The Disenfranchisement of Paniyas in Kerala

The Disenfranchisement of Paniyas in Kerala

This literature review provides insights into various aspects of the Paniya tribe, covering topics such as population, caste names and structures in Wayanad, periods of Paniya history, inter-tribal disparity, work and employment for Adivasis, alienation through the education system, public perceptions, plantation economy, exclusion from the financial system, and health issues.

Disclaimer: I have put links to the referred journals and articles wherever I can. It may not be possible to read all of them at a go so I recommend reading through the article and then choosing the links you want to read.

A Literature Review

This literature review provides insights into various aspects of the Paniya tribe, covering topics such as population, caste names and structures in Wayanad, periods of Paniya history, inter-tribal disparity, work and employment for Adivasis, alienation through the education system, public perceptions, plantation economy, exclusion from the financial system, and health issues.


  1. According to the 2011 census, the scheduled tribes’ population in Kerala is 4.85 lakh, which accounts for 1.45% of the general population. (Source)

Caste Names, Structures in Wayanad

  1. A reading (source) explores the organization of the caste system in Wayanad. It delves into the history and naming conventions of each tribe, providing insights into their origins and implications. The focus of this article is on the Paniya tribe. The reading also covers the history of Wayanad and its Adivasi populations.

Periods of Paniya History

  1. Paniya history can be divided into four periods, as summarized in a paper called “Kulirani” (source). These periods include an early hunter-gatherer phase, a long period of being agrarian slaves, a phase of being liberated wage earners in a competitive market, and a period marked by a rising sense of desperation and hopelessness, leading to dependence on state welfare.

The Tribal People are Not a Monolith

  1. A paper (source) highlights the inter-tribal disparities in welfare scheme benefits and socio-economic conditions. It emphasizes that different tribes have vastly different socio-economic and political lives, challenging the notion of tribes as a monolithic group.

  2. Another paper (source) further emphasizes the inter-tribal disparities, showcasing the significant differences within tribal groups. It also sheds light on the stark contrast between ST communities and non-tribal groups.

Work and Employment for Adivasis

  1. A paper (source) explores the kind of work Adivasis engage in and their average monthly earnings as of 2016. It highlights their lack of political representation, economic growth, and physical well-being.

Alienation through the Education System

  1. The challenges faced by Paniya children in accessing education are outlined in a paper (source). The paper raises questions about the inclusivity of existing educational models. Additionally, a video (source) provides insights into an education system designed with Adivasis in mind.

Public Perceptions

  1. Local discussions revealed stereotypes about Paniyas, such as being perceived as lazy, unreliable, alcoholic, and dependent on government welfare schemes. These perceptions reflect the perpetuation of oppressive systems.

  2. The Paniyas often become objects of spectacle, as observed firsthand when a guide encouraged taking photos of Paniyas passing by. This phenomenon may be attributed to the focus of social research and government aid centered around the tribe.

Plantation Economy

  1. Paniya workers primarily engaged in paddy cultivation but faced a decline in employment due to the expansion of plantations. They were not easily absorbed into the plantation labor economy. (Source 1, Source 2)

Exclusion from the Financial System

  1. The majority of the Paniya population was excluded from formal financial activities and the financial sector. (Source)

Health and Caste

  1. The Paniya Tribe faces numerous health problems. One study (Source 1) focuses on malnutrition among Paniya children, highlighting their underutilization of available governmental schemes and the resulting deprivation at the community level. Another study (Source 2) explores the impact of caste on the health of tribal women, with lower castes experiencing amplified vulnerabilities while upper castes enjoy protection due to an invisible caste buffer. Additionally, a study (Source 3) examines the occurrence of various diseases among Adivasis, including the prevalence of sickle cell anemia in Paniya communities.
  2. Access to quality healthcare is limited for tribal populations due to their remote locations. Government hospitals, community health centers, and primary health centers, though available, are insufficient to meet their needs. Mobile medical units have been introduced to cater to remote tribal areas. ASHA workers play a crucial role in responding to healthcare issues and alerting the government healthcare infrastructure. However, historical aversion to healthcare institutions among Paniyas remains a challenge. Government hospitals in Wayanad, located in Kalpetta, are often the only facilities equipped for specialized operations like deliveries, further restricting access to quality healthcare for the tribals living in remote areas.

System Map of Issues

Credit: Author’s own (_Read the legend — Take a circled issue — backtrack and see the other issues contributing to that — move to next circle)_

Decreasing Health, Alienation, Landlessness, Erosion of Cultural Pride, Anger, Lack of Wealth and a disconnected population

After seeing the connections between Erosion of Cultural Pride and Anger, Landlessnessness and Wealthlessness and Alienation and Disconnection.

Every single child labourer that I have documented comes from a highly impoverished family unit and belongs to a low-caste or minority community.

Siddharth Kara

Understanding the History

Through the readings mentioned above as well as few current media pieces as well as stories and songs that the Paniya peoples tell about themselves.

I then mapped this into the three stages of alienation (in the footsteps of Kulirani[[The Disenfranchisement of Adivasis in Kerala#Periods of Paniya history]] whose work I had mentioned in the earlier article)

A Rich Culture mixed with Centuries of Oppression

Cultural Artifacts and Practices

Stories and Songs:

Through most of their rituals and practices, the scars of slavery can be seen clearly. They call themselves the ‘Ippi-mala makkal’ -meaning The children of the mountain called Ippi. However, the name they are called, ‘Paniyan’ means worker. This story of oppression is also clearly evident in the story they tell of their origins:

On a hill called Ippi-mala (Mt. Ippi), there was a temple with a Brahmin priest and Jain Gounder. The priest would often observe a boy and a girl playing near the temple well. So they captured the children with help of another tribal man who worked for them. The children then worked for them, after which the gounder got them married to each other and they had five daughters and five sons. The Paniya regard them to be their first ancestors.

There are other variations of this story that warn the Paniya against manipulation from the upper castes. In that version, the Paniyas are enslaved because one of them was lured using good food that he then told the others about.

Rachel Santosh writes about the ceremony where the Paniya were sold to different landlords at the Valliyoorkaavu temple every year. The ritual that confirmed the transaction consisted of songs that showed how much the Paniyans suffered under their slavers. In the songs that are sung, god (padachavan) approves of their bondage and wills it so. Ironically, this temple is the biggest place of Paniyan worship now — they get special privileges at the temple as well.

Other stories talk of the Paniyan afterlife — which does not constitute heaven or hell.

After death, the soul splits into twothe soul shadow (nizhelu) and the ancestral spirit (pene). God takes the nizhelu of a paniyan and puts it in the body of another paniyan that is born after him. The pene goes down to the keenadu(netherworld) where the pene will have the same occupation and work under the same master. The bondages in the present world continue in the netherworld also. This means that there is no freedom for the Paniyan even after death.

Dance and Music:

History of the Paniyans:

A tribal girl once asked me modestly, ”When we go to school, we read about Mahatma Gandhi. Did we have no heroes like that? Did we always suffer like this?” Mahasweta Devi, Imaginary Maps 1993


No one really knows about the origins of the Paniyas. Some theories state that they are the original inhabitants of India. They, themselves say that they were brought to the Wayanad region by a Malabar King but have no records of when or who that king was.

They initially lived as hunter-gatherers in the forests, sometimes straying into the farms of the landlords of the time to steal some food and then run away. Soon the landlords got tired of this behavior and enslaved them and made them work in the fields as bonded laborers. This incident is preserved in the origin story that the Paniyans tell about themselves about their origins. However, the veracity might be dubious considering all the other stories which seem to be told by or board towards the upper castes.

As slaves that are sold with the land, they worked under the upper caste Namboothiris and Nairs or the ‘janmis(rightful inheritors of the land). This caste hierarchy has had great effects on the cultural stories of the Paniyansthey called themselves the ‘kachavanmar’( lowest of the low). Other castes and subcastes were also cultivators but they were the tenants of the ‘janmis’. The Paniya and the Adiya were the bonded laborers who did the work on the land. The Paniyas were also known to be ‘fearless’ and were used as weapons in vendettas between the janmis, often robbing or killing the enemies of their masters.

Settler Oppression

There were many political upheavals during this time from Tipu Sultan to Pazhassi Raja to the invasion of the British, but the situation of the Paniyans remained them same. Working from dawn to dusk for meager amounts of money, they were treated as objects and property. This only changed in the early 20th century, after the British tried to put a stop to the slave trade. Soon after, a new wave of migrants came to Wayanad and the Paniyans moved on to daily wage work. There was a little more freedom now, but the means of exploitation only changed into other subtle but equally nefarious forms.

These new Christian and Muslim immigrant landlords forced Paniyans out of the little land they were given under the Janmis. Since the Paniyas rarely had any paperwork regarding their ownership, they had to move. Some of these landlords would put fire to their colonies so that they would clear another patch of forest for the landlord to convert into farmlandat no expense. They even paid the Paniyans partly in alcohol and encouraged an addiction to it so that they would continue to work under them. They also exploited their illiteracy and would often trick them into signing off huge parcels of their land without them knowing or understanding what they were signing off. Other landlords took sizeable populations of the Paniyas and Adiyas with them to their homelands in different districts and settled them there.

Wealthlessness due to Landlessness

The lack of access to their own land, combined with this expectation to perform free labour and the threat of violence and economic boycott against those who challenge their expected social roles, keeps many Dalit families in bondage and a perpetual state of poverty

India Exclusion Report, 2014

Despite the abundance of land reform attempts, Landlessness is a very serious issue as Paniya households own the least land on average among the other tribes in Wayanad. When coupled with their forced exile from forest lands this has led to the shrinkage of livelihood options for the Paniya. This has profound implications as they weren’t able to move into other professions, create wealth -or in extension political powerwhich became the biggest roadblock to land reforms in modern Kerala. The landowners have too much political clout that they frequently use to thwart movements by the landless marginalized.

Land Reforms in Kerala

After the state of Kerala was formed, an act that made it illegal to own land above 15 acres was passed. However, plantations were exempted from this act. In this process, many landowners got away by declaring their land as a plantation. There is evidence to show that because these huge plantations were exempted from this act, the Paniyas were forced into small overcrowded ghettos.

The Forest Rights Act that aimed to empower the tribes that live off the forest ended up excluding the Paniya community from the list of tribes that can use and sell forest produce. With this, they were cut off from their past as well because prior to their enslavement they were hunter-gatherers in the forests. Not only were they alienated from those forests but now they were also banned from using those skills in wealth creation.

Other than that, there have been several attempts to reform land practices. This was and is, however, repeatedly being sabotaged by unwilling governments, powerful landowners and cunning businessmen. Even after two successive acts in 1975 and 1999 and an HC order demanding the restoration of land to the tribals, the distribution of land has been meager and often inhabitable.

Aralam and other Land Crimes - Land Assertion

The story of how Aralam (a heartbreaking read of the violence that they had to face even when things looked calm on the outside), a centralized farm was distributed to tribals but without any kind of support in the way forward. They lived in semi-starvation conditions without power or knowledge of how to tend for the crops that were already there on the farms that they were given. It also talks about the malicious tactics that the government employed to evict those whose claims they saw as invalid is a case in point.

There have been land struggles for the Adivasis at almost every piece of land that was to be restored to them. This article lists out a small history of such struggles. This systemic apathy has given rise to many political tribal movements that have demanded the restoration of land in movements called “land assertion”. As a community, they would occupy the land and protest the inaction of the government. These movements, however, received a huge setback in Kerala during what the media called the “Muthanga Incident”. The official report of how the police fired on an angry Adivasi crowd is contrasted by the Rajmanikyam probe commissioned by People’s Judicial Enquiry Commission shows how the community was targeted by keeping their children and tribal women hostage and torturing them. Other activists, such as C.K. Janu- the leader of the AGMS — Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha were imprisoned.

These movements were also harmed by powerful parties using divisive tactics to split the movement on the basis of leaders, districts and affiliations. A unified movement to demand land soon broke down.

The systematic land grab over the years has been affecting tribal populations significantly and adversely. This is why these movements have come to believe that ownership of land is the only way out for these communities to grow. Which seems to be verified by this paper, that highlights the differences in land claims for the Dalits and the Adivasis. It theorizes that the reason only 22% of Dalits vs 49% of the tribals are still engaged in agriculture is the difference in land allotment. Since, a lot of the Dalits received land as part of the land reforms, they were able to gain social mobility and move into other sectors of work that will remain closed for the landless tribes.

Consequences on Health and Financial Conditions

As of now, a majority of the Paniyas face malnutrition on a large scale. The uprooting of that community from forestlands where they were able to find nutritional food plays a huge role in this. Not having land, means that the Paniyas must work as agricultural laborers in other landowners’ fields. This, when coupled with their tendency to not save any money owing to the hopelessness for a good future that is often seen in many oppressed indigenous peoples. This is a great article shows how trauma in the Native American peoples has mirrored the trauma in the Paniyas as well. Alcoholism is rampant in such communities and further contributes to the loss of wealth.

In this vicious circle, they then approach the owners of the land they work in for money. Adding debt to this dangerous circle makes it almost impossible to escape. Even though ‘bonded labour’ is apparently outlawed, these forms of slavery and feudalism still remain.

“The sign of ultimate oppression working is when the oppressor can take away his hands, stand back and say ‘look at what they’re doing to themselves.’”

— Jessica Gourneau

Lack of Access and Lack of Trust

No Access:

Image for post

CK Janu on the political position of Adivasis

For this section, I’d like to quote C.K. Janu, leader of the AGMS (an Adivasi activist who has been at the forefront of many politically organised movements for Adivasi upliftment. Read more about this inspirational leader here)

Traditionally, Adivasis maintained a harmonious relationship with their land, both cultivated and forest land, and it formed an integral part of their lives. Also, these resources are inseparable to the Adivasi way of living. By and large, Adivasis were uneducated people and they earned their living by making use of the resources available to them — their lands. So they have a symbiotic relationship with the soil and even now they haven’t turned away from this eco-centric culture.

Now, after the setting up of Adivasi colonies, they are in a crisis. Land is the primal symbol of power. So without tackling the issues regarding the ownership of land, Adivasis’ problems cannot be resolved. Only those who have land can play an active role in the socio-political and cultural spheres of the society. So those who are pushed to the margins are effectively alienated from the modern institutions of power with respect to politics, bureaucracy, and social order.

For Adivasis, the resources that they get from the land are their sole revenue and therefore they maintain a blood-relation with their land. So they cannot survive without their lands.

During the Land Reforms in the 1960s, the Kerala state government decided the upper limit of land that can be possessed by an individual as 15 acres. But this limit was not applicable to the estate plantations that cultivated cash crops. Through this law, the Government assumed the ownership of the excess land. This in effect, led to the ghettoization of the Adivasi communities as they were pushed to the reserves and colonies.

Ghettoization of these communities

The Tenancy Reforms Act of 1970 contributed to the process of creating Dalit and Adivasi colonies and recent studies show that there is a total of 12,500 Dalit and 4,082 Adivasi colonies in the state.[1]

This ghettoization meant that the Adivasis now live in small parcels of land that are often remote and inaccessible. They often face scarcities because of this. Water supply to these overcrowding of colonies is often intermittent and unclean. The overcrowding and the locations in remote places also make them really hard to reach. This has special significance in the matter of accessibility to services. In Wayanad, some colony members have to travel 30 kilometers to the nearest government hospital for a childbirth. Even though, medical services are free in the government PHCs, THCs and Government Hospitals the travel to and from there costs upto 500 Rs in some cases which is often a lot as they earn up to 400 Rs a day for working in the fields.

2018 Floods

This inaccessibility was clearly also revealed in the recent floods, where rescue workers couldn’t go to the colonies because of how remote and unknown they were. There were also clear cases of discrimination rising up out of the disaster.

No trust:

The dystopia of the Kerala Model

From all of these, we finally arrive at a conjunction of all these issues playing out and against each other. A lack of trust in everyone but themselves, and for good reason. The government, no matter which party, which has often touted its credentials under the hyped label of the ‘Kerala Model’ has repeatedly been unable to eke out the political will to actually do something radically bold and helpful for the landless marginalized. This kind of ostracization meant that violence against these communities is often hidden away or ignored. These kinds of oppressed communities have huge numbers of unwed mothers that were either manipulated or abused. It is no different for the Paniyas.

M.S. Sreerekha on Land Alienation and Restorative Justice

To end this I’d like to quote from M.S. Sreerekha’s report:

Both the state and civil society wish to interpret and believe that alienation as such has never happened. Many, who were for or against restoration of land, today prefer to believe it is actually impractical. Alienation is a thing of the past and it is too much of a responsibility on the Adivasi community today to prove it though in reality one wonders whether there is any land ever that has not been alienated from the Adivasis.

Alienation in itself is a sensitive matter and so is the need for restoration of land. Should land be “restored”? If yes, is that “impractical” due to the state’s inability to face the “organised resistance” against it?

In the decades of never-ending legal battles, the adivasi community has experienced and learned the complexities that law can create. They have seen that a change of words or definitions on one piece of legislation on land, restored, alienated, forest, nonforest, immovable property, agricultural, non-agricultural, revenue land, forest land…and the ways in these can be used/misused means a lot to them.

…. the only changing “ground reality” is that the long fight against the migrant, upper caste/class settlers within the state has today become a struggle against the state and many big plantation owners and private agriculturalists, working hand in hand.

KhattaMicah Website © 2022 by Micah is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0