Around 50 social organisations in Kerala are preparing the ground for an event in April that is expected to be the largest Dalit-Muslim-Bahujan agitation the state has ever seen. Chalo Thiruvananthapuram, as it is called, will highlight the landlessness of Dalits, Adivasis and other Bahujan (majority) communities and demand an end to the practice of confining them to ghettos. The broader aim of the movement is to cobble up a coalition that could emerge as a viable political alternative.
The event is modelled on the Chalo Una movement in Gujarat in July and the Chalo Udupi in Karnataka in October. In Gujarat, thousands of Dalits had marched to protest the assault by cow protection vigilantes on four community members for skinning a dead cow. In Karnataka, Dalits and other backward groups marched with banners that said, “Food of our choice, land is our right.”
The Kerala march will kick off from the northern district of Kasargod on April 1 and culminate in state capital Thiruvananthapuram on May 31. It is being organised under the aegis of the Bhoo Adhikara Samrakshana Samithi, a collective of outfits representing marginalised communities.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the government in Kerala, will not participate in the event, although it had supported the Chalo Una march.
On January 29, Jignesh Mewani, the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladhai Samiti leader who spearheaded the mass movement in Gujarat, announced the Chalo Thiruvananthapuram stir in Kerala’s Chengara village – the site of a 2007 land agitation in which hundreds of landless poor had encroached on a rubber estate. He also used the occasion to fire the first salvo at the ruling party and the Kerala Model of Development. “CPI(M) stood with us in the Una agitation but it will be exposed in the Kerala agitation,” he said. “The time has come to expose the Kerala model of development. We have to bring all like-minded people, including the Leftists, together to achieve our aim.”
Kerala model of development
Kerala has always prided itself on its development model, which helped it achieve near-total literacy (94% literacy against a national average of 74%), higher life expectancy, and land reforms comparable to many developed countries.
However, the model has been criticised for its seeming exclusion of Dalits, Adivasis and fisherfolk.
Dr Sanal Mohan, a visiting scholar at the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that “the exclusion of Dalits, who constitute 9.8% of the state’s total population; Adivasis, who constitute 1.1%; and fisher people from the success story of Kerala’s development has gone relatively unacknowledged”.
Sunny M Kapikkad, chairman of the Bhoo Adhikara Samrakshana Samithi, told Scroll.in that little has been written about the other side of the Kerala model. “Land reform didn’t bring about the desired industrial growth,” he said. “It didn’t ensure social justice. Health sector is under control of a mafia. That is how the Kerala model lost its relevance.”
The Left parties, however, beg to differ. “One should not forget that the Kerala model improved life indices in the state,” said KT Kunhikkannan, a member of the ruling party and director of the party-run Keluettan Centre for Study and Research, which teaches a course on Marxism. But he did admit, “It has some shortcomings as it was developed in bourgeois political environment.”
Chalo Thiruvananthapuram aims to carry forward the legacy of previous land agitations in Kerala.
In 2001, the Adivasi Dalit Action Council, which later became the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, had launched a historic agitation to put the spotlight on the land and livelihood issues of the community. The group set up camps in front of the state secretariat, the chief minister’s office and the district headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram. The agitation ended 48 days later after an assurance from the government that it would distribute cultivable land to all the landless poor in each district.
The government’s failure to keep this promise led to another stir in 2003, when Adivasis walked into the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary bordering Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and set up camp there. They declared self-rule and started cultivating the land. Instead of negotiating with them, the government used brute force to evict them. According to an official account, a protestor and a policeman were killed in police firing on February 19 that year.
Over the years, governments have ignored the Adivasi community’s repeated demands for land. In 2014, this prompted the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha to launch another novel protest – Nilpu Samaram, or the standing protest – demanding a rehabilitation package for families involved in the Muthanga agitation, compensation for children and for those arrested, and the handover of 19,600 acres of forest land allotted by the Central government. The Sabha called off the agitation 162 days later after the government agreed to most of its demands.
In 2016, ahead of Assembly elections in Kerala, the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha split with its leader CK Janu forming a political outfit, the Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha, and joining the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Front. Janu, however, claims she remains the president of the Sabha.
Another well-known land stir in the state was the occupation of the rubber plantation in Chengara in Pathanathitta district in 2007. Led by Dalit activist Laha Gopalan, landless people from all over the state had temporarily laid siege to the estate.
According to Jignesh Mewani, the problems surrounding land distribution in Kerala can be easily solved if the government implements the agreements signed with Adivasi-Dalit organisations. “The government should keep its word,” he said.
With the Chalo Thiruvananthapuram movement expected to lead to the formation of a grand Dalit-Muslim-Bahujan alliance, political parties in the state are keenly watching developments. A top leader of the Indian Union Muslim League, the largest Muslim political outfit in the state, told Scroll.in that his party has already held discussions with the Bhoo Adhikara Samrakshana Samithi.
“IUML wants to see a Dalit-minority consolidation in the state,” said party vice-president Kutty Ahammed Kutty, who was part of the talks. “We will offer all support to make Chalo Thiruvananthapuram a big success.”
The Samithi’s Sunny M Kapikkad said that Muslims are facing challenges. “We believe protection of Muslims is the responsibility of all those who fight for equality,” he said. “The Dalit-Muslim-Bahujan unity will be based on the concept of equal justice.”
But the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Kunhikkannan said it was impossible to fight fundamentalism without the support of secular outfits. “We believe identity politics will not be enough to fight the Hindutva agenda,” he said. “Only anti-caste and secular forces can fight it. And that is why we find it difficult to unite with Chalo Thiruvananthapuram movement.”
Conspicuously absent from the preparations for the big event is CK Janu, the Adivasi leader from Wayanad district. Till last year, no Adivasi agitation in Kerala would have been complete without her presence.
“No one has contacted me so far to ask for my cooperation with the movement,” Janu told Scroll.in.
Kapikkad said there was no scope of a dialogue with Janu now that she is part of the National Democratic Alliance in the state. But he added, “We believe that she will not oppose the Adivasi-Dalit mobilisation.”
Janu said she would continue with her own land struggle. “I don’t want to comment on Chalo Thiruvananthapuram movement,” she held. “It is good to know that they are following the path shown by AGMS [Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha]. I will continue my fight even if I am alone.”