Kodava protests in Karnataka: Warring factions must unite and speak in one voice

The Kodavas in Karnataka are up in arms again.

On the back of reports that there was a nude protest on 7 December, by some tribals over the eviction of 577 families from the Devamacchi Reserve Forest in Diddalli, in Kodagu district, which has however been denied both by an embarrassed government and activists alike, activists have now vowed to continue their protests until the tribal dwellings are made permanent and property documents handed over to them.

But wait, these protests are not supported by the Codava National Council (CNC), which has been spearheading much of the community's cause. The president of CNC, NU Nachappa told Firstpost, “I don’t want to comment, they are not localites, some 10 days back they came from outside Coorg for plantation work, not for Kodava plantation work but for Consolidated (Coffee) Tata company work. And some politicians took them and dropped them in the forest.”

Nachappa says,“We are the original inhabitants and tribals of this land. Some 10 years back so many came from other states, like Kerala, and they keep on coming, they’re not tribals. Bangladeshis are also there now, they too are claiming they’re tribals. We’re not against anybody, we want to prove our identity, otherwise, we will vanish from this land. I don’t want to comment because they’re outsiders, they’re not inherent settlers of the forest.”

On 7 December, several families living in huts in the forest were evicted and their huts razed by forest officials, on grounds that this was reserved forest limits. A secret video shot by a local had surfaced on television channels and social media on Sunday about the nude protest during the eviction. Deccan Herald reported that eight persons, including tribal leader Appaji had been arrested for indecent protests. after forest, revenue and police officials cleared about five acres of forest land at Diddalli.

On Sunday, calling it 'Sankalp' day, activists, human rights commission members, tribal rights awareness panel members and local leaders protested outside the Ashrama School near the forest in Diddalli, in Kodagu, where the tribals are currently staying. Among the leaders supporting their cause, was also senior journalist and activist, Gauri Lankesh.
Firstpost reached out to Gowri Lankesh,“Nachappa claims the protestors are not tribals at all? Your comments?”

 Kodava protests in Karnataka: Warring factions must unite and speak in one voice

File image of Kodava Protests. Wikimedia Commons

Gauri Lankesh, “People who had set up hutments belong to Jenu, Kuruba and Yerava communities. They are on the scheduled list. It is idiotic of Nachappa to say they are not tribals at all.”
While the two warring factions stand divided over the very nature of the tribals who were evicted, the Karnataka government has refused to budge, saying that the evicted tribals would be rehabilitated in any other area, but in the reserve forest, where the families had built their huts. Kodagu district in-charge minister MR Seetharam told the media that the tribals would be rehabilitated soon, and if there was any slip-up by the forest officials, action would be taken.

Meanwhile, there were press reports that that coffee planters were behind the evictions of the tribals from their settlement in Diddalli, as the coffee planters wanted them to move back to line houses where labourers of coffee plantations live. Deccan Herald reported that the tribals had earlier lived in these line houses in the estates at Virajpet, Balele, Kutta, Gonikoppa and Siddapura and paid poor wages and had moved out over bad working conditions.

When Firstpost asked Nachappa about these media reports, he said, “No, no, they (the plantations) are not dependent upon them. Nowadays, Assamese and Bangladeshi labour are coming. All this is bogus created by the Maoists. There are plenty of labourers now, agencies are there, daily they are coming – after 2/3 years, they claim they’re original inhabitants.” He added, “But coffee planters are not Kodavas, 60 per cent are owned by North Indian business tycoons, Burma Chettiars and Kerala people and Reddys, they all have 2/3 acres properties. We continued our struggle and made complaints…we Kodavas may not have property, our population is living in a compact area. They are worried, they want to destroy our identity. They want to de-populate Kodavas and re-populate others.”

When Firstpost posed the same question to Gauri Lankesh, she said, “My sources say yes some estate owners who want cheap and bonded labourers are behind the tribal hutments being destroyed.”

This is not the first time that the Kodavas have been in the news. Only last week, according to a Times of India report, the Chief minister Siddaramaiah had directed the social welfare department officials to discontinue the ongoing ethnographic and socio-economic survey, which had been undertaken to check if the Kodava community qualified for tribal status. The survey was stopped in the wake of former MLC and advocate AK Subbaiah seeking the CM’s intervention, stating, “Kodavas don't need any tribal status. They are way forward in terms of socio-economic parameters and literacy. They cannot be compared to tribals like Kadu Kuruba and Hakki-Pikki, among others.''

This was a strange move by the Karnataka government as the survey had been undertaken after representation from different quarters. This included All India Congress Committee (AICC) spokesperson and leader Brijesh Kalappa, also the legal advisor to the CM. Deccan Herald reported as early as March 2016, that Kalappa while demanding tribal status for Kodavas had said, “It was not just a spur of the moment to seek any benefit, but the culture and tradition practised by Kodavas are akin to tribals in the State. Earlier, especially post-independence, Kodava IPS officers were in large numbers. Now, the number of such officials in civil service has dwindled. Owing to lack of reservation, Kodavas are not able to get their due share in such top service oriented jobs. So, if Kodavas are considered as tribes and reservation facility is extended, they can benefit from it.”
Even AICC general secretary Oscar Fernandes had joined his voice to the demand of the CNC. In fact, as far back as 2011, the UPA government had directed the then BJP government to take up the survey following petitions by the community.

The CNC’s demands has a long history of 22 years of trying to get the rights of the Kodavas enshrined under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The Hindu reported in 2013 that among the CNC’s demands were ethno-linguistic-tribal-minority status for the Kodavas; ‘Kodava thakk’ (language) in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution; political reservation on the lines of the Anglo Indians; and formation of a Codava Land Autonomous Region.

Asked about the stopping of the ethnographic survey, Nachappa told Firstpost, “At the age of 27 I started this movement and have been fighting this for 26 years. Subbaiah has become a spokesman for major communities in Karnataka, they want to impose hegemony on us. Karnataka is not a homogenous state, it’s a heterogenous state... In his entire political career, he has not done any good either for Kodavas or for the entire country. He’s only interested in creating rift between communities…I am fighting peacefully for my Constitution and fundamental rights. We are a different ethnic group and minority group, it’s our constitutional duty to give space to our community.”

Stating that “Kodavas are hospitable people, lovable people, not more than a lakh, I am approaching the UNHRC…our movement is a peaceful movement, under the Indian charter and Indian constitution, we are asking that the (Kodava) identity, historical continuity, ancestral property, entire language and culture should be protected,” he added, “My organisation is the sole and irreplaceable voice of the Kodava world.”

When Firstpost asked Gowri Lankesh what the real issue was, she said, “The real issue here is the utter disdain on the part of the government and administration regarding the lives of poor tribals. The same government and district administration does not raise a finger against Nachappa who illegally entered protected forest area twice to erect memorials for the alleged 'thousands' of Kodavas who were butchered by Tipu Sultan. But when poor tribals who seek freedom from bonded labour set up hutments the powers that be unleash JCBs on them. By doing so they have proved that they are only anti poor, they have shown that they are working at the behest of feudal landlords.”

The population of Kodagu district is around five lakhs, of which Kodavas are reported to be only around 65,000 people. So, any division in their ranks is not going to help the Kodava cause, but will only undermine their struggle. The warring factions need to come together to represent the Kodava community, which has contributed immensely to the country, with several famous Kodava names populating the armed forces, civil services, sports, journalism and literature.

While the jury is still out on whether the 577 families who were evicted from the Devamacchi Reserve Forest in Diddalli, in Kodagu district were tribals or squatters – it’s time for the two warring factions to sit across the table and sort out their issues and speak in one voice.

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2016 11:26:19 IST