Monday, August 18, 2008

Chengara - landless Dalits, the Left Democratic Front, and terror


A historic land struggle has been unfolding at Chengara in Pathanamthitta district, Kerala, involving about 7500 families, which includes all sections of landless people, the majority of them being Dalits and Adivasis. Landless people have claimed land in the Chengara estate, a rubber plantation, which had been leased to the Harrison Malayalam Plantation by the government of Kerala. At present, the lease is invalid and the property has lapsed back to the government. The landless people who have flocked there from all parts of Kerala demand that this government land be redistributed to them. These marginalised people have thereby demanded a say in what must be done with government land in Kerala: given the present political and economic climate, the likelihood is that this land will be taken over by the state only to be assigned unconditionally, or with minimum conditions, to the multi-nationals. The struggle is now over a year old; it began on 3 August 2007, and was led by Laaha Gopalan, a leader of the Dalit organization, the Sadhujana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi.

Throughout the past one year, the struggle has been conducted in a peaceful way. Also, its political gravity has been widely recognized, both in the national and international pro-democracy, pro-equity circles. This was probably why the Kerala High Court ordered the government, in March 2008, not to evict the people forcibly from Chengara . The Left Democratic Front government in Kerala, however, has failed to address the issues raised by the struggle in any serious way. Indeed, it has continued to espouse the position that no land remains in Kerala that may be redistributed. This, however, is a position that has been contested since long.

The present scene, however, appears more ominous. Tensions had started building earlier this month. On the first anniversary of the land struggle, which was observed on 4 August 2008, workers of the Harrison Malayalam Plantation began a road blockade that cut off food and medical supplies to people inside the plantation. In the subsequent days, unlawful detention of and violence upon male and female activists by goons have become frequent. Men going out of the plantation seeking work have been increasingly attacked and beaten up. Women have been threatened with sexual violence in overt and covert ways. Human rights’ activists were violently prevented from entering the area by goondas pretending as workers, in the full view of police and government officials. This incident was widely reported in the press in Kerala, and revealed the complicity of state authorities with the vested interests seeking to break the back of the land struggle through unlawful means.

Starvation and illness has been reported from inside the plantation but activists have been forcibly prevented from entering. Indian Vision, a Malayalam TV Channel, reported the abduction and sexual harassment of four women activists. However, no one from outside has been allowed in to investigate. Following the reports, a protest was organized at Pathanamthitta, on 11 August by dalit activists, dalit feminists and other human rights activists, but not a single activist was allowed to proceed. The media, too, is eerily silent. The day after the protest, two women who went out for provisions were attacked, who were rescued from abduction by the police. Importantly, this attempt to abduct happened in the full view of the police. What this reveals is the determination of the goondas to make the point that police presence does not deter them.

The relative absence of outright violence, until now, is no consolation. The recent goonda tactics are according to a blueprint of violence now familiar in Kerala — of the sand mafia, which creates an atmosphere or terror instead of outright violence and brings the local community to its knees. Clearly a variant of the same is being experimented with in Chengara.

We are afraid that another kind of Nandigram is awaiting us at Chengara, and in the near future. This appeal comes from those who have been engaged in anti-caste and anti-patriarchal struggles in Kerala, which have grown outside formal institutions of the state. We feel that these two axes of exclusion and violence have conjoined at Chengara, both in the blockade and in the intermittent violence there. We demand that democratic forces in Kerala rise to the occasion to challenge this denial of democracy. We demand, first of all, that the illegal road blockade at Chengara be lifted at once, and that the trade unions take necessary steps to isolate the criminal perpetrators of violence against the struggling people of Chengara. We demand that neutral teams of observers be immediately allowed into the estate to take stock of the situation, and investigate the extent of violence. We condemn the use of sexual harassment – and the threat of it – against women as a political weapon at Chengara and urge the government to take strong steps against this. We appeal to the democratic and socialist supporters of the mainstream left in Kerala to remember the histories of valiant struggles for workers’ and peasants’ rights. We appeal to all democratic people in this country and the world to join us in this struggle to live and flourish.

Issued by Rekha Raj, for the Panchami Dalit Feminist Collective, Kottayam, Kerala


Click here for a compilation of mainstream media news items on Chengara,
compiled by Greenyouth

2 Earthling’s comments:

dalits_kerala said...

Dear Brothers
Give your solid solidarity towards the land struggle in Kerala
R.Prakash
Kerala
+91 989502 6178

Anonymous said...

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 used to be seen. The party 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 Sadhujana Munnani that has started the Chengara land-grab is one such saviour-outfit of dubious origins.

Harrison Malayalam Plantations runs the Kumbazha Estate under a lease agreement from the government. The lease has expired. The land has fallen back to the government. The local party leaders wanted to distribute this land among party members to be identified as ‘landless’. Before they could get to this, outfits like the Sadhujana Munnani beat them to it.

The squatters in Chengara are not all landless. Even the leader Laha Gopalan has admitted to owning land elsewhere. Their demands are very humble. They each want one acre of land and Rs. 50000/- to cultivate it.

Kerala has the highest density of population in the country, about 1000 people per 240 acres of land. This works out to one person for every 24 cents of land. This calculation is for the entire land irrespective of its terrain as liveable or not. If the land is to be liveable, it has to have its rivers, backwaters and hills exempted in the calculation of permissible human occupation. It is agreed that only 60 percent of land in the State is thus available to humans to live in. The actual permissible density is only one person per 14 cents of area. As such, all land in the state is housing real estate. The land demands of the Chengara squatters are therefore, ridiculous and their motives dubious.

Some of the princes of the Church support Chengara. To them, a CPM leader asked whether the clergy would be agreeable to the landless’ squatting in Church estates in the Chengara fashion.

I have 5 cents with a 900-m2 house in it. It carries a burden of 14 lakhs debt also, which I propose to settle through a Reverse Mortgage where the Bank would take over the property when I die.

Going by the Chengara philosophy, any landless might in the future demand my land because he is landless. What then, is civilisation all about?

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