Former Palakkad District Collector WR Reddy, held hostage by four men seeking to highlight the issue of tribal land rights in 1996, speaks to TNM on the film 'Pada' and the cause espoused by the group.

Former Palakkad District Collector WR Reddy and (left) Arjun Radhakrishnan who portrays his onscreen version Ajay Shripad DangeCredit: Facebook/ Arjun Radhakrishnan
Features Interview Thursday, April 07, 2022 - 11:51

Twenty-five years ago, on October 4, 1996, four men walked into the District Collectorate in Kerala’s Palakkad with a pistol and a grenade, and held the entire state apparatus to ransom for nine hours. The youngsters, who claimed affiliation to a virtually unknown fringe group called the ‘Ayyankalipada’ and held the District Collector WR Reddy hostage on gunpoint, had an unusual demand: The Kerala government should immediately withdraw the amendment bill of the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act, passed by the Assembly earlier that year. The amendment sought to legalise all transactions involving Adivasi land till January 24, 1996.

The real twist in the story came after more than nine dramatic hours of negotiations, threats and an apparent blast, when the Ayyankalipada and the government, with the help of mediators, worked out a compromise. The members of Ayyankalipada claimed that the weapons they had in their hands were, in fact, fake –  a toy pistol, few electric wires and pipes and a set of batteries. All they wanted to make through the ‘hostage drama’ was a statement and attract the public's attention to the hitherto unreported, neglected concerns of Adivasi communities.  

This stunt pulled by four ‘comrades’ – Vilayodi Sivankutty, Kallara Babu, Kanhangad Rameshan and Mannur Ajayan – forms the crux of the recently released Malayalam film Pada, directed by Kamal KM and starring Kunchacko Boban, Joju George, Vinayakan and Dileesh Pothan. Marking his debut in the Malayalam film industry, actor Arjun Radhakrishnan dons the role of the Palakkad collector who was held hostage by the four activists. Ironically enough, Kamal’s on-screen collector goes by the name Ajay Shripad Dange, a nod to Shripad Amrut Dange, a founding member of the Communist Party of India, who was eventually expelled from the organisation he had helped found.

TNM caught up with retired bureaucrat WR Reddy – a Kerala cadre IAS officer of the 1986 batch – seeking his recollection of the events of day, his take on politics, the movie itself, the cause that the Ayyankali Pada espoused, and the consequences he had to face in the aftermath of the incident.

With the release of Kamal KM’s Pada, the hostage incident of 1996 is once again in the limelight. As was the case then, the incident continues to be referred to as a bandhi naatakam (hostage drama) by the media. But you were there, tied up on a chair, with a gun pointed at you. Looking back, are you able to think of it as theatrics for a political cause and not a life-and-death situation?

What happened on October 4, 1996, was as real as it could be. For me, there was no element of drama there. The four people who took me hostage were definitely armed. And ultimately, it is a question of survival for everybody. So when the media was questioning them at the end of the day, they said they were only carrying a toy pistol and fake explosives.

So you disagree with the mainstream narrative that it was just an act all along? You think they were actually armed?

I don’t ‘think’ they were armed, I know 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. I consider this a failure of journalism.

Within a day or two after the incident, accusations were rife that the incident was staged with your knowledge and involvement all along.

(Laughs) Anything can happen in Kerala politics. All such accusations were part of a face-saving exercise by those in power, because such an incident is bound to tarnish their image. Besides, some by-elections were also underway at the time, which raised the stakes further. Of course, these allegations had caused me suffering at the time. But I don’t blame them. They had their own turf to protect. That is how politics works in Kerala. The real issue will be something and the projection will be something else entirely, depending on the interests of power groups. That is the actual drama.

Still from Malayalam film Pada
A still from Malayalam film Pada

From what I have learnt so far, the incident has followed you around as well. You were transferred to Kollam soon. Your family is also bound to have been affected. Were you targeted by the state for your alleged involvement in this protest?

In our profession, transfer is nothing new. I would not refer to it as the state targeting me. I was given a posting in Kollam, and I don’t have a grudge against anybody for that. Maybe the government felt that was the right thing to do at the time, and I enjoyed working in Kollam. Of course, I would have loved to continue in Palakkad. But who knows, things could have turned out to be much more traumatic if I remained there.

I have to say, Kerala is a magnanimous state. As a political group, the people in power might have had their own compulsions, but I don’t think anyone wanted to target me personally. I worked for almost two years in Kollam, and I got to do a lot of good work there. I enjoyed every day. The 1996 incident never left me disillusioned, disappointed or demotivated. In fact, I continued to work with even more vigour after that.

How long were you in Kerala?

It was in 2002 that I left Kerala for Delhi. Before that, I was transferred to Thiruvananthapuram, where I had a brief stint as the Kerala Water Authority Managing Director. I also worked with Milma for two years, which was an enriching experience for me. I was also the Director of the Scheduled Tribes Development Department in Kerala for some time.

According to Pada’s director Kamal, you told him that the activists’ “knee-jerk action” led to you losing out on an opportunity to work for Palakkad’s tribal people.

Exactly. I had only spent three months in Palakkad and I missed the opportunity to do some real help for the people there. This was a regret for me.

Do you see this ‘knee-jerk action’ as a publicity stunt or an effort to bring the Adivasi cause to limelight?

Kerala is a well-educated society, isn’t it? These activists also knew that it was impractical for them to ask the government to roll back an already passed amendment overnight. They knew they were not being rational. Their objective was definitely to come to limelight, but I don’t think it was a personal agenda. If that was the case, what would naturally have followed is their presence in mainstream politics. Instead, they had to spend years running and hiding.

The issue they brought up was real, I agree. This was probably a way of expressing the pent up feelings of a group of intelligentsia. Everybody knows that what is happening to the Adivasi people is incorrect. But except for maybe an oral expression of sympathy, people hardly have the time or passion to do anything beyond that for them. So this might have been their way of bringing the issue to the forefront.

It has been more than 25 years since the incident, but none of the promises that were made to the activists were kept. There is still little change in the plight of the Adivasi community in Kerala. Do you think this is a systemic problem? If so, as a bureaucrat, do you think there is a practical way to address it?

This is not just Kerala’s problem. It is definitely a systemic problem across India, because essentially this is vote bank politics. The tribal people are given the short shrift everywhere because they are a small minority, except maybe in a state like Jharkhand where they constitute nearly 30% of the population. In the end, it is all about where the votes come from. Because the tribal people in Jharkhand constitute a significant part of the population, the government is ready to listen to them and address their problems.

In my opinion, the way to fix this is through education. Just with land alone, their economic situation is not going to improve. We should focus on the coming generation. I come from a remote village called Abdullapuram in Andhra Pradesh’s Kurnool district. There, I have seen farmers with 10-15 acres of land struggling to make ends meet. But over the past 15 years, higher education – especially in fields like engineering – has opened up in Andhra. Poor farmers’ kids get a good education, find a good job and start earning a good salary. This is a revolutionary change for these families, which have now jumped on to a completely different orbit.

The government should be able to aid these kids through education and assure them a job. Thus, the next generation will truly be able to undergo a positive change. Other immediate and ongoing welfare efforts such as food kits and medicines can go on simultaneously. That is populist politics. No one is asking the government to put a stop to that.

Do you think the restoration of their rightful lands to Adivasi people is an impossibility, given the political scenario?

It is the right thing to do. Nor is it very difficult. In fact, as the Palakkad collector, I tried to restore Adivasi land but wouldn't claim success. But as long as these political compulsions exist, there is unlikely to be much change in the situation.

You did not have a complaint against the activists that day. Were you pressured into lodging a complaint later?

That was probably Kamal’s creativity (chuckles). I did say that they did not harm me and that they had behaved respectfully with me. But I never said that I did not have a complaint. I lodged a complaint the very next day, based on which an FIR was registered soon after. But I was not under any pressure to do so. Later, I also voluntarily attended all the court proceedings to identify the suspects when they were arrested.

But you failed to recognise Kallara Babu, who was let go because of it.

If that was the case, I would consider it our criminal justice system’s weakness. They called me in 2009 or 2010, nearly 14 years after the incident, to identify more people. Both of us would have changed a lot by then. If it happened within one or two years, like in the case of others, I would have definitely recognised everybody. I don’t remember if I failed to recognise Kallara Babu though. I did not follow up on it. All that said, I have no complaints against anybody now. I enjoyed the time I spent in Kerala. It was a fruitful, productive time for me. I still visit Kerala often. My daughter-in-law is also from there. I have deep connections with the state.

If you met the four activists now, what would you want to say to them?

I don’t have anything to say to them. I also have no personal enmity towards any of them. It was only incidental that I was the collector in Palakkad when they decided to stage this protest. If not me, it would have happened to some other official. Their aim was not to target WR Reddy, but the institution itself. It is that institution of the district collector that they challenged.

Soon after the incident, several criticisms were raised about how the crisis was managed by the core team that day.

I consider the crisis management effort of that day a success because not a single drop of blood was shed. Things could have very easily gone south. There are people who said that I should have acted differently, or that I could have escaped if I had put up a struggle. But as a person holding the chair representing an important institution, I could not have run away. It was my responsibility to talk to them and settle their issues. Up until the media took up and sensationalised the toy pistol charade, everything had gone well. That is what makes Kerala stand apart here as well. The entire crisis management team was sure that they had to avoid bloodshed at any cost. They knew that such issues can be resolved only through proper discussions. That is the philosophy of governance in Kerala. As they say, all's well that ends well.

But aren’t the many ‘encounter’ killings of suspected Maoists and other similar incidents testament to the fact that the Kerala government is also willing to shed blood?

I have no comment on that because I am not privy to the incidents you are talking about. In a majority of cases, however, I have felt that Kerala is different in this regard. Take the position of the Labour Commissioner for example. In some other states like Uttar Pradesh, a Labour Commissioner is a little known post. Kerala is a highly evolved democratic society that is willing to lend an ear to the concerns of the people. The 1996 incident was also handled in this manner.

Can you tell us what you thought of Pada and your portrayal in the film?

I thought the film was fantastic. Kamal has made a very good effort to depict the incidents of that day as truthfully as possible. Every piece of art inspired from life will have its own set of creative liberties here and there. That is present in Pada too. But overall, I give full credit to Kamal for doing such a great job in accurately telling this story. I thought Arjun Radhakrishnan also did a wonderful job portraying me. He even looked much like me and not many other people could have done justice to this role like he did. He is handsome and maybe a bit taller.

I don’t expect that the awareness created by the film or this incident is going to revolutionise society or change the government’s approach towards tribal community development. But if one person gets inspired, isn’t that great?

You retired as the Director General of the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj in 2020. What are the future plans now?

As of now, I am happily enjoying my family life. I am still helping the Ministry of Panchayat with some rural development work, which is a subject I am fascinated by. I also do a little bit of teaching now and then.

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