“Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it.”
— Native American Proverb
I recently watched the film Newton. The political satire spoke to me on many levels. While it subtly commented upon the inefficiencies of government offices and unfair elections, it most importantly showed the helplessness of tribal people in our country. Cut off from civilisation, commodified by tourists, exploited by capitalists, forced out of their own lands and torn between political ideologies; the hundreds of different tribal groups across the country are bound by what seems like an eternal common suffering. While most voices have been rendered silent, there are a few that speak up despite being repressed — one such powerful voice is that of 50-year-old Muthammal, an Irula tribal from the Mullankad Village in the Coimbatore district. Waging a struggle since the last several years for land that rightfully belongs to her and 200 tribal families like her own, she is fighting against the infamous Isha Foundation run by the beloved godman Sadguru, allegedly accused of illegal construction on forest land.
Muthamma opens up to us with an almost disarming candour. Her voice is powerful yet strained much like her long struggle. She has never been to school and has been a daily wage labourer since the age of 10, just like most of her community that reside in the village nestled amidst the forests in Tamil Nadu. Married at the age of 18 with three children – two sons, now 24 and 19 years old, and a 20-year-old daughter, they all started working for Isha Foundation’s Ashram around 20 years ago. “If we don’t go for work even one day, we won’t know for certain if our children will live to see the next day,” she says. Though the husband and the children still work for the ashram, Muthamma quit once she realized that they had grabbed their land from the adivasis— something she wasn’t surprised about.
“As adivasis, we have never had the opportunity to study nor we had any financial support. All throughout our childhood, until today, we have only been struggling. We have to be dependent on others for providing us with a space to live on. We have nothing to call our own, nothing to sell. We are given few acres of land over time, which we have to share with the animals here. Sometimes we toil for months trying to harvest but within a night or so elephants come and eat it, destroying everything.”
One successful mechanism in India to empower rural women has been that of the formation of self help groups which make women financially independent to a large extent and create a pool of resources to rely upon. However for Muthamma and her group, this system failed. She was part of a few local SHGs where she and the other community members would go into forests to gather medicinal herb and fruits such as amla, shikakai and fodder to feed animals and household purposes. “We had to pitch in Rs. 10-15 time and again, and after a period we would get returns,” she says. However they had to stop after they were told that they needed tenders to have access to the forest produce. While accessing tenders was way beyond their means, their lives were made more difficult when Isha started fencing the forest area blocking their way into the forest due to which they had to take the much longer route. Muthamma and her partners went to the ashram to request them to leave a three foot gap but were bluntly refused. They were then asked to accompany ashram members into the forest to share their inherited tribal knowledge of forest plants. Once this knowledge was acquired, Muthamma and her mates were abandoned and the ashram members had access to all the forest bounty.
Though Muthamma admits that she never really faced any direct trouble from the ashram whilst she was working there, it was the setting up of the Isha foundation itself that rendered the tribal group homeless. “We never really dealt with Isha Foundation directly but tried sending a notice to the government and our collector stating that we have no place to stay. They offered to provide us with a wasteland, saying that they would give it to us within 3 months which turned into 6 months and eventually years. It’s been 27 years now and we still have not been given possession to the land,” Muthamma says wistfully.
The ‘Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006’, popularly known as the Forests Rights Act (FRA), promulgated in the year 2006 aims to correct the historical injustice done to forest dwelling communities and provides the tribals crucial rights to hold and own forest land where they have traditionally lived, as well as providing livelihood and basic facilities to them. The 44 acre land in question where Muthamma and her communities resided was said to have donated to them by a gentleman called Muthuswamy Gowender who worked with Muthumma’s grandparents. Her parents too lived on the same land. Muthamma exclaims how she and her entire village were unaware that the land was purchased by Isha Foundation. “We were told that we would be given pattas for the land, but we were fooled. The truth remains that this land is traditionally ours but we do not have the legal know how nor a financial backing required to fight these big people.”
Muthamma who sought refuge in the hut of the tribal head and his family remained puzzled for a long time. What she could not wrap her head around was the fact that a rich foundation like Isha could not even provide a little land to help the 200 homeless families in dire need. It was during this time that she got the chance to attend the Tamil Nadu State Conference of the Adivasi Rights Organisation in Tiruvannamalai with the support of several local tribal and communist groups. “I had a lot of support there, and we even wrote on paper stating that we have no place to stay, requesting assistance for the same. Here, I was introduced to several like minded people who understood my struggle. This is the first time I comprehended my own rights and how I could use them.”
This was precisely when Muthamma’s struggle started. Exploiting the most important tool she had at her perusal, she filed an RTI requesting the information on the land. Once they received the documents they went to the collector and requested him to take the required actions. “We have filed a case against them. All we are asking is that they give us back the land on which our parents and grandparents have lived . It’s been 2-3 years since the case has been filed, but still no solution has been found to the problem. The godman came and questioned me as to how I could fight for the land. I simply told him that we had put a notice to the collector and the government. We are not here to fight, we are only exercising our rights.”
Muthamma’s struggle was aided by activists of AIDWA, Dalit organisations, CPI(M) and also environmentalists who claim that the foundation is affecting the elephant corridor, according to the National Green Tribunal. The Wire reported that “the protesters carried flags of different colours in their hands and planted them on the land in a symbolic assertion of their rights. The Vellingiri Hill Tribal Protection Society filed a PIL in the Madras high court in March against the unauthorised structures that have been constructed on the wetlands at Ikkarai Poluvampatti by the ashram.”
But when the Prime Minister of the country himself is part of the ashram’s alleged illegal activities (The Wire reported that he he himself unveiled a 112-foot-high bust of the ‘Adi Yogi’ Shiva at the ashram – despite being requested by environmental activists not to be present at an occasion to add to a new list of violations); there is a little these helpless tribals can hope for.
Isha Foundation has received various notices from the administrations about various structures that it has built without requisite permissions. Scroll in one of their recent stories quoted R Selvaraj, the deputy director in-charge of the Town and Country Planning, Coimbatore Region and reported that “the department had not given permission to the organisation led by yoga guru Jaggi Vasudev for constructions at the site. The DTCP also said that it had directed Isha Foundation to submit all documents related to the construction and obtain permission from the Hill Area Conservation Authority. In the affidavit, Selvaraj also mentions the already existing lock and seal notice served to the foundation in December 2012. The notice had been served for unauthorised construction on the 109-acre land where Isha Meditation Lingam Religious Workshop and other buildings stand.” However Isha Foundation has dismissed all allegations by issuing the following statement on their website.
“The accusations laid down in the petitions filed against Isha Foundation in the Madras High Court are frivolous and a compilation of twisted allegations. We would like to clarify that it is a 112-feet statue of Adiyogi Shiva (the Source of Yoga). The petitioner, incited by vested interest groups, is willfully trying to create a sensation by misrepresenting facts. We have obtained the approval of the necessary authorities, including the District Collector, Coimbatore, the Forest Department and BSNL.”
When Modi came, Muthamma was literally put under house arrest. “I had no option of going and putting my concerns forth. The police had literally ensured that none of us stepped out when he arrived. They had assigned police that was camped around all our houses. The Ashram is very powerful. Though they do not threaten us directly, I still live in the fear that they will end up doing something to us.”
On September 24, 2017, Muthamma was felicitated by the AIDWA (All India Democratic Women’s Alliance). It was a proud moment for her to be able to stand up for her people and fight for their rights—one of the reasons why she she attends all the meetings conducted by their groups and people. “My only hope lies with working with these organizations and groups,” she says.
The case against Isha Foundation continues to rage in the Madras High Court. While Muthamma religiously goes to Chennai and attends the hearings in the court, Isha Foundation flourishes in the tribal land. With their ‘rally of rivers’ and hundreds of other running environmental projects, who is to say if they are actually compensating for the thousands of lives they have affected or are just really big hypocrites minting money on other’s land. The decision makers continue to postpone justice as usual.
Muthamma today has lost support from her family and separated from her husband. They refuse to partake in any of her struggles as they still work for the ashram, but Muthamma says that no matter how saddened she is due to the separation, the purpose of her life now is to work for her people.
“We have no means or resources to go fight with such big foundations. All we adivasis have are our groups— the ones we find strength in. We only hope that our collective voices will be heard and the government will hopefully take steps towards the support of the tribals so we can get our own land back.”
The conversation between the journalist and Muthamma was facilitated and translated by Priyanka Prakash. We sincerely appreciate her efforts.
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