A conflict in the forest

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

The brutal police action against Adivasi encroachers in the protected forests of Wayanad in Kerala highlights two facts: the growing frustration at the A.K. Antony government's broken promises and the increasing role of political extremists in the Adivasis' struggle for land.

in Thiruvananthapuram

THE dream has turned sour once again for the tribal people of Kerala. On February 19, in what could be described as an unfortunate moment in the five-decade-old history of the Adivasi struggle, the Adivasi Gothra Sabha (AGS), abruptly changed course, leading an entire marginalised community into an unchartered, violent mode of agitation to highlight the denial of "land for livelihood" by successive governments.

In the brutal police action that followed, an entire stretch of the protected forests in the Muthanga range of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary nearly turned into a killing field. A bloody and volatile series of events was imposed by a heavily armed police force on a group of around 2,000 AGS activists and their unwitting family members and supporters. These people had since January 3 encroached upon and forcibly occupied a stretch of the sanctuary. They had declared "self-rule" in the area, started cultivation "for a living" "because they had nowhere else to go" and restricted entry to non-tribal people, including government officials, into the new settlement.

The Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary, established in 1973 with the objective of protecting the biological diversity of the region, is considered one of the biggest natural habitats of Asiatic elephants. For some strange reason, despite specific instructions from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to evict the "illegal encroachers" from the protected forest land, the State government took no action.

For 45 days the drama of "forced occupation of forest land" (which had been enacted elsewhere in Kerala on several occasions earlier without any mishap or positive results) had continued unhindered, with the State government ignoring allegations that Chief Minister A.K. Antony sought to wriggle out of the difficult situation of keeping his promise of finding land for all landless Adivasis within five years. This task, a challenging one in a State where the land-people ratio is one of the highest in the country, was the highlight of an agreement Antony signed with AGS leader C.K. Janu at the end of a 48-day Adivasi agitation led by the Adivasi-Dalit Action Council, before the State Secretariat in September-October 2001 (Frontline, October 26, 2001). But on February 17, forcing the hands of the government as it were, even as the State Forest Department and some environmental groups were protesting against the government apathy with regard to the encroachment of a "fragile forest tract" , a mysterious forest fire developed near the AGS settlement. The forest officials and some others who went into the sanctuary "to inquire about the fire" were taken captive by the AGS activists, who accused them of setting fire to the forest. The 21 hostages were released the following day, after a harrowing night in tribal custody, and after the district administration agreed to the AGS demand that the District Collector himself record the statement of the hostages on the circumstances under which they were held captive.

Even as negotiations were going on for the release of the hostages, tension began to mount at the Thakarapady checkpost, established by the tribal activists to prevent the entry of non-tribal people into "tribal land" . A large number of local people who had gathered there, agitated over the hostage-taking and encroachment of forest land, and demanding the immediate arrest of the leaders of the Adivasi agitation, Janu and M. Geethanandan, faced an aggressive crowd of tribal activists armed with sharpened sticks, bows and arrows, knives and sickles. The government realised it could no longer ignore the encroachment issue or the growing anger against the Adivasis among the local people.

The result was a virtual battle at Muthanga on February 19 between the tribal activists, who had sworn to resist all attempts to evict them, and the police force. The police operation, which began at around 9 a.m. under the full glare of the media, turned increasingly brutal and insensitive, especially after AGS activists captured a police constable and a forest official. The Adivasis tortured their captives, doused them with kerosene and threatened to set them on fire if the police were not withdrawn. They also demanded medical facilities for the injured among them.

From the few television clips that were smuggled out of police scrutiny, and eyewitness accounts, the police seem to have gone berserk from then on, under cover of a media blackout, using horrendous force on the fleeing AGS activists and their supporters, including children, the aged and women, who were strategically used by the core group as a shield. As the police force moved forward, and the captors threatened to set fire to the two hostages, the police opened fire, forcing the activists to flee. Those who fell were kicked with boots and hit repeatedly with rifle butts. Thatched huts, makeshift homes and offices, and personal belongings were dismantled and set afire by the police. There were instances of women shielding their men to prevent them from being brutalised by the police.

Later, in the hospital, while some of the injured activists told mediapersons that "they will continue their struggle till their death" , others , most of them women and the aged, said "they had no idea that they would be exposed to such brutal police action. We had come to the sanctuary solely on the promise of land offered by the AGS activists."

The police constable, who was held captive had a deep gash on his leg, and he bled to death on the way to hospital. The forest official was admitted with serious injuries on the head, where an arrow had hit him. A tribal activist was confirmed killed in the police firing. Several other tribal people, mostly innocent AGS supporters, and policemen and forest officials were admitted to hospital with serious injuries. There were allegations by pro-tribal organisations and human rights activists that at least 20 Adivasis had died in the police firing. These could not be verified as the police cordoned off the area for over 16 hours after the operation. However, top police officers asked Frontline: "If what they allege is true, where are the bodies?"

Opposition leaders, who visited the area a day later, said that there was mystery surrounding the exact number of the tribal victims. The police maintained that only two persons, including the constable, had died.

The majority of the core group activists of the AGS had escaped the police net. Janu reportedly left the scene of action a few days before the operation. Geethanandan, a former naxalite who had been dismissed from Central government service and whom a police officer described as the "CEO of the Adivasis" , too was reportedly missing when the second phase of the police action took place.

On February 20, replying to an Opposition demand in the State Assembly for a judicial inquiry into the incident and information on the exact number of Adivasis killed in the firing, Chief Minister Antony said that the police had been acting on government orders and were only doing their duty. He said that the government had so far taken a soft attitude towards the encroachment and had shown restraint and patience in dealing with the Adivasis agitation. "But no government can condone attempts to start an armed rebellion or to create a bloodbath in the State. Trying to declare self-rule and prevent the entry of non-tribal people and officials into an area, taking people hostage and resorting to the most primitive methods of torture, and trying to put up armed resistance against the police are things that no government can ignore. Such actions will be dealt with severely," Antony said.

Significantly, ever since the government signed the agreement with the tribal groups led by Janu in October 2001, the Antony government had been basking in a new-found glory of "an administration which had done the most as yet for the marginalised people" , based solely on the promises that it had made on paper. But in the year that followed, it found it extremely tough to implement the promises, especially the one to provide at least one acre of land (up to five acres wherever possible) to all landless Adivasis (Frontline, November 9, 2001). Although it did make attempts to identify and distribute the land, at several places these efforts hit the rock, with the land identified either falling under protected forests, which could be distributed only by flouting conservation laws, or happened to belong to some government department or the other. In places like Mathikettan, a pristine shola forest in Idukki district, the land identified for the Adivasis was immediately grabbed by land sharks who had used the Adivasis as a front.

Therefore, the initial euphoria turned into disappointment and resentment, leading to the tragic incidents at Muthanga. (According to the AGS, there are 45,000 tribal families in the State who do not have even a strip of land.)

The October 2001 agreement is significant in other respects, too, seen in the context of the latest police action. The agreement was a devious turning point in the long history of the Adivasi struggle in Kerala, whereby both the government and the Adivasi leadership sought to alter drastically the character of the long-pending demand of the tribal people.

THE Adivasis were for generations the real sons of the soil of Kerala's forests. But over the years they were shorn of their land by greedy settler farmers and land sharks. For nearly 50 years now, the Adivasis have been demanding the "restoration of their alienated land" and pinning their hopes on the law and on successive court verdicts. But given the bottlenecks in evicting the economically and politically powerful second or third generation settler farmers from the alienated land, the Antony government and the Adivasi leadership altered the demand drastically. The agreement suggested that the Adivasis were no longer interested in the "alienated land" , and would be satisfied with "other land elsewhere" .

This suggestion took a load off the State government for it was saved the huge legal responsibility of evicting the powerful settler farmers from what was originally tribal land and restoring the land to its original tribal owners or their descendents. The events leading to the Muthanga incident have shown that the agreement has truly helped the powerful settler farmers alone. The majority of the tribal people are no better off than they were, continuing as they are without a piece of land.

Moreover, by allowing the Adivasi-Dalit Action Council to conduct the high-profile agitation before the State Secretariat in September 2001, and by striking an agreement with its leadership, the Antony government had sought to legitimise this group as the sole representative of the entire Adivasi community in the State. In fact, in a grand gesture before signing the agreement, the action council had convened an "Adivasi Gothra Sabha" (Tribal Grand Council) in Thiruvananthapuram, specifically to stress the point of unity among various tribal organisations.

By thus legitimising the Janu-Geethanandan leadership, the Antony government perhaps thought it could get a hold on the course of the tribal agitation and the support of the majority of the Adivasis themselves, in the long term. Also, the United Democratic Front government, with powerful settler farmer interests being represented on its Cabinet, could impose its will and alter the nature of the tribal demand from the one of "restoration of alienated land" to that of "any land" . But the Muthanga incident shows how dangerous this strategy was, with regard to the long-term interests of the tribal people and Kerala society in general.

Even when the government signed the agreement there were disturbing signs of the Adivasi-inhabited areas becoming breeding grounds of extremist activity seemingly espousing the tribal cause. The invisible hands that led Janu into the limelight in 2001, after a period of near-anonymity, was a matter of intense speculation then, as was the prominence Geethanandan was gaining in the tribal organisation.

In fact, even as early as 1996, Adivasi agitations led by Janu had the support of extremist groups, which were even otherwise making their presence felt by using tribal youth to serve their interests. During the 48-day struggle, when Frontline asked Janu in the presence of Geethanandan about the role of certain naxalite groups in the struggle, the latter replied: "They are not in the agitation. But even if they are, we are not of the opinion that it is wrong. We have no problem with that. This is a struggle for our right to live in our land of our birth until our death. In this we will accept help from all quarters. But we will not allow them to use us." The events that led to the police action at Muthanga are significant in this respect too. Top police officers told Frontline that the kind of stiff resistance offered by the Adivasi group was unparalleled in the State's history and pointed to a well-planned strategy and the involvement of "other forces" , even though they believe the timing of the event may not have been deliberate.

The question remains as to who really started the fire at the sanctuary. But the subsequent incidents constituted a serious setback to the tribal people in Kerala. Events that followed in the plains of Wayanad should be an eye-opener: local people hunted down innocent tribal people to be handed over to the police and the police conducted numerous raids on Adivasi colonies to search for men who ran away from the scene of action. Janu and Geethanandan themselves were caught by the local people and handed over to the police on February 22.

The incidents at Muthanga have only helped brand the AGS an extremist organisation. It is this that could become a convenient excuse for mainstream Kerala society once again to brush aside the fundamental question of survival that is forcing more and more Adivasis into a state of frustration and despair and making them prime targets of extremist groups seeking survival in the State.

Were the Adivasis under Janu being used by other forces? Was the woman who had shown the promise of being a true leader of these marginalised people being led up the wrong path? Does the majority of the tribal people in the State want their cause to be furthered through extremism and violence? These are the central questions that will now decide the future of the Adivasi struggle in Kerala. Only a prudent leadership can put the agitation back on the rails. But the blame for the events of February 19 lies squarely with the State government, which had raised the hopes of the tribal people sky high and then failed to deliver on its promises.

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