On February 22, a twenty seven-year-old mentally ill tribal youth named Madhu was beaten to death by a group of people in Attappady, a tribal area of Kerala. The group captured him from the forest and brutally attacked him alleging that he was a thief. According to police he collapsed and died in the police jeep while taking him to the hospital. Initially the local police and media tried to downplay the incident as death of a thief in a retaliatory mob attack. But the narrative changed soon after the social media went outrageous on the issue. Common men questioned the version of police and print media and expressed their shock and anguish over the pathetic situation of the life of tribals in Kerala. The killing of a hungry tribal youth exposed the state affairs in the tribal areas and instantly attracted the attention of people.
In reality the dismal situation of tribals in Kerala, especially of Attappady is not a new issue. Their land, livelihood, culture, traditions etc. are under siege for a long time. People belong to the organised religions systematically migrated to the tribal areas and captured their land by various means. It subsequently deprived the tribals of livelihood options. Various court orders directed the governments to evict the encroachments and reinstate the land to the tribals. But successive governments and corrupt officials collaborating with the land grabbing mafia disregarded the court orders and sabotaged the interest of tribals. Vote-bank politics of organised religions and influence of economic considerations also played major role in it. Some activists say that this is the real reason why the government is not doing re-survey of tribal areas to identify the land grabbing.
In Kerala, most of the tribals are traditionally depended on agriculture for livelihood. The land once cultivated Millet, Maze, Paddy and Peanuts which are no more available to the tribals. But today organised gangs are free to cultivate marijuana in some areas. Further, the governments also failed to create any kind of meaningful livelihood opportunities for them. Lack of livelihood opportunities forced many of them to poverty and poverty related deaths. Malnutrition, child mortality etc. are rampant in the tribal colonies. In fact there are many programmes and schemes devised for tribal areas. But most of the tribals are not getting the benefit of such schemes. Corrupt officials and middlemen are the real beneficiaries of such schemes. Due to the lackadaisical approach of the state government central government funds devised for tribal development is also not reaching the beneficiaries properly.
The Communists always claim that they are for the poor. But in Kerala where the communists are voted to power first time in the history, the hungry tribals are dying like flies. In Kerala, the Communists claim that they introduced the first land reform act to provide land for the poor and the peasants. But the state of tribals in the state is a testimony of the hollowness of their claim. Moreover, their attitude and contempt towards tribal community is explicate from a comment made by AK Balan a communist leader and a minister in the Pinarayi Vijayan ministry, who mocked Laksmikutty Amma a tribal medical practitioner when awarded Padma Shri.
The issues of tribal’s in India is not a new phenomenon, it has a long history. Indeed their troubles started when the British enacted the first forest act in 1878 and subsequently amended it in 1927. By that act the British banned grazing, hunting and gathering of tribals. It also altered the agriculture practices, effectively eliminating their livelihood opportunities. In reality the British were forcing them to become the prey of missionaries. The missionaries were waiting like hungry vultures for converting people. It is not an isolated incident, the worldover the colonists did the same. Wherever they went they systematically pushed the indigenous tribal people to poverty and subsequently proselytesation. The history of indigenous people of America, Africa, Australia and New Zeeland validate this argument. Unfortunately after Independence, successive governments in Kerala continued the policies of the British and deprive the tribals of their rights and pushed them towards the predators. But the same governments were blind to the organised migration and land grabbing.
(The writer is the Director of the Centre for
South Indian Studies, New Delhi)