issue 241 - March 1993
GAELLE ROUX (INSET) / VANESSA BAIRD
Hills of shame
Up into the highlands to see the tribal peoples of Wynad
– and another Kerala altogether…
The bus driver is an even-handed psychopath. As he speeds up through densely inhabited areas or around mountain-clinging hairpin bends his hatred seems to be equally distributed between pedestrians diving for shelter and passengers mentally preparing to meet their Maker. If only he seemed to be enjoying himself one might take some vicarious pleasure in that. But no, his face expresses nothing but surly rage, pathological fury.
The countryside flashes past, beautiful, tantalizing at all angles. We wind upwards through rubber plantations – the light-barked trees with their little cups attached – proof of the common Keralite complaint that land is being turned over to cash cropping.
We are travelling up into the highland forest area of Wynad, in the Western Ghats, which reaches as high as 1,200 metres above sea level. As we climb the temperature drops and wonderful cool wafts hit our faces every time we pass one of the many streams pouring down the rock-face just a few feet from the bus window.
It’s this sort of thing that gives Wynad the name ‘the Kashmir of Southern India’. But Wynad has other characteristics. It is a pocket of poverty, inequality and deprivation in a state that prides itself on its social programmes. The literacy rate, for example, is low compared with the rest of the state – estimates range from 40 to 58 per cent as opposed to the 90 to 100 per cent elsewhere.
Why have the people of Wynad missed out? The main reason is that 25 per cent of the population are the indigenous or ‘tribal’ people of Kerala, squeezed onto marginal land by settlers over the years – and up until recently ignored by the state government. In spite of land reform and distribution elsewhere in Kerala, 30 per cent of tribal families are still landless. Among certain groups – such as the Paniyas – landlessness is twice as high.
The uncomfortable reality is that over 90 per cent of tribal people in Kerala are living below the poverty line. It is this record that gives Wynad another name – ‘Africa in Kerala’. And it’s no coincidence that it was here – in what was densely forested highland that Ajitha and her fellow Naxalites hoped to start a revolution in the late 1960s.
Wynad has yet another identity: Kerala’s Siberia. This is the state to which incompetent, corrupt or simply unpopular officials are sent. ‘It’s a form of punishment,’ says Lukose Jacob, an activist for indigenous people, who have not been helped by this one bit.
We are not stopping in Wynad right now but going a bit further to Gudalur in the Nilgiri Hills just over the border in Tamil Nadu. We – that is freelance photographer Gaelle Roux and me – have planned to meet up with activist and journalist Mari Marcel Thekaekara. It is from this region that she used to write her Letter from Tamil Nadu column for the NI. Mari and her husband Stan run a project called Accord for adivasi or tribal people.
As we cross the border into Tamil Nadu the physical change is dramatic. The asphalt road from Kerala gives way to a deeply rutted, potholed gesture of a road. The countryside looks different too. Suddenly we are in a region of truly vast tea plantations (some owned by Brooke Bond) fringed with rough temporary-looking shacks in which plantation workers live. Gone are the proud little painted houses of Kerala, each with its garden growing coconut trees, tapioca and bananas; looking established, settled. Here instead are people dependent on the great estates; people who are insecure, expendable, and whose passage on this earth is particularly transient. Thin, undernourished women make their way back at dusk from work in the tea plantations – to another day’s work at home.
Night has fallen by the time we reach Gudalur and are met by Mari and Stan at the Adivasi Hospital they helped set up. That evening we hear about the situation of tribal people in Tamil Nadu, we listen to tales of ruthless exploitation and cruelty towards a people who are innocent of devious ways. We hear of the ease with which settlers have managed to get them to part with land deeds – ‘I will look after them for you or the white ants will get them’ – and how exploitation is made easy by high rates of illiteracy among the adivasi.
The cruelty takes the form not just of land grabbing but also of murder and police brutality. Little by little, and from various sources, I will hear how much Accord has done to help tribal people defend themselves and restore some of the dignity that had been taken away from them.
Accord’s main achievement has been getting land titles – and making sure that they are safeguarded. When we visit the offices the next day we are greeted with the news that yet another adivasi community has – through Accord and its lawyer – won a long legal battle for land rights.
Next day we cross the border back into Kerala where the situation of tribal people is supposed to be better than in Tamil Nadu. They are better educated and therefore more able to defend themselves. The Left parties have taken steps towards the restoration of tribal land – but implementation has been weak. And land shortage is critical, forcing tribal people into unofficial bonded labour.
Our guide Subramaniam takes us to people of his community – the Mulukurumba. The first village looks wonderful, with its clean compounds and houses made of local materials, blending into the countryside. The Mulukurumba are comparatively well off. More literate and more likely to hold a patch of land per family than other tribal groups, they can command greater respect from non-tribal people. They live by growing rice, which they eat, and coffee, ginger and pepper, which they sell.
With Subramaniam acting as go-between and interpreter I set about trying to interview people. Finding people prepared to be interviewed is not easy. It’s not that they are hiding in their houses – quite the opposite. They have all come out to be entertained. The circus has come to town and they haven’t the least intention of boring on about their lives – they want to enjoy the spectacle.
And here it is: funny people, with funny white skin, a funny language and odd bits of electronic gadgetry. When I do eventually get some interviews it’s in front of an audience of scores – not quite the setting for intimate questions about social relationships, problems with alcohol, and how you get on with your husband. Even a question like: ‘Are you married?’ produces a ripple of embarrassed giggles.
Things get better – but I feel I’m coming hard up against the limits of transcultural journalism. To get anything more than a superficial, presented sense of people’s lives you need to be able to become almost invisible, to disappear into the background. And – of course – to be trusted.
But why should they trust you? They have been cheated and exploited time and again as a result of their openness. Why should they open their hearts, their lives, to any passing juggler?
We drive on. There are more cleared spaces than woods now. The woods that gave tribal people everything – their knowledge, their livelihoods, their sense of belonging – have almost gone. The settlers moved in and planted cash crops.
At Sultan’s Battery we stop and a Protestant priest comes up to us. He thinks I’m photographing his church. In fact I’m framing a poster of near-naked beefcake in front of which a man on a motorbike is talking to two women. The church is just the background.
On establishing my nationality the priest exclaims: ‘Ah England. Our mother!’ My God, I think, get me out of here. He goes on. ‘It’s terrible, terrible about Princess Diana. She’s a disgrace, a disgrace to the Royal Family.’ Thankfully he soon says his goodbyes and disappears.
Lukose Jacob tells us about the literacy programme he and others were running for adivasis in the area before the current centre-right state Government took over.
‘It’s useless now,’ he says. ‘They don’t use methods or materials appropriate to the tribal people. They don’t pay the teachers. It’s a failure. They should just leave it to us if they can’t do it properly.’
We hit the road again and head for Mananthavady. Along the way we come across cramped settlements of Paniya people. These are the poorest and most oppressed of the tribal people – 70 per cent are landless and 95 per cent are illiterate.
A long tradition of low self-esteem hangs about their necks. A ‘paniya’ means ‘one who does work’. These people have been inhabitants of Wynad since 4,000 BC. They were taken as slaves by the conquerors who arrived 1,500 years ago. Legend says they became slaves when their forebears were asked to which caste they belonged and replied ‘the lowest of all castes’ – since then they have worked in the paddy fields of those with greater power.
Near Mananthavady is Valliyakoorkava Temple where such Paniyas used to be sold as slaves. Nearby is Solidarity, another tribal organization. A woman I hoped to see is away at a demonstration held earlier today. It was in protest against non-tribal men who sexually exploit tribal women and then deny responsibility for the pregnancies that ensue. I am reminded of what Mari said about the image of tribal people as exotic, erotic. Tribal women are seen as erotic because traditionally they are bare-shouldered, unlike other Indian women. And it’s not taboo for tribal women to drink alcohol – which makes them easier to seduce or assault.
The people at Solidarity are quite critical of state policy towards tribal people. The main neglect is the failure to ensure that landless adivasis should at least receive the 20 square metres of land stipulated by the 1969 Land Reform. If there is not enough land to do this, says Solidarity, it should be taken away from cash-cropping companies (some of them state-owned) that are violating the 16-hectare upper limit on company holdings. The state has also interfered directly by destroying tribal houses in some parts of Kerala and replacing them with unsuitable – and unwelcome – brick houses. Attitude is clearly a problem.
Subramaniam has family on both sides of the border – in Kerala and in Tamil Nadu. So which side is better? He pauses a long while before answering.
‘It used to be much better in Kerala. But I think things are now better in Tamil Nadu because we have Accord to defend ourselves with and there is more land.’
Kerala cannot increase its land surface. But the irony is stark. When it came to dividing up the land more equally among its people, who got left out? The people who had lived on the land longest and had the greatest physical and spiritual need for it.
That’s the immensely sad and shameful story of indigenous people the world over. And it’s a story that can only be rewritten by indigenous people in their own organizations – with the support of others prepared to open their eyes, hearts and minds.