Muthanga Sanctuary:

Safe Haven for Wildlife, But No Home for Tribals

Gun shots disturbed the tranquility of the Muthanga forest region, at Wayanad District in Kerala, on 19 February. 800-strong police force brutally attacked the tribal habitation and fired 18 rounds leaving many dead and over hundred injured. Police claim that only two were dead, including a policeman. The state government refused to order a judicial enquiry into the incident. The main opposition LDF, which is also responsible for the present imbroglio, has seized the moment and is going on with calls for Hartal after Hartal and relay fasting by its MLAs in front of the secretariat. Perhaps, it is a last ditch attempt on the part of CPI(M) to gain lost grounds over the issue. The Hartal called on March 11 for a judicial enquiry was successful but the opposition had to call another Hartal on 18 March to protest the police highhandedness on its cadres. The Antony government is coming up with its true colours betraying the elements of a Police Raj no less comparable to any BJP-led government.

The government continues to claim that far from being brutal, its real error has been that of being “too soft” on the tribals, on the humanitarian grounds that “tribals are Kerala’s most backward people”. It claims that nothing was done for a month after the tribals “invaded” the sanctuary, but it was forced to act when the tribals indulged in an “armed uprising”. Unfortunately, even the LDF opposition’s discourse has legitimised such slanders; the opposition too has said that it was the govt.’s delay that allowed “naxalites” to “infiltrate” and “mislead” the tribals. This boosts the Indian State’s favourite ploy of repression on tribal struggles in the name of curbing “naxalism”. Even some media reports have contributed to such misrepresentation of the tribals’ movement. For instance, the Frontline (March 14, 2003) story, going in the face of all independent fact-finding reports, insinuates that the Adivasis were being “used by other forces” and that the “woman” leader (Janu) was being “led up the wrong path”. The story asks whether “the majority of the tribal people in the State want their cause to be furthered through extremism and violence?”, and blames the govt. for having “raised the hopes of the tribal people sky high and then failed to deliver on its promises.” This story, echoing the govt.’s own position, manages to blame the tribals rather than the police, for the ‘violence’. Instead of accusing the govt. of betrayal of promises, followed by brutality, it merely blames the govt. for having made the promises at all in the first place!

The real story is one of brave struggle by the tribals in the face of betrayal and repression. The tribals demanded the government to implement the agreement reached between them two years back following 48 days of agitation in front of the Kerala Assembly. The promise was supposed to have been implemented by 31 December 2002. But, the tribals got frustrated of the government’s inaction and made a forced entry into the Muthanga forest region. Over 1000 people occupied the forest land since January 4 and started living there as a mark of protest.

The trouble started on 17 Feb when the government-sponsored people ignited forest fire aiming at evacuating tribals and 21 of them were taken hostages by the agitators. The hostages were released next day through a negotiation with the District Collector. There was no inkling of an impending police crack down. But, next day a large contingent of police force moved in and went on an indiscriminate firing without any warning. In the melee, a forest official and a policeman were taken hostage by agitators so as to bring down the intensity of the police crackdown. The police force was back with a vengeance when they heard the news of the death of a policeman who succumbed to injuries and went on for mindless, indiscriminate firing, injuring many women and even children. The reports suggest that more than 20 people are killed and over hundred people injured and many more are reported to be missing since the day of police attack.

UDF or LDF: No Different

The occupation of land is only a culmination of tribals’ long drawn battle for land and employment. In April 1975, the State Assembly unanimously adopted the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act, which got the presidential assent in the same year. It was also included in the Ninth Schedule of the constitution and made unchallengeable in any court of law. Still, successive governments did not care to bring the law into force by not framing necessary rules till 1986.

All transfer of property “possessed, enjoyed or owned” by Adivasis to non-tribal people, between January 1, 1960 and January 1, 1982, were made invalid by the rules and were to be restored to the tribals. The issue of restoration of land got another round of fillip when a Public Interest Petition was filed in the Kerala High Court seeking a direction to the state government to implement the 1975 Act. After repeated directions to the government since 1993, the court fixed a final deadline of September 30, 1996 to evict the non-tribal occupants. Then, Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Amendment Bill, 1996 was passed almost unanimously during LDF regime. This bill made the 1975 Act redundant by making all transactions of tribal lands upto January 1986 legal. There was only one dissenting vote. This incident was a complete exposure of the state political apparatus and underlined the definite bias of the state administration in favour of powerful, illegal settler farmers.

The President declined to give assent to 1996 Bill. In 1999, the state government passed another bill called ‘The Kerala Restriction on Transfer by and Restoration of Lands to Scheduled Tribes Bill, 1999’ to circumvent the crisis. Interestingly, the new bill was passed during LDF regime and was brought under state subject by defining ‘land’ as ‘agricultural land’ and made the presidential assent unnecessary. This bill introduced the concept of ‘excess’ land and ‘alternative’ land and abolished the concept of ‘restoration of alienated land’ to the tribals. It proposed to confiscate the lands of settlers only if it is more than 5 acres and to provide alternative land to the tribals. But, the High Court rejected both the 1996 and 1999 amendment bills as illegal. Then, the state government went on appeal to the Supreme Court and obtained stay orders.

Promises Belied

This is the background of the emergence of tribal movement in Kerala. The brewing discontent among tribals was visible since early ’90s. Tribals felt let down by and disillusioned about all mainstream political parties, including the Left. Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha (AGM) led by C.K. Janu gradually emerged as the most dynamic organization of the tribals. Starvation death of 32 tribals in Wayanad district in 2001 was the proverbial last straw. It brought the plight of tribals to the limelight and triggered a large-scale agitation. The 48-day long agitation in front of the State Assembly ended on 16 October 2002 with an agreement that was significant for its shift from ‘restoration of alienated lands’ to ‘allotment of alternative lands’. Mr. Antony was praised for effecting the shift and for solving the long pending issue.

The protestors demanded restoration of at least 5 acres of land to each tribal family in order to sustain themselves, allotment of 2.25 lakh acres of land to 45,000 tribal families in the state and inclusion of tribal areas under V Schedule of the Constitution so as to make them autonomous regions. They also demanded enforcement of the provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996. Finally, an agreement containing following points was reached between the government and the agitators: (i) Allotment of 5 acres to each landless Adivasi family wherever possible and to guarantee a minimum of 1 acre each (ii) Five year livelihood programme to be implemented till the land becomes fully productive for the families to sustain themselves (iii) Enactment of a law to prevent any further alienation of land (iv) State cabinet resolution to declare Adivasi areas as scheduled areas under V schedule (v) Implementation of a master plan for the development of adivasis and to prepare it with the involvement of Adivasis (vi) Maximum possible land will be found in Wayanad district, at least 10,000 acres, where Adivasis are concentrated (vii) Promise to abide by the decision of the Supreme Court regarding the appeal.

Not just the ‘Alienation of Land’ But an ‘Alienation of Regimes From the People’

It is not just the alienation of land but also alienation of successive regimes from tribal people that has led to this assertion of tribals. Tribals were forced to assert independently in view of conscious policy adopted by both UDF and LDF regimes that went against the interests of tribals. In fact, more than a decade had already passed between 1975 act and framing of rules in 1986 to bring it to force, and finally when the government came up with Ordinances and Bills, two decades had passed. In the meantime, migrated non-tribals took over many more lands from tribals. They also had the land under their possession for more than 10 years. The migrated settler farmers got organized and were also powerful both economically and politically. They described restoration of alienated tribal lands as per the 1975 act as ‘impractical’ and pressurized the government to amend it. On the other hand, tribals in the state constitute only 1.2 percent of the population, numbering around 3.2 lakhs, and moreover, they were not so organized. The process of alienation of land was through exploitation and cheating of tribals who were unaware of their rights, innocent and powerless. In this backdrop, political parties of all hues in the state, including both UDF and LDF gave in to the settlers argument of ‘impracticality’ of restoration. So, they came up with two ordinances in 1996 itself, one during UDF regime and another during LDF regime in the same year. Opposition parties in the state are vociferously raising the issue in the assembly. Still, they have restricted themselves only to the demand of judicial enquiry into the incident of firing, without adequately addressing the basic issue of immediate allotment of lands to the tribals, which really led to the incident.

The tribal agitation is a reflection of a definite anti-tribal tilt in favour of migrant settlers in the state administration and of continued neglect of tribals in various parts of the state. The UDF regime has proved to be a Police Raj. Failure of the government to implement its own promises of the 2001 agreement and subsequent police highhandedness has really led to the tragic incident.

The agitation is also a pronounced critique of Left movement in the state, particularly the LDF led by CPI(M), in terms of its nature, land reforms and the continued neglect of the most vulnerable section of the society. The Left movement should have given necessary protection to tribals, that too when land reforms of the state are considered to be relatively more progressive. Land to the tribals should have been the first priority of any land reform. Unfortunately, it has become the last priority for the ‘architects’ of land reform led by CPI(M). What we witness today is only a fallout of the omissions of the CPI(M).

-- V. Shankar