Adivasis under State Terror The Plight of the Indigenous Communities in Kerala

Dr.K.M.Seethi *

Victims of Police Hunting 
For the 3.2-lakh indigenous Adivasi (tribal) people of Kerala, what happened in the broad daylight in Muthanga on 19 February was nothing short of state terrorism. The heinous crime committed on the innocent Adivasis points to the hidden agenda of the 'civilised' and the politics of 'consensus' with respect to their extermination. Sadly, the Adivasis have become humans without human dignity and without the basic right to life.

The political map of Kerala, which once bore the much-debated image of a 'model of development' for its high social indicators, has already drawn the world attention on account of the brutal terror perpetrated on the unarmed indigenous people - that too when only months are left for the 'finale' of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004). Unfortunately, for the Adivasis of Kerala, the decade that is just passing over has been a decade of empty promises and betrayals and hopes and frustrations, culminating in a witch-hunt assuming genocidal proportions.

This is the first time in the history of Kerala that the Adivasis, who have always been driven from pillar to post, became the target of police firing and brutality which ostensibly resulted in the death of many and maiming of hundreds. Surprising it may be, the casualties consequent upon the police firing are still shrouded in mystery. The fact that the State government has categorically ruled out the possibility of a judicial enquiry on the whole question strengthens the suspicion whether the government has too many skeletons on the cupboard. One still wonders as to why the media personnel were forcibly locked out when the operation got under way against the retreating tribals. During the witch-hunt, which lasted for almost 18 hours, the police cordoned off the entire area creating a panicky situation. Many tribals and human rights activists believe that the police as they went berserk within the forest area would have buried all evidences of its brutality.

Police Man Hunting 

 The Muthanga operation came as a sequel to the plans chalked out by the forest officials and police, supported enormously by the settler-politician-forest mafia nexus, which were determined to drive the Adivasis out to establish their position in the area. Hundreds of tribals belonging to the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha (AGMS), led by C.K.Janu and M. Geetanandan, had occupied the forestland in Muthanga, which forms part of the Wayanad Wild Life sanctuary (WWLS), in early January this year in protest against the government inaction on the promises made to them in 2001.

The AGMS had made it clear from the beginning that the tribals would leave the place only after the government conceded their demands. The leaders also insisted that any further discussion on the land issue could be held only with the Chief Minister. The Adivasis had put up huts and other shelters in the area and announced that they would start cultivating the occupied area. Even after weeks of their occupation of the forest land, the government chose to remain silent. In fact, the Adivasi leaders were expecting a call from the State capital to start talks on the land issue. Astonishingly, the State Cabinet which met a few days before the Muthanga operation had decided "not to take any immediate steps to settle the issue" as "the time was not ripe for talks". This was, no doubt, a criminal negligence of a democratically elected government, which, ironically, boasted of its Adivasi-friendly mindset every now and then.

Even as the agitation was under way, some environmentalists and 'social' activists began to demand the immediate eviction of the 'encroachers' from the protected forest, as the areas the Adivasis occupied forms part of the Nilgiri Biosphere of the Western Ghats, which is believed to be one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots of the world. The area is also adjacent to the wild life sanctuaries of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and Project Elephant Area and the Mudumalai Reserve Forest. Be that it may, the so-called nature-lovers did not care to see how the land lies in the areas occupied by the Adivasis. This is exactly the area where the forest mafia and settlers had inflicted severe damage to the sanctuary. More importantly, the occupied part of the forest was already in a degraded condition because the State government had let the plantation of eucalyptus trees in hundreds of acres for the benefit of the Birla-owned Grasim Industries, which has already left Kerala after causing tremendous damage to the State's environment. The plantation of the eucalyptus had resulted in large-scale ecological destruction and drying up of streams in the forest. For more than a decade, the wild animals have not been coming to this area for sustenance due to shortage of water and food. The Adivasis accused the State Forest Department of turning this sanctuary into a wasteland and of drying up of water bodies. They, however, assured that the tribals would only initiate plans for the ecological restoration of the degraded forest in the sanctuary. The environmentalists just pooh-poohed such assurances of Adivasis. And they were also terribly indifferent on the question where all the money for greening the sanctuary the Forest Department received from the World Bank had gone.

Rather than engaging with the Adivasis in a democratic manner, the authorities resorted to all types of intimidation, and unleashed a vilification campaign to malign the image of the leadership and the struggling people. Sensing this, the AGMS leaders had warned, almost a month before the operation, that there was a conspiracy to sabotage the agitation by causing damage to the sanctuary occupied by them, thereby shifting the entire burden of the ecological destruction on the shoulders of the Adivasis, which could also be used as a pretext to evict them. Their fears came true. This was exactly what happened in a few weeks time in and around the Muthanga range. By the middle of February, a fire broke out inside the sanctuary under mysterious circumstances. The Adivasis believed that this was deliberately done by some people, with the connivance of the forest officials, to smoke them out. Naturally, the disgruntled Adivasis took captive of some forest officials who had gone to the sanctuary to "inquire" into the forest fire. However, these 'officials' were released next day on condition that the District Collector would personally record their statement on the circumstances under which they were taken by the Adivasis. The AGMS alleged that the people held hostage by them were engaged by the Forest Department to set fire in the sanctuary in order to tarnish the Adivasis, thereby creating a feeling that their presence in the forest would only cause damage to the rich biodiversity of the sanctuary and wild life.

Tension mounted at Thakarapadi where the Adivasis had put up a check post to restrict the entry of outsiders. The local people assembled in the area swelled their ranks and turned hostile demanding immediate action against the AGMS leadership. Capitalising the aggressive mood of the local people and the agitating Adivasis, the police launched its operation on 19 February under instructions from the higher-ups. For more than 1000 Adivasis living in the area for a month and a half, it was a day of horror and unanticipated feral mêlée. They never expected such an organised violence of the State - that too on a sensitive issue about which the Chief Minister himself had shown some sympathy in the past. The operation started in the morning of 19 February with a large contingent of police and Forest Department personnel entering into the sanctuary and demolishing all that they had seen on the way. The check-post, thatched huts, makeshift tents, household utensils etc were destroyed and set afire. The police did not spare even women, children and aging Adivasis who were running away from the scene of terror. Their kith and kin got scattered around the forest and the police chased them away to interiors. Cruelty knew no bounds. Even those who were unable to move after the brutality received severe injuries because of repeated beating with riffle butts.

Elsewhere in the sanctuary, pitched battles broke out when some tribals came face to face with the aggressive forces. When a section of the struggling Adivasis refused to disperse even after teargas shells were fired, the police resorted to indiscriminate firing several rounds. Meanwhile, one policeman who was taken hostage by the tribals died of injuries. Reports indicate that the Adivasis had pleaded for medical facilities for the injured, including their own men, but the police turned it down as if they were determined to sacrifice one of their own men to rationalise its offensive action. At this time, the police confirmed the death of one tribal activist in the firing and the policeman who sustained injuries under captivity. But the Adivasi leaders believe that there would have been not less than 15 causalities which could not be confirmed due to the total blackout declared by the police, which lasted for almost 18 hours. Many suspect that during those critical hours the bodies of those killed would have been buried in the forest and all evidences might have been destroyed. A probing mission led by Arundhati Roy, A.K.Ramakrishnan et al. had long conversations with the victims of the police atrocities. They were reported to be under the trauma of the police action. The Adivasis who were admitted to various hospitals later confirmed that they had apprehensions about their kith and kin. Those who had been taken to custody after the operation also say that their children and relatives were missing. Many Adivasis who had joined the struggle from other parts of the State have not returned to their places. All this strengthens the fear that there would have been more casualties.

The most unfortunate turn of the struggle was that the State government all of a sudden emerged hostile towards the Adivasis, and the Chief Minister himself defended the police terror saying that it came as a "last resort when the Adivasis went on to attack police and forest officials". The government failed in its primary responsibility to get accurate information on the ground situation in those crucial days, by leaving everything in the hands of corrupt officials and rude police force to handle things in their own ways. Instead of eliciting doctored information from them, the Chief Minister should have visited the area and verified things in person. For instance, in his first statement on the Muthanga operation, the Chief Minister, without any sense of responsibility, made some uncharitable comments on the struggling Adivasis saying that there were "ulterior forces" behind "the tribal attacks". To one's embarrassment, even the left and radical forces in the state alleged that there were "forces behind" the agitation inimical to the "national interests". This has been the regular pattern of accusations that one is familiar with, particularly when democratic struggles have no direct sponsorship of any mainstream political party. Any spontaneity in action means behind-the-scene sponsorship of Naxalites, People's War Group, LTTE etc. What a tragedy for genuine people's struggles in a state which has seen innumerable democratic movements in the past. The arrogance of the State found its full expression when the Speaker of the State Legislative Assembly said that such struggles should be dealt with only force and bullets. This was what a constitutionally elected person occupying the August office of the State told the legislature in response to an adjournment motion raised by the opposition. The intervention of the National Human Rights Commission, the National Commission for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe and many other human rights organisations did not seem to have changed the position of the government on an impartial inquiry.

The government of Kerala unashamedly ignores its constitutional and statutory obligations. The rights of Adivasis are granted protection under the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. The 1989 Act provides for punishment for the destruction of property belonging to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities as well as for legal action against public servants who wilfully neglect their duties required to be performed under the Act. It also provides for special courts to be set up to hear cases of violations. That the government's neglect in implementing the provisions of this Act has led to a widespread feeling of impunity amongst those committing atrocities against these indigenous communities. Reports indicate that the majority of crimes committed against members of these communities are charged under sections of the IPC rather than the 1989 Act, which provides better protection for these communities and harsher punishments for the violation of their rights. The democratic rights of the Adivasis of Kerala should be upheld in the background of the terror unleashed in Muthanga.

The circumstances that led to the police firing and subsequent brutal 'follow-up' operation need to be addressed against the background of the developments that commenced since 1975 when the State Assembly adopted a legislation on land alienation of Adivasis. It is true that the Adivasis of Kerala have, over the years, become more articulate and aggressive about their rights. They have also become cognizant of the laws and the ways of the non-tribal people, politicians, governments and the courts in addressing their basic question. One must bear in mind that the Adivasis had at their disposal large tracts of forests in the State, particularly in Palakkad, Wayanad, Idukki, Pathanamthitta, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts. These lands were slowly but sporadically taken over by non-Adivasi people, and successive governments were only passive spectators, if not silent partners, while the encroachment drive was steadily under way. As the pressure on land had increased in the plains, non-Adivasi settlers further went ahead with land grab.

Meanwhile the poor Adivasis were perpetually cheated by the settlers. Their ignorance and innocence were capitalised by settler farmers. The latter used both threats and persuasions on the Adivasis to relinquish their ancestral land for whatever they offered. In a majority of cases, documents validating such transfers were not available. And there had been instances when poor Adivasis were inveigled into signing on blank sheets of paper provided by the settlers which had later been used to manipulate. Thus, the non-Adivasis who secured possession of the lands eventually became the 'owners'. Having been kicked out from their ancestral land, the Adivasis soon became languished in grinding poverty which compelled them to look for other areas for food and shelter. As they sought refuge in the new stretches of forest land, the non-tribal settlers again emerged to disrupt their life. In the midst of this chase, they were really searching for a civil society to provide them a leg up. The Adivasis knew very well that all political parties, irrespective of political affiliations, and no less the successive governments, would only ignore their plight, giving a silent approval of the ongoing appropriation of the Adivasi land, because the settlers soon became a major vote bank.

However, the year 1975 was a watershed for the marginalised Adivasis of the State. For long, it seemed to be a Herculean task to unlock their silence and make their existence felt across the State. In the midst of the long drawn-out agonies, they were offered the protection of a law that would guarantee an end to the inhuman exploitation by settlers and forest encroachers. In April 1975, the State Assembly unanimously passed the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Bill, which was to prevent the lands of the Adivasi people from falling into the hands of non-tribal people. The 1975 Act had assured the Adivasi people that their alienated land would be given back and that all transactions of tribal land after 1 January 1960 would become null and void.

The 1975 Act got the presidential assent in November that year and was incorporated in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, which ensured that the Act could not be challenged in any court of law. It was apparently a realisation of a long-cherished dream of the Adivasis. However, the euphoria was short-lived. All governments that came to power in Kerala since 1975 were still reluctant to implement the provisions of the Act, obviously under pressure from the settlers. Even after three decades, the Act remained a dead letter. What they pursued was a policy of scuttle seeking to circumscribe the original Act. During this period, the land grab continued unabated, especially in the Adivasi areas of Palakkad and Wayanad districts.

However, the State government formulated rules for restoration of alienated lands in 1986, but it specified that the 1975 Act would come into effect retrospectively only from 1 January 1982. The implication was that all transfer of property "possessed, enjoyed or owned" by Adivasis to non-Adivasi people between 1 January 1960 and 1 January 1982 would become 'invalid' and that the "possession or enjoyment" of property so transferred be restored to the Adivasis concerned. The Act also stipulated that the Adivasis should return the amount, if any, they had obtained during the original transaction and pay compensation for any improvements made on the land by the non-tribal occupants. This amount was to be advanced by the government to the tribal people as loans and recover from them in 20 years. As per this, only 8,500 applications were filed by the Adivasis, as a good majority of them were not acquainted with the new legislation or were reluctant to receive loans or were bribed by the corrupt settler-bureaucratic nexus. Consequently, the scenario of exploitation continued and it only helped encourage the settlers to carry on their occupation of the Adivasi land. It was in such a circumstance that Nalla Thampi Thera, a non-Adivasi from Wayanad district, filed a case in the High Court of Kerala seeking a direction to the State government to implement the 1975 Act. The High Court gave its verdict in 1993 asking the government to implement the Act within six months. However, the government again went on delaying the process for two and a half years seeking extensions of deadline to implement the Act.

In 1996 the High Court set a final deadline of 30 September 1996 to evict the non-Adivasi encroachers, if necessary seeking the help of the police, and reminded the officials concerned that contempt of court proceedings would be initiated if they failed to implement the court directive. Surprisingly, the government resorted to a backdoor method and came up with another controversial bill diluting the original provisions of the 1975 Act, ostensibly to help the settlers. This was the time when the Adivasis became increasingly disillusioned with the promises of the government. Notwithstanding this, the State Assembly passed the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Amendment Bill, 1996 almost unanimously with just one dissenting vote. The Bill sought to legitimise all transactions of tribal land up to 24 January 1986, the implication of which was that the government was not obliged to restore all alienated land as per the 1975 Act. Saying that it was the "only practical alternative", the government tried to defend the new Act.

However, the President of India did not give his assent to the 1996 Amendment Bill on the grounds that the 1975 Act had already been incorporated in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. To sidestep this, the State Assembly passed another Bill, The Kerala Restriction on Transfer by and Restoration of Lands to Scheduled Tribes Bill, 1999. It defined 'land' as 'agricultural land', a State subject, in order to avoid sending it for presidential assent. The new Bill also sought to repeal the key provisions of the 1975 Act. For instance, the amended Act stipulates that 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. An impression was that the number of applicants claiming land in excess of two hectares would be much less, making restoration unnecessary. The 1999 Act also had a provision to provide land to other landless tribal people within two years. Apparently, there were about 11,000 such families in the State. Meanwhile, the High Court of Kerala rejected both the 1996 and 1999 Acts and declared the provisions under them illegal. The State government went on appeal to the Supreme Court and secured stay orders. This has been the background of the excruciating agonies of the Adivasis.

It is estimated that there are 3.2 lakh Adivasi people in Kerala, or about 70,000 families. Evidently, as many as 45,000 families are landless. Under the provisions of the 1999 Act, there were only 4,500 applications, which means a good majority of the landless Adivasis would not come the purview of the new Act. In fact, most of the starvation deaths have been reported from these landless Adivasis. For example, when the Adivasis launched their agitation in August 2001, not less than 32 Adivasis had died of starvation in a few weeks time. The agitation was in the midst of that year's Onam festival, when starvation deaths were reported in the State. Led by the Adivasi-Dalit Agitation Committee, hundreds of Adivasis started streaming into the State capital from the forests and mountain regions and had put up huts in front of the Chief Minister's official house as well as the State Secretariat. Their major demand was that 45,000 landless Adivasi families be given five acres each of cultivable land. However, it took more than a month and a half for the state government to take a decision on the land issue.

The Adivasi struggle had then attracted considerable attention. This was for the first time that an organised agitation of the Adivasis had taken place anywhere in the State. More importantly, the struggle was led by a tribal woman, C.K.Janu, who, more than anybody else, had brought the Adivasi rights to public attention, as also the land-grab and sexual exploitation of their women.

Even as the agitation was under way, the government had agreed to undertake development programmes for Adivasis. However, the land issue was not clarified. The government initially offered 10,000 acres in two months. But the government did not specify about the locations, the type of land or the number of beneficiaries. However, the Adivasis insisted on "land for livelihood". After sometime the State government announced that it had found 5,000 acres more for distribution, but eventually said that only 10,000 acres would be distributed in accordance with the provisions of the 1999 Act. Adivasis considered it as an illegal Act intended to deny their rightful land. They refused to buy the government argument that sufficient land would not be available for distribution. They said that the government had been illegally holding on to all land that were sanctioned for the Adivasis on many occasions since 1957. Hence their major demand that all landless Adivasis must get five acres each.

At this stage, the Adivasi leadership had come to the realisation that their attempts to recover alienated land from the settler farmers would result in a new set of contradictions given the fact that all political parties had a common stake in the settler farmers. Adivasi leadership itself pointed out that all governments were playing hide and seek on this question by pointing to the issue of 'tension' between Adivasis and settler-farmers. Meanwhile, they were reported to have identified 11 lakh acres of land that could be easily available for distribution. It may be recalled that the government need distribute only less than 3 lakh acres to provide land to all landless Adivasis in the State.

Pointing to the bitter experiences in the past, many had argued that the Adivasi demand "land for all" might result in large-scale illegal transfer of Adivasi land to non-Adivasi people. In response to such positions, the Adivasi leadership maintained that it was a typical argument for further procrastination of the real issue and that the government could easily ensure it would not happen, by making another law to protect that land. In fact, the 1975 Act itself had provisions to check any further alienation. Evidently, the land Adivasis have been demanding all these years is absolutely free of any legal implications. While the successive governments have been so generous to settler farmers and forest-politician mafias, they become so penny-pinching when Adivasis demand five acres. This, in fact, had provoked the struggling Adivasis.

THE 48-day-old struggle of the tribal people in Kerala ended on 16 October 2001 in the wake of a seven-point agreement between the State government and the Adivasi Dalit Action Council. The agreement states:

1. Wherever possible, the government would provide five acres of land to each landless Adivasi family; at other places, the offer is a minimum of one acre, which may go up to five acres depending on the availability of land;
2. A five-year livelihood programme would be implemented in the land thus provided until it becomes fully productive for Adivasis to sustain themselves;
3. The State would enact a law to ensure that the land provided to Adivasis is not alienated as had happened in the past;
4. The government would soon pass a resolution asking the Union government to declare the Adivasi areas in the State as Scheduled Areas, bringing them under Schedule V of the Constitution;
5.The government also gave a commitment that it would abide by whatever decision the Supreme Court takes on its appeal against the Kerala High Court order quashing the unpopular law (the Kerala Restriction on Transfer by and Restoration of Lands to Scheduled Tribes Bill, 1999) passed by the State Assembly in 1999;
6. The government is to implement a master plan for tribal development and the plan is to be prepared with the participation of Adivasis;
7. The maximum possible extent of land will be found and distributed in Wayanad district - at least 10,000 acres - where there is the largest concentration of landless Adivasis.

Many called the conclusion of the agreement as a 'historic triumph', and 'a morale-booster' for similar struggles across the country. It is true that the agitators' main demand that all landless Adivasi families be provided with five acres each was not fully conceded. Yet, the agitation was seen as a near success given the fact that for the first time landless Adivasis in Kerala got a positive commitment from the government on at least one acre of land. They were also to get the protection of a new law preventing any further alienation of their land. The most significant aspect of the agitation was that the agenda of the five decade-old Adivasi struggle in Kerala had been changed from the "restoration of alienated land" to "land for the landless tribal people".

Gandhian Violence
. The Chief Minister A.K.Antony announced after the agreement with the Adivasis, that the government would try to get 10,000 acres of land in Wayanad where the number of landless Adivasis was the highest besides the 42,000 acres of land already identified for this purpose in different parts of the State. The Chief Minister said the government would stand by its earlier offer to provide 90 per cent of employment in forests to the Adivasis. C.K. Janu said the Adivasi-Dalit Action Council was happy that the government had accepted almost all its demands.

However, the Council, she said, was aware of the difficulties in finding sufficient land instantly to provide five acres to each landless Adivasi family. So, it had decided to accept the government offer to provide five acres where land was available and between one acre and five acres in other places.

For the fourteen months since October 2001, till the AGMS occupied lands in Muthanga, the government went on delaying the implementation of the agreement. Though the government had officially started land distribution, it turned out to be farce exercise. By April 2002, 568 families were provided with 1308 acres of land when the Chief Minister, along with C.K Janu of AGMS, began the first land distribution at Marayur in Idukki District. That means just 1.06 per cent of the families were provided 2.2 per cent of the identified land within the first four months of the period earmarked to complete the task. However, nothing much has happened after that, except the report appeared in the media that the land actually allotted was 1770 to 848 families, i.e., only 3 per cent of the promised land. The government continued its policy of scuttle bringing in numerous legal and administrative hurdles such as the dispute between the Forest Department and Revenue Department and the problems associated with reserve forest areas and the Forest Conservation Act 1980.

It is true that the Forest Conservation Act 1980 prohibits any encroachment into the forests since 1980. When forests became part of the Concurrent List, the State government can denotify forest lands only with the prior consent of the Union Government. However, the 1980 Act prohibits encroachments after 1980 only. The implication is that the encroachments before 1980 should not be treated as 'encroachments' but need only be resolved as per law. Those who have claims or rights to the forest areas prior to 1980 should have been provided that as per law. Whether the State government has the political will to fulfil its constitutional and statutory obligations in regard to the Adivasi land is yet to be seen.

The constitutional responsibility of the State government has been wriggled out in other important realms too. So far no Adivasi land in Kerala has been declared as Scheduled Area, thus depriving the Adivasis of their entitlement in accordance with the provisions enshrined in the Constitution of India, even as other States such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have gone ahead with that. The non-inclusion of Adivasi land under the Scheduled Area also delays the implementation of the provisions of Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 through necessary legislations at the State level.

Distressing it is, the plight of the indigenous people is yet to become a major focus of concern in India. Millions of indigenous peoples are facing extinction as distinct peoples because of our thirst for energy, minerals, timber, farmland and living space. These communities have been pushed to the margins of national and international life. We need to recognise that these indigenous people have a special relation with their ancestral land; their ecological knowledge and agricultural systems often play a vital role in promoting sustainable development. The Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004) proclaimed by the UN underlines this, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples acknowledges their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, which are of utmost importance and have been denied to them for centuries. The tragedy in Muthanga will go down in history as yet another instance of our self-deception.
(The author is Reader, School of International Relations, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam: )

Other Articles by Dr. K.M.Seethi

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