The right to property has always been a contentious issue in India since the time of independence. The Indian Constitution, in its original form, recognized it as a fundamental right. However, the 44th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1977, removed it from the list of fundamental rights and relegated it to the status of a legal right. This act of injustice was done by the then-Janata Party government.
The right to property, as enshrined in Article 31 of the original Constitution, was considered an essential component of individual freedom and economic liberalism. It guaranteed that no citizen could be deprived of their property except by a procedure established by law, and that compensation had to be paid for the same. This right was considered crucial for the protection of property rights and was seen as a safeguard against arbitrary state action and an act against feudal caste structures.
During the debate on the Constitution (First Amendment) Bill that took place on May 10, 1951, Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, strongly defended the insertion of Articles 31A and 31B and the Ninth Schedule in the Constitution. These amendments protected the right of the state to implement land reforms and also made special provisions for the social and educational advancement of the backward classes. In the course of his speech, he elaborated upon his views on land reform policies as formulated in India at the time. He argued that since a majority of Indian farmers did not have the necessary resources, such as capital, livestock, seeds, and irrigation, it was a bad idea to “create peasant proprietors in this country” (BAWS, Vol. 15, pp. 354–5).
The issue of caste in India is intricately linked to the question of property rights. The caste system is a hierarchical social structure that has traditionally determined an individual’s occupation, social status, and access to resources, including property. The lower castes, especially scheduled castes, have historically been denied access to land and property and have been subjected to discrimination and violence.
The right to property was seen as a safeguard against the feudal structure, and it was hoped that it would protect the rights of marginalized communities, especially scheduled castes, who were often denied access to land and property. However, with the removal of the right to property from the list of fundamental rights, the protection afforded to these communities was weakened, and it became easier for the feudal system to acquire their land without adequate compensation or due process.
“In an agricultural country, agriculture can be the main source of living, but this source of earning a living is generally not open to the Untouchables. This is so for a variety of reasons. In the first place, the purchase of land is beyond their means. Secondly, even if an untouchable has the money to purchase land, he has no opportunity to do so. In most parts, the Hindus would resent an untouchable coming forward to purchase land and thereby trying to become the equal of the touchable class of Hindus. Such an act of daring on the part of an Untouchable would not only be frowned upon but might easily invite punishment. In some parts, they are prohibited by law from purchasing land. For instance, in the province of Punjab, there is a law called the Land Alienation Act. This law specifies the communities that can purchase land, and the Untouchables are excluded from the list. The result is that, for the most part, the untouchables are forced to be landless laborers” Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (BAWS, Vol. 5, p. 23)
If speaking of some basic yet largely ignored facts in the country’s politics, then, according to the recent 2011 census, 71% of the scheduled caste population in the farming sector does not own land and works as bonded labor on dominant castes’ farms. The worst-case scenario is in states with histories of feudalism, such as Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, where nearly all SC farmers are agricultural laborers. In most districts, the figure is above 90%. According to the 2015-16 Agricultural Census, scheduled castes have control over only around 9% of the entire land area, which on average amounts to a land holding of 0.78 hectares.
Without land, scheduled caste communities have been forced to do the same old odd jobs that have been attached to their caste for thousands of years by the Hindu codes. This very thing has been the greatest hurdle in the way of the depressed classes’ progress.
Furthermore, the removal of the right to property from the list of fundamental rights has had a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. The lack of property rights has made it difficult for SCs to access credit, start businesses, or build assets, perpetuating their economic and social marginalization.
The issue of caste and property rights has also been exacerbated by the practice of untouchability, which is highly prevalent in every corner of the world. SCs who own land or property are often subjected to harassment and violence by dominant castes that seek to maintain their social and economic power.
In conclusion, the removal of the right to property from the list of fundamental rights has had a significant impact on the lower castes, especially the scheduled castes, who have historically been denied access to land and property. The lack of property rights has perpetuated their economic and social marginalization, and the practice of untouchability has made it difficult for them to assert their property rights. Therefore, it is essential to address the issue of caste in India and reinstate the right to property as a fundamental right to ensure that marginalized communities are protected from arbitrary state action and discrimination.”