The BJP is not in a position to confer any great benefit on Janu or the Adivasis.

Kerala Adivasi icon CK Janus perilous plunge into the dark as she joins hands with BJP
news Kerala 2016 Saturday, April 09, 2016 - 17:37

Kerala’s iconic Adivasi leader CK Janu has confounded friends and foes alike by opting to contest the Assembly elections as part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.

The credit for winning her over to the NDA belongs to long-time Hindu Aikyavedi leader Kummanam Rajasekharan, whom the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh recently made the state BJP chief as part of a strategy to put an end to its electoral drought. What appealed to her was probably his commitment to the cause of the environment, which found expression in his association with the agitation against levelling paddy fields to build an airport at Aranmula, and not his Hindutva ideology which she has denounced in the past.  

Chekot Karian Janu, born in 1970, grew up in a remote village in hilly Wayanad district, home to nearly one-third of the state’s tribal population, enduring poverty and deprivation which is still the lot of her Adiya community. At age seven, she began life as a domestic help and at 12 she became a farm hand. At that stage she was active in the Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union, the farm labourers' organization affiliated to the Commuunist Party of India (Marxist) and participated in political rallies. However, she soon pulled out, resenting the party’s patriarchal attitude and doubting its commitment to the Adivasi cause. 

People from the plains started encroachment of forest lands in a big way soon after Independence. They dispossessed the Adivasis, who had a customary right to live in the forest but did not have ownership rights on the land in their possession. Unscrupulous settlers even created titles in their own names with the help of corrupt officials. At the instance of the Centre, the state enacted a law in 1975 to restore the alienated lands to the Adivasis but successive governments headed by the Congress and the CPI-M did not care to implement it.

The odds were heavily stacked against the Adivasis. They constituted just a little over one per cent of the state’s population. The bulk of the setters from the plains were Christians, who formed nearly 20% of the population and were backed by the Church. Marxist leader AK Gopalan’s agitation against eviction of settlers obliterated the distinction between traditional farmers and encroachers. On a petition by Dr Nallathambi Thera, a non-Adivasi, the High Court ordered that the law be implemented. Eager to placate the Christian vote bank which was much larger than the Adivasi vote bank, the political parties joined hands and replaced the 1975 law with one that let the settlers off the hook and promised Adivasis alternative land.

Encroachments continued unabated, and from time to time the state government approached the Centre and obtained permission to regularize more and more encroachments. It was against this background that Janu, who had learnt to read and write during the massive official campaign to make Kerala the first totally literate state, took upon herself the task of mobilizing her people to fight for their land.

In 1995, Janu, with members of 51 other families, occupied a parcel of land rendered surplus under the ceilings law. The government was forced to assign that land to them. She started cultivating ginger on her land.

An NGO nominated her as a member of a delegation which toured Europe in 1999 and held protests against globalization in several cities. On her return she was accused of getting involved with funded NGOs.

Janu emerged as an Adivasi icon as she drew her people’s attention to their sad plight in prosperous Kerala through a series of novel agitations which demonstrated the Adivasis' spirit of self-sacrifice and endurance. She faced arrest, torture and prosecution in the process.

In 2001 she came to the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram with scores of Adivasi followers and squatted in makeshift tribal huts erected on the pavement outside the State Secretariat in what was styled as “kudilketti samaram” (hut built agitation), demanding land. On the 48th day the government signed an agreement conceding the demand.

As the government did not implement the agreement, she moved into a disused wild life sanctuary at Muthanga in Wayanad district in 2003 with hundreds of followers and squatted. The Centre asked that they be removed. The High Court ordered their eviction.  The two-month-old agitation ended with a bloody police action, which led to the death of an Adivasi and a constable. Janu and her close aide M Geethanandan were arrested. A photograph taken as she was taken to court bore clear evidence of torture.  Some 75 criminal cases were filed against her and her followers.

AK Antony who was Chief Minister later sought to repair the damage by concluding a fresh agreement with Janu’s Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha for allotment of land.

Late in 2014 Janu, came to Thiruvananthapuram again to stage a unique “nilpu samaram” (Standing up agitation) demanding that the government fulfil all promises, including the commitment to create Scheduled Areas where Adivasis can have their own panchayats. Taking turns, the Adivasis agitators stood day and night outside the Secretariat for 162 long days before the government conceded the demand in writing. Sixteen months later, the promised Scheduled Areas still remain on paper.

Janu was among the leaders who participated in the Manushya Mahasamgamam (Human Congregation) organized by People Against Fascism, a forum of about 40 civil society groups, at Kochi last December. Her walking into the BJP parlour so soon after that event anguished those who had backed her agitations. She attracted the charge of betraying the Adivasi cause for political gain.

Voicing the feelings of democratic and secular forces, noted ecologist S Faizi wrote, “Her defection to the Sangh Parivar camp that is antithetical to the Adivasi concerns across the country is a betrayal of the Adivasi, Dalit cause.” He vowed not to have anything to do with her any longer.

‘Betrayal’ is a term Janu can hurl with equal, if not greater, justification at the state’s mainstream parties, the Congress and the CPI (M). She was able to extract promises from UDF governments but they were repeatedly found wanting when it comes to implementation. She holds the CPI (M) totally anti-Adivasi, which is not entirely an unjustified assessment considering the way it let them down to gain the support of encroachers and their backers, a process which goes on to this day in the name of election tactics. The party has also floated an Adivasi outfit to counter hers.

Janu is not the first, and certainly will not be the last, to align with a rising force. For the weak, it is a survival strategy. For the not-so-weak, it is a means of enhancing their power. A score of regional parties with secular credentials had joined the BJP in NDA when power was within its grasp in 1999.

Critics have overlooked the fact that Janu has spurned the appeals of the BJP and its major partner, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sabha, launched by backward class leader Vellappalli Natesan as a common platform for all Hindus from Namboodiris to Nayadis (a tribe), and is going into the NDA with a party of her own.  Her decision can be likened to Mayawati’s alignment of her Bahujan Samaj Party with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh in 2002.  

However, the parallel cannot be stretched too far. Mayawati earned the Chief Ministership through the tie-up. The BSP survived the experiment and she went on become Chief Minister on the strength of her own party. Unlike UP’s Dalits, Kerala’s Adivasis are a microscopic minority. 

In a sense, Janu has taken a plunge into the dark. The BJP is not in a position to confer any great benefit on Janu or the Adivasis. She is, therefore, sure to get disillusioned with it sooner than later. Geethanandan has split with Janu on the tie-up with the BJP. This is indeed a big setback to the Dalit-Adivasi movement they had built up together.

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