C K Janu is illiterate and has no political ideology except her own, born of poverty, bondage and the experience of working as a domestic and daily-wage labourer since the age of seven. And yet she is spearheading the struggle of Kerala’s 3.5 lakh landless adivasis (tribals)
She is illiterate. She does not have the backing of any political party. She does not belong to a powerful vote-bank. She has no leader. Not even an ideology for guidance. Yet she has become a notable figure in Kerala’s trouble-ridden socio-political scenario. She is C K Janu, who spearheads the agitation of Kerala’s 3.50 lakh adivasis (tribals) who constitute hardly 1 per cent of the state’s total population.
Kerala is no different from the rest of India, where the majority of women come into the forefront of public life either by virtue of their close relations with a male leader or due to the support of a powerful political party. Janu is an exception to this. Perhaps, after K R Gouriamma, the firebrand communist leader belonging to the backward Ezhava community and present minister in the UDF cabinet, only C K Janu has come to dominate public life in Kerala by sheer determination and willpower.
Janu was born in the tribal hamlet of Vellamunda in Wayanad district. Her parents belonged to the lowest segment of tribals. Sheer poverty and bondage forced Janu to know the bitterness of life as a domestic servant at a local schoolteacher’s house by age seven. At 12, she switched to daily-wage labour for Rs 2. Then she took on tailoring. But loans and lack of business forced her to close down the tailoring shop.
By that time Janu had identified the multifarious problems of the adivasis over generations. She started speaking out from personal experience. The adivasis were quick to identify Janu’s voice as their voice. Soon, established political leaders came in search of her. Thus she came to be associated with the CPI-M for a few years. When she realised that the CPI-M leaders were interested more in the success of their party than the lot of tribals, she quit the party in 1982. She began instead to visit each tribal hamlet to understand their problems, to learn fresh lessons from them and to mobilise them for the struggle. “I have no leader or philosophy. Experience is my guide,” Janu says.
After initial land struggles in Wayanad, Kannur, Palakkad, Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts, in September 2001 Janu launched a massive land agitation to fight for the return of adivasi lands. It lasted 48 days. (See Kerala’s Tribals Fight for their Lands). The government reached an agreement with her, and began the formal distribution of land to the tribals at a gala function in Idukki district on January 1, 2002. Janu, who was present on the dais along with Chief Minister A K Antony and Revenue Minister K M Mani, was not totally satisfied. She believes her struggle is nowhere near over.
Explains Janu: “Although land distribution to adivasis was inaugurated with much fanfare, there is no progress towards identifying land in any district except Idukki. The Adivasi Mission (constituted in accordance with the agreement between the government and tribals to identify land) has totally failed to discharge its duty. The period of five years set by the government to complete the land distribution is unacceptable. If at all the government is sincere, it can complete it within six months.”
What about the progress made by the Adivasi Mission in areas like Wayanad, which has the largest concentration of adivasis and where the tribal land problem is more acute? She says: “At Wayanad, the Mission had identified only the land meant for adivasi projects, and there was no effort to identify other lands. The panel for rehabilitation of adivasis had suggested to the Planning Board that adivasi land be included in Schedule Five of the Constitution, without which tribal lands cannot be protected. Nothing has been done in this regard so far.”
Besides, the first batch of land distributed to tribals at Idukki is, according to Janu, unfit for cultivation. Their demand is that adivasis be given only cultivable land in the very vicinity where they are settled.