The Muthanga misadventure

Published : Mar 28, 2003 00:00 IST

The leadership of the Adivasi movement in Kerala may have unwittingly sabotaged it by failing to provide a mature, sensible and peaceful direction to its agitation.

in Thiruvananthapuram

THE cause of the Adivasis is suddenly the focus of all attention in Kerala. A number of organisations including the major Opposition political parties in the State, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh combine, the People's Democratic Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), have found rare unity of purpose in seeking to revive their activities in the tribal settlements and in demanding a judicial inquiry into the February 19 police action against activists of the Adivasi Gothra Sabha (AGS) at the Muthanga forests in the northern Wayanad district (Frontline, March 14).

In the State Assembly the Opposition disrupted proceedings for several days demanding a judicial probe, and members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), former Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribes Minister K. Radhakrishnan and former Planning Board Member T.M. Thomas Isaac, sat on a hunger strike before the legislature complex and the State Secretariat. However, the State government preferred to dig in its heels; it refused to heed to what it termed a "politically motivated demand".

Chief Minister A. K. Antony stuck to his stand that only one tribal activist and a police constable had died in Muthanga and that the police were only doing their duty as ordered by the government. He and many of his Cabinet colleagues asserted that no government could condone attempts by a tribal organisation to "declare self-rule and prevent the entry of non-tribals and officials into an area, take people hostage and employ the most primitive methods of torture on them and put up an armed resistance against the police force''.

The government, which until recently had claimed credit for "doing the most as yet for the marginalised tribal people'', soon found its popularity hit a downward spiral. Stuck in the mud, alongside was the AGS, probably the only tribal organisation that looked like achieving some degree of success in espousing the Adivasis cause (with the support of the State government). A question mark now hangs over its credibility and motives.

While the agitation, which gained in strength, no doubt took the wrong turn at Muthanga, the fact is that the Adivasis had been teased and baited repeatedly with the false promise of land for nearly three decades.

In 2001, the Antony government seemed to do a bit more for them when it entered into an agreement with the AGS, led by an articulate tribal woman C.K. Janu, to find at least one acre of government land for each landless Adivasi family in the State. In the months that followed, the government distributed a mere 1,747.82 acres. The Adivasis soon realised that most of the land that the government had identified for distribution was either located in protected reserve forests, which could not be assigned without the approval of the Central government and the Supreme Court, or land entangled in legal problems. Despite its apparent sincerity, the Antony government seemed to be unable to deliver and landed in a crisis as a result of its hasty promises.

However, when the Adivasis increased pressure on the government to fulfil its promises and its constitutional responsibility of eventually allowing autonomous tribal areas in the State, unseen dark forces tried to foment trouble by setting fire to the forest area encroached by AGS activists at Muthanga. The encroachment by the tribal people at Muthanga is being described as the first attempt, though a feeble one, to create awareness about the need for autonomous tribal areas, but the popular perception is that the leadership of the movement allowed it to be sabotaged by failing to provide the agitation a mature, sensible and peaceful direction from that point on. It instead, steered a promising agitation towards a violent, hostage-taking route, with disastrous results.

THE consequences of the Muthanga agitation going out of hand are many for the government, the AGS leadership and the Adivasi community in general. For one, the Janu-led Adivasi movement, which picked up steam in less than a year (and surely with government patronage), has been derailed. With Janu and the other leader, M. Geethanandan (a former naxalite), in jail and facing serious charges, it may take a while, if at all, for a revival of the movement.

The Muthanga incident has also put a question mark on the fate of the agreement the Antony government signed with the AGS leaders. The agreement had sought to change the focus of the tribal agitation from one demanding "restoration of alienated tribal land'' based formally on a 1975 law and successive court verdicts to one promising at least one acre of `government land' for all landless Adivasi families, based merely on the government's assurances (Frontline, October 26, 2001).

For three decades, the pursuance of the first option had pitted the Adivasis against the influential settler farmer lobby in an unequal battle. The second option perhaps offered them hope through some hard bargaining with a lenient government. "Kerala's Adivasis are not fighting the settler farmers any longer,'' Janu had told Frontline a few days before signing the agreement.

But an agreement promising at least one acre each to 53,472 landless tribal families (as estimated by the government), when the land was yet to be identified, too was fraught with the possibility of failure. After Muthanga, the future of the agreement is in doubt, with the government terming the tribal leadership it had sought to legitimise as "extremist and prone to armed rebellion'', in effect questioning its credentials. Moreover, the events leading up to the police action at Muthanga, especially the hostage-taking and the violent resistance by AGS activists, have only helped strengthen the aspersions cast on the AGS leadership and raised questions about its motives.

The allegations have focussed on the growing influence of political extremists and missionary groups (serving the cause of the largely Christian settler farmer lobby) on the organisation that claims to represent tribal interests. State Forest Minister K. Sudhakaran had told a press conference in New Delhi that the government had doubts that the agitation had support from "outside forces'', "the ivory mafia'' and "people with questionable backgrounds".

With the government terming it radical and seeing the hidden hands of political extremists in the Muthanga incidents, the AGS leadership may no longer get the benefit of a soft approach by the State administration for its agitation programmes when it revives itself. This could force the AGS to take to more radical measures in order to survive.

The significance of the falling out of the Antony government and the AGS is to be found in the eagerness of several mainstream political parties, including the CPI(M), the Communist Party of India, the BJP, the PDP and the CPI(ML), to enter the fray to further their own influence in the tribal areas. The CPI(M)'s Adivasi Kshema Samiti (AKS) had established itself as a rival to the AGS and had, following the Muthanga encroachment by the AGS, put up its own settlements in about 15 places in north and south Wayanad from January 15. The other parties have also announced their strategies for furthering the Adivasi cause and have drawn up programmes to strengthen their respective movements.

The net result of all this, including the direction the AGS has sought to take at Muthanga, could be the absence of a credible tribal leadership that will speak up for purely tribal concerns and for the entire tribal community. Sadly such a situation has arisen at a crucial juncture in their history when the Adivasis of Kerala have managed to make their voices heard all over the country, if not abroad.

The Muthanga incident leaves the government with the comfortable option of either sleeping on the Adivasi issue for the rest of its term or going ahead with its promise of land identification and distribution, but at its own pace. Moreover, the branding of the AGS as an organisation tainted by extremist elements has only helped those forces that are out to sabotage the tribal land distribution programme, among them settler farmers and forest mafias.

Several questions remain to be answered regarding the events surrounding the police action at Muthanga and may be revealed only through a judicial inquiry. Opposition MLAs and human rights organisations have repeatedly alleged that many more people than the officially recorded figure had died and that nearly 130 people are still missing. There was no doubt how embarrassing and costly the answers to these questions would be for the Antony government. Hence its continued reluctance to order a judicial probe. On March 5, under tremendous pressure, Antony did give an indication that he may agree to the Opposition demand.

As the events that followed the police action at Muthanga have indicated, on the basis of an aberrant incident in which the AGS leadership probably went wrong and unseen forces played a dark role to sabotage the Antony-Janu agreement of 2001, the entire tribal population in the State was sought to be penalised. The dream of acquiring a piece of land now seems as distant as it always was for the tribal people in Kerala.

On March 5, accusing the Opposition parties of trying to gain political mileage out of an unfortunate situation, Chief Minister Antony said that regardless of what had happened, his government would continue its effort to distribute land to all landless Adivasi families in the State before the end of its term. Given its record in the months following the signing of the agreement and that of previous governments in honouring promises made to the tribal people, the Adivasis who make up but only 1.1 per cent of the State's population are likely to take such statements with a generous pinch of salt.

Sadly, the Muthanga incident has at least for the moment derailed an effective group that had emerged from within the tribal community and had in a short period gained the potential to argue powerfully and credibly for Adivasi interests whenever the government showed signs of failing to deliver on its promises. In a way it is a fate, which the AGS bought upon itself by exposing itself to the allegations of seeking extreme measures to further the tribal cause.

However, despite its immediate discomfiture, it is a fact that leaves the State government in a comfortable position vis-a-vis its promises to the tribal community.

Both the Antony government and the AGS could prove their critics wrong by turning their back on Muthanga and sticking to their original plan of action. But there are strong forces in the State that may never allow such a rapprochement to happen. Ultimately, it boils down to the issue of finding the land required for distribution to all the landless tribal families. The melee following the Muthanga incident and the clamour for a judicial inquiry has submerged this basic fact.

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