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.