Betrayed In Gods
uprising in Kerala
By C.R. Bijoy
Gods own country
is how the southern Indian state of Kerala packages itself for international
consumption. A serene mountain range, the Western Ghats, runs along
the states eastern border with Tamil Nadu, though the hills quickly
drop off on approach to the western coastline along the Arabian Sea.
Like its topography, Keralas political economy is characterised
by extreme variation. The first place in the world to elect a communist
government, Kerala simultaneously ranks highest among Indian states
in the provision of basic needs, at measures comparable to those found
in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and displays per capita production
levels well below the national average. The state has defied conventional
notions of development, improving human index measures even at times
of economic stagnation.
But glossed over in these
impressive averages and unorthodox development strategies lie the stories
of Keralas downtrodden adivasis (indigenous peoples). Numbering
320,967 in the 1991 census, the states 35 adivasi communities
constitute about 1.1 percent of Keralas population and 0.47 percent
of Indias scheduled tribe population. The benefits of the states
human development gains have not been universally enjoyed by all of
its residents, especially not by adivasis, who are still fighting for
basic rights, including ownership of land. The communitys depressed
condition, and the failure of the state to provide meaningful upliftment
or to honour its agreements, provide the backdrop of a tribal uprising
for control of land.
Showdown in Muthanga
On 17 February 2003, adivasis
occupying tracts in the Muthanga forests of the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary
within the Nilgiri biosphere reserve took captive 21 persons, mostly
state policemen and forest department officials. The adivasis, who had
been squatting on the land for six weeks as part of a land redistribution
campaign, alleged that the group was setting fire to the forests in
order to pin arson charges on them as a pretext for eviction. The next
day, the adivasis handed over the captives unharmed to the Wayanad district
collector, putting their statements on record, and were given assurances
that there would be no further attempts at eviction.
On the morning of 19 February,
about 1000 heavily armed police and forestry officials moved in, assaulting
and injuring many adivasis. Huts were set on fire, and many saw their
property ransacked and destroyed. Nonetheless, they refused to be driven
away. During the operation, members of the media were waylaid, and footage
of the violent action was destroyed. With the fall of dusk, some policemen
made use of their weapons; 18 shots were reportedly fired in addition
to teargas shelling. For the next 16 hours or more, the area was cordoned
off from the outside world while police continued their operation.
The assault continued on
20 February, producing an official death toll of two one adivasi
and one policeman. Scores were injured, many of them women, children
and the old. About 300 adivasis were arrested while hundreds more simply
went missing, leading to fears that the actual toll of those injured,
if not killed, might be considerably higher. Anyway lacking medicine
or food, a majority of the adivasis moved into adjoining forests and
villages in the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to avoid
police combing operations through the villages, especially in Wayanad
and Kannur districts.
On 23 February, two prominent
adivasi leaders, CK Janu, an Adiya (literally, slave), and Adivasi-Dalit
Samara Samithy (adivasi-dalit struggle committee) chief
M Geethanandan, emerged from the forests to surrender to authorities.
Some members of the press who had witnessed the events of the preceding
days claimed that the state was plotting extra-judicial murders of these
two figures. Visibly exhausted, Janu and Geethanandan handed themselves
over to a government which less than a year and a half earlier had reached
an agreement with them about the distribution of land to adivasis.
Land for peace
The attack in Muthanga sent
shock waves across the state, and numerous tribals found themselves
caught in an unprecedented dragnet. The Congress-led United Democratic
Front government justified what it termed a very successful
action with a number of supposed revelations. It said that Geethanandans
group and the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha (the grand assembly of
adivasis), a formation of village representatives from across
Kerala led by Janu, were linked to such banned bodies as the Andhra-based
Marxist-Leninist Peoples War Group, as well as the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The state claimed that there were plans afoot
to kidnap ministers, senior bureaucrats and foreign dignitaries from
the recently concluded Global Investors Meet in Kochi. The chief minister,
AK Antony, declared that the adivasis had armed themselves and established
a parallel government.
Within days, despite the acceptance of many of these claims by sections
of the mainstream press, the states allegations began to unravel.
It came out, for example, that the arms with which adivasis
had supposedly battled authorities were actually farming implements.
Reporters present during the attack have also begun to reveal the lawlessness
and brutality of the late February roundup.
The occupation of Muthanga
by over 1000 landless adivasi families began on 4 January, when they
occupied barren land and eucalyptus plantations passing under the guise
of state-protected forests. They put up over 700 huts and established
a check post to regulate entry. These landless people, many of whom
had arrived with all of their belongings, were preparing to settle down
on land that had been allocated to them after several decades of attempted
procurement through institutional avenues had failed. The ownership
of land has eluded adivasis at least since the state divested many communities
of land through the establishment of reserved forests. The
states rejection of adivasi land claims, its obstruction of court-mandated
rectification schemes, and its outright appropriation of existing adivasi
lands, have occurred primarily beyond the scope of law.
The adivasi action in Muthanga
was one part of a state-wide campaign to occupy land. According to adivasi
leaders, the movement was both an attempt to redress the wrongs and
an act of protest against the states failure to live up to commitments
made more than a year earlier. On 16 October 2001, the state acquiesced
to various adivasi demands after a 48-day struggle led by Janu and Geethanandan
involving the setting up of huts in front of important state offices.
Adivasis, many of who were suffering from acute hunger, declared these
huts refugee camps. In July-August 2001, 38 adivasis had starved to
death in Kerala, though the government attributed the deaths to polluted
water, liquor and ill health. The starvation deaths of the summer of
2001 were, of course, not the first of their kind.
Incensed by these deaths,
and angered by the states failure to fulfil its obligations and
promises, adivasis, mostly women and children, marched to Thiruvananthapuram
to set up refugee camps. With support from various sections of society,
the adivasi campaign quickly gained currency as a democratic movement,
and protests threatened to snowball across Kerala. Land, the source
of survival, was agreed by the government and adivasi leaders to be
at the heart of a solution, and the two sides reached an agreement in
principle that landless persons, or those owning less than an acre,
would receive up to five acres within one year, and that policies would
be devised and enacted to make these lands self-sustainable within five
years. Moreover, the central government would be lobbied to demarcate
adivasi areas in the state under Schedule V of Article 244 of the Indian
constitution. This provision confers rights and powers for a high degree
of self-governance under the Panchayat Raj Act (Extension to the Scheduled
Areas), 1996. Adivasis in Kerala, unlike those in 10 other states, have
till date not been included under Schedule V. The government also agreed
to abide by the outcome of pending supreme court cases on land transfers
to scheduled tribes in Kerala.
By 1 January 2002, the government
had identified 53,472 families as eligible to receive five acres of
land, of which 22,491 were landless, while the remainder had less than
one acre. Concurrently, the state identified 59,452 acres for distribution.
The land transfers, which were to be completed by the end of 2002, began
with the chief minister distributing land in Marayur in Idukki district
on 1 January. Among others, CK Janu was invited to attend the ceremony.
The land distribution plan,
however, sputtered out with disappointing results for the adivasis.
By the end of the year, only 843 families, 1.6 percent of the more than
50,000 identified, had received a total of 1748 acres, an average just
exceeding two acres per family. Adivasi leaders pointed out that at
such a rate it would take more than 50 years for every family to receive
land. Those with vested interests in the forest- and plantation-based
economy, who control much of the land in question, exerted their influence
on the state machinery to scuttle the governments agreement with
the adivasis. As 2002
proceeded, the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha, which had earlier declared
that it would give the government the time necessary to complete land
transfers, decided to implement its own programme of land distribution
given the states inadequate efforts.
The Mahasabha undertook a
whirlwind mobilisation campaign through the state, which culminated
in a meeting attended by thousands at Mananthavady in Wayanad district
on 25 August. At this session, the Mahasabha constituted a 60-member
tribal court, consisting of 20 women and 40 men, representing the various
adivasi communities. The court, in full public view, declared
that in light of the non-implementation of the agreement by the government,
adivasis should occupy lands. This decision was based on traditional
adivasi principles of participatory democratic consultation, and the
Muthanga occupation of early 2003 was one outcome of this decision.
Similar occupations have occurred in other parts of Kerala earlier.
Roots of a mass movement
The three dozen adivasi communities
of Kerala have had varying fortunes over the last three centuries, though
all have suffered setbacks since independence. In the Malabar region,
the Paniyas and Adiyas, two groups heavily involved in the Wayanad occupation,
became serfs to local landlords in the 18th century, unlike groups such
as the Kurichiya and Kurumba. The inland Wayanad region today has the
highest concentration of adivasis, in large part as a consequence of
the Grow More Food programme initiated in 1942-43, which pushed many
adivasis off their lands. In Attapady and Palakkad districts, home to
the Irulas, Muduga and Kurumba communities, adivasis enjoyed relative
freedom until the mid-1950s, when migration from surrounding areas reduced
the adivasi population from 63 percent in 1961 to 30 percent by 1991.
Other adivasi groups, such
as the Kanikar, Muthuvan, Urali and Mala Arayan, had been settled agriculturists
under protective local kings in the pre-independence era. Still other
groups, such as the Malapandaram, Kattunayaka and Cholanayaka, had remained
hunter-gatherers throughout this period. But with the establishment
of tea, coffee and rubber estates, and government appropriation of forests,
many adivasis were reduced to bonded labourers.
With the gradual destruction
of traditional livelihoods, adivasi communities turned to government
assistance, without much success. Numerous tribal rehabilitation projects,
including those in Wayanad district, have been mired in corruption since
the beginning. Notable examples of failing, corruption-prone programmes
are the Sugandhagiri cardamom project and the Vattachira collective
farm. The state further refuses to acknowledge the plight of adivasis
by dismissing numerous reports of hunger deaths as arising from ill
health. Appropriation of adivasi land has also arisen as a consequence
of hydroelectric projects and dams, such as those in Idukki, Chimmini
and Karapuzha. The declaration of wildlife sanctuaries in traditional
adivasi lands, while propping up tourism, has further contributed to
their marginalisation. Tribal development projects and infrastructure
development, in addition to facilitating massive corruption, have primarily
benefited non-adivasi settlers and encouraged further in-migration,
leading to the breakdown of social structures.
By the 1970s, over 60 percent
of adivasis in Wayanad were landless, and today reports indicate that
90 percent of adivasis in the state are either landless or possess less
than one acre. Even progressive legislation, such as the Kerala Land
Reforms Act, has accomplished little to address the land ownership disparity.
Non-tribals often lease tribal lands on short-term cultivation contracts
and then register themselves as tenants with the authorities. The tenants
then make claims of ownership on the land under the terms of legislation
designed, ironically, to protect adivasi interests, dispossessing the
tribal owners who have become landlords.
Land is integral to the survival
of adivasi communities, as is evidenced by the mass agitation of the
past few years. The recent history of migration and dispossession, as
well of ineffectual or even counter-productive government policies,
has led adivasi groups to pursue land claims through extra-legal avenues.
In this climate, the politicisation of land ownership and tribal grievances
has become a dominating aspect of the ongoing struggle in Kerala.
Rule of subverted law
The late 1960s and 1970s
saw the establishment of adivasi organisations within political parties.
This coincided with the birth of the Naxalite movement, which struck
a chord amongst the adivasis, especially in Wayanad. Some Adiya activists
joined hands with the Naxalites and killed some landlords.
Adivasi political mobilisation
has not been the exclusive purview of any one ideology, however. The
Jan Sangh, the forerunner of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party,
the Congress and communist parties have all at various times taken up
the adivasi campaign for traditional land rights. To wean adivasis away
from revolutionary movements, in 1975 the communist government passed
the Kerala Scheduled Tribes Act (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and
Restoration of Alienated Lands). This act was later incorporated into
the Ninth Schedule of the national constitution to protect it from legal
But the acts operational
mechanisms were only developed in 1986, more than a decade after its
passage. Under the terms of the law, all adivasi land transactions between
1960 and 1982 were invalidated, with land to be returned to the original
tribal owners. Further, the transfer of land from tribals to non-tribals
was prohibited from 1982 onwards. As early as 1960, the Scheduled Areas
and Scheduled Tribes Commission headed by UN Debar under Article 339
of the constitution, recommended that all tribal land transferred after
26 January 1950 the day the constitution came into force
should be returned to the original adivasi owners. This legislation
emerged from obligations of state governments to protect adivasi land
rights as codified in Article 244.
In Kerala, claims made under
these provisions by 8754 adivasis on approximately 9910 hectares have
returned only about 545 hectares to 463 petitioners. A case was filed
in the high court in 1988 to expedite adivasi claims, but even though
the bench delivered a favourable verdict, the state political machinery
has obstructed implementation of court-ordered land restitution. After
aborted attempts by United Democratic Front and Left Democratic Front
governments to implement corrective land ownership policies, an amendment
to the land distribution law was passed in 1996 to prevent its enforcement.
KR Narayanan, then president of India, rejected the amendment, and the
state assembly, threatened with contempt of court, passed the Kerala
Restriction on Transfer and Restoration of Lands to Scheduled Tribes
Act in 1999 to replace the 1975 legislation. That same year, a high
court ruling struck down the new legislation as unconstitutional and
declared the Kerala government in contempt of court. Legal battles around
these issues are still on.
Actions by the government
to avoid returning land to adivasi families are also in violation of
international agreements, both those ratified by India and those under
negotiation or consideration. Keralas nullification of commitments
made to adivasis violates articles three, 13 and 14 of the ILO Convention
107, ratified by India, relating to the protection of properties, respect
of customary procedures of transmission of traditional ownership of
lands, prevention of non-tribals from securing ownership or use of lands
belonging to tribals, and provision of additional land in the event
of shortages. State actions also violate section two of ILO Convention
169 on Indigenous and Tribal Populations, which explicitly recognises
the territoriality of tribals, tribal identity as fused to land ownership,
and the right of tribals to ownership and possession of lands traditionally
occupied, though India has not yet ratified this agreement. Government
behaviour also violates part six of the UN draft Universal Declaration
of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, currently under negotiation.
However, neither the 1975
act nor its 1999 successor addresses the issue of adivasis lacking documentary
proof of past land ownership. The Kerala Private Forest (Vesting and
Assignment) Act of 1972, by which so-called private forests were taken
over by the state, was designed to provide divested adivasis with about
23,000 hectares in the Western Ghats, a three-decade-old commitment
with which the government is yet to comply. Among other excuses, it
is alleged that the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 does not permit
the allotment of official forest lands for non-forestry purposes, a
claim that is not entirely true. In 1990, the Ministry of Environment
and Forests of the government of India issued clear guidelines regarding
encroachment on forest lands; reviews of disputed claims over forest
lands arising out of forest settlement; disputes regarding titles, leases
and grants involving forest land; and conversion of forest villages
into revenue villages and settlement of other old habitations. These
orders, which to some extent recognise the rights of adivasis, have
also been disregarded. It is here that the CK Janu-AK Antony agreement
becomes quite significant.
What is to be made of these
agreements, laws, court cases and their systematic subversion? Governments
of the two coalitions that have consistently run the state of Kerala
since independence have consistently violated constitutional provisions.
The existing politico - administrative structure fails to defend the
law by failing to execute it. The law itself was amended and subsequently
replaced in a manner contrary to constitutional obligations, despite
public opposition. The government has violated high court orders and
consistently disregarded judicial pronouncements. Judicial responses
to all of this have been grossly inadequate, and parliamentary democracy
and the political system have failed to uphold the constitutional rights
of adivasis. In these circumstances, the adivasis recognised that the
present political-administrative arrangement would not deliver justice
and demanded a system that would transfer to themselves certain powers
and responsibilities of enforcing the law. It is in this context that
the actions of the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha and other groups to evolve
participatory self-governance and methods of resolving long-standing
inequities have arisen.
(C.R. Bijoy is a human rights
activist. He can be contacted email@example.com
March 17, 2003