In 2001, C.K. Janu launched an agitation that propelled a tribal movement for land to the centre-stage of political discourse in Kerala. Her relentless fight for the cause of Adivasis continues.
It is hard to ignore the image of an Adivasi woman in her late 30s in police custody, her cheeks swollen and her eyelids droopy, following her arrest a few days after the violent clashes between police personnel and Adivasis inside the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary at Muthanga in Kerala, as one goes to meet her, now in her early 40s, at her small house on the slopes near Panavally, about 10 km from Mananthavady in Wayanad. It is also tempting to juxtapose that with an earlier image of her being carried by jubilant Adivasi activists following an agreement between the government and the Adivasi Dalit Action Council that ended the 48-day Adivasi stir she led in front of the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.
These two images of Chekot Karian Janu, or C.K. Janu as she is popularly known, are symbolic: both the two-month-old agitation at Muthanga in 2003, which many dubbed as misadventure on the part of Adivasi leaders including Janu, and the successful stir in front of the Secretariat 16 months earlier are part of the narrative of the protracted struggle of the Adivasis of Kerala for land.
Born in Chekot, a tribal hamlet in Wayanad district, into an Adiyar family of five children, she received no school education because, as she herself recounts, she started working when she was a child. Her parents were agricultural labourers who toiled from dawn to dusk and were paid in paddy. When she was a little older she was sent to stay in a household to look after its children. It was years later that she learnt to write and read by participating in literacy drives launched as part of the State-wide literacy campaign.
Janu began her activism as a member of the Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union (KSKTU), a union of agricultural labourers affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and continued to be involved with it till 1992 when she left it to mobilise Adivasis living in the tribal colonies in the region.
“When I left the KSKTU to focus my attention exclusively on problems faced by my fellow Adivasis, I was taunted by my former comrades in the organisation with their comments that an illiterate woman like me was not going to solve the problems of the Adivasis,” she says.
She was, however, determined to work for the Adivasis. She joined like-minded tribal activists to form the Aadivaasi Vikasana Pravarthaka Samiti and started visiting Adivasi settlements to understand the issues being faced by them. “All our late night discussions on the problems faced by the Adivasis ended with one crucial issue: that of the landlessness of the Adivasis,” she points out.
Following the land reforms, says Janu, the Adivasis were forced to live in three or four cents each in tribal colonies. This led to deprivation and starvation. That realisation marked the beginning of the Adivasi's agitation for land. She also travelled to different parts of the country during the period. In January 1999, she toured Europe as part of a delegation of the People's Global Action Group and took part in protest demonstrations against globalisation.
What propelled this tribal movement for land to the centre-stage of political discourse in the State was the agitation launched by her and her associate M. Geethanandan in front of the Secretariat in 2001 that forced the A.K. Antony government to accede to most of their demands including two hectares of land each to landless Adivasi families. The Adivasi activists under the leadership of Janu had already begun occupation of patches of excess land as a form of agitation for land. The landless Adivasis would occupy the land and build makeshift huts there. In 1995, for example, 52 tribal families occupied surplus land at Panavally. The agitation ended with the government assigning the land among the occupiers. She was one of them.
“I started cultivating ginger in my plot in this colony and it turned out to be profitable. Now most of the inhabitants in this settlement are cultivating either ginger or pepper or coffee,” Janu says emphasising that the land has brought the Adivasi families here better livelihood and living conditions.
For Janu, the Tribal Mission Package announced by the Chief Minister A.K. Antony following the 2001 agitation was a major success.
The struggle for the alienated tribal land was acknowledged for the first time. Recalling the earlier moves to water down the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction of Transfer and Restoration of Alienated Land) Act 1975, unanimously passed by the Assembly, the Adivasi leader says that under the Act all tribal land transfers before 1961 were to be annulled. But the Act was later amended to ensure that only the land which was alienated after 1986 had to be restored to the Adivasis.
Nearly 10,000 Adivasi families have received land following the 2001 agreement, says Janu. Over 4,000 hectares of land including the Aralam Farm land in Kannur district has been assigned to the landless Adivasis.
Questioning the portrayal of the agitation at Muthanga in 2003 as a misadventure, Janu says that the Adivasis were forced to encroach on the land and build huts there as an agitation in response to the government's inaction in expediting implementation of the agreement.
An Adivasi and a police personnel were killed in the pitched battles fought between the police and the agitating Adivasis at Muthanga on February 19, 2003, when the former moved to evict the protesting tribals from the sanctuary.
“It was the Muthanga agitation and its fallout that strengthened the political consciousness of the Adivasis. The mainstream political parties started wooing the Adivasis and highlighting the Adivasi causes,” Janu says. That agitation has even affected the political consciousness of the Dalits in the State as well, she observes.
Janu evades questions about her personal hardships following the incidents at Muthanga. “My personal experiences have no relevance as they are part of a cause that highlighted the collective dispossession and deprivation of the hapless Adivasis,” she says. She promises to continue the struggle to get more land for the landless Adivasis and to protect the land that has already been assigned.