Friday, August 8, 2008

Chengara: the problem and the solution

What happened at Chengara (in Pathanamthitta district) the other day is not something the regime and those who lead it can recall with pride. Thousands of landless people have been on an agitation there for a year demanding farm land. Three activists who went there to express solidarity with them on the first anniversary of the struggle were stopped by a group of men who claimed to be plantation workers. They also damaged their vehicles. All this happened in the presence and under the patronage of the police. At the request of the police, the organizers had to shift the venue of a public meeting, planned for the next day, at another location. Events of this kind are not new in Kerala. But the society needs to recognize factors which make the Chengara developments different.

The violence in Chengara was planned. Even the police does not say there was any provocation from the side of the agitators. What they have been carrying on for a year is a peaceful struggle of endurance. This is quite different from the agitations that the political parties organize. A parallel that one can point to is the agitation that the Adivasis staged at Muthanga under the leadership of CK Janu. After the attempt to discredit that agitation by alleging extremist presence failed, the government created provocation and used needless violence. AK Antony, who was Chief Minister at the time, sought to justify the use of brute force, saying the Centre had asked for eviction of Adivasis from the Muthanga sanctuary. At Chengara, too, the authorities alleged extremist presence. A plantation owner got an order from the High Court for the eviction of the agitators. But the court’s directive to avoid bloodshed came in the way of Muthanga-style solution.

Tapan Ganguly, who had come from Bengal, environmental activist CR Neelakantan and a priest and former college teacher Abraham Joseph were the victims of violence. From the eyewitness account given by Fr. Abraham Joseph at Thiruvananthapuram the next day, it appears the violence was perpetrated by a bunch of goons who were behind the plantation workers. The workers complain that the land agitation was adversely affecting them. But what happened there was not a mere protest demonstration. When workers who are under different party flags and the army of goons in the pay of the estate owners form a united front against landless Dalits and Adivasis, what emerges is a picture of the new class division taking place in Kerala. It is a phenomenon the genius of Marx could not comprehend.

It cannot be a coincidence that police arrangements there were at a low level and provided the assailants an opportunity to run riot. The only point on which there is room for doubt is the level at which the decision to keep the police presence at a low level was taken. According to the practice in democratic societies, it is the duty of the police to check those perpetrating violence and protect those engaged in peaceful activities. The very opposite happened at Chengara. There the police checked those who maintained peace and protected the perpetrators of violence. This indicates the direction in which police reform, of which we hear a lot these days, is moving.

The responsibility for the Chengara events cannot be laid on the shoulders of the small police force present there. The circumstances suggest that they were acting in accordance with the wishes of those who decided that limited police presence will do. Even if it was an official who took that decision, the responsibility has to be shared by Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. He is not known to have expressed displeasure over the police conduct. As such, it must be presumed that it has his approval. In the Communist Party of India (Marxist) dispensation, the party is above the individual. No minister, not even the Chief Minister, has the right to take a decision that does not have the party’s approval. In the circumstances, it will not be right to limit the responsibility to the minister. It extends to the party.
Most of those engaged in the agitation for land are Dalits and Adivasis. Some others are also at Chengara. What unites them all is landlessness. The government has a duty to solve this problem. A Left government has greater responsibility in this matter than any other regime since it was the Left that raised the slogan ‘Land for the Tiller’. It was the failure to make good this promise that led the Dalits and the Adivasis to the path of struggle.

The Dalits and Adivasis have traditionally stood with the Left. The party congress, held at Coimbatore, acknowledged that these sections were moving away from the CPI-M and decided on steps to bring them closer to the party. Following this, General Secretary Prakash Karat planned to lead a protest demonstration in a Tamil Nadu village, where a wall had been erected to segregate the Dalits. The government pulled down the wall even before he arrived. The party’s intervention thus yielded result. But the governments in Kerala and West Bengal have not taken any steps in the light of the party congress decision. The party leadership presumably believes that it can attract Dalit support nationally by projecting Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati as the Third Front’s prime ministerial candidate. But Mayawati’s elevation as Prime Minister will not solve Dalits’ problems just as Indira Gandhi’s elevation did not solve women’s problems. The party has to demonstrate its sincerity by solving the problems of Dalits and other weaker sections in Chengara and Nandigram.

Problems of this kind cannot be solved except through negotiations. The government had made some efforts to settle the Chengara agitation. At one point the Chief Minister had called the leaders of the agitation as well as elected representatives for talks but there was no progress. Later the District Collector had talks with the agitation leaders. As long as the CPI-M leadership maintains a negative approach towards the problems of the landless, talks by the government at whatever level are bound to fail. Winds of change must blow in the party.

Based on column ‘Nerkkazhcha’ appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated August 8, 2008

1 comment:

R.Sajan said...

In land-starved Kerala, the largest landowners are the government, the Christian plantation owners and the Church. Every time that the CPM has been in power, grabbing of government land by the party workers used to be seen. The party is now no longer of the poor; it is now a party of contractors, brokers and businesspersons. The CPM thus having moved away from the downtrodden, new forces like the Muslim Solidarity, Catholic Infam and foreign-funded environment organizations moved in to rescue the poor. The Sadhujana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi (SJVSV) that has started the Chengara land-grab is one such saviour-outfit of dubious origins.

Harrison Malayalam Plantations runs the Kumbazha Estate under a lease agreement from the government. The lease has expired. The land has fallen back to the government. The local party leaders wanted to distribute this land among party members to be identified as ‘landless’. Before they could get to this, outfits like the Sadhujana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi (SJVSV) beat them to it.

The squatters in Chengara are not all landless. Even the leader Laha Gopalan has admitted to owning land elsewhere. Their demands are very humble. They each want one acre of land and Rs. 50000/- to cultivate it.

Kerala has the highest density of population in the country, about 1000 people per 240 acres of land. This works out to one person for every 24 cents of land. This calculation is for the entire land irrespective of its terrain as liveable or not. If the land is to be liveable, it has to have its rivers, backwaters and hills exempted in the calculation of permissible human occupation. It is agreed that only 60 percent of land in the State is thus available to humans to live in. The actual permissible density is only one person per 14 cents of area. As such, all land in the state is housing real estate. The land demands of the Chengara squatters are therefore, ridiculous and their motives dubious.

Some of the princes of the Church support Chengara. To them, a CPM leader asked whether the clergy would be agreeable to the landless’ squatting in Church estates in the Chengara fashion.

I have 5 cents with a 900-m2 house in it. It carries a burden of 14 lakhs debt also, which I propose to settle through a Reverse Mortgage where the Bank would take over the property when I die.

Going by the Chengara philosophy, any landless might in the future demand my land because he is landless. What then, is civilisation all about?