Kandhamal- Challenging A.P. Shah's ex-parte verdict

  • By Prasanna Parida
  • September 2010

Illegal land transfer of Kandhas
A fundamental cause of conflict is the issue of  land alienation of the tribal people. The Communist parties had submitted a  memorandum to then Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil identifying land disputes  as the root cause of the violence in the district. They had demanded a special  task force of the Revenue Department to resolve the matter.

Dr Krishna Kumar, Kandhamal District  Magistrate, had said, “The tribals have been around forever. They are the  original dwellers here. They never had to prove that they owned the land. I  mean why would they?  In the early 1990s  the tribal lands opened up. Pattas, a  certificate indicating ownership of land, began to be given out. The tribes  have a complex social structure within themselves; they had given land to  neighbours for various reasons. When they had to prove ownership of the land,  they could not. The actual users of the land who were non-tribals claimed the  ownership of the land.”

Traditional relations between the Panas and  Kandhas were shattered by Christianity, which converted the majority of the  Pana and probably inspired them to claim the land. The Kandhas incurred debts  with merchants whom they had over the decades given their land for shops and  depots; not understanding the subtleties of commerce, they would be  out-manoeuvred. Often, liquor was involved.

In one case, Mera Mallick, Saku Mallick,  Puresar Mallick and Ganja Mallick of Rebingia village said the Christian Panas  had stolen more than 20 acres of their land, which they have been unable to  reclaim despite repeated requests to various government agencies. Dr. A.C.  Sahoo, Director, Rural Development Dept., Directorate of Academy of Tribal  Dialect & Culture, Orissa, said the Kandhas were blatantly disinherited  from their lands. Having intimately studied tribals in Orissa for over 30  years, Sahu observed, “Some Kandhas lost their lands to the Panas by incurring  vast debts due to their drinking habits. Having no money, yet wanting wine,  they would give up their land claims.” More recently, tribal lands have been  sold to major industrial houses, but not by the tribals, but by non-tribals.

Land is vital to tribal identity. For example,  Wataka is a tribal region and the tribes there bear the surname Wataka. Their  lands are also their Temples and for generations they have worshipped and  sacrificed on this land. Thus the very core of their identity is intimately  tied to the land, religion and traditions. The loss of land strips the tribes  of their identity.
P.C. Dogra, IPS (retd), pointed out: In Barakhoma,  13 cases for land restoration were filed in the court of OSD, Land Reforms,  Balliguda. In 2001 they were decided in favour of the tribals with a clear  direction to the Tehsildar to deliver possession after the appeal period is  over. But restoration has not yet been effected by the local administration and  the police. To date, 22 acres in Barakhoma, 7 acres in Kelapada, 5 acres in  Gresinga under Udaygiri Block, and many other places remain under illegal  occupation of the Church and the Christians.

It must be understood that to the Kandhas, the  earth is not something to be used, not a possession, nor object of  exploitation, but a living entity and an object of worship. It is sacred and  intimate. Their habits, social customs and religious belief are linked to land  only. One important legend states that the Earth deity was the first Kandha  woman who came out of the earth and at her own request became the first human  sacrifice. This act imposed on obligation on the Kandhas to make regular  offerings of blood to propitiate her. In exchange, she would grant fertility  and wellbeing. The earth thus became the spiritual ancestor through whom lineal  descent, the belief goes, could be traced. All are born of her.

Cultivating the earth was fraught with guilt  and fear, an act of pollution or defilement. Rites are performed and a  sacrifice made to propitiate her. Fertility of land depends on whether the  deity is appeased. Drought and famine follow neglect in making the necessary  offerings to the deity. The blood sacrifice ritual is a vital aspect of Kandha  worship. Land links the Kandhas to their past and future and gives them their  identity. The secret sale of land is not allowed; transactions are between  family groups, and not between individuals.

Psychologically therefore, land alienation for  Kandhas means more than loss of real estate. It is equal to the loss of a body  part or vital organ. Yet Kandhas have lost a majority of their land rights.  Worse, the tribals found it very difficult to legally defend their ownership of  their lands and settle possession disputes because of their poverty and total  ignorance of Revenue and Forest Acts.

The Lok Sabha debate (Oct. 24, 2008) on  Kandhamal showed some of the ground realities. Highlighting land alienation as  a major cause of the turmoil, Mr Kharabela Swain, MP from Balasore, said:  “Nearly a year ago, the Scheduled Castes, that is, the Panas - who have been  converted to Christianity - filed a case in the Supreme Court and demanded that  just like the Gujjars in Rajasthan they should also be given Scheduled Tribe  status. All are very well aware as to what all happened in Rajasthan. … In  Kandhamal, the Christian Panas are demanding that they should be given the  Scheduled Tribe status, and the Kandhas are objecting to it. Why are they  objecting to it?  …. (Interruptions) It  is because of the present day rule…that a non-tribe cannot buy a tribal’s land…  the Kandhas or the tribals are thinking that if the Panas or the Scheduled  Castes become tribals, then they will buy all the land that belongs to the  tribals… They have two other allegations. The Pana Christians are educationally  and financially better off. By virtue of their education and better contacts  with Government machinery, they have appropriated most of the land belonging to  tribals. The pattas (ownership  titles) of the land which tribals have been cultivating hundreds of years have  gone to the Scheduled Castes; without their knowledge.”

Mr Swain also spoke about the Christian Panas’  fraudulent use of certificates for government entitlements. The Scheduled  Castes, who have converted to Christianity, are better educated and have  procured false certificates as tribals and got Government jobs. He alleged that  a sitting Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha is actually a Pana Christian who got a  false certificate as a tribal and got into the IAS. The CBI is investigating  the case… Thus the Kandhas find that the Pana Christians are manipulating  everything to deprive the STs of their land, of their jobs.

The Church too, has encroached upon tribal  land. There is one church in Masiripada (revenue village Kulukipada); one in  Dangirikia (revenue village Dangirikia); one in Karandagada (revenue village  Darandagada); and two in Taladandikia (revenue village Taladandikia).

Land alienation has caused outbreaks of  violence since the 1970s, if not before. In Kandhamal in December 2007, the  homes of 35 Christian families were attacked. But the land they were built upon  was owned by a Kandha tribal named Disuka Mallik - plot #271/2001 [Baligauda  Court records]. He won the lawsuit and the encroaching Christian Panas were  given a Court order to leave the property. But the order was never enforced by  the police or district administration. During a protest march organized by the  Kandhas, they were attacked from a nearby Christian Pana Church. In response,  the Kandhas took the opportunity to attack the homes on the land in an effort  to reclaim their rightful property.

Unfortunately, the national and international  media vilified this as yet ‘another horrific incident of anti-Christian ethnic  cleansing perpetrated by violent fanatic Hindu supporters of the RSS and BJP’.  Yet the incident proves that violence is a last resort by Kandhas.

There are many more such cases of land  alienation that are either still pending in the Courts or have been decided in  favour of the Kandhas. But despite Court rulings in favour of the Kandhas, the  Government refuses to act to remove the Christian Pana squatters or restore the  property rights of the tribes. From 1991-2007 alone, the Kandhas had filed 3574  cases of land disputes in the courts; involving a land area of 220.81 hectares.  Only 1410 cases have been adjudicated upon and most of the land has yet to be  restored to the Kandha people.

When there is no justice, there can be no  peace. These cases are not just the claims of 3574 people. Each represents a  large social network of families, friends and communities; in other words, the  frustrations of hundreds of people. A father’s inability to regain his family  land is a defeat, humiliation and loss to the entire family. The sense of  powerlessness is overwhelming. The tight knit Kandha tribal community is  totally interdependent; there are few opportunities to function independently.  Thus 3574 cases of disempowerment, spanning a generation, have a debilitating  effect upon an entire people.

As there are many more Kandha who lack the  experience and ability to file land claims, these cases are only a partial  representation of the problem. The absolute failure of Government authorities  to execute the judicial mandate represents a fundamental breakdown of the  system and disrupts the social harmony of a people. Even during the 1994  Kandhamal riots, the illegal and forcible possession of lands belonging to ST  (Kandha) community by members of SC (Pana) community was held to be a principal  cause of the trouble.

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