Kalimooppan began a lonely legal battle when an upper-caste neighbour forcibly usurped his land flouting all laws preventing alienation of tribal lands.

This mans 3-decade fight is the story of tribal land alienation in Keralas AttappadyPhoto by Shaji Mullookkaran
news Tribal rights Sunday, June 16, 2019 - 13:18

Now in his late eighties, Kalimooppan of Bhoothivazhi hamlet in the Irula tribal community in Kerala’s adivasi heartland Attappady has reasons to believe that the gods have stopped smiling on him.

More than three decades have passed since he and his two brothers, Mulluran and Bolan, lost rights over the nine acres and ten cents of agricultural land they had inherited from their late father Kaadan. An upper-caste neighbour forcibly usurped the land flouting all laws preventing alienation of tribal lands, and thus began Kalimooppan’s lonely battle to regain his lost land, in which he used to cultivate pulses, millets and different kinds of vegetables.

The issue is still unresolved despite validation of his claim by different court orders obtained through difficult legal processes since 1990. As the Attappady block panchayat area lacked a court or easy access to the criminal jurisprudence system, illiterate Kalimooppan had to travel to far away locations like Ottappalam and Mannarkkad to fight his cases. Crippled by the delayed and time-consuming justice system in the country, he has spent a major part of the last three decades on court verandahs, police station compounds, offices of lawyers and in travel.

“Though the four advocates who appeared for him in different courts all these years charged relatively small amounts, the liability on Kalimooppan was heavy as he lacked any agricultural income despite inheriting such a huge tract of prime land. He was forced to sell his cattle to meet expenses,” points out social worker K Sivadasan, who has stood with the tribal elder through all the years of fighting the case.

“What I have won in all these years is just a set of court orders. The officials who appeared in court as respondents had to accept that my complaint was genuine. On the other hand, my enemies have both money power to influence the officials and black magic to cause extreme hardship to me,” says a visibly upset Kalimooppan, whose health has deteriorated heavily in recent days as a result of the long and protracted legal battle.

Kalimooppan lives alone in a new house built under a tribal welfare project. The house lacks any grounds in which he can initiate bare minimum agriculture.

Photo by Shaji Mullookkaran
Like tribals elsewhere, Kalimoopan holds enormous faith in supernatural powers, especially in the capabilities of black magic practitioners, to spell doom. He alleges that his land troubles are on account of black magic being used by the encroachers.

“I have knocked at many doors but justice is still eluding me. But I am not ready to give up,” says Kalimooppan, the face of massive tribal land alienation that occurred in backward Attappady post Independence.

Officials ignoring claim

In 2005, tribals went on a hunger strike in front of the Agali village office for 13 days seeking restoration of Kalimooppan’s land. The then Mannarkkad Taluk Officer intervened and ordered quick restoration of the land. However, revenue authorities refused to accept tax nor issue a possession certificate to him.

When Kalimooppan attempted to farm the field a week after the agitation, the encroacher physically attacked him and he had to be hospitalised. Allegedly bribed and influenced, the police registered a fake case of attempted murder against Kalimooppan and arrested him from the hospital bed. He was imprisoned for two months at the sub-jail in Palakkad till a lawyer affiliated to the legal services authority convinced the court that the police case was not genuine.

In 2007, Kalimooppan approached the revenue court in Ottappalam, which soon ordered allocation of five acres and 70 cents of land to him, leaving disputes over the rest of the land to further hearings. Though it was a partial victory, he was ready for a settlement. However, the district administration took no step to implement the order. Despite repeated representations, the District Collector has chosen to ignore his claim.

Following a news report on Kalimooppan’s plight in a prominent national daily, then SC/ST Welfare Minister K Jayalakshmi gave instructions to district authorities to restore his land. But officials did nothing citing technical issues. He then approached civil courts in Mannarkkad seeking immediate implementation of the revenue court order. The revenue officials accepted his argument as genuine but sought time claiming that the move may invite violent reactions from the settlers. The officials also favoured out-of-court negotiations to settle the matter. However, the court stood with Kalimooppan, who sought quick governmental action to restore the land. But the implementation is still getting delayed.

While the office of SC/ST Welfare Minister AK Balan has instructed revenue officials to implement the order without further delay, the District Collector said he would look into the matter soon. “As I am new to this place and the land alienation issue in Attappady is enormous, I need some time to look into the whole issue. Anyway, we will not deny him justice,” Collector D Balamurali said.

Sivadasan declares, “Restoration of alienated tribal land, addressing livelihood concerns and ensuring dedicated supply of potable water would heal almost all Attappady’s current woes, where encroachers have made traditionally occupying tribals a disempowered minority.”

“All major political formations of Kerala are in support of encroachers in Attappady largely because of their vote bank politics targeting powerful encroachers,” he alleges. As activists point out, tribes constitute slightly more than 1% of the total population of so-called progressive Kerala, while settlers have political clout.

Going by statistics, Attappady block has about 10,000 tribal families belonging to the Irula, Muduga and Kurumba communities, living in 192 oorus (settlements) scattered in three-gram panchayats – Agali, Pudur and Sholayur. Tribal people, who constituted more than 90% of the region’s population in 1951, have become a minority over the years due to the influx of settlers from the plains of Kerala and western Tamil Nadu.

Of the 70,000 people living here at present, tribes are only about 40%. Malnutrition and anaemia are prevalent widely among the tribals in Attappady. Over the years, Attappady has become a curious case of homogenisation and marginalisation. Alienation, displacement and faulty administration are making life miserable for the aborigines here.

KA Shaji is a south Indian journalist who regularly reports from the backward parts of the region and works in the areas of environmental protection, social advocacy, and grassroots level development. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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