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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
That was the First Blood
at Muthanga - not of the killed policeman, but of the tribal!!
March 4, 2003