news Thursday, May 21, 2015 - 05:30
  A memorial pillar with a photograph is all that is left of Dinakar, an alleged Maoist gunned down by the police in December 2006. But the repercussions of his joining the Maoist movement years ago continue to be felt to this day, by his fellow villagers of Kuthlur in the Kudremukh forests. Sixty-year-old Dejamma finds it very difficult to talk about her son Dinakar, who was 28 when he was killed in Shringeri, Chikmaglur district. “A lot of people had come to see me then. Did you also come? People would see me and cry. I don’t like talking about it.” she said. This is as much as she will say about Dinakar, whose death is one of the reasons she and two others from her village are contesting the Naravi Gram Panchayat elections. Earlier, when asked about her family, she named six sons and daughters, all except Dinakar. Dejamma belongs to the Malekudiya tribe, a spread out in the forests of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Shivamogga districts. In an earlier visit to her house in Kuthlur village (Dakshina Kannada district) some years ago, Dejamma’s son Shashidhar had shown this reporter the memorial pillar they had built behind their house in Dinakar’s memory. But they left it at that. Dealing with the alleged harassment from the police while going about their daily lives dint really give them much time to do anything else. A memorial for Dinakar built by his family behind their house in Kuthlur village, Dakshina Kannada district, after his death in a "police encounter" in December 2006. The photograph of him on the pillar is now worn out. How it all began Certain parts of the Kudremukh forests spread across Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Chikmaglur districts were notified as a national park the under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 in June 2001, making any human activity within its boundaries unlawful. Overnight, forest-dwellers in the entire belt had become ‘encroachers’. Their situation attracted the attention of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), whose cadres were known to pass through the forests in which Dejamma’s village, Kuthlur is located. Kuthlur and adjacent villages in Belthangady taluk of Dakshina Kannada district have been classified as a Naxal-affected by the government. Since then, the villagers say that they have been harassed by the jurisdictional Venoor police and the Anti-Naxal Force as they go about their everyday lives – cultivating their land, collecting forest produce, sending their children to school, celebrating festivals. Children helping their parents prepare for the Purusha Pooje, held annually in the summer. In 2012, the year Vittal and his father were arrested, the villagers had decided not to hold the celebrations. It was the first time in 18 years that the annual festival had not been held in Kuthlur. Another candidate Vittal Malekudiya was 23 when he was arrested by the Anti-Naxal Force in March 2012 along with his father Lingappa Malekudiya for allegedly aiding Maoists. He has denied having links with Maoists and claims that the accusations against him are false. Today, he, Dejamma and Sunanda, the aunt of Vasanth Goudlu another Malekudiya man from Kuthlur killed in March 2010 for allegedly being a Maoist, have a point to prove by running for elections. They want to contest the gram panchayat polls because they believe it will give them a chance to do something for themselves. “Elected representatives have never done anything for us. They only come around during the elections to ask for votes,” Vittal says. Vittal said that their demands haven’t changed in the last 10 years. They want “kachcha” roads built in their village, connecting the houses, main road and anganwadi, all inside the forest. When asked if roads could be built on the steep terrain leading up to his house, Vittal confidently said, “Yes. If the forest department officials permit, anything can be done.” One of the main roads in Kuthlur village, which connects with the asphalted roads of the neighbouring Naravi village. The paths to many of the individual houses however, are little ones that break off from roads like this and can often be a steep uphill rocky climb. Vittal’s story Vittal has come a long way from being a tribal boy harassed by the police and forest department officials to a young, articulate tribal leader. During most of his childhood Vittal lived with his grandmother while he studied in the government ashram school in Kokkada village, 65 km away from his own house in Kuthlur. He only returned home during vacations and later after he completed his schooling. Kudremukh hills as seen from the main road in Naravi village. Kuthlur lies in the midst of these hills. While at home, he says that the ANF and Venur police station officials would harass them; sometimes, when they carried out combing operations together, and sometimes a group of them would just visit their houses. “Whenever they met us in the village, in our houses or on the road, each of them would ask each of us what our names were, where we lived, the route to someone’s house. Because they have come so many times we recognise many of them and they knew all of us. But they asked us these questions anyway,” Vittal said. At the time of Dinakar’s encounter he was quite young and said he has no memory of it. When Vittal was a BCom student at college, police and Anti-Naxal Force personnel would often turn up at his college and check his bag. “They would do the same in Naravi also, in front of everyone and ask us ‘Did they come?’ or ‘Are you taking provisions for them (Maoists)’. They even photographed us occasionally,” he said. Vittal Malekudiya on Tuesday, after his nomination papers were scrunitized by the election commission officials. Then, two years before his arrest Vittal became a member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and the Adivasi-Tribal committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Vittal got some respite from the regular harassment in 2011 after he began pursuing a post-graduate journalism course at Mangalore University in Konaje, around 15km from Mangaluru. For a while, there was no one to treat him like a Naxal here. But that changed on the evening of March 2, 2012 when his neighbours called to tell him that ANF personnel had allegedly assaulted his father and injured his leg. The next morning, he says he left the hostel and went home to his village so that he could take his father to the hospital. He was arrested at around 1pm, and an FIR was registered against him, his father and his younger brother Purushottam. For the Malekudiya families of Kuthlur, Vittal’s arrest was a jolt that spurred them into organising. Villagers demanded his release under the CPI(M) banner. They also petitioned university officials to use their discretionary powers and permit him to write his exams as his imprisonment ate into his attendance. Until that point, he had over 80% attendance. But since his arrest, most of the harassment has stopped. Even forest department officials do not prevent them from collecting forest produce. Sunanda said that it was because the police saw that they were no longer alone. Bringing Naxals into mainstream? Kuthlur’s association with an organised movement actually began in around 2010, but it wasn’t with the Maoists. One of the villagers Sudhakar, an active member of the DYFI, contested the Naravi gram panchayat polls and lost. Eventually, Vittal also joined the DYFI. Karnataka state President of the DYFI Muneer Katipalla said that Vittal was targeted because he was the most educated person in his village and may be the first post-graduate from the Malekudiya community. He thinks that a combination of two factors led to Vittal’s arrest. “One, the Karnataka police don’t know the difference between communists who oppose armed struggle such as the CPI(M) and banned communists who advocate armed struggle like the Maoists,” Katipalla said. Katipalla says that according to the chargesheet approved by the government in February, some of the things that supposedly prove that Vittal is a Naxal include pamphlets of Janashakti and the Kannada daily Prajavani.  “Janashakti is the mouthpiece of the party in Karnataka. Far from garnering support for the Maoist movement, Janashakti actively opposes armed struggle,” he says. Secondly, Katipalla said that the police seemed to be grasping at straws in trying to prove that Vittal is a Maoist. They apparently found a Bhagat Singh book that Katipalla gave Vittal wrapped in three blankets kept in a plastic bag. The book, written by Jawaharlal Nehru’s media adviser Kuldeep Nayar, was translated into Kannada by journalist G S Basavaraju. “If possessing that is an indication of being Maoist, then I too should have been accused,” Katipalla said. He said that he had approached the police more than once offering to give a statement, but he was turned away.  “Vittal was targeted because the state doesn’t want young people like Vittal to develop a political understanding, otherwise people like the Malekudiyas cannot be exploited. Vittal was at the forefront of the struggle. They don’t want Vittal himself to be in the mainstream, why would they want to bring Naxals into the mainstream? Why are they pushing mainstream people like Vittal to the forests?” he asked. He said that even though the case had been filed during the BJP rule, the Congress government had proceeded with the case and permitted the chargesheet to be filed. “This only goes to show that irrespective of the party in power, it is the powerful people (both economically and socially) who see to it that the system functions this way,” Katipalla said. Vittal and his father Lingappa are the sixth and seventh accused in the chargesheet, along with known Maoists such as Vikram Gowda, Prabha and Sundari. All have been charged under Sections 120 (b), 121 of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 19 and 20 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967.   For Vittal his future post-arrest seems set in the direction of activism. Asked if he did not want to work outside the forests for a living, Vittal said that he was interested in journalism but would not move beyond Mangaluru. “I need to be close to home if there is trouble. I need to be here to build the movement. I need to train the others. If I can hand over responsibility of the movement to others, then maybe I could work elsewhere.” However, “elsewhere”, is no further than Mangaluru. The idea of living and working in a large city like Bengaluru doesn’t sit very well with him. Vittal said that his community can rely on the forest for their needs, and collect forest produce at any time of the day in order to survive. “We are independent, self-reliant. If we leave the forest, we will have to work as another person tells us to. I don’t like that,” he said. “We made a mistake by not cutting the trees. If we had leveled the land like others did in Mangaluru, the national park would be far from our homes and not within it. We let the forest be, and now we have to face this situation,” he said. (Update: This story was first published on May 21. The results to the panchayat elections were announced on June 5, and Vittal lost the elections. )
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