Who does the forest belong to—this has been a fraught question in the history of independent India. India inherited colonial forest laws that considered forests as just a resource to be exploited, to the exclusion and oppression of people actually living in them. Post-independence, forests and the people living in them continued to be expendable in the larger “national interest”. Large dams, steel plants and such mega projects displaced largely Adivasi communities from their lands and forests, while the benefits accrued to other communities.
So it was after considerable organisation and agitation that Adivasis and forest dwellers won a major victory for themselves in the form of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), which protected their rights. Passed by the then United Progressive Alliance government, the FRA is a legal attempt to move away from the colonial idea of the forest as a resource to be exploited, to the idea of the forest as central to the Adivasi way of life. The FRA guarantees the rights of Adivasi communities to live undisturbed in forest areas, gather produce, hunt and farm. Going further, the FRA also recognises the centrality of the forest to the social and cultural lives of Adivasi communities—a theme that is explored in the blockbuster Kannada film Kantara.
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In Kantara, we see a three-way conflict over the forest. The government believes Adivasi villagers are “encroaching” on forest land while the villagers believe the government is trampling on their centuries-old traditions and practices. This conflict is illustrated in an exchange between Murali, the forest officer, and Shiva, the main protagonist. When Murali insists that the Adivasis should take government permission before taking produce out of the forest or performing their traditional practices, Shiva points out that the Adivasis had been living in the forest before there was a government, and that the latter, in fact, should be taking permission from the Adivasis.
The third side of this conflict is the local landlord, Devendra Suttur, who has been trying to manipulate the Adivasis into giving up their land in his favour, while at the same time trying to get rid of Murali, whose strict enforcement of forest laws could put paid to his plans. When they discover Suttur’s real plan, Shiva and Murali find themselves on the same side, trying to defend the forest and the Adivasis. To find out how this all pans out, you will have to watch this excellent film.
Kantara’s plot echoes the successful movement and litigation of Odisha’s Dongria Kondh community in protecting the Niyamgiri hills from a bauxite mine planned by the mining company Vedanta. As someone who was part of the Union government’s litigation team in this case in the Supreme Court headed by then solicitor general Mohan Parasaran, I could not help but notice the parallels.
Vedanta had received the first stage forest clearance for constructing the mine but stumbled at the second stage clearance, when the Union government denied clearance on the basis of the FRA. The Dongria Kondh community, which considers the Niyamgiri hills to be sacred as the abode of Niyamraja, resisted the mine on the basis that it violated their right to protect their cultural beliefs as guaranteed under the FRA. This was a novel argument, one which the Union government agreed with, but one which had no precedent in Indian law at the time (I would know because my colleagues and I spent many days looking for such precedents and failing!).
In court, Vedanta argued that the FRA should not be taken into account while giving forest clearance, and that in any case, the law did not protect such cultural and religious rights at all. The argument was that at most the FRA protected individual right to the land, not the rights of the community as a whole. The Odisha government supported Vedanta’s stand, arguing that as the owner of mines and minerals in the ground, it could hand over mines to anyone it chose without the Adivasis’ consent. The Union government, however, supported the stand of the community, arguing that the FRA was intended to protect the cultural rights of Adivasi and forest-dwelling communities and no mining could be allowed in the absence of their consent.
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The court’s final judgement in Orissa Mining Corporation v. Vedanta (2013) categorically affirmed the right of Adivasi communities to their intangible heritage and affirmed that only Adivasi communities could be the final authority on their cultural heritage. The court mandated that the Odisha government had to take the consent of the 12 gram sabhas in the area before proceeding with the mine. As it happened, every single one of the gram sabhas denied consent.
In Kantara, as in the Dongria Kondh case, the rich and powerful dismiss the cultural and spiritual heritage of Adivasis as meaningless superstition—obstacles in taking over land that was rightfully theirs. While this was also the attitude of the Union government initially, as with forest officer Murali, it too had a change of heart and eventually took the side of the Adivasis. In Kantara, however, justice comes in the form of divine intervention affirming the validity of Adivasi beliefs, much before it comes from formal courts of justice. That said, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of divine intervention even in the real life Dongria Kondh litigation. Finding that we needed more time to prepare the Union’s case, the Union government’s lawyers got an unexpected adjournment from the Supreme Court just before arguments were to begin—something we attributed to the intervention of Niyamraja himself!
Even after the 2013 judgement, it has not been all smooth sailing for the forest rights of Adivasis. State governments continue to stymie its implementation by rejecting forest rights claims on flimsy grounds or simply keep applications pending. In 2019, the Supreme Court threatened to make matters worse by demanding that Adivasis and forest dwellers who were unable to “prove” their claims had to be evicted immediately from forests. It was only widespread outrage from Adivasi organisations that prompted the Union government to approach the court once again and demand recall of the order. The case is pending but the claims of Adivasis over their forests are still in limbo in many parts of the country.
Kantara is about the power of the stories of the powerless. Living traditions such as the bhoota kola affirm the centrality of forest deities in the lives of marginalised communities and are sites of resistance and sustenance for such communities. No community in India, howsoever oppressed, paints itself as a permanent victim in the stories it tells about itself. In protecting the cultural rights of Adivasis, the FRA recognises the right of Adivasis to preserve their cultural heritage and to be able to tell their stories themselves.
(Disclaimer: I appeared as a lawyer and assisted Mohan Parasaran, then solicitor general of India, in the arguments in the Orissa Mining Corporation case on behalf of the Union of India. Views are strictly personal and should not be attributed to any organisation or any other person.)
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