The State of Adivasi Resistance in Kerala: Marking The 15th Year of Muthanga Land Struggle

Poster issued by BAPSA , JNU , Ambedkarite students organisation guided by the revolutionary thought of Birsa, Phule and Ambedkar

The state of Kerala is often known for its internationally celebrated ‘Model of Development’which sought to improve the material living conditions of its people through a higher level of social development with its remarkable record in the field of education, health and land redistribution. However, Kerala state is not just a model state in India regarding development. It is also marked by a conspicuous lack of violence towards its marginalised communities, a menace that many other Indian states suffer from. But, the Muthanga Adivasi land struggle and the police brutality that followed it tore apart this facade and laid bare the dreadful reality behind it.

The Muthanga land struggle occurred on 19 February 2003, at the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary in the Wayanad district of Kerala. Wayanad’s main claim to fame is that it homes the largest Adivasi population and considered to be the least developed part of the state. Adivasis of Kerala, especially in Wayanad, have faced generations of neglect and outright betrayal at the hands of the administration as well as the mainstream political parties, especially by the Left parties, who claim themselves to be the saviours of the marginalised communities. Therefore, the constant theme of Adivasi struggle in this part of Kerala has always been the continued alienation of land rights faced by the Adivasi communities. The immediate cause behind the Muthanga land struggle was the death of 30 adivasi children at Attappady region of Palakkad district due to extreme povery. But,the then Government, lead by the Congress party coalition, stated that the death has happened merely due to malnutrition. This careless attitude ignited and infuriated the Adivasi communities across the state. The root cause of the tragedy, according to the Adivasis, were the extreme poverty caused by the forceful eviction of indigenous people from their ancestral lands. They accused the government of blatant and sustained neglect towards the problems faced by the Adivasi communities. With the government doing nothing to protect their communities, the adivasis of Kerala were finally galvanized to organize themselves under the leadership of Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha (AGMS). With the support of AGMS activists, adivasis in Wayanad made hamlets at Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary, the forest land which had originally belonged to the Adivasis before the enforcement of forest and land acts by the state. This was the first major resistance movement of its kind and magnitude put up by the Adivasi communities in Kerala under the leadership of Adivasis themselves.

The state government retaliated with heavy police deployment and excessive force. On 19th February, the police opened firing at the unarmed and largely peaceful protestors without any provocation. The reason given for this brutal police action was an alleged attack by adivasis bearing sticks and stones. An adivasi activist, Joggy, was shot dead by the police. In the run up to the incident, and afterwards, both left and Congress parties accused the Adivasis of being Maoists and labelled the Muthanga struggle as a struggle backed by the Maoists. As a result, even after the Muthanga incident, the state police force carried out violent retaliatory action against Adivasis across the state in the name of Maoists’ hunt. The survivors were arrested and jailed by the authorities. Even young children were sent to prison along with their mothers and this was a blatant violation of children’s rights committed by the state. A ‘People’s Judicial Enquiry Commission’ under the chairmanship of Justice V R Krishna Iyer was set up to enquire about the instances of human rights violations that occurred during the Muthanga struggle. The committee found that there were clear evidences of blatant human rights violations by the state during the struggle. But the state is yet to take any corrective action on the committee report. Many of the Adivasi activists who were involved in the struggle have been charged with severe criminal cases for anti-state activities. Many of these cases are still pending in the Court.

Now, it has been 15 years since this tragic incident occurred and still the Adivasi communities of Kerala are being denied of basic rights such as land, education, and health. The progressive society of Kerala has conveniently forgotten the struggle lead by the Adivasi communities to secure their basic rights and the progressive Government has turned a deaf ear to the existential issues faced by the Adivasis. In recent years, the so called progressive Government of Kerala which never bothered about the lives of Adivasi communities, has shown more interest and initiative in wasting the allocated funds on creating tribal museums, in the name of “promoting adivasi culture.” This initiative once again proves the negligent attitude of the Government towards the plight of the Adivasi population in the state. There are countless other ways in which these funds could have been utilised to create meaningful changes in the lives of the impoverished adivasi communities. Hence the construction of a museum is nothing but a humiliation and mockery of the plight of the Adivasi population when hundreds of adivasi children are dying of poverty, when hundreds of adivasis are being brutally attacked by the police force for fighting for their ancestral lands, when the adivasi children are being thrown out and humiliated in schools for their identity.

Meanwhile, the Adivasi activists of Kerala have already started campaigning against this mockery under the banner of “STOP MUSEUMIZING ADIVASIS”. Their demand is simple, that is, the Adivasis (all over the world) need basic living conditions to be met first, not any empty lip service in the form of tribal museums. So, it will be a faux pas, if the Progressive Left Front Government in Kerala thinks that it is doing a favour to the Adivasis by building a museum and presenting them as people who still lag behind modernity. Also, it will be utterly futile to celebrate Kerala as the number one ‘development model’ in India in the face of a section of population who are being denied with their basic rights. Adivasis of kerala do not need museums. They need better living conditions to live a life with dignity and respect like any other citizen of this country.

On behalf of BAPSA , Aswathi CM , a research student of JNU and CC Member of BAPSA  wrote this article.

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