On 21st April afternoon, when the campaign for the 17th Lok Sabha elections were coming to a conclusion in Kerala, with the LDF, UDF, NDA parties engaged in a show of strength in various town centres spending crores of rupees with all police forces concentrating there, more than one thousand landless families, mainly Adivasis, who constitute 17% of the population of Wayanad district occupied nearly 500 acres of land in Towarimala in Batheri taluk, about 20kms from the district headquarters, Kalpatta. They were led by the Land Struggle Committee (LSC) formed at the initiative of the state committees of AIKKS and Adivasi Bharat Mahasabha (ABM) led by the CPI(ML) Red Star comrades. This Committee formed two years ago had brought out details of the land holdings in the state and the deplorable condition of the nearly 1.5 million landless families in this state “famous” for the land reforms of the 1957 CPI government. A Land Struggle Convention was held in 2017 January at Thiruvananthapuram which appealed to the government to take over nearly 58% of the revenue land in the state illegally occupied by nearly 200 land mafias including the foreign plantation companies Harrison and Kannan Devan (now Tatas) and to distribute the land to the plantation workers and landless families. This Convention was organized by the LSC when, in spite of many campaigns and mass movements by the landless families followed by attempts to occupy the land at many places for the last four decades, consecutive Congress led UDF or CPI(M) led LDF governments did not take any action to solve the problems of the landless families. It was in continuation to decades of movements by the landless families and its own efforts for this, the LSC led the landless families to occupy the land at Towarimala, bordering the Harrison Plantations’ tea estate.
This land is not part of reserve forest as falsely claimed by the forest department or alleged by the state government. It is part of the 5000 acres of land taken over by the state government led by CPI leader Achutha Menon in 1971 as surplus land from the Harrisons for distribution to the Adivasis who were in a rebellious mood following the torture and killing of com Verghese on 18th February, 1970, one of the first CPI(ML) leaders in the state, who had successfully led the Adivasis against the slave trading of them at Thirunelli temple and against exploitation by feudal landlords and usurers. But consecutive governments did not distribute it to the landless Adivasis and others. On the contrary, the bureaucracy under present Pinarayi government is engaged in a conspiracy to transfer it back to Harrisons. That is why the LSC decided to occupy this land.
When the Land Struggle Committee took over the land and landless families started making huts and clearing the land for cultivation, following the conclusion of the elections on 23rd April evening, next day early morning the district authorities deployed a large police force to throw out the families for vacating the land to give back to the land mafia, Harrison! It was a most shameful act by the CPI(M) led government. It was like Budhdev government in Bengal shooting down people at Singur and Nandigram for providing land for Tata and Salim Group. The leaders comrades, MP Kunjikanaran, party CC member of CPI(ML) Red Star and state secretary of AIKKS, Rajesh Appat, state executive committee member of the party and Manoharan, district secretary of AIKKS were taken away by force under the pretext of holding discussion; but they were arrested and remanded to Vythiri jail. Using brute force all the families including women and children were attacked and forced to flee from the area even abandoning their belongings. Police and forest officers were posted there, threatening the people.
In this situation, the party comrades brought all families together, mobilized them and marched to the district collectorate at Kalpatta, and by evening started a resistance movement for land there. By that time, knowing about the police action, party state secretary com Dasan and many other leading comrades including many democratic forces reached the place and arrangements were made for a protracted movement for land to the landless.
It shows that in spite of the red flag they hold, CPI(M) and its government is not different from the other state governments. The landless people, mostly Adivasis and dalits have no other option but to resist the deployment police to Thomarimala, arrest of their leaders and intensify the movement for land. From 25th April morning onwards leaders of various people’s movements across the state, leaders of Adivasi and dalit organizations and progressive individuals started coming to the struggle centre in front of Kalpatta collectorate and declaring solidarity with the movement. From the Adivasi padis (jhuggies) and other settlements of landless families, people started coming in big numbers always making the struggle centre crowded. The district collector who discussed with the LSC leaders told them that though the landlessness of the Adivasis is known, nothing can be done, as there is no land available to distribute. He was not ready to accept the fact that 5-25 lakh acres of land are illegally held by Harrison, Tata like corporate as established by the government appointed Rajamanikyam Committee report.
The government’s intention to suppress the movement was clear with the way government pleaders took hostile stand to get the bail petitions moved for the three comrades rejected in the magistrate and sessions courts. In this situation, com.MP started hunger strike in the sub jail on 6th May. Within hours the three comrades were shifted to Kannur central jail where MP continued the hunger strike. As he became weak, he was shifted to Kannur district hospital where he was given trip by force. But he continued the hunger strike. Though the bail petition was moved in the High Court, alleging that if they are released they will again lead struggles to occupy the land, on 14th May the HC rejected the bail petition and postponed the hearing to 20th May. The intention of Pinarayi government was clear: to suppress the movement at any cost, including detaining its leaders in Jail!
By this time the land struggle has got good publicity even though the mainstream media is disinterested still. Representatives of Chengara, Parappa like land struggle movements extended support. In Idukki district, inspired by the Towarimala struggle 300 landless plantation workers occupied government surplus land and made huts there. Landless people’s representatives from different districts came and announced their decision to occupy the illegal land held by the corporate forces and mafias as government is not ready to take over them and distribute to landless people. On 14th May a well attended Solidarity Convention was held at Kozhikode, where a resolution was adopted to spread the land struggles at state level as the government is refusing to take over the 5.25 lakh acres of land illegally held by the corporate and mafias and to distribute them to landless families and plantation workers. A state level Solidarity Committee was formed to help the struggle. It appealed com MP to end the hunger strike as the Convention has taken the decision to intensify the movement and as MP’s health condition was deteriorating. On 15th May morning leaders of the Solidarity Committee met com MP and explained the Resolution adopted by the Convention to carry forward the struggle more intensively. Com MP agreed with the proposals of the Convention and called of the hunger strike.
But the relay hunger strike at Kalpetta struggle centre continued. Following the High Court order on 20th May giving bail to the three comrades, they were released from Kannur central jail on 21st May. They were given reception at the jail gate and at Kannur. Later com Manoharan was given reception at Kalpatta, and the relay hunger strike was called off. It was decided to shift the struggle centre later to a place near the Adivasi padis and where it is easier to mobilise the landless families for next phase of struggle to occupy the land.
Meanwhile, comrades MP and Rajesh who are denied permission for five months to go to Wayanad, were given receptions at other places and on 22nd May a march to Thrissur collectorate was organized. Soon the campaign to continue the land struggle in different districts and mobilization of the landless people for occupying the land shall be speeded up.
Extent of Landlessness and Impoverishment of Oppressed in Kerala
The Solidarity Committee has decided to start struggle centre in front of the state secretariat at Thiruvananthapuram, and to start struggle centres in all districts mobilizing all the struggle committees in the region. A glance through the present deplorable condition of the nearly 1.5 million landless families in Kerala, which includes the Adivasis, dalits, plantation workers, fisher people and other most backward sections who are thrown to ghettos where they have no land to even bury their dead shows that this question demands an urgent solution. One should know that Kerala which is marketed for tourism as “Gods own land” and famous for the “Kerala Model of Development” is a hell for the Adivasis, dalits and such other oppressed sections who are landless, in spite of CPI(M) led LDF is coming to power here for every alternate five years for last 4-5 decades and presently LDF is in power!
In Kerala, out of about 35 lakh dalits, 79% are confined to 26,193 colonies without many of the basic amenities. Out of nearly 4 lakh Adivasis, 90 % are landless and are confined to padis or colonies. Thousands survive in jhuggies on road sides or near forest areas. Out of more than 2 lakhs of plantation workers, majority of whose ancestors were brought by force from Tamilnadu during colonial times, live in layams built during pre-1947 days. Once they retire from service, they are thrown out of these ghettos also. The nearly one lakh fisher people are confined to 600 or more colonies spread across the coastal area; many of them landless.
The other side of the picture is that 58% of the revenue land in the state is under illegal occupation of corporate and land mafias like Harrisons and Tatas. Consecutive governments whether it is led by the UDF or LDF refuse to take any action to take over this land as the institutionalized political class belonging to UDF, LDF and NDA are colluding with this mafia. If one has to understand this serious situation, a glance through Kerala’s political history vis-à-vis the land question is necessary.
An Over-View of Land Reforms and Land Struggles in the State
After United Kerala was formed on 1st November, 1956, following the states’ reorganization, the first meeting of the state committee of the undivided CPI declared based on the political line developed by the communist movement through the series of anti-feudal movements waged in the state that if the party is coming to power in next year’s elections it will go for revolutionary land reforms based on “land to the tiller”. In 1957 elections CPI with the support of few independents who won with party’s support got majority and the EMS led CPI ministry was formed. But when it took up the land question, it not only abandoned the “land to the tiller” slogan, it refused to take over the plantations under control of foreign companies like Harrisons Plantations and Kannan Devan (who later handed over to Tatas) or to bring the plantations and the land under the control under the ceiling stipulated in the Land Reforms Bill. Though the tenants who were cultivating the landlords’ land got control over it, the real tillers who were predominantly Adivasis and dalits were not given land for cultivation; these families were given only 10 cents for housing. It was promised that the land found in excess of the ceiling, shall be distributed to the tillers.
When the Land Reforms Act became a reality by 1970, there was 7.25 lakh acres of surplus land. But, in spite of the struggle for the distribution of this land by CPI(M), which was in opposition at that time, hardly one lakh acres were distributed. Out of this the Adivasis and dalits got very little or nothing in many areas. After this period, neither CPI, nor CPI(M) nor any of their LDF partners took up the question of distributing land to the Adivasis and dalits in practice. Like Congress and its UDF partners, they were only giving lip sympathy to it during election time. The Naxalbari Uprising in 1967 and spreading of CPI(ML) influence to Kerala once again put the question of agrarian revolution to the forefront. But in the absence of any mass peasant movement led by it, the land struggle could not be carried forward. Meanwhile, under the “one lakh house scheme” initiated by a CPI minister in 1971 during the CPI- Congress alliance government, the ghettoization of the Adivasis and dalits started, pushing them to so-called settlement colonies.
In early 1990s under the initiative of CPI(ML), a land Struggle Committee was formed under the leadership of Choman Muppan, an Adivasi leader of Wayanad, demanding the implementation of the Adivasi Land Protection Act. By the end of 1990s under the leadership of Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha, an active campaign was launched leading to an agreement with the then UDF government for time bound distribution one acre land to each family. As this was not implemented, the Sabha led the Adivasis and other landless people to occupy Muthanga land in Wayanad in 2003. This struggle was brutally put down by the AK Antony government even falsely alleging Maoist involvement; in police firing one comrade became martyr, and including the leaders many were tortured and jailed.
As the government continued not to implement the agreement of distributing one acre each land to landless families, thousands of landless families occupied the 5000 acres rubber plantation of Harrisons at Chengara in south Kerala, Pathanamthitta district. In spite of many manoeuvres by the LDF government and denying all basic facilities like ration card, drinking water and voter card, these families are still continuing their occupation there. Next year landless people occupied surplus land at Parappa in Kollam district. During these years landless families successfully occupied land at Meppadi in Wayanad and at other places. But whether UDF or LDF, these governments want to restrict the land movement to allotting 3 cents of land! But the pity is that even this bid is so far scuttled by the land mafias and the corrupt bureaucracy along with the elite political class. But the ghettoized Adivasis, dalits and other landless poor have no other option but continue this struggle for survival, for land and livelihood.
How the Online Media Reports the Thowari Mala Land Struggle
Wayanad’s landless Adivasis have been agitating against the delay in the distribution of the promised land for around two decades now. In 2003, rallied by the community organisation Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, they occupied the Muthanga Sanctuary. In the violence that erupted when the police tried to evict them, an Adivasi man named Jogi and a policeman were killed. The Adivasi community, though, maintains that 16 of its members were shot dead that day. There are around 8,000 landless Adivasis in Wayanad, said the district’s collector, AR Ajayakumar. “Of them, 3,000 people possess less than five cents of land. The rest are completely landless,” he said.
The Thovarimala occupation has spurred similar agitations by landless Adivasis at 18 other places across Wayanad. Ajayakumar agreed that the agitations reflected “the seriousness of the Adivasi land issue”. He claimed the government was “trying to speed up the distribution process”, but “land scarcity is a major problem”. MK Dasan, Red Star state secretary dismissed the scarcity claim. “The government could have brought legislation to reclaim 5.25 lakh hectares of land that is illegally held by multinational plantation companies,” he argued. “It would have put enough land at the government’s disposal. But successive governments have been scared of touching big business and collaborating with them.”
He warned that “land agitations” would intensify across Kerala if the government failed to find a solution soon. “Thovarimala agitation is just an indication,” he said. “Land struggles will erupt in all Adivasi areas if action is not taken soon.” Adivasi leader CK Janu, who led the 2003 Muthanga agitation, echoed Dasan. She pointed out that the government needed less than three lakh acres to provide land to all landless Adivasis. “It has already identified 11 lakh acres of land for distribution,” she added. “Adivasis will be forced to occupy land if there is no government action.” It was in this situation the Adivasi and other oppressed people’s leaders from across Kerala are met at Kozhikode on May 14 and decided the future course of action.
Thovarimala was owned by Harrisons Malayalam Ltd, a private plantation company, until 1971, when the Kerala Private Forests Act enabled the state to take over private forestland and give it to agricultural labourers for cultivation. The government took a total of 30,046 hectares of land from Harrisons and Poddar Plantations across Kerala, leading to a long legal battle that ended with the Supreme Court approving the state’s decision in 2001. The court, however, gave Harrisons a reprieve by directing that 700 hectares of the acquired land be returned to the plantation company. The government complied with the order but Dasan alleged it was now planning to hand over all of the Thovarimala forest to Harrisons. That is why the Adivasis were forcibly evicted, he said, adding, “The government is working hand in glove with the plantation company.”
‘We Will Continue Our Fight’
For now, though, possessing cultivable land remains a dream for Wayanad’s landless Adivasis. Many of the protestors at the district collectorate said they joined in the agitation after realising they would die without owing a piece of land if they kept quiet. “I live in a hut on five cents of land. I cannot cultivate anything to make a living,” said K Janu, 46, from Perumbadikkunnu Adivasi Colony in Ambalavayal. “I have submitted many applications to the government for land. But nothing has happened so far. I don’t have any option but to join the agitation. I want to own cultivable land before I die.” Janu said around 150 families, including 12 from her colony, took part in the April 21 occupation. “All of us are now staying in the protest tent,” she said. “No one can break our unity.”
Her husband Veliyan, 55, claimed the police used brute force to evict them from the Thovarimala forest. “They kept reminding us about the Muthanga firing,” he added. “They picked protestors randomly, put them in a van and dropped them at different locations. It was done to isolate us. I escaped the arrest by running into rice fields in the valley nearby.” The police have since been raiding their homes and threatening to arrest them for participating in the agitation, Veliyan alleged. “Plainclothesmen have been threatening us to go back home,” he said. “We have been told that the state government would deny us land if we continue participating in the protest.” But they will not give up. “We will continue our fight,” Veliyan said, as his wife nodded in agreement. “We don’t want to die landless.”
Dalit activist Sunny M Kapikad told that government has taken a dispiriting stand in the issue. “Arresting the leaders of protest after calling them for meeting and evicting the Adivasis using force cannot be justified,” The protesting Adivasis are demanding that 104 hectares of vested forest in Thovarimala adjacent to the plantation of Harrisons Malayalam Private Limited, should be distributed to the landless among them. The 104 hectares of land which was in the possession of Harrisons Malayalam was deemed as excess land through the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1969. “The protestors have raised a demand of two acres for each of the family. But there is a practical difficulty in finding this much land,” Wayanad District Collector AR Ajayakumar told TNM. He also added that the district administration has taken the possible initiatives that it could. “On the first day of their strike in front of the Collectorate itself, we held a meeting. Things have been notified to the government. Now it is up to the state government to decide,” the Collector says.
Meanwhile Dalit activist M Geethanandan told that there was no such practical difficulty in finding land for Adivasis in Wayanad. “To implement the Kerala Private Forests (Vesting and Assignment) Act, 1971, the Madhava Menon Commission was formed. As per the commission report that came out in 1974, it had found assignable and non-assignable land. And we have found that the vested forest in Thovarimala comes under the assignable land,” says Geethanandan. According to activists, the agitations had always remained within the tribal population. “The Adivasi movement has not been taken up by the ‘civil’ society. CPI(ML) heading this agitation of Adivasis is a good sign,” he says.
Western Ghats Protection Committee Backs Landless Tribals
The Co-ordination Committee for Western Ghats Protection has supported the landless Adivasi people in Wayanad who have occupied a land belonging to a plantation company. “It is a lie that the Adivasis have encroached into the forest land. They have occupied the land belonging to Harrisons”, said a statement issued by the Committee. The indigenous people in Wayanad and other parts of the state have been deprived of their land on various pretexts by the government and private entities and individuals leaving them destitutes in their own land. “Protection of environment is not possible without the Adivasis. The land issue of Thovarimala should be resolved by protecting the interests of the Adivasis”, the committee opined.
Inspired by Towarimala Land Struggle, the Movement of the Landless Gets a New Fillip
The State level Solidarity Convention was held at Kozhikode on 14th May in support of the ongoing Thowari Mala land struggle. It called for expanding the land struggle by the landless Adivasis and other sections of people at state level. While the resistance struggle in front of the Kalpatta collectorate by the land Struggle Committee shall be continued, a struggle centre shall be started at Thiruvananthapuram in front of the state secretariat and similar struggle centres shall be started at district level, mobilizing all the people’s committees leading land struggles of the landless families. In order to focus on the expansion of the struggle, and in the context of Kerala High Court postponing the bail petition for the arrested comrades to 20th May, the Solidarity Convention appealed to com. MP Kunjikanaran to end the hunger strike. Following it, com MP ended his hunger strike on 15th May at Kannur district hospital in the presence of Dr Ajoykumar, the chairman of the Solidarity Committee, com PJ James and others.
Addressing the Convention the leaders and representatives of the land struggles at state level including comrades G Gomathi, Ad PA Puran, Dr Ajoykumar, PJ James and many others from different parts of the state explained how the consecutive governments are taking reactionary stand against the distribution of land to the landless families, and how they are protecting the corporates like Harrisons and Tatas and the land mafias who are illegally occupying more than 5.25 lakh acres of land. The Convention called for mobilizing all land struggle movements at state level and launch an all out offensive for fulfilling the demands of the landless families.
It formed a Solidarity Committee with Dr Ajoykumar as chairman and comrades Gomathi, Chitra, Ad PA Pauran, PJ James, MK Dasan and others are members to expand the movement at state level. A number of democrats and intellectuals came out with a statement in support of the struggle.
On 20th May Kerala High Court gave bail to comrades MP, Rajesh and Manoharan and released from Kannur central jail on 21st May. Large number of comrades received them at the jail gate and taken to the border of the Wayanad district, near Vythiri where a reception was arranged, as both MP and Rajesh are denied permission to enter the district for five months. Com Manoharan, whose house is in the district is denied permission to go to Towarimala!
The state level solidarity committee and various organizations who are part of it have declared the decision to spread the land struggles to various districts as the LDF government refuses to take over the illegally held 5.25 lakh acres of revenue land and to distribute it to Adivasis, dalits, other landless and to the plantation workers. Though with the release of the comrades, the relay hunger strike at Kalpatta struggle centre is called off, the struggle centre shall continue with more landless families mobilized every day. Comrades are determined to march forward till the distribution of 2 acres of land to all landless families. n