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No Justice For Muthanga Victims -
They Fall Down And Die

By B F Firos

03 March, 2003

A year has passed since the tragic turn of events in Muthanga when a brutal State clamped down on the rightful protest of Adivasis (tribals) for the right to land. The larger Kerala society has viewed the Adivasis’ struggle with indifference and at times with hostility. But with the announcement of a new political party for the marginalised tribals, the Adivasi is sending a clear message that he is going to fight his battles by joining the mainstream society and taking it on.

It is history now. February 19, 2003: the day when a ruthless State with all its brutal force suppressed the genuine cause of the weak and the marginalised. It was on this day that the forces of the State mercilessly went on a rampage on the tribals at Muthanga in Kerala’s Wayanad district, leading to the death (officially) of one Adivasi and a policeman. It has been a year since then and lots have changed except the misery and hardships of the tribals in this district. The tribals’ rightful clamour for land still remains unfulfilled even as the State government goes on with its empty promises.

The unexpected turn of events that led to the Muthanga tragedy was the culmination of the State’s inaction on the Adivasis’ just demands for a homeland. When the State government failed to keep its promise on the distribution of land to the landless Adivasis, hundreds of them ‘encroached’ upon the Muthanga wild life sanctuary on last January 5. Days later, policemen fired indiscriminately at the tribal group that included women and children. One tribal was killed in the police firing, while many others were wounded. A policeman who was held hostage by the tribals was also killed in the fight.

The mainstream media, and the State government tried to demonise the tribals by alleging that they were connected with militant groups like the LTTE. There were even attempts to connect the tribals’ agitation to Naxal groups. But all these allegations have proved to be groundless as none of these sabre-rattlers or media analysts couldn’t establish any terrorist connection. The Chief Minister A K Antony had defended the police action by saying that what had happened in Muthanga was an “armed rebellion”.

The gory incidents in Muthanga attracted international condemnation. The world at large came to know about the kind of hardships the tribals had been undergoing for their very survival. The National Human Rights Commission dismissed the reports of both the police and the State government on the incident, and suggested an enquiry by an independent agency like the CBI. Even though the government ordered a CBI enquiry, justice continues to elude the tribals. Worse, the CBI officials have pinned the blame on the Adivasis. Some of the tribals were reportedly even beaten up by the CBI officials during interrogation.

The wounds, both physical and psychological, caused by last year’s bloody events remain unhealed. Lots of tribals who were wounded in the police action are struggling to get back to normal life. They are the living martyrs of State brutality. Like Velayudhan. After being injured in the police firing, he lives the life of a recluse, cocooned in the darkness of his hut.

Then there is Tankamani (22) of Erankolli colony, who escaped narrowly from the police bullets. On that dreadful night, she tried to flee from the police. Before dawn, the police caught her and began ruthlessly bashing her up. When she fell unconscious, the policemen went on to kick her. Soon she was hospitalised and imprisoned. She is now completely devastated and unable to perform any work.

The State government has been driving home the point that only one tribal was killed in the firing. In fact, video footages taken by a Malayalam channel questions this version by the State. It highlights the case of Njenan (43) who had participated in the Muthanga struggle. Along with several Adivasis, he was also taken to jail and tortured. After coming out of jail, he used to omit blood frequently and was unable to do any work. One day, he fell down dead in the paddy field, with blood oozing out of his nose and mouth, recalls his wife. Was this a normal death? “No. He died because of severe torture by the police,” says Njenan’s sister Onathi. “It was after the imprisonment that he started bleeding from his head. He told me about the kind of torture methods used by the police. They used to thrash his head with lathis and then kick him in his head.” But Njenan’s death wasn’t reported by the media, nor was this issue taken up by any organisation. Isn’t his death directly related to the atrocities committed by the police in Muthanga? How can Njenan’s death be placed outside the realm of February 19?

The story of Gopalan (32), another Adivasi, is different from that of Njenan, but here again, police torture played a large part. So much so that Gopalan came back to his dear and near ones as a deranged person, and then committed suicide last September. His parents and wife say that ever since his return from Kannur Central Prison, he used to behave strangely. They say that at nights, he used to perch atop trees after screaming that he was being chased by the police. After examining him, a native physician diagnosed that he had sustained a serious injury in his brain. Though Gopalan had started taking herbal medicines, one night he ran out of home shouting that somebody was chasing him to beat him up. Later, he was found dead. Both his parents assert that he had never shown any kind of mental disturbance before the police torture. Gopalan is survived by his wife and two kids, who are now in the throes of poverty and despair.

The police atrocities in Muthanga should also be viewed in the context of the above-mentioned two cases. Njenan and Gopalan would have been alive today if the State had dealt with the Adivasis’ grievances in a civilised manner. And for sure, there are several more Gopalans and Njenans.

Cut to Balan (35) and his 60-year-old mother Poli who were part of the agitating group of Adivasis in Muthanga. They recall that police started to fire without issuing any warning. Both of them were at that time in the temporary shed put up by the tribals. After grabbing them from the shed, the police beat them up, breaking the hand of the old woman. Balan is now a wreck, and unable to carry out normal chores.

Malu is another innocent victim of police brutality although she was not part of the protest group. When things were hotting up in Muthanga, she was taking rest as she had given birth only a few days back. Since some tribals from her colony had taken part in the agitation, the police searched her colony as well. Fearing police torture, all the tribals in the colony, including Malu, escaped to the forest. They had to hide inside the forest for several days without any means for food or water. That’s when Malu suffered the biggest tragedy of her life. Her seven-day-old infant died as it could not cope with the hostile conditions in the forest. It couldn’t have got more worse for Malu as she was childless for several years after marriage.

Surendran, a teacher, was also picked up by the police after the Muthanga incident. Constantly, for as many as 12 hours, he was subjected to severe torture by the policemen. His crime: teaching the Adivasi children. The police arrested him on the flimsy ground that his phone number was found in the diary of a tribal leader. Due to the incessant torture, Surendran has now lost his hearing capacity, and he complains of acute pain in his hips. He is still haunted by the abuse hurled at him by the policemen. He says the policemen were blatantly racist. Surendran is planning legal action against the errant policemen.

Veliyan (22) is another Adivasi who bore the brunt of the State’s boot. The police bullet hit his leg, and a bleeding Veliyan limped deep into the forest. After four days, he was found lying in coma and was taken to the hospital. His legs still give him acute pain and sleepless nights.

These are the ‘ghosts’ of a State’s way of dealing with dissent. To make matters worse and more inhuman, the Antony government, far from tendering an apology over the brutal acts of the policemen, has not even bothered to carry out relief measures. Scores of Adivasi men, women and children have been traumatised by the events, but the government machinery has been looking the other way. All that the government is vehemently concerned about is in haunting those people, including journalists, who cried foul at the brutal State action.

Muthanga has become a symbol of how a cruel State can terrorise the poor and the hapless. And it is both intriguing and appalling that such a gross case of human rights violations, has been taken lightly by a society that prides itself on its literacy, cultural refinement and social responsibility.

But the Adivasi may no longer be looking to this society for redemption; with the recent announcement of a new political party—Rashtriya Mahasabha--for Kerala’s Adivasis, the Adivasi has made his intention clear to fight his own battle by taking on the mainstream society.