Struggle for land not over for tribespeople of Muthanga

Twenty years after the government brutally supressed the tribal people’s struggle for land, the ghosts of Muthanga continue to haunt the tribal population with many bearing the brunt of police brutalities. The various schemes announced by the government have largely remained on paper

Updated - October 01, 2023 12:57 am IST

Published - March 02, 2023 08:33 pm IST - KALPETTA

Mari, a tribal woman of Murikkilery Oorali tribal hamlet. The woman became mentally upset after she missed her three daughters during the police firing at Muthanga. Though the children were jailed they were yet to get compensation.

Mari, a tribal woman of Murikkilery Oorali tribal hamlet. The woman became mentally upset after she missed her three daughters during the police firing at Muthanga. Though the children were jailed they were yet to get compensation. | Photo Credit: Manoj E M

The Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha (AGM) called off its Nilpu Samaram (standing protest) in front of the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram in 2014 after the government agreed to fulfil its demands, recalls M. Geethanandan, one of its leaders.

The demands included a rehabilitation package for the tribal families involved in the Muthanga agitation in Wayanad in 2003 and compensation for the tribal children and other victims arrested in connection with the agitation.

According to the records of the Kerala State Human Rights Commission, as many as 160 children had been jailed and the government announced a compensation of ₹1 lakh per child. But only 44 children had details of their parents kept in the jail records. Even among them, 14 have not received the compensation due to them, says Mr. Geethanandan.

Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha leader C.K. Janu

Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha leader C.K. Janu | Photo Credit: Manoj E M

Although the government had agreed to provide one acre to each of the 295 landless tribal families in the first phase, the process had dragged on.

Land was allotted to the families in different parts of Wayanad besides at Aralam in Kannur. In most cases, the land was either barren or unfit for cultivation, he says. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change handed over 19,000 acres in the State, including 7,000 acres in Wayanad, a year after the Muthanga agitation for the rehabilitation of the landless tribal families. A major chunk of the land in Wayanad was utilised for government projects or encroached upon by many tribal feeder organisations of leading political parties, Mr. Geethanandan says.

Many landless till date

The government allotted an acre each to 65 families at the Mariyanad estate at Pambra under the Kerala Forest Development Corporation in 2016. To this was added the estate’s 235 acres so that it could be apportioned among the landless tribesmen. But the government could not distribute the land in a time-bound manner and the 65 families continue to be landless to date, he says.

Twenty families that took part in the Muthanga agitation had land allotted to them at Aralam but 17 of them returned to their hamlets as they could do nothing with the uncultivable land.

Meeni, a tribal woman of Kallumkara Paniaya tribal hamlet. The woman was brutally assaulted by a policeman after the Muthanga police firing.

Meeni, a tribal woman of Kallumkara Paniaya tribal hamlet. The woman was brutally assaulted by a policeman after the Muthanga police firing. | Photo Credit: Manoj E M

Mr. Geethanandan says the AGM will soon resume agitations raising demands such as cultivable land to all landless tribespeople, handover of the 19,000 hectares allotted by the Centre for distribution among landless people, and implementation of the Panchayat Extension to the Scheduled Area, Act 1996 (PESA Act).

However, Wayanad Collector A. Geetha says the distribution of land to the landless tribespeople involved in the Muthanga agitation is at its finishing stage.

“A total of 241 of the 280 families have been provided one acre each. The remaining families will be provided land at Mariynad at a pattaya mela on March 7. The shortage of cultivable land in the district was the major reason for the untimely delay. A proposal was submitted to the government to provide suitable land for the families who had left the allotted land owing to various reasons,” she says.

Sivan, son of Jogi, who was reportedly killed in the police firing at Muthanga.

Sivan, son of Jogi, who was reportedly killed in the police firing at Muthanga. | Photo Credit: Manoj E M

Muthanga agitation

The apathy of the State government to execute the agreement signed with AGM leaders after 48 days of the Kudilketty Samaram (hutment agitation) in front of the Secretariat in 2001 led to the land agitation at Muthanga from the New Year day of 2003.

The agitators started to erect huts at Muthanga by staking claim to the forest land there, arguing that the Madhava Menon Commission had stated that a half of the land belonged to the tribespeople. “I was only 14 years old while attending the struggle along with my father Jogi, who was reportedly killed in police firing on February 19, 2003,” recalls Sivan of the Chaligaddha Adiya tribal hamlet on the banks of the Kabani river. 

Rajan of Chaligadha tribal hamlet along with Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha leader M.Geethanandan. T Rajan was involved in the Muthanga agitation but, was excluded from the list of Muthanga evictees after he was allotted land in Aralam farm, Kannur. He returned to the hamlet as the land was uncultivable. Now fishing on the Kabani river is his major occupation.

Rajan of Chaligadha tribal hamlet along with Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha leader M.Geethanandan. T Rajan was involved in the Muthanga agitation but, was excluded from the list of Muthanga evictees after he was allotted land in Aralam farm, Kannur. He returned to the hamlet as the land was uncultivable. Now fishing on the Kabani river is his major occupation. | Photo Credit: Manoj E M

“We planted tubers and vegetables on the land, which was earlier an eucalyptus plantation. Agitation centres were opened at Thakarappady, Ambukuthy Mala, and Ponkuzhy under the sanctuary. Setting up a PESA model autonomous and self-reliant tribal village was the dream of the agitators for which eco-restoration activities were undertaken on the barren land,” says Mr. Sivan. 

Soon, word spread that the participants of the agitation will get land and tribesmen began to arrive in hordes to the centre. When the agitation got under way, there were nearly 2,000 tribespeople. But by the middle of January, the number rose to some 4,500. Each family was allotted one acre and the family members erected huts on it. Three check-posts were also erected to restrict the entry of outsiders to the settlements and as many as 200 volunteers were constituted to monitor the daily activities.

How it all started

“The Ambukuthimala forest area on the Kerala-Karnataka border was known for anti-social activities such as brewing illicit liquor and wildlife poaching. Hence we mainly focussed on the area,” says Ramesan of Koyalippura, who led the volunteer force. “Life was tranquil there despite occasional visits by forest officials.”

Mathi a tribal woman of the Murikkilery Oorali tribal hamlet shows a scar on her head  from a wound inflicted  in a lathicharge at Muthanga.

Mathi a tribal woman of the Murikkilery Oorali tribal hamlet shows a scar on her head from a wound inflicted in a lathicharge at Muthanga. | Photo Credit: Manoj E M

The agitators spotted an outbreak of fire at Nallurvayal on the eastern side of Muthanga on February 17 and they felt that it was to drive them out. They seized a vehicle loaded with dried elephant dung and petrol-filled cans. They detained four persons, including three forest officials. Soon, they detained as many as 22 people who allegedly set fire to the forest by throwing dried elephant dung dipped in petrol, Sivan says.

Tension prevailed in the area. The very next day, political parties called for a hartal in Sulthan Bathery taluk demanding the release of hostages and eviction of agitators from the Muthanga forest. This was what led to the police firing and the death of two persons — Vinod, a police constable, and Jogi.

“When the police resorted to firing, I tried to escape through the forest path along with two others and lost our way in the forest,” says Sivan. The trio reached Chaligadha, around 50 km from Muthanga, the next day evening.

The police unleashed a brutal assault on the hapless tribespeople. They also raided nearby tribal hamlets in search of agitators and arrested many persons, including women.

“At least 10 tribesmen died later on from the injuries sustained in the brutal police assault. Many became bedridden. Over 700 Adivasi women, children, and elderly were jailed,” says C.K. Janu, a leader of the AGM, who went on to become the face of the agitation.

“Upon release from jail when the agitators reached home, the police had destroyed their valuable documents such as ration cards, identity cards cards, utensils and clothes,” says Bindu of Murikkilery Oorali tribal hamlet near Cheeral.

Bindu was four months pregnant at the time of police action and a policeman kicked her on stomach with boots, she says. The woman gave premature birth to a girl at the Medical College Hospital, Kozhikode. “Now my daughter is unhealthy and she is suffering from the punishments inflicted on me by the police,” she laments. 

The condition of Meeni of Kallumkara Paniya hamlet is not different. She was bedridden for many months after a policeman assaulted her at her house and later at the forest inspection bungalow at Muthanga. 

The social boycott against the participants continued for months and our neighbours treated us as anti-social elements, she says.

Babu of the same hamlet shudders to remember the barbaric assault he was subjected to in the police vehicle while being taken to the Central Jail in Kannur. He says the assault rendered him weak and unfit for physical labour.

The police action and physical assault on Mari of the Murikkilery hamlet and her husband Kalan in the vehicle destabilised her mentally. The woman was jailed along with three of her children but they have yet to get any compensation, says Indu, Mari’s daughter who was a four-year-old at that time.

Balan of the Thiruvannur Paniya hamlet got one acre in Aralam after the agitation. Though he worked on the land for three months, he returned home as the land was barren. Sivan got land at Kanhiramgad but he returned home as the land became uncultivable after a landslip in 2018.

‘Political issue’

Janu says the issues related to the marginalised sections of society, including the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes in the State, should be addressed politically. The marginalised people have been casting votes since 1947 but their issues have remained unresolved. The parties fail to consider the section as human beings after each election gets over, she bemoans.

The Janadhipathya Rashtriya Party (JRP) was constituted to address the issues politically and the party should be strengthened. The tribespeople failed to make a political agenda owing to the dearth of a party of their own and it is a major reason for the denial of their constitutional rights, she says.

A meeting of the JRP will be held in Kozhikode on March 5 to decide its course of action. The AGM is also mulling hitting the path of agitation as 20 years after the Muthanga struggle, many who were promised land then have only got a raw deal.

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