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The party is now embroiled in a bitter political battle in its only remaining stronghold in the country.

How Keezhattur has exposed CPI Ms duplicity in protecting the rights of farmersPicture by arrangement.
news Politics Monday, March 26, 2018 - 16:24

The sleepy village of Keezhattur in Kerala’s Kannur district is an exercise in irony. The residents of this village, which is just three or four kilometres away from Taliparamba town, are mostly farmers, and they are spearheading a small but significant resistance. The villain in this resistance is the state government of Kerala – led by a party which was, not so long ago, lauded in Maharashtra for supporting the rights of farmers: the CPI (M).

Pro-farmer in Maharashtra, the CPI (M) has decided to don a different avatar in Kerala. The government has been rigid in its stance and is unwilling to change the alignment for a National Highway bypass, which will cut through more than 250 acres of paddy fields in the Taliparamba Municipality. The fight has exposed the duplicity of the CPI (M) when it comes to protecting rights of farmers.

The party is now embroiled in a bitter political battle in its only remaining stronghold in the country.

Courtesy: Mohan SK

Opportunist leadership, defiant cadre?

The resistance, ironically, is being led by those who were once a part of the CPI (M). Every one of the 300 households in the village had someone who was either a party member or a party sympathiser.

In fact, the opposition to the new alignment first began in November 2016, when the CPI (M)'s local committee urged the villagers to protest against the present alignment, telling them that the entire paddy-filled stretch in Keezhattur and Kottam would be lost once the project materialises.

“We started the protest after local party leaders urged us to do so. But the party changed its stand soon and demanded that we should stop protesting against the project as development of the area was necessary,” says Lalu Prasad, a resident of Keezhattur.

“We refused to listen,” Lalu Prasad says.

And this standoff has forced the party to expel 11 of its members, including Lalu Prasad – although the party leadership has restrained itself from mass sacking or suspension so far.

“I do not understand the double standards of the party,” says Suresh Keezhattur, one of the leaders of the resistance and a former CPI (M) branch secretary.

Allegations of corruption

“This protest is similar to one that the party spearheaded in Aranmula against a proposed private airport. The party’s election manifesto says that the party is committed to protecting the remaining water bodies and wetlands, and will prevent their filling up at any cost. If the paddy fields in Keezhattur are allowed to be filled up, all the remaining wetlands and paddy fields in the state would meet the same fate,” Suresh says.

So why is Keezhattur different from Aranmula? According to the residents of the village, the reason is corruption. They allege that the sudden change in policy by CPI (M) was to help a big business group that bought two hills in Taliparamba.

“They cannot raze down the hills for construction as it is illegal. However, they can supply soil for filling up the paddy fields for highway construction, and then they can use the hills for real estate development. That is why the party is now adamant to go ahead with the present alignment,” a local villager alleges.

Violence to disrupt protests

Not unlike their politics elsewhere in Kannur, the CPI (M) leaders have resorted to violence and intimidation to curb the protest and instil a sense of fear among their cadres.

A shed, erected by the Vayalkkilikal group – which is spearheading the agitation – was torched by CPI (M) cadres. Later, the house of protest leader Suresh Keezhattur and his relative were attacked.

Courtesy: Mohan SK

"They are threatening us to stay away from the strike. Party leaders have warned party workers that they will get them dismissed from their jobs, which the party had earlier given them as a gesture of appreciation. But we are not going to give up,” says 70-year-old Janaki, who held a bottle of diesel to set herself ablaze during police action against the protesters.

Everybody else to blame?

Beyond this, they have also been trying to bring in a political angle to the protest – sometimes it’s the militant left, and at other times the right that has been accused of instigating the villagers.

CPI (M) leader and Public Works Department Minister G Sudhakaran has been leading the attack against Vayalkkilikal – paddy birds – the informal group that has been leading the protest.

Vayalkkilikal was a title that local CPI (M) leaders gave to the protesters to humiliate them when they refused to listen to the party and withdraw the protest. Later, the protesters reclaimed the word – and used the same title to garner the attention of the public across Kerala and have become one of the biggest challenges the LDF government has faced.

Now, Sudhakaran has berated them, calling them ‘Vayal Kazhukanmar’ and ‘Vayal Erandakal’ (paddy vultures and paddy cormorants) and accused Maoists of being the force behind the agitation.

For other CPI (M) leaders, sometimes it’s the RSS, other times it’s the Congress. Banners put out by CPI (M) also urge villagers to be wary of attempts by the RSS to carry out murders in the village under the pretext of the protest.

The people of Keezhattur though are clear that their agitation is not politically motivated.

“If Kummanam Rajasekharan (BJP state president) and VS Achuthanandan could share a dais during the protest against the Aranmula airport, what is wrong if BJP or RSS cadre extend their support to our struggle? There is nothing political in our protest,” says Suresh.

Courtesy: Mohan SK

Environmental violations to the fore

Other attempts by the party and the government to justify the alignment of the bypass have also fallen flat.

James Mathew, the local MLA, in a bid to defend the government’s decision, gave out startling statistics in the Assembly. He told the members how many wetlands, paddy fields and water bodies had been filled up for road construction in the state during both the UDF and LDF governments, trying to convey that Keezhattur does not merit any special attention.

However, in the process, he exposed the failure of the CPI (M), a party that vows to stand by the rights of the farmers and conservation of the environment, in protesting against any of these gross environmental violations.

State leadership softening stand

As the agitation continues though, the CPI (M) is wary of the BJP utilising the protest politically and is now trying to soften their stand against the protesters. More so after BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan, who already expressed the BJP’s solidarity with the protesters, met Union Minister Harsh Vardhan and urged him to find an amicable solution.

For one, CPI (M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who knows the voters in Kannur, took a softer stand and announced that the party has no rigidity in exploring ways to end the crisis. Hours later, G Sudhakaran also softened his stand, and wrote letters to Union Surface Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari and to the National Highways Authority of India, asking them to explore the option of an elevated highway.

However, the Vayalkkilikal dismissed the proposal, stating that an elevated corridor will not solve the problem.

Sunday's rally to support protesters

Local leadership hasn’t got the memo?

The local leaders of the party however do not seem to have understood the popularity of Vayalkkilikal, as support continued to pour in for the cause. On Saturday, they organised a ‘Guard the Village’ march ahead of Sunday’s massive rally to support the protest. They are still trying to force the villagers to give up, protesters say.

“They are using violence to send a message of probable tension in the village,” a party worker from Keezhattur says.

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