Caste-based killing in India over land prompts call for government action

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian police are investigating the killing of a Dalit farmer over a land dispute in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, which has prompted calls for authorities to do more to protect the land rights of lower-caste communities in the country.

Kishorilal Jatav was attacked by his higher-caste neighbors who doused him with petrol and set him alight last week after he challenged them for encroaching his land in Bhopal district, a police official said. He later died in hospital.

Police have arrested four men and set up an investigation team, said Deputy Inspector General Dharmendra Choudhary.

“Prime facie, it appears that it was a land dispute. Jatav had repeatedly asked his neighbours to stop cultivating on his land which was adjacent to theirs, but they continued to do so,” Choudhary said on Monday after a meeting with state officials.

“When he confronted them again last week, they beat him up, poured petrol on him and set him on fire,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

India banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, but centuries-old attitudes persist, and lower-caste groups, including Dalits, are among the most marginalized communities.

More than half India’s lower-caste population is landless, official data show.

Dalits are at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy, vulnerable to discrimination and attacks by upper-caste Hindus, including a spate of recent ones by hardline vigilantes who accuse them of killing cows they regard as sacred.

Land rights have became a rallying cry for Dalit activists, who say it is the only way they can be free of the dirty and dangerous jobs - including skinning dead cows - that have traditionally been thrust upon them.

But a land title alone does not ensure Dalits get land, said Ramesh Nathan at the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.

Jatav had received 3.5 acres (1.4 hectares) of land in 2000 from the state, but did not have full access, Nathan said.

“The state can allot land and even give a patta (title), but then it is up to the Dalit to claim that land and safeguard it,” he said.

“In many cases, they are prevented from taking possession by powerful upper-caste people. The state must do more to guarantee full possession of land and protection of rights of Dalits.”

Earlier this year, a Dalit activist set himself alight over a delay in granting land to a Dalit couple in neighboring Gujarat state.