Land Struggles

Chalo Thiruvananthapuram: A Dalit-Muslim-Bahujan mass movement is in the works in Kerala

Inspired by last year's Una event, a march starting April 1 will highlight the struggles of the landless poor.

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.”

Land struggles

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.

Dalit-Muslim-Bahujan unity?

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.”

Janu’s stand

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.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.