The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth?

Chengara Land Struggle

Kerala’s much-vaunted land reforms continue to cheat its landless poor. An agitation in Pathanamthitta’s Chengara is determined to fight for the poor’s share


DOUBLE STANDARDS of the ruling CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala are steadily surfacing. The government recently rubbished a proposal by the state industry secretary, which demanded the scrapping of radical land reforms undertaken by the first EMS Namboodiripad government. The demand, which indicates the growing clout of land mafias and vested interests on administrative circles, was aimed at `expediting industrial growth.' However, the same LDF is now turning a blind eye to the massive land struggle in Chengara in Pathanamthitta district of the state involving a large number of dalit families. On the contarary, the LDF is also engaged in a fund collection drive to extend help to victims of the police firing on landless farmers in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh.

The Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress is vying with the BJP to gain political ground in the name of farmers in Nandigram who have been at the receiving end of the CPM’s wrath. The local media has also been vocal about the need of remaining vigilant against land mafias and their growing clout over political leadership and the bureaucracy. However, political parties and the mainstream media have chosen to maintain an eerie silence over a land struggle in which as many as 29,000 landless Dalits, Adivasis and other weaker segments of the society are on a warpath against the government.

While the Opposition has failed to issue even a press statement supporting the struggle, the vernacular media fears a loss of revenue at the hands of the estate major Harrison Malayalam Limited (HML), which claims the rights on the land now occupied by Dalits and Adivasis in Chengara. Nevertheless, the movement is gaining public support by each passing day and social workers from across the country, including Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar, have started to pour in into the interiors of Chengara to express their solidarity. The agitation, spearheaded by noted Dalit leaders Laha Gopalan and VT Saraswathy, actually began on August 4 when Dalits and other landless poor occupied about 2,000 acres of land that was until then under the possession of Harrison Malayalam.

Since then, they have erected tents of plastic sheets in the estate land after resisting the use of force by the estate management and its workers. According to Harrison Malayalam, Chengannur Mundankavu Vanjipuzha Matom, a local landlord, had leased the occupied land to them for 99 years. However, the company, an RP Goenka firm, failed to produce any lease deed to substantiate its claim. The government says there was no lease deed and neither the landlord nor Harrison Malayalam have any right over the land at present. But it refuses to take any action fearing a backlash by the industrial group. Even if the claims of the company on the lease holds true, the lease period stands completed now and as per the reforms initiated by previous Left governments, the land must be redistributed among the landless peasants.

Making things more complex, the landlords have now issued an eviction notice to Harrisson Plantation. In reply, HMC now claims that the ownership of rubber trees in the estate still remains with the company even if the ownership of the land is disputable. For Gopalan, it is a do or die battle. “It must be the duty of the Left government to distribute the land among the landless Dalits. These people are genuine landless poor from different parts of the state and, if needed, the government can verify their claims. Any move to evict us from the land would be countered by mass suicides. There is no going back from this struggle,’’ he says. But the going seems tough for Gopalan and his fellow protestors. “I am keeping five litres of kerosene in my hut. I would burn myself the moment authorities start eviction. There is no question of retreat. We will get the land,’’ said Saraswathy.

There is heavy police presence outside the area, and policemen often willfully discourage the movement of the agitators, depriving them of the opportunity to find work. The restriction has now started affecting the availability of even food and medicine.

“The government is out to kill the movement by remaining silent on their genuine demands and allowing police atrocities. They will have to pay a heavy price for the denial of basic needs to these Dalit families,’’ warns Sunny Kapikkad, a Dalit activist. “There are occasions when the agitators have had to survive by eating grass. There are possibilities of starvation deaths in the near future if the situation continues to be the same,’’ says Dilip Raj of the support group formed by civil society movements.

“It must be the duty of the Left Government to take immediate initiatives to confiscate the surplus land under the custody of different estates whose lease periods are over. It will expedite agricultural production,’’ says J. Devika, a research associate with the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram. ACCORDING TO Gopalan, those occupying the land in Chengara represent the most deprived segments of the population, who have failed to benefit from the much-hyped land reforms initiated by the Left in the early 50s. Some agitators including women were hospitalised after they were attacked by a section of workers of the estate, who claims to enjoy support of CPM’s trade union wing, CITU.

“Changes in weather conditions have increased the cases of fever and other epidemics here, but nothing has diminished our spirits,’’ says TS Achuthan, an activist. According to him, a change is now visible in the attitude of estate workers as they have started realising the hidden motives of the HMC management.“Harrison Malayalam is a major player in the estate business in Kerala, holding thousands of hectares of land in different hilly regions for tea and rubber plantations. Sometimes they exceed the permissible limits given in lease deeds to extend the plantations. There are complaints against them of violating the lease agreements and subletting the land in question,’’ informs R. Prakash of the National Federation of Dalit Land Right Movements. Chengara must be a beginning for the Kerala government to take back the surplus land from the mighty estate groups and rightfully redistribute it to the people it belongs to,” he reiterates.

Gods, Comrades at Arms Again


The faultline between the Church and the CPM in Kerala resurfaces after a bishop claims a party MLA received the sacrament before his death.


COMMUNISTS across the globe say religion is the antithesis of Marxism and believers have no place in the movement. The Church reciprocates the sentiment labelling Communists as agents of Satan and their rationalism as the “main threat” to the world. In Kerala, too, the relationship between the Church and the Communists is typically antagonistic.

In 1959, the Church in Kerala led the infamous “liberation struggle”, toppling the world’s first democratically elected Communist government of EMS Namboodiripad. Even earlier, the Church refused to bury the mortal remains of MP Paul, a wellknown Malayalam literary critic. Paul was not a Communist but the Church found fault with his opposition to religious orthodoxy. Paul’s brother, being a monsignor, was not allowed to attend the funeral. It may be recalled that the late party ideologue, EMS Namboodiripad, had asked Kerala Congress leader PJ Joseph to disown the bishops in public before joining the Left Democratic Front.

However, the Church’s vehement opposition to the Communists in Kerala started to mellow after 1959. The softening of the Church’s position in the 1960s and 70s was reciprocated by the stance of a sizable proportion of the Marxists in Kerala. Even during the nineties, many of the Kerala’s CPM men occupied positions in temple administrative bodies with the consent of the party. During elections, pragmatic CPM leaders including Pinarayi Vijayan visited religious leaders, seeking votes and party funds. For its part, the Church stopped its open canvassing of votes for the anti-Communist outfits. Neither the Church nor the party raised any objection over the cremation of AP Kurian, former Kerala Assembly Speaker and veteran Communist, at
the Church’s ground.

In 2007, however, the ghosts of a bygone era of spiritual and religious warring have come to haunt Kerala. The controversy arose over the Church’s statement that CPM MLA Mathai Chacko, who died in October 2006, was given the last sacrament by a priest on his deathbed. The statement, issued by Bishop Paul Chittilappilly, was furiously disputed by Pinarayi Vijayan,secretary, Kerala State Committee of the CPM. Vijayan called Chittilappilly “a wretched creature and a drunkard” who tried to help the Congressled opposition by questioning the “Communist morality” of Mathai Chacko. Chittilappilly, later,changed his earlier statement saying Chacko was unconscious at the time of the last sacrament.

A week later, the Kerala Catholic Bishops’Conference condemned Pinarayi’s attack on Chittilappilly. While diocese representatives demanded an apology from Pinarayi, CPM youth organisation DYFI’S president P. Sriramakrishnan said the bishop must apologise for lying in public.

Meanwhile, the Congress was quick to take its cue. “In a democratic set-up, everyone can voice his opinion. But Pinarayi, who insulted Bishop Thamarasseri, should apologise,” said KPCC president Ramesh Chennithala. The situation, now, is turning murkier. The Church authorities have distributed documents apparently showing that Chacko married his wife Mercy in a church at Kochi. The signature in the issued documents, however, does not match with the signature of Chacko as found in the state Assembly register. This latest revelation prompted CPM party workers across the state to accuse the Church of fabricating documents to defame the leader. “The bishop had visited my husband at the hospital. He said he would send a priest to pray for him. A priest came to the hospital but he didn’t give the last sacrament,” said Mercy when contacted.

Nevertheless, the issue has provided a sense of unity in the faction-ridden party. Even Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan came out in support of his bĂȘte noire in the party. The CPM is also planning to “expose” the church through public meetings and marches.

But it has also raised a number of questions about the standards of the CPM on religious issues. Cremations rituals of many leaders from the Christian and Muslim communities have been conducted in the recent past. Poomoodal, a mode of worship that appeals to a goddess to eliminate adversaries, was held at the famous Kadampuzha Bhagavathy temple last year in the name of Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and his son, which Kodiyeri has repeatedly denied.

LAST YEAR, the party allowed two of its legislators to take their oaths in God’s name. For Aisha Potti, CPM area committee member in Kollam, and MM Monayi, member of the party’s Ernakulam district committee, the swearing-in was also a chance to proclaim their faith. Potti is a Brahmin; Monayi a Syrian Christian. Potti said, “We’ve been committed to Communism and the party. But we’d never given up our faith while being in the revolutionary movement”.

The Left in Kerala has changed over the years. Professor Ninan Koshy, former director of the World Council of Churches, said, “Till the mid-1970s, the CPM had resented members expressing their religious affiliations. The party has obviously learnt to accept minorities and those of other faiths into its ranks without asking them to denounce their religion first.” But Pinarayi’s latest statement and the support he gets from his rivals in the party threaten to end the bonhomie.