttarakhand but the toiling farmers of Terai should be excluded". His statement was seen by many as a communist leader's whole-hearted support to the kulaks. But Surjeet clarified to Outlook: "I am all for the implementation of the Land Ceiling Act in Terai. We are opposing the tacit understanding between the Akali Dal (Badal) and the BJP not to implement the land ceiling."
Interestingly, the BJP is finding itself in a very awkward situation in the Terai. In order to project itself as the creator of Uttaranchal, the party cannot openly support the businessmen's cause. But the problem for the BJP is that its main mass base is among the very people—especially in the business community—who are opposing the inclusion of Terai in Uttaranchal. Bha-gat Singh Koshyari, the BJP's Uttaranchal unit president, had to face the wrath of party workers at a meeting held in Rudrapur some time back. "No doubt we are BJP supporters, but we are businessmen first. We might as well say goodbye to the BJP if our business interests are not protected," declares Balwant Arora 'Ballu', an office-bearer of the Rudrapur Vyapar Mandal.
Udham Singh Nagar businessmen say Rs 180 crore in revenue is collected from the 11 districts of Uttarakhand every year. And Udham Singh Nagar's contribution is Rs 80 crore—two-thirds of the total revenue earnings. "The rice mill owners get 70 per cent of their raw material from the plains outside Uttarakhand. If we decide to go with Uttarakhand we will have to pay double tax," says Atul Bansal, a rice-mill owner.
However, the battlelines have been clearly drawn. Alarmed by the aggressiveness of the farmers, the hill people have also started organising themselves to thwart any move to cut off the Terai region from the proposed hill state. News of processions and boycott of classes in educational institutions are already pouring in from hill districts. "Historically, culturally and emotionally the Terai region has always been part of Kumaon. The hill people will not tolerate any move to separate the Terai from Uttarakhand," says Kamalendra, a young Kumaoni activist from Deoria village in Udham Singh Nagar.
It may be recalled that eyebrows were raised on September 27, 1995, when Mayawati declared the carving out of a separate district from Nainital named after Shaheed Udham Singh. But many has also seen it as the fulfilment of a longstanding demand. Nobody at that time had thought that less than three years down the line it would threaten the decades-old peaceful cultural co-existence.
As a local journalist puts it, the Akalis have activated a timebomb by projecting the issue as Sikh versus the rest. "What they forget is that Sikhs and Punjabis have business interests in the remotest hill towns like Bageshwar, Almora and Pithoragarh also," he says. The implication is clear: should the Udham Singh Nagar problem flare up, there could be further trouble ahead.