|The Tribal Blood, Muthanga: A Struggle for Survival|
Kerala Chief Minister A. K. Antony is a sad man now. Not because his policemen opened fire on agitating Tribals, including women and children, on February 19 at Muthanga forests in Wayanad district, which happened to be the first incident of that nature in Kerala history. Antony is sad because neither he, nor his Ministers and officials have a plausible excuse to justify the firing. On the other hand, there are too many lapses on the Government's part, if not deliberate mistakes, glaring errors and wanton blunders. To cover it all up, Antony and his co-rulers reiterate that there would be no inquiry, leave alone a judicial inquiry. This, too, is a first in history in Kerala since judicial inquiries were instituted, formally and customarily, on all police firings in which people were killed in the past.
Apart from being sad, Antony is also frustrated because he is too keen as a politician to keep his liberal and progressive image intact, which is now blemished very badly. Also, any judicial inquiry into the Muthanga police firing would only expose his Government's actions, or the timely lack of it. Such an inquiry would also thoroughly expose the handling of the Tribal Land issue by his government as well as all the former governments of Kerala. Therefore, even for saving his own image, Antony cannot hide under the customary shelter of instituting a judicial probe either. That ultimately made him a frustrated and worried man today.
A week before the deadline set by the High Court to implement the 1975 Act, the then Nayanar-led LDF Government, with the support of the Antony-led UDF opposition, brought out an amendment bill to the parent Act on September 23, 1996. There was wide criticism and agitation against this anti-tribal bill meant only to scuttle the basic spirit of the 1975 Act. As against the then Revenue Minister Baby John's declaration in the Assembly in 1975 about the government's commitment to restore the "stolen property" of tribal lands to its original tribal owners, the 1996 amendment bill moved by LDF Revenue Minister K. E. Ismail (CPI) envisaged to give legality for the encroacher-settlers to control the same "stolen property". In plain words, it is legalizing stealing.
Both Nayanar and Antony led a combined LDF-UDF team to Delhi to get the Presidential sanction for the amendment bill. On no other issue had the Chief Minister and Opposition leader gone to Delhi, except for getting the Central approval for this anti-tribal law. However, in March 1998, then President K. R. Narayanan returned the amendment bill. Instead of implementing the 1975 Act in accordance with the High Court orders, the belligerent LDF Government, with due UDF support, brought another amendment bill in 1999, replacing the tribal land with agricultural land. Technically this bill required no Presidential approval, and it was okayed by the Governor. However, the High Court squashed it and upheld its 1993 ruling on the 1975 Act. The Kerala Government's writ appeal on it is still pending before the Supreme Court.
It was this non-implementation of the 1975 Act for a quarter century that ultimately led Janu to launch the September 2001 agitation in front of the Secretariat. However, Janu's demand was not to implement the 1975 Act, but to give "alternate" land to "rehabilitate" the landless tribals - which raised many eye-brows.
It ended in "victory" when the Antony government "agreed" on October 16, 2001, the following points :
1) Landless Adivasis and those having less than one acre of land would be given one to 5 acres of land
2) The State Cabinet would ask the Central Government to bring all tribal habitations in Kerala under the Scheduled Areas Act under Article 244
3) A Tribal Mission would be constituted to implement the agreement; and
4) The Supreme Court verdict on the 1975 Act would be awaited and implemented.
Accordingly, the Government identified a total of 53,472 tribal families (22,491 landless and 30,981 with less than one acre) as eligible to receive one to 5 acres of land each. It was also declared that a total of 59,452 acres of "alternate" lands had been identified for giving to the Adivasis, which constituted less than 2.2 % of the total land required as per the 2001 "agreement".
After a year of the January 1, 2002, pomp-and-show at Idukki to start the implemention of this agreement, it failed to make any further progress with only 600 tribal families getting a total of 950 acres of "alternate" land. In other words, one percent of the tribal families identified as eligible beneficiaries received only 1.6 per cent of total "alternate" land identified as available for distribution.
Even this meager allotment ran into deeper controversy, as at Mathikettanmala in Idukki district, which brought the Ministries of Revenue and Forest into direct confrontation. As a result, the Tribal Mission, constituted to implement the October 16, 2001, "agreement" was "reconstituted" and it eventually ceased to function.
During the past 16 months of the agreement, the Cabinet never passed any resolution on the Scheduled Area status, leave alone sending it for Central approval. No mention about the "agreement" was made in the Assembly, let alone passing a resolution, or moving a bill, approving it.
In other words, it remained an agreement of sham show, because, unlike the 1975 Act, with due Constitutional protection, this "Antony-Janu" agreement of 2001 has no legal validity, whatsoever.
Which is what made Janu to lead around 500 tribals on January 4, 2003, to the Muthanga forests, build huts, dig wells and start cultivation. Muthanaga-Bathery-Kurichiat forest ranges form part of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and lie to the west of the Madumalai forests (Tamil Nadu) and Bandipur forests (Karnataka). The whole area is an integral part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, established in 1973, extending about 334 square kilometers, with the specific objective of conserving the biological and cultural heritage of the region. The 160-hectre core area, about 20 kms from nearest Wayanad town, Sulthan Bathery, fall under the direct supervision of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. It is one of the eleven biosphere reserves identified so far in India, and also regarded as one of the two environmental hot spots in the country.
Obviously, Janu's new form of agitation at Muthanga drew the attention of the Central government and protests from environmentalists. Although the tribals occupied areas covering Kadikkuni, Sarakkad, Thakarapady, Ambukuthy, Vengoor, Moroor and Kottikappu in the Muthanga Range, the forest officials, numbering around 20 at Muthanga range, could do nothing against the 500 plus tribals, including women and children. Revenue, forest and wild life officials made it clear right from January first week that they were awaiting orders from the State Government. The Government, however, maintained silence since they were busily engaged in the preparation for the Global Investment Meet (GIM) at Kochi in the third week of January. Obviously, the government did not want any untoward incident at Muthanga to divert the attention of the visiting foreign investor-dignitaries.
All attempts of the district officials to have a dialogue with Janu failed, as she insisted that she would talk only with Antony. Even after the GIM was over, Antony was not willing to go to Muthanga to talk with her, neither did his government give any instruction to the district officials - for reasons not yet known.
Eventually, on February 17, a fire broke out at Muthanga. A team of forest officials moved in to put out the fire, of whom the tribals caught 21 persons, including some tribal labourers, as captives. All of them were tied to trees and physically thrashed since the tribal agitators alleged that they set off the fire to forcibly vacate the agitators from the forests. The Wayanad District Collector interfered and the captives were released the next day.
By then, orders went from Thiruvananthapuram to evict the tribals because, according to Antony, the State Government was under constant pressure from the Centre. On February 19 morning, a large police contingent was mobilized. Janu and her close lieutenant, M. Geethanandan, refused to hold any talk with the officials, although second-ranking leaders did. Failure of these talks led to lathi-charge and teargasing, during which the tribals again held two policemen as captives. One of them, Vinod, was seriously injured while in captivity. The police firing took place five hours after Vinod was made captive - around 5.30 pm. The bleeding Vinod met a slow death.
Before the massive police action in the name of saving Vinod and other captive policemen began, all the news reporters and photographers were evicted from Muthanga, which is why the exact number of the killed tribals still remain mired in deep controversy, as against the government's insistence that only one tribal was killed. However, the fact remains that a large number of tribals, including women and children, are still missing.
The Government is adamant in its stand not to order a judicial inquiry. The repeated protests by the opposition and customary walk-outs from Assembly failed to change the Government's stand. The Opposition says that the Government's unwillingness for the inquiry was due to its fear of facing the truth - which it wants to hide dearly.
There were rumours that both Janu and Geethanandan were among the dead. However, both were rounded up by the locals near Batheri on February 22 and handed over to the police. After heinous torture, both were remanded to judicial custody in Kozhikode district jail on February 23. They are charged with at least ten cases, including murder and armed rebellion against the State, instituted by the police and six by forest officials.
Two calls were given by pro-tribal bodies for State-wide hartal in protest against the firing. It evoked no response. This, despite all the political parties, from CPM to BJP, condemning the Antony government on Muthanga firing and demanding a judicial inquiry. Notably, no political party had given a hartal call nor extended support to the calls given.
After all, in the typical Kerala environ, the tribals are mere ornamental pieces for too many people, to support their progress, which is what made Arundhati Roy, who visited Janu at Kozhikode jail on February 26 and Muthanga area the next day, to say that she was ashamed of being a Malayalee.
The number of tribals killed in Muthanga police firing is most likely to remain a mystery in the future. However, even if one were to believe the government's version of "only" one tribal killed, that itself is history since this is the first time that a tribal in Kerala was felled by police bullets.
That was the First Blood at Muthanga - not of the killed policeman, but of the tribal!!