Chengara, Kerala – land grab, Adivasis, and peasant struggle – A citizens’ report

December 4, 2007

This is a report from a Solidarity Team which went to Chengara, Pathnamtitta district, Kerala, to investigate the struggle of Adivasis and Dalits, going on for the last four months (August – December, 2007). One more among the many struggles peasants all over India are engaged in to rightfully claim land or to defend their meagre land-holdings aginst the encrochment of big national or multinational capital. It is happening in states governed by “left” parties, as well as those ruled currently by the Congress or by BJP. The fundamental issue is the same, everywhere. Contact informaton for some of the members of the Solidarity Team could be provided, if requested.

Click here for a compilation of mainstream media news items on Chengara [PDF, English, 400KB] »

Hari Sharma for SANSAD. News items compiled by Greenyouth

A Report on Chengara Land Struggle in Kerala Peoples’ Movements Solidarity Team

08 November 2007 to 11 November 2007

Chengara speaks to India through the Chengara Pledge. It is the pledge of thousands of people, struggling for the last 120 days in Chengara Harrison Malayalam Estate, (also called as Laha Estate) seeking ownership of cultivable land to all 5,000 families there.

Chengara Pledge: As Recited by Soumya Babu, an 11 Year old Girl who said she will go to school only after she gets land

I love my country. I will try to learn about the Constitution and laws of my country. I will work for fulfilling the pristine objective of the Constitution. I will take part in the nation building process in my own way. I will not discriminate against any Indian on the basis of religion or caste. I understand us as owners of a great tradition as well as protectors of a great democracy.

Country for the people (/Janangalkku Vendi Raashtram)/ People for the country /(Raashtrathuinuven di Janangal)/

Land struggle in Chengara, Pathnamtitta district, Kerala by landless Dalits and Adviasis (as well as scores of families from OBC communities, Muslims etc) from all parts of Kerala, started on 4 August 2007. The movement is a fight to re-claim ownership of land that has been part of a long standing promise of the Government. At present nearly 5000 families, more than 20,000 people, have entered the Harrison Malayalam Private Ltd Estate, living in makeshift arrangements. The Chengara Land struggle demands permanent ownership of agricultural land through transfer of ownership from the Harrison Company to the Dalits and Adivasis. The Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi (SJVSV), the collective that leads the struggle, has opted for the land take-over as strategy remembering the tradition of the great leader Ayyankali, the militant dalit leader whose mission was to ensure liberation of dalits from various forms of slavery, right to agricultural land, as well as right to education in Kerala.

The movement salutes Ayyankali and Ambedkar whose role in rights movements in Kerala is disproportionately highlighted in the modern social literature on Kerala. Raising the names of Ayyankali and Ambedkar as sources of inspiration is a political challenge to the mainstream political left parties. There is a widespread popular belief in Kerala that the official left were the sole forces which ensured rights to Dalits, including land rights. Such misrepresentations are now globalised through some academic works as well.

The movement has till now survived attacks, threats, epidemics and hunger.

The families have been staying there; facing threats from local communist party (Marxist) members as well as workers of the estate. The rubber trees in the estate have become too old for tapping. However the allegation is that the land struggle affects plantation activities. Harrison’s continued possession of land even after the land lease exhausted in 1996 itself is illegal. So is the case of immediate take over of land held in excess to the 1048 acres of land originally earmarked for Harrison Company. (According to laha Gopalan, President of the SJVSJ, the company got the land for lease for 99 years from a family to whom the local landlord had given for 34 years of lease for banana cultivation. This agreement was said to have been breeched when this family gave the land to the Harissons Company for 99 years.) The excess land occupied is expected to the tune of 6000 hectares

The Sadhujana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi (SJVSV) is a radical departure in people’s initiative to attain land rights. It exposes the socio-cultural reasons for landlessness among dalits and adivasis in Kerala. It says that 85% of the landless in Kerala are the Dalits, and Adviasis, who were also traditionally excluded from attaining wealth, power, titles and assets. Various governments set up by different coalitions failed to address this social reality and avoided to eradicate it as priority. The SJVSV says that dalits and adivasis live in extremely uninhabitable slum like situations in Kerala. According to SJVSV there are 12,500 dalit colonies and 4083 adivasi colonies where tens of thousands of families live with extreme lack of basic amenities – facing civil, political, economic and cultural rights violations.

This condition – together with that of families living in temporary hutments, pavements, and the homeless – was excluded from Kerala’s social reality by the high tide of recent discussions on Kerala’s world renowned achievements in the field of social development. Landlessness continues after a poorly formulated land reform Act (implemented after fifteen years after its creation) was implemented in 1972. Public sphere in Kerala is abuzz with a misinformation that land question has been solved in Kerala, addressing the needs of the landless communities. The SJVSV says that dalits and adivasis could not benefit from the land reform of 1970s since its major focus was on conferring land to the tenants. In Kerala’s context the caste and cultural hierarchy, with strong oppressive segregation of these communities, did not allow them to be tenants; which is why many of them could not avail the benefits. Also, the lower rates of social membership, founding institutions etc. were essential factors which contributed to the concentration of distributed land (under the Land Reform Act) to some caste group which had developed these `abilities’. There was also the lack of a strong land rights movement from among the ranks of the dalits and adivasis.

In the present day context, common resources including land are monopolized by corporate agencies in flagrant violation of principles like ‘public trust’. Policies and laws in the past decade enabled monopolies to own land while the previous mode of relationship was in possession of land for long lease with abysmally low royalties. This was done at a time when the state had a constitutional obligation of ensuring social justice to all marginalised communities through the principle of positive discrimination, while dalits and adivasis remained landless and oppressed. To explain the situation in Kerala’s context, it is important to see that in 1972 the State government had issued a government order allotting 1,43,000 acres of land to Tatas. In comparison with this the total land distributed to thousands of families as part of land reforms was only between 3 and 4 lakh acres (as per official figures in 1966, around 10 lakh acres of land was available for distribution) . Such facts clearly indicate where the state stands when it comes to identifying the nature of land question and link it with the principle of right to live with dignity for the the dalits and adivasis. The demand for meaningful and dignified survival with sufficient area of agricultural land for dalit, adivasi communities is to be understood in this context. Together with this there is a need to examine the official understanding on the area of land required for dalit and adivasis. The earlier land rights movements in the 1990s have described how the dalit adivasi families were forced to bury their beloved inside their houses in many places. Even such families are considered as landed in official records. It was also observed that many dalit, adivasi families live in plots of a cent (one cent is one-hundredth of an acre) which is much less than the U.N..Habitat estimates for healthy life in * Urban *environments. Considering that contiguity of homestead and agricultural land is an essential condition for agrarian communities in Kerala, seeking refuge under technical definition is equal to avoiding responsibilities. So the acute landlessness among dalits and adivasis becomes an immediate human rights concern in Kerala. Kerala’s land reform tells us how a state policy for land reforms overruled the objective of the Article 14 of the Indian Constitution through formulating eligibility stipulations disregarding the long standing socio-cultural segregations faced by the dalits and adivasis.

Kerala was a land of unknown land struggles till the historic land agreement in 2001 October was signed between the protesting
Dalits and Adivasis of Kerala and the State government. Since then dalit and adivasi land struggles in Kerala attained a new order of practice. First ever, large scale mass reclamation of land happened in Muthanga, which also proved that the state response to militant struggles for land rights leads to extreme forms of state violence in Kerala like in other states in India. While we write this we are still unable to decide what would be the state response to such struggles in Sonbhadra ( U.P.), Rewa (M.P.) Khammam (A.P.) Kodaikanal (T.N) and many other known and unknown places where the people who for generations have tilled the lands have fallen to the ire of the state. Coming back to the Chengara Land struggle since 4 August 2007, one of the core factors that influenced the making of the struggle was the unjustifiable delay in responding to the rights of these communities by the state, in honoring the understanding between the state and the dalit-adivasi combine on distribution of fertile land as an immediate measure. Dalits and Adivasis in India are united in their experience of high forms of land alienation as well as the permanent forceful displacement from their natural habitats. Chengara explains to the world a not-so-much discussed reality in Kerala. On the other side the land struggle that has passed over one hundred days and could face an eviction through an order from the Kerala High court.

The people are facing continuous threat from the ruling left front activists – including one which is said to have appeared in the print media that the CITU proposed to evict the people engaged in the land struggle, if the police fail to do so. (Note: CITU is a trade union organization, affiliated to CPI-M.) Another critical question is how the present state government will approach the land struggle in the context of an response to the Kerala High Court which the Government needs to submit on the modalities of vacating people from Chengara estate. So the question become more of what a peoples government could do in such situations where rights movements of historically alienated and oppressed communities are in an organic struggle united to defend their human rights. Also, how the law of the land could adopt a new turn to defend the peoples demand rather than branding the struggles as mere illegal, violent and anti-state militancy.

Another important factor is that how Chengara land struggle is understood in the Kerala society, considering the fact that the origin of this is connected to the historical struggle which Ayyankali had led in 1907 demanding cultivable land to landless dalits and adivasis, and also to the dalit land rights movement of 1990s. While encoding these historical influences as major factors, it is also clear that Chengara movement has espoused a new politics of defining rights and achieving them through direct action.

*Why solidarity visit.*

Chengara connects Kerala to the larger reality of land struggles across the world where landless oppressed have successfully mobilized to assert land rights. While the official, state version on these movements remained as anti-state consolidation for vested interests, such movements have realized land for people, whose generations never hand chance to own and cultivate land. Land rights movements in Brazil, many African countries and Australia have made such historic land marks. In India, as we see the right to own and preserve land as well as protect land from corporate and state-sponsored land acquisition led to death of hundreds of people, many who were killed still remain unknown. It is in this context, we see that state responses to peoples democratic rights to land become more aggressive.

The Solidarity Team had following objectives:

1. To assess the ground situation through exchanges with struggling people.

2. To discuss the politics of land movements in other parts of the country.

3. To facilitate solidarity for the Chengara movement outside Kerala.

4. To present a report concerning the demands of the struggle, factors that led to the struggle, as well as responses towards it.

The SJVSVS politics is based on few important interpretations of the national and local political and social processes in the last few decades. These processes, which the SJVSV believes have sustained the coercive and non coercive forms of exclusion faced by the dalits and adivasis in India. One of the prominent landmarks in this connection is the historic Pune Pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar, which the SJVSV believes, was coerced upon the dalit leadership in order to facilitate a fictious national trans-caste unity.


The Chengara struggle got a lot of inspiration from the land struggles of 2001, led by a Dalit Adivasi combine. By 2001 land struggles in Kerala attained a new order of practice. First ever, large scale mass reclamation of land was marked in the history of peoples struggles. Muthanga firing in 2002 was an eye opener to the supporters of struggle movements in Kerala when it was shown that the state response to militant struggle for right to land could face extreme forms of state violence in Kerala. The chronology of events concerning the implementation of agreements reached between state and the land rights movement indicates:

Chengara explains a land question spanned in colonial and post colonial era. The welfare-ist democratic state has failed to address the illegality involved in the transfer of the land to the Harrison’s or the illegal possession of land (raised by the descendant of the original owner of the land) as cited in the Kerala High Court Judgement on 24 September 2007 . Such situations indicate the need for immediate positive obligations from the state to provide fertile agricultural land in sufficient quantities, which the families in struggle could use as asset as well as means of survival.

For any one who believes that the true function of social engagement is to expose realities and opening avenues for natural justice and Human Rights of oppressed sections, Chengara has many things to offer. At a time when the state Chief Minister has come out with an idea of second land reforms, it is important to see how the people of Kerala, the opinion makers and leaders perceive the demands raised by the Chengara movement.

The following are the observations of the Solidarity Team on what a government, with intention to defend Human Rights of oppressed communities, could do in the context of Chengara Struggle.

* No bloodshed is the first demand from all those who support the movement. This demand is very important since we have seen what land rights movements in various parts in Kerala have faced with state and non-state violence where people were killed and injured.
* Withdraw all cases against activists of the SJVSJ. The police and district administration should examine the matters regarding atrocities against the dalits and adivasis considering the interpretations of atrocity as laid down in the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
* Stop official as well as media projections of the movement as extremist and illegal. Rather the state and civil society of Kerala should declare solidarity and support to the movement so that Dalits and adivasis are freed of the historical injustice faced through generations. This is important and possible though meaningful dialogues between the communities in struggle and the state.
* Accepting the movement as a peoples movement is key to this. Such being the case there must be a halt to the efforts by the police, in the main, to portray the movement as a law and order problem. From experiences around India, such branding of peoples resistance for right to reclaim and protect land have been used as alibis for indiscriminate use of force to suppress movements.
* Since 4 August 2007, the arrests or illegal detentions are common in the area near the estate. Such acts indicate gross human rights violations including freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Such acts of illegal detention are also alleged to be done by aggressive local cadre of the ruling party (CPI-M) misusing state power to suppress peoples movement. Subtle social boycott and denying freedom of movement result in loss of work and access to essential services for the already impoverished
families, who are thus are facing great threat. All forms of violence result to threat to life and livelihoods and so this has to be stopped at the earliest.
* In the past, due to absence of strong articulations of landless and marrginalised people about their right to own land, the state was adopting a go slow attitude to the needs. Considering that land ownership is key for all communities in Kerala to attain versatile economic and social potentials, such opportunity should be provided to the dalits and adivasis in a way they wish to materialise it.
* Considering that the movement has come up in the context of repeated indifference from various governments; the solutions should be urgent, and must consider that the right to land is a human right to marginalised communities.
* Land rights movements like Chengara are suggesting methods for meaningful elimination of landlessness. Chengara movement, quoting from the authentic data from the state as well as reputed agencies, says that there is enough land to be distributed to the landless. Such scientific options should be at the core when deciding on solutions, rather which adopting a charity or welfare approach.
* Dalits and adivasis are the people living in harmony with the land, instead of an exploitative relationship. So it becomes the natural right of these communities to have possession of the lands since they were the people who always oriented their lives in a symbiotic relationship with the land.
* Landlessness among dalits and tribals is the highest among all social groups in Kerala according to a study by the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP). Average land possession by Dalit families’ is 0.43 acres as against the state average of 0.86 acres. Reading this in the backdrop of social and cultural segregations, it is the duty of a democratic government to accept land rights by these communities as inalienable rights.
* Delay in ensuring fertile land in sufficient quantity must be looked upon as a practice of segregation and discrimination against these historically suppressed communities.

Solidarity Team Members

Bijulal M.V., Human Rights and Law Unit, Indian Social Institute. Co-Convener, Delhi Support Group for people’s movements.

Ashok Chaudhury, National Federation of Forest People and Forest workers. Forest Rights Campaigner and Organiser, Uttar Pradesh.

Prakash Louis, Director, Bihar Social Institute, works on Peasant Question in Bihar and Dalit Rights

Roma, Kaimur Kisan Mazdoor Mahila Sangharsh Samiti Activist. Working with people’s movement for land rights in Uttar Pradesh & Madhya Pradesh.

Shanta Bhattacharya, Kaimur Kisan Mazdoor Mahila Sangharsh Samiti Activist. Working with people’s movement for land rights in Uttar Pradesh & Madhya Pradesh.

Vijayan MJ, Coordinator, Delhi Forum, New Delhi,