What happened in Wayanad

It is not the first time that tribals of the Wayanad district in Kerala have rebelled against the state. In fact, the recent incident at the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Kerala in February 2003 is the third of its kind

By A Damodaran
Published: Wednesday 30 April 2003

What happened in Wayanad

-- It is not the first time that tribals of the Wayanad district in Kerala have rebelled against the state. In fact, the recent incident at the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Kerala in February 2003 is the third of its kind.

The first outburst was witnessed at the dawn of the 19th century when Pazhassi Raja -- the famous ruler of Wayanad region -- fought against the British rule in Malabar. The king's death and defeat in 1805 marked the end of tribal independence in Wayanad. The tribals were forced to work as labourers for landlords and European planters.

The second wave of the tribal rebellion in Wayanad was in the late 1960s. The root of this mutiny went back to the 1950s, when the government of the erstwhile Madras State initiated a scheme in Wayanad to provide land jointly to the tribals and migrants. But this experiment proved to be a disaster. It aimed to 'modernise' the tribes involved in shifting cultivation to settled agriculture. But tribes, uncomfortable with settled agriculture, leased out their lands to settlers. Taking advantage of Kerala's tenancy laws, these settlers succeeded in confiscating the tribal's lands. Even tribes which benefited from land allocations got into debt traps and had to become bonded labourers.

Nearly 165 years after the first wave of rebellion, the Adiya and the Paniya tribals of Wayanad were galvanised by the Naxalite movement to rebel against the landlords. But the movement petered out. Intriguingly, it was left to the national emergency of 1975 and its '20 point programme' to accelerate the liberation of bonded labour in the district. However, successive state governments dragged their feet on the issue.

The state of hopelessness engendered by these failures was compounded by forest legislations -- which reinforced the dictum of singular stakeholdership -- initiated by the British. Even the Forest Conservation Act 1980 separated forest lands from the traditional inhabitants. The Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and the National Forest Policy 1988 too were wedded to the narrow conservationist line of the Forest Conservation Act. Tribals were treated on the same footing as 'outside communities', when it came to the issue of relocation and encroachment of forest lands. Huge budgets were made for relocation of tribals outside national parks and sanctuaries. However, in relocation programmes, no special consideration was shown in management plans for the original denizens.

Wayanad also did not share the euphoria over the joint forest management programme initiated in the 1990s. Interestingly, in 1990, the Union ministry of environment and forests had issued a set of guidelines on 'tribal forest interface'. Ostensibly, these guidelines were meant to accord importance to tribal sentiments and tribal rights. In reality, they were cosmetic. Though they touched upon the 'review of disputed claim over forest lands' and 'pattas/leases/grants involving forest lands', they gave very little away to the tribes. Rather, these guidelines only served to reinforce the principle of singular stakeholdership. A case in point has been the guideline regarding the bonafide claims of tribals over forests in areas, which are not observing due process of settlement. Though the norms provided for resumption of rights to tribes in reserved forests, in practice they gave authorities the muscle to restrict these rights in the larger interest of 'conservation'.

It is this story of neglect of tribals of Wayanad by Kerala's forestry establishment that led to the third rebellion. This is the first major challenge against forest laws and establishments by the tribals of Wayanad. What has been challenged in the Muthanga forests is the notion that tribals are inimical to forests and wildlife.

The Muthanga incident symbolises the second homecoming for Wayanad tribals . It also shows a longing for their habitat, which they had lost to the British in 1805. Finally, they want to move away from the language of globalised India, which considers them as an indispensable raw material providing a source of unlimited labour for multinational corporations. The tribal forest issue in Wayanad thus goes beyond the narrow issue of 'land ownership' to the more fundamental issue of 'cultural identity' of these members of India's marginalised civilisation.

A Damodaran is professor, Economics, Trade & Environment, Indian Institute of Plantation Management, Bangalore

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.