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The Disenfranchisement of Adivasis in Kerala

Disclaimer: I have put links to the referred journals and articles wherever I can. It may not be possible to read all of them at a go so I recommend reading through the article and then choosing the links you want to read.

A Literature Review

These were some readings and anecdotes that set the foundation of my knowledge about that tribe. This is an annotated list of these readings and the things I learnt from them


  1. The scheduled tribes’ population in Kerala is (4.85 lacs)1.45% of the general population according to the 2011 census.

    Caste Names, Structures in Wayanad

  2. In this reading, I read how the caste system was organized in Wayanad. Pages 1–13 outline each of the tribes, their histories and how they got their names, which is interesting because of the implications it has for the phrase “What’s in a name”; pages 14–19 describe the history of Wayanad and its Adivasi populations and page 20 describes the tribe at the focus of this article- The Paniyans.

    Periods of Paniya history

  3. Kulirani summarizes Paniya history consisting of 4 periods: an early hunter-gatherer period leading to a long period of being agrarian slaves. Then as liberated wage earners, they entered an extremely competitive market, grew dependent on state welfare as a rising sense of desperation and hopelessness set in

    The tribal people are not a monolith

  4. This paper outlines the facts and figures that inconveniently show the inter-tribal disparity in benefits gained from welfare schemes and how the backward tribes were left behind. Schemes like the NREGS were being used as employment and income-generation majorly by the relatively forward tribes. There are huge differences in the socio-economic and political lives of different tribes.
  5. This inter-tribal disparity is demonstrated even more strongly in this paper. It shows why it is a mistake to consider the tribes as a monolithic group of people, because of the vast differences even in those groups. It also shows the stark contrast between the ST communities and the other non-tribal groups

    Work and Employment for Adivasis

  6. They are without political representation, economic growth or physical wellbeing. This paper shows the kind of work that the Adivasis do and their average monthly earnings(2016).

    The alienation through the education system

  7. While researching how a school can be set up for tribal children, we were alerted by a teacher to the various problems that hinder Paniya children’s education- restlessness in the class, truancy(often encouraged by their parents), living far away from the school, alcoholism being a community addiction etc. In my research, I found that a lot of these were explained by this paper (This is a very interesting read that helps you question the inclusivity of our educational models) This is an interesting video on how an Education system with the Adivasis in mind would look

Public Perceptions

  1. Our discussions with the locals brought up the themes of the Paniyans being lazy, unreliable, alcoholic and living off the government’s welfare schemes. This, I found later, goes to show how oppressive systems perpetuate destruction
  2. We also saw, firsthand, how the Paniyas had become a spectacle when our guide stopped the rickshaw because he some of them walking by and told us to take photos. We learnt later that this might be because of the amount of social research and government aid that is centered around them

    Plantation Economy

  3. A majority of the Paniya workers worked with paddy-cultivation and were losing work because of the expansion of the plantations and because they weren’t as easily absorbed into the plantation labor economy [1][2]

    Out of the Financial System

  4. The majority of Paniya population was excluded from the financial sector and abstained from any formal financial activity

    Health and Caste

  5. The Paniya Tribe is beset by health problems on every side. [1] explains the gravity of the problem of malnutrition in Paniya children. It also shows how the Paniyas have underutilized the governmental schemes available and how that signifies a terrible deprivation at community levels. [2] outlines the effects of caste on the health of tribal women — how lower castes find caste magnifying their vulnerabilities while upper castes are protected by an invisible caste buffer. [3] outlines the occurrence of various diseases among the Adivasis and also has statistics on morbidity patterns of the Paniyas. To add to this, Sickle Cell Anaemia, which is already prevalent in tribal communities, was even more present in the Paniya Communities. They also suffer from sickle cell anaemia in large numbers. Nearly fifteen percent of the population suffers from sickle cell anaemia. This disease is quite difficult and painful to cure because it needs a bone marrow transplant. Bone marrow transplant, also known as stem cell transplant, offers the only potential cure for sickle cell anemia. It's usually reserved for people younger than age 16 because the risks increase for people older than 16. Finding a donor is difficult, and the procedure has serious risks associated with it, including death. As a result, treatment for sickle cell anemia is usually aimed at avoiding crises, relieving symptoms and preventing complications. Babies and children age 2 and younger with sickle cell anemia should make frequent visits to a doctor. Treatments might include medications to reduce pain and prevent complications, and blood transfusions, as well as a bone marrow transplant.

There are Government Hospitals, Community Health Centers, Primary health centres, Sub-centres which have good coverage. But since the tribals live in such remote areas, the health centres were not enough. To solve this, the government has instituted mobile medical units to cater to the remote parcels of land that the tribals live in. There is one ASHA worker for every 1000 people. Often they are the first-responders and alert the government healthcare infrastructure to any problems faced by the tribal peoples. Historically, the Paniyas have refused to have any involvement with the healthcare infrastructure of the government. An interview with a healthcare worker at a Mananthawady subcentre near northern Wayanad revealed that the aversion ran so deep that they refused to even accompany someone who was ill to the hospital. This maybe, as she puts it, the fear of healthcare institutions or the fear of being manipulated which is embedded in their origin story. The origin story alerts them to the dangers of getting too familiar with more dominant powers and the suffering that follows after. Other than the ASHA workers, there is a subcentre with limited facilities but primary healthcare for every 5000 people. There are 198 such subcentres in Wayanad. The next two levels are Community Health Centres and Government Hospitals. The Government Hospital in Wayanad is in Kalpetta. Often this is the only place that can handle specialized operations like deliveries. This is one more thing that is restricting access to quality healthcare for the tribals who normally live in far flung areas.

System Map of Issues

Credit: Author’s own (_Read the legend — Take a circled issue — backtrack and see the other issues contributing to that — move to next circle)_

Decreasing Health, Alienation, Landlessness, Erosion of Cultural Pride, Anger, Lack of Wealth and a disconnected population

After seeing the connections between Erosion of Cultural Pride and Anger, Landlessnessness and Wealthlessness and Alienation and Disconnection.

Every single child labourer that I have documented comes from a highly impoverished family unit and belongs to a low-caste or minority community. Siddharth Kara

Understanding the History

Through the readings mentioned above as well as few current media pieces as well as stories and songs that the Paniya peoples tell about themselves.

I then mapped this into the three stages of alienation (in the footsteps of Kulirani[[The Disenfranchisement of Adivasis in Kerala#Periods of Paniya history]] whose work I had mentioned in the earlier article)

A Rich Culture mixed with Centuries of Oppression

Cultural Artifacts and Practices

Stories and Songs:

Through most of their rituals and practices, the scars of slavery can be seen clearly. They call themselves the 'Ippi-mala makkal' -meaning The children of the mountain called Ippi. However, the name they are called, ‘Paniyan’ means worker. This story of oppression is also clearly evident in the story they tell of their origins:

On a hill called Ippi-mala (Mt. Ippi), there was a temple with a Brahmin priest and Jain Gounder. The priest would often observe a boy and a girl playing near the temple well. So they captured the children with help of another tribal man who worked for them. The children then worked for them, after which the gounder got them married to each other and they had five daughters and five sons. The Paniya regard them to be their first ancestors.

There are other variations of this story that warn the Paniya against manipulation from the upper castes. In that version, the Paniyas are enslaved because one of them was lured using good food that he then told the others about.

Rachel Santosh writes about the ceremony where the Paniya were sold to different landlords at the Valliyoorkaavu temple every year. The ritual that confirmed the transaction consisted of songs that showed how much the Paniyans suffered under their slavers. In the songs that are sung, god (padachavan) approves of their bondage and wills it so. Ironically, this temple is the biggest place of Paniyan worship now — they get special privileges at the temple as well.

Other stories talk of the Paniyan afterlife — which does not constitute heaven or hell.

After death, the soul splits into two- the soul shadow (nizhelu) and the ancestral spirit (pene). God takes the nizhelu of a paniyan and puts it in the body of another paniyan that is born after him. The pene goes down to the keenadu(netherworld) where the pene will have the same occupation and work under the same master. The bondages in the present world continue in the netherworld also. This means that there is no freedom for the Paniyan even after death.

Dance and Music:

They also have a dance called the “Vattakalli” which is inspired by the movement of elephants. It is accompanied by instruments like the thudi.

History of the Paniyans:

A tribal girl once asked me modestly, ”When we go to school, we read about Mahatma Gandhi. Did we have no heroes like that? Did we always suffer like this?” Mahasweta Devi, Imaginary Maps 1993


No one really knows about the origins of the Paniyas. Some theories state that they are the original inhabitants of India. They, themselves say that they were brought to the Wayanad region by a Malabar King but have no records of when or who that king was.

They initially lived as hunter-gatherers in the forests, sometimes straying into the farms of the landlords of the time to steal some food and then run away. Soon the landlords got tired of this behavior and enslaved them and made them work in the fields as bonded laborers. This incident is preserved in the origin story that the Paniyans tell about themselves about their origins. However, the veracity might be dubious considering all the other stories which seem to be told by or board towards the upper castes.

As slaves that are sold with the land, they worked under the upper caste Namboothiris and Nairs or the ‘janmis(rightful inheritors of the land). This caste hierarchy has had great effects on the cultural stories of the Paniyans- they called themselves the ‘kachavanmar’( lowest of the low). Other castes and subcastes were also cultivators but they were the tenants of the ‘janmis’. The Paniya and the Adiya were the bonded laborers who did the work on the land. The Paniyas were also known to be ‘fearless’ and were used as weapons in vendettas between the janmis, often robbing or killing the enemies of their masters.

Settler Oppression

There were many political upheavals during this time from Tipu Sultan to Pazhassi Raja to the invasion of the British, but the situation of the Paniyans remained them same. Working from dawn to dusk for meager amounts of money, they were treated as objects and property. This only changed in the early 20th century, after the British tried to put a stop to the slave trade. Soon after, a new wave of migrants came to Wayanad and the Paniyans moved on to daily wage work. There was a little more freedom now, but the means of exploitation only changed into other subtle but equally nefarious forms.

These new Christian and Muslim immigrant landlords forced Paniyans out of the little land they were given under the Janmis. Since the Paniyas rarely had any paperwork regarding their ownership, they had to move. Some of these landlords would put fire to their colonies so that they would clear another patch of forest for the landlord to convert into farmland- at no expense. They even paid the Paniyans partly in alcohol and encouraged an addiction to it so that they would continue to work under them. They also exploited their illiteracy and would often trick them into signing off huge parcels of their land without them knowing or understanding what they were signing off. Other landlords took sizeable populations of the Paniyas and Adiyas with them to their homelands in different districts and settled them there.

Wealthlessness due to Landlessness

The lack of access to their own land, combined with this expectation to perform free labour and the threat of violence and economic boycott against those who challenge their expected social roles, keeps many Dalit families in bondage and a perpetual state of poverty

India Exclusion Report, 2014

Despite the abundance of land reform attempts, Landlessness is a very serious issue as Paniya households own the least land on average among the other tribes in Wayanad. When coupled with their forced exile from forest lands this has led to the shrinkage of livelihood options for the Paniya. This has profound implications as they weren’t able to move into other professions, create wealth -or in extension political power- which became the biggest roadblock to land reforms in modern Kerala. The landowners have too much political clout that they frequently use to thwart movements by the landless marginalized.

Land Reforms in Kerala

After the state of Kerala was formed, an act that made it illegal to own land above 15 acres was passed. However, plantations were exempted from this act. In this process, many landowners got away by declaring their land as a plantation. There is evidence to show that because these huge plantations were exempted from this act, the Paniyas were forced into small overcrowded ghettos.

The Forest Rights Act that aimed to empower the tribes that live off the forest ended up excluding the Paniya community from the list of tribes that can use and sell forest produce. With this, they were cut off from their past as well because prior to their enslavement they were hunter-gatherers in the forests. Not only were they alienated from those forests but now they were also banned from using those skills in wealth creation.

Other than that, there have been several attempts to reform land practices. This was and is, however, repeatedly being sabotaged by unwilling governments, powerful landowners and cunning businessmen. Even after two successive acts in 1975 and 1999 and an HC order demanding the restoration of land to the tribals, the distribution of land has been meager and often inhabitable.

Aralam and other Land Crimes - Land Assertion

The story of how Aralam (a heartbreaking read of the violence that they had to face even when things looked calm on the outside), a centralized farm was distributed to tribals but without any kind of support in the way forward. They lived in semi-starvation conditions without power or knowledge of how to tend for the crops that were already there on the farms that they were given. It also talks about the malicious tactics that the government employed to evict those whose claims they saw as invalid is a case in point.

There have been land struggles for the Adivasis at almost every piece of land that was to be restored to them. This article lists out a small history of such struggles. This systemic apathy has given rise to many political tribal movements that have demanded the restoration of land in movements called “land assertion”. As a community, they would occupy the land and protest the inaction of the government. These movements, however, received a huge setback in Kerala during what the media called the “Muthanga Incident”. The official report of how the police fired on an angry Adivasi crowd is contrasted by the Rajmanikyam probe commissioned by People’s Judicial Enquiry Commission shows how the community was targeted by keeping their children and tribal women hostage and torturing them. Other activists, such as C.K. Janu- the leader of the AGMS — Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha were imprisoned.

These movements were also harmed by powerful parties using divisive tactics to split the movement on the basis of leaders, districts and affiliations. A unified movement to demand land soon broke down.

The systematic land grab over the years has been affecting tribal populations significantly and adversely. This is why these movements have come to believe that ownership of land is the only way out for these communities to grow. Which seems to be verified by this paper, that highlights the differences in land claims for the Dalits and the Adivasis. It theorizes that the reason only 22% of Dalits vs 49% of the tribals are still engaged in agriculture is the difference in land allotment. Since, a lot of the Dalits received land as part of the land reforms, they were able to gain social mobility and move into other sectors of work that will remain closed for the landless tribes.

Consequences on Health and Financial Conditions

As of now, a majority of the Paniyas face malnutrition on a large scale. The uprooting of that community from forestlands where they were able to find nutritional food plays a huge role in this. Not having land, means that the Paniyas must work as agricultural laborers in other landowners’ fields. This, when coupled with their tendency to not save any money owing to the hopelessness for a good future that is often seen in many oppressed indigenous peoples. This is a great article shows how trauma in the Native American peoples has mirrored the trauma in the Paniyas as well. Alcoholism is rampant in such communities and further contributes to the loss of wealth.

In this vicious circle, they then approach the owners of the land they work in for money. Adding debt to this dangerous circle makes it almost impossible to escape. Even though ‘bonded labour’ is apparently outlawed, these forms of slavery and feudalism still remain.

“The sign of ultimate oppression working is when the oppressor can take away his hands, stand back and say ‘look at what they’re doing to themselves.’”

— Jessica Gourneau

Lack of Access and Lack of Trust

No Access:

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CK Janu on the political position of Adivasis

For this section, I’d like to quote C.K. Janu, leader of the AGMS (an Adivasi activist who has been at the forefront of many politically organised movements for Adivasi upliftment. Read more about this inspirational leader here)

Traditionally, Adivasis maintained a harmonious relationship with their land, both cultivated and forest land, and it formed an integral part of their lives. Also, these resources are inseparable to the Adivasi way of living. By and large, Adivasis were uneducated people and they earned their living by making use of the resources available to them — their lands. So they have a symbiotic relationship with the soil and even now they haven’t turned away from this eco-centric culture.

Now, after the setting up of Adivasi colonies, they are in a crisis. Land is the primal symbol of power. So without tackling the issues regarding the ownership of land, Adivasis’ problems cannot be resolved. Only those who have land can play an active role in the socio-political and cultural spheres of the society. So those who are pushed to the margins are effectively alienated from the modern institutions of power with respect to politics, bureaucracy, and social order.

For Adivasis, the resources that they get from the land are their sole revenue and therefore they maintain a blood-relation with their land. So they cannot survive without their lands.

During the Land Reforms in the 1960s, the Kerala state government decided the upper limit of land that can be possessed by an individual as 15 acres. But this limit was not applicable to the estate plantations that cultivated cash crops. Through this law, the Government assumed the ownership of the excess land. This in effect, led to the ghettoization of the Adivasi communities as they were pushed to the reserves and colonies.

Ghettoization of these communities

The Tenancy Reforms Act of 1970 contributed to the process of creating Dalit and Adivasi colonies and recent studies show that there is a total of 12,500 Dalit and 4,082 Adivasi colonies in the state.[1]

This ghettoization meant that the Adivasis now live in small parcels of land that are often remote and inaccessible. They often face scarcities because of this. Water supply to these overcrowding of colonies is often intermittent and unclean. The overcrowding and the locations in remote places also make them really hard to reach. This has special significance in the matter of accessibility to services. In Wayanad, some colony members have to travel 30 kilometers to the nearest government hospital for a childbirth. Even though, medical services are free in the government PHCs, THCs and Government Hospitals the travel to and from there costs upto 500 Rs in some cases which is often a lot as they earn up to 400 Rs a day for working in the fields.

2018 Floods

This inaccessibility was clearly also revealed in the recent floods, where rescue workers couldn't go to the colonies because of how remote and unknown they were. There were also clear cases of discrimination rising up out of the disaster.

No trust:

The dystopia of the Kerala Model

From all of these, we finally arrive at a conjunction of all these issues playing out and against each other. A lack of trust in everyone but themselves, and for good reason. The government, no matter which party, which has often touted its credentials under the hyped label of the ‘Kerala Model’ has repeatedly been unable to eke out the political will to actually do something radically bold and helpful for the landless marginalized. This kind of ostracization meant that violence against these communities is often hidden away or ignored. These kinds of oppressed communities have huge numbers of unwed mothers that were either manipulated or abused. It is no different for the Paniyas.

M.S. Sreerekha on Land Alienation and Restorative Justice

To end this I’d like to quote from M.S. Sreerekha’s report:

Both the state and civil society wish to interpret and believe that alienation as such has never happened. Many, who were for or against restoration of land, today prefer to believe it is actually impractical. Alienation is a thing of the past and it is too much of a responsibility on the Adivasi community today to prove it though in reality one wonders whether there is any land ever that has not been alienated from the Adivasis.

Alienation in itself is a sensitive matter and so is the need for restoration of land. Should land be “restored”? If yes, is that “impractical” due to the state’s inability to face the “organised resistance” against it?

In the decades of never-ending legal battles, the adivasi community has experienced and learned the complexities that law can create. They have seen that a change of words or definitions on one piece of legislation on land, restored, alienated, forest, non- forest, immovable property, agricultural, non-agricultural, revenue land, forest land…and the ways in these can be used/misused means a lot to them.

…. the only changing “ground reality” is that the long fight against the migrant, upper caste/class settlers within the state has today become a struggle against the state and many big plantation owners and private agriculturalists, working hand in hand.