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.
Exactly sixteen months ago, on October 16, 2001, the same Antony was happily celebrating victory of the 48 day-long agitation in front of the Secretariat by a section of the tribals, led by C. K. Janu. Along with his Cabinet colleagues, Antony personally went to the huts erected by the agitators in front of the Secretariate to congratulate Janu for the success of her agitation launched against his own government. Two-and-half months later, on January 1, 2002, Antony shared the dais with Janu at a government-sponsored pomp-and-show at Idukki to mark the beginning of the distribution of land documents to the Tribals. By wearing the traditional turban of the Mannan tribals of Idukki, Antony joined the tribal dancers to the rhythmic tune of tribal drums. The Government’s Public Relations Department brought out lakhs of multi-colour posters for the special occasion of the land distribution to the landless tribals.
Merely after a year now, the same Antony government had to unleash police terror on the same Janu-led Tribal agitators at the Muthanga forests on February 19, 2003. Officially it left one policeman and “only” one tribal killed, about 300 tribals, including Janu, arrested and imprisoned, and scores of others still convalescing at the hospital. Following the Muthanga police firing, the saddened Antony proclaimed that his government won’t allow anybody to launch an armed struggle. His lieutenants, within the Cabinet, the Congress party and ruling UDF amalgam, heaped allegations of LTTE-PWG connections on the same Janu with whom Antony was celebrating the victory of her struggle a year ago at Thiruvananthapuram and Idukki. BJP leaders, who supported Janu’s stir in front of the Secretariat in 2001, went a step ahead after the Muthanga firing alleging that she had the support of foreign-funded Christian missionaries and Islamic terrorists.
The Road to Muthanga
What led Janu to launch the Tribal land agitation in front of the Secretariate in September 2001 was the unprecedented starvation deaths in the tribal belt. The principal reason for the starvation deaths of the tribals was the absence of cultivable land for them. The tribals became landless due to the encroachment of their ancestral land by powerful settlers from the plains, starting from pre-Independence days. The earnings of these tribals from daily wages also got depleted due to the acute problems faced by rich farmers, agriculturists and planters; thanks to the new world order of GATT and globalisation.
The problems of the tribals, numbering 3.35 lakhs and constituting one percent of the Kerala population, got aggravated because of the non-implementation of the Alienated Tribal Land (Restoration) Act of 1975 by the successive governments led by both the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the CPM. This Act, and its non-implementation, speaks volumes about the absence of democratic governance and the rule of law in Kerala.
The Act was passed unanimously by the Kerala Assembly in April 1975 when communist veterans C. Achutha Menon (CPI) and EMS Namboodiripad (CPM) were the Chief Minister and Opposition leader, respectively. Moving the bill, the then Revenue Minister, Baby John (RSP), said : “The tribals have lost their ancestral land to the settler-encroachers, in exchange for tobacco, dry fish or petty cash. Whatever might have been the form of transaction, this government treats it as stealing. It is the firm commitment of this government to recover these stolen properties and to restore it to its original owners – the tribals.” Accordingly, the Government was legally bound to evict all those who encroached the tribal land since 1960 and restore it to the original tribal owners.
This 1975 Act was duly incorporated into the Ninth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. During the 1975 Emergency regime, Indira Gandhi included land to the landless tribals as the main motto of her famous 20-point programme. Yet, this Act was not implemented throughout the Emergency period by the pro-Emergency Kerala Government led by then CPI-Congress ruling alliance. All the successive governments, led by both LDF and UDF, followed suit in breach of this Act.
The reason was simple : The thin ethnic minority of tribals, spread over different districts throughout the State, do not constitute a viable vote bank, while the encroacher-settlers are powerful supporters of either the LDF or UDF in the tribal belt. For example, in Wayanad, the formest Tribal district of Kerala, the tribal population (1.24 lakhs) constitute hardly one-fifth of the total population. The tribal candidates of the various parties can of course contest the tribal reserved Assembly seat in Wayanad. However, only the tribal candidate and the party capable of cajoling the majority non-tribals can win the seat. Even newspapers, which dare to publish pro-tribal items, cannot expect circulation in the tribal belt. Those who have the purchasing power of the newspapers are the encroachers, whereas it is a luxury for the illiterate tribals, struggling for survival against starvation and deaths.
Dr. Nalla Thampi Thera moved a writ petition in the Kerala High Court in 1988 pleading for direction to the government to implement the 1975 Act. Five years later, in 1993, the High Court favoured the petition and directed the Government to implement the rule of law. The then UDF-Government, led by K. Karunakaran, pleaded for more time. The same plea was repeated by the Antony-led UDF Government in 1995-96. In early 1996, the Antony Government even tried to bring an Ordinance to overcome the High Court order which, however, was rejected by the State Governor. By the time the Nayanar-led LDF Government took over in May 1996, the High Court gave a final instruction to the Government to implement the Act before September 30, 1996. In a startling affidavit filed before the High Court, the Government went to the extent of pleading its inability to
implement the rule of law on the tribal land issue as it would create a law and order problem, including bloodshed. The same government, which rejected the High Court order to evict the encroacher-settlers from the tribal land in 1996, had no qualms to open police firing against the landless tribals at Muthanga tribal belt in February 2003 in order to evict them from a protected wild life sanctuary.