VIJAYAWADA: In a controversial move, the Andhra Pradesh government has directed officials to start evicting Dalit Christian and Muslim farmers from endowment lands on grounds that no land belonging to a Hindu temple or mutt can be cultivated by a non-Hindu. The move follows a government order issued in November 2015 but which is being implemented now at the beginning of the agriculture season when land leases are renewed.
Earlier this month, the Andhra government began serving notices on tenant farmers to immediately hand over the land under their possession. Dalit tenants were asked to produce a certificate from the church declaring that they are not practising Christianity to continue farming in temple lands, while Muslims were barred from taking up cultivation in temple lands under the new rules.
In Andhra Pradesh, there are many Dalits who have converted to Christianity in recent times, but since they have not changed their names, it’s not easy to figure out that they have converted.
The continuation of land leases for cultivation coincided with the new kharif season. The endowments department revamped the temple land lease guidelines and started enforcing them from the current kharif season. As per the order, clause (f) of Rule 9says: “No person professing a religion other than Hinduism is entitled to obtain lease either through tender-cum-public auction or otherwise.”
Muslim United Front member Habib-ur-Rehman termed the decision weird. “For that matter, 80 per cent of tenants of Jumma Masjid in Guntur are non-Muslims,” he said.
Confirming that notices are being served on Dalit Christians, a senior endowments commissioner told TOI on condition of anonymity, “We’ve issued notices to Dalit farmers to obtain certificates from the church in accordance with the GO.” Dalit farmer P Abraham of Pedapulivarru village close to Duggirala told TOI that he is worried he would lose land lease if he does not get the church’s certificate.
Traditionally, temples in Andhra — which are now government-controlled — are large land-owners. Tenant farmers cultivate nearly 3 lakh acres of farmland in possession of various temples and 30 per cent of them are Dalits. For instance, Sri Raghurama temple in Gollapalli in Krishna district owns over 1,200 acres in the nearby hamlet of Kothapalli. As many as 1,568 farmers are cultivating the entire land on lease. Of these, 199 farmers are Muslims, 204 farmers SCs and five tribals. The temple authority has issued notices to all of them.
Similar is the case in Kangala, Guntur, where about 300 acres of land belonging to the Sri Venugopala Swamy temple is being cultivated by Muslims. Curiously, the state asked field officers to take police’s help to move the tenants out of the lands if they fail to produce the certificate and has also empowered them to lodge a complaint with the police, the first class judicial magistrate or the metropolitan magistrate and prosecute the encroacher for criminal trespass. Manikyala Rao, minister in charge of endowments who belongs to BJP and principal secretary J S V Prasad were unavailable for comment.