What really happened

Print edition : March 28, 2003

An account of the sequence of events in the Muthanga forest on February 19.

WHAT really happened at Muthanga in Wayanad district on February 19, when the police went berserk against Adivasis who were demanding the return of their land? One policeman and one Adivasi were officially declared dead in the violent clash, but the stories that circulated were a clutch of contradictions, making it impossible to gauge the truth. First reports said that extremists - the People's War Group, the People's Democratic Party, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - were involved.

Tribal youth during their clash with the police force at the Muthanga forest on February 19.-

The following sequence of events was pieced together after talking to eyewitnesses, including mediapersons and local people. The official version was given by District Collector K. Gopalan at Kalpetta. The police version could not be got as the personnel were not available for comment.

The District Collector is of the view that "it was the hostage situation" that precipitated the violence in what was a completely peaceful situation for almost a month and a half.

He said: "The Adivasis began pouring into the area on January 1. They had been promised land by December 30. I was on leave and on hearing about this I rushed back. We contacted Thiruvananthapuram. The government was under the impression that this was a token protest; the people were really poor. The Chief Minister was sympathetic. I have no party affiliations. But for the first time in spite of great opposition, the Chief Minister has put into motion a process to give land to Adivasis. We have identified some thousands of acres and funds have been allocated. I have already distributed land. So we did not take any action other than requesting them to come out."

"What sparked the trouble?"

The Collector said: "The Forest Department was doing its routine work of creating fire breaks. The Adivasis felt a fire was started to drive them out and they seized 21 people on February 17. Officials considered it dangerous for me to go into the forest alone at night, so I went the next day. Between 9 a.m. and 1-30 p.m., DySP (Deputy Superintendent of Police) K. Unni and I managed the release of all the prisoners. We dealt with the second line of leadership, Asokan and Haridasan. They are not Adivasis. They were cordial and friendly. Janu (C.K. Janu, leader of the Adivasi agitation) was nowhere on the scene. The men were in total control."

"You managed the negotiation with utmost diplomacy and no force whatsoever. Why, then, did the police have to go back the next day?"

The Collector replied: "The local people were furious because their neighbours had been taken hostage. They stopped my car and demanded the arrest of those responsible. At that point the government decided to proceed with eviction."

THE police moved in the next morning. Ayappan (name changed), an inhabitant of one of the villages directly overlooking the scene of the clashes and a witness to the incident, said: "This was a eucalyptus plantation. Three years ago, they clear-felled it. (This is clearly visible and was what prompted Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who visited the site, to ask, `It is not forest, why can't they give it to Adivasis.') On January 1, Adivasis began to arrive in droves. Word had spread like wildfire that they were going to get land. Even while the police were firing, some Adivasis arrived asking, `where is the land they are giving us?' They settled in three pockets - Thagarapadi, Ponkuzhi and Ambukthy. The Forest Department officials came every day, circled the site, checked and left. It was peaceful."

Ayappan continued: "People used to go for manual labour and return in the evening. After the hostage-taking on February 17, the situation became tense. On February 19, the police arrived. They announced, `Everyone should vacate'."

By the time mediapersons arrived, the police were already there. Said Ajeeb, photographer of the Malayalam daily Madhyamam: "We (the press) arrived at 6 a.m. It was very quiet. The Adivasis didn't seem to know that the police were there. There was no one at their checkpost. We looked around."

Madhyamam reporter Mohammed Sharif reported that an 800-strong police force surrounded the area. Using megaphones, they began to shout, "Everyone vacate this land you have wrongfully occupied." "At about 10-30 a.m. the watchers moved the posts. The police fired tear gas. But the leaders went around saying, `Don't panic. Don't rush. Nothing will happen.' It was amazing. They did not panic even when the tear gas hit them. The women began packing their few possessions - clothes, rice, vessels - tying everything in their mats. They didn't anticipate violence. When the young Adivasi men came to the barrier, the police responded with a lathicharge. The men brandished machetes, the kind every Kerala farmer carries, and axes. Many had catapults, bows and arrows."

This bows-and-arrows story was puzzling. Only Mullukurumbas and Kurichiyas used bows and arrows. They were the only hunter tribes. Others were food-gatherers. Hunter tribesmen who saw the newspaper pictures, said, "They don't know even how to hold the bow properly. If they were expert archers, the arrows would have moved with speed and hit the police. You wouldn't have had just one dead body."

"Paniyas, Kattunaickens and Adiyas don't know how to shoot," this writer pointed out.

Ajeeb laughed. "Yes. They were only using it to threaten. Finally, when the police attack became serious, they threw down the bows and hurled the arrows by hand, which, of course, had no impact. This was when the battle began in earnest. It was like watching a war. The police would advance, and the Adivasis would hurl stones and knives. Then both sides retreated. The Adivasis retreated into the thick forest and the police hid in the bushes. The Adivasis then set fire to the bushes to drive away the police. One Adivasi threw a plastic bag, but he didn't open it properly. It contained bees. At this point, with the fire and smoke, the police personnel ran helter-skelter. A policeman and a forest official ran into the Adivasis. They were tied up."

At around 11-10 a.m. according to Sharif, a 10-member police party led by Sub-inspectors (S.I.) Unnikrishnan and Chathu ran into a 100-strong group of the Adivasi Gothra Sahba (AGS) activists in the Perunkuzhi forest. An encounter ensued. S.I. Unnikrishnan drew out his service revolver and began firing. People from both sides ran pell-mell. Two S.I.s and three policewomen sustained injuries. No one knew how many Adivasis were hurt. DySP Unni recalled his forces to plan strategy.

At 11-40 a.m. the police launched a search operation. They moved in two groups and converged on a large shed. There they found constable Aziz of Kannur battalion, badly injured in the leg. After they moved him out on a stretcher, their mood changed. Rifles and revolvers cocked, they moved forward. "Everyone surrender immediately," they yelled. "We will not leave our land," the Adivasis retorted. "We will open fire. You will die," the police warned.

AGS leader Asokan stepped forward, tore open his shirt to bare his chest, and challenged the police: "Kill me first. Kill all of us - women, infants - fire the first shot." The police fired nine rounds in the air. They then issued a final warning. Asokan pulled out his trump card. "We have two of your men. The moment you start firing, we will kill them," he said. "Where are the hostages?" asked DySP Unni. A person lifted up the injured leg of policeman Vinod. He was lying on the ground, bleeding profusely.

"No one outside saw the policeman being knifed," said Ajeeb, taking up the narration. "But the news infuriated the police. They moved in like enraged bulls. They hit women, children, the old and the infirm with their rifles and lathis... We saw them smash a man's leg over and over again. The reporters of Deepika, Chandrika, The New Indian Express and Malayala Manorama were there as the only eyewitnesses. We saw four or five bodies. We have photographs of three. All this was before they opened fire."

Said Sharif: "At 12-20 p.m. the Circle Inspector (CI) of the Kerala Armed Police (KAP), Sasidharan, came forward. `Asokan, we are ready for negotiations,' he announced. Asokan replied, `No negotiations with the police. You withdraw from our forest.' DySP Unni approached the mediapersons, seeking their intervention. Asokan insisted that the police withdraw. They withdrew 50 metres. `Treatment is required for not just the injured policeman but the Adivasis too,' he said and wanted a doctor to be brought to the camp. The police refused. `You release the injured and we will take them all to hospital,' they said. The police also dismissed Asokan's demands that the police retreat and that the Collector assure them that Adivasis would not be punished. The Adivasis also demanded that the Collector or a Minister or Deputy Inspector-General of Police (DIG) Shankar Reddy come for negotiations.

"At this point CI Sasidharan issued another warning. `We shall discuss the land issue if you surrender. You know the consequences of killing a policeman.' Asokan replied `You killed two of us. Who gave you permission to shoot? Even the Cabinet meeting at 8-30 a.m. did not give you permission to shoot us.' The mediapersons asked: `How do you know that?' No answer. Instead, Asokan demanded a doctor immediately. `If the injured die, you will be held responsible,' he ended."

Sasidharan once more pleaded with mediapersons to mediate to save the life of the policeman. Sharif and Kairali television cameraman Shaji Pattanam went into the Adivasi camp. "It was around 4-30 p.m., the leaders invited us to photograph what was going on. I went in after them. They had asked for a doctor to treat the wounded but this was refused. I went into the shed and saw the policeman, Vinod, and the forest official. They were in extreme exhaustion. Vinod had been badly wounded and was blue. He asked for water, which they gave him. They told me to photograph him. I was frightened. I thought I too would be taken prisoner. I saw their leader Geethanandan and begged him to let me go. He did."

Sharif reported that Vinod and the forest official were soaked in blood. "They were lying on dry hay. The smell of kerosene was everywhere. Two volunteers were on either side with lighted torches held aloft." DySP Unni and Sasidharan appealed to the mediapersons to negotiate.

"Asokan put forth a set of demands: `Release all the Adivasis; take the injured to hospital; the police withdraw; suspend the forest officials who set fire to our surroundings to evict us; order a CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) inquiry into the forest fire incident; give compensation for destroyed huts and possessions of the Adivasis; implement the agreement with the Adivasis.' Sasidharan responded that it was not within his powers to fulfil these demands. Asokan replied: `They (the authorities) are camping in Muthanga. Bring them here.' The stalemate continued."

At 1 p.m. Asokan told the media: "The policeman is dying. Bring a doctor quickly." "Release him for treatment," replied the police. At 2 p.m. Sasidharan called out: "Will you surrender or not?" "No. We will never surrender," came the reply. Slogans reached fever pitch, with women and children joining in. Messages went back and forth on the wireless until, finally, the police withdrew. At 5-10 p.m. the police personnel returned and asked the mediapersons to leave. Ten minutes later, they began firing, taking the Adivasis, who were expecting more negotiations, by surprise.

SHAJI PATTANAM climbed up a tree and recorded the events on camera. His footage is the only evidence of what happened after the other mediapersons were forced to leave.

Shaji described the scene:

"The tribal people were shouting slogans but standing far away. The police attacked first. The women started screaming and tried to run. The police began shooting. They used .303s not rubber bullets. Those who were not shooting were lashing out with their lathis. They dragged the women by the hair and hit them viciously. One small child had his head split open. A pregnant woman fell down but still they hit her. They hit even dead bodies. Maybe they were unconscious. But at the scene of an accident you know instinctively by the posture, a person is dead. I counted four or five.

"Then I fell from the tree. A policeman saw me and shouted. They surrounded me. A bullet whizzed past my face; my head was spinning. One policeman kicked me, another hit me on the head and I fell on my camera. I thought I was going to die. I ejected my cassette and shoved it into the front of my jeans."

Sharif reports:

"When the police began firing, the Adivasis did not know what hit them. They began screaming. Jogi, the man who was standing with the lighted torch over Vinod, was the first to be hit. Without waiting, the man next to Vinod hacked at him. He was immediately arrested. Then we heard non-stop gunfire; pitiful screams; people were running. The police were in hot pursuit, firing relentlessly at even women and children. Others followed, hitting them with lathis and rifles. They surrounded me and said: `We will bury you also along with these people here.' It was a face-to-face encounter with death. I cannot describe how I ran and managed to escape. At least 15 people fell to the bullets. That is what I saw. The police were chasing and shooting women and tiny children. There is no count of those who fell and died there. Though the police and the Chief Minister initially announced that five Adivasis had died, they later changed it to one. There were mobs assisting the police and forest officials to catch the Adivasis who escaped from the violence.

"The official explanation was that Jogi died after being hit by a plastic bullet. Is there a plastic bullet that can go from one side of the head to another? There was a small hole on one side and a big hole on the other. His brain was splattered outside. This gives an idea of the guns used. They were .303s. They were firing at women and children who were barely 50 metres away."

Shaji, who made friends with some policemen, asked one of them, "Did you burn all the bodies? I was there so I know the truth." The policeman, he said, laughed and replied: "No need to burn them. They are all buried in Pakshi Pathalam (a remote spot in the jungle). Not even a fly can find them."

The truth is buried deep in the forest with the unrecovered bodies. The government does not seem interested in uncovering the truth or the bodies. In Kerala, today, it does not matter. They are only Adivasis. Who cares where they sleep or how they die?

The villagers living close to the spot where the violence took place are sure that between 15 and 20 bodies were burnt in the aftermath of the carnage. "After setting fire to the place, and burning everything to a cinder they brought in bulldozers and elephants to clear the evidence," they said. They are upset about the combing operations that continue. "The police have gone on the rampage, entering Adivasi villages and rounding up people. Even women are taken away. They are attacking the poorest Adivasis - the Paniyas, the Kattunaickens and the Adiyas - who cannot fight back and have no idea what crime they have committed. There is a reign of terror. The police entered Pullithukki, Thelampatta and Nambikolli, where Janu was found.

The people are apprehensive about the days to come. The hunt goes on. "While the police have the right to search for fugitives, what is their rationale for beating up men and women who are obviously innocent?" ask the tribal people of Wayanad.

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