The death of a mentally ill Adivasi man shortly after he was brutally assaulted by a mob in Kerala’s Palakkad district on Thursday led to an outpouring of anger on Friday. While some people said on social media that they were ashamed to be Malayali, state Finance Minister Thomas Isaac wrote an emotional post on Facebook in which he questioned whether Kerala deserved its tag as a progressive state.

Activists said that death of A Madhu, who belonged to the Kurumba tribe and lived in Attappady in the forests of the Western Ghats, is evidence of the discrimination that Advasis still face in the state.

Madhu was attacked by a crowd that accused him of stealing rice from a grocery shop. The mob seems to have gone into the forest to look for Madhu. A video, believed to have been shot by his attackers, showed him being questioned by the mob. In some photographs, his arms are seen tied with a lungi.

As they assaulted him with sticks, his assailants took selfies that they posted on social media sites. They then handed him over to the police. Madhu died in the police jeep that was taking him to hospital.

The police said that the cause of Madhu’s death would be ascertained after an autopsy.

‘Arrest culprits’

Madhu’s mother, Malli, said over the phone that her son had a history of mental illness. “They beat a frail person to death,” she said. “It is a merciless act. I won’t forgive them.”

Madhu was the oldest of Malli’s three children. Her husband committed suicide 12 years ago. Malli said her son had been mentally ill for the last 10 years. “He rarely visited our home,” she said. “He lived in caves inside the forest. He used to come out of the forest when he was hungry.”

She added: “I want the police to arrest all those who killed my son.”

Adivasis protest in front of the Community Health Centre in Agali town on Friday. (Photo credit: Special Arrangement).

Attappady, once known as the land of the Adivasis, is the only Integrated Tribal Development Project block in Kerala. This means that it receives special funds aimed at ensuring the socio-economic development of residents belonging to the Scheduled Tribes. The scheme is also supposed to protect Advasis against exploitation.

Asha, a member of the Pudur gram panchayat, one of three gram panchayats in Attappady, said that Madhu was being treated for mental illness for some time at the Government Medical College in Thrissur, about 120 km away. “But he ran away from the hospital and began to live in the caves inside the forest,” she said.

‘A social issue’

Social activist Rajendra Prasad, president of Thampu, a non-governmental organisation that works with Adivasis in Attappady, said Madhu’s death should be considered as part of a broader social problem.

He said several Adivasis in Attappady had became mentally ill after they lost land and became jobless. “Madhu’s Kurumba tribe has close to 4,000 members and starvation is a big issue among them,” he said. “Most of them live inside the forest, and come to the plains once in a week to buy food.”

Prasad said the top-down developmental approach followed by the government has failed in Attappady. “The government should not impose its development agenda here,” he said. “The proposals should come from the local tribal hamlet development committees.”

Adivasis once constituted 90% of Attappady’s population (1951 census), but their numbers started declining with the arrival of settlers from across Kerala and Tamil Nadu. According to the 2011 census, Adivasis comprise just 34% of the population in the area now. In absolute numbers, 30,658 Adivasis live in the three gram panchayats in the region.

Adivasis in Attappady mainly belong to three tribes – the Irulas, Kurumbas and Mudugas – each with their own distinctive lifestyle, culture and food habits. The Kurumbas are found closer to the forests while the others occupy the plains. Each community lives in colonies of 60 to 100 families known as oorus or hamlets. At present, Attappady has 192 Adivasi hamlets.

Adivasis staged a demonstration in front of the Community Health Centre in Agali town, demanding the arrest of those accused of killing Madhu. (Photo credit: Special Arrangement).

‘Easy for settlers’

Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha leader Geethanandan said that Advasis in Attappady were vulnerable to attacks. “Settlers are powerful and they have the support of the powers-that-be,” he said.

But he pointed to a welcome change in the attitude of Adivasis in the wake of Madhu’s death. Faced with a spate of attacks in Attappady a decade ago, the communities had not reacted. But on Friday, several Adivasi organisations staged demonstrations in front of the Community Health Centre in Agali to demand the arrests of the men accused of killing Madhu. This, said Geethanandan, was unprecedented. The protesters allowed Madhu’s body to be taken for a postmortem only after police officials assured them that the culprits would be arrested soon.

“It is a positive development,” said Geethanandan. “I hope Adivasis will continue the fight.”

Official reactions

Minister for Scheduled Castes and Tribes AK Balan announced a magisterial inquiry into Madhu’s death. He is expected to visit the area on Saturday.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan described Madhu’s death as a blot on Kerala’s progressive society.

Finance Minister Isaac wrote an emotional Facebook post. It said:

“The innocence in Madhu’s eyes and the images of merciless mob that killed him would haunt Kerala for a long time. Let’s stop talking about the high social and political consciousness of the state.”