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The Tribal Blood -
Muthanga: A Struggle for Survival

By Mukundan C. Menon

Kerala Chief Minister A. K. Antony is a sad man now. Not because his policemen opened fire on agitating Tribals, including women and children, on February 19 at Muthanga forests in Wayanad district, which happened to be the first incident of that nature in Kerala history. Antony is sad because neither he, nor his Ministers and officials have a plausible excuse to justify the firing. On the other hand, there are too many lapses on the Government's part, if not deliberate mistakes, glaring errors and wanton blunders. To cover it all up, Antony and his co-rulers reiterate that there would be no inquiry, leave alone a judicial inquiry. This, too, is a first in history in Kerala since judicial inquiries were instituted, formally and customarily, on all police firings in which people were killed in the past.

Apart from being sad, Antony is also frustrated because he is too keen as a politician to keep his liberal and progressive image intact, which is now blemished very badly. Also, any judicial inquiry into the Muthanga police firing would only expose his Government's actions, or the timely lack of it. Such an inquiry would also thoroughly expose the handling of the Tribal Land issue by his government as well as all the former governments of Kerala. Therefore, even for saving his own image, Antony cannot hide under the customary shelter of instituting a judicial probe either. That ultimately made him a frustrated and worried man today.

Exactly sixteen months ago, on October 16, 2001, the same Antony was happily celebrating victory of the 48 day-long agitation in front of the Secretariat by a section of the tribals, led by C. K. Janu. Along with his Cabinet colleagues, Antony personally went to the huts erected by the agitators in front of the Secretariate to congratulate Janu for the success of her agitation launched against his own government. Two-and-half months later, on January 1, 2002, Antony shared the dais with Janu at a government-sponsored pomp-and-show at Idukki to mark the beginning of the distribution of land documents to the Tribals. By wearing the traditional turban of the Mannan tribals of Idukki, Antony joined the tribal dancers to the rhythmic tune of tribal drums. The Government's Public Relations Department brought out lakhs of multi-colour posters for the special occasion of the land distribution to the landless tribals.

Merely after a year now, the same Antony government had to unleash police terror on the same Janu-led Tribal agitators at the Muthanga forests on February 19, 2003. Officially it left one policeman and "only" one tribal killed, about 300 tribals, including Janu, arrested and imprisoned, and scores of others still convalescing at the hospital. Following the Muthanga police firing, the saddened Antony proclaimed that his government won't allow anybody to launch an armed struggle. His lieutenants, within the Cabinet, the Congress party and ruling UDF amalgam, heaped allegations of LTTE-PWG connections on the same Janu with whom Antony was celebrating the victory of her struggle a year ago at Thiruvananthapuram and Idukki. BJP leaders, who supported Janu's stir in front of the Secretariat in 2001, went a step ahead after the Muthanga firing alleging that she had the support of foreign-funded Christian missionaries and Islamic terrorists.

The Road to Muthanga

What led Janu to launch the Tribal land agitation in front of the Secretariate in September 2001 was the unprecedented starvation deaths in the tribal belt. The principal reason for the starvation deaths of the tribals was the absence of cultivable land for them. The tribals became landless due to the encroachment of their ancestral land by powerful settlers from the plains, starting from pre-Independence days. The earnings of these tribals from daily wages also got depleted due to the acute problems faced by rich farmers, agriculturists and planters; thanks to the new world order of GATT and globalisation.

The problems of the tribals, numbering 3.35 lakhs and constituting one percent of the Kerala population, got aggravated because of the non-implementation of the Alienated Tribal Land (Restoration) Act of 1975 by the successive governments led by both the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the CPM. This Act, and its non-implementation, speaks volumes about the absence of democratic governance and the rule of law in Kerala.

The Act was passed unanimously by the Kerala Assembly in April 1975 when communist veterans C. Achutha Menon (CPI) and EMS Namboodiripad (CPM) were the Chief Minister and Opposition leader, respectively. Moving the bill, the then Revenue Minister, Baby John (RSP), said : "The tribals have lost their ancestral land to the settler-encroachers, in exchange for tobacco, dry fish or petty cash. Whatever might have been the form of transaction, this government treats it as stealing. It is the firm commitment of this government to recover these stolen properties and to restore it to its original owners - the tribals." Accordingly, the Government was legally bound to evict all those who encroached the tribal land since 1960 and restore it to the original tribal owners.

This 1975 Act was duly incorporated into the Ninth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. During the 1975 Emergency regime, Indira Gandhi included land to the landless tribals as the main motto of her famous 20-point programme. Yet, this Act was not implemented throughout the Emergency period by the pro-Emergency Kerala Government led by then CPI-Congress ruling alliance. All the successive governments, led by both LDF and UDF, followed suit in breach of this Act.

The reason was simple : The thin ethnic minority of tribals, spread over different districts throughout the State, do not constitute a viable vote bank, while the encroacher-settlers are powerful supporters of either the LDF or UDF in the tribal belt. For example, in Wayanad, the formest Tribal district of Kerala, the tribal population (1.24 lakhs) constitute hardly one-fifth of the total population. The tribal candidates of the various parties can of course contest the tribal reserved Assembly seat in Wayanad. However, only the tribal candidate and the party capable of cajoling the majority non-tribals can win the seat. Even newspapers, which dare to publish pro-tribal items, cannot expect circulation in the tribal belt. Those who have the purchasing power of the newspapers are the encroachers, whereas it is a luxury for the illiterate tribals, struggling for survival against starvation and deaths.

Dr. Nalla Thampi Thera moved a writ petition in the Kerala High Court in 1988 pleading for direction to the government to implement the 1975 Act. Five years later, in 1993, the High Court favoured the petition and directed the Government to implement the rule of law. The then UDF-Government, led by K. Karunakaran, pleaded for more time. The same plea was repeated by the Antony-led UDF Government in 1995-96. In early 1996, the Antony Government even tried to bring an Ordinance to overcome the High Court order which, however, was rejected by the State Governor. By the time the Nayanar-led LDF Government took over in May 1996, the High Court gave a final instruction to the Government to implement the Act before September 30, 1996. In a startling affidavit filed before the High Court, the Government went to the extent of pleading its inability to implement the rule of law on the tribal land issue as it would create a law and order problem, including bloodshed. The same government, which rejected the High Court order to evict the encroacher-settlers from the tribal land in 1996, had no qualms to open police firing against the landless tribals at Muthanga tribal belt in February 2003 in order to evict them from a protected wild life sanctuary.

A week before the deadline set by the High Court to implement the 1975 Act, the then Nayanar-led LDF Government, with the support of the Antony-led UDF opposition, brought out an amendment bill to the parent Act on September 23, 1996. There was wide criticism and agitation against this anti-tribal bill meant only to scuttle the basic spirit of the 1975 Act. As against the then Revenue Minister Baby John's declaration in the Assembly in 1975 about the government's commitment to restore the "stolen property" of tribal lands to its original tribal owners, the 1996 amendment bill moved by LDF Revenue Minister K. E. Ismail (CPI) envisaged to give legality for the encroacher-settlers to control the same "stolen property". In plain words, it is legalizing stealing.

Both Nayanar and Antony led a combined LDF-UDF team to Delhi to get the Presidential sanction for the amendment bill. On no other issue had the Chief Minister and Opposition leader gone to Delhi, except for getting the Central approval for this anti-tribal law. However, in March 1998, then President K. R. Narayanan returned the amendment bill. Instead of implementing the 1975 Act in accordance with the High Court orders, the belligerent LDF Government, with due UDF support, brought another amendment bill in 1999, replacing the tribal land with agricultural land. Technically this bill required no Presidential approval, and it was okayed by the Governor. However, the High Court squashed it and upheld its 1993 ruling on the 1975 Act. The Kerala Government's writ appeal on it is still pending before the Supreme Court.

It was this non-implementation of the 1975 Act for a quarter century that ultimately led Janu to launch the September 2001 agitation in front of the Secretariat. However, Janu's demand was not to implement the 1975 Act, but to give "alternate" land to "rehabilitate" the landless tribals - which raised many eye-brows.

It ended in "victory" when the Antony government "agreed" on October 16, 2001, the following points :

1) Landless Adivasis and those having less than one acre of land would be given one to 5 acres of land

2) The State Cabinet would ask the Central Government to bring all tribal habitations in Kerala under the Scheduled Areas Act under Article 244

3) A Tribal Mission would be constituted to implement the agreement; and

4) The Supreme Court verdict on the 1975 Act would be awaited and implemented.

Accordingly, the Government identified a total of 53,472 tribal families (22,491 landless and 30,981 with less than one acre) as eligible to receive one to 5 acres of land each. It was also declared that a total of 59,452 acres of "alternate" lands had been identified for giving to the Adivasis, which constituted less than 2.2 % of the total land required as per the 2001 "agreement".

After a year of the January 1, 2002, pomp-and-show at Idukki to start the implemention of this agreement, it failed to make any further progress with only 600 tribal families getting a total of 950 acres of "alternate" land. In other words, one percent of the tribal families identified as eligible beneficiaries received only 1.6 per cent of total "alternate" land identified as available for distribution.

Even this meager allotment ran into deeper controversy, as at Mathikettanmala in Idukki district, which brought the Ministries of Revenue and Forest into direct confrontation. As a result, the Tribal Mission, constituted to implement the October 16, 2001, "agreement" was "reconstituted" and it eventually ceased to function.

During the past 16 months of the agreement, the Cabinet never passed any resolution on the Scheduled Area status, leave alone sending it for Central approval. No mention about the "agreement" was made in the Assembly, let alone passing a resolution, or moving a bill, approving it.

In other words, it remained an agreement of sham show, because, unlike the 1975 Act, with due Constitutional protection, this "Antony-Janu" agreement of 2001 has no legal validity, whatsoever.

The Firing

Which is what made Janu to lead around 500 tribals on January 4, 2003, to the Muthanga forests, build huts, dig wells and start cultivation. Muthanaga-Bathery-Kurichiat forest ranges form part of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and lie to the west of the Madumalai forests (Tamil Nadu) and Bandipur forests (Karnataka). The whole area is an integral part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, established in 1973, extending about 334 square kilometers, with the specific objective of conserving the biological and cultural heritage of the region. The 160-hectre core area, about 20 kms from nearest Wayanad town, Sulthan Bathery, fall under the direct supervision of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. It is one of the eleven biosphere reserves identified so far in India, and also regarded as one of the two environmental hot spots in the country.

Obviously, Janu's new form of agitation at Muthanga drew the attention of the Central government and protests from environmentalists. Although the tribals occupied areas covering Kadikkuni, Sarakkad, Thakarapady, Ambukuthy, Vengoor, Moroor and Kottikappu in the Muthanga Range, the forest officials, numbering around 20 at Muthanga range, could do nothing against the 500 plus tribals, including women and children. Revenue, forest and wild life officials made it clear right from January first week that they were awaiting orders from the State Government. The Government, however, maintained silence since they were busily engaged in the preparation for the Global Investment Meet (GIM) at Kochi in the third week of January. Obviously, the government did not want any untoward incident at Muthanga to divert the attention of the visiting foreign investor-dignitaries.

All attempts of the district officials to have a dialogue with Janu failed, as she insisted that she would talk only with Antony. Even after the GIM was over, Antony was not willing to go to Muthanga to talk with her, neither did his government give any instruction to the district officials - for reasons not yet known.

Eventually, on February 17, a fire broke out at Muthanga. A team of forest officials moved in to put out the fire, of whom the tribals caught 21 persons, including some tribal labourers, as captives. All of them were tied to trees and physically thrashed since the tribal agitators alleged that they set off the fire to forcibly vacate the agitators from the forests. The Wayanad District Collector interfered and the captives were released the next day.

By then, orders went from Thiruvananthapuram to evict the tribals because, according to Antony, the State Government was under constant pressure from the Centre. On February 19 morning, a large police contingent was mobilized. Janu and her close lieutenant, M. Geethanandan, refused to hold any talk with the officials, although second-ranking leaders did. Failure of these talks led to lathi-charge and teargasing, during which the tribals again held two policemen as captives. One of them, Vinod, was seriously injured while in captivity. The police firing took place five hours after Vinod was made captive - around 5.30 pm. The bleeding Vinod met a slow death.

Before the massive police action in the name of saving Vinod and other captive policemen began, all the news reporters and photographers were evicted from Muthanga, which is why the exact number of the killed tribals still remain mired in deep controversy, as against the government's insistence that only one tribal was killed. However, the fact remains that a large number of tribals, including women and children, are still missing.

The Government is adamant in its stand not to order a judicial inquiry. The repeated protests by the opposition and customary walk-outs from Assembly failed to change the Government's stand. The Opposition says that the Government's unwillingness for the inquiry was due to its fear of facing the truth - which it wants to hide dearly.

There were rumours that both Janu and Geethanandan were among the dead. However, both were rounded up by the locals near Batheri on February 22 and handed over to the police. After heinous torture, both were remanded to judicial custody in Kozhikode district jail on February 23. They are charged with at least ten cases, including murder and armed rebellion against the State, instituted by the police and six by forest officials.

Two calls were given by pro-tribal bodies for State-wide hartal in protest against the firing. It evoked no response. This, despite all the political parties, from CPM to BJP, condemning the Antony government on Muthanga firing and demanding a judicial inquiry. Notably, no political party had given a hartal call nor extended support to the calls given.

After all, in the typical Kerala environ, the tribals are mere ornamental pieces for too many people, to support their progress, which is what made Arundhati Roy, who visited Janu at Kozhikode jail on February 26 and Muthanga area the next day, to say that she was ashamed of being a Malayalee.

The number of tribals killed in Muthanga police firing is most likely to remain a mystery in the future. However, even if one were to believe the government's version of "only" one tribal killed, that itself is history since this is the first time that a tribal in Kerala was felled by police bullets.

That was the First Blood at Muthanga - not of the killed policeman, but of the tribal!!

March 4, 2003