Keezhavenmani revisited

Print edition : January 27, 2006

The Keezhavenmani massacre of December 25, 1968, by landlords and their henchmen, which was all but ignored by the mainstream press, is poignantly brought to life in a documentary film.

TIME, they say, is the best healer. But certain wounds, especially those that remain in the collective memory of a society, defy the saying. This was quite in evidence at a function held in Chennai on December 18 to mark the release of a documentary film, perhaps the first ever, on the massacre of 44 people, mostly women and children belonging to families of Dalit agricultural workers, nearly 40 years ago at Keezhavenmani village, 25 km from Nagappatttinam in Tamil Nadu.

The film, Ramiahvin Kudisai (The Hut of Ramiah), narrates how they were burnt alive in a hut where they had taken refuge. The story is told by some of the survivors, who break down, unable to contain their grief and anger, even after such a long time. It is a detailed account of the violence perpetrated by landlords intolerant of the growing strength of the agricultural workers' movement in the region. Most of the invitees, who watched in silence the one-hour film produced by The Roots and directed by Bharathi Krishnakumar, were seen wiping their tears at the end of the screening.

Keezhavenmani has gone into the history of the country's agrarian movement not only as an example of the supreme sacrifice of the toiling masses in their struggle for liberation from economic exploitation and social oppression, but also as a frightening reminder of the ruthless ways in which their oppressors try to protect vested interests. Thousands of people, including activists of the Left and Dalit parties, gather at the village on December 25 every year, the day on which the tragedy took place in 1968, to pay their respects at the martyrs' memorial.

Strangely, however, the coverage of the incident in the mainstream newspapers was inadequate. The reports were even misleading in certain respects. For instance, many newspapers described the incident as a clash between two sections of kisans, or between two groups of agricultural workers, all for a wage hike of just half a measure of rice. The incident was apparently seen in isolation of the developments during the preceding months. The larger socio-economic aspects of it were by and large ignored. The documentary fills the gap to a great extent. It answers many questions, such as why and how the massacre happened and what roles the police, the State government and political parties played.

The documentary brings to light many a hidden fact through the personal accounts of some of the accused in the case relating to the arson, their close relatives, and a retired police official. The documentary, with the help of a lot of meticulously collected background material, presents the incident as part of the decades-long struggle by under-paid and under-fed agricultural workers for a better living. In this perspective, any study of the Keezhavenmani massacre has to be made in the light of the agrarian movement in the rice-rich undivided Thanjavur district during the preceding three decades.

THANJAVUR district, prior to its division, accounted for nearly 30 per cent of the State's paddy production, thanks to its rich irrigation facilities. Thousands of acres of land were in the possession of temples, Hindu religious mutts and zamindars, a class of people created by the British to collect land revenues for the government. Thirty per cent of the cultivable land was in the possession of 5 per cent of the landholders. Fifty-five per cent of the temple and mutt lands were under the control of the cultivating tenants. There were also small and marginal farmers. The district had a large presence of agricultural workers, most of them Dalits who were treated as slaves (pannai adimaigal). Dalits were therefore oppressed both socially and economically. They suffered the worst forms of untouchability, being denied access to public wells, rivers, streets and temples.

It was under these circumstances that the communist movement struck root in the district. With agricultural workers being mostly Dalits and a significant number of marginal and small landholders being from the socially backward castes, the communists had to integrate the fight against economic oppression and social oppression with the cooperation of both these sections. Under the guidance of leaders such as A.K. Gopalan, B. Srinivasa Rao and Manali C. Kandasami, the communists first organised the cultivating tenants, who were at the mercy of zamindars, temples and mutts, and then agricultural workers. Long struggles by them for protection from eviction led to the abolition of the zamindari system with the adoption of the Tamil Nadu Estates (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act, 1948; the Tanjore Pannaiyal Protection Act, 1952 (later repealed) and the Tamil Nadu Tenants Protection Act, 1955.

The Tamil Nadu Cultivating Tenants (Payment of Fair Rent) Act, 1956, was meant to ensure that the tenants paid a fair rent. With the abolition of the zamindari system, a new class of marginal farmers emerged, besides the small farmers. Similarly, the mechanisation of agriculture that came with large allotment of funds for agriculture in the First Five-Year Plan brought in the daily-wage earners. In the 1950s a Minimum Wages Act fixing wages for farm workers came into being. The communist agricultural workers' unions demanded agreements on payment of wages for both cultivation and harvest periods. In the 1960s, thanks to developments such as border wars, steep fall in food production and certain actions of the Union government, such as, devaluation of the Indian rupee in 1966, there was a spurt in prices of agricultural commodities giving fillip to demands for higher wages in several places. A separate organisation for championing the cause of agricultural workers were later formed.

The peasant movement in the State also agitated for reducing the concentration of land in the hands of a few by fixing a ceiling on holdings and for redistributing the surplus land among the landless agricultural workers. The Tamil Nadu Land Reforms (Fixation of Ceiling) Act, 1961, came into being. It is another matter that the Act, riddled with loopholes, ensured that not much land was declared as surplus.

Before achieving these, however, the tenants, small and marginal landholders and agricultural workers had to confront the money power and political influence of the landowners at several levels. The confrontation often led to violence and loss of lives. The police were invariably on the side of the landowners. Many people, including some frontline leaders, were killed in police firings. Interestingly, in the early years of the agitations for increased wages, agricultural workers and agriculturists signed wage accords in the presence of the police. The workers intensified their struggles when landholders refused to pay the wages agreed upon and threatened to replace them with workers from other places.

The Paddy Producers Association, a militant organisation of landholders, emerged. The association not only refused to pay higher wages but also threatened landholders intent on implementing the wage accord with dire consequences. In 1966, the union organised rallies and a strike in the district demanding appointment of a tripartite committee. But the Congress government in the State refused to yield. Next year, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) came to power in alliance with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The union renewed the plea for a tripartite committee to settle the wage issue, but the DMK government also was in no mood to accept it. However, following the death in police firing of a union worker who was trying to protect the union flag from attack allegedly by the men of landlords at Poonthazhangudi village on October 6, 1967, the State government convened a tripartite conference at Mannargudi, which fixed the wages for the short-term crop. It was valid only for a year. Meanwhile, the Nagappattinam taluk unit of the Paddy Producers Association came under the control of Irinjur Gopalakrishna Naidu, a landlord, who formed a brigade of volunteers allegedly to oppress the workers through intimidation, undertake harvest operations, and let loose terror.

THIS was the situation when the Keezhavenmani carnage happened. The major issue was the refusal of landlords to yield to the agricultural workers' demand for higher wages since the earlier agreement had lapsed. The workers demanded six litres of paddy for every 48 litres harvested, but the Paddy Producers Association did not agree. Wherever workers insisted on the higher wage, the association arranged for carrying out harvest operations with "outside" labour in violation of the understanding between the disputants under earlier wage accords.

A glass urn containing the remains of the victims, collected a few days after the incident by freedom fighter I. Maayandi Bharathi. The urn is now kept at the memorial for the victims at Keezhavenmani.-K.BARANIDHARAN

Wherever the landlord offered to pay higher wages, the Producers Association protested and warned of counter action. The association allegedly threatened the agricultural workers in Keezhavenmani around December 10 that their huts would be torched. Leaders of agricultural workers said that the taluk secretary of the CPI(M) and party legislator K.R. Gnanasambandan had written to the State Chief Secretary about the threat and asked for protection to them. (But a communication from the Chief Secretary, however, reportedly stated that the legislator's letter had reached him only in January.) Both the letters were of no avail.

The apprehensions of the labour leaders were proved right on December 25. The Hindu's lead story on December 27, 1968, reported that 42 persons, mostly Harijans (as Dalits were called then), were burnt alive on the night of December 25, and that the gruesome incident followed a clash between two groups of kisans. It said: "Twenty-five huts in all were burnt to ashes. The victims are said to have taken refuge in a hut, which was among those destroyed." The report gives the information that the landowners refused to concede the demand of "Marxist kisans" that they be paid a harvest wage of six litres of paddy and went ahead with harvesting that day engaging labour from a neighbouring village. When these "outside" workers were returning after work in the evening, the report said, "a group of about 200 persons attacked them, armed with deadly weapons". In the clash that followed, Pakkirisami Pillai, a farm worker, sustained stab injuries, which proved fatal. The "outside" workers ran away and the attacking mob chased them. According to the report, around 10 p.m., another group of about 200 persons were said to have marched to Keezhavenmani, where a clash followed. Gunshots were also heard during this clash. Twenty-five houses were set on fire. The inmates of huts ran out and were said to have taken refuge in a single hut, which was among those burnt down, the report said. Nineteen persons injured in both the clashes were hospitalised. The report said that Gopalakrishna Naidu was among those taken into custody. The report refers briefly to the kisan trouble in East Thanjavur district for two months.

Although a police station was within 5 km from the village, the police came to the spot hours after the incidents. Senior police officials reportedly came only the next morning. Despite prohibitory orders, hundreds of people visited the village.

Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai observed: "The incident is so savage and gruesome that words fail me to express my agony and anguish" and deputed two Ministers, M. Karunanidhi and S. Madhavan, to visit the village and report to him. The eighth congress of the CPI(M), then being held in Kochi, expressed its shock over "the inhuman act of vandalism of the landlords' goondas" and directed P. Ramamurti, member of the party's Polit Bureau and Member of Parliament, K.R. Gnanasambandam, member of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, to rush to the village. Ramamurti visited the village and later held discussions with the Chief Minister.

Two days later, Annadurai announced that a one-man commission, headed by Justice Ganapathia Pillai, would inquire "into the problems of agricultural labour, the relationship between the labourer and the landlord, and connected issues in East Thanjavur". Another immediate action taken by the government was to bifurcate the Thanjavur police district and appoint Walter Devaram Superintendent of Police for East Thanjavur with Nagapattinam as headquarters.

Protest meetings and demonstrations by workers of the Left parties were held all over the State. Leaders condemned the massacre and the police administration's failure to protect the lives of the poor Dalit agricultural workers.

B.T. Ranadive, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member, wrote in a long article on the tragedy in the party's official organ People's Democracy, in its January 12, 1969 issue: "It must be stated that had the DMK Ministry been alert, the wage question could have been settled long ago. But blackmailed by Congress propaganda about the breakdown of law and order, and pressurised by the landlords within its own party, the Ministry allowed things to drag on thereby encouraging the latter's offensive against the workers." He stated that the DMK Ministry could not escape the guilt of connivance at the growing crimes of the landlords. "In the last few months at least three murders of leaders of agricultural workers had taken place and neither the Ministry nor the local police had taken any action to counter this campaign of murder and terror and bring the criminals to justice," wrote Ranadive. The veteran Marxist also gave a graphic account of what he saw at Keezhavenmani when he visited the village a few days after the tragedy.

A long article by D. Pandian in the official organ of the Communist Party of India (CPI) also threw more light on the tragic incident. He wrote: "The latest mass murder of women and children is the continuation of this reign of terror of mirasdars [landlords]. All these murders took place in a taluk where special police reinforcement is sent to `protect the crops' according to the Ministry. And, yet on December 25, at about 7 p.m. this savagery was enacted with impunity." He said that the police went there only around 10 a.m. the next day only to collect the charred remains of the victims. "The mirasdars set fire to the hut and butchered the innocent victims; the police completed the `cremation'," the article said.

"From all evidence," Pandian wrote, "it is clear that it was a pre-planned, calculated murder." He also faulted the State government for its "callousness and failure to protect the kisans, poor Harijans, even after a series of murders in the area."

THE documentary, succeeds to a fairly large extent in revoking the memories of the mass murder as one of the most heinous crimes against women and children, by recreating the mood of that fateful night and restating the tales of woe of those less fortunate and deprived sections of the people by their survivors and those who stood by them in those hours of crisis in their own words. It goes further and makes some bold statements by going deeper into the issues involved.

For instance, it attempts to establish that the massacre of the innocents was an `avoidable' crime. It adduces evidence to show that had the government acted on the alerts from the kisan and labour leaders about the threats from the landlords and their henchmen, the carnage could have been averted.

A letter to the Chief Secretary from Gnanasambandam, written 15 days before the incident reportedly reached its destination late - around January 5,1969. Another appeal to the government from legislators such as N. Sankariah to convene a meeting of the Assembly to discuss the worsening situation in respect of relations between agricultural workers and a section of landlords failed to provoke any response. A warning from Ramamurti to the State government that if the activities of the Paddy Producers Association president were not checked by the police and the administration, the agricultural workers' organisation also might have to think of an army of volunteers to protect themselves as had been done by Gopalakrishna Naidu was also of no avail. In the process of revealing this, the documentary raises questions about the policy of the then DMK government in using the police while dealing with issues relating to labour and also about a possible nexus between the police and the landlords. What results is an expose of the government's inefficiency in managing crises.

Another aspect that is highlighted by Krishnakumar's short film is the unbelievable attachment of the people of that little village not only to their soil but also to the movement that grew with them in that region. Ignoring threats to their lives and casting aside offers of allurement, an affected person states in the documentary that they refused to pull down the flags and switch sides. Nor did they accept the offer to be resettled in a nearby village. The documentary also exposes the weakness of the judicial system. One of the accused in the main mass murder case confesses how he could escape punishment by claiming alibi with the help of an obliging doctor. (Although 10 of the accused, all landlords, were convicted and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, the High Court quashed the sentence on appeal and the Supreme Court confirmed it.)

A striking contribution of the documentary is perhaps that it highlights the point that the fight for liberation from economic exploitation and social oppression has necessarily to be an integrated one and Dalit liberation is inseparably linked to the fight against exploitation of all sorts, which many of the interviewees vouchsafed for from their own experience in East Thanjavur.

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