The Chengara Land Struggle: Another Nandigram in Making

The hilly terrains at the southern plantation belt of the Pathanamthitta district in Kerala reverberates with a major land struggle of an unprecedented nature involving more than 5000 families of the most deprived sections of the population. They demand land to live and labor on. These are the people left-out in the land reforms of Kerala lauded as a grand success. By tradition and practice, they have the creative potential to lead a highly productive life in relation to land and nature. But, they do not posses it. The mainstream society of Kerala either ignores this struggle or pretends that nothing serious is happening except for a bit of law and order problem. Some even perceive this struggle as a violent and militant movement, and thereby indirectly assume that the strugglers are supported by ‘Naxals’. So goes the behavior of the media too.

This struggle by landless Dalits and Adviasis to gain ownership of land began on 4th August 2007. They have been labeled as ‘encroachers’ and attacked by the Goonds of the rubber plantations of Harrisson Malayalam Limited at Chengara near Konni in Pathanamthitta District. Ten of them including women were admitted in the hospitals in Pathanamthitta.

This is actually the second phase of the struggle. Two years back a struggle that was on very similar lines was launched. It was in Kumbazha Estate of the same management. The struggle was called-off after getting assurance from the Government that their demand would be looked into. Since there was no indication of any positive move from the state government, people moved into the present struggle by occupying new land. To begin with, they occupied about 125 acres. After Onam Festival they have spread on to a larger area covering four hills – each family occupying one acre of land. This has two advantages. One, the earlier area was covered with Rubber trees which were yielding. The present spot is having old trees, non-yielding. The Trade unions were against the landless poor who occupied the land, saying that the ‘encroachers’ were not allowing them to continue their plantation related work. But, now, because there is no hindrance for rubber tapping, the workers are friendlier. Secondly the Management and TUs had approached the court, which advised the authorities to evict the encroachers without using force. Now, as they are out of that particular place, the management may need fresh advice from the court.

The estate under purview has trespassed its lease period. Their claim is that even if the land is not theirs, the trees are theirs. Basically, this is land which has to be taken back from the planters and given to the landless. The Left Front Government by its one year old promise is bound to do that. The Ghost of Muthanga, where the police shot at the Adivasis who claimed their ancestral land, should continue to haunt the authorities. The government had given in writing that the Adivasis will be allotted land. But the governments of whichever shade; right of left have not fulfilled this promise of providing land to the landless except in a very nominal way. Muthanga is a landmark in peoples struggle for land and it challenges people to go on with struggles claiming land for the Dalits and Adivasis.

The present agitation is an indication of the intense nature of the struggle. It is not easy for 4000 families (a number, increasing by at least 20 families a day) to go away to an area surrounded by “enemies” and to stay for weeks and months fighting the most horrid situations of rain, epidemics and hunger. The families at the Kurumbatti division of the Chengara estate were asked what would happen if the court would give the verdict to oust the encroachers. The women were the most vocal in declaring: “We have five liters of Kerosene Oil and the moment the authorities turn us out we will burn ourselves. No question of retreating without getting land”.

The movement is a fight to reclaim ownership of land that has been part of a long standing promise of the Government. At present nearly 5000 families, more than 20,000 people have entered the Harrison Malayalam Private Ltd Estate, living in makeshift arrangements. The Chengara Land struggle demands permanent ownership of agricultural land through transfer of ownership from the Harrison Company to the Dalits and Adivasis. The Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi (SJVSV), the collective that leads the struggle, has opted for the land take-over as strategy remembering the tradition of the great leader Ayyankali, a militant dalit leader whose mission was to ensure liberation of Dalits from various forms of slavery, right to agricultural land, as well as right to education in Kerala.

The movement salutes Ayyankali and Ambedkar whose role in rights movements in Kerala is disproportionately highlighted in the modern social literature on Kerala. Raising the names of Ayyankali and Ambedkar as sources of inspiration is a political challenge to the mainstream political left parties. There is a widespread popular belief in Kerala that the officials left were the sole forces which ensured rights to Dalits, including land rights. Such misrepresentations are now globalised through some academic works as well.

The Chengara Pledge as Recited by Soumya Babu, an 11 year old girl who said she would go to school only after she gets land

I love my country. I will try to learn about the constitution and laws of my country. I will work for fulfilling the pristine objective of the constitution. I will take part in the nation building process in my own way. I will not discriminate against any Indian on the basis of religion or caste. I understand us as owners of a great tradition as well as protectors of a great democracy.

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