www.sacw.net > Victims and refugees of 'Development', 'Nation Building' and Conflict in the Indian Subcontinent | March 18, 2005

India: Interview with Ms. C.K. Janu , Leader of Tribals in Kerala

by Subhash Gatade


Ms C.K. JANU, leader of the tribals of Kerala has carved out a niche for herself in the history of people's movement in Kerala. Presently she is in Delhi as member of a delegation of Five AGMS (Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha) members to meet Ms.Sonia Gandhi -- Chairperson UPA and Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission to bring to their notice the hardships faced by the adivasis of Kerala. In a recent with Mr Jaison Chacko and Mr Subhash Gatade she discusses the genesis of the struggle led by her, the role of the political parties and her future plans. Excerpts of the interview are given below.

Introduction :

It is now history that the 48 day dharana (sit in) of hundreds of tribals before the Kerala state secretariat led by Ms C.K.Janu for tribal land rights compelled the then government led by A.K. Antony to go in for compromise with the tribals. The immediate provocation for agitation of the tribals was the 32 starvation deaths among the adivasis. A senior Kerala minister had brushed aside these deaths as being caused by consumption of illicit liquor. Driven by the horror of such mass starvation deaths hundreds of tribals stormed the state secretariat and erected 'refugee huts' before the offices of government. The government bowing to the public pressure negotiated with the tribals and promised lands to the thousands of landless adivasis in a phased manner. ( 16 October 2001) It was a sad commentary on the state of affairs in India's highly contested polity that the two mainstream parties who were interchanging seats of power in the state were found to be wanting on the deprivation faced by the tribals.

Ofcourse the victory of the tribals remained shortlived. After the initial euphoria was over the Antony government started dilly dallying on its promise. This led to another historic action by the tribals. Hundreds of tribals alongwith their families 'occupied' the Muthanga wildlife sanctuary to expose the government's failure to honour their commitment to the tribals (January 2003). Forcible eviction by the police resulted in the death of one tribal and injuries to others.

It is significant that the autonomous militant intervention for Land Rights by the tribals has been able to influence a significant section of the intelligentsia also. It was not surprising that after the forcible vacation of the Muthanga forest range by the police and the loss of human life the famous activist-writer Ms Arundhati Roy had blasted the state government with her famous open letter "You have blood on Your Hands".

Ms.C.K.Janu -- Chairperson Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha and President Adivasi Rashtriya Maha Sabha.

Q. What are the things, which prompted you to start this agitation?

Adivasis are the real owners of land. Our lands were snatched away from us. None of the governments came into power in the state took any serious initiative to provide this land back to these real owners. Adivasis and dalits were nowhere in the picture of the policies of the govt. We were always neglected. Even within the last four months four adivasis died in different parts of Tiruananthapuram and there was no land to bury their body as per our tradition. In two such incidents, we buried their bodies in the kitchens of their hutments itself. In another occasion we buried one person in another one's land.

Q. What is your main slogan?

The right to live in the land where we are born till death.

Q. Could you explain your struggle to reach to stature of the undisputed leader of the all adivasis groups in Kerala?

I was born in a very poor family. As like in the case of any Adivasi family I also experienced all hardships of life like starvation, illness, unemployment etc. At the tender age of 6, I was sent to another place to do the job of a maidservant to shoulder the burden of my family. I continued this till I was 13. Then I came back to my house. After sometime I started working as a labourer .At the same time I started working with CPM and was very active in all the activities of the party.

I continued there for many years. Bur gradually I fell into a certain kind of desperation about the issues undertaken by the parties. I noticed that whatever agitations and strikes are held, our community people were the main participants everywhere. But the slogans raised and the issues handled by the party did not have any resemblance with our life. The party was always fighting for the cause of the influential groups who can send them to power. Our people were used like the tools in another's hand. These facts made me to introspect. I raised these things in the party platforms, but without any result. At last I resigned from the party in the year 1987, protesting against all these exploitations.

In the initial years our activities were limited to dialogues and meetings at the local level. We worked hard to motivate our fellow beings about the ill treatment faced by the community. Then we formed a forum at the taluk level. Gradually our ideas became widespread among our community and in the year 2002 we formed the AGMS at the state level.

I do not read much. All I learned is from my own experience. . My life taught me a lot. Always I like to be among our people work for them. I don't fear to fight for justice. I will be happy, even if I die in this struggle to provide justice to our brethren who have been oppressed and exploited for long long years.

Q. What has prompted you to start the Muthanga agitation?

The agitation started after 32 adivasis died in the state due to starvation. We started our struggle by erecting hutments in front of the state assembly. This agitation continued for 48 days. At the end government agreed to provide free rations to the adivasis to prevent them from starvation. But the adivasis insisted that nowhere in the world, any government could to protect any community by providing free food for life long. So they demanded land rights as the ultimate solution for these problems. There the adivasis would be able to work and seek their livelihoods.

First the govt.pretended that not sufficient land was available to distribute among all the adivasis. But the AGMS corroborated it by evidence and facts. At present 11 lakhs hectares of land is under the unofficial custody of the govt. in the state and even if it is distributed among the 3.5 lakhs adivasis only 1.5 lakh hectare is needed for this purpose.

Then the govt came forward made an agreement with AGMS. Accordingly every Adivasi family would get 1 to 5 acres of land, as per the availability of land in the state. The govt agreed that this process would start within the allotted term of five years of this government. But other than making this agreement the government did not heed any interest to implement it. Initially they allotted land to 3000 families. After that gradually they stopped it. So in order to compel the government to implement the agreement the adivasis encroached the forest land at Muthanga, made hutments and agitated their for 43 days.

Q. What are the points you find as against you in the CBI report?

Ans. In its report the State HRC recommended that the following things to be enquired. Along with other things the commission sought clarifications about the circumstances, which led the adivasis to gather at Muthanga, the murder of Jogi, and the atrocities done against the children and women at Muthanga and post-Muthanga at the forest office rest house which continued for three days after the incident. But through the enquiry the CBI tried to protect the vested interests of the state government and found only the adivasis guilty in the report.

Q. What are the hardships you face now?

183 people are accused in the CBI report. Among them around 10 are ladies. Some are having children with 3-4 months. The case against the adivasis are filed in the Chief Judicial Magistrates court at Eranakulam that is approximately 400 K.M away from Wynadu District. Every month all the 183 accused are to appear in the court. If anybody fails to appear in the court for three consecutive terms the curt issue arrest warrant against him or her. Then AGMS has to arrange bail for them .In order to get bail also they should produce land revenue receipts. Hence the adivasis are landless people they are unable to produce these documents. All the adivasis earn their livelihood as labourers in the agriculture and other sectors. Many times they are compelled to travel upto the neighboring Karnataka state in search of their daily bread. So they fail to appear
in the court on time. Every month the AGMS hires two buses to fetch the 183 people to the court @ 13000/- as hiring charges. So to arrange the finance to run the cases and bear all other misllaneous expenses is also a big burden on the movement.

The CBI has filed altogether 7 cases. In another 7 cases filed by the forest department till now 380 people have been charged with different accusations. And the process of filing cases is going on.

Q. What prompted you to start the AGMS and Adivasi Rashtriya Mahasabha

The inability of other parties to protect our interests prompted us take this step. We were nowhere in the picture of the political map of Kerala. We would like to cite two similar incidents to prove it. After the Muthanga struggle when the Marad communal riots took place in Kerala the state govt. provided 10 lakhs rupees to the 9 deceased peoples family. Lakhs of rupees were spent to provide compensations. But at Muthanga not a single penny was spent on either the deceased person's family nor on the injured despite the stated HRCs order. The same HRC made a similar order at Killi at Tiruananthapuram for compensations for atrocities by policemen and the govt acted overnight to implement this order. These all was done to please different communal forces of the state who comprise a major vote bank of the state. So the adivasis recognized that in order to influence the policies of the govt. we should come forward and form our association. Thus we formed the AGSS -- political wing of AGMS -- which also comprise the dalits of the state.

Q. After Muthanga what are the main agitations you undertake?

After Muthanga we are trying very hard to defend ourselves on the different cases filed against us in the courts. The legal proceedings and allied activities consume the larger amount of energy of the organization. Still we conducted many agitations and strikes in different parts of the state and our fighting spirit has not deteriorated. The last Lok Sabha Election also gave us a good platform for us to create a good public opinion. Kerala is the motherland of sustaining coalition politics. Not a single party is dared to fight the election as their own. But we fought the election without any coalition partners. Given the fact that Crores of rupees are spent on every election, we fought without much money or manpower. Still I got 11800 votes and the other three candidates got between 5000-6000 votes.

Q. Does the adivasis are desperate because AGMS could not achieve much ?

We started our movement in the year 2002 only. Still we could provide land to 3000 landless families. We count it as a real achievement. The mainstream parties who have decades long experience could not provide single piece of land to even a single family. Looking at the success of our movement they are also compelled to talk more about land rights for tribals. Is it not our achievement that we have been able to set agenda before them.

Now the adivasis have got a new political direction and upliftment. They are ready to fight for their rights and even ready to face the bullets. We have nothing to lose. Our belief is that if we have no land to do our burial (Six Feet) there is no meaning in living in this land.

Q. Normally CPM took the agitations in favour of the poor and deprived classes. What is your experience with them In Kerala?

CPM of Kerala pretends to be the supporters of the poor and the oppressed. But it is not true. Traditionally the adivasis hold the vote bank of the CPM. We participated in their rallies; raised slogans for them, and caste vote in their favour. In Kerala each front come into power after every five years. But whenever they come into power, the left never did anything for our cause.

The first left government under EMS Namboothirippad made a Cheengeri Project in favour of the adivasis. Accordingly the government allotted 526 acres of land under this project to be distributed to the adivasis after five years. But none of the left governments came into power after 1957 dared implement the decision of their own government.

In 1975 the parliament enacted a law under the 9th schedule to provide all the lost land to the adivasis. Accordingly, all the encroachments on Adivasi lands from 1960 onwards were to be compensated with alternate land. But the Nayanar Govt. made new law and got passed in the assembly to amend the above said law and made the applicability of the 1975 law from 1986. All the encroachments have happened prior to 1986. It is evident from the fact that according to this new law the government got only 800 hundred applications from a mammoth group of 3.5 lakhs landless adivasis.

Even recently when the central and state governments jointly decided to distribute the land at the Aralam farm among the adivasis, seven left party M.P.s objected to it in parliament and pleaded to transform this site for research purposes.

Q. You are critical about CPM. But what about Congress and BJP ?

We are opposed to all the parties and fronts. We keep eqi-distance from all the fronts. If any of these fronts would have done anything for our cause, then there was no reason to form any other movement. We are more critical about Congress and Left in the fact that these two fronts run the alternate govts in the state. If BJP come into power in the state and do the same, our approach would be similar with them also.

Q. What about CPI(ML) and (Red flag) ?

Initially they supported our movement but now they are engaged in a slander campaign against our movement. They propagate that I am an agent of NGOs and tarnish our image that we receive foreign funds for our activities. Though we do not receive any money, we believe that no one else in India is eligible to speak about foreign funds. We eat our daily food from the borrowed amount from the World Bank. They oppose us due to the threat of erosion of their limited vote bank, which they hold in the state from our community.

Q.Do you receive any financial assistance from within or outside the country.

Though many of our opponents thinks and propagates like that, the fact remains that we do not receive any funding to run our activities. All knows it that if any body wants to transact any amount of money, it is possible only through govt. control and regulations. So we challenge them to refer the matter to the govt. and they can verify it.

Whatever amount we collect to run our cases and to organize our strikes and agitations are raised from within our community. The Scheduled Tribe employees and officers from the community are the main benefactors of our movement.

Q. What is the structure of your organization? - AGMS

First there are Oorusabhas at the grass root level which stand as the decision making body of each tribe at the local level. There are 36 types of tribes are there in Kerala. Each tribe got its own rituals and practices. The representatives of the Oorusabhas constitute the state presidium of the AGMS. This forum frames the policies and decisions on behalf of the AGMS.

Q.What are the other achievements of AGMS you count as noteworthy.

When we erected hutments at Muthanga, our agitations have shaken the foundations of the political parties of the state. All the political parties came together and conducted a mammoth strike by blocking the interstate highway. Their demand was that the adivasis should be evicted from Muthanga because they are polluting the atmosphere there.

After the Muthanga agitation the opposition leader of Kerala Shri.Achudanandan proclaimed that his party also would undertake " Janu Model Strike " in the state for the adivasis. And they did the same in some parts of Wynadu dt. So we compelled the mainstream parties to change their policies and slogans on our way. At present they do not have any other slogan other than what are raised by us. Still when they felt an erosion of people to our movement, they formed an outfit in the name of AKS, in the pretext to protect the interests of the adivasis.

Q. What are your future plans and activities.

We are very much optimistic about our future. We hope AGMS would achieve all the rights for the adivasis. We are looking forward to a new dawn where there is no exploitation prevail against us. W e are also net working with other adivasis groups outside the state.

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