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.

1 comment:

R.Sajan said...

Kerala is a place where you cannot get agriculture labourers because everyone is literate and thinks manual labour is unbecoming. The minimum wages that you have to pay to any manual labourer is Rs. 250/- a day - for 6 hours of what they deem to be ‘work’. The carpenter gets Rs. 300/- to Rs. 500/- a day. A live-in maid comes at not less than Rs. 4500/- plus food and clothes, a month. If you use her for other things, you pay extra. All labourers come to work in motorcycles or scooters.

Kerala is ‘Gulf’ to manual labourers from other states. There is practically no unemployment here after 2000, if you are ready to work. The greediest of young men work in ‘quotation gangs’ that recover money for banks like ICICI, HSBC, HDFC etc, or beat up people for politicians or similar others. They quote in 10000s to lakhs.

Malayali workers including head loaders, and employees including college teachers are, within Kerala, a disgrace to world labour. To them, work is worship of selfish indolence, and exercising of the tongue. Chaathans, created by the great VKN is the best possible presentation of our poor farm labourer.

The Communist parties profess the raising of the living standards of the working class and their leaders. They have thus managed to raise the lifestyles of even coolies or head-loaders to Star levels. Clerks and peons of government departments like Revenue, Registration, and Transport etc earn much more than MNC CEOs, thanks to their unions’ protecting bribe-taking. College lecturers earn at UGC levels without possessing the stipulated qualifications, only because of their Left unions. Secure monthly salary earners are deemed the genuine working class because they pay more and regular Union levies.

Kerala has a population of about 4 % of the country. Projected population for 1st March 2008 is 3, 42, 32,000. We have land of 1.18% of India. The quantum of land 38863 sq. kms or 9 603 00000 cents cannot change.

Of this geographical area, 48% is mountainous or hilly. 12% is the coastal lowlands. The remaining 40% of midlands alone is suitable for human dwelling. That is to say, for 4% percent of the country’s population, only about 0. 45% of its land is available for living and surviving.

In land-starved Kerala, the largest landowners are the government, the Christian plantation owners and the Church. Every time that the CPM has been in power, grabbing of government land by the party workers is usual. The party, however, is now no longer of the poor; it is now a party of contractors, brokers and businesspersons. The CPM thus having moved away from the downtrodden, new forces like the Muslim Solidarity, Catholic Infam and foreign-funded environment organizations moved in to rescue the poor. The Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi (SJVSV) that has started the Chengara land-grab is one such saviour-outfit of dubious origins.

The pressure on land is our greatest weakness. Our earlier planners did not give this matter honest consideration. We should have planned for development without disturbing or destroying the highlands and lowlands. You meddle with mother Earth and you suffer – our planners ignored this old rule.

Institutional support by the Church to encroachments is responsible for the destruction of our hills. Muthanga was the zenith of their achievement under a Catholic ruler. Sex tourism is responsible for the vandalisation of our coasts.

Land belongs to all of us equally. We also have responsibility to it. Calculating on 960300000 cents and 34232000 humans, individual share comes to 28 cents each. Permissible human usage-share is 40% of that total. Thus, each of us has a birthright to only 11 cents of the land area in Kerala. If you allow a further deduction of 30% to man-made infrastructure like roads, public grounds and buildings, other public utilities etc, a Keralite can claim or own to himself only 7 cents or so.

It is against this ground reality that Chengara orphans demand five acres of land suitable for agriculture and Rs.50,000 in cash for each landless family among them [The Hindu 04.06.2008]. The demands are typically Malayali – similar to demanding that you shut your thattu-kada, stop plying your autorikshaw or not take your ill child to the hospital, for ‘their’ Bandh. It is mere bullying. And we would not dare to do it outside Kerala borders.
Meeting the demand would need only about 40000 acres of land.

I heard Laha Gopalan say many times on TV that the Chengara camp has people of all castes, and that it is only an agitation of people who do not have as much land as their birthright [they having only 4 to 10 cents] and the landless. This might mean that it is not an agitation of landless Dalits; or at least, not any longer. Laha Gopalan himself has by his own admission, only one hectare or 247 cents valued at Rs. 24, 70,000/-

In 3 years, 30% of the active population in Kerala would be non-Malayali or immigrant labour. The Chengara model would serve them well. TRESPASS, SQUAT, GRAB! We need not stop with land alone in the Chengara culture.

There are reports that the organisers of the land-grab collect admission fees ranging from Rs.6000/- upwards from the squatters. As per the Vedi’s claims, as many as 24,000 people belonging to 7,282 families are occupying about 14,000 acres of land at the Kumbazha Estate. The number of makeshift huts pitched at the estate will be around 7,800. The money collected might thus come to crores of Rupees, exclusive of financial assistance received from various Agencies.

Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy and similar mega-stars’ going to Chengara to proclaim support was only like Henry Kissinger’s having come to New Delhi in November 2007 on behalf of the NSG corporates, to sort out the Left’s misgivings about the reciprocal arrangements for their agreeing to the Nuclear Deal. Such initiatives need spending.

Harrisons Plantations is a company of the RP Goenka group. It is not a foreign company, as depicted by the activists and the media. From 2005, they have been selling off pieces of the Estates in Kerala to real estate companies. The land was not theirs; and their lease with the owners, the Kerala government, had run out in 2005. However, neither Left nor Right, or activist raised any voice against the fraud. http://www.moneycontrol.com/mccode/news/article/news_article.php?autono=169951

The Harrison’s Kodumon Estate land grab by Laha Gopalan and his group in 2006 and the Chengara land-grab of 2007 might thus have been some trick by some real estate group to force a cheap sale of the land. The huge funds spent in mobilising media and activist support could have come from that group. Alternately, it might have been a trick by RPG themselves to escape from Kerala without paying the rent to the government [they have reportedly not paid it for 20 years] and the employee benefits to the labour. After the lease ran out, RPG had availed a loan of Rs. 100 crores from the ICICI Bank on the security of the Estate, on which they had no rights at that point of time. The land grab might also have been to avert having to repay the Bank.

AK Balan, Kerala’s Minister for SC/STs, has already called Chengara a ‘state-sponsored agitation’. It is like Kerala’s Private Bus operators’ agitating and frequently stopping services to make the public agree in agony to fare-hikes by an eager ministry. In the name of settlement of Chengara orphans, government land elsewhere would soon be allotted. The Estate might also be divided and allotted to different employees’ co-operatives, to benefit all the political parties. On 17.9.2008, Laha Gopalan categorically said on Doordarshan that they would not accept land at Chengara, even if no other land were given.

The rehabilitation initiative would be used more as a ploy to allot land to LDF cadres. Each party would have quotas, as had been with the Plus 2 allotment. Anyone that would pay the leaders would get choice real estate ‘free’. By 2010, the plots thus allotted would be consolidated to build resorts, amusement parks or professional colleges. Either the Party leaders themselves or Comrades like Farris Aboobacker would be the entrepreneurs on the land. Chengara would thus be revealed as a Total4 U, in a few more months.

On 20th September 2008, AK Balan, Kerala’s Minister for SC/STs, announced that beginning October 5th, the government would begin a massive Scheme for allotting land to the landless all over the State. A total of 15000 acres would thus be disposed off. Houses would also be built for the beneficiaries. Chengara squatters would be the first to benefit under the Scheme, he said.

What is to happen to the landless among the middle classes of Kerala, who are unable to have houses of their own because of the inhuman cost of land in Kerala? Would they also have to squat and threaten suicide to have 7 cents for a house each?

Average minimum cost of land in Kerala is Rs.10 lakhs per acre in the rural parts. In places like Kochi, it is around half to one crore a cent. How much of public wealth would be lost when 15000 acres is freely given away to squatters?

The intellectual activists would not answer. Perhaps, their cut is already paid in advance?