Chengara’s Dalit-Adivasis call to restore their fundamental rights
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
Bharathi Sreedharan could not resist taking risk on her life through dense forest as her children suffered in hunger and starvation in the Chengara village which has been unconstitutionally and unethically blocked by the trade union gangs of all the political parties including the ruling CPI(M) in Kerala. Her agonizing face reflected the happenings inside the village as for more than two months; it is completely cut off from rest of the country. No outsider is allowed to venture into the village and no villager is allowed to come out of it. CPM’s goons attack people from the buses once they recognize that they have sympathies with Chengara people. Many families are on the verge of hunger death if in the next few days no arrangement of food supply is done. ‘They want us to get out of the place but we are determined, says Bharathi, we won’t allow them to take over the place. We are ready to face any eventuality’. We are ready to die for the cause of our children’.
Bharathi came hiding to get some ration from her brother. When the road is blocked from all the way, it is possible only through walking around 10 kilometers in the forest to come and reach the office and wait for him to be there at Laha Gopalan’s office who is the leader of ‘ Sadhu Jan Vimochana Samyukta Vedi’, the organization fighting for the land and livelihood rights of the Dalits and Adivasis in Chengara. It is remarkable that people have united in this struggle and are determined to sacrifice their lives for the land. Interestingly, it is for the first time, that Kerala is witnessing an assertive emerging Dalit Adivasi struggle independent of the influence of dominating communities irrespective of religion.
Gopalan hails from a trade union back ground as he worked in Electricity department and now swears by the legacy of both Baba Saheb Ambedkar and Ayyankali, another Dalit revolutionary from Kerala. The semi constructed office in Pattthanamthittha is a place where all the Dalit-Advasis in the Chengara struggle come and stay. According to Laha Gopalan, they ventured into the area some fourteen months back, as it was legally a government land which should have gone to the landless Dalit-Adivasis of Kerala. The government of Kerala was never interested in the land reform and whatever happened in the name of land reform was eyewash. The tragedy is that there are villages where the Dalits do not have land for even cremating their people. The issue of Dalits and tribal has been neglected by the national and state level parties and hence we decided to make our own destiny.
About 10 kilometer away towards Tiruwala lives the big family of Sabu who are five brothers. Each brother has a big family of his own to support. They have no land. Sabu and his wife have small tea shop. The number of children in the family and the small kitchen that they have for their survival tell the story as how the successive Kerala governments failed to give land to the Dalits. ‘ Sabu was happy that Chengara’s vast track could have provided him a source of independent living and some land for agriculture work. He went there with other families. The real assault came from the trade unions this year when people refused to leave their land. ‘ The union felt that they can coerce us to accept their issues but at the moment people are ready to die. They will commit mass suicide if police and other forces are sending to evict them. We are not ready to accept anything less than a decent land package for our children’, say Sabu. He adds that situation is worsening as there is no food, no water and no sanitation in the entire area. Particularly, it is becoming difficult for children and elderly people to stay. Because of the blockade, we can not provide emergency treatment to any of the villagers as vehicles are not allowed and there is every chance of a bloody fight if we come in touch with the trade union people. Children are facing the malnutrition as there is nothing to eat and drink. We can not go to market to buy milk and rice. Moreover, because of no work in the past two months, there is no money to buy anything’.
How come he is here in the village. ‘ Sir, the union people allowed us 5 days leaves during the Onam festivities. We were allowed to move in and out and hence I came here. I have overstayed here and hence it is difficult to go there because of blockade’. I can not speak to my relatives and friends there, I am really worried as if food is not provided to people soon, they will start dying soon. I am concerned about children and elderly people. They are completely cut off from the rest of the world. It is shameful.’
The seize of Chengara went off well until one day the government which was keen to revive its lease to Harrison Plantation decided that the Dalit and Adivasis could only be evicted if they push it through other routs which is ‘right to live’ issue of the 70 odd plantation workers who were working there. The issue is the Chengara’s tea plantation was already defunct years ago and hence to blame the current situation for the crisis is absolutely wrong. Harrison Plantation cannot use these 70 workers as a shield to deny land rights of the people. The tactics they adopted are fascistic in nature as from the August this year, the situation worsened after the plantation trade union and CPM in particular started blockade. Now the parties have not only used the local tea plantation trade unions but people have been invited from other parts of the state also against the landless people. All the ways going to Chengara were blocked by the party men and no material including medical aid was allowed to go into the village. Only allowance given to people was during ONAM festivities when the blockade was lifted for 5 days to let the people celebrate the festival. But after that the blockade has become functional and harsher and it might turn into a bloody war. Now the situation has gone out of hand. People inside the Chengara area have no source of livelihood; there is no supply of food and water. Some Muslim youth organizations of the area wanted to send rice for the families but but never allowed to do so. It is violation of their rights to food and free from hunger. The state government has shamelessly allowed the situation to go out of hand which has given strength to the trade unions.
It is unfortunate that in this war against their Dalits and tribal the organized gang of the trade union is taking action irrespective of ideology. It is a rare combination of how the upper caste communists and the Hindutva people can come together to wipe out the legitimate demands of the Dalits and tribals. The duplicity of the CPM’s idea comes that the same party launch movement for restoration of land in Andhra Pradesh but want to say that all the Dalits and tribals who have now settled in Chengara are encroachers. Perhaps they have forgotten their own slogan of ‘ Jo jameen sarkari hai, woh jameen hamari hai ( the government land is our land. Land struggles historically invoked this slogan. Harrison Plantation Company did not have legal rights to the acquired land. The lease expired long back. The dalits and tribal who did not get benefited under any programme of the government rightfully acquired the land and asked the government to redistribute it to them. How come the communist government of Kerala kept quiet and turned hostile to Dalits who have just extended the slogan what the communist parties have been raising every where else except in the states they have been ruling. Is it because this land struggle is first of its kind being led by the Dalits and have organized both the Dalits and tribal together in the state.
Dalits have been asking the government to allot them land. In 2006 in the Patthanamthitta district after five days struggle in the government land of rubber plantation area, the land was given to the Dalits on the papers only. Many people are still trying to find where there land is which was given to them on papers by the state government. Says, Raghu, one of the members of the Solidarity Committee, ‘we do not want papers, we want land’.
Patthanamthitta is a district about 60 kilometers from Kottayam, the heart of the Syrian Christian, the original brahmanical convert to Christianity. About 40 kilometer from the town is the heart of Ayappa, the Hindu God. The land relations here are different as the dominant community here is the upper caste Christians. What their role is in the entire struggle of the Dalits, I ask Raghu. ‘ Oh, like any other feudal, the Syrian Christians also are not interested in the battle of Dalits. Dalits here have separate churches for them.’ The Solidarity Committee members like Simon John, who is also Chairman of Backward People Development Corporation, Kerala concede that the original Brahmin converts to Christianity have not left their old prejudices in the Church and therefore are not very keen in supporting the movement of the Dalits and tribal in Chengara. Like the CPM cadre, many of them too feel that the Dalits and tribal have ‘encroached’ the government land, though it is another matter that they all forgot that Harrison Plantation has been the biggest encroacher and was overstaying at the place. It is also shocking that Kerala did not have substantial land reform and all talks of a Kerala module in the developmental text books are big farce if one visit the rural areas of Kerala and speak to Dalits and tribals. A lot is written about Kerala model as a state. Recently a friend wrote to me from
Laha Gopalan is a determined man. He has seen the traumas of the Dalit communities in the villages where they do not even have land for funeral leave alone for education and houses. ‘ The political parties, both at the national and state level have betrayed the cause of the Dalits and tribal,’ he says. ‘ We started our struggle when people failed to get land by any request. We found that there is no land to them and the government wanted to further the lease at the area which was being used by the Dalits and tribal. Our historic struggle started last year as 7000 people captured the area and started living there. One should have expected that the communist parties which have raised the slogans of ‘ jo jameen sarkari hai, wo jameen hamari hai, ( Government land is our land) today are strangely at the other end. There is no hope in the sight as the trade unions are determined to take law in their own hand and kill people with chief minister virtually becoming a ‘Dhritrastra’.
Says Laha Gopalan, ‘ when we started our first struggle the government termed that they were genuine demands. In June 2006 about 5000 families were living in another plantation area when the revenue minister interfered and promised them land. Chief Minister Achutanandan promised about 1 acre land to each family of the landless but nothing happened. Since August 4, 2007, there are over 7000 families and the government has so far neglected their demand. The unions have surrounded the area and are beating people who are showing solidarity. The lives of the solidarity committee members are in deep threat in the area. They are being identified in the buses, taxis and even in the press conferences and targeted.’
‘ Even in the war zones people allow doctors and medical teams to visit the victims but here the goons of CPM and other trade unions have denied that too to the people,’ says Simon John. They are not allowing the food supply in the village. There is a hunger and starvation situation prevailing in the ‘samarbhoomi’ and one person is already dead due to hunger. It is violation of people’s right to life’, add John. ‘ We are deeply disturbed at the turn of events as government and political parties led by the upper castes are not at all bothered about the growing marginalization of the communities says another activist in Patthanamthittha.
Is it not strange and ironical that CPM and other communist parties who have been in the forefront of agitation against any kind of exploitation in the organized sector do not find that the landless people in Chengara are struggling for a genuine cause? The party leaders termed the entire struggle as unwanted and felt that the local goons and land mafias have taken over the Chengara land struggle. Ofcourse, Party’s anti Dalit stand is visible anywhere. One does not blame the top leadership of the party for being anti Dalit as it would be too much to blame but definitely party’s local leaders are not really that radical Dalit supporters as they should have been. CPM for that matter is like any other political party ( we wanted it remained a different political party) whose cadres hail from dominant communities and serve their local interest as we have seen in West Bengal and how the party remained mute to the displacement of about 700 Valmiki families in Belilius Park in Howarah several years back. Today, party’s proud MPs have made use of the entire space for private properties and shops. Ofcourse, the poor Balmikis never got support from any other Bhadralok parties in Bengal and living in
Chengara’s land struggle is historical. It shows that people can not really depend on government dole out for land. Political parties in connivance with the defunct industrial houses are keeping people landless. New landlessness is on the rise. Courts are being used as an excuse to evict people. The marginalized have understood this and are ready to fight till end. If the government of Kerala think it is wrong, let it come out in open and say that they oppose people’s movement for land right. The government cannot use trade unions and other goons to threaten people and evict them. Life in Chengara has become miserable and any further delay will turn Chengara into another Nandigram. The situation in Chengara would become more dangerous and bloody if the government does not behave responsibly. All national and international rights bodies should take care of this note that denying people free movement is denying them right to choice and livelihood. Kerala government has failed to protect Chengara’s Dalits and Adivasis right to move free from one place and other. The inhuman blockade has created unprecedented situation where children and elderly people in Chengara are suffering. Any further delay would escalate the crisis and only government of Kerala would be held responsible for this. The government must act fast and negotiate with the struggling masses of Chengara. The trade union blockade is unconstitutional and illegal and must be removed immediately as it violate the fundamental rights of the people living there who are victim of the criminal silence of the government and civil society.