Progressive land reforms of Kerala and traditionally marginalized communities
by C I Issac on 03 Mar 2010 2 Comments

The subaltern jatis are the solid foundation of Left party administration in Kerala. For over seven decades, these poor sections of society blindly believed in the political aerobatics of the Communist parties. But now, in an age of transparency wrought by visual media, they have realized the fact that they were deceived.


The Left administration of Kerala raised its head under the boast of its legislative step of land reforms. It is a burning reality that even after 40 years of the Act, the SC/ST communities of Kerala are landless. The big fishes of Kerala illegally keep millions of acres of land in their custody. SC/ST comprise 10 percent of the total population and hitherto formed a solid votebank of the Communists. Now they realize the greatest betrayal of the Communists and have unsheathed the sword of their wrath. In the light of the new developments, may I unwrap the political book of accounts before you? 


Prior to the Kerala Land Reform Act of 1963, the land owning pattern of the State was more feudalistic. Land ownership was classified under janmam, otti, pattom, etc., by which the big landowners [janmi] had nothing to do with actual agricultural operations but were the chief beneficiaries of the yield. Under the conventional land relations of the State there existed various classes of agrarian community such as petty landowning farmers who directly involved in agricultural production, landless farm labourers or primary producers, cultivators of pattom [lease] land, and medium level landholding groups who were engaged in agrarian operations by hired labour.  


The East India Company commercialised native land and agriculture for profit. Hitherto, land was considered social wealth and agriculture was based on ritualistic and reciprocal relations. The social relations of the day fixed the median for the distribution of the surplus. The socio-economic relations prior to the arrival of the Company were pre-capitalistic and hence the idea of absolute ownership of land did not prevail.


Through various land settlements, the Company assigned the land to several individuals and families with unquestionable ownership right through title deeds so as to facilitate collection of land revenues. This was the beginning of the impoverishment of various marginalized and weaker sections in the society. It resulted in unequal social relations. That is why the crisis of land rights came to the forefront of the national movement.  


Long before independence, an equitable land distribution was a major political concern. That is why almost all political parties adopted the maxim “farm land for farmers”. But after independence, most political parties diluted this dictum. Above all, they miserably failed to identify the actual farming community. Thus, the traditional farm labour classes, particularly from SC communities, even after the much applauded land reforms, remained in the old socio-economic structure.


Similarly forest encroachments, forest land reforms, etc impoverished several tribal communities [ST] of Kerala. To cut a long story short, SC and ST communities who constitute ten percent [9+1 respectively] of the population of the State are still unorganized and at the bottom of the economic pecking order.  


ST communities of India are patriotic and valiant and their resistance to alien domination has not been properly elucidated in history textbooks. The colonial masters suffered most due to the patriotism of the Tribal societies. In 1831, the Company as part of its land revenue settlement, transferred the ownership of the lands of the Kol tribes of Chhotanagpur to the non-tribal business community, as part of its general land revenue policy. Such infringement of tribal rights was repeated all over India. From Wayanadu to Nagaland, the British realized the depth and extent of patriotic fervour of various tribal societies.


Some tribal resistance was continuous, un-yielding and uncompromising. That is why in 1871 the British introduced the Criminal Tribes Act to shatter the morale of the tribes. It did not produce desired results for the colonial administration and could not extinguish the spirit of nationalism among the tribes. But it gave them social ostracism, discrimination by civil society, and alienation from the mainstream. The Imperial Government started with regulation on forest land to ruin the tribal base and enhance its revenue collection. In 1865, the Imperial Government introduced the Forest Act. In 1867 Imperial Forestry Service [now Indian Forest Service] was started and in 1878 Imperial Forest Act came into being and the alienation of the sons of the forest commenced. Since 1878, almost all Forest Acts knowingly or unknowingly expelled the tribes from their natural abodes.  


The Imperial Forest Act was the beginning of the shrinking of our forest wealth. The lawmakers had not realised that the tribes from time immemorial functioned as custodians of our forest wealth. They never exploited the forest but only milked it. In independent India, states like Kerala deliberately tried to transplant them to civil society without understanding their tradition and traits. Instead of enriching their culture, language and social life in accordance with modernity, the reformers/uplifters attempted to transplant them to our hypocritical modernity. This resulted in shattering the ‘ecology’ of certain tribes completely. They are now wandering landless, as captives of neo-bourgeoisie or political-janmis. No Land Reform Acts of the State are competent to compensate the accumulated loss of these unfortunate sections.  


Free India experimented with another example of land reform, the Bhoodan [land gift] movement of Acharya Vinoba Bhave. He hoped to empower the landless poor of the country and walked across India asking landlords to consider him as one of their sons and give him a portion of their land which he then distributed to landless poor. It was a futile effort. 


Kerala’s land reforms legislation goes back to the days of Patom A Thanupillai, Chief Minister of the State of Travancore-Cochin. In 1954 he attempted to meet the long-pending demand for equitable redistribution of cultivable land and introduced the land reform bill in the legislative assembly as seven separate bills as a safeguard against judicial interference. He said if all clauses of the land reform bill were put in a comprehensive transcript and moved as a total bill, it may result in total lapse through judicial interference and suspension of any of the clauses of the bill (under the constitutional rights granted to individuals under Article 31). In 1973, his apprehension proved wise [See Supreme Court decision in (Swami) Kesavanda Bharati vs. Govt of Kerala, AIR 1973 SC 146/24-04-1973].


Thanupillai could not complete his tenure as Chief Minister and the legislation was kept in cold storage. He was succeeded by Panampalli Govindamenon, who referred the bill to a select committee. Clouds of political turmoil haunted him also. Then in 1957, the first Communist chief minister EMS Namboothirippadu presented a new land reform bill by clubbing the earlier seven and claimed credit through the publicity of the cadre-based party. 


But EMS’ land reform bill was not sufficient to cater to the socialistic aspirations of the common man. EMS lacked the practical wisdom of Patom A Thanupillai and his endeavour met the destiny foreseen by Patom. Only in 1963 the much awaited bill received ratification on the floor of the legislative assembly. In the meantime, the spirit of the bill was diluted.


It is a great paradox that plantations and trust properties were exempted from the land ceiling provisions of the Act, while coconut, pepper and paddy cultivated lands included. Commercial crops like rubber, coffee and tea were in the exemption of the Act.


This perverse clause dragged the State from the frying pan to the burning fire of food scarcity and excessive dependence of neighbouring States for daily food requirements. To cater to the vested interests of newly emerged pressure groups, the interests of food producers were dealt with roughly. The 1963 Act was implemented only in 1970. This long gestation was a blessing in disguise to many landlords and helped transform their excessive land as trusts or plantations. This provision of the Act damaged the food crop cultivation and promoted the encroachment of forest and revenue land under the guise of plantations.


Further, in 2005 the government granted plantation status to cashew cultivating lands [Business Line, 22 Aug. 2005].  While thousands from marginalized groups are still landless, lakhs of acres of cultivable land in Munnar and regions of Sahyadri Mountain are in the possession of big fish - a paradox in the highly politicized democratic society of Kerala.   


The ‘lame’ Land Reform Act has not served any purpose. The real farmers were not empowered with economically viable shares of farmland. SC jatis who lost land rights due to historical reasons were forced to settle for 5 to 10 cents of land [See, Keralam 2000, Kerala Basha Institute, Trivandrum, 2000, p 839]. Even today there is much discrimination in government transactions related to SCs [See the highly discriminative settlement of 6 Oct. 2009 between Chengara land agitation leader Laha Gopalan and Govt of Kerala]. 


No government or political parties hitherto sincerely worked for the economic empowerment of SC/ST jatis of Kerala. The main reason is that they never formed part of votebank politics, being mainly farm labourers, and no trade union was interested to modernize their labour conditions. The de facto reason was the political lords’ [janmies’] feudal mentality of keeping serfs. Most heroic martyrs of all political organizations of Kerala hail from the subalterns jatis, an un-debated factor so far.


But the chief beneficiaries of the martyrdom of these subalterns are the elite jatis. Hence all power-sharing political parties are reluctant to empower the subalterns economically. SC jati’s average landholding per family is 27 cents, which is lowest of all jatis in the State [Kerala Patanam, Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, September 2006, p 54]. While lakhs of acres are occupied by big guns through rape of mother nature, poor landless search for a piece of land to build a hut of their own - the paradox of the much lauded Kerala model!


[The author is a retired Professor of History, and lives in Trivandrum. The article is based on a talk at the UGC-sponsored National Seminar on “Recent Land Tensions in Kerala”, MES College, Iduki, 18 Feb. 2010 

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