The hilly terrains at the southern plantation belt of the Pathanamthitta district in Kerala reverberates with a major land struggle of an unprecedented nature involving more than 5000 families of the most deprived sections of the population. They demand land to live and labour on it. These are the people left-out in the once lauded land reforms of Kerala as a grand success. By tradition and practice, they have the creative potential to lead a highly productive life in relation to land and nature. But, they do not posses it. The mainstream society of Kerala either ignores this struggle or pretends that nothing seriously happen except for a bit of law and order problem. Some even perceive this as a violent and militant struggle, thereby indirectly even indicating that they are supported by 'Naxals'. So goes the behavior of the media too.
This struggle by landless Dalits and Adviasis to gain ownership of land, began on 4th August 2007.. They have been labelled as 'encroachers' and attacked by the Goonds of the rubber plantations of Harrisson Malayalam Limited at Chengara near Konni in Pathanamthitta District. Ten of them including women were admitted in the hospitals in Pathanamthitta.
This is actually the second phase of the struggle. 2 years back a struggle that was on very much similar lines was launcled. It was in Kumbazha Estate of the same management. The struggle was called-off after getting assurance from the Government that their demand would be looked into. Since there was no indication of any positive move from the state Govt, people moved into the present struggle by occupying new land. To begin with, they occupied about 125 acres. After Onam Festival they have spread on to a larger area covering four hills - each family occupying one acre of land. This has two advantages. One, the earlier area was covered with Rubber trees which were yielding. The present spot is having old trees, non-yielding. The Trade unions were against the landless poor who occupied the land, saying that the 'encroachers' were not allowing them to continue their plantation related work. But, now since there is no hindrance for rubber tapping, the workers are more friendly. Secondly the Management and TUs had approached the court and the court advised the authorities that the encroachers be evicted without using force. Now, as they are out of that particular locale, the management may need fresh advice from the court.
The estate under purview has trespassed its lease period. Their claim is that even if the land is not theirs, the trees are theirs. Basically this is land which has to be taken back from the planters and given to the landless. The Left Front Government by its one year old promise is bound to do that.. The Ghost of Muthanga, where the police shot at the advisis who claimed their ancestral land, should continue to haunt the authorities. The government had given in writing that the Advasis will be allotted land. The governments of whichever shade; right of left have not fulfilled the promise of providing land to the landless except in a very very nominal way. Muthanga is a landmark in peoples struggle for land and it challenges people to go on with struggles claiming land for the dalits and adivasi.
By the least standards, 56% of dalits and advisis in Kerala have no land. One of the women in the huts in Chengara was narrating her experience of having to bury her husband a pit in the kitchen of her hut. The Advisis, dalits and dalit Christians (all these communities are among the 4500 occupiers in Chengara) constitute about 65 lakhs in Kerala's population - 5 lakhs of Adivasis and the rest Dalits. These people if they posses 2 cents, 4 cents or at best 10 cents of land, they are considered as landowners while there are corporate houses that get thousands and thousands of acres on lease. And there are estate owners such as 'Harrisons Malayalam' who have no legal right over thousands of acres that they hold on to. They have 33 estates (Tea & Rubber) holding not less than fifty thousand acres in six districts of Kerala. How do we reconcile with such injustice? The reality which is the reason for hope is that these communities who are denied basic rights are becoming conscious and they are rising up.
The present agitation is an indication of the intense nature of the struggle. It is not easy for 4000 odd families (which keeps on increasing by a minimum of 20 families a day) to come away to an area surrounded by "enemies" and to stay on for weeks and months fighting the most horrid situations of rain, epidemics and hunger. The families at the Kurumbatti division of the Chengara estate were asked what if the court gives the verdict to oust the encoachers; the women were the most vocal in declaring: "We have fiive liters of Kerosin Oil and the moment the authorities turn us out we will burn ourselves. No question of retreating without getting land".
The movement is a fight to re-claim ownership of land that has been part of a long standing promise of the Government. At present nearly 5000 families, more than 20,000 people, have entered the Harrison Malayalam Private Ltd Estate, living in makeshift arrangements. The Chengara Land struggle demands permanent ownership of agricultural land through transfer of ownership from the Harrison Company to the Dalits and Adivasis. The Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi (SJVSV), the collective that leads the struggle, has opted for the land take-over as strategy remembering the tradition of the great leader Ayyankali, the militant dalit leader whose mission was to ensure liberation of dalits from various forms of slavery, right to agricultural land, as well as right to education in Kerala.
The movement salutes Ayyankali and Ambedkar whose role in rights movements in Kerala is disproportionately highlighted in the modern social literature on Kerala. Raising the names of Ayyankali and Ambedkar as sources of inspiration is a political challenge to the mainstream political left parties. There is a widespread popular belief in Kerala that the official left were the sole forces which ensured rights to Dalits, including land rights. Such misrepresentations are now globalised through some academic works as well.
Chengara Pledge: As Recited by Soumya Babu, an 11 Year old Girl who said she will go to school only after she gets land
I love my country. I will try to learn about the Constitution and laws of my country. I will work for fulfilling the pristine objective of the Constitution. I will take part in the nation building process in my own way. I will not discriminate against any Indian on the basis of religion or caste. I understand us as owners of a great tradition as well as protectors of a great democracy.