Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari’s meeting on Friday with a group of citizens from Kerala who are protesting land acquisition for highway expansion has opened a new front in the decades-old battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which rules the southern state.

At the meeting in Delhi, Gadkari assured the delegation from Keezhattoor and Thuruthy villages in Kannur district – a stronghold of the Left party – that the Central government would examine the possibility of an alternate route and freeze the land acquisition process till a study was done. Several senior BJP leaders from Kerala were also part of the delegation.

This development comes as a blow to the state government, which has failed to quell the agitation that started in Keezhattoor in August 2016. It has pleaded helplessness, saying the road alignments have been fixed by the National Highway Authority of India and the state’s role is limited to facilitating the land acquisition.

Terming Gadkari’s meeting with the protestors an “RSS game plan”, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said, “The Centre did not take [the] state government into confidence. It is a wrong move.”

Communist Party of India (Marxist) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan called the meeting a grave violation of accepted norms in Centre-state relations. “The state government was not invited to this crucial discussion,” he said. “This is being done purposely by the Centre.”

The BJP’s state unit, on its part, indicated that it will not shy away from using the party’s clout at the Centre to further its ambitions in the state. The BJP’s Kannur district secretary, P Sathyaprakash, who was part of the group that met Gadkari, said, “We are in power in the Centre and we will resort to such tactics to widen our base. I don’t find anything wrong in it.”

The relationship between the Left party and the BJP – as well as its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – in Kerala is marked by political violence that goes back several decades. Since Vijayan led his party back to power in May 2016, the parties have clashed violently and frequently over the murders of at least 11 political workers from both sides in Kannur. The district witnessed 69 political killings between 2000 and 2016.

The agitation

The protests in Keezhattoor – where villagers claim the highway project will destroy 250 acres of paddy fields, leave many homeless and jobless, destroy wetlands and lower the water table – have put the Left party in an awkward position. Its leaders were at the forefront of the agitation when it was launched, but they were forced to back off when the state leadership admonished them for being anti-development.

This prompted the villagers to form a collective called Vayalkkilikal, or birds of the paddy field, in September 2017 to take their fight forward. The agitation has picked up since then with the group organising protests and hunger strikes. A few of its members threatened to immolate themselves in March when officials of the National Highway Authority of India arrived to conduct a land survey.

Vayalkkilikal members had threatened to immolate themselves in Keezhattoor in March. (Photo by special arrangement)

Lying 10 km south of Keezhattoor is Thuruthy, where a Dalit colony has opposed the highway project, claiming it will displace 150 families. Their protest completed 100 days on Monday.

Five representatives from Keezhattoor and two from Thuruthy were part of the group that met Gadkari on Friday. It was led by Union Minister of State Alphonse Kannanathanam, who is from Kerala.

‘Not bothered about political parties’

The discussions were preceded by the Ministry of Environment and Forest publishing a report in the last week of July that said the proposed road across a narrow strip of wetland would divide the fields into fragments, making them unproductive. It suggested the concerns of farmers in the area be viewed in light of the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008. Soon after, the Vayalkkilikal sent a memorandum to Gadkari.

The protestors expressed satisfaction with the outcome of their meeting with the minister. “Alphonse Kannanthanam briefed our demands with Gadkari, who assured us that a study would be conducted by the technical committee about alternate alignment proposals,” said Suresh Keezhattoor, leader of the Vayalkkilikal. “But no time frame has been set up to conduct the study. We hope it will be done soon.”

Nishil Kumar, convenor of the Thuruthy agitation, said, “No one heard our pleas for the examination of alternate alignments [when we were] protesting for 100 days. We hope the proposed study will solve the displacement threat.”

Both representatives said their fellow villagers were only concerned about fighting for their right to live, and not about the rivalry between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the BJP.

Conceding that the “BJP might have used our agitation for political gains”, Suresh said, “Our stand is clear. We are not associating with any political party. But we will not waste [any] opportunity to present our grievances with the governments.”

He added, “We went to Thiruvananthapuram when Public Works Minister G Sudhakaran called us for a discussion in September 2017. We held discussions with CPI(M) Kannur district secretary P Jayarajan a few months ago. We are not bothered about political parties.”

Kumar said the residents of Thuruthy had sought the support of all political parties before launching their agitation. “But CPI(M) didn’t support us,” he added. “We wish to engage with all political parties until out demands are met.”

In April, BJP leader Ranjit Sinha, who had led the party's protest during the Nandigram agitation in West Bengal, flagged off a protest march in Keezhattoor. (Credit: @BJP4Keralam / Twitter)

BJP’s ambitions

This is not the first time the BJP has taken up the cause of the protesting villagers in Keezhattoor.

It had offered its support to the agitation days before BJP president Amit Shah launched his state-wide roadshow, the Jan Raksha Yatra, in Kannur on October 3. The roadshow signalled the party’s ambition to make inroads into the Left bastion. Many had expected Shah to visit the protest site. But the state government had averted this by inviting the protestors for discussions in Thiruvananthapuram.

The Vayalkkilikal members were on a hunger strike at the time. After the government promised to defer the land acquisition, the group had ended their 18-day-old hunger strike on September 28, days before Shah’s rally.

The BJP has also compared the Keezhattoor stir to the 2007 Nandigram agitation, when farmers in the West Bengal town had fought a bitter battle against the Left government’s plan to acquire their land for a special economic zone. Fourteen farmers were killed in the violence that ensued. The BJP has said that Nandigram sounded the death knell for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Bengal and the Keezhattoor stir will do the same to the party in Kerala.

In April, the BJP brought Ranjit Sinha, who had led the party’s protest in Nandigram, to Keezhattoor. Sinha sprinkled soil he had brought from Nandigram in the paddy fields of Keezhattoor.

As P Sathyaprakash, the BJP leader from Kannur, put it, “We are not against development. But we cannot ignore people’s protests.”