There is no going back to the NDA: CK Janu on the political neglect of the Adivasi community

Courtesy CK Janu
19 February, 2019

Today, 19 February, marks the anniversary of one of the most violent episodes in the history of Adivasi-rights movements in Kerala. In August 2001, landless tribal communities of Kerala’s Wayanad district began a protest outside the state secretariat demanding cultivable land. After 48 days of continuous protest, AK Antony, the chief minister at the time, agreed to distribute land among Adivasis. But the agreement was not implemented for over a year, prompting the Adivasis to resume their agitation. In January 2003, Adivasi communities set up hutments in the forests of Muthanga, in Wayanad, as a form of protest. The huts symbolised their right to have a home in the forests. The protests were organised by the Adivasi Gotra Maha Sabha, or AGMS—a group seeking land rights for tribals—and spearheaded by its president, CK Janu, one of Kerala’s foremost tribal leaders.

In February that year, in an attempt to oust the protestors from the area, several huts were set on fire. The protestors blamed forest officials for the arson and took them in custody, holding them hostage. Mass arrests and violence against the protestors followed. The clashes came to a head on 19 February, when the police fired at the main protest site, leading to the death of one protestor, and a police official. Janu and her colleague Geetanandan, a coordinator at AGMS, were arrested two days after the agitation, and later released on bail. Till date, the Adivasis who participated in the protest continue to fight the cases filed against them.

The Muthanga struggle—as it came to be known—was one among a series of movements that Janu led to secure the right to land for Adivasis. In 2016, amid talks about joining the National Democratic Alliance, Janu announced that she would form a new political party called the Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha. Soon after, despite some opposition from her colleagues in the AGMS including Geetanandan, Janu joined the NDA led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. In October 2018, she called a press conference in Kozhikode and announced that the JRS was quitting the alliance as none of the promises made to her party had been fulfilled.

In a interview with Aathira Konikkara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, Janu explained her reasons for joining the NDA, her subsequent decision to quit, and why electoral power is necessary to uplift the Adivasi community. “If you examine India’s history, all the communities which have had a share of political power have experienced change,” she said. “So when you study this system, you learn that you can survive only by entering politics.”

Aathira Konikkara: What were the promises made to you and your party when you joined the NDA?
CK Janu: First, they asked us to join their party. We said that we will not join any of the parties present in Kerala today. That was our stance. Our discussions went on for two–three months. Later, we said that if we are considered as a coalition partner in a front, we can continue with the talks. After the talks regarding a front began, we formed the Janadhipathya Rashtriya party.

After we formed the party, we joined the [NDA] front as a coalition partner and were given one seat in the Bathery constituency in Wayanad. We contested on this seat. We also told them that if we lose this seat, we should be given a Rajya Sabha seat. We also demanded that JRS members be given membership on the boards of corporations and such organisations, and that areas populated by Adivasis should be declared Scheduled Areas, in accordance with Article 244 of the Indian constitution. [Article 244 contains special provisions for the administration of tribal areas.] The Forest Rights Act is being sabotaged in Kerala. It has not been implemented here as it should have. So we demanded that the central government intervene to implement this Act in Kerala. They spoke to us in a way that suggested that they would support us in all these matters.

AK: Did you meet Amit Shah, the BJP national president, for talks? What was the outcome?
CKJ: I met Amit Shah after joining NDA. It was in 2016. Amit Shah had come to Kerala for their party’s convention. That was the first time I met him. We directly discussed all the matters with him and placed our demands before him. He entrusted Rajeev Chandrasekhar, [the media baron and Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka], with the responsibility of intervention. He assured us that a solution would be reached in a few days. We were constantly raising our demands in NDA meetings. We were told to draft a letter listing all our demands. Accordingly, we wrote all our demands under the party’s letterhead and handed it to them.

Amit Shah had participated in two meetings where we discussed our issues. Besides that, we met him again when he was on a visit to Alappuzha, [a district in Kerala]. We have met him thrice and had direct conversations with him. He responded by saying that they were busy and that when elections get over, our issues would be resolved within six months, within three months. This is what they said each time. But even after two and a half years, the process had not begun. They did not start any plan or programme based on the discussions we had.

AK: When did you realise that none of your demands were going to be fulfilled and that it was time to leave the front?
CKJ: We had three–four rounds of talks and we also followed up with the Kerala unit of the party but nothing was happening. They were busy. Even after two years, we saw no measures being taken to implement any of the plans. This started to create issues within our party. From the beginning, there was opposition to joining the NDA. Everyone protested strongly saying that NDA’s positions are anti-Dalit and anti-Adivasi. We overcame that opposition. After two years, discussions began within the party as to how the BJP is treating us in the same negligent manner as LDF [or the Left Democratic Front, which is currently in power in Kerala] and the UDF [or the United Democratic Front, which was the previous government in the state] did in the past. It impacted our party work negatively. We had to take a stance to sustain the party. We decided to quit the NDA for the sustenance of the party. As we left the NDA, we had said that we will sit down for talks with any party that gives us acceptance in accordance with democratic courtesy.

AK:At a press conference in Kozhikode, you stated that you were leaving the NDA temporarily. Is that still your position?
CKJ: No, we have left it completely. Now we have nothing to do with the NDA. There is no going back because they did not give us that acceptance. We took a very political line. A movement can go forward only if the views of the workers are heard.

AK: There have been attacks against Dalits in BJP-ruled states. There has been a view that standing with the NDA is akin to standing with the Sangh Parivar. CKJ: Yes, there was such an opinion. We took a distinct position. As far as Kerala is concerned, they are not responsible for the miserable lives of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes here. They have never been in power in Kerala. If they had come to power, they too could have been responsible for our plight. But in Kerala, that is not the case. Kerala’s Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe movements have never been perceived as a political wing by any movement. While they have been used by everyone for their gains, they have not been given acceptance. LDF or UDF should have been the ones accepting them, giving representation to the communities. But they were never perceived as anything beyond rally workers, vote banks and people who stick posters. So when the NDA came up as a third front, we went for talks around joining the front. When LDF and UDF had not given us that consideration, NDA offered support to Kerala’s marginalised and backward sections. That was a good position. I am not saying that the attacks against Dalits and Adivasis in north India is not taking place. We are representing the marginalised sections here.

AK: Has your decision to join politics impacted the Adivasi Gotra Mahasabha?
CKJ: It never affected the Gotra Mahasabha. The party’s district chairman, secretary, president are all leading the Gotra Mahasabha’s activities. I am still the state president of the Gotra Mahasabha.

AK:There have been differences between you and Geetanandan. How is your equation now? Do you still work together?
CKJ: Geetanandan sir is opposed to the political position. We go together for our case proceedings and talk about it. But ever since I took a political position, we have not worked together.

AK: When you led the Muthanga struggle in 2003, the protesters were labelled as Maoists. There was a perception then that any Adivasi who protests is a Maoist. Is that still the case?
CKJ: That still exists. Those who protest strongly are labelled Maoists, Naxals, or terrorists. It was alleged that our Muthanga struggle had links to LTTE [the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Sri Lankan separatist group] and the People’s War Group [a former Moaist formation in India]. I don’t know what the LTTE or People’s War Group is. We have no connections to Naxals. But our struggle was described that way. Such words are used to suppress the movement. With this, they can reduce public support. It is a calculated move to isolate us from the public and attack us

AK: Has there been any change in the approach of mainstream political parties towards Adivasis?
CKJ: There have definitely been changes in the approach of the LDF. They are now willing to meet, interact and listen to the views of our people now. That is why they have accepted us. We have had two-three rounds of talks to discuss joining them as alliance partners. The party has decided to be cooperative and work with the LDF. That is how we are proceeding right now.

AK: As a leader of Adivasi movements, you would be familiar with the apathy of political parties towards the community. So what made you believe that politics is the right route?
CKJ: If you examine India’s history, all the communities that have had a share of political power have experienced change. They have all become part of the mainstream. But those who are not a part of this system have been in a situation of misery, destruction and even the extinction of the ethnicity. This is very clearly seen in India. So when you study this system, you learn that you can survive only by entering politics.

I have been active in protest movements for the last 35 years. Our protests would continue for three or four months. The particular issue is discussed with intensity and there is an approach of taking one or two steps to resolve it. Once the protest dies out, the plans made are abandoned. So we are left with the plight of protesting from square one. The Muthanga struggle was such a protest. In 2001, there was an agreement that all landless Adivasis in Kerala will get land to support their agricultural livelihood. During the one year after the protest, the process was followed accurately. The government formed a tribal mission. The mission conducted a survey of the landless Adivasis, earmarked the land. This process was followed quite well for a year. After that, they abandoned the programme. It was to restart the abandoned programme that we began the Muthanga struggle. Similarly, the next protest was held in continuation of the Muthanga struggle. So to ensure the implementation of the processes, new protests are held again and again. An individual cannot spend a lifetime carrying out protests. The process needs to have a conclusion, only then will there be a solution. This process takes place within politics.

Recently, [in 2014,] we held the nilpusamaram, [a form of protest in which people remain standing indefinitely]. It lasted for 162 days. It was successful because of public support. The demand was that landless people should be provided with land. And a special package for the participants of Muthanga struggle who were beaten at the time and are still fighting cases. The demand was for compensation, land and resettlement. People had stood under the heat, rain and wind for 162 days, ignoring the wounds on their feet. This protest was on the footpath outside the gates of the Kerala government secretariat. Our protest outside that went on for 162 days could have been sold in one day inside the legislative assembly. So we are changing the nature of our protest. We will not protest on the footpath anymore. We will protest inside the legislative assembly. To do that we need to go inside, right? We formed this political party as a part of it. We don’t have the desire or intention of making money by forming a party with a lot of MLAs and MPs. We formed the party as this is the only way to resolve the issues of the people who have experienced misery for so long and we recognise the danger of not having taken this route in all the years.

AK: What are your demands for the Adivasi communities?
CKJ: There has to be a change in the present condition of the Adivasi community. People in Kerala’s Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities should have the right to stand on par with the Indian citizen. Every human has the fundamental right to live on land. The fundamental rights when a person is born are food, clothing and shelter. So these fundamental rights are violated and denied and kept away from Adivasis. Our party was formed as a part of the protest against these human-rights violations.

AK: You have advocated for a system of forest self-rule in the past. What is your opinion on it now?
CKJ: Self-rule is not a form of parallel government. It is a mechanism within the existing system of governance. I would say that we need it here. If such a process is brought in, the land will stay in possession of the Adivasis for generations. Forests, lakes, nature are the property of the people in that area. It is their source of livelihood. So what is wrong with bringing in such a system to protect it? Today, dictatorship takes place in the name of democracy. These systems should exist to replace dictatorship with democracy. Once you hand over the land to the people and they start farming extensively and earn an income, it gives rise to a new agricultural revolution. With this agricultural revolution, that state does not depend on anyone else. It develops into an independent state. My view is that everyone should recognise this, take it up and take efforts to implement it.

AK: Is the membership of your party concentrated in Wayanad?
CKJ: There are members from all districts of Kerala. There are members from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Now other disadvantaged groups are also coming to our party. We wish to develop into a collective for disadvantaged groups, irrespective of caste or religion. There are 36 Adivasi groups in Kerala. We are thinking about forming a religion of the 36 groups. These include Adiya, Paniya, Kurcha, Kurma, Kattunayaka, Cholanayaka—they have all accepted the identity of Adivasi. So we are thinking of developing Adivasis into a religion. We have been in discussion with leaders of Adivasis.

Our people are outside of Hinduism. We are outside the Hindu traditions. Our beliefs, worship, rituals, customs, marriage, everything is very different from the Hindu system. None of us are Hindus. We are Adivasis.

AK: The Lok Sabha recently passed a bill that will allow 10-percent reservation for the economically backward among the upper castes. What is your opinion on the reservation?
CKJ: Reservation is meant to bring the people in the lowest strata of society to the mainstream. The backward among the forward do not need reservation. Reservation is not a solution for poverty. Initiatives concerning food and employment should be started to resolve poverty. They should be given employment opportunities to bring them on par with others in the forward groups. Instead of that, giving reservation to them is a form of invasion. This is a tactic to get the support of all these people. This has only been done with the motive of appeasing savarnas.

AK: You participated in the Women’s Wall in Kerala. What were your reasons for joining it?
CKJ: The Women’s Wall was a collective of all women. It is going to be the period of the women’s collective in the coming days. These initiatives are a beginning to that. So as women, especially in the public sphere, we should participate going beyond politics. Shouldn’t women be the ones extending their cooperation to a women’s collective? Party politics should be set aside. It is an initiative for women, it does not matter which party organised it. Women came irrespective of the differences, whether they are Congress, Marxist, BJP, Adivasi, or Dalits. Women from all walks of life participated. There are more possibilities of women’s initiatives in the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed.