By PT George
Flame in the Forest
The deadly silence of the pitch dark forest on a moonless winter night was broken by some abrupt movement that disturbed the nocturnal peace. Suddenly, the orange flames and dark smokes of burning torches emerged at the edge of the forest and forced the staunch darkness to banish into the thickets. Wild wolves unaccustomed to such interference howled in displeasure and disappeared to nowhere. The brisk movements of a large crowd and the sounds of their footsteps became louder; the torch flames lit up the whole forest. The thick carpet of dry leaves creaked and crumbled like thin wafers as people trampled over them. The forest became alive with people everywhere. There were men and women of all ages, and even mothers with little babies in their arms. Soon, the crowd settled down on a mudflat they found, holding their burning torches in one hand. Shouts of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ (Long live Revolution) reverberated and shook the silent forest out of its deep slumber. Their leader stoop up in their midst, forcing the crowd’s murmuring to wane into silence as they listened to him eagerly. Several others spoke and this went on throughout the night, till the first rays of dawn penetrated the night sky.
On the night of December 31, 2012, when the world anxiously awaited the birth of a new year, a large group of Adivasis, Dalits and landless peasants, encroached into the Arippa forest in Kulathupuzha village in the Kollam (Quilon) district of Kerala. For these marginalised, landless poor, the New Year celebration began with a night march through the dense forest to begin a long-drawn nonviolent battle against the state. On that cold winter night, a new struggle was born – Arippa Bhoosamaram (Arippa Land Struggle). The protesters’ demand: land for cultivation, and their slogan: “We do not want three cents of land; we want land for cultivation.”
The 90 acre Arippa revenue forest in Kulathupuzha village was in the possession of a business baron (Late) Thangal Kunju Musaliar. The forest land was leased to him for 90 years, which he had retained for 102 years. When the land tenure expired in 2001, the Kerala Government took over the forest and declared it as surplus revenue land. Out of the 90 acres of this revenue land, around 21.54 acres was set aside for some of the beneficiaries of Chengara land struggle, who had been given pattayam (land title deed) in 2009. The remaining 68.46 acres was kept aside for institutional development, out of which, 13 acres was meant for the Dr. Ambedkar Model Residential School. The rest of the 55.46 acres was earmarked for developing an International University campus, Biological Park and Dental College. The protesters in Arippa are holding their demonstration in the 55.46 acres of land, which they claim is the surplus revenue land meant for redistribution among the landless Adivasis, Dalits, and the landless poor.
Landlessness amongst Adivasis and Dalits
In modern societies, land is considered as one of the first signs of power. The landlords are those naturally elevated to the higher ladders of society and historically belonging to the upper caste in the caste hierarchy. Whereas, those who have been pushed to live on roadsides or forced to live in colonies, are people who reside far below in the social, political and cultural hierarchies, disconnected from the caste system and lying at the foot of the social ladder.
Historically, the Adivasis and Dalits, who together comprise 10 percent of the total population of Kerala, had never been land owners. Although an integral part of Kerala’s agricultural economy for centuries, the Adivasis and Dalits never held any records of possession. Most of the land was owned by the Namboothiris (the higher caste Brahmins in Kerala), the Nairs (a warrior class belonging to the Kshatriya caste), wealthy Christian Janmis (land owners) and few rich Mappilas (Muslims of Kerala). The Dalits and Adivasis cultivated the land for land owners or worked as agricultural labourers. Besides, due to a lack of modern education among the Adivasis and Dalits, these landless people were all the more forced to be dependent upon land for sheer survival.
The problem of landlessness among the Dalits and Adivasis in Kerala has been a recurring issue for the successive governments in power. Political parties have often used the landlessness as a major agenda to attack their political opponents, or used it as a weapon to target the ruling party. The land reforms initiated in the 50s through various land distribution schemes – intended to reduce landlessness in Kerala – did not succeed well. The acquisition of surplus land above the land ceiling limit was a tough task for the various governments that came to power in Kerala. Besides, the redistribution process did not yield much result as there were several hindrances:
1. The non-inclusion of plantations from the purview of land reforms facilitated the big Janmis (Landlords) to retain their huge landholdings. Thus, there was not much surplus land available, as the landlords quickly redistributed their land within their family members to avoid the government taking over their excess land.
2. The Adivasis and Dalits were severely excluded from the government land redistribution schemes or they were pushed into colonies, where large clusters of tiny huts were built to house the landless, with not even enough space to move about. The ‘colony’ life style of the Adivasis and Dalits further removed them from land.
3. The collective notions of ownership over natural resources – a norm widely practiced by the indigenous communities in India, became a cup of poison for them. The lack of proper records showing ownership rights made it impossible for them to prove customary ownership rights over land.
4. The state government has been reluctant to fully implement the existing legislations, including the Forest Rights Act, which empowers the state to distribute land to the Adivasis and Dalits. If the existing legislations are used properly, then the state can distribute up to 5 acres of land to the landless Adivasis. The demand for this can be easily met if the government takes initiatives to acquire excess land from big plantations such as the Harrison Malayalam Ltd.
Zero Landless Programme
The Government of Kerala has embarked on an ambitious project by introducing the Mission Mode Project to make Kerala a Zero Landless State by 2015. The Zero Landless Kerala Programme began on 30 September, 2013. Through this project, the government intends to transform Kerala into a zero landless zone by giving pattayams (secure land titles) to the landless to help them secure a safe dwelling place. According to Sreeraman Koyyon, the President of the Adivasi Dalit Munnetta Samiti (ADMS) and leader of the Arippa land struggle, “The zero-landless scheme of the State government is a hollow one.” He goes on to say, “We cannot any longer live in 3 cents of land in a colony. The colony life has completely destroyed the culture and social life of the Adivasis.”
The protesters in Arippa argue that they do not want to confine their life to a mere 3 cents plot of land, instead, they want land for agriculture. Their claim is that the setting aside of the 55.46 acres of surplus revenue land in Arippa forest for international projects by the former LDF (Left Democratic Front) government is actually meant for clandestine, money swindling land deals. Instead, this surplus revenue land, along with other such lands in many plantations and forests lying across Kerala, should have been distributed to the landless Adivasis and Dalits. It is on this background that on the night of December 31, 2012 several Adivasi, Dalit and landless poor families from various parts of Kerala encroached into Arippa forest and began their protest by building shanties. Their slogan: “We do not want 3 cents of land; all we want is land for cultivation.” Among the protesters, there were also people who had taken part in the historic Chengara Land struggle and were given pattayams, but found themselves cheated, when they realised that the land given to them was either not enough for cultivation or was not at all suitable for habitation.
The Arippa Bhoosamaram (Land struggle) is led by Sreeraman Koyyon, who is also the president of Adivasi Dalit Munnetta Samiti (ADMS), under whose banner the ongoing land struggle is being undertaken. Koyyon is of the opinion that the Arippa land struggle is actually a continuation of the Chengara struggle. He stated that the renewed struggle in Arippa is to force the government to open its eyes to the plight of a marginalised section of society which has been enslaved for centuries in some form or other.
The charged up atmosphere of Arippa forest is now filled with shouts of, “We are fed up with 3 cents of land; we want land for cultivation” and “Abandon 3 cents plots and go back to agriculture.” Men, women and children are all engaged in the struggle; shouting slogans and raising their voices against the apathy of the state in looking after the conditions of the Adivasis. Frustration, anger, tears and misery are all visible on the faces of the protesters.
The Government’s Double Games
For several months, the ruling UDF (United Democratic Front) led by the Congress did not give any support to the struggle. Even the local MLA from Kulathupuzha did not bother to pay a visit to the protest site or enquire about the state of affairs at the protest venue – a reflection of the government’s neglect towards the landless poor. The political parties played double games according to the situation that suited them. The UDF, which was in the opposition during the Chengara land struggle, was a great supporter of the movement. It severely criticized the ruling party – the LDF (Left Democratic Front) – for its inability to solve the land issue. Now, the UDF government, which is in power in Kerala, feigns ignorance about the Arippa land struggle. Instead of supporting the protesters, it instigates the local people by trumpeting the huge loss of opportunities for foreign investments that the protesters have caused.
Boycott by Villagers
The situation in the forest changed, as strangers began infiltrating the protest site. It is reported that the trouble for the protesters began when outsiders penetrated the forest and the protest site and indulged in alcoholism and misbehaved with Adivasi women. Agitated over this, the protestors got hold of one such intruder and kept him in their custody. This led to altercations, scuffles, and some violent actions between the protesters and the villagers. Adivasi women and children were molested, abused, threatened and even beaten up. The agitated villagers retaliated by declaring a blockade and social boycott. They blocked all roads to the protest site, and prevented the protesters from moving out of the forest or allowed anyone else to enter the forest. This completely stopped the arrival of essential food and other items needed for the protesters. The villagers also prevented the men and women from doing any work in the nearby villagers. They also alerted the other villagers not to employ any of the protesters for any casual work.
What followed was a season of hunger, starvation and illness among the protesters. Men could not go to work. Food became scarce. The arrival of essential items like rice, sugar, cooking oil and kerosene completely stopped. The protesters began to starve and fall ill. NGOs and other supporters of the movement who came to lend their solidarity, were prevented and chased away by the local people or scared off, so as to avoid any help or support coming into the protest site. Several children fell ill, while old people became the victims of acute malnutrition due to long periods of starvation and hunger. As such, police intervention became necessary to take the people who were severely ill to the hospital for emergency treatment.
The extremely volatile situation at the protest site saw some improvement only after the intervention of the District Collector of Kollam and several rounds of meetings with political party leaders and the locals.
Counter Protest by Political Parties
On the very next day, when the protesters led by the ADMS encroached into Arippa forest and began protests by building shanties, CPI (M) (Communist Party of India, Marxist) goons encroached into another vacant section of the forest, hoisted their party flag, and started their own protest. They, too, began to make shanties and huts covered with plastic sheets. Ever since that day, the political party goons have been continuing their protests with the intention of creating confusion and rifts among the Dalits and Adivasis and are determined to suppress the voices of the marginalised communities.
After 100 Days of Protests
Three and a half months into the protests, the ground situation in Arippa changed drastically. The protesters were tormented by an array of issues and underwent tremendous sufferings. Food, water, medicines, shelter and a host of other issues had to be confronted. Coupled with these, the District Collector in Kollam sent them a notice to vacate the forest and move out in a week’s time. The Collector’s notice further strengthened the morale of the protesters. Instead of relenting to the notice, the protesters became more adamant in their demands. The situation at the protest site became a charged one. Men and women were ready to give up their lives. Many individuals were seen climbing trees, ready to jump into a noose and commit suicide in case of any threat from the district administration or the police. Women were also ready to give up their lives by immolating themselves. Plastic containers topped up with kerosene were always kept ready to be used if the need arose. Such was the frustration among the protesters that they were ready to die and give up their lives, but would not relent to moving out of the forest or to end their protests.
Raman Koyyon says, “We have nowhere to go now. We are fed up with the colony life in 3 cents of land. For decades we have been confined to 3 cents of land which has in fact destroyed the social and cultural life of the Adivasis. The educational backwardness is also another issue that the Adivasis face now.” He continues to stress that “the Zero Landless Kerala is a sinister project of the Kerala Government to secretly transfer the Adivasis and Dalits into colonies by promising them 3 cents of land. Such ominous plans to create thousands of colonies to enslave a particular section of people should be objected to and stopped.”
During the prolonged protests, the protesters were regularly affected by several issues, such as:
Problems with the drinking water
In the absence of good drinking water facilities, the protesters in Arippa were forced to collect water from a nearby shallow pond. The heavily polluted pond water took its toll on children, old people, and several women. Skin infections, malaria, typhoid and dengue spread among the protesters.
Health and sanitation issues
There were no proper toilets and bathrooms for women and children. Most people used the forest for these. The protesters requested financial support for making proper toilets and bathrooms, so that they would not be prey to severe illnesses during the monsoon season. Malaria, dengue and typhoid became rampant among the protesters.
Accusations by political party leaders
Tremendous amounts of accusations were levelled against the Arippa protesters. All types of wild rumours, such as - the Adivasis would never look after the land and would only destroy it, rubber plantations would be completely destroyed by improper tapping and cutting of trees and so on, were vigorously publicized.
During the Chengara land struggle, when the LDF government was in power, the then Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan had accused the protesters of illegally tapping rubber and selling it to fund the protests. The Arippa protesters have not resorted to such measures so far. Instead, the land that was lying fallow for decades has now become a fertile ground; full of green paddy fields and vegetable gardens where organic farming is practiced.
Njattuvela (The Times of the Sun) in Arippa
Every year, the monsoon period (21 June to 4 July) is intense cultivation season in Kerala. The abundant monsoon rain helps the farmers to prepare their land for paddy cultivation, pepper planting, and various other agricultural activities. Almost 200 days after the protests began; the monsoon rains brought cheer to the protesters in Arippa. Amidst shouts of joy and folk songs, the Arippa forest came alive after centuries of lying fallow. The protesters began cultivating the forest land, and preparing it for paddy cultivation. The hard work of the protesters transformed the fallow forest lands into beautiful agricultural plots, neatly surrounded with mud walls to protect the soil and to keep the rain water in the field.
Njattuvela is the time for transplantation of rice seedlings. In the absence of tillers or bullocks to plough the fields, men and women used traditional simple tools like Thoomba (hoe with a long wooden handle) and pick axes to flatten the barren soil and to level the field, making it ready for rice seedling transplantation. The Arippa protesters gave a fitting reply to Kerala’s abominably low farming output and dwindling agricultural scenario. When the villagers nearby realised that the protesters were really into farming and the protests were not a mere intention to get land, their animosity towards the Arippa protesters dwindled. Now, they view the protesters as people who are serious about farming and cultivation. Besides, the organic vegetables and paddy cultivated by the protesters in Arippa became high in demand. The animosity that barred the villagers and the protesters was put to an end, and a friendly relationship was established between the two.
Anniversary of the Arippa Struggle
A year after the landless Adivasis and Dalits started a protest movement in Arippa, the protesters, under the banner of ADMS, decided to mark the first anniversary of their protest with an array of activities. An air of celebration filled the forest of Arippa. This was definitely an occasion to cheer, as the protesters had undergone innumerable troubles - hunger, starvation, illnesses, violent repression by the villagers and even a total blockade. Amidst the continuing apathy and inaction of the state government in settling the demands of the protesters, the committee decided to intensify the stir.
Protest in New Delhi
After 400 days of relentless struggle in the dense forest of Arippa, the representatives of the 1,300 Adivasis, Dalits and landless families decided to take their protest to the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. The team of representatives headed by Sreeraman Koyyon took out a march to the Indian Parliament on February 7, 2014 to reiterate their demand of land for cultivation. The protesters intended to call the attention of the Union Government to the indifference of the Government of Kerala in solving the landlessness issue of the Adivasis and Dalits in Kerala. They submitted memorandums at the offices of the Prime Minister and the Union Minister for Rural Development, and sought their intervention to resolve the agitation at the earliest. The protesters reiterated their demand for the allocation of 10 cents of land each for the construction of houses and one hectare of land each for cultivation.
Discussions with the Chief Minister
A discussion with the representatives of the Adivasis and the Dalits protesting in Arippa forest was called by the Chief Minister of Kerala, which ended without reaching any final decisions. The suggestion by the Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, to give 3 cents of land to each protester was summarily rejected by the representatives. During the meeting, the representatives stressed for one acre of land for cultivation and 15 cents of land for housing for each of the protesting families. The CM pointed out that as per the Forest Rights Act only the landless Adivasis are entitled to land for cultivation. The government is going ahead with a plan to rehabilitate the rest of the protesters by giving 3 cents of land for each family.
For centuries, the Adivasis lived in harmony with Mother Earth, where forest, rivers, streams, animals, birds and all other living beings were a part of their home. Living in extreme closeness with nature, the soil was their laboratory where they created various formulae for sustaining their life. Thus, centuries old experiments on farming, cultivation, food gathering and all other activities created a knowledge system which was closely interlinked with their culture, ethos and religion. The soil and the Adivasis were like a mother and child connected with an umbilical cord in the womb of nature. Alienating them from nature is like disconnecting the mother from the child; fatal for both. Over centuries, this extreme closeness with nature was hampered, when land was gradually taken away from the people through various socio-political and religious transformations. Thus, the Adivasis became orphaned children cut away from their mother and family, thrown into the city of modernity and abandoned on the streets of development.
The problems of landlessness of the Adivasis and Dalits can only be solved through redistribution of land and by restoring their connection with nature. Their upliftment can only happen through land, because land is the chief link that connects them to Mother Earth. Any attempt to reverse the process and to protect the social, economic, cultural, religious and spiritual life of the Adivasis, Dalits, and the landless poor can only happen if the government comes up with proper rehabilitation plans that would strengthen their dignity and pride.
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