Land struggles that were little fires during the repressive years after the war, have now lit up the political landscape of the North. If the democratic wind with regime change provided oxygen for these struggles, the rural economic crisis affecting the war-torn people drives their desperation to recover land as a resource for agriculture and landing sites for fisheries. Indeed, land for these people is not only the ground on which to build dwellings, but also a resource to reproduce and sustain rural economic life.
Grievances around land – including military occupation, the normalisation of land titles and permits, displaced squatters on lands of other displaced people and persistent landlessness of historically marginalised communities – have been surfacing since the end of the war. While these issues gained attention in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s proceedings between 2010 and 2011, it is with the opening of democratic space in January 2015 that the people in the North became increasingly vocal.
Frustrated with the snail’s pace of land return and the lack of political will displayed by the Government and their own political representatives, and fed up with being given the run around by the bureaucracy, the people finally said enough is enough. In early 2017, some of the communities in the Vanni launched a series of sustained protests. These non-violent protests involved camping out in front of the occupied lands and fasts on rotation.
In contrast to the scripted messages of defiance and blame on the military spouted by the Tamil media, the subtle approach of the communities, when spoken to in person about their protests, focused attention on their abject social and economic conditions. This determined but non-confrontational approach, engaging the military locally and appealing to the authorities in Colombo, is a clear departure from the rhetoric of the Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF) and sections of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), who merely appropriated anti-military slogans to strengthen their Tamil nationalist stance.
State and Landless
Almost three decades of multiple bouts of displacement, migration and return have necessarily led to tremendous disruption of social life centred on land in the North. Furthermore, oppressed caste people who never owned land and younger generations unable to establish a permanent home due to the war continue to languish without housing and agricultural land.
Currently, 14,000 households in the Jaffna District, close to 10% of its population, are completely landless and thus do not even qualify for the housing grants provided by the Government. Despite numerous reports and policy initiatives on resettlement, the state still lacks a policy to address landlessness. Indeed, it is the socially and economically deprived that bear the brunt of the war and its aftermath.
While the struggles for dwellings and livelihoods related to land are varied, the role of the state remains at the heart of the issue. Ironically, it is the state that claims to address the affected peoples’ resettlement that is in many cases directly or indirectly obstructing people’s return to their land.
Struggles Gaining Attention
The prominent case in recent months is the air force in Kepapilavu; close to five hundred acres of land remain under occupation where some four hundred families settled there about twelve years ago. These people have been displaced multiple times, including a large proportion of oppressed-caste Up-Country Tamil people, displaced decades earlier during the various riots in the South. Simultaneously, about fifty families in Pudukudiyiruppu, Mullaitivu and two dozen families in Paravipanchan, Killinochi protested against continued military occupation of their lands.
Only a few households own substantial agricultural land, and most of these people have only lived on these lands for one or two generations, and in the case of Kepapilavu for about a decade. Yet for these protesters, these lands connect them to their past and provide a sense of belonging to a place and a secure future. Furthermore, these relatively small plots of land also provide sustenance in the form of home gardens for subsistence and marketing of produce such as coconuts and arecanuts.
In the face of these protests, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Sampanthan and President Sirisena discussed the issue, resulting in a significant announcement to release some of these lands. However, the implications of this return, including the extent of land and the amount of people will only be known over the next few months.
In the face of these protests, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Sampanthan and President Sirisena discussed the issue, resulting in a significant announcement to release some of these lands. However, the implications of this return, including the amount of land and to which people will only be known over the next few months.
Mylitty in northern Jaffna, has one of the largest fishing harbours in the North. The occupation of this area by the military denies both access to the harbour for over a thousand fishermen and lands that had historically been inhabited by a number of fishing hamlets. Many of the residents of this area belong to the oppressed castes and marginal fisher castes, who did not own land but had lived and worked on the coast until displaced during the early years of the war. Similarly, Iranativu consisting of the two small islands off the western coast of Kilinochchi occupied by the navy has remained out of reach for over three hundred fishing households that once lived there and fished for generations. The return of the harbour and the islands, would improve these fishing communities ability to fish at lower fuel costs and with better infrastructure.
Not only the security forces, but the bureaucratic arms of the state have also prevented people from resettling and rebuilding their social and economic lives. Close to six hundred Tamil farmers were displaced from southern Mullaitivu with the onset of war in the mid-1980s. During the war, Sinhala farmers were settled on their lands, now called Weli Oya, as part of a problematic military strategy of creating border villages. The Tamil farmers having returned few years after the war, have been reasonable in demanding alternate land on the order of 4 acres for each farming household, who had owned as much as 5 to 10 acres of land before the war. However, the Mahaweli Authority has been rigid and insists it can only provide 2 acre plots, which the farmers deem inadequate for cultivation. There has been no progress on the matter despite representations by the farmers for over three years.
In Paracheriweli near Jaffna town, adjacent to the historically vibrant Muslim settlement that faced eviction by the LTTE, Muslim returnees have bought paddy lands not used for decades to build houses after the war. However, local bureaucrats are denying conversion of this paddy land to high land even as Jaffna Muslims protest against discrimination by the officials on a range of resettlement concerns including housing grants.
While people may have inhabited land for generations, their land as property is a creation of the modern state. The irony of the various land problems mentioned above is that it is the state, whether directly through occupation, through bureaucratic hurdles or in not normalising land documents, that is depriving people of their land.
In this context, the ultimate responsibility for addressing the many post-war land issues falls on the government and the TNA. Many in the Vanni continue to have confidence in the President, claiming they helped elect him, which in turn has created the democratic space for the protests they participate in. Similarly, they voted overwhelmingly for the TNA in the general election of 2015. That confidence the people placed in the elections is slowly eroding with the lack of political will on the part of the Government to return their lands and address landless, and the lack of commitment on the part of the TNA leadership to engage the people and provide them a way forward.
While the current debate on land in the North is focused on the state, land is also central to the capitalist economic system. Production on land for the market involves exploitation of landless wage workers and the accumulation of wealth by landowners. The historical inequalities of landownership in the North persists in relation to caste oppression, the exclusion of Up-Country Tamils displaced to the Vanni, the barriers against Jaffna Muslim returnees and the travails of landless wage labouring communities.
The challenges facing people excluded from land in the North are converging with those on the margins in the rest of the country. Furthermore, accumulation of capital in recent decades, both here and globally, has involved dispossession of people from land in addition to exploitation of those working on land. Such dispossession can be subtle, as with the new land policies to convert the permit lands of rural people to free holding land, which will result in the indebted farmers selling their lands to agri-businesses. Coercive dispossession by the state is possible with the tremendous powers given to the Megapolis Ministry and the Agency for Development, which can demolish slums and grab rural lands. Those struggling for land and equality, in the North and the South, have the urgent challenge before them to join forces and forge a powerful movement for land.