It’s been seven years since 60-year-old Karuppi and 68 Adivasi families squatted on a 70-acre plot of land belonging to the Kerala Forest Department in Meenangadi panchayat in Wayanad district with the help of the Adivasi Kshema Samithi, a pro-Communist Party of India (Marxist) outfit. They set up makeshift huts inside the vast teak plantation and lived there for months withstanding eviction threats from law enforcement agencies.

The Adivasis occupied the land until the state government agreed to distribute one acre of land each to all families. The new settlement in Appad came to be known as Panchami Colony, named after the first baby born during the struggle.

Today, Karuppi lives in a tiny concrete house that is built to resemble a thatched hut. Goitre gives her a bit of discomfort, but more than the huge growth on her neck, she is worried that she still not got the title deeds of her plot.

The question of land

As Kerala goes to the polls on May 16, land and landlessness remains a big issue for Adivasis – one of the most marginalised communities in Kerala – who have been fighting for land reform for decades now.

The majority of men in Panchami colony work as labourers in the area, while others depend on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme to make a living. Women grow coffee, and vegetables and rear cows and goats. It’s a tough life made worse now by the fact that drought is staring them in the face. Panchami Colony’s six wells are drying up by the day. Since water is so precious, irrigation remains a distant possibility during summer.

Karuppi and her community are upset at being ignored by successive governments. “We are passing through a difficult period,” said Karuppi. “Neither politicians nor government comes to our rescue,” she lamented, pointing to the wilted coffee plants in a far corner.

But despite their political, social and economic marginalisation, tribal majority areas have always registered a good turnout during elections. For instance, Kottathara panchayat in Wayanad district, where Adivasis form more than 80 per cent of the electorate, registered 87.78% polling during last November’s election to local bodies. It is perhaps hope that keeps their faith in the electoral process. Karuppi said she would vote in this Assembly election too. “If I do not use my franchise, they will continue to ignore us,” she said.

Paying lip service

According to the 2011 census, Adivasis constitute 18.5% of the total population in Wayanad district, which has the largest tribal population in Kerala. Of them, Paniyas are the largest tribe who comprise 45.6% of the Adivasi population, followed by Kurichiyas (16.6%), Kurumas (13.8%) and Kattunayakas (11.2%). The district is also home to Mananthavady and Sultan Bathery – the only two seats reserved for Scheduled Tribe communities in the 140-member state Assembly.

KK Surendran, senior lecturer at the District Institution of Education and Training in Wayanad, said that established political parties considered Adivasis as votebanks and weren’t really serious about improving their lives. “CPI(M), Congress, BJP or any established political party does not provide voice to the voiceless,” said Surendran. He added that these parties always ignored the numerical strength of the Paniyas, fielding candidates from the socially and financially well-off Kurichiya and Kuruma communities during Assembly elections instead. “There is no dearth of talent from the Paniya community, but they will get opportunities in the local body polls,” said Surendran.

The election will witness a strong fight between Kurichiya leaders PK Jayalakshmi of the Congress-led United Democratic Front and OR Kelu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front in Mananthavady. Also, Kurichiya leader IC Balakrishnan of the UDF will attempt to retain Sultan Bathery as he takes on Kuruma leader Rugmini Subramanian of the LDF.

Surendran may have a point about major parties paying lip-service to Adivasis as these parties may have Adivasi wings but don’t necessarily involve them in decision-making. For instance, P Vasudevan, the district secretary of the Adivasi Kshema Samithi, a pro-Communist Party of India (Marxist) outfit, admitted that the AKS was not involved in the selection of candidates. “[That] is the prerogative of the CPI(M)-led LDF. Our duty is to work for their victory,” said Vasudevan.

The fight for land

But the selection of candidates is still a minor topic for Adivasis as compared to the bigger issue of land distribution for which tribals have been fighting for decades.

In 2001, the Adivasi Dalit Action Council – which later became Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha – launched a historic agitation to put the spotlight on land and livelihood issues regarding the Adivasis. The group set up camps in front of the state secretariat, chief minister’s office and district headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram. They called off the agitation only 48 days later after the government assured them that it would distribute cultivable land to all landless tribals in each district.

When the government didn’t fulfil its promise, in 2003, Adivasis walked into the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary bordering Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and set up makeshift accommodation. They declared self-rule and started cultivating the land. Instead of attempting to negotiate with the agitators, the government tried to evict them using brute force, turning the forest into a killing field. According to an official account, two persons, a tribal and a policeman, were killed in police firing on February 19, 2003. But tribals dispute this version, alleging that 16 Adivasis had been shot dead. An independent enquiry by the People's Judicial Enquiry Commission said that "excessive police force could have been wholly avoided and the matter could have been resolved without causing death or injury to anyone."

Over the years, both the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front governments in Kerala have ignored the Adivasis repeated demand for land. This forced the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha to launch a another novel protest – Nilpu Samaram, or the Standing Protest – in 2014 demanding a rehabilitation package for tribal families who were involved in the Muthanga agitation, compensation for tribal children and those who were arrested in connection with the agitation, and handing over of 19,600 acre of forest land allotted by the Central government. Though the agitation was called off after 162 days, the organisation is planning to restart the protest as the government has failed to keep its promises.

CK Janu, the leader of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, who led the Muthanga agitation, said that both the fronts would be questioned on land distribution in the run up to the Assembly poll. “Successive governments, led by LDF and UDF, failed to keep their promises on land distribution,” said Janu. “Landlords, who want to keep Adivasis as labourers, control both the fronts. CPI(M) is the most anti-Adivasi political party in Kerala now.”

Janu accused the CPI(M) of floating the Adivasi Kshema Samithi just because party leaders were afraid that Adivasis were shifting loyalties to the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha. “The CPI(M) feared losing a huge support base. So they floated AKS just to oppose us,”she said. But Vasudevan denied this allegation. He said that the Adivasi Kshema Samithi was the only genuine Adivasi outfit. “We fought for Adivasi rights even when LDF ruled the state,” said Vasudevan. “We will not allow anyone to question our integrity. AGMS had cheated poor tribespeople with the occupation of the un-inhabitable Muthanga sanctuary.”

EK Shaji, a Paniya labourer, said he felt that only the LDF could save the Adivasi community. “The Adivasi community should rally behind the Left in the elections. Only the LDF will come up with a package to solve the land issue.” But tribal leaders are well aware that the only way to empower their communities is to seize political power for themselves. “Tribespeople follow diktats from their landlords for whom they toil hard from dawn to dusk,” said Janu.“But elections haven’t done any good to them. It is high time they emerged as a political power.”

All photographs by TA Ameerudheen.