Landed in trouble
The British always required get away places. Shimla is the best known example as it was known as the summer capital. When summer palace was built it was best known for its pioneering use of electricity.
Nilgiris was colonised by the British when the collector of Coimbatore, George Sullivan, on his first visit in 1819 sought on lease seven Badaga villages and one Toda mund (village) around 800 Cawnies of land ostensibly for the purpose of a sanatorium, but later for the use of the army barracks at Wellington. This lease was to become effective from the day the barracks was to be constructed. In the year 1950, when the then British government began the construction of the barracks, 658 cawnies (870 acres) were taken up. It was negotiated that the payment would be at the rate of Rs 500 cash down and Rs 165 paid annually for the period of a 100-year and even in this negotiated settlement, the Badaga villagers and the Todas were allowed to cultivate the land without paying tax till the construction of the barracks actually started. The construction of the barracks began in 1851 and was completed in 1853 and the lease amount of Rs 165 was honoured by the Bristish government and subsequently by the Indian government till 1958, after which the government of India through the ministry of defence offered a payment of Rs 4743.75 as a lump sum being the amount computed as the annuity of Rs 165, for 20 years and an additional solatium of 15 per cent added to extinguish the residual rights that the villagers claimed over the 658 cawnies (870acres)of land. This offer was turned down by the villagers. Subsequently, with the military authorities ignoring the claim of the villagers that the land was leased , the barracks was cordoned off with fences and walls denying free access to the villagers to their lands that abutted the fenced-off areas of the barracks. In course of time, the villagers were at the mercy of the military authorities to access their lands and temples that abutted the fenced-off areas. This led many a family to penury. The villagers then tried to address the problem by going to the local courts to argue that the colonial agreement had lapsed and they should be restituted with their rights over the lands leased. In the 1961 judgement and the 1970 judgement, from the Ooty/Coimbatore court, the villagers were told that the land was considered as sold and not leased by their ancestors because there was no proof of the lease and their claims over the lands dismissed.
However, after the advent of the Right to Information Act, the villagers decided to obtain the original lease deed that they felt was with the government and were suppressed from the courts in 1961. After pursuing the RTI route and a writ in the Chennai high court seeking directions for the copy of the original lease deed, the court directed the district collector, Nilgiris, to furnish the copy within four weeks. The office of the collector, Nilgiris, searched for the original lease deed entered into in 1820 but were unable to locate the same. However, a copy that was the ‘gist’ of the original lease deed titled “Documentary Details Regarding Lands taken on Lease which Falls Within The Wellington Barracks” was found at the collector’s Office.

Armed with this document the village representatives of seven villages wrote to the president Pranab Mukherjea, asking for right of access to their fields for cultivation, harvesting and transporting produce and for restitution of their rights over the lands that they felt was rightfully theirs. They submitted to the president that they were aware of the national importance of the barracks and were amenable to the military authorities continuing usage of the lands unhindered on new lease terms for however long they desired.
Badaga presence in the Nilgiris goes back nearly 1,000 years. The British were quick to see the potential for tea plantations and by the early 20th century. The borders of the Nilgiris were open to Malayalees, Tamils and Kannadigas, as traders, clerks and plantation labour. The Badagas had symbiotic relations with the other settlers of the Nilgiris like the Todas, Kotas Irulas and Kurumbas — so beloved of sociologists and historians — and lived in harmony. They were also accustomed to the Malayali traders who came in to provide the soldiers, bureaucrats and clerks and the plantation labour their necessities. As with the Kerala issue of right to repair colonial dams and share water, the people maintain that linguistic borders, post Independence, depend on a certain dialogicity of mutual interests which must be sensitive to right to life.
The writer is professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
Susan Visvanathan