As Kerala prepares to vote in the general elections on April 23, a comment by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led to disquiet among several residents of North Kerala’s Wayanad constituency.

On April 1, in a jibe directed at Congress President Rahul Gandhi, who had announced the previous day that he would contest from Wayanad in addition to Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, Modi said: “Congress insulted Hindus...people have decided to punish it in election...hence, it is scared of fielding candidate from constituencies dominated by majority population.”

Gandhi said that he was contesting from Wayanad to show solidarity with the people of South India. He will file his nomination on Thursday with a roadshow in Wayanad. He is up against PP Suneer of the Communist Party of India nominee and Thushar Vellappally of the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Thachara Chandran, an agricultural labourer said, he was shocked when he heard Modi’s comments. “He is trying to divide people when the polls are round the corner,” said Chandran. “People know his tactics. Such drama will not work in Wayanad.”

Several voters in the constituency feared that Modi’s comments will eclipse more important issues – such as the long pending demand of land redistribution to Adivasis, suicides by farmers because of the destruction of cash crops in last year’s floods, the rehabilitation of people affected by the floods and landslides, and human rights violations by the state police.

Demographic composition

Carved out in 2009, Wayanad constituency comprises seven Assembly constituencies spread over three districts – Wayanad, Malappuram and Kozhikode. It has 13.36 lakh voters.

According to unofficial demographic data, Muslims account for 45% of the electorate in this constituency while Hindus comprise 41% and Christians 13%.

A Muslim candidate from the Congress won the parliamentary seat in 2009 and 2014. In the 2016 Assembly elections, Hindu candidates won four Assembly seats in this parliamentary constituency, Muslims won two and a Christian one.

M Radhakrishnan, who is working as a security guard in Kalpetta town, also decried Modi’s comments. He said they were ill-motivated and aimed at creating unrest in society. “He has snubbed the voters of Wayanad,” said Radhakrishnan. “Elections should be fought on issues and not on rhetoric.”

Adivasi land issue

Wayanad is home to the largest population of Adivasis in Kerala. According to the 2011 Census, Adivasis constitute 18.5% of the total population of Wayanad district. The only two seats reserved for Scheduled Tribe communities in the 140-member state Assembly –Mananthavady and Sultan Bathery – are also in Wayanad.

Adivasis also have considerable presence in Malappuram and Kozhikode districts, and traditionally occupied and cultivated large tracts of forestland in these regions.

In the 1970s, however, Adivasis started losing their land to non-Adivasis. The majority of Adivasis were soon rendered landless, driving them to starvation.

As a consequence, land redistribution to Adivasis is a major election issue here.

Adivasi leader CK Janu, the founder of the Janathipathya Rashtriya Party, said candidates should address the Adivasi land problem if they have the political will.

Despite promises to do so, successive state governments have failed to translate their words into action.

In 1975, the state government passed a law promising to give Adivasis 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 Kerala celebrated the harvest festival of Onam. Their deaths triggered the first Adivasi agitation to take back their lands. 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 of cultivable land to the landless poor.

CK Janu, the leader of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, Kerala. Photo: TA Ameerudheen

When even this did not happen, in 2003, Adivasis walked into the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary bordering Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and set up makeshift accommodation. They declared self-rule and started cultivating the land. Instead of attempting to negotiate with the agitators, the government tried to evict them using brute force.

According to an official account, two persons – an Adivasi and a policeman – were killed in police firing on February 19, 2003. But tribals dispute this version, alleging that 16 Adivasis were shot dead that day.

An independent inquiry by the People’s Judicial Enquiry Commission said that “excessive police force could have been wholly avoided and the matter could have been resolved without causing death or injury to anyone”.

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 – the 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 once again failed to act on its promises.

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 (which later changed to Janathipathya Rashtriya Party). She then joined the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Front.

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

Janu quit the National Democratic Alliance in October and is now supporting the Left Democratic Front.

Janu said thousands of Adivasi families still live without land in Kerala thanks to the inaction of successive state governments. “Gandhi should assure Adivasis in the constituency that he will try to solve the land issue as the Congress representative who won two consecutive times from Wayanad did not address the issue,” she said.

She said Modi was raking up a communal agenda now to cover up his failures. “Adivasis will realise his real intention,” she said.

Floods and farm distress

Another major election issue here is the damage caused by the floods and landslides that ravaged the state in August. Thousands of residents in Wayanad constituency lost their homes and property and several farmers lost expensive cash crops.

Wayanad is the biggest producer and exporter of coffee and pepper in India; coffee is being cultivated on 59,000 hectares while pepper is being cultivated on 25,000 hectares.

“The floods broke the back of the farmers who are yet to recover from the losses,” said district collector AR Ajayakumar.

Farmers’ organisations said distress in the agriculture sector has led to farmer suicides. “Seven farmers have committed suicides since October until now because they failed to repay bank loans,” said M Surendran, president of Harithasena, or Green Army, an independent farmers’ organisation.

The last farmer suicide was on March 29. The deceased farmer, VB Krishna Kumar, 55, had failed to repay the Rs 3.5 lakh loan he borrowed from a co-operative bank.

Surendran said more than 2,000 farmers have died by suicide in Wayanad in the last 20 years as successive governments did not do anything to aid farmers in distress.

“Political parties should address farm distress and farmers’ suicides and suggest ways to overcome this crisis,” said Surendran. “Distress in the farm sector affects thousands of families. It is futile to bring in vicious campaign issues.”

A house damaged in floods in Wayanad district. (Photo credit: PTI).

Encounter killings

Human rights activists have flagged the matter of encounter killings of suspected Maoist activists by the police as an election issue.

Kerala has seen at least three encounter killings since the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government came to power in the state in May 2016.

The latest such incident took place on March 7, when the Kerala Police’s elite commando force, Kerala Thunderbolts, killed CP Jaleel in an encounter in a resort in Wayanad. The police said Jaleel and his Maoist associates had come to the resort to extort money.

The activists, however, alleged that Jaleel was killed in a fake encounter.

In November, 2016, Kuppu Devaraj and Ajith, two senior members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), were killed in an encounter with the Kerala Police inside the Nilambur forest in Wayanad.

CP Rasheed, brother of CP Jaleel, said mainstream political parties did not want members of the public to raise the issue of encounter killings as it would expose them.

“Apart from encounter killings, the issue of custodial deaths and political killings should also become an election issue,” he said. “Kerala has witnessed 20 custodial deaths and 20 political killings after the Vijayan government came to power in May 2016.”