"You have blood on your hands"

Print edition : March 28, 2003

Arundhati Roy to Kerala Chief Minister Antony.

Following a visit to Muthanga and its vicinity, the writer Arundhati Roy wrote a letter to the Kerala Chief Minister, A.K. Antony. Here is the text of the letter, dated February 27, 2003:

There are some moments in the life of a society when something happens to put its moral fibre on public display. This is one such moment. The Muthanga atrocity will go down in Kerala's history as a government's attempt to decimate an extraordinary and historical struggle for justice by the poorest, most oppressed community in Kerala. It will go down in history because, unlike most `struggles' in Kerala, it is not a petty, cynical fight between political parties jockeying for power. It is the real fight of the truly powerless against the powerful. It is the stuff of which myths are made.


I visited the Muthanga sanctuary (partly used as a eucalyptus plantation for Grasim's Gwalior Rayons factory, which has recently been closed) where the Kerala Police opened fire on hundreds of Adivasis. I visited the Sultan Bathery hospital where the wounded have been admitted. I visited some Adivasi settlements close to the sanctuary. I also visited the Calicut jail and met C.K. Janu and Geethanandan, both of whom are recovering after having been badly beaten by the police. Apart from this I spoke with several eyewitnesses to the firing.

For the Kerala Police to open fire on a group of hundreds of people including women, children, old people and infants is an act that has few parallels in recent history. The event that comes to mind is Jallianwallah Bagh. According to eyewitness accounts the official death toll of two is completely untrue. The people I spoke to reported a much higher toll. Had they belonged to any other community that mattered to mainstream political parties, the manner in which the crisis and its fallout were handled would have been quite different.

There is absolutely no justification or excuse for what happened. Even the police version of being provoked by a `hostage' crisis is not a justification. To open fire like that with no attempt to negotiate shows a deep lack of respect for human life - not just Adivasi lives, but also the lives of the policeman and the forest official who were taken hostage. It is not the way governments in the past have dealt with kidnappings and hijackings by real militants. While those who killed the policeman must certainly be punished, you cannot hold all the people present there - or the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha or indeed the entire Adivasi community - responsible for that act.

Survivors who I spoke to in hospital were less traumatised by their own injuries than by the fact that many of their family members including small children had gone missing. I met a man whose child had fallen from his arms when he was brought down by a police lathi and has been missing since then. There are others, women and old people missing. It is not known whether they are dead, or alive or hiding, hurt and hungry in the sanctuary.

A week has passed and no effort has been made to draw up lists of the missing and crosscheck them with jail and hospital records and reassure those who are rigid with grief and uncertainty about their loved ones. Can you even bear to think how you would feel in their place?

Meanwhile the police is terrorising Adivasis in the region. Policemen enter settlements and arbitrarily arrest the men folk, beating them and dragging them away. Their families have no idea what has become of them. When we approached the villages we found ghost-settlements with only a few frightened women and children. The men who remained all ran away. It took a lot to persuade them that we were not government officials or police-informers. Clearly the intention is to stamp out the struggle completely. By visiting this kind of vicious reprisal on the whole community, the government hopes that people will blame their leaders for putting them on the path that lead to such terrible times for them. It is a ruthless political game by accomplished players.

Journalists and cameramen have been threatened and intimidated. After the firing they were denied access to the interiors of the sanctuary where people went to hide. For fifteen hours after the firing the place was closed to the media. Nobody knows what really happened during that period. In an attempt to terrorise members of civil society who may have any sympathies with the Adivasis, the police have arrested a DIET (District Institute for Educational Training) lecturer K.K. Surendran. He was tortured in custody and reports say that he has a ruptured ear drum. At the moment he is being held in Kannur jail.

The result of this police-raj is that Adivasis are too frightened to go to work. People are frightened to employ them. In effect, they are starving to death in their villages - their ration cards have been burnt in the carnage. This is an exacerbation of the situation that led them to fight for the return of their alienated lands in the first place.

This is to urge you to immediately release people who have been held on baseless charges and see that they are able to return safely to their villages. Most have lost all their worldly possessions - they have no food, no vessels to carry water, and no clothes to wear. (People and well-wishers had to take them clothes in jail). Everything has been burned and destroyed by the police in their `action'.

Forgotten in the reportage about the carnage and its aftermath is the fact that this confrontation was the outcome of yet another cynical promise by the Government of Kerala to provide land to 53,000 Adivasi families by the end of December 2002. It was another link in the chain of 28 years of unforgivable manipulation. Ours is a nation built on the jagged shards of broken dreams.

You have blood on your hands, sir. You need to make amends. And quickly.

P.S: A small observation: In its eagerness to restore the eucalyptus plantation to its pristine condition, apart from killing human beings, between bouts of firing the police squadron had a picnic lunch. The plastic cups and plates scattered on the `eco-sensitive' battlefield tell a story. This one meal by the guardians of the State produced more non-biodegradable waste than the homes and worldly possessions of one thousand Adivasi families.

Arundhati Roy U 18 Green Park New Delhi