Tamil Nadu: A Brief Summary
From the colonial period onwards, the area that now comprises Tamil Nadu followed a political trajectory that reflected the struggles of the Dravidian movement and a structure of agrarian relations that was more complex than that of the northern States.
In the mid nineteenth century, after the British established and consolidated their rule over the Madras Presidency, the systems of land revenue known as the ryotwari settlement (grant of ownership titles to individual landholders who paid taxes directly to the colonial government) and Permanent Settlement (establishing zamindars) were imposed. In both types of area, earlier systems of common ownership and village control over tanks, grazing areas and other common lands were greatly eroded.
The second process that shaped modern day Tamil Nadu is the Dravidian movement led by Periyar EVR Ramaswamy Naicker (founder of the Self-Respect Movement). It drew its core base from the middle caste peasantry but had support from all communities except the small fraction of high castes, and reshaped the State's entire cultural and political discourse with an emphasis on social welfare and land reform.
Since liberalisation in 1991, the proportion of agriculture in the State GDP was almost halved and being the only State where the number of people in agricultural employment is falling in absolute terms. Politically, the Dravidian movement went into a decline during the 1980's, with the agenda of self-assertion and anti-casteism unable to respond to newly developing class and social challenges. The result is that, in the present day, Tamil Nadu politics is dominated by political parties. The space that would otherwise be occupied by mass organisations is instead occupied by welfarist NGOs.
Background: The Political Situation in Gudalur
Gudalur has long been regarded as a politically active area with largely two factors contributing to this politicisation in the area. The first is the complex ethnic mix of the area. Gudalur taluka was disputed at the time of the creation of the State of Kerala, with some claiming that it should have been included in the new State. The strong presence of Malayali interests and communities has been a constant subject of political mobilisation on both sides, leading to a lasting communal tension between Tamils and Malayalis.
The second reason is the presence of the repatriates. The repatriate communities also have a history of organising in self-defence against Sinhalese racism and discrimination. This history of political organising, combined with the reputation of being 'outsiders' and faced with discrimination from the local population, has also contributed to a high degree of political militancy among the repatriates.
Vivasayigal Thozhilalargal Munnetra Sangam (Workers and Peasants Progress Organisation) is a mass organisation based in the Nilgiris District of Tamil Nadu. VTMS was founded in 1996 in order to organise the people of the area, particularly the talukas of Gudalur and Panthalur, in their struggle against exploitation and state repression. With a base among Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates, adivasis, Dalits and other small cultivators and estate workers, the organisation now has a membership of 12,000 families – a significant proportion of the population of the two talukas where it mainly works.
VTMS emerged out of the efforts of a section of left leaders in the Gudalur area to build and strengthen the land struggle. This group was also subsequently joined by dissidents from a repatriate mass organization who also differed with the group's leadership over questions of the use of funds and the failure to organise other communities.
Today VTMS is a political presence in the Nilgiris District, capable of influencing other political actors and having an impact on state policy. In an intensely politicised area, it has shown an ability to remain autonomous and to rapidly expand its base, proving its relevance to the struggles of the people of their area and their aspirations for social change.
Over the years since 1996, VTMS has organised and led a series of struggles on several issues.
In many ways the core of VTMS work, the struggle for secure land rights has dominated the organisation's agenda since it was founded. There have been two aspects to this struggle:
• Land for the landless;
• Secure land rights for smallholders, who are vulnerable to eviction and harassment at any time.
The former was the primary focus in the early years of the organisation. Initial mobilisations focused on the Forest Department to end harassment of land holders, aside from occupying government lands frequent demands have been raised by VTMS to break up the estates and hand over their lands to landless workers. As the organisation was increasingly able to protect members and others against evictions, land occupation drives began to be organised. VTMS also demanded basic facilities for estate workers (Estate Workers' Rights & Tea Cultivators' Rights), and for handover of failing estates to worker cooperatives. Such land occupations continued through the 1990's and, at a slower pace, up to 2005. according to VTMS, official figures indicated that landlessness in Gudalur stood at 68% of the population in 1996; by 2005, an internal survey by the organisation found a landlessness rate of 46%. This change is largely attributed to the land occupation drives.
The land occupation drives began to decrease, and essentially stopped in 2006, as the organisation's focus shifted towards securing title for smallholder's lands. The lack of secured titles in Gudalur reflects a number of different processes, which in turn benefit different interests. The forest bureaucracy, at the local, State and national levels, is resistant to any settlement of rights in an area that has become a central symbol of their overarching control over “forest lands” as a result of the Godavarman case. The district administration too has shown no interest in losing the bribes they are able to extort as a result of the confused land situation. The estates cannot easily grab additional land if a clear survey and settlement takes place, and hence they too have opposed a final settlement of rights.
In light of these multiple interests, VTMS has followed a strategy of targeting each such force in a different manner. Some of the strategies adopted include:
• Frequent demonstrations, public action and demands at times of elections, aimed at putting pressure on the ruling party and on other parties seeking votes. As a result, in most elections the land title issue features on manifestos of all candidates.
• Using the press to expose land grabbing activities and to oppose the land mafia and the estates, linking the failure to recognise rights with land grabbing. In 2002, VTMS activists coordinated a fact finding by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry) into land grabbing ; the report produced by the fact finding team was then used extensively with the press and with government officials.
• Targeting the forest bureaucracy through the linkage to national moves towards recognition of forest rights. In 2001 and 2002, a first attempt in this direction was made through the filing of thousands of claims under the Ministry of Environment and Forests' 1990 guidelines, which recognised the rights of landholders who had occupied forest land prior to 1980.
• In 2009, a new demand was also introduced, for a government order that would recognise people's lands through a certificate
As on date, land titles remain unsettled in the area.
Environmental Protection and Democratic Resource Control
Environmental and forest protection have been made explicit agendas of VTMS work from the time of the founding of the organisation. The group made a link between the Forest Department's canards against the people of the area, the denial of land rights and the people's own need to protect the forests against the land grabbers and mafias operating with Department connivance. This has remained a central theme of VTMS' struggles, and has been strengthened by its close connections to the national forest rights movement since 2003.
Some of the major tactics adopted in this struggle include:
• Exposing poaching, wildlife killings and illegal tree felling through the press and through public meetings. The chief aim in such exposes was to target the intense corruption in the Forest Department and undermine its claims to be a legitimate law enforcement arm of the state.
• Targeting land grabbers for forest destruction.
• Organising public camps and trainings on environmental issues, particularly focused on youth.
• Involvement in the national forest rights movement by establishing networks with national forums like Campaign for Survival and Diginity. As the Campaign expanded in size and became the major national front in the struggle for the 2006 Forest Rights Act, VTMS became the lead organisation in Tamil Nadu in the struggle, joining national mobilisations and organising protests in support of the law.
• Despite this, VTMS has continued to the use the Forest Rights Act on multiple fronts. For instance, an agitation was raised after the Central government made an illegal attempt to rush through declarations of “critical tiger habitats” in tiger reserves in December 2007.
VTMS has also cited the Act's provisions to block illegal evictions and stop harassment of smallholders. It has also organised declarations of community control over forests (using sections 3(1)(i) and 5 of the Forest Rights Act, which authorise community management and protection of forests) in more than fifty villages, each accompanied with a board stating the boundaries of the community forests and the contents of the declaration. The Forest Department resisted the boards when they were put up on reserved forest lands, but was unable to stop the action.
Structure of the Organisation
As with most other mass organisations, VTMS specifically avoided a party-style hierarchical or centralist model. In formal terms, the organisation's lowest level is the village level branch, which consists of the members of the organisation along with five elected office-bearers: president, deputy president, secretary, joint secretary and treasurer. Each village also has a seven to ten member executive committee, whose members have explicitly adopted VTMS' core principles (democratic people's struggle being the key principle). The village executive committees in turn elect the taluka executive committees, of which there are currently three (Gudalur, Pandalur and a small committee for Ooty taluka). The taluka committees then elect district committee(s) (in practice there is only one), which in turn elects the state-level committee. The organisation also has separate posts of president and secretary for minorities (i.e. Malayalis) and adivasis. Among all these office bearers, only two are full-timers (state secretary MS Selvaraj and district president Kala), though several others give their time on a near full time basis.
In practice, decision making in VTMS tends to function in an informal manner. A “core team” that is not formally elected, though publicly known is fluid and varies with the situation, makes most daily executive decisions. Large policy decisions are made by the formal decision making structures. Village level issues are at times handled by the village leadership and other times referred to higher leaders.
At present there are 124 village level branches. In the earlier years, when branches were formed, the new branch issued a small one page notice to the public, stating the formation of the branch, the main issues that would be taken up and the values of VTMS. This practice was not followed so formally in later years, but sometimes continues to be done.
VTMS has a number of informal 'wings' that function under the overall umbrella of the organisation. Like the VTMS Small Tea Growers' Association and the youth cultural team that has played a particularly important role by street theatres, cultural events and public performances. This cultural team has been a key recruitment area for youth, drawing many of the organisation's current youth leaders into its work. It has also expanded the reach of the organisation and its effectiveness at spreading its ideology.