Issued by the Panchami Dalit Feminist Collective, Kottayam, Kerala & Published by Sanhati, Bengal
The Chengara struggle in Kerala has unfolded since August 2007, and a background is available here.
A historic land struggle has been unfolding at Chengara in Pathanamthitta district, Kerala, involving about 7500 families, which includes all sections of landless people, the majority of them being Dalits and Adivasis. Landless people have claimed land in the Chengara estate, a rubber plantation, which had been leased to the Harrison Malayalam Plantation by the government of Kerala. At present, the lease is invalid and the property has lapsed back to the government. The landless people who have flocked there from all parts of Kerala demand that this government land be redistributed to them. These marginalised people have thereby demanded a say in what must be done with government land in Kerala: given the present political and economic climate, the likelihood is that this land will be taken over by the state only to be assigned unconditionally, or with minimum conditions, to the multi-nationals. The struggle is now over a year old; it began on 3 August 2007, and was led by Laaha Gopalan, a leader of the Dalit organization, the Sadhujana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi.
Throughout the past one year, the struggle has been conducted in a peaceful way. Also, its political gravity has been widely recognized, both in the national and international pro-democracy, pro-equity circles. This was probably why the Kerala High Court ordered the government, in March 2008, not to evict the people forcibly from Chengara . The Left Democratic Front government in Kerala, however, has failed to address the issues raised by the struggle in any serious way. Indeed, it has continued to espouse the position that no land remains in Kerala that may be redistributed. This, however, is a position that has been contested since long.
The present scene, however, appears more ominous. Tensions had started building earlier this month. On the first anniversary of the land struggle, which was observed on 4 August 2008, workers of the Harrison Malayalam Plantation began a road blockade that cut off food and medical supplies to people inside the plantation. In the subsequent days, unlawful detention of and violence upon male and female activists by goons have become frequent. Men going out of the plantation seeking work have been increasingly attacked and beaten up. Women have been threatened with sexual violence in overt and covert ways. Human rights’ activists were violently prevented from entering the area by goondas pretending as workers, in the full view of police and government officials. This incident was widely reported in the press in Kerala, and revealed the complicity of state authorities with the vested interests seeking to break the back of the land struggle through unlawful means.
Starvation and illness has been reported from inside the plantation but activists have been forcibly prevented from entering. Indian Vision, a Malayalam TV Channel, reported the abduction and sexual harassment of four women activists. However, no one from outside has been allowed in to investigate. Following the reports, a protest was organized at Pathanamthitta, on 11 August by dalit activists, dalit feminists and other human rights activists, but not a single activist was allowed to proceed. The media, too, is eerily silent. The day after the protest, two women who went out for provisions were attacked, who were rescued from abduction by the police. Importantly, this attempt to abduct happened in the full view of the police. What this reveals is the determination of the goondas to make the point that police presence does not deter them.
The relative absence of outright violence, until now, is no consolation. The recent goonda tactics are according to a blueprint of violence now familiar in Kerala — of the sand mafia, which creates an atmosphere or terror instead of outright violence and brings the local community to its knees. Clearly a variant of the same is being experimented with in Chengara.
We are afraid that another kind of Nandigram is awaiting us at Chengara, and in the near future. This appeal comes from those who have been engaged in anti-caste and anti-patriarchal struggles in Kerala, which have grown outside formal institutions of the state. We feel that these two axes of exclusion and violence have conjoined at Chengara, both in the blockade and in the intermittent violence there. We demand that democratic forces in Kerala rise to the occasion to challenge this denial of democracy. We demand, first of all, that the illegal road blockade at Chengara be lifted at once, and that the trade unions take necessary steps to isolate the criminal perpetrators of violence against the struggling people of Chengara. We demand that neutral teams of observers be immediately allowed into the estate to take stock of the situation, and investigate the extent of violence. We condemn the use of sexual harassment – and the threat of it – against women as a political weapon at Chengara and urge the government to take strong steps against this. We appeal to the democratic and socialist supporters of the mainstream left in Kerala to remember the histories of valiant struggles for workers’ and peasants’ rights. We appeal to all democratic people in this country and the world to join us in this struggle to live and flourish.
— Issued by Rekha Raj, for the Panchami Dalit Feminist Collective, Kottayam, Kerala
Updates after August 14, 2008
On 14 August, leading dalit activists from Kerala protested in Pathanamthitta against the continued road blockade organised by the joint front of trade unions which claim to be fighting for the rights of plantation workers. They were prevented from proceeding to Chengara and were arrested, to be released by evening. Meanwhile, the trade unions agreed to lift the blockade by 3 at noon. They however demand that the people who have occupied the plantation should all leave in 10 days’ time, and if this does not happen, the blockade will be on again.
Press coverage has improved somewhat but not much. Even the sworn enemies of the left, like the Malayala Manorama, have kept largely silent. Not surprising, though — the Congress and others, including the interests that this newspaper represents, are patiently waiting for the LDF government to dig its own grave by provoking a Nandigram-like situation. Once the calamity begins, they will of course move in, like vultures. The Centre too of course is watching and waiting for CPM to make another big mistake.
These are strange times.There is a raging debate now on within the CPM and the LDF about the pending approval to proposed SEZs, and one of the key points of the conflict has to do with trade union presence within them.While a powerful section within the CPM wants to curtail workers’ rights within the SEZs,outside, on the road to Chengara, trade unions attack their ‘enemies’ — landless and marginalised people.
The Chengara Struggle Committee has called for protest meetings all over the State on 23 August; it has also appealed for a protective human chain around Chengara on 25 August.