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by Sunny M Kapicadu, Kafila, 14 June 1008

[The transformation of the agenda of the mainstream left in Kerala is beginning to produce resistance, and nowhere is this more visible than at Chengara in the south eastern Pathanamthitta district. The ongoing struggle for land there brings into relief not just the denial of productive resources to the real tillers of the soil – the Dalits – in Kerala’s land reforms, but also the shift of the left from the fight against inequality to the distribution of ‘minimum entitlements’. It also draws attention to the manner in which a ‘state-centric’ civil society, mainly the large network of poor women’s self-help groups sponsored by the State’s poverty eradication “Mission’, has been authorized as ‘authentic civil society’. All claims made outside these formal institutions are thereby rendered illegitimate and indeed, ‘against the law’. At Chengara, the protestors have been resisting the combined force of the state and the major political parties, laying claims to productive resources – and rejecting ‘minimum entitlements’. Indeed, the darker side of ‘democratic decentralization’ in Kerala, the ‘new Kerala Model’, as it has been called by its admirers, is the implicit legitimacy it grants to blatant violence unleashed upon people who struggle for economic equality, who do not find ‘minimum entitlements’ the solution to rampant and growing economic inequalities in contemporary Kerala. No wonder, then, that the Chief Minister of Kerala felt no qualms in warning the leader of the Chengara land struggle, Laha Gopalan, that if the protestors did not peacefully return to their villages (where they could put in applications for 3 or 5 cents of land for housing), they would have to encounter “police with horns and thorns” – in other words, not just armed police, but a bestial force. Nandigram, in short.

The struggle, however, remains vibrant and growing. Below is a translated version of a speech made by leading Dalit activist and intellectual, Sunny M Kapicadu, at a night-vigil organized in support of the ongoing land struggle in Thiruvananthapuram on 7 March 2008, in which he defends the struggle against powerful efforts to malign and undermine it.]


The land struggle at Chengara, the circumstances that led to the struggle and the government’s attitude towards it urgently demand our attention today. According to available information, in the past seven months or so, more than 7,000 families have settled down there and built hutments. Till today, no official attempt has been made by the government to approach those who are struggling with the intention of inquiring about their demands; no democratic talks have been initiated. It was on 4 August 2007 that 300 families entered the Chengara Estate, which was being held by Harrison Malayalam Plantations and began to live there. After that there has not been much of organizational work around this move. In other words, the struggle did not grow in force because the Sadhujana Vimochana Munnani, which leads the struggle, went about the length and breadth of Kerala, inviting landless folk. In fact, the reverse. The intensity of struggle was maintained by the 300 there, and because they successfully overcame the first crisis – a crisis that arose when organized plantation workers belonging to the CITU, AITUC, INTUC and other trade unions attacked them – landless people began to flow there, finding it to be a site of struggle in which violence had been beaten back. Thus, after two months, the number of families grew from 300 to more than 7000. The newly arrived folk have all built huts and settled down. People from many districts of Kerala – Alapuzha, Pathanamtitta, Kollam, Kottayam, Idukki, Thiruvananthapuram, and Kasaragod – have reached Chengara – large numbers of folk who have no land, who live on the streets, who lived paying rent in small rooms. They are not spending their lives there shouting slogans for all twenty-four hours; they lead lives as families, husbands, wives and children. The husband goes out seeking work outside the plantation; he returns with a few days’ earnings from manual labour. The next week, it may be the wife who goes out seeking work. So the 7000 families here live from their labour alone. I stress this because there is the idea that such a massive struggle can happen only if supported by crores of rupees flowing in from here and abroad. But the struggle has a very different ethical stance, and this is proof of that: the struggle committee constituted there is not one that helps those of come there to hang on through handouts of money and food. Rather, each person who lives there has survived on his or her own labour for all the past seven months.

The second point I want to stress is that people from all castes and creeds are to be found among these 7000 families. I think there are no Nambutiri Brahmins , but there are Nairs, Syrian Christians, Muslims, members of the Scheduled Castes, Dalit Christians, Adivasis, and all others. But about 90 per cent are Dalits and Adivasis. Next come the Muslims. This is not the case in Chengara alone; in our visits to colonies of landless people in Kollam district and other places, we saw that next to the Dalit community, Muslims constitute the largest chunk of landless people. In Punalur, there are landless people living on both sides of the road, for kilometers altogether, most of who are Muslims. But in Chengara, the majority is Dalits, Dalit Christians, and Adivasis. In reality, this is a cross-section sample of the landless in Kerala. Sample surveys have shown that the Dalits constitute 85 per cent of the landless folk in Kerala. There is good reason to believe this. Thus wherever struggles around land occur in Kerala, the majority of the participants will be Dalits and Adivasis. Chengara is no exception.

The struggle at Chengara is undoubtedly one of the major land struggles in Kerala’s history. Ten years back, such a struggle would have been unthinkable. Ten years back we all thought that there was no scope for another land struggle in Kerala. That there was no land to be redistributed in Kerala. Even social activists thought that all the land that could have been legitimately redistributed had been exhausted. It was the Adivasi land struggles that revealed to us that this notion was false, and that there is arable land in Kerala that may be redistributed. For whole of forty-eight days, the Adivasis laid siege by building little huts here, in front of the Secretariat where we have now gathered, and in front of the Chief Ministers’ House. An agreement was reached only on the forty-eighth day. In those days, when hundreds of Adivasis camped here demanding arable land, political leaders of both the ruling and opposition parties were united in proclaiming that C K Janu and her group were being propped up by funds from abroad. It is only natural that a political party thought that way. The parties may have assets worth crores, but they lack the ethical will to support 500 people for 48 days in this city. For that the daily expenses of these people will have to be met. As someone who had actively intervened in the organization of that Adivasi struggle, I can tell you that it was the colonies in this city that made it possible for the struggle to survive. It was from the dalit colonies in this city that sacks of rice arrived at the cooking shed here. A jeep used to go around for that purpose. The situation would be explained to folk there, and each house would contribute handfuls of rice to make sackfuls. After the struggle ended, after the forty-eighth day, there were just two sacks of rice left. I am saying this because the politicians were sure that the struggle was supported by foreign hands. My point here is that it was this struggle that taught the people of Kerala that arable land was indeed available for redistribution.

It is in the context of this struggle that landless people of other communities entered the land struggle at Chengara. How the majority of such people happen to be Dalits and Adivasis is something that must be examined historically. It is not enough to understand this struggle as if it were merely a struggle for land by the landless, a united fight by all those who have no land. For it is those people who did not receive land in Kerala’s land reforms who are coming here. However may we idealise the land reforms, it has been proved beyond doubt that they failed to make available land to some social groups in Kerala. The crux of the land reforms that were put forward by the government in 1957, which were implemented on 1 January 1970 was the fixing of ceilings on the amount of land that a family could possess, and the promise that surplus land would be taken over by the government and redistributed among the landless. However, the plantation sector was exempted from land ceilings. We have to realize that once the plantation sector was exempted, all that was left for redistribution were some paddy land towards the west, some land in the midland areas, and some fallow fields that belonged to the Nilambur royal house. These famous land reforms that we’ve all heard of is actually a law that gave full ownership rights to tenant cultivators. The Dalit and the Adivasi who could never even once become a tenant within Kerala’s traditional caste system, they did not receive any protection from this law. Thus the historical fact about Kerala is that lakhs of people had to live outside the land reform law. The Hutment Dwellers’ Act was passed to deal with these surplus folk.

It is estimated that 25 lakh families benefited from Kerala’s land reforms; we need to be clear about this. Nearly 5 lakh families gained from the Hutment Dweller’s Act. Of this, 4, 25,000 lakh families are Dalit or Adivasi. When the land reforms were interpreted by government officials in Wayanad, the Adivasi became the land lord, and the migrant farmer, the tenant! Besides, the person claiming ten cents of land as per the law had to prove that he had been residing there since 1968. These crafty fellows persuaded the Adivasis to move out of their traditional habitations, convincing them that they would be made possessors of the best land if they resided there at the time of the reforms. When the law was passed, evidence was produced that showed that the Adivasis had been residing in those lands only since 1970; and thus, in this strange way, they were dispossessed. Many more such frauds were perpetrated as part of the implementation of the land reforms. In 1968 the government had estimated that some 8, 75,000 acres of surplus land would be available for redistribution. However, till date, the government has been able to acquire just 1,24,000 acres. The rest has all been usurped through underhand practices. Trusts had been exempted from ceilings. Overnight, hundreds of trusts were formed in Kerala. Through creating trusts and registering deeds in false names and other ways, all this land was spirited away. Out of the roughly 1,25,000 acres acquired only 96,000 was redistributed. This is how land redistribution in Kerala is. The Dalit, the Adivasi, and the coastal people, who could not be tenants within Kerala’s traditional caste system did not gain anything, not even a cent.

The Hutment Dweller’s Act was passed to accommodate this section of the people. According to this Act, 10 cents of landing the panchayat area, 5 cents in municipal areas, and 3 in corporation areas could be claimed by a family. But many people were yet to receive land even after such distribution. Because lakhs of people were still outside this law. The One Lakh Houses Scheme was announced in 1972 for these people. In 1970, a revolutionary land reform was implemented. The One Lakh Housing Scheme was announced only in 1972! One Lakh houses. A wall in the middle. A house on each side. Two houses in one building. Five cents per house. The government came forward to build one lakh houses with this calculation. Naturally, in those days all of us thought that this was a progressive scheme to provide housing for all people in Kerala. Actually, this was a scheme to accommodate all the people who had been excluded by the land reforms. And there were still more people left after the One Lakh Housing Scheme was implemented. It is for these people that hundreds of Harijan colonies were established in Kerala. The first Harijan colony in Kerala was formed in 1938. From one in 1938, their numbers have gone up to more than 12500 Dalit colonies in 14 districts, as the SC/ST Department’s figures admit. The Revenue Department has announced that there are 4083 Adivasi colonies in Kerala. Thus lakhs of people live today crowded into two and three cents of land in some 16000-20000 official or unofficial colonies. Besides, tens of thousands of people live in huts beside roads, canals, and other unoccupied marginal land – as we see when we travel in Kerala. These are the people who have become the focal point in a struggle like Chengara. Thus it is the people who, historically, have been excluded from land reforms, who have come forward with claims upon land today. We will be able to see why the government has taken such a hostile stand against the struggle only if we understand it from such a historical context.

We need to take very seriously the fact that even though this section of society has waged a struggle since the past seven months and a half, the democratic government in Kerala has not bothered to invite them for talks. This is so, because land has always been a major issue. The intellectuals who asked us why we need land in this digital age need to understand that in Kerala, even a dispute over title deeds would make sparks fly. This means that the organized sections of society need their land, consider it valuable. If there is a dispute over title deeds in the hilly areas of Kerala into which migration has taken place from the plains, both the ruling party and the opposition would surely pitch in heavily. It would grow into a fiery issue. Why is it, then, in this politically-enlightened Kerala, that the powerful lack the democratic ethics, which would have made them go to the group that has struggled persistently for the whole of seven and a half months to ask what their struggle was for?

Here we need to see deeper. We know from experience that Kerala’s society is shaken only if some particular groups struggle. That’s something we can’t miss. In a particular part of Kozhikode district, around 200 families have occupied some land, and have been staying there. It’s been many years since the High Court of Kerala ordered their eviction in clear terms. The government of Kerala has not yet evicted them, and further, their right to stay on has been protected through a special order. There’s something in this. These people have occupied land under orders from a certain church in Pala. Neither the LDF nor the UDF have any problems about offering them protection. But the government’s stand is that it will not respond justly when the Dalits, Adivasis, and those who sleep on the roadside take to the streets.

The second experience comes from Muthanga. The then-Chief Minister, A.K. Antony had signed an agreement with the struggling Adivasis that land would be distributed to them, and that the constitutional provision for Adivasi self-government would be recommended. The same Chief Minister then deployed thousands of policemen against those who conducted another struggle to get the agreement implemented, not caring to find out why the struggle had been re-kindled, leading to the police firing. Four days before the firing, all four political parties in Wayanad held a joint hartal. It demanded that the Adivasis should be evicted from Muthanga. So it is clear that this enlightened Kerala, this Kerala which is considered the very home of political alertness, its legacy is one that turns away from the completely legitimate demands of Dalits and Adivasis.

There is not even the recognition that such a struggle has been on since the past seven months and a half. The members of the Chengara Land Struggle Solidarity Committee met the Kerala Chief Minister, the convener of the Left Democratic Front, and the CPM State Secretary, with the demand that the government should redistribute land to the struggling families and bring their struggle to an end.I was a member of that group. All three told us, in the same voice, that this was no struggle, this was illegal land grab. We have plans to give land to the landless, they said, and we will indeed give. But we will not countenance your struggle; we will not accept it. This is a very important thing. The Dalits and Adivasis are trying to create a dialogue with the Kerala government, are trying to exercise collective social agency, within a democratic society. But the government tells us: you aren’t social agents. We are here to do all these things, and we will do them, they proclaim. This is illegal occupation. Indeed.

Kerala is ruled today by a person who’d demanded that those who possessed land by illegal means should be blacklisted. If that list is even prepared, Harrisons Malayalam will figure topmost in it. Harrison has not paid a pie as rent on the Chengara Estate since 1994. And so, the lease agreement is invalid now. If I lease out land, I should pay rent. If I default voluntarily, then the lease expires. The Harrison lawyers have moved the law on an estate for which the lease has expired. The government, which ought to use the strong evidence against Harrison to take back the estate, is accusing us of illegal occupation! The same company sold 3500 acres of leased land held by it in the Cheruvally estate at Kottayam to an individual — a priest called Yohannaan — for 126 crores; it has sub-let leased land at an estate in Thrissur. The government’s own enquiry commission discovered that Harrison had amassed 99 crores this way. Yet the government’s ire is not against such persistent law-breakers, but against the struggling landless poor. It continues to argue that they have grabbed land, and that such actions are unacceptable.

The other day, Kerala’s Minister in charge of SC/ST affairs said that we should not occupy land as part of political action. Balan, the communist, talks just like the pastor. Kerala is not going to find any respite as long as people of this ilk rule. These people ought to realize that India itself was born out of massive civil disobedience. It can happen only that way, that’s how history is. So I don’t claim that we aren’t breaking the law. We aren’t going to bow low and touch the government’s feet. We are indeed law-breakers. Balan tells us, don’t do it. Remember, this is a Minister who represents a movement that was born out of the successive waves of law-breaking initiated by many different groups of people in Kerala in their fight for rights. So in effect, what they are saying is this: if the law has to be broken, we are the ones who can do it. We alone. This Dalit, this Adivasi, they haven’t grown tall enough to do it. Balan reminds us that we aren’t citizens enough to break the law. The Home Minister declared that the people in Chengara don’t belong to those who hunger for land. According to the positions that the government has taken hitherto, Harrison and other similar players are the ones who hunger for land.

The second announcement was that these struggling folk are actually land owners. That comes out of a conspiracy. Nowhere in Kerala does a struggle take life for land to land owners. Not in Chengara, not in Aaralam, or Aalakkot. ‘Land to the Landless’ is indeed the major demand of the struggle. The Struggle Committee, too, demand that if there are any land owners among the people demanding land, they should be identified and excluded. The very government that ought to inquire about this and exclude such elements, is indulging in slander. Laha Gopalan has land, they say. Laha Gopalan, who is the State President of the Sadhujana Vimochana Samyukata Vedi is not trying to communicate his domestic wants and lacks to the Chief Minister. The people who agree that EMS Nambutiripad, who owned tens of thousands of paras [a traditional measure] of land, could speak for the landless, they can’t accept that Laha Gopalan, who owns one and a half acres,can do so, too. This is what I call the Dalit issue. Do you know, the night the firing took place at Muthanga, Janu and Geethanandan went missing. After the rumour that he had been killed spread, press reporters went looking for Geethanandan’s house and ended up near a two-storied house in the Tayyil area of Kannur. They came back, saying that it can’t be Geethanandan’s house! I call this the Dalit issue: the idea that Geethanandan, who struggles for Adivasi land rights, must necessarily live in a run-down hovel. We can’t discuss political issues in Kerala without getting rid of such baggage. Laha Gopalan represents the Sadhujana Vimochana Samyukata Vedi and its demand that all landless people in Kerala should receive land. He doesn’t say, I don’t have land, give me some. The Chief Minister should understand that. He isn’t advancing a simple basic necessity of life. He is talking politics. The Chief Minster’s refusal indicated that he does not accept this.

Finally the government says that it will give land only to the Adivasi. This is a strange defense, indeed. In 2001, when the Adivasis slept on the streets of this city for full 48 days, all these politicians said that they won’t be given land. Six years hence, when all the landless – Dalits, Dalit Christians, Muslims, and all others – joined together to struggle for land, they say that only the Adivasi needs land. This move is a well-planned one. In effect the government says that other than the Adivasi, there are no landless people in Kerala. That is, it does not accept that those of live in Harijan colonies, One-Lakh houses, by the roadside, and so on are landless. It does not accept that the fish workers who lead hellish lives in one and one and a half cents, without the land to even build a shelter are landless. By ignoring these landless groups, and picking out just the Adivasis, the government is trying to scatter the political action building up at Chengara. But someday the government will have to concede; it will have to accept the claims of these landless groups.

The numbers of women and children who were ready to immolate themselves with kerosene there last week ran to hundreds. We do not favour self-sacrifice. We want all the landless in Kerala to gain land without a single life lost. But after a seven-and-a-half month long struggle in the face of social neglect, if the police march in there, these people have no other way. No other way but say, I sacrifice my life. We must understand that if one life is lost there, we will have to witness hundreds of deaths. I say this as someone who knows the place directly, who knows the tension the people there have been living through.

If the news gets out that people sacrificed their lives for land in a place like Kerala, that will be counted as a tragedy in history. That’s why there should be pressure from the general public to resolve the issue without provoking unfortunate incidents there. Today we need such pressure that will force the government to deal with the issue democratically, to redistribute land to the landless without causing any loss of life. That is the only way this struggle can succeed. But today no such pressure exists. Kerala did not react to the terrible violence of the state at Moolampally. In Chengara hundreds of people came to the brink of self-sacrifice; Kerala has looked away.

It is hard to be proud of this Kerala. We need to see Chengara as a struggle for a new Kerala, one that dismantles the old. This is new Kerala would be one in which the social agency of all marginalised groups including Dalits and Adivasis are recognized. We must reconstruct our sense of citizenship. Kerala needs to be turned into a physical and cultural space that includes all sections of society. A major task has been initiated at Chengara, one that exceeds the amount of land the occupants get. Our actions in solidarity need to be attentive to this fact. I end my words, with the plea that we need to think of the various forms of activism possible, and that individuals and organizations should take them forward.

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