KK Surendran’s 17-year-long battle demanding compensation for illegal detention and custodial torture came to a successful end on 12 January. That day, a sub court in Kerala’s Wayanad district ordered the state government to pay the retired lecturer Rs 5 lakh. A member of the Dalit community, Surendran was supporting an Adivasis-led land-rights movement in Wayanad’s Muthanga village in early 2003. In February that year, the police began a brutal crackdown to quell the movement. As a part of this, officials of the Sulthan Bathery police station arrested him and beat him in custody on 22 February, leaving him with partial loss in hearing.
The January 2021 judgment acknowledged Surendran’s suffering and stated that his arrest “without reasonable and probable cause was humiliating.” The court noted that P Viswambaran and V Devaraj—the then sub-inspector and circle inspector of the Sulthan Bathery Police Station—“physically and mentally tortured” him in custody. While Surendran had asked for a compensation of Rs 15 lakh, the court only granted him Rs 5 lakh—the state government could decide whether it would pay this amount on its own or get it reimbursed from the guilty officials. But Surendran was satisfied with the judgment. “Its importance lies in the legal recognition of the fact that the police used brute force against me,” he told me.
Surendran’s torture was among the many cases that showed the heavy costs of Adivasi assertion during the Muthanga land-rights movement. That February, the police was accused of firing at protesters, conducting arbitrary arrests, brutal manhandling and even molestation of women. More than 15 years later, Adivasis in the district continued to struggle for land. But with the January 2021 order, Surendran’s case has seen some sort of closure. “I am not judging it by its economic value,” he told me while recounting his legal battle. “Even if the amount was one rupee, it would not have mattered to me.”
The Muthanga struggle—as it came to be called—was among the most prominent Adivasis-led land-rights movements in Kerala. An Economic and Political Weekly paper on the struggle, published in May 2003, charted the history of landlessness among Adivasis in Kerala. “Around 30 per cent of the tribal households in the state are landless,” the paper mentioned. “The proportion of landless tribal households is highest in the Malabar area, with the districts of Wayanad and Palakkad taking the lead,” the paper noted.
According to several scholars and activists, the much-admired land reforms introduced by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government in the 1950s and the Kerala Private Forests (Vesting and Assignment) Act, 1971 failed to benefit the state’s landless Adivasi population. Communities from other regions displaced the Adivasis in Wayanad, leading to a series of movements demanding land rights. “They began to settle in the periphery of Wayanad’s forests, by the rivers and poramboke land,” MK Ramadas, a journalist who had covered the Muthanga protest extensively for the Malayalam news channel Asianet, said. Poramboke land refers to land which is not assessed to revenue records. Ramadas said, “That is how the tribes became landless.” The Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Regulation of Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Land) Act of 1975 provided for the restoration of land to Schedule Tribes and prohibited the transfer of land which belonged to them. However, successive governments failed to implement this.
The seeds for the Muthanga struggle were sown in 2001, when the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, a group seeking land rights for Adivasis, protested outside the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram for 48 days. The AGMS’s president, CK Janu, and its coordinator at the time, M Geethanandan, spearheaded the protests. Ramadas opined that the rising awareness among Adivasis about their rights was a cause of nervousness for political parties. “That is why CK Janu was an opponent to all of them. They feared that they would lose their hold on the people of the lowest strata, who were so far used to draw water and cut wood for them,” he told me. The protest forced AK Antony, the chief minister at the time, to commit to the distribution of cultivable land among the state’s landless Adivasis between 1 January 2002 and 31 December 2002.
When the Antony government failed to honour his commitment, landless Adivasis of Wayanad, led by AGMS, set up hutments in the forests of Muthanga to assert their right to land ownership. The AGMS said that the forest was the homeland of different Adivasi communities in Wayanad. Moreover, the AGMS held that several Adivasi families had been forcibly evicted from Muthanga during the 1970s and 1980s.
After the forestland was occupied on 4 January 2003, Ramadas regularly reported on it from the ground. “No one thought that the protest would reach a point of violence,” he told me. “They believed that the issue would be resolved and that they would be invited for talks again. But the then minister of forest, K Sudhakaran, opposed this movement. Political parties created false narratives about it,” he told me. Ramadas added that the movement had been labelled as a parallel government in the state.
A fire developed in the area on 17 February. The protestors blamed forest officials for the arson and held them hostage. “A photographer and a group of forest officials who went to the protest site were held hostage. They were released on the 18th after discussions with the collector,” Ramadas told me. He added that this eventually “deteriorated the equation between the tribal protesters and the general public.”