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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith: Tribal Rage in Kerala

By Rajeev Srinivasan
February 28, 2003 16:21 IST
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In much of the world, tribal societies have been decimated, their cultures devastated, and their members enslaved. Native Americans (Dee Brown's classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), Maoris (the 1995 film Once Were Warriors), Australian aborigines (the 1978 film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith) have all been subjected to extreme duress. The same thing has happened in India as well.

The recent incidents at the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala's Wyanad district need to be seen in this context. Dispossessed tribals, who have seen their lands and their way of life being destroyed before their very eyes, are fighting back with the only weapons they have available to them: agitations and violence.

It was not necessarily always so. Kerala has pockets of tribals in its dense Western Ghats forests who have lived unmolested for centuries or even millennia. Recent genetic data has suggested that some of them might go back to the very first wave of out migrants from Africa: truly ancient genes.

The sheer inaccessibility of the Western Ghats allowed tribals to live there without outside interference, using sustainable forest produce. Besides, I understand at least some of them were quite capable of defending themselves: for example, the anti-British campaigns of Pazhassi Raja were spearheaded by an army of Kurichya tribal archers.

A typical lowlander has had a fairly symbiotic relationship with tribals: Malayan tribals are the principal performers of the theyyam, the stunning folk dance of Malabar; and various tribal groups would periodically come to the villages to sell forest produce and buy supplies for themselves. Since tropical rain forests traditionally covered 60 to 70 per cent of Kerala's land, tribal habitats and cultures could sustain themselves.

All this changed in the last hundred years. It is the oldest story in the book: land-grab and greed. Lowlanders, mostly from Central Kerala, started encroaching onto the mountains. By hook or by crook they managed to get control over a lot of forest land; even though some succumbed to malaria, wild elephants and other natural hazards, many prospered, especially by converting the slopes into plantations of rubber, tea, and other cash crops. The result for tribals? Extinction!

This invasion, which mirrors on a much smaller scale the white conquest of North America and Oceania, is documented in S K Pottekkat's novel Vishakanyaka ('Poison maiden') about how the virgin forest is a dangerous adversary; and in O V Vijayan's epic Thalamurakal ('Generations'), the old feudal landlord finds one fine day that enterprising settlers have taken over his lands by the simple expedient of bribing the land title recorder.

The white Christian authorities (ruling directly in Malabar, and with heavy influence on Travancore and Cochin) encouraged all this, partly because white planters too were coming in and setting up tea and coffee estates, and partly because the vast majority of small-time settlers were Christians.

Over time, this trend has accelerated. If you drive through highland districts such as Idukki or Pathanamthitta, you will find innumerable white-washed churches dotting the landscape; and hardly any non-Christian shrines. The settlers are almost entirely Christian. In their enthusiasm, some Christians actually set fire to the Sabarimala temple in the 1950s: it was a nuisance to them in their attempts to grab the surrounding forest.

Interestingly, Hindus in Kerala have held forests in reverence, and seldom practiced clear felling or slash-and-burn agriculture. There were many sarpa kavu (sacred serpent groves) that were left untouched as tributes to chthonic deities. Christian converts feel no such compunctions. For example, in the Khasi hills of Meghalaya, converted Christians destroyed their sacred groves, resulting in devastating ecological damage, including massive runoff and denudation of the hills, with the result that Cherrapunji, despite intense rainfall, is parched for water today.

Fortunately, the Kerala settlers chose plantation crops, so that there is a superficial greenery that is appealing to the eye. However, this is deceptive: it is a monoculture, with none of the bio-diversity of the natural rainforest. This has certainly led to the extinction of many species, even though the Western Ghats remain one of the bio-diversity hotspots of the world, according to UNESCO. There are only a few small pockets of genuine forest left in Kerala, less than 10% of the land, for instance the Silent Valley bio-reserve, saved from being inundated by a hydroelectric project after a long agitation.

All this, naturally enough, had a serious impact on tribal societies. After their land, which I suppose they only had a hazy idea was something that could be bought and sold, was expropriated, they have been forced to work in the plantations as labor. There are many tales of widespread sexual exploitation of tribal women by plantation managers and settlers. And there are also stories of forced conversion to Christianity if tribals want to retain their jobs.

Therefore, in short order, tribals have lost their land, their women, and sometimes their faith; they have been dispossessed and enslaved. What you see in Muthanga is that rage overflowing.

And the usual suspects, the Old Left, have been rather quiet about all this. There were in the 1970s instances of extreme left wing violence in Kerala, with Naxalites attacking lowland landowners. I can't remember any attacks against plantation owners. In the Old Left lexicon, it must be taboo to oppose landlords, however vile they might be, if they happen to be Christians or Muslims.

The current agitation, led by the fiery C K Janu, comes at a bad time. The average Kerala person is suffering from agitation fatigue, so the tribals cannot expect much sympathy from the man in the street. The tribals are fighting now for implementation of a promise made to them by A K Antony's government last year, that they would be given 5 acres of land each.

Unfortunately there simply isn't much excess land in Kerala: even encroachers are now forced to move to nearby Karnataka's and Tamil Nadu's forests (the 1993 film Vidheyan or The Servile by Adoor Gopalakrishnan).

There are only a few bleak choices: a. distribute precious rainforest preserves, b. take over and re-distribute plantation land, a lot of which is unprofitable now with huge drops in commodity prices for rubber, tea etc, c. stonewall the tribals and wear them down.

We all know what will not happen: b. Vested interests will see to it.

What the government is hoping is that the tribals will walk off the sunset. Somehow I don't see C K Janu doing that: she is not going to be as docile as Chief Seathl purportedly was in 1854, while asking the white man to leave the Native American's land alone:

…for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.


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Rajeev Srinivasan