We are the kings of this forest. "
--A ditty that's become the anthem for tribal self-rule in south Karnataka.
The tribal population of south Karnataka has risen in revolt in what has to be construed as a resounding slap on the face of the Indian State for its failure to meet tribal aspirations over the last 50 years. Over 45,000 tribals spread across 135 hamlets in the Nagarhole forest umbrella region in the districts of Mysore and Coorg, having announced 'Self-Rule' on January 26, are now implementing it. They do not recognise the State or its institutions and a near parallel administration is falling into place.
Brutalised over centuries, viewed as the undesirable impediments in the onward course of development, suffering in silence. No longer. "For us, the barriers at entrance of the villages, the demarcation of tribal land, the signposts warning eve body--including government official that this is our land and they have to seek permission from us before they enter it, and the banning of outsiders from buying leasing land in our areas, is crucial. It is visible emblem of our self-rule," says J.K. Rajappa, an activist of the Buddakuttu Krishikara Samaja (BKS), the nodal tribal organisation in the area, which is in the forefront of the self-rule movement. Sensing the defiant mood of the tribals, the local administration has, after initial attempts at browbeating them into submission, laid off.
The barricades are up at the entrance to the tribal hamlet of Sonahalli Haadi. And padlocked. A towering symbol of tribal suzerainty if not sovereignty over 'their' land. "A couple of months ago, a forest officer rode up to the village on his motorcycle and threatened action against us if we did not dismantle the barrier. We not only refused to do so, but told him he could not enter the village without our permission. Sensing our mood, he agreed and had to park his motorcycle outside the gate and trudge his way to the forest land he wanted see beyond the village," says Appani, the village yajamana (tribal elder). According to the tribals of the village, self-rule has also meant the successful eviction of two non-tribal shopkeepers who ran the hamlet's fair price shop but made their money from lending money to tribals at exorbitant rates of interest. A sense of triumph is in the air.
At the entrance of the tribal hamlet Ranigate-Lingapura in Coorg, tribal assertion has taken the form of an inscription on the gateposts in red letters--"This is a warning to all non-tribals that they do not have permission to own, lease or cultivate our land. Crops planted by outsiders on land ]eased by the forest department cannot be harvested. The tribal residents of the hamlet, like in those of the others in the area, have marked out what is 'their' land on the basis of the traditional jhamma. An area of approximately five to six square kilometres radius around the hamlet, including burial and sacred land and the area containing forest resources essential to their way of life such as honey collection.
In fact, over 300 acres of land adjoining the village leased to a non-tribal for setting up an aromatic factory some years ago by the forest department has been occupied and is being cultivated by 160 tribal families. "This did lead to clashes between tribals and non-tribals but with the coming of self-rule, the tribal re-possession of their land is not questioned by anyone," adds Rajappa. Forest guards posted at the village have been reduced to spectators. "What can we do if the tribals have implemented self-rule? We act only on instructions and have received no orders yet," they add. But self-rule has also meant, in the words of Akamma, an elderly resident, "to try and root out social ills such as alcoholism that afflict tribals. After self-rule, we threw out the non-tribals who would come to the village frequently to sell arrack."
The village of Bharavaadi Haadi, on the other hand, is a striking example of the administrative structure of self-rule which is being established in the region. "The tribal Gram Sabha includes all residents of the village and is used as a forum for airing views. Then there is the council of yajamanas (village elders) who take the decisions. And we have set up task forces of young men who enforce all these decisions," points out Kundiah, a village elder. Such as the decision, a couple of months ago, to thrash the outsiders caught poaching and trying to smuggle timber out of the forest. "Our youngsters guard the forest at night and non-tribals now dare not enter. I know it leads to friction but we are the real protectors of this forest and have been living in an ecologically friendly manner with the animals and trees for thousands of years," adds Kundiah.
Residents say that a month ago, forest officials were in the area pushing an eco-development plan, but were refused entrance to the village. "If they were really interested in preserving the ecological balance and the environment, we should have been consulted. Not just asked to attend a meeting at a moment's notice because some forest ranger wanted it. We are constantly in demand by forest officials to help track animals, name flora and increase their knowledge of the forest. But when it comes to drawing up plans we are herded like cattle," says J.K. Babu, a tribal youth who is the convener of the Coorg district BKS. And Laxmi, the tribal teacher at the local school, has included teaching the "rules of self-governance" to the villagers in her duties.
Deep inside the Nagarhole forest within the confines of the Nagarhole (Rajiv Gandhi) National Park, the inhabitants of Gadde Haadi have even dismantled the barricade they had installed at the entrance to their village. "Over the past few months it has been made abundantly clear to the forest officials that self-rule is here to stay, and they stay away. The gate was no longer necessary to assert self-rule and was proving to be a hindrance to the villagers, so we dismantled it," says tribal activist Subramani.
Sitting amidst a cluster of houses that have slogans proclaiming "self-rule is our birthright" painted on the walls, Thimma, who heads the panchayat of Gadde Haadi and the adjoining Anecamp Haadi, explains how the message got across. "A month-and-a-half ago, 'outsiders' led by a former forest official had entered the area under self-rule without taking permission from the tribal council and refused to leave when asked to do so. So, the task force gave them a thrashing and sent them on their way. Then again, some national park officials had entered our jhamma to build a culvert without informing us, so we chased them away. They left behind their building materials which we returned after the forest ranger assured us this would not happen again." Tribals in this area are collecting minor forest produce and cultivating small patches of land adjoining their villages, in violation of the Forest Act. "It is integral to our way of life. Self-rule has meant t! hat the forest officials, who would have made life miserable for us earlier, now keep away," says Subramani.
Tribal assertion takes many forms in the Nagarhole area. At places such as Murukul Haadi within the Nagarhole national park, the villagers have kept two dogs as pets in a show of defiance against the wildlife park regulations. And in Kolvige Haadi, the local non-tribal primary school teacher was thrown out after he was caught selling rice meant for the children's meal. Some tribal hamlets say they have written to the local authorities informing them about self-rule. There are, of course, many factors at work in the Nagarhole region. NGOs which advocate empowerment and the right of the tribals to choose whether they want to be part of the "mainstream development programmes" abound, as do those advocating the need to preserve the wildlife and unique ecosystem in the area even if it means displacing tribals. Some feel the tribals can do this best, others disagree.
The government and forest officials have their own plans to get the tribals into the mainstream. However, the attempt by the state government and the Taj group of hotels to establish and promote eco-tourism in the area ran into stiff opposition from the tribals earlier this year Naturally, everyone has their own agenda. But Parliament's enactment of the Bhuria Committee recommendations last December has given the self-rule movement a basis for the struggle.