Volume 1, No. 7, September 2000


Kannur Adivasi Land Struggle : Towards A New Approach On Kerala

— Usha

"Until justice rolls down like water

And righteousness like a mighty stream"


The Adivasi land struggles initiated under the leadership of the Adivasi Vimochana Munnani (AVM), in Kannur district of Kerala, is interesting in that they have a somewhat new orientation on building up the revolutionary people’s movement in the state.

The struggle began when at Thiruvonappuram, Peravoor in Kannur district, 9 landless Adivasi families occupied 9.25 acres. On December 22, 1999 a convention was held at Peravoor where the policy of land seizure was formally declared. At the Peravoor convention, representatives of 20 Adivasi, Dalit and other democratic organisations had taken part. According to the declaration on December 22, at Peravoor, the first phase of land occupation struggles will be limited to recapturing surplus land, reserve forest land, government project lands and lands of large landowners. By the end of February, a long campaign march was planned to cover all the Adivasi colonies all over Kerala. During the march, details would be collected regarding land alienated from the Adivasis and prepare them to recapture these lands. Efforts will be made to forge unity with small and middle peasants. Land defence squads will also be formed who will also give leadership to collective farming in the lands captured. In the land seized by the Adivasi Vimochana Munnani, food crops are being planted on a priority basis, instead of cash crops. They have also alternative conceptions of energy production.

As the AVM was determined to retain the land captured and was gearing up to expand their struggle, the district collector of Kannur district promised that the land occupied at Thiruvonappuram would be distributed to the nine Adivasi families (who belong to the Paniyar tribe), one acre each. (The collector had also promised that 14,000 acres of surplus land that was long recovered from the landlords would be distributed to 14,000 Adivasi families and to cover the shortfall, some Adivasi families would be settled on 3,000 acres of forest land.) This has, indeed, been an initial success for the AVM. But he went back on his word after the ruling party, the CPM, brought in yet another nine Adivasi families, belonging to another tribe, the Kurichiar, on to the same land. The CPM objective was obviously to pit the Adivasis against each other and nip the struggle in the bud. But instead of taking the bait, the AVM has resolved to expand the struggle into other plots of land.

As the rule goes, any democratic movement that comes up in a CPM-dominated state has to face up to these social chauvinists. In the month of December, before the convention at Peravoor, the CPM goons, brought in from other localities, attacked two important organisers of the Adivasi Vimochana Munnani, T. Dhamu and Geethanandan. They were beaten up with lathis in front of the Adivasis. They did not spare the Adivasis also. They sprinkled chilly powder into their eyes and pelted stones at the Adivasis. The social fascist CPM has given directives to their peasant outfit to pull up their sleeves in Kannur district. So the AVM can expect more nuisance in the near future. According to T. Dhamu, the CPI/CPM are, like all revisionists, ‘traitors of the class’.

Though there are some NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) organising Adivasis particularly in Wayanad, (the district of Adivasi concentration), yet with strings attached, they are not being able to transcend the limits of legal forms of struggle. In this sense, the land struggle in Kannur district is qualitatively different. The AVM has declared its solidarity to the agrarian revolutionary struggles of A.P., Dandakaranya and Bihar.

It was under the pressure of the people’s movement, and the spring thunder of the early 70’s, that the 1975 Act for restoration of alienated land to the Adivasis was enacted. This Act was incorporated in Schedule 9 of the Constitution and so it could not be challenged in the courts. It provided for restoration of all land alienated since 1960. Perhaps, the only major limitation of the 1975 Act was that it did not provide for restoration of Adivasi lands alienated before 1960. The 1975 Act was not anti-settlers in that there was also provision, for compensation to the settlers whose lands were being taken over. But it is a reflection on the nature of the successive governments that have come in power in the State that it took 11 years (until 1986) for the government to formulate the rules operationalising the 1975 Act. Later, in order to escape contempt of court proceedings, the government had to break its passivity as the High Court ruled on a Public Interest Litigation that alienated lands should be restored to the Adivasis under the Act. So in 1996, the Kerala assembly unanimously (except for one MLA, Gowriyamma, a CPM dropout) passed an amendment to the 1975 Act. This Bill, by and large, sought to protect the interests of the encroachers of Adivasi land. But the bill sent to the President of India for assent was turned down on grounds that it went against Schedule 9 of the Constitution. So the government had to go in for another round of legislation in 1999 in order to circumvent the High Court ruling.

The clause in the 1975 law made all transactions of Adivasi land from 1960 illegal, as was also provided in the 1999 Act. But through a sub-clause, if the 1996 Bill exempted settlers who had encroached Adivasi land upto 1 hectare (two and a half acres), till 1982, the 1999 Bill provided exemption upto 2 hectares (five acres), till 1986, thus subverting the provision. In turn, if the 1996 Bill had promised 1hectare of land to the landless Adivasis, the 1999 Bill brings it down to merely 1 acre.

The exemption is sufficient protection for the encroachers. It does not matter even if the encroacher owns hundreds of acres of land; he would still get exemption for the Adivasi land he has encroached, upto 5 acres. The ceiling is for the Adivasi’s land, not for the encroacher’s land. By a definitional somersault of ‘land’ as ‘agricultural land’, the 1999 Bill has sought shrewdly to bypass Schedule 9 and circumvent the President’s assent. The CPI(M) Kerala government is enacting legislation giving the status of just peasants or agricultural labourers to the Adivasis. This is a wrong precedent, which could eventually be extended to other states as well.

All these are despite the fact that the 1975 Act was incorporated in Schedule 9 of the Constitution and that the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 has it that encroaching the land of Adivasis is a crime punishable even with rigorous imprisonment. Historically, the Christian churches and various other caste/communal organisations in the State were also party to the land-alienation from the Adivasis.

Needless to say that what is taking place is a gross violation of the rights of a deprived community consisting of only 1.02 percent of the population. Already, the Adivasis in Kerala are victims of poverty deaths, and diseases like sickle-cell anaemia. By now, Adivasis in Kerala are largely integrated into the class society and are among the actual toilers on the land. In spite of being the original inhabitants of the land, the ‘Adi-vasis’ are being oppressed for centuries and are now facing extinction, not the least, as a result of the population control schemes of the government. Even their precious indigenous knowledge, of bio-diversity and medicinal herbs, is today, being pirated and patented. Had they been rewarded for such knowledge, they could, at least, have led a dignified life. The Adivasi women are a particularly exploited lot. They are victims of sexual exploitation. Moreover, as per tradition, they do not have right over land in Kerala.

The government and various vested interests have been trying to portray the migrant settlers as the oppressors of Adivasis. It may be asserted beyond doubt that it is primarily the wrongful policies of the governments that has led to the contradiction between the Adivasis and the settlers. The Adivasis’ relation to the land alienated from them is a very organic one. Alienated from their land, they are like ‘fish out of water.’ For Adivasis, land is never a speculative asset. Their culture is inalienably rooted on the land they lived on. So the demand of the Adivasi groups that the alienated land be restored to them is very justified. The non-tribal settlers who have occupied their land could be given the alternative piece of land that the government is promising. There is the claim that land has changed hands and fragmented after 1960 and that the present owners of the land are poor. Such cases are but rare.

The Government of Kerala has already spent 25 crores of rupees for ‘Adivasi welfare’ in the Kannur, Wayanad, Palakkad districts. The government projects have settled some Adivasi families on them and are supposedly meant for their welfare but they do not even get minimum wages as labourers on these project lands. In fact, the balance sheet has only endless tales of corruption to tell. Adivasi Vimochana Munnani wants that these lands be redistributed to the landless Adivasis.

It is a major task for the AVM today to forge alliances with the landless sections among Dalits(about one-fifth of the population) and landless among other communities.

What now is the new orientation brought in by the Adivasi land struggle in Kannur? It is that they have given a new-old primacy of place to the land question, as against the hitherto important place assigned to the nationality question in many of the debates on revolutionary transformation in Kerala. (For instance, the erstwhile CRC-CPI (ML) under the leadership of K. Venu had given a one-sided emphasis to the nationality question of Kerala.) So then what is their understanding about the land question?

Adivasi Vimochana Munnani’s statistics has it that only one-tenth of the land declared surplus was confiscated for distribution to the landless peasantry by the government under the land reforms initiated since 1970. And out of the land confiscated, only one-third was actually distributed even to this day. And what Adivasis got was just one percent of the land distributed. About one and a half lakh hectares of reserved forest land confiscated from big jenmis is also in the custody of the government. Although it was promised that this land would be given to Adivasis, the government went back on its word. It is not merely some settlers who are encroachers who have misappropriated the land of the Adivasis but the main encroacher is the state itself. That is why all the governments that came by turns were reluctant to implement the 1975 Act, opines the Adivasi Vimochana Munnani in its organ, ‘Saram’. Moreover, according to T. Dhamu, nearly 70 percent of the land acquired from jenmis during the implementation of the Agrarian Reforms Act, 1970 is still retained by the Kerala government. This might point to that the state itself has become the landlord after the so-called land reforms. A lot of land lying with the state is uncultivated. The government has legally given on lease 1,14,861 acres of land to those close to the establishment — erstwhile feudal lords, bureaucrats and comprador capitalists. More than three years have passed since a legislative committee report had pointed out that the rent taken from them is merely Rs.5/- and that Tata, the biggest landowner in Kerala, alone has cornered 50,000 acres therefrom.

The question of fragmentation of landholdings in the state has been something very much harped upon — that 89 percent of the landholdings in Kerala are below half a hectare. But the other side of it is that there is also particularly high concentration of land. In terms of land concentration, Kerala does not fare well in comparison to most other states. Thus in 1982, as for the top 10% of the households, Kerala ranks third with only A.P. and T.N. ahead of it. Today, roughly there is an 11 percent of the population who are practically landless in Kerala, owning merely 0.46 percent of the total land. Whereas 0.05 percent who are big landowners hold roughly 11 percent of the land. Foreign owners and religious institutions also hold significant chunks of land, particularly in plantations.

The earlier understanding that largely capitalist relations have developed in the agriculture sector in Kerala, is being put under question now. Many varieties of rent (pattom) appropriation methods and other semi-feudal modes of exploitation are becoming prevalent in Kerala today. Panku (share) pattom, pana (money) pattom, palisa (interest) pattom are some of the methods becoming prevalent. These are indicative that semi-feudal relations are not only persisting, but also making a comeback. Thus the CPM-led government in Kerala is proposing to amend the land laws in such a way that ‘agricultural land is available for cultivation to peasants without jeopardising the ownership rights of the present land owners’. This means nothing but to legalise the various forms of pattom (rent) appropriation in Kerala today.

The land reforms conducted in Kerala, admittedly the best among all Indian states, was reform of landlordism – ‘the feudal jenmi turned into a capitalist jenmi’. The interests of big landowners was protected under the Agrarian Reforms Act, 1970. It primarily achieved a re-distribution at the top and it achieved its undeclared objective of forcing big landowners to shift from food crops to cash crops, particularly rubber plantations. (Obviously, this was in the interests of imperialism and comprador big capital in India.) This should be clear from the fact that there was no ceiling imposed on cash crop plantations. Indeed, the collapse of food production was perhaps, the major casualty resulting from the land reforms in Kerala.

Between 1981-82 and 1995-96, the area under paddy cultivation came down to half, and production came down to about one-third. More than 80% of the food grain requirements of Kerala in 1991 was met through imports. It is the poor who understand the importance of food production, the need to safeguard themselves against poverty. Land today, has become a speculative asset, partly because of the inflow of remittances from abroad and also because of semi-feudal usury, etc. That majority of the major owners of land, the principal productive resource, do not use it for productive purposes, can be said to be the main cause for retardation of the economy and degradation of culture. If only the ownership of land comes into the hands of the actual tillers, mainly Adivasis and Dalits, with those having agriculture as the mainstay for their livelihood, will this scenario change. About how the land struggles may be linked up to the nationality question and the anti-imperialist task, T. Dhamu of the AVM, feels organising basic classes would make a sustainable struggle, which could even withstand state repression. Moreover, it could also inspire and draw in other sections of society onto the path of the anti-imperialist struggle.

In the present phase of imperialism, with speculative investments far outweighing real productive activity, wherein the volatility of capital is at the highest, wherein imperialist investments can slip out say, at the slightest indication of a currency crisis, the real fight against imperialism, perhaps, would be that people take control over the real productive resources, land, marine resources, human resources and other sources of indigenous capital. And in a primarily agricultural third world country, land, indeed is the principal productive asset. Hence the importance of agrarian revolution seeking to unleash the productive capabilities of the masses by implementing land to the tiller and the importance of nationality struggles aimed at taking control over the productive resources within a national territory.



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