The Adivasi struggle

Print edition : October 13, 2001

The long-running struggle of the Adivasis in Kerala enters a crucial phase as the State government resists their main demand of two hectares of land for each landless tribal family.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

ONCE again, the Adivasis of Kerala are at a crossroads. These tribal people have become more assertive about their rights and the nature of their demands has undergone a subtle transformation. They are now more aware of the law and the ways of the non-tribal people, politicians, governments and the courts. They have media-savvy leaders, invisible 'friends', and funds to sustain high-profile agitations in the State capital. They are increasingly intolerant of hollow promises and they threaten to storm the State Assembly and camp on the streets of Thiruvananthapuram permanently. At times they disrupt public festivities, walk out of meetings with government representatives or take District Collectors hostage. They have definitely become prime-time news material. But the question is, will they fail again?

The year 1975 once seemed a crucial one for the marginalised tribal people of the State. Although they did not have a powerful presence in the State, their plight had struck a chord and they had found themselves being offered the protection of a law that promised to end exploitation by non-tribal settlers and forest encroachers, and lack of livelihoods.

In April 1975, the State Assembly unanimously adopted the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act, which sought to prevent the lands of the tribal people from falling into the hands of non-tribal people. The Act also sought to restore to the tribal people their previously alienated lands.

"Refugee camps" run by agitating tribal people outside the State Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.-K.G. SANTHOSH

The tribal people were once in possession of large tracts of forests in the State, especially in areas that are now in Palakkad, Wayanad, Idukki, Pathanam-thitta, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts. To a large extent, post-Independence governments were responsible for the Adivasis losing their lands. Non-tribal settlers made their plight worse as the pressure on land increased in the plains. The land-people ratio is very high in the State.

In the majority of cases, the ignorance and innocence of the Adivasis were used to the hilt by the non-tribal settler "farmers". Either by using force or inducements such as a bundle of tobacco, or by offering a low price, they made the Adivasis part with their "ancestral land". In most cases there was no document validating such transfers and some tribal persons were even forced to sign on blank sheets of paper. The non-tribal people who got possession of the lands gradually became the virtual owners.

Over the years, alienation from their land of birth pushed the Adivasis into poverty and dependence and forced them to search for other forest land for food and shelter. However, the same process was repeated in the new stretches of forest land, and these too became the farmlands of non-tribal settlers. Political parties and successive governments turned a blind eye to the process, as more settlers meant more votes. (The Adivasis, who number 3.21 lakhs, account for only 1.1 per cent of the population of the State.) The social and ecological implications of this were serious.

When the 1975 Act got the presidential assent in November that year and was subsequently included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution (which ensured that the Act would not be challenged in any court of law), it seemed a dream come true for the Adivasis. But it was not to be. Successive governments allowed more than a decade to pass (during which the encroachments continued, especially in the tribal areas of Palakkad and Wayanad districts) before framing the rules to implement the Act. When the State government finally formulated the rules in 1986, it specified that the Act would come into effect retrospectively from January 1, 1982.

The rules made all transfer of property "possessed, enjoyed or owned" by Adivasis to non-tribal people between January 1, 1960 and January 1, 1982 "invalid" and directed that the "possession or enjoyment" of property so transferred be restored to the Adivasis concerned. However, the Act required that the Adivasi return the amount, if any, they had received during the original transaction and pay compensation for any improvements made on the land by the non-tribal occupants. The government was to advance this amount to the tribal people as loans and recover it from them in 20 years. Only about 8,500 applications seeking restoration were received from the tribal people, because most of them were either unaware of the new law or afraid to accept the offer of loans or were cheated by the corrupt encroacher-official nexus. Hence, even after the framing of the rules, the general atmosphere helped only to encourage the encroachers to continue to occupy tribal land and successive governments took no action to implement fully the 1975 Act.

THIS triggered the second important phase of the Adivasi struggle. In 1986, Dr. Nalla Thampi Thera, a non-tribal person from Wayanad district, approached the Kerala High Court seeking a direction to the State government to implement the 1975 Act. It took five years for the court to give a verdict - a favourable one - on the public interest petition. In October 1993, the court ordered the government to implement the Act within six months. Yet the case dragged on for two and a half years with the government continuing to seek extensions of deadline to implement the Act.

The Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha take out a rally in Thiruvananthapuram on October 3.-S. GOPAKUMAR

Finally, in 1996 the court fixed a final deadline of September 30, 1996 to evict the non-tribal occupants, if necessary with the help of the police, and threatened the officials concerned with contempt of court proceedings if they failed to implement the court directive. However, the government responded with yet another controversial act of amending the 1975 Act.

Meanwhile as the non-tribal settlers where getting entrenched in the alienated land of the tribal people, the tribal people themselves were getting increasingly disillusioned with the ability of the government and the courts to find a remedy for their plight. Hence, although government programmes had helped improve the lot of many tribal people, the majority of them continued to be landless, had no means of livelihood, and became more dependent on the non-tribal settlers for work and wages.

As a large section of the landless tribal people had not filed applications and were hence outside the purview of the 1975 Act, they were ineligible for a piece of land even if the Act was implemented in toto. By the early 1990s, the first signs of discontent were already becoming evident in the Adivasi-inhabited areas, especially in Wayanad district, where some extremist groups had been active for a long time.

On the other hand, most of the land from which the settlers were to be evicted under the 1975 Act had by the 1990s been in their possession for 15 to 30 years. They were cultivating the land and had constructed buildings and other structures on them. In several cases, the next generation of the original encroachers were in possession of the lands. When the State government could get no more extensions of the deadline from the High Court, the politically and economically powerful settler-farmers activated their organisations and raised the demand to amend the "impractical provisions" of the 1975 Act.

To the consternation of the tribal people, successive governments started to give in to the demands of the settlers. Two ordinances seeking to amend the 1975 Act, introduced by the United Democratic Front government during early 1996 and later by the Left Democratic Front government, which came to power in May 1996, did not get the Governor's approval. As pressure from the court mounted on the government to evict encroachers by September 30, 1996, the government hastily introduced an amendment Bill in the State Assembly.

Whatever may have been the justification for it - the impracticality of the provisions of the 1975 Act perhaps being the most important one - it must have been an eye-opener for the mushrooming tribal organisations in Kerala to see the 140-member State Assembly pass the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Amendment Bill, 1996 almost unanimously (there was only one dissenting vote).

The 1996 Amendment Bill dashed all hopes of the Adivasis. Most important, it made legal all transactions of tribal land up to January 24, 1986. In other words, the government made the need for the restoration of alienated land (as per the 1975 Act) unnecessary. According to the government, it was the only practical alternative, given the turmoil and the political repercussions that would have been created had it tried to evict the non-tribal settlers. However, the tribal people felt that the government was trying to give legal sanctity to the alienation of their land. The agitation in front of the State Assembly, with the Adivasis, led by their leader from Wayanad C.K. Janu, trying to enter the State legislature, supported by a group of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) volunteers, was perhaps an early indication of the gradual transformation of the agitation.

This was soon followed by one of the best known incidents in the struggle. On October 4, 1996, a so-far unknown extremist group named "Ayyankali Pada" (named after a Dalit leader from Kerala), stormed the Palakkad Collectorate and held Collector W.R. Reddy hostage for over nine hours. The incident invited a strong response from the government against growing signs of radicalism among Adivasis and also in a way prevented the agitation from taking a turn for the worse. Later, the President refused to give assent to the 1996 Amendment Bill passed by the State Assembly on the grounds that the 1975 Act had been included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution.

However, to bypass this difficulty, yet another Bill was passed unanimously by the State Assembly in 1999. The Kerala Restriction on Transfer by and Restoration of Lands to Scheduled Tribes Bill, 1999, defined "land" as "agricultural land" (a State subject) in order to try and get over the need to send it for presidential assent. The new Bill also had a controversial provision to repeal the 1975 Act.

As per the 1999 Act, only alienated land in excess of two hectares possessed by encroachers would be restored, while alternative land, in lieu of the alienated land not exceeding two hectares, would be given elsewhere. The thinking was that the number of applicants claiming land in excess of two hectares would be negligible, making restoration unnecessary. The new Bill also had a provision to provide up to 40 acres (16 hectares) to other landless tribal people - a new set of beneficiaries - within two years. The government said that it estimated that there were about 11,000 such families in the State.

However, the High Court rejected both the 1996 and 1999 Amendment Bills and declared the provisions under them illegal. The State government, in turn, went on appeal to the Supreme Court and obtained stay orders. Several appeals against the stay orders are pending before the Supreme Court.

It was in this context that starvation deaths were reported from the Adivasi-inhabited areas in the State from July 2001. The outside world came to know about it only after a group of tribal people, supported by some naxalite groups, waylaid a mobile store run by the State Department of Civil Supplies and took away its contents. They distributed the foodstuffs and encouraged the tribal people who gathered there to take home the rest of it.

On August 30, Adivasi agitators led by Janu pitched their tents outside the Chief Minister's official residence in Thiruvananthapuram. They were organised under the banner of the "Adivasi Dalit Action Council", which now claims to have the support of all Adivasis in the State. Despite two rounds of discussions with the government, the tribal people refused to withdraw their agitation, which was more than a month old at the time of writing.

The main demand of the Adivasis was five acres (2 ha) each to all landless tribal families in the State. Although the government's offer to prepare a master plan for the tribal people was welcomed by the agitating Adivasis, they refused to withdraw the agitation until their demand for land was met. The tribal people have lost their faith in promises and court cases. They were sure that running after alienated land was a futile exercise which, even if it succeeded in the long run, would benefit only a few among them.

HOWEVER, some disturbing trends have emerged in the course of the struggle. The Adavasi-inhabited areas have become breeding grounds for extremist organisations espousing the tribal cause and swearing to empower the tribal people in order to fight for their rights. There have been sporadic incidents of violence since 1992, when such groups encouraged the Adivasis to take the law into their own hands and forcibly occupy government land. Since the 1990s the activities of Hindu chauvinist organisations, Christian missionaries and voluntary agencies, often funded from abroad, have also increased in the tribal areas. The past decade saw the disillusioned tribal people move tantalisingly close to extremism and communalism. Such proclivities would certainly undermine their genuine struggle.

Yet, for the present, the most significant factor is the shifting focus of the demands raised by the Adivasi leaders who are in the limelight. They are no longer asking for alienated land, at least not as emphatically as they used to in the past. Instead they demand mainly five acres of other land each for all landless tribal families. Another demand is the inclusion of tribal areas in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution in order to make them autonomous regions.

The fact that they were able to sustain their agitation by putting up shacks outside the Secretariat, along the State capital's arterial road, and pitching tents on the road to the Chief Minister's official residence for more than a month itself took Kerala by surprise. Over 150 tribal families were in these camps, where food and even facilities to continue school education of the children were being provided by the organisers. A grand council of elders and other leaders representing the 30-odd tribes in the State was formed under the umbrella of the Adivasi Dalit Action Council. As a show of strength and as part of an attempt to evolve a consensus regarding their demands among the various tribes and organisations, it organised an 'Adivasi Gothra Sabha' ('Adivasi Parliament') in Thiruvananthapuram on October 3. As the government announced that it would not allow the tribal people to establish camps permanently before the Secretariat, Action Committee chairperson Janu declared that she was going on a "fast unto death" before the Secretariat.

While Chief Minister A.K. Antony claimed that his government was more sympathetic to the tribal people's cause than the previous government, other leaders of the ruling coalition said there were vested interests behind the agitation. There are also allegations that organisations and political parties more sympathetic to the interests of the settler farmers are now supporting the tribal people in order to prevent them from demanding the restoration of alienated land, especially when the legality of the amendments striking down the 1975 Act is coming up as an issue before the Supreme Court.

But as Janu told Frontline, Kerala's Adivasis are not fighting the settler farmers any longer. However, the question whether there are vested interests behind the Adivasi agitation is overshadowed by another one - whether the shift in demand will genuinely help the tribal people's cause.

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