This is Onam week in Kerala — a festival that recalls the days of Maveli, the wise asura king dethroned and exiled by Vamana, the avtar of Vishnu, at the behest of jealous gods. It is also an intensely-family time for most people, given that upper caste ‘family’ values are pervasive. Amidst high voltage commercialised Onam, the people at Chengara starve. The trade union blockade has been renewed, and the CITU has brought in women and has extended the blockade 24 hours. And CPM cadre have now started ‘occupying’ the houses of the Sadhujana Vimochana Munnani activists — ostensibly to reveal the ‘truth’ — that some of them indeed possess some land and a house! Strange, indeed. By this logic, the women who the trade unions have deployed in the blockade shouldn’t be ‘workers’ at all, in the light of their middle class dress codes, body language, gold ornaments and apparent reluctance to squat on the road (they sit primly on rows of chairs)!
The latest news from Chengara is alarming. As if in retaliation to the rally taken out by dalit and human rights activists on 30 August, the very next day, a group of people who were travelling to the struggle site were attacked by the goons who continue the blockade. The whole group — eight men and thirteen women, including Omana, six months pregnant,were beaten heavily, and Omana’s two-year-child was snatched and thrown down. The injured are in hospital and activists are trying to get a case registered with the police.Intimidating posters have appeared all over Pathanamthitta town, declaring that the estate will be ‘cleared’on 3 September by the unions. All this, while the police watches, and a spineless admininstration looks the other way. Apparently, the administration now takes its orders from the CPM district committee.Meanwhile, the leadership continues to talk of the package, which will apparently come only after the protestors have been thoroughly intimidated, physically and emotionally,and reduced to cowering, nervous wrecks.
Despite the talks held by Ministers with the leaders of the Chengara land struggle, the situation continues to be tense,and the blockade continues for all practical purposes. The workers’ unions are hell-bent on not allowing anyone with a ‘partisan attitude’ about the issue to visit the site of the struggle.On 26 August, P.V. Rajagopal, Member of the National Land Reforms Committee, was prevented from proceeding to Chengara by workers. Just the other day, K.R.Meera, one of Kerala’s leading fiction writers, was stopped from visiting the protest.
Today, perhaps for the first time after early August, the Chengara land struggle attained some front-page space in the newspapers. It was front-page news in the Thiruvananthapuram edition of The Hindu, which reported the ongoing efforts for negotiated settlement. The Revenue Minister, K.P.Rajendran, and the Minister for the Welfare of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, A.K. Balan, held talks with Laha Gopalan, and other solidarity council members, and “promised them that the government would do everything within its power to meet their demand for provision of land to the landless among the Scheduled Castes and other similarly placed sections and assured them that there was no question of the government resorting to repressive measures against the agitators”. However, the Ministers revealed that” the government could promise to give them only land that is already with it or that which could be taken over without the possibility of further litigations.”
So far so good, and obviously we are in here for a long haul. The leaders of the agitation apparently made it cleared that they were not demanding the immediate assignment of the estate land but a more comprehensive package. The government has also announced that medical camps will be conducted in the struggle point and that the road bloackade will end. Relief, indeed, after so many tense days.It is clear that the real hard work begins now. Pressure will have to be kept up until the package is announced; it will have to debated, and adequate monitoring of its implementation will have to be assured through, perhaps, a national monitoring committee.
But as a historian, I’d say that that this is indeed an opportunity to attain greater clarity on the political relevance of political decentralisation and local planning. In the mid-1990s, it was projected as a panacea to all possible ills — from Kerala’s fiscal crisis, to non-sovereign forms of power. The People’s Planning Campaign shifted the focus to local-level development, promising to transform welfare recipients into small producers. In itself this was an interesting proposition in some ways: one that focused on small capitalism rather than neoliberal extractive growth, and promised to make poor citizens independent of state welfare. Continue reading Will the Left’s’Negative Hallucination’End in Kerala?
There is still the eerie silence here about the land struggle at Chengara, but we are nearly deaf from listening to talk, talk, and more talk about the redistribution of surplus land to landless dalit people. Everyone, from Karat to Pinarayi Vijayan to VS, to even that undaunted champion of liberal ‘minimum entitlements’ welfarism, T.M. Thomas Isaac, is talking of redistributing surplus land to landless dalits (adivasis, according to some,or landless ‘poor’ according to others, ‘poor’ according to yet others…).
That seems rather odd.Talking with some minor CPM intellectual-bhikshaamdehis the other day (who are of course still patiently waiting for ‘more and accurate information’) I could see a sense of wounded innocence. “Don’t forget,” one of them told me,”it is the CPM that campaigned for redistribution of surplus land.” What they do not want to acknowledge — in the very specific present, of course — was that this promise was never fulfilled. Indeed, the so-called ‘class agenda’of the dominant left was more or less treated as over in the early 1970s;the left’s achievements after this did not touch upon redistribution of productive resources to the agricultural working classes. Indeed, we have seen the expansion of mass welfare — mass housing, fixing minimum wages, making available welfare pensions through welfare funds for unorganised sector workers, and so on.We have also seen the welfare system’s indirect acknowledgement of the rise of the consumer-citizen in Kerala — for instance, in the state-run Maveli stores.
On 14 August, leading dalit activists from Kerala protested in Pathanamthitta against the continued road blockade organised by the joint front of trade unions which claim to be fighting for the rights of plantation workers. They were prevented from proceeding to Chengara and were arrested, to be released by evening. Meanwhile, the trade unions agreed to lift the blockade by 3 at noon. They however demand that the people who have occupied the plantation should all leave in 10 days’ time, and if this does not happen, the blockade will be on again.
Press coverage has improved somewhat but not much. Even the sworn enemies of the left, like the Malayala Manorama, have kept largely silent. Not surprising, though — the Congress and others, including the interests that this newspaper represents, are patiently waiting for the LDF government to dig its own grave by provoking a Nandigram-like situation. Once the calamity begins, they will of course move in, like vultures. The Centre too of course is watching and waiting for CPM to make another big mistake.
These are strange times.There is a raging debate now on within the CPM and the LDF about the pending approval to proposed SEZs, and one of the key points of the conflict has to do with trade union presence within them.While a powerful section within the CPM wants to curtail workers’ rights within the SEZs,outside, on the road to Chengara, trade unions attack their ‘enemies’ — landless and marginalised people.
The Chengara Struggle Committee has called for protest meetings all over the State on 23 August; it has also appealed for a protective human chain around Chengara on 25 August.
AN APPEAL from the PANCHAMI DALIT FEMINIST COLLECTIVE, Kottayam, to join the march on August 14th, against sexual harassment and human rights violations at the site of the struggle for land at Chengara, Pathanamthitta, Kerala.
[Below is an urgent appeal from Chengara, Kerala, where a land struggle has been on for the past one year. There seems to be a general elite consensus about refusing citizenship to the 7500 landless families that have occupied government land there; more ominously, there seems to be also the determination to punish them. Since early August a road blockade has been going on led by the united front of trade unions defending the right of (eighty) workers in the occupied Chengara plantation. Apparently, there are also ‘criminal elements’- the trade unions and the police, poor things, know nothing of them – who have been violently stopping activists from reaching the settlement.The CPM intellectuals in Kerala are patiently waiting for ‘more and accurate’ information, as they were when some of us approached them proposing a protest around Nandigram last year. Reports of starvation, sickness,and sexual assault are reaching us from Chengara but there is no way we can get there.Now, what is this? A new form of illegal custody? A new form of sexual harassment in custody? On 14 August, dalit activists and organisations are planning a march to Chengara, and hopefully food and medical supplies can be taken there. Please circulate this appeal widely – we have to stop another Nandigram– JD]
A historic land struggle has been unfolding at Chengara in Pathanamthitta district, Kerala, involving about 7500 families, Continue reading Flashpoint Chengara: March Against Blockade Tomorrow