On Monday, Adivasis in Kerala observed the 15th anniversary of what is considered the worst police action against the community in the state’s history. On February 19, 2003, the police evicted hundreds of Adivasis who had occupied the Muthanga forest in Wayanad district to protest the delay in the government’s distribution of cultivable land that it had promised to all landless Adivasis in the state. In the clash that followed, an Adivasi protestor, Jogi, had died and hundreds of community members were injured. A policeman, Vinod, also died. The Adivasis, however, maintain that 16 of their community members were shot dead that day.

Fifteen years later, Adivasi leaders in Kerala say the lives of their people have not changed. “Thousands of Adivasi families still live without land in Kerala thanks to the inaction of successive state governments,” said CK Janu, who had spearheaded the 2003 agitation along with K Geethanandan under the banner of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha.

How it all began

Adivasis constitute only 1.1%, or 3.6 lakh, of Kerala’s population. They traditionally occupied and cultivated large tracts of forestland in Wayanad, Palakkad, Idukki, Pathanamthitta, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts. But in the 1970s, they started losing these lands to non-Adivasis. The majority of Adivasis were soon rendered landless. Losing their lands also drove them to starvation.

In 1975, the state government passed a law promising to give them back their lands. But in the following years, both the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front regimes failed to implement this law.

In 2001, 30 Adivasis starved to death as the rest of the state celebrated the harvest festival of Onam. Their deaths triggered the first Adivasi agitation to take back their lands, according to Janu. Led by the Adivasi Dalit Action Council – which later became the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha – thousands of community members flocked to state capital Thiruvananthapuram and set up huts in front of the chief minister’s office. They remained there for 48 days, leaving only after receiving an assurance from the government that it would distribute between one acre and five acres each of cultivable land to the landless poor.

But the government did not deliver on its promise in the next two years and in February of 2003, several hundred 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 state responded with force and sent the police to evict them.

Many of the agitators were arrested. Both Janu and Geethanandan claimed they were tortured in police custody. “We courted arrest on February 19,” Janu recounted. “Police tortured me after dragging me into the van. They beat me for more than six hours inside the vehicle before reaching the police station. I lost [my] memory in the torture.”

Even after the Muthanga incident, the government continued to ignore the Adivasi community’s repeated demands for land rights. This prompted the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha to launch another protest in 2014 – Nilpu Samaram, or the standing protest. They demanded a rehabilitation package for families involved in the Muthanga agitation, compensation for children and for those who were arrested, and the handover of 19,600 acres of forestland allotted by the Central government. They called off the agitation 162 days later after the state government agreed to most of their demands. But the state yet again failed to keep its promise.

In 2016, ahead of Assembly elections in Kerala, the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha split with Janu floating her own political outfit, the Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha, and joining the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Front. She claimed at that time though that she was still president of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha. Geethanandan headed the other faction of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha.

During the Muthanga agitation, the BJP had called Janu an anti-national and accused her of carrying out religious conversions among the Adivasis.

The police action against Advasis in Muthanga forest in 2003.

The fight continues

According to Janu, the Muthanga incident was “a historic agitation” that gave Adivasis in Kerala the courage to fight for their rights. “It exposed the anti-Adivasi stands of all major political parties,” she said. “We were tortured by the police but it gave us a new direction.”

She said the government’s argument that the delay in distribution of land was because of a scarcity of land was also shown to be untrue. “The government needed less than three lakh acres of land to provide land to all landless Adivasis in the state,” she pointed out. “But it had already identified 11 lakh acres of land easily available for distribution.”

Geethanandan said a positive impact of the agitation was that the government started including the community in its plan process. “The government system began to accommodate them in their scheme of things, and I think that is the biggest achievement of the agitation,” he said.

On the flip side, Janu said that while people in some areas of Wayanad had received land rights after the Muthanga incident, they were not among those who had participated in the agitation. “Those who took part in the Muthanga agitation did not get land at that time,” she recalled, adding that it was only in 2017 that 283 Muthanga agitators received land rights.

“Many more families are still denied their legitimate land,” she said. “We will continue our agitation until all Adivasis in the state get cultivable land.”

Trials still pending

In the 15 years since the Muthanga agitation, many Adivasis in Kerala continue to wait – not just for their land but also for their trials to begin.

“As many as 180 Adivasis have been charged for the death of police official Vinod,” said Geethanandan. “But the trial has not begun till now.”

On the other hand, the police are yet to investigate the death of Adivasi protestor Jogi, he added. “We want the police to conduct a thorough probe into Jogi’s death and punish the guilty police officers,” Geethanandan said.