A squatter is simply anyone who occupies an unoccupied area or land or building without a right or title or the permission of the owner.
Once upon a time there lived nomads who roamed the earth. Then came the dawn of civilization in the wake of agriculture. People settled wherever they could find land. When occupying and possessing more land and wealth became important, greed nurtured the growth of "Country squatters". America was occupied by ‘civilised’ squatters who rather than ask permission from the Native American tribals, swatted them and stayed there permanently. .
Down Under, Australia went one step further. When colonizers arrived, they declared by law that Australia was terra nullius meaning a land with no people. The Australian Aborigines who had been living there for tens of thousands of years were considered part of the fauna and flora. So the ‘civilised’ squatters decided that the Aborigines could be culled at will and land cleared for occupation. Only thirty years ago, it took a gutsy Eddie Mabo, in 1972 to challenge this in the Supreme Court and get a verdict in favor of obtaining Native Title Rights for the Aborigines.
With the introduction of the Internet we now have cyberspace for occupation, all free of cost. "Cyber-squatters" are people who register domain names with the view to resell for profit what they got for free. Then there are even "Broadband squatters" who will steal the width of the broadband connection you have in your computer.
There are many types of "Urban squatters". The collapse of the Berlin Wall led to the formation of the "Berlin Wall squatters" who were citizens unable to find work or housing in unified Germany. Skyrocketing prices of housing properties have created "Building squatters". Amsterdam, Japan, London, New York and San Francisco are just some examples of cities from the developed countries where the homeless and poor have squatted in unoccupied buildings, and in some cases have also improved the condition of those buildings. We even have a ‘Squatters Real Estate Agency’ in London. In developing countries like our own India, we have poor urban squatters, many of them migrants from rural areas in search of a livelihood in the cities, occupying railway stations and bus stops, pavements and public toilets. The more enterprising ones build huts on vacant plots of land.
Of course, "Imperial squatters" created The Third World.
The aftermath of White Imperialism pushed some people into becoming "Cemetery squatters" in South Africa. When eviction orders were sought by the City of CapeTown, as the legal owner of the cemetery, the Magistrate was moved by the abject poverty of the squatters and ruled that they be provided with alternative accommodation by the City council.
Natural disasters force the formation of squatters. In places like Ethiopia and Sudan, it is famine that is the culprit. In India we are aware of seasonal and non-seasonal floods that are the recurrent causes of pathetic squatting.
Wars are the sources of a range of squatters. Migrant refugees from war ravaged countries have squatted all over the world. War also leads people to squat in shockingly interesting places in their own countries and cities. After the Gulf War in 1990, poor Dutch squatters occupied the closed Iraqi Embassy in The Hague, Netherlands. An Agense France-Presse release reports that as a consequence of the present US-led war in Iraq, about 170 poor Shiite families have squatted in the ruins of a former prison in Baghdad.
The world is also home to tribals or ‘savages’ as they are contemptuously called. The tribals are human beings who live in forests. Most of them have been unaware of the ways of the ‘civilised’ world around them for centuries.
Take the case of the Australian Aborigines. White occupiers declared the land they had lived in "peopleless" for almost two centuries. Now the Aborigines are waging a bombless war against the Australian Government to establish legally that their land is rightfully theirs. Only in January 1996, the Australian Federal Court ruled that the native Wik tribals in North Queensland retained no Native Title rights as their rights were extinguished when the Crown, the Australian Government awarded mining or pastoral leases to white people over it. As a concession, the Court also ruled that if the Wik could prove their connection to the said land, they may be permitted to perform traditional activities and conduct ceremonies as long as they don’t interfere with the miners’ or the pastoralists’ legitimate activities. The Aborigines are lamenting that they will never get justice under the laws of the white men.
When Forest Departments were formed and forest land became the property of the Governments, several tribals in many parts of Africa had no idea that they were considered squatters on their own lands which was now legally Government land. Only when eviction orders were carried out did they come to know of it. But then many of the South African tribals have become ‘civilised’ enough to learn the ways of the white men. So a number of them have gone and occupied White-farms, as after all the whites had occupied their native land. Now all that seems to be happening in several parts of South Africa is that Courts are busy handing out further eviction orders which the police are carrying out, while the tribals are resisting.
The civilizing of the savage has been taking place in India as well.
In the name of development projects, tribals are rooted out without alternative areas for settlements. There was a hue and cry over the Narmada Project. But the tribals from there were perhaps meant to become "Rural" or "Urban" squatters, a linear evolutionary progression from the "tribal" state.
Business corporations move into forestlands along with the natives. These "Business squatters" have the backing of the ruling Government, of course. The Government can always find enough forestlands for businessmen but not for tribalmen. And then we have the "Settler squatters" who will encroach upon tribal lands, expropriate them, expand their settlement and enlarge their holdings. One fine day the tribals will realize that all their lands have magically disappeared.
Welcome to the land of the civilised. The ‘savage’ here is taught how to contain and consume, how to conspire and contrive, how to connive and convert, how to coerce and collide.
This has what has happened with the Adivasis of Wayanad in Kerala. Dispossessed, they have sought shelter in sanctuaries. Expelled, they have agitated and confronted. The gory death of a policeman in the hands of the enraged tribals and the retaliatory shootings by the police on the poor Adivasis on February 19 th at the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary are regrettable. It is distressing that Kerala, the most literate state in India has mucked up the crisis. The Gods have apparently vacated ‘God’s own country’, wherein almost all of the worlds’ Gods had merrily squatted all along.
The mystical beauty of Wayanad is to be seen to be believed. The soulful sonorous woods, the high hills and deep valleys, the long serpentine roads and pathways, the wild whooshing waterfalls - you would want to be God’s own angel in that country romancing forever. Almost two decades ago, as a budding Social Anthropologist, I had been to Wayanad with a group of postgraduate students for conducting field-work amongst the Adivasis there. We were a bustling bunch of youngsters determined to enjoy ourselves as much as to learn from our visit. Enthused by the enchanting environs, we would all sing our way to the Adivasi settlement everyday.
As I was the senior in the group, the students would consult me on matters regarding data collection and interpretation. One of them, while attempting to enquire about the individual possessions of the Adivasis was shocked at their poverty stricken state and had a couple of meaningful queries:
"Do I list under the heading "possession" the only mundu ("Dhoti") a man is wearing? (By the way, that man seems to have indulged in some hanky panky in the past and so it had been decided under tribal law that he would get no share of their family land which is about the size of a small patch anyway.)"
My answer: "Of course, you should list it under the sub heading ‘Clothes’. This will throw light on their economic conditions."
"Should I ask him if he washes his mundu at all, and if he does what does he wear or not wear when he puts it out to dry?"
My advice: "Don’t ask rude questions. Employ the anthropological technique of ‘Observation’ and note down your observations".
Our team was lucky as a wedding was scheduled and we were all excited at the prospect of collecting rich information on the Adivasi traditional practices. The ceremony and celebration were to take place at night. So at the end of the day we all went to change. When we were back it was already dark and the only light that feebly lit the hamlet was from the street light a good distance away. Once inside the hamlet, we found the entire community huddled around a large oil-lit lamp, deepam, throwing eerie shadows. There was a drummer who also acted as the lead singer. The music was quite mellow despite the drumming. Some people were holding hands and moving around the deepam rhythmically in a surprisingly quiet dance. We found it hard to identify the groom and the bride as they were in no finery and were dressed just like everyone else in the gathering. Upon careful observation, we spotted a girl staring fixedly at the ground and looking tense, as well as a man giggling at times and looking a bit silly. Ah, yes, we just saw the bride and the groom. Well, what is a wedding without drinks? But then even by dawn very few were drunk, as there was very little to drink and get drunk anyway.
Adivasis with minimal possessions and simple life styles. It is hard to forget the look of curiosity on their faces when we introduced ourselves and asked them for permission to study their culture. They were utterly surprised as to why we would be interested in their way of living when they were merely trying to find ways to eke out a living.
That such simple people should be exploited by the ways of the civilised is deplorable. That they should be at the end of a firing squad is inhumane. Further the Kerala Government had justified, in its report to The National Human Rights Commission, the opening of fire at the Adivasi group comprising men, women and children of all ages. Fortunately the NHRC rejected this audacious stand.
Expecting the law of the ‘civilised’ to help the Adivasis evict greedy settlers from their native lands or retrieve their lost lands is farfetched. How far are these feasible and how much time the law will take to mete out any kind of justice is anybody’s guess. Understandably the Government of Kerala has started distributing land to the Adivasis, but again it is working at a deliberately slow pace. The Adivasis have revolted on the brink of extinction.
Perhaps the Adivasis of Wayanad should have learnt some lessons from their tribal brethren in South Africa who have squatted on the farms of those who expropriated their own lands. Some of the whites have even given away parts of their holdings to such squatters. Instead our poor Adivasis chose to seek shelter in a wildlife sanctuary. But when attempts are made to cull a species resistance is inevitable.
Perhaps the Government of Kerala should learn valuable lessons from our small neighboring Hindu Kingdom of Nepal. Even when some tribal communities from the hills moved down to the plains and squatted illegally on government-land and indulged in destroying the forest vegetation, the situation was handled in a laudable manner. Ridish K. Pokharel, a Faculty member at the Institute of Forestry in Pokara, has explained in a paper ("From practice to policy - Squatters as forest protectors in Nepal - an experience from Shrijana Forest User Group", in Forests, trees and People Newsletter No.42, June 2000.) how these tribals were mobilised and motivated to form a Forest Users Group with the assistance of the Forest Department. From being forest destroyers they have become forest managers, utilizing the forest resources carefully to generate income for themselves and improve their living conditions. The recognition accorded to them by their Government has endowed them with responsibility to take care of the forests.
The Muthanga incident was a ripe matter for quarreling between the ruling and the opposition parties in Kerala. While the two sides were at each other’s throats with or without food, fighting inside the assembly and outside on the streets, quietly another community has moved over to the Kerala government-owned farm at Chettachal in the Paolode range and put up huts.
Who are these new Adivasis?
The writer is a Social Anthropologist who lives in Sydney, Australia.
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