Monday, April 14, 2008

Changing grammar of protest stumps political establishment

The wretched of the earth are standing up in Kerala and re-defining the politics of agitation. Their young middle class supporters are rewriting the grammar of protest. All this has stumped the political establishment, of which the traditional Left is now the dominant element.

It all started when CK Janu marched into Thiruvananthapuram with hundreds of her tribal followers in 2001 demanding restoration of their alienated forest lands. Breaking with the tradition of staging rallies or holding meetings, they erected makeshift hutments in front of the State Secretariat and camped there.

At first, the authorities ignored the agitation. But by the 48th day Janu was able to extract from Chief Minister AK Antony a promise to allot alternative lands to all landless Adivasis.

As the government failed to honour the commitment, Janu launched another agitation. This time the Adivasis squatted in the Muthanga forest. They were driven out in February 2003 in a police action, which resulted in the death of one Adivasi and one constable.

Despite the Muthanga brutality, squatting soon became the landless Adivasis’ favoured mode of agitation. In the biggest such agitation, more than 21,000 people have been camping in a plantation at Chengara in Pathanamthitta district for the last eight months, seeking allotment of land.

The Sadhujana Vimochana Samyuktavedi (united front for liberation of poor people), which has organized the movement, is led by Laha Gopalan, a retired government employee. All the squatters are not Adivasis or Dalit, but they are all are landless, he says.

A private firm, which claims ownership of the plantation, has obtained a court order for eviction of the squatters. The order contains an express directive to avoid bloodshed. This stands in the way of police action a la Muthanga.

Recently the government sent a police party to evict the squatters. It beat a hasty retreat when some of the agitators clambered up trees with ropes and threatened to hang themselves. The suicide threat can be seen as a measure of the despair of the landless.

Although the United Democratic Front has not taken a definite stand on the Chengara agitation, prominent Congress leaders like VM Sudheeran have made gestures of support.

Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan convened a meeting of Samyuktavedi representatives and leaders of different parties recently to discuss the Chengara issue. He asked the agitators to file applications for land individually and await the government’s decision. Laha Gopalan rejected the suggestion.

Nothing positive could have emerged from the meeting as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had taken a strong position against the agitation. It accused the Samyuktavedi of luring landless people with false promises.

The party also alleged that extremists and non-government organisations receiving funds from abroad were behind the agitation. Detractors had made similar allegations against Janu’s agitation too.

Early last month a group of young men and women from different parts of the State gathered outside the Secretariat for a ‘night vigil’ in solidarity with the Adivasis. Late at night, as the protestors were relaxing, a television camera stealthily recorded scenes showing them chatting, smoking and frolicking.

The CPI (M)-controlled Kairali channel aired the visuals with a commentary that suggested that the youth had violated the norms of public conduct. The party newspaper Deshabhimani also took up the issue.

Apparently the voyeuristic visuals were offered to other channels also, but none of them evinced interest in them.

The CPI (M) followed up the propaganda campaign with a demonstration of its own. It deputed leaders of the State unit of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association, which is affiliated to the party, for ritual cleansing of the area dirtied by the protesting youth.

The AIDWA campaign drew a derisive response from Anitha Thampi, a well-known poet. She wrote:

Don't laugh, dance or even smile!

Life is too serious a business;

Revolution is not laughter and merry making--

Stand up with reverence for the "second coming":

Don't speak, don't smoke, don't hug, and don't laugh--

Such heresies are injurious to the health of the revolution.

Media activist CS Venkiteswaran, writing in Paadhabhedam, deplored the snooping on the protestors and said, “This moral police must not be allowed to control our agitations and determine our morality.”

On Saturday the young people whose unconventional protest had angered the ruling party gathered again in Thiruvananthapuram. At a day-long conclave, they asserted their right to reject the establishment’s code and evolve their own forms of protest.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 14, 2008.

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