Kerala is widely acclaimed for its achievements in social development as it boasts a near total literacy, comparatively higher life expectancy and land reforms. Even though its per capita income has remained low, this phenomenon has famously become known as the “Kerala Model of Development.” However, the exclusion of Dalits, who constitute 9.8 per cent of the State's total population; Adivasis, who constitute 1.14 per cent; and fisher people, from the success story of Kerala's development, has gone relatively unacknowledged. More recently, scholars have drawn attention to the landlessness of Dalits and Adivasis that has rendered large segments of these social groups incapable of participating in the developmental process, and to the land struggles that have ensued as a result over the past decade.

In 1975, a law passed by Parliament made it mandatory for the Government of Kerala to restore alienated lands to Adivasis who had lost out due to the in-migration of peasant communities from other parts of Kerala, who had access to better agricultural technologies, capital and organisational skills. These new settlers had a different notion of land that was directly related to property and ownership, a concept that Adivasis had not yet acquired. In 1988, Nalla Thampi, a social activist, filed a formal petition in the High Court of Kerala demanding that the State government implement the long overdue rule passed by Parliament. The court directed the Government to restore to the Adivasis the lands that were alienated from them. Due to the political clout of the land's occupants, however, as well as a series of litigations, the restoration of land to the Adivasis never materialised.

Denial of ownership

In the case of Kerala's Dalits, although they were integral to agrarian production, they were prevented from owning land in the traditional caste society. This situation did not change in any substantial manner with the introduction of land reforms in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These reforms made former tenants — mostly upper and middle-caste citizens — land owners, as they could prove their status as tenants by presenting rent receipts.

Dalits, as labourers, could not stake such claims on land. As a result, Dalits were given ownership of tiny plots of land that housed their huts. The total area of land that they could own under the rules of land reforms varied from 0.04 hectares in villages to 0.02 hectares in urban areas. This legal denial of ownership and access to land meant that Dalits would never evolve as land-owning peasants despite their continued role in agrarian society.

Since 1980, intergenerational fragmentation of Dalits' tiny plots of land gave way to autonomous movements demanding cultivable lands to landless Dalits, thereby causing confrontation with established political parties. In particular, Communist parties that were behind the historic programme of land reforms felt threatened by the gradual development of these autonomous movements that demanded the reopening of the “settled problem” of land reforms in Kerala.

Although certain leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) even openly expressed their interest in a second land reform that would benefit Dalits and other marginalised social groups, they had to recant due to opposition from the party.

Fearing the erosion of their support bases, no political party was willing to do anything that would destabilise the status quo in land ownership. Except for a few dissenters on both the Left and the Right, it seems to have been in all parties' interests to view the land question in Kerala as solved once and for all.

Formation of movements

Under such circumstances, Dalit and Adivasi activists from various parts of Kerala such as M. Geethanandan from Kannur, C. K. Janu from Wayanad, Sunny M. Kapikkad, and M. D. Thomas from Kottayam led the movement in 2000 in claiming land for the landless Adivasis. With the formation of the Adivasi Gotra Maha Sabha (the Grand Council of Adivasis), movements developed to occupy excess lands held by the Department of Forests and big plantations as well as lands under government control which were meant to be redistributed among landless people.

These mobilisations, which began in the late 1990s, were new to Kerala's polity as they were organised by Dalit and Adivasi activists and not controlled by political parties. This is a major difference from other regions of India, such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, where Maoists had armed Adivasis in their struggles against exploitation and oppression. The mobilisations in Kerala, however, were aimed at securing the rights of Adivasis to claim their alienated lands as well as enabling Dalits to acquire lands.

In 2002, the political agitation received tremendous civil society support and the Government was forced to recognise the oppressive situation under which Adivasis have been living in Kerala. In 2003, under the leadership of Adivasi Gotra Maha Sabha, the people laid siege to the wild life sanctuary at Muthanga in Wayanad District and police firing on February 19, 2003 led to the death of an Adivasi activist and a policeman.

In the aftermath of the event, the police hunted down Janu and Geethanandan, the leaders of the movement. Following this mobilisation, the Adivasi Gotra Maha Sabha held other confrontations in the village of Aralam (the neighbouring district of Kannur) that had a large population of the Adivasi community of Paniyar.

Illegal occupation

In 2007, another Dalit activist, Laha Gopalan, launched another land struggle at Chengara (the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala) that occupied a rubber plantation leased by Harrison-Malayalam Plantations from the former native ruler of the princely state of Travancore.

The leadership of the movement had brought in landless people, mostly from Dalit communities from various parts of the State, to occupy the plantation and start living there.

This led to confrontations with the State government, political parties, and trade unions. The Government thought of it as illegal occupation while the trade unions felt that the occupiers were denying the legitimate rights of the workers of the plantations.

This occupation led to a series of confrontations that eventually made the issue of landlessness a highly political one. What makes this politicisation distinctive moreover, is that the Adivasi and Dalit struggles for land in Kerala has been mobilised outside and against major political parties in the State, while raising ethical questions of long-denied equality and redistributive justice.

(The author is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, India. He was a CASI Fall 2011 Visiting Scholar.)

This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania