C.K. Janu, chairperson of the Adivasi Dalit Action Council, is perhaps the first prominent leader to emerge from the more than three-decade-old struggle of the 3.2 lakh tribal people in Kerala. Born in a tribal pocket in Mananthavady in Wayanad district and educated mostly by the hardship of tribal life and classes conducted as part of the literacy campaigns, Janu began social work through the Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union (Agricultural Workers' Union) of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In 1992, she floated the Adivasi Development Action Committee and her transformation into a firebrand, articulate Adivasi leader followed, mainly with support from some voluntary agencies. Excerpts from an interview she gave R. Krishnakumar:
The tribal people in Kerala were so far seeking the restoration of land that was alienated from them over the years. But now they seem to have dropped that demand and are asking for other land - five acres for each landless tribal family. What are the reasons for this shift?
The 1975 Act had assured Kerala's tribal people that their alienated land would be restored to them and that all transactions of tribal land after January 1, 1960 would become invalid. Under its purview over 8,000 applications were filed by the tribal people. But successive governments failed to implement the provisions of the Act. Instead they amended the Act, first in 1996, and when it failed to get the President's assent, again in 1999. Under the provisions of the latter, only 4,500 applications were filed, as the 1999 Act made only the transactions after 1985 invalid. Not much land was alienated after 1985 and what the tribal people were eventually made eligible for was a pittance compared to what they were entitled to. After the Kerala High Court rejected the 1999 amendment legislation - and we are certain that the Supreme Court too will strike it down soon - the government's claim that it will give one acre of land to all landless tribal families under the purview of the 1999 legislation can only end as a farce. We cannot agree to such a suggestion. That is why we say that the government should scrap the 1999 law and give all landless tribal families in the State at least the minimum land that would sustain them, that is five acres.
You are demanding government land free of cost for a large number of tribal families...
There are 3.5 lakh tribal people in Kerala, or about 70,000 families. Of these, nearly 45,000 families do not have even a strip of land. There are only 4,500 applications, which means the majority of the landless tribal families are outside the purview of the 1999 law. This is unacceptable. The largest number of starvation deaths are happening among these landless tribal people. In the past one and a half months, at least 32 people have died because of starvation. No government has so far said it will not give land to the tribal people. They all have promised land. In some places land was distributed, but nothing grows there.
The government promised to provide at least one acre of land to landless tribal families. Why was this not acceptable to the leaders of the agitation?
In the first round of talks held on September 6, the government agreed fully to undertake development programmes for tribal people. But the issue of land was not clearly explained. The government said then that it would provide 10,000 acres (4,000 ha) in two months to the tribal people. But there were no clear answers to our questions about the exact locations, the type of land or the number of beneficiaries. The government seemed unsure about these. What we require is land for livelihood. A few days later the government said it has found 5,000 acres more for distribution, only to go back on the promise and say finally that only 10,000 acres would be distributed, and that too only as per the provisions of the 1999 amendment legislation. But that is illegal legislation. So the government may never have to give away land.
Do you say that is you are no longer interested in alienated tribal land and would be satisfied by land elsewhere or anywhere?
The government may say that much land is not available. But where is the land which was sanctioned for the tribal people on several occasions right from 1957? Isn't the government holding on to such land illegally? We say all landless tribal families must get five acres each. There is enough land in the tribal belts.
Is this demand being raised because the tribal people in Kerala are now convinced that their efforts to get back alienated land from the settler farmers are impractical?
Successive governments have been denying land to the tribal people by making this a contentious issue and by claiming that this is an issue of tension between tribal people and settler-farmers. So what we say now is that let the courts decide the issue. Let the government give land outside the purview of the cases before the court. We have identified 11 lakh acres of land that could be distributed. The government need distribute only 2.5 lakh acres to provide land to all landless tribal people in the State.
Why do you think the government is not accepting your suggestion?
We do not know. In 1957, the government initiated special projects to prevent starvation death among tribal people. For five years tribal families were able to live and work as employees in these project areas. The government formed societies and appointed officers to supervise these projects and provide wages. The proposal was that after five years, when these areas became ready to sustain farming, each of those families were to be given five acres each on which they could find their livelihood. The societies were to be disbanded. It is yet to happen. There are 50,000 acres of such project areas in Kerala now. A major share of the SC-ST (Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe) funds is earmarked for such projects. But the government now says the funds are insufficient even to give salaries and wages in these areas. The government can distribute this land to the tribal people without any legal impediment and allow them to stand on their own feet.
Your 'land for all' demand also throws open the possibility of large-scale illegal transfer of tribal land to non-tribal people, as it happened in the past.
Let the government make another law to protect that land, if needed. The 1975 Act had the provision to prevent any further alienation. But such an argument should not be the reason not to provide land to the tribal people. The land we are asking for is free of any legal entanglements. The government has no qualms in allowing vested forest lands to fall into the hands of mafias, or in evicting tribal people to provide land to institutions like the Devaswom Board, or in allowing lakhs of acres to be alienated. But it is stingy when tribal people demand five acres. It is such a policy that we are actually protesting against.
What is the role of certain naxalite groups in the struggle?
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 birth until our death. In this we will accept help from all quarters. But we will not allow them to use us.
What shape will your agitation take in the future?
We want it to be a peaceful agitation in the future too. We are trying to keep it peaceful.
You started your struggle by forcibly occupying land which you claimed was tribal land. Is that still an option before the Adivasi Dalit Action Council?
We are trying not to do that again. It will be the government that will decide which road we will take.