20080823

Shameful Repression

Chengara land struggle

CPM activists unleash violence to force dalits and adivasis to end their one-year long occupation of a Kerala plantation, reports KA SHAJI

SHE FAILS to suppress her emotions while recalling that horrific night. She wept like a child when her husband spoke of the way she and three other women were abducted and brutally raped inside the godown of a plantation company they had agitated against.

Sharada (not her real name) is one among the hundreds of activists of Sadhujana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi, an organisation of landless dalits and adivasis involved in the agitation for cultivable land at Chengara in Pathanamthitta district of South Kerala. The agitation is now being adjudged as the biggest-ever dalit uprising in the history of Kerala as it involves over 5,000 landless families. But the ruling CPM-led Left Front Government (LDF) in the state is not ready to recognise it as a struggle for a just cause. Instead, it abets organised violence orchestrated by the plantation company which, in fact, has no legal right over the land and the company’s labour force.

Making the situation worse, Sharada and the other three dalit women allege that their abductor-rapists were plantation employees who are CPM members. She says they were kidnapped in the early hours of August 7 and taken to the godown of Harrisson Malayalam Plantations, where they were raped. They were let off after three hours.

According to activist Laha Gopalan, the women went out of the plantation to fetch food after they were informed that the CPMmen, who had been laying siege to the area, had dispersed. The CPMcadres and the police, Laha Gopalan alleges, were trying to starve the activists.

The women were standing in front of a shop that was open at midnight when a group of men forced them into a jeep and sped away. Out of fear and unsure of getting justice, the women have not registered a complaint with the police so far. Civil society organisations have taken it up as an issue all over the state. “In the beginning, their husbands too did not know. Only now are we getting the courage to speak of it openly,’’ Gopalan said.

Gopalan said that the women came out into the open only after two activists were found battered at the godown a few days later. “This practice of taking our activists to the godown and beating them up has become a regular feature. Congress and BJP activists are involved in the labour force and so they remain silent over the atrocities of CPM workers,’’ he alleged.

If the words of these dalits, the local people and civil society organisations are to be believed, the CPM, the owners of Harrison Malayalam Ltd and goons have unleashed terror in Chengara with the support of the police. The agitators are not being allowed to move out of the area. Nobody is allowed from outside. They are not able to buy rice and other necessary items and medicines. Children are not able to go to school.

“The CPM wants to break the struggle by any means. The neo-liberals and revisionists in the party who constitute the majority have common cause with the estate management. They believe escalating tension is the best way to crush the struggle. But to their disappointment, dalits are getting more and more determined by each passing day,’’ says social activist CR Neelakantan.

The agitators have stopped all attempts to forcibly evict them. Women and children keep kerosene cans nearby while sleeping. Whenever the police come, they threaten self-immolation.

“It is Kerala’s own Nandigram. CPM is using the same strategies of rape and laying siege here too. But we are determined to fight their might till the end,’’ says Gopalan. According to him, fresh attacks against the dalits began at the end of July when three activists from outside reached Chengara to express solidarity with the agitators on the first anniversary of the struggle. They were stopped by a group of CPM men who claimed to be plantation workers. They manhandled the three and also damaged their vehicles. “All this happened in the presence and under the patronage of the police. At the request of the police, the organisers had to shift the venue of the public meeting, planned for the next day, to another location,’’ says Neelakantan, who took the activists to Chengara.

THE VIOLENCE in Chengara was planned. Even the police do not say there was any provocation from agitators. “The CPM is worried by the overwhelming support for the intensifying land struggle in Chengara where landless dalits and adivasis are raising the demand for redistribution of agricultural land, exposing the hollowness of land reforms implemented by the CPI-Congress coalition in the early 1970s. To protect the interests of the estate owners, the neo-liberal revisionists in CPM in Kerala have apparently taken a position that land redistribution is no longer a substantive political agenda,’’ says land issue expert Dr. T.T. Sreekumar.

According to the dalits, it is a fight to reclaim ownership of land that has been part of a long-standing promise of the government. To this end, about 5,000 families from different parts of the region have moved on to the plantation, building tents with poles and plastic sheets to establish last year. The impugned land was a part of a leasehold to Harrison Malayalam Ltd, which expired in 1985 and no rent has been paid to the state since. So, dalits say, the plantation group has no ownership of the land. According to Neelakantan, the fight is against illegal encroachment of land that belongs to the people by a corporate entity for commercial purposes with the support of state machinery.

“A complete blockade of food, medicines and other essentials is the biggest challenge before the agitating dalits. Such a situation is leading to starvation and the prevalence of diseases in the camps. Now tactics include sexual harassment of women and physical intimidation of the protesters and solidarity supporters,’’ says dalit leader Sreeraman Koyyon.

“What unites them all is landlessness. The government has a duty to solve this problem. A Left government has greater responsibility since it was the Left that raised the slogan ‘Land for the Tiller’, ” says activist BRP Bhaskar.

Dalits and adivasis in Kerala have traditionally stood with the Left. A party congress, held at Coimbatore, acknowledged that they were moving away from the CPIM and decided that steps should be taken to bring them closer to the party. But the state party unit and the government seem to be blind to the erosion of the CPM base.

20080806

Kodungallur violence

When Red Fades, It Turns Saffron


The Sangh Parivar’s attempts to wrest control of Kerala’s Left bastion, Kodungallur, is threatening to undo the town’s historic legacy of communal harmony. KA SHAJI reports


KODUNGALLUR IS an ancient seat of tolerance and communal amity. This coastal town in central Kerala, with a sizable population of upper caste Hindus, was supposedly where St. Thomas — one among the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ — landed in AD 52 to preach Christianity, and was welcomed by the locals. Later, the port town reaffirmed its faith in the harmonious co-existence of religions when its popular king Cheraman Perumal embraced Islam and went to Mecca for Haj. Even the unique taste of the presiding deity at the ancient Devi temple here caused no communal disturbances. Interestingly, the goddess likes risqué talk, sexual humour and sexually explicit songs. During the annual Bharani festival in April-May, devotees throng the temple and sing ribald songs to the deity. Despite these unusual circumstances, there has been no record of minority communities living close to the temple finding fault with the centuries-old tradition.

However, the situation is different now. Hindutva forces are now trying their best to get control of the temple and sow seeds of intolerance and animosity among different religious and social groups in Kodungallur municipality and its adjoining panchayat areas. The temple administration has been threatened against leasing out land to Muslim and Christian traders to put up stalls during the annual festival. For the last 10 years, lumpen elements of the Sangh Parivar have been forcibly removing the stalls of people from other religions during the annual festival. During the last Christmas season, the Sangh Parivar had enforced an eccentric and illegal ban: no trader near the temple was permitted to sell Christmas stars made out of glittering paper. These stars are traditionally displayed in front of homes to celebrate the arrival of the festival. Whenever India wins cricket matches against Pakistan, the Sangh Parivar uses that opportunity to hold mammoth anti-Muslim rallies. Muslim members of the CPM and its youth organisation Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) are often dubbed agents of the Muslim extremist organisation National Development Front (NDF).

KODUNGALLUR IS rapidly turning into a Hindutva lab. The BJP-RSS are determined to tear apart its rich legacy of communal harmony and social solidarity. “We will not allow them to implement their communal agenda here,’’ says MB Rajesh, state president of DYFI. But Kodungallur is turning into a new flashpoint for CPM-BJP clashes, second only to the volatile Kannur district. With the CPM and DYFI coming out in support of the minority communities and declaring an ideological war against the Sangh Parivar’s hate campaign, Parivar forces started engaging in murder politics. In the first week of July, DYFI area vice-president, Karekkattu Biju was allegedly stabbed to death by BJP-RSS men. The murder was followed by a three-day hartal and widespread destruction of property belonging to followers of the Sangh groups. Shops, houses and vehicles of innocent people were attacked; even pedestrians were not spared. Paramilitary forces have been deployed and an eerie silence prevails in Kodungallur.

“Both the BJP-RSS and CPM are equally responsible for the destruction. The police inaction in arresting the real culprits is equally condemnable,’’ says Oommen Chandy, Kerala’s Opposition leader and top Congress man.

“The CPM never abetted violence. We were just attempting to ideologically fight their hate campaign. Four DYFI activists were killed here in the recent past for fighting the communal agenda of the BJP-RSS,’’ said Rajesh. He also said that his outfit was against murder politics but would not hesitate to give a fitting reply to unprovoked assaults.

Local BJP leader PK Sreekumar goes back to the 80s to trace the origin of murder politics in the region. “A young RSS leader named Satheesan was brutally killed in the beginning of the 80s by CPM-DYFI goondas. They were worried over his ability to win over youth to the RSS fold. The prevailing tension is a sequel to that,’’ he said. According to him, another RSS worker was killed last year by DYFI activists without any major provocation. “The violence will stop once the CPM recognises our right to hold shakhas and conduct everyday political activity,’’ he says. He remained silent when the long gap between the murder of Satheesan in the early 80s and those of 2008 was pointed out. Sreekumar also had no reply when asked about those who killed the four DYFI activists.

The CPM camp says Biju was a clean and honest political activist who never engaged in any violence. “The targeting of people with no criminal background shows the cruel mind of the BJP-RSS men. We are in the process of uniting all like-minded forces to fight their agenda,’’ said CPM’s local leader MA Vijayan.

“In the past, bloodletting in Kodungallur was limited only to the sacrifice of cocks as part of temple rituals. Though blood and belief blends in symbiosis during the Bharani festival, murders are quite new to the region,’’ says TN Joy, a Kodungallur-based human rights activist.

According to him, the volatile situation emerged last year with the advent of a powerful local BJP leader — even his detractors are afraid to name him — who considered muscle power the best way to ensure growth for the party. His first agenda was to take control of the temple. First, he took the contract for conducting fireworks during festivals. “The revenue ranges between Rs 75 lakh and Rs 1 crore while the expense would only come to around Rs 17 lakh,’’ informs Joy. The leader then took control of the right to allocate space for advertisements during festivals. He gets at least Rs 2 crore from this business.

“That leader is behind all the existing problems here. ‘Groupism’ and other internal problems made the CPM’s ranks ineffective in the last three years. The BJP leader used that period to consolidate his position,’’ says K Venu, former Naxalite leader and independent thinker.

Local journalists are also under threat. A passing reference to the criminal past of a BJP leader in an article resulted in the brutal manhandling of Kerala Kaumudi reporter KM Mithran. The house of Somasundaran, the owner of a local evening newspaper, was damaged in response to a series of articles against BJP-RSS activists.

“Only the CPM and DYFI are fighting the Sangh Parivar agenda in Kodungallur now. That is why their activists are getting killed. It is the duty of all secular and democratic forces to fight the communalists’ agenda of segregation in Kodungallur using all democratic means,’’ exhorts Venu. •