Masti Ki Pathashala

A Model School for Tribals

K A Shaji

Kanavu means dream. And a dream it was for writer-turned activist K.J. Baby when he first thought of a school exclusively for adivasi (tribal) children that would not only educate them, but also cultivate a sense of pride in themselves.

The dream turned into reality about 15 years back when Kanavu was started in a cluster of thatched structures on six acres of land donated by a trust in Wayanad district of north Kerala.

As many as 60 tribal children started their knowledge expedition there, a possibility that would have been unthinkable in the past, when landlords and settlers held their clan in bondage.

Kanavu nestles on the picturesque Cheengode hills of Wayanad, which has a high concentration of tribals. Along with his activist wife Shirley and their two children, Baby lived here with the tribal children, using the institution as a means to reach into the recesses of their psyche and tap the latent genius of the community.

But they soon faced difficulties when they lost the support of the trust that had provided the land and basic requirements. Funding became a problem, especially since Baby stubbornly refused offers from funding agencies with questionable credentials.

But over the years, Kanavu turned into a success, acquiring a reputation among researchers and academics even at an international level as a model for imparting knowledge to tribal communities.

Giving it back

Last month, Kanavu created history again, when Baby announced that he would be handing over administration of the institution to a body consisting of young people from the first batch that passed out of the institution.

Mangloo, a Paniya girl, and Santhosh, a Mullukuruma boy, are now the managing trustees of Kanavu, and personally supervise all of the school's activities including teaching.

Now in their mid-twenties, both had shown exemplary leadership qualities from the time they were his students, says Baby.

According to Santhosh, the school intentionally discards conventional practices; there is no classroom, no syllabus. "We want to prove that adivasi kids are capable of learning the same skills as children in mainstream society. For that, we must first teach them to respect themselves," says Santhosh. "Today Kanavu is the only institution of its kind in the country that has no non-tribal influence," says Mangloo.

Helping to overcome the legacy of bondage

Throughout its existence, Kanavu never lost sight of its original purpose. Its primary concern still is to help its hundred-odd students to overcome the ugly legacy of a history of bondage.

The children are encouraged to confront their past not through textbooks but by invoking examples drawn from the life of the community. Tribal folk songs and rituals form the core of the effort to reinforce their sense of identity.

The next step is to initiate them into the process of developing skills, whether in music, painting, dance, theatre or martial arts. Skills in farming are also given high priority as an example of a gainful traditional occupation.

Interestingly, the children are also trained to sit for competitive exams as well. "We don't follow a question-answer format, but our children are grounded in the basics," says Santosh.

Yet, the objective is not to produce a generation of students obsessed with passing exams but to build the children's self-confidence. Coming from disparate tribal groups with a history of mutual hostility, they are taught the need to rise above divisive tendencies.

These objectives are woven into the school's daily regimen. The students are divided into groups that are then allotted daily chores. The day starts with lessons in kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art of Kerala. Training in music and classical dance take up the post lunch phase, followed by academic instruction, often provided by visiting teachers.

Scientific awareness is inculcated by stimulating interest in the local environment, supplemented later by books, slides and pictures.

One fact that particularly strikes a visitor to the school is the ease with which even the younger students speak multiple languages. Several tribal children who completed their education in Kanavu now work with organizations in places as far as Ahmedabad and Bangalore.

These students have a formidable reputation as performers of traditional tribal dances and folk songs. And it's literally song and dance that sustains Kanavu, for the school follows the gurukul system where teachers live with students and receive no remuneration.

Proceeds from performances are just enough for the school to balance its budget.

Baby is busy dreaming new dreams these days, but despite his absence, Kanavu is still making waves. It continues to draw attention from experts and officials as a model institution that uses innovative teaching methods and has a visible impact on a group that has for long remained on the fringes of society.

The Ideology Of Murder

Kannur Battlefields

The gruesome killings of each other’s cadre by Marxist and ultra-Hindu rivals in north Kerala is a fight for political space that has worsened over decades

K A Shaji


Only, these are not gangs; at least not in the sense the term is known. Aneesh was a worker of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) that heads the ruling coalition in Kerala, one of India’s three states where the Communists are a major political force. Babu was a worker of the BJP that, together with its Hindu supremacist ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has tried a lifetime to grow roots around the dense Marxist undergrowth in Kerala, especially in the Kannur district. And yes, both sides have always behaved as gangs in a turf war, one determined to protect its hold and the other as eager to invade. This month’s hostility claimed seven lives in five days, as rampaging gangs spread terror, forcing the police to open fire on occasion to scatter mobs.

“The killings of political workers, whether by X or Y, is not good for our society,” Kannur’s Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, CPM’s AP Abdullakutty, told TEHELKA. “But our people reacted spontaneously to the unprovoked killings of their comrades by the BJP-RSS.” Snapped RSS activist V. Thillankery: “We are only defending ourselves. The Stalinist CPM is trying to annihilate us.”

The self-justification — “they conspired to kill ours but ours killed theirs spontaneously” — is the standard tit-for-tat argument of both sides to start newer rounds of killings. The chain of murders this month began last November when in separate incidents four Marxist workers in the district were murdered by alleged sympathisers of the BJP-RSS. Before the CPM could retaliate though, local authorities forced peace between the warring sides. But that accord wasn’t durable and the spate of killings restarted this month, this time moved first by the CPM. On March 9, as BJP-RSS demonstrators stoned the CPM’s headquarters in New Delhi, the issue attracted national spotlight with the BJP, a political lightweight in Kerala, demanding that Kerala’s Communist rulers be sacked, and the Communists seeking criminal proceedings against the BJP. Sensing political capital, the state’s main opposition, the Congress, slammed both sides and asked for the deployment of Central police forces in the area.

Although a day later local leaders of the two political parties sat down with Kannur district authorities and agreed to sheath their swords — a “temporary ceasefire”, said Abdullakutty — there is no doubt this peace would be as tenuous as any in nearly 30 years of confrontation between the Communists and the Hindu rightwing. As always, the unfortunate victims of the violence came from the lowest rungs of society: those killed on either side were auto and lorry drivers, rickshaw pullers and construction workers. Nearly all belong to the Thiyya community, Kerala’s largest Hindu community classified as an Other Backward Class (OBC), the historical strugglers against the landed upper castes. Tribal warriors by tradition, the Thiyyas have nurtured their generations on a sense of righteousness. Their popular Thira dance form often tells stories of inter-caste fights, such as the landlord killing a peasant’s wife, and then the peasant taking the form of god to kill the cruel landlord.

THE REGION’S first political homicidal violence goes back to the end-1960s, and the first rivals in that battle were the communists and the Congress. The Communist roots in Kannur have been among the strongest of the leftist ideology in the country. Former CPM general secretary, the late EMS Namboodiripad, began shaping Kerala’s Communist movement while lodged in the Kannur jail in the 1930s. Former Chief Minister EK Nayanar represented the region. The current home minister of Kerala represents Thalassery, that nook of Kannur where the current violence has centred.

About 1980, a controversial issue around a Hindu temple in the district triggered Hindu-Muslim violence, allowing the BJP-RSS a toehold as the Communists were seen to be siding with the Muslims. This was the time when the socio-economic imbalance here was turning: the earlier landowner-versus-landless friction was receding while the Gulf money-backed Muslims surged. Swathes of villages in Kannur are said to be CPM “party villages” — a euphemism for the Marxists’ total political domination — where those with another ideology are boycotted and often driven out. The BJPRSS has tried its hardest to get inside such villages to drive a wedge among the Thiyya folks who have traditionally backed the Marxists. It is mostly the renegade Thiyyas, the ex-Marxists now working with the BJP-RSS, who are now at the forefront of the political violence with their new ideological rivals.

Clearly, both sides have stockpiled arms and that makes it difficult to check the violence from recurring. While the BJP-RSS supporters use the S blades, the Marxist workers have shown a preference for steel bombs. “They have no shame in killing their victims in front of aged parents or school-going children,” says nonpartisan social activist TC Viswanath, who works for peace in the region. “Both are armed to the teeth and use the most inhuman ways to kill their opponents.” Disarming would hardly be easy, given that the CPM is the head of the state’s ruling coalition. RSS’ Thillankery alleges that the Marxists manipulate the police and the local administration. CPM leader EP Jayarajan counters: “If the BJP is serious about restoring peace, its workers should lay down arms.”

The ideological battle, of course, is no relief to the victims’ families that continue to relive the shock of the killings and are fearful for their lives. “When will this barbarism end?” asks Edacholi Nani, whose only son Preman, a BJP activist, was cut down before her eyes two years ago. She wails as she sees the dead body of RSS worker Suresh Babu on its way to the last rites. Without any source of income now, Nani lives alone and is starting at starvation.

“I devoted my entire life to raise my son and now he is gone,” says an anguished Nangarath Sathi whose Marxist son KP Rajesh was killed two months ago. “It is about time this meaningless bloody battle was ended.”

If only the hardened politicians were listening.


Mangrove Man

A man with a vision

KA SHAJI tells the story of Pokkudan, the guardian angel of Kerala’s mangroves who initiated a movement for their conservation

AT THE time of his birth, Pokkan’s umbilical chord looked like the bloated, elongated seed of the mangrove tree, and people affectionately tweaked his name to ‘Pokkudan’, a play on his physical condition. It was this kid with the bloated umbilical chord, born to untouchable pulaya parents in a Kerala village in the early 1930s, who went on to become the legendary Kallen Pokkudan, a name now synonymous with mangrove conservation not only in the state, but all over India.
Throughout his life, Pokkudan has lived in close contact with the nearby wetlands and, for over a decade, been collecting, preserving and planting the seeds of the “mad mangrove” tree (the long-fruited, stilted mangrove known as rhizophora mucronata). Some 22 species of mangrove trees welcome you to Pokkudan’s village nestled in the rich wetlands of north Kerala’s Kannur district. Over the years, this humble farm worker has planted over 1,00,000 mangrove saplings with his own hands in his native village.
When at the age of 52, Pokkudan started planting mangrove seedlings in the village in 1989, people called him a crackpot. Environmentalists had then not begun to pay attention to the destruction of mangrove forests, a vital part of the coastal ecosystem. In just four decades, mangrove forest area in the state had dropped from over 700 sq km to a paltry 17 sq km. Yet, Kannur still has nearly 45 percent of the state’s remaining wetlands, thanks mostly to Pokkudan’s initiatives.

Curiously, what led to Pokkudan’s passion for mangroves was an acute political disillusionment. He had spent most of his life building up the CPM’s local agricultural labourers’ union. The association soured when he raised his voice against caste discrimination within the party. After leaving the CPM, Pokkudan did nothing for almost a year. In that time, he noticed monsoon storms drenching little children as they walked to school on narrow mud paths in the wetlands. The lashing winds would often take away their umbrellas and storm waves would regularly destroy the embankments in the paddy fields.
Pokkudan knew from experience that mangroves were the best buffers against the wind and the waves. But, over the years, the wetlands had turned into dumps for garbage from nearby towns. This had severely affected their ecological functions such as nutrient cycling, flood control, ground water recharge, salt dissipation, absorption and dilution of pollutants and creation of microclimatic niches that supported a variety of life forms.
Rooted to the wetlands as he was, their deterioration pained Pokkudan immensely. For the pulayas, the mangroves had always been a source of food, fuel, fodder and medicine. There was the fish that could be cooked or kept apart for times of famine, and the berries and tubers that could be eaten both raw and cooked. Many of these had medicinal properties. “The fish, the birds and the people all depended on the mangroves,” says Pokkudan. He calls the trees “the security guards of the earth” and is convinced that floods in coastal regions would not kill so many if there were mangroves.
COLLECTING THE seeds of the mangrove trees was strenuous work. Besides, the swamps were choked with waste. The seedlings planted initially didn’t take root because he didn’t know the techniques well. But when the 300 seedlings he planted the following year grew, Pokkudan’s work began to be noticed. Soon, the media, environmentalists and forest officials arrived on the scene. With Pokkudan’s help, the Department of Forests set up a mangrove nursery of around 30,000 seedlings. Youth clubs organised campaigns about the need to preserve mangrove forests. People began to put up resistance against destruction of wetlands in the name of development.
In Kerala, Kallen Pokkudan is the last word on swamp ecosystems. He talks of a Dalit’s oppression in the same breath as the slow death of an ecosystem. “The birds that roam the skies and nest in mangrove branches, tree heads, paddy fields and river banks also have a life similar to ours. As a Dalit, I had always tilled the earth for others. Maybe that’s why I tried to go deeper into the possibilities of protecting mangroves.” The idea of man as a child of nature is complete when he says, “If someone asks me how I want to be known in future, I would say Kandal Pokkudan (‘Mangrove’ Pokkudan)”.

Rebellion In Red Fort

Kerala's poor fights back

Across Kerala, a dozen people’s struggles have erupted against the Left regime’s cosying up to industry and its repression of dissent. KA SHAJI reports


HISTORY REPEATS itself as farce, so went Marx’s dictum. In Kerala, where his footsoldiers pulled off the first democratic win in the world, the Red party has turned against the people in a vicious somersault.

Karivellur village in north Kerala has seen an arc of history come full circle. On December 22, 1946, the British regime’s police had gunned down Communist activists who were preventing the local ruler from seizing the farmers’ produce. In February this year, a farmer in the village sent a bagful of rice seeds to agitating farmers in Erayamkudy in the south as a mark of solidarity. The Erayamkudy farmers were trying to rescue their farms from real estate mafia and a number of big industrial units manufacturing clay bricks for construction work. The LDF government had persistently dismissed the farmers’ pleas against leasing out rice fields and the backwater region to brick manufacturing sand mining units.

Rice seeds were one of the Erayamkudy farmers’s demands from the government, and farmer Veluthambu sent his share in the face of threats from local CPM men. His dispatch got rousing receptions at almost all the railway stations en route. In Erayamkudy, noted Malayalam writers Sugathakumari, Sarah Joseph, P. Surendran and KG Sankara Pillai helped farmers in sowing Veluthambu’s seeds.

In November last year, around 3,500 families in Erayamkudi had begun protesting against the brick manufacturing units in the area. The units were not only ruining the rice fields but also polluting the air and water. To the utter shock of the locals, the CPM and its government took the units’ side.

When the agitation began receiving support even from Communist citadels like Karivellur, the CPM turned furious. It accused the protestors of having Maoist links. On Republic Day this January, the police raided the house of C. Jayasree, a leader of the agitation, to search for the laptop of Mallaraja Reddy, a Maoist leader in Andhra Pradesh who was arrested in Kerala in December. But the search proved vain, and the incident infuriated civil society across the state.

“What wrong has that lady done? She is doing what the organised Left should do. Such struggles are inevitable in today’s India,’’ says eminent jurist VR Krishna Iyer, who was a minister in the first EMS Namboodiripad Communist government in Kerala.

Erayamkudy is not an isolated flashpoint. At least a dozen people’s struggles are being waged in different parts of Kerala where the CPM is cast as the proverbial “class enemy”. What is also distinct about the struggles is that the involvement of NGOs is marginal. Leaders like Jayasree come from families of traditional Left supporters and are not anti-Marx in their beliefs. A reason why the CPM has branded them as Maoists.

IN THE heart of Kochi, a few yards from the High Court, a land struggle is being fought by 40 families evicted from Moolampally village to make way for the proposed multicrore Vallarpadom Container Terminal. The families were forced out of their homes in the dead of night when they refused the compensation offered to them. “We are not against the terminal, but we demanded proper rehabilitation and tax exemption for the compensation package. But the government action was vengeful,” says Francis Kulathingal, the leader of the agitation. Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan called the agitation a handiwork of Naxalites but retracted the statement the very next day after civil society groups rose in outrage.

“You can ensure road and rail connectivity to Vallarpadam terminal without evicting any of Moolampally’s residents. Revival of the old rail link to the defunct Ernakulam Rail Good Yard was suggested as one alternative. It needed no acquisition and the expenses were also lesser,” says CR Neelakantan, a social worker who is participating in the struggle. “But the government evicted the poorer farmers who owned about three cents of land. The old rail link was not considered because it passes through an area owned by Hindustan Lever where the company is planning to build posh apartments and villas.’’

Valanthakkadu is another hub of public anger against the LDF’s development agenda. Located two kilometres from Moolampally, the entire Valanthakad island is being sold off to a Bangalore-based real estate developer for a multi-crore “knowledge city”. Around 40 families of Dalits have been evicted and several hectares of mangrove forests razed.

Farmers at Mooriyad in Thrissur began an agitation last year to protect about 11,100 acres of rice fields from brick makers, sand mining mafia and tile factories by holding portraits of Ayyankali, a Dalit social reformer of the early 20th century. The CPM cadre retaliated by damaging Ayyankali’s portraits. “With the CPM’s support, the mafia has already ruined 4,000 acres of rice fields,” says Varghese Thoduparambil, leader of the farmers’ front there.

The strong resistance in Chakkamkandam village against the setting up of the Guruvayur temple town’s sewage treatment plant in their locality, the tribal uprising in Aralam in Kannur demanding distribution of land of a loss-making public sector unit among landless tribals, the struggle by Dalits in Chengara near Pathanamthitta demanding the ousting of a powerful plantation group from government land after the lease period was over, movements against illegal clay mining in Mangalapuram in Thiruvananthapuram and in Kollam, the struggle against a proposed hydel electric project at Athirapally – such resistances are fast eroding the CPM’s mass base.

“Farmers were committing suicide in Wayanad because of debt. The CPM only shed crocodile tears,’’ says AC varkey, leader of the Farmers’ Relief Forum in Wayanad, a district that has competed with Vidharbha and Anantapur for headline space in news media for “farmers’ suicides”.

According to social activist R. Ajayan, the Plachimada struggle against Coca Cola and the Kasargod struggle against pesticide giant Endosulphan were inspirational. Coca Cola was left trying to convert its bottling plant into a mango juice production centre, and Endosulphan has been banned in the state. Similarly, even though cases are still pending against about 300 activists, a polluting pig breeding centre at Kainoor in Thrissur has been shut down. The agitation against illegal bauxite mining in Kasargod is also gaining in strength.

But the CPM continues to be one-eyed. In December last year, its cadre in Chinnakanal in Idukki grabbed government land occupied by landless tribals at the behest of the tourism lobby.