As Kamal KM’s ‘Pada’ brings to limelight the sensational ‘hostage’ drama for Adivasi land rights that took place in 1996 in Kerala’s Palakkad, TNM catches up with the real protagonists of the story.

Vilayodi Sivankutty, Kanhangad Rameshan, Kallara Babu and Ajayan Mannur, members of the Ayyankali PadaCredit: Youtube/ MediaoneTV Live
Features Interview Tuesday, April 12, 2022 - 18:44

When Mannur Ajayan, Kallara Babu, Kanhangad Rameshan and Vilayodi Sivankutty barged into the chamber of Palakkad District Collector WR Reddy 25 years ago, they were prepared to be martyrs for a revolutionary cause. Holding the bureaucrat hostage for more than nine dramatic hours on October 4, 1996, the four men who claimed to represent a fringe pro-Maoist group ‘Ayyankali Pada’ raised five demands.

One, the Kerala government should immediately call an Assembly session and repeal the Amendment made to the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act passed earlier that year. Two, the government should publicly release the data detailing the amount of land that the state’s Adivasi people have lost so far. Three, reveal details of every encroacher from plantation owners to religious institutions. Four, publicise data on the forest land that belongs to Adivasi communities and how much of it was encroached upon. Five, provide an account of the money spent from the Rs 200 crore allotted in the budget towards the welfare of Scheduled Tribes.

What immediately followed is currently public knowledge and depicted with near accuracy in Kamal KM’s 2022 movie Pada. The film successfully brought the intrigue surrounding the ‘hostage drama’ – staged by four activists seemingly with just a toy pistol, empty batteries and a bundle of wires in hand – to limelight and helped revive the debate around Adivasi land rights in the state.

Starring Kunchacko Boban, Joju George, Vinayakan, Dileesh Pothan and Arjun Radhakrishnan, Pada focuses solely on the happenings in Palakkad over two days. But as one of the ‘perpetrators’ Vilayodi Sivankutty (played by Dileesh as Narayanankutty) puts it, the events that preceded the fateful day and what followed it contain enough material to build a sequel for the film. TNM spoke to the real protagonists behind the story – the four activists of Ayyankali Pada – and Pada’s director Kamal to understand their political stands, whether it has changed over the years, and how, if at all, their actions have benefited the cause they had vowed to fight for.

Ayyankali Pada takes birth

“During the 1980s, all four of us were members of the Central Reorganisation Committee, Communist Party of India (CRCCPI), a Marxist-Leninist group led by comrade K Venu,” says Kanhangad Rameshan (played by Kunchacko as Rakesh in Pada). “The organisation was dissolved in 1991, with the claim that an all-India communist party was an impossibility. They had alleged that communism was no longer relevant as a political ideology because all communist governments including China had returned to a fascist regime, and Venu went on to renounce Maoism.”

Many activists, including Ayyankali Pada founders, were dissatisfied with the organisation’s dissolution. These dissatisfied groups joined hands to form the Kerala Communist Party, an outfit inspired by and modelled after the Maoist movements in Nepal and Peru. The party became active by the end of 1992, recalls Rameshan. “The aim was to create a Maoist organisation that could take on and fight a people’s battle from the ground. We were taking an active part in several issues. Besides our regional concerns including the Adivasi land rights issue, we also raised our voice for international causes including the people’s war in Peru and the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and former member of the Black Panther Party, who was unfairly incarcerated in the United States,” he says.

Members of the Ayyankali Pada
Ayyankali Pada members Vilayodi Sivankutty, Rameshan Kanhangad, Ajayan Mannur and MN Ravunni | Credit: MediaOne Online

But for the Kerala Communist Party, the need of the hour was a youth wing. “We launched a state-wide study to get a clear picture of the kind of youth organisation that should be built under the Kerala Communist Party. There was an understanding that caste was one of the most important problems plaguing Kerala. We thought it was necessary that we communists take up a fight against this all-pervasive problem,” says Mannur Ajayan (played by Joju George as Aravindan Mannur).

Ajayan is of the view that several Dalit groups had a tendency to idolise revolutionary social reformer Ayyankali, reducing his contributions to the role he played as a member of the Travancore Legislative Assembly, where he continued to fight for Dalit rights, under the ambit of the law. “We felt that it was the revolutionary Ayyankali, who opened the path to radical reforms by riding a bullock cart (villu vandi) and challenged the ban that caste Hindus had placed on Dalits from accessing public roads, who should be the face of an anti-caste movement. This inspired us to name the youth organisation Ayyankali Pada,” explains Ajayan.

The Adivasi cause

Ayyankali Pada depended on the same study to decide on the first issue they should act upon. “By the end of our sociological study, we came to the conclusion that true liberation will not be possible until the oppressed have the right to live on their own land. This was the course of action we had to pursue to uplift the Dalit, Adivasi communities of our state,” says Ajayan.

It was around this time that the Kerala government, with Chief Minister EK Nayanar at the helm, passed the controversial amendment to the Kerala Scheduled Tribes Act that sought to legalise all transactions involving Adivasi land till 1986, and instead provide alternative land to the tribal people. The activists considered this move as a betrayal of the Adivasi people, and it struck them especially hard since it came from a Leftist government. “As per the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction of Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Land) Act 1975, all tribal lands in the possession of non-tribal people through sale, lease, mortgage or by force after 1960 was supposed to be deemed illegal. However, the government failed to implement the Act,” says Sivankutty.

There are two reasons for this, says Rameshan. “First, numerically tribal people are not a force and are of little interest to those who work only for votes. The second reason is the racist attitude Malayalis generally have towards Adivasi people.” Take Madhu for example, he says. “Imagine if Madhu had come from a middle class background. What if he was a Hindu, Muslim or Christian? In all likelihood, he would not have had to face brutality like this. Instead, Malayalis came together to attack the youngster with intellectual disability, who belonged to a minority Adivasi community. Madhu’s case is the most recent example of an average Malayali’s attitude towards tribal people. They face attacks at every level. They are not given their wages on time. Their women are sexually exploited,” he says.

Finally, after a legal battle that lasted more than five years, tribal rights activist Dr Nalla Thambi Thera's petition at the Kerala High Court bore fruit. On October 15, 1993, the High Court ordered the state government to implement the Act within six months. However, the government kept asking for extensions every six months. "Eventually in 1996, the government amended the legislation in favour of settlers and made all tribal land transactions from 1960 to 1986 valid,” says Sivankutty. And these ‘alternatives’ were not even cultivable lands, points out Kallara Babu (played by Vinayakan as Balu Kallaar in Pada). “In Kundala, for example, what Adivasi families got was uninhabitable and uncultivable land, which was of no use to them. Not a single one of these supposed beneficiaries have set up home in this land given by the government,” says Babu.

Betrayal of the Left

“It didn’t matter who was in power — the Left or the Right. All of them have the same attitude towards Adivasi issues. This is vote bank politics. Here, the political clout lies in the hands of the encroachers and the Act was amended to please them. Meanwhile, the tribal people were just supposed to make do with what the government gave them, even if it was wasteland,” says Rameshan. The impact of the Amendment was huge but there was little coverage in the media, he adds. “For instance, the report of this Amendment being passed appeared in Malayala Manorama’s sixth page, in a half-centimetre column. That alone was indicative of the weightage the media had given to the concerns of the Adivasi community.”

Of the 140 MLAs in the Assembly, it was only KR Gowri Amma who raised her voice against the Bill, Sivankutty points out. “Legendary poet Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, who wrote poems that understood the plight of the downtrodden such as the Kattalan (The Savage) and Kirathavritham (The Story of the Savage), was an MLA at the time. He too was made to vote in favour of the Amendment,” he says.

Ironically, Babu says, Nayanar’s predecessor EMS Namboodiripad played a crucial part in implementing the historic Land Reforms Act in Kerala. “It was under a Left government led by Chief Minister C Achutha Menon that the Act was implemented in 1969. The first time I saw Namboodiripad, I was just a child. He had come to visit a Namboodiri family who lived just 20m away from my house. He was a god-like figure to me, and all I could do was watch him from afar. It took me several years to understand why he had visited that house that day. It was to convince the family to give up their land,” recalls Babu. “It is this legacy of Namboodiripad that the Left governments that followed him were supposed to protect.”

Babu points out that as per the 1975 legislation, if a tribal person – by word or writing – files a complaint with the authorities concerned stating that they have lost their land, that land has to be restored to them within three months. “Not even the court is supposed to question this. Still, to this day, no government has returned even one cent of the Adivasi people’s land in this manner. That is what the Ayyankali Pada sought to protest against,” he adds.

Ayyankali Pada felt that the time was ripe, and they had found ‘the cause’ which requires mainstream attention. They could also let people know that there exists an organisation willing to fight the ‘people’s war’ from the ground in Kerala. “What we staged that day was a symbolic protest – a limited act of violence on behalf of the oppressed. We wanted the Adivasi people’s land to be returned to them. And if we had to die fighting for that cause, we were ready to do so,” says Sivankutty.

Performative resistance?

On the D-day, the four protagonists had entered the Palakkad Collectorate posing as environmental activists seeking to hand over a petition to the District Collector. “Using our limited resources and opportunities, we had been observing the building for about a week. We analysed the movements of everyone from the security personnel and the office staff to the ordinary people who had come to file their complaints. On October 4, when it seemed like it was a good time to put our plan into action, we walked into the Collector’s chamber,” Sivankutty recalls.

“When we went in, there were already two people sitting inside the room. The Collector asked us to sit, and we started to talk to him as if we were environmentalists. As soon as the other two people left, I pulled out my gun and pointed it at the Collector. All of us had individual duties assigned to us. I was in charge of the gun. Sivankutty bound the officer to the chair with a rope, while the other two forced his gunman, clerk and others out of the room and secured the doors,” Rameshan says. The police, as expected, had tried to break open the doors and barge in. A loud blast from within the chamber, however, stopped them on their tracks immediately. “We had expected such an attempt by the police. Hence, we had carried a gundu (a cracker popularly referred to as ‘atom bomb’) with us. Ajayan set it off from the toilet, creating a massive sound. That was enough to hold off the police, because they assumed we had explosive devices with us,” he says.

The blast had scared the Collector as well, Rameshan adds. “In fact, we chose to blast the cracker in the toilet because we didn’t want him to know we only had firecrackers. The small enclosed space helped to amplify the sound. Soon, he was shouting to the people outside that his life was in danger, asking them not to come inside. We were able to create a tense atmosphere by then. That is when we asked him to contact the Chief Secretary to convey our requirements, including broadcasting our demands through media platforms like the All India Radio, Doordarshan and the Asianet TV channel,” he says.

Outside, meanwhile, there was confusion and panic. A red alert was declared in Palakkad, says Sivankutty. “The government was successful in creating fear psychosis. The administration made claims that we had planted bombs in various spots across the town, and that we are likely to use this hostage situation to even pull off a bank robbery. Schools and banks were all shut down due to this. This naturally generated curiosity and fear among the public, who soon gathered in large numbers outside the collectorate,” Rameshan adds.

Everything was proceeding as planned, says Ajayan. “We knew people would gather. We wanted them to, because that meant we could let more people know what our protest was about. As we wanted to create further awareness about the issue, we were regularly throwing some pamphlets we had prepared out the window. These pamphlets highlighted the plight of our state’s Adivasi communities,” he explains.

But what he saw while looking out the window made him laugh, says Rameshan. “Several armed policemen were lying stomach down amid the bushes, emulating some kind of movie scene one of their senior officials must have got inspired from. They had no action plan, so they had to resort to such tactics,” Rameshan says with a chuckle.

Indian Express clipping of October 5, 1996
The 'hostage drama' as reported by The Indian Express on October 5, 1996

A toy pistol for justice

So why did a group of Maoists, who are known not to shy away from armed struggles, resort to using a toy pistol and fake explosives to stage a dramatic ‘hostage’ protest? They didn’t, says WR Reddy, the ‘hostage’ in question. Reddy asserts that the activists were not staging a drama with a gun. In an interview with TNM, he says: “They were really armed. I do not have an iota of doubt regarding that. Did anyone actually stop to check their bags and verify their claims? No. Instead, they were successful in swiftly turning the narrative on its head. It was a method of escape for them, and the media took their claim on face value because it was sensational enough.”

The activists, however, stand by the claim that all they had carried were fake weapons. Their reasons are clear cut too – some realistic, some romantic. “Ours was a relatively new organisation. If we went in with real weapons and what not, the entire organisation would be targeted and hunted down by the state. In the meantime, we also had to prove that the state was not as powerful as it projected itself to be,” says Rameshan.

Citing Mao, Sivankutty says: “The government is nothing but a reactionary paper tiger. It might have money and force by its side. But we believe in staring down the barrel of a gun and asking for what is right, even if that means we have to die.”

“We did not do this expecting to gain this kind of attention many years down the line. In fact, we hadn’t even expected to come back alive, let alone get out of the Collector’s chamber without getting arrested. All four of us were ready to face any consequence including death. Maybe a new generation would have taken up our fight, maybe we would have been forgotten. But no matter what happened, we had to carry out our responsibility bravely,” says Rameshan.

Politics of arms or subversion?

But whose responsibility is it to fight for the Adivasi community? It may be noted that only one of the four activists, Babu, had a Dalit background. Rameshan belonged to the OBC category, while the other two are of ‘dominant castes’. In fact, a major criticism that had arisen after the release of Pada was that the film, by ‘glorifying’ the 1996 incident, denies the tribal people their agency. Among the film’s critics is prominent tribal rights activist and Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha (AGMS) State Coordinator M Geethanandan, who came down heavily on Pada for rendering the revolutionary land struggle undertaken by Adivasis until then invisible. Several activists were of the opinion that all that the film did was to hand the onus of Adivasi liberation from ‘soft Marxists’ to ‘extreme Marxists’. “The film has been successful in satisfying one group of people – those who secretly continue to hold on to the expired ideal of an armed revolution to overthrow the system. These people stand by and watch as Adivasis, Dalits, plantation workers, fishers and women struggle for their representation in the mainstream. If a human rights violation takes place, they jump in to rescue the downtrodden. But when a representative of the marginalised becomes a leader, they resist by all means. They grab that leadership from them,” Geethanandan says.

A screengrab from the film Pada
A screengrab from the film Pada

Director Kamal, however, disagrees. “It is the politics of subversion, and not of an armed battle, that the film puts forward. The displacement of the Adivasi people is an act of force, which is carried out at the behest of our ‘democratic’ system. Here, four people are subverting that act of force through an act of performance. They are not armed. They are creating an illusion. Their protest thus takes on a performative quality, in turn questioning the way in which we automatically attribute weapons to power. It should be remembered that these weapons are what the system uses to keep its people in check in the first place.”

These are all predictable, expected criticisms, the filmmaker says. “As a community, we are a politically aware group of people who thrive in an argumentative culture. But the issue arises when we seek to find an absolute answer in everything. Pada isn’t attempting to crown anyone as the guardians of the Adivasi community. Neither does it want to take away anyone’s agency. It is merely talking about two days of a stunt pulled by four people, and its impact on those around them,” he says. “Who decides if I, or Kallara Babu, who is a Dalit man, can speak on the issues faced by the Adivasi people,” he asks.

Babu, who left the naxal fold due to ideological differences in 2010, says he has a deep dislike for identity politics. “The democratisation of a society doesn’t exclusively concern the people at the bottom – the most oppressed. It concerns the society as a whole. Any individual, organisation or group can get involved in this process. The problem arises when people start to claim that no one other than a Dalit or an Adivasi can speak on issues concerning their respective communities. What they essentially want to say is that Adivasis should always stay submissive to the legislative system, while a select group of people stands as their self-proclaimed leaders. It is a kind of gate-keeping,” he says.

“Besides, is Geethanandan an Adivasi? No. In fact, a lot of people who stood by the AGMS in the historic Muthanga struggle were not Adivasis. CK Janu was probably the only tribal person who found a space for herself in the forefront of the struggle. Was there any other person who could stand by her from within the community,” Babu asks.

Echoing Babu’s thoughts, Ajayan says: “Adivasi land issue is not an Adivasi issue alone. It is a political problem. We can’t isolate the Adivasi people from society as a whole. Their problems are commoner’s problems too.”

Meanwhile, the idea of a supposed expiry date on the success of a revolution through violence has left Babu with questions. “Doesn’t such violence happen every day, as part of almost every kind of struggle? I was present at the Muthanga protest. There, I saw tribal people armed with bows and arrows, ready to face their enemy. That was the way they knew to fight. Back in the day, didn’t the Adivasi people including Thalakkal Chanthu and Edachena Kunkan take up arms to fight against the British? Where does one’s struggle for the right to exist end and violence begin,” he asks.

A target on their back

Despite the government’s promise to let go of them considering their good intentions by the end of the negotiations, police went after all the four activists. “The very next day, a shoot-at-sight order was issued against the four of us, and we had to abscond. The police also deployed a special squad to hunt us down. Our families were also constantly harassed. Day and night, the police surrounded our houses. My wife was a government staff nurse. However, a police team was always following her around – whether she was at her house or at the hospital,” says Sivankutty, a Palakkad native. When Nayanar came to Palakkad after a few months, Sivankutty’s wife met him at the rest house with the help of a few media persons. “It was only after she raised a complaint with Nayanar that the police toned down their harassment,” he says.

“Even as we were leaving the chamber that day, we knew that was not the end. We were allowed to go because the higher-ups wanted to save face. We knew they were going to come after us. After all, the government never keeps its promises,” says Ajayan, who was the first to be arrested. He was nabbed by the police in 1997, seven months after the incident. “Out of the four, I must have spent the longest time in jail – nine months,” he says. Sivankutty was arrested a few months after Ajayan, followed by Rameshan. All three of them stood trial together. Taking their intentions into consideration, their initial sentence of thirteen-and-a-half years in jail was reduced to three-and-a-half. The trio had subsequently approached the Kerala High Court with an appeal to reduce the sentence further. A verdict on the same is yet to be declared. Babu surrendered later, after remaining in hiding for 14 years. However, as Reddy failed to recognise him, he was immediately acquitted.

The four protagonists have all gone their different ways now. Though Rameshan remains a Maoist sympathiser, he has taken a step back from active politics. Sivankutty was the state president of the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations for the past five years, and is currently a state committee member. Babu, a daily wager by profession, remains a prominent figure in Kerala’s Dalit struggles, despite him renouncing Maoism more than 10 years ago. Ajayan is currently the state president of the Revolutionary Democratic Front.

The film Pada had served as an opportunity for them to come back together again, meet up, and reminisce days bygone. “Pada is a landmine,” says Ajayan. “It has once again shed light to the oft neglected Adivasi land rights issue, and it has the potential to set off quite a few landmines now.”

Read: After Tamil cinema, Malayalam film Pada demands land rights for the oppressed

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.