Whose land is it anyway?

Published: August 3, 2009 - 17:33 Updated: July 2, 2015 - 13:19

After decades of condemnation, tribals in western Orissa have liberated their land. Interestingly, in this Maoist stronghold, this unique movement is non-violent

Bibhuti Pati Narayanpatna, Koraput (Orissa)

The undivided Koraput district in western Orissa has acquired notoriety because of the Maoists literally taking over the dense hilly and forest areas, inhabited by tribal communities, still trapped in the vicious trap of infinite poverty, injustice and underdevelopment. The Maoists' presence stretch across the landscape and beyond to Ganjam, Malkangiri, Rayagada, and across the tense border zones of Jharkhand, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.

Strangely, even as the national media focuses on Maoists, it has ignored a unique, militant and non-violent mass movement of the tribals which is as big a story as the land struggle in Nandigram, or the people's resistance in Lalgarh. Indeed, there have been isolated incidents of violence, but largely, the movement has been peaceful. And the truth is, it has been a big success.

The tribals here have forcibly "recovered" thousands of hectares of agricultural land from the landlords and redistributed them among the tribal community. They have categorically claimed that this indigenous land belonged to the indigenous people who have inhabited this primordial land and forests since centuries, and mostly outsiders, with the help of police, bureaucracy and politicians, have captured their land. Under the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha (CMAS), under the leadership of veteran CPI-ML leader Ganantha Patra, this movement has no links with Maoists. It is led and controlled by tribals and has a support base running into thousands.

No wonder the police could not move even as thousands blocked their way with bows, arrows and sickles, albeit peacefully, even while others actually started tilling the 'recovered' land. The movement has spread and acquired huge support base in the Koraput region, where scattered tribal communities share a strong chord of unity and angst with the tribals of Narayanpatna. The tribals, after years of condemnation, have refused to accept the logic of injustice anymore.

Tacitly, the Maoists have extended their support, but the movement remains autonomous. Said Gananatha Patra, "The ideology of the Maoists and our politics is completely different. They believe in violence to defeat. But in this way they will never bring about any qualitative change among the citizens and this revolution cannot last for long. We want open, daylight revolution, build up politics of resistance in the daily life of people, participate openly in the democratic process to seek justice and our fundamental rights. This is our concept of revolution. So how are we the same as the Maoists? However, we don't support the ban on the Maoists. It's like the British banning the communists during the freedom struggle."

The recovered land, now under cultivation, with tribal groups with bows and arrows protecting the liberated land, is being equally distributed even while the resources are going to be shared collectively. Says Patra, "We will distribute land equitably among poor tribals, according to their family's involvement in cultivation, and not by hired labour or sharecroppers. There are plenty of earlier examples about the equitable distribution of recovered land after and during a land struggle and we will see to it that there is no dissatisfaction and misunderstanding."

 In 1994, tribal agitations reportedly started in Bandhugaon in the region for the first time over a land dispute. A tribal's land was grabbed to start an 'arrack business'. Six years later, upper caste landlords grabbed the land of three tribals after giving them petty amounts as loans.  The tribals protested. They used every form of democratic means. They submitted a memorandum to the tehsildar, the district magistrate and the superintendent of police of Koraput. They demanded that the 'arrack trade' and land-grabbing should be stopped.

The community of 'sundhis' in the arrack business and contractors were trapping tribals in a debt trap, mortgaging their land and thereafter grabbing it. Tribals were often being used as virtual slaves and bonded labour in their own usurped land. Local officials, the tehsil office and police were in collusion with the land-grabbers. The tribals were treated with utter disdain.

Sundari Mahanandia and her husband Kansari are Dalits. Their case is a classic testimony of land relations in tribal areas and how for decades they have been condemned in abject silence and pain. With tears in her eyes she narrates her story:

"I have only half acre of land. My father-in-law was sick and he mortgaged this land to Gati Kishore Padhi for Rs 800. Gati set a precondition that Kansari would have to work in his fields without any wages. My father-in-law accepted the condition -- he had no other alternative. In fact, this illegal slavery has been rampant in this area. Gati paid Rs 80, Rs 20 and Rs 400 only. When the CMAS complained against Gati, Kansari refused to work as a slave without any wages on his field. Narayan Bidika and Gati filed a false case in the police station. The police picked up Kansari, treated him badly, and put him in the lock-up for four nights. The police and the landlords threatened that if we don't leave the CMAS, they will brand us as Naxalites and put us in jail. But the CMAS fought tooth and nail. Kansari had to be released. And after 23 years, we were able to recover our land and get freedom from this slavery."

There are similar cases all over the Narayanpatna block, and beyond in the Koraput region. No wonder armed Maoists have restored 'law and order' in these perennially exploited areas.

Ramoni, a 24-year-old widow of Gechela village tells her typical tale: Her husband Sankara died in December, 2008. She has a little son. Sankara had borrowed Rs 300 from a landlord. Says Ramoni, "Twenty days later, Sankara died. The landlord claimed Rs 600. I told him it was Rs 300. He shouted, 'including interest'. How can this be possible, I retorted. The landlord then made vulgar proposals to me to escape the loan. I immediately reacted angrily. He threatened to take me to the police station. After three days he came with his musclemen and forcibly took away a pair of oxen and a male calf from my home. For how long can we take this relentless inhumanity, this injustice?"

Orissa Revenue Minister Surjya Narayan Patra, when asked how come forms of 'slavery' are still prevalent in western Orissa in the 21st century, told Hardnews, "We have received innumerable complaints of slavery in Narayanpatna and enquiries are continuing. In the event these cases are proved we shall proceed against this system as per law."

When pointed out that land-grabbing in tribal areas is an old problem and the government has always turned a blind eye, he blamed it on the Congress and the BJP. "The area was captured by the Congress, it was the fort of Giridhari Gomango. For the first time our BJD MLA candidate has won there. The situation aggravated in the last seven years. During this time the revenue department was with our former alliance partner, BJP. Our government has granted Rs 2 lakh rupees in NREGA scheme, 68 tube wells and other MLA LAD facilities. But it is a fact that the people have been neglected by the government and administration for many years."

He added, "We have formed a committee to look into the cases of land-grabbing and we are under planning to establish a Special Revenue Court there to solve these land-grabbing dispute cases. Wherever we get evidence of land-grabbing we will reject the land deed."  

Indeed, thousands of cases are pending in different courts relating to tribal land encroachment in Orissa. Like in most tribal areas across the nation, revenue records or documents are not available - basically because tribals have been indigenous inhabitants of this land which belongs to them historically, and their land has been usurped by diabolical subterfuge using their poverty and illiteracy. More than 45,000 forest cases are pending against these poor tribals. How can the tribals fight the entrenched State machinery and this vicious nexus of the landlords, officials and police?

"Thousands of tribals are framed by the forest laws. Tribals are accused of stealing forest produce, fuel wood etc, from their own ancestral community spaces. In the village of Tikarposi the poor tribals are trapped for alleged theft of Rs 2 only - of forest produce. To escape punishment they run to courts and police stations, humiliated, terrified and tortured. Not only are their land being grabbed, the government and the justice system are overtly biased against them, even robbing them of their traditional livelihood," says Sujita Hial, a Dalit Christian girl of Podapadar village.

Summed up Bisik Khara, a Dalit of Dampalur village: "The Naveen Patnaik government enforced the Tribal Land Amendment Act, 1952, in 2000, to assuage the feelings of the tribals who were being displaced due to his industrialisation policy. How will the state government solve this ancient problem and fix almost 1.5 lakh tribal land cases? Can they break the nexus against the tribals? Naveen has declared that all forest cases against the tribals will be dropped. But the promise has not been fulfilled. So how long can the tribals accept this relentless, blatant injustice, and where should they go to seek justice - you tell me?"

Said a woman, silently listening till now, "So what are the options left for us if not resistance and struggle? This is our forefathers' land. This is our country. We want our rights and our land. We want freedom from indignity, hunger, jail, courts, injustice - this is endless, forever? What will they do to us? Kill us? Let them. We are ready to die. But this injustice is not acceptable anymore. No more."


After decades of condemnation, tribals in western Orissa have liberated their land. Interestingly, in this Maoist stronghold, this unique movement is non-violent Bibhuti Pati Narayanpatna, Koraput (Orissa)

Read more stories by Whose land is it anyway?

This story is from print issue of HardNews