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.