Resource rights of Adivasis: A cross-country perspective

Protecting the resource rights of Adivasis
Right to life is meaningless without the right to livelihood, and the right to livelihood is crucially dependent on resource rights.

By M Kunhaman

Resource rights of Adivasis: My intention is to start a debate on a very serious issue, already discussed at the United Nations and has received many significant contributions from writers and scholars. My insights will offer a cross-country perspective on a problem that is well noticed. A classic example would be the US — the cradle of individuality and personal freedom. The plight of native Americans — those killed and pushed beyond the Mississippi — reminds us of the sacrifices made to build capitalism. I have often wondered if these attacks and the resistance can be analysed through the lens of class struggle.

It appears to me that the perpetual class struggle in history was not that of capitalists and workers, but that of the oppressors and the oppressed. The oppressed and the oppressor can belong to the same class, race, or gender, but this oppression that has been the cruelest instrument of subjugation. In the US, the balance of economic resources shifted from the original inhabitants to the settlers.

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Today when we examine the mainstream political discourse around inequality in America, it is limited to the issues of the African-American community and immigrants. Much down the line do we find Native Americans getting a mention. The same applies to the situation in countries like Canada and Australia where indigenous people have been sidetracked and forced to live a life of sub-human existence owing to absence of resource rights.

Resource rights under attack

When we come to India, the outright aggression towards Adivasis in the colonial period is unlike anything experienced by the Dalits or other marginalized communities. Colonial rule in some aspects benefitted the Dalits, but the colonial state’s approach to Adivasis was hostile and aggressive. This trend, as we see, continues throughout history, where the state is hostile to the Adivasis. However, the Adivasis are not averse to the state. As we see in the present, Adivasis are dependent on the state for protection.

The state is their provider, protector, and arbiter. Still, the state’s hostility towards them continues in line with the colonial legacy. The struggle od Adivasis in India predates even the formation of the Indian National Congress. If we look at it, Adivasis were the first freedom fighters; everywhere we see that Adivasis have resisted colonial aggression. The history of Adivasis is the history of struggle, something like what Hegel formulated and Marx elaborated, that these struggles are the engine of history.

The colonial state’s venture into what we know today as the 5th schedule areas meant for indigenous communities stripped off their resources, shattering their right to land and forest. The same aggression on different pretexts continues to this day. Adivasis in India have always inhabited the most resource-laden lands of the subcontinent that had metals, minerals, water, and so on. The colonial state took away the land and forest in the face of stiff opposition from Adivasis. The cycle is perpetual, and their struggle is indeed the real struggle. The struggle for resource rights forms the cornerstone of Adivasi existence.

Dalits and Adivasis had separate problems — Dalits were labour dependent, and the Adivasis were resource-dependent. While Dalits suffered from social exclusion, Adivasis were suffering from geographical isolation. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first and only prominent leader who recognized this deprivation and was concerned with the Adivasi cause. His anthropological advisor Verrier Elwin proposed three approaches for tribal development — an isolationist approach, an assimilationist approach, and an integrationist approach that Nehru preferred. It became the basis of his tribal panchsheel policy.

Adivasis and resource rights

Now let’s shift focus to Kerala. An important event that ought to be looked at is the 1903 Hillmen Settlement Act. The legislation recognised tribal communities’ right to land. Outsiders were prevented from acquiring tribal land, and even entering into trade with the tribals required permission from the state. The Travancore state went as far as instating armed police to designate the region as protected area.

The motive behind the moves was abstraction, forests provided an abundant supply of timber and elephants. Hence it was in the interest of the state that the tribes did not leave the forest. This meant that tribal communities were assured certain resource rights that too under state production, and various projects were introduced to develop agriculture and land in these regions.

This opened possibilities for the tribes to participate in the market, not just as labourers but as independent producers selling their products in markets such as Coimbatore. Consequently, many new items of consumption entered tribal households changing consumption patterns, but also providing these groups aspirational mobility. When we look into the question of social mobility of a group, the best indicator is the consumption pattern, not income or employment. We find that in these tribal households, items of consumption had entered and been well integrated.

Nisha Joseph from TISS had conducted a study in the Oommen Chandy colony on the Mannans — a group that had adapted well to the conditions that now enjoy superior levels of income compared with other tribal communities and non-tribals. I am also reminded of the time when we were computing data for the people’s plan. We found that 3% of the super-rich families in Kerala were tribal families. Such powerful and wealthy families had come to be in Travancore, their fortune built on resource rights protected by the state and active market participation.

When we come to Malabar regions such as Attapadi, Nilambur and Wayanad, many of the tribes here were not originally forest-dwellers and did not have access to resource base or protected resource rights . For example, the Paniyans, numerical the largest tribe in Kerala, were brought in as slaves to work in the vast paddy fields in Wayanad. Once Tipu opened up Wayanad through the construction of the Coimbatore Calicut Road.

Many farmers from Chetti and Gounder communities moved from the eastern part of the Western Ghats to Wayanad and brought with them slaves. Wayanad then was land rich and labour-scarce economy. In Nilambur, communities such Cholanaikkans lived in sub-human conditions. Attapadi remained inaccessible for a long time as it was plagued by malaria. It is only after the 1950s that we see an influx of outsiders into the region.

When we look at Kerala as a whole, only the Kuruchiya tribe resisted the colonial state’s aggression and land grab. In Travancore, it was a state-supported system and mechanisms that had helped the tribes. Kuruchias, on the other hand, had a self-sufficient and self-supported system. They lived in joint families hence they could not be easily alienated from their resources, and they were well-versed and proficient in warfare.

This, in particular, and their command over the terrain enabled them to defend their territory and eventually defeat the British army. This is an event that demands significant attention. Much is known about Pazhashi Raja, a pro-British ruler who turned to the tribals when he realised that the British would turn against him.

In fact, the Adivasis had resisted, fought, and won the war in 1812. In my eyes this is a revolution, where institutional structures of a tribe had come together to win a fight over resource control. It is a revolution where the indigenous community defeated the colonial forces relying solely on social institutions and guerilla warfare. Unfortunately, in writings of history, you will only find mention of this as a rebellion, not a revolution. I believe historians are at question here.

All forms of resistance by the marginalised are conveniently characterised as revolt, not revolution. This is why I believe history is more than objective facts. How historical facts are presented dictates how scholars create history. In this particular situation, I think it is indicative of the bias of historians. But what I am attempting to bring to light is that these indigenous communities had clear resource consciousness, but gradually these resources were taken away. These resources were taken away by the state, political parties, and the church.

Like the indigenous communities of South Africa had once said, they gave us the bible and took away our land. Throughout the course of history, we see these attacks on tribal communities and their resources many of which they successfully resisted. But as time goes by, the state will become increasingly anti-tribal while the tribes have shown no particular aversion to the state.

Across the 5th schedule area, the state has tried to conflate tribal demands and issues as Maoist supported or Adivasis as Maoist sympathisers when they seek solutions to their problems within the framework of the Indian Constitution. It is to protect the aggressors that this narrative is continuously recirculated. As long as resource democracy is not ensured, political democracy is meaningless.

What is of paramount importance to the tribal communities is resource democracy. I would caveat this by saying that it is impossible for tribes to regain their lost resources. Socioeconomic situations and demographics have changed drastically, and hence restoration of resources is now beyond question. The future platform to raising tribal concerns lies in aligning with all the indigenous communities that have lost their resource base or are now demanding resources, much like we saw during the Chengara struggle.

Declaring the right to property as a universal demand and a universal human right should be taken into consideration by organisations such as the United Nations. Only such rights can help the tribal community. Take for instance, the Muthangya struggle. It was not about restoring a lost resource base. It was not about lost land. The problem raised was that of landlessness, not about land alienation. It was a peasant question, not a tribal question.

In my opinion, the entire 5th schedule region and regions such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, decoupling of the Adivasi question and the Maoist question is required as these are not the same. Secondly, resource demand should be put forward as a primary demand for universal property rights. It should be pursued as part of article-21 — the right to life.

The Supreme Court has taken a progressive view, especially around the 1980s that the right to life is meaningless without the right to livelihood, and the right to livelihood is crucially dependent on resource rights. Resource rights need to be articulated in a new form, a universal form so that all deprived social groups are brought under a common platform to assert their basic demand at a global level.

(Prof. M Kunhaman retired as professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur campus.)