"The Whites believed that the Blacks did not have souls. There are the university academics who believe that adivasis (tribals) lack the capacity to act on their own as do those intellectuals who are in touch with the forest department. There are those in Kerala who think that adivasis are vanavasis (inhabitants of the forest) like the elephant, the leopard and the wild buffalo." This is how Chekkottu Kariyan Janu, (born 1964), the unquestioned leader of the indigenous people in Kerala, describes the discriminatory attitude of the authorities and others towards tribals.
Janu's work has put the problems of adivasis on the world map. The movements she has led, most notably the Thrissileri struggle to regain the burial grounds of the tribals and the Muthanga forest struggle - which laid bare the anti-tribal and hideously violent face of the state government ï¿½ are now the stuff of legends.
Janu was born in Vellamunda village in Wayanad district to parents who belong to the Adiya (literally, slave) tribe, one of the most downtrodden indigenous communities in Kerala. At the very young age of six, she worked as a domestic help at a local schoolteacher's house. In her community, this wasn't unusual. Sheer poverty and helplessness drive many young children to a life of hard labor.
At the age of 12, she began working as an agricultural labor on daily wages. All she got for a day's hard labor was Rs 2 (1US$=Rs 44). Janu then tried her hand at tailoring, but she couldn't find enough custom and was forced to shut shop. As she grew older, Janu found herself increasingly troubled by many aspects of the situation of tribal communities in Kerala. As her thoughts became clearer, she began speaking her mind out loud. The adivasis identified with what she was saying. Soon, her voice was their voice.
Political parties saw her potential and were quick to try and recruit her. Janu was attracted by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s professed ideologies. She joined them. In 1987, though, she quit the party in protest against its patriarchal and anti-tribal policies. From now on, she knew, she would have to chart out her own course in her struggle for Kerala's tribal peoples. She went back to travelling to tribal hamlets, understanding the problems in each area and mobilizing the people on her own.
One of the first land struggles she led in the 1980s was for the right of the adivasis to their burial land in Thrissileri. When a non-tribal landowner brought in the police to harass and arrest the adivasis, the adivasi women marched to the police station with pickaxes and shovels. They ensured the release of their men and reclaimed their land.
Another milestone in Janu's struggle is the adivasis' struggle for land rights in the Muthanga forest. By now, it was clear that without rights over land, the tribals could not survive. For the adivasis, reclaiming the Muthanga forest was the beginning of integrating the diversity of the various tribes and commencement of a village life capable of self-rule. Tribals succeeded in recreating an adivasi village in Muthanga through collective will power and labor. The rhythm that the tribal communities had lost was re-established. They set up their own huts and prepared the land for cultivation.
Three schools for children, a public distribution center and a healthcare center were set up. The community even prepared the blueprint for reforesting Muthanga, enlivening the dried-up Mavinahalla river, and protecting the wildlife and environment. The settlement in Muthanga became totally liquor free. This was a true lesson, a lived experience of adivasi self-rule.
The government, meanwhile, did its utmost to force the adivasis to leave Muthanga. When all else failed, the police fired at them on February 19, 2003. Nearly 30 people have disappeared after that incident. After the Muthanga firing, 31 children were shut behind bars. Several women were taken into custody in illegal ways and kept in the forest inspection bungalow and raped and tortured. Janu called this a "war with racial overtones" and declared that they would continue the struggle for gaining land rights and to establish adivasi gram panchayats.
Before Janu changed the dynamics of all discussions on indigenous communities, the adivasis in Kerala were some of the most marginalized groups in the state. Deprived of their rightful access to land and resources, as also the right to lead the life they wanted, the tribal people were forced to integrate into "mainstream" society at the very lowest levels. Janu has often spoken against this "mainstreaming". "The greatest problem is that a child who feels ashamed to be an adivasi might consider civilization as good. When girls (and boys too) are educated, they tend to imitate the 'civilized'. But the civilized will not consider them as equals. By then, our children are between the devil and the deep sea," she says.
The adivasis are not a powerful vote-bank in the tumultuous political scene in Kerala. The 350,000 tribals in the state constitute barely one per cent of the population. Yet, Janu is a force to reckon with in the Kerala's socio-political terrain, for every one of those 350,000 adivasis stand united beside her.
What Janu lacks in formal education, she makes up for with her keen mind. When the Total Literacy Campaign in Kerala was underway, Janu participated wholeheartedly. She learnt how to read and write Malayalam - the language of mainstream Kerala society - and encouraged many others to learn as well. Over years of activism, Janu has now picked up a working knowledge of English and several indigenous peoples' languages as well.
In 1992, she was selected chairperson of the South Zone Adivasi Forum, an organization that coordinates the land struggles of the indigenous people in south India. She realized the importance of linking her struggle to similar concerns around the world. In January and June 1999, therefore, she took part in a series of protest demonstrations and speeches against globalization organized by the Peoples Global Action (PGA) throughout Europe. The protest demos were targeted at the G-8 summit (held in Cologne, Germany), the World Economic Forum (Davos, Switzerland), the International Chamber of Commerce (Paris) and the Swiss banks.
Back in India, she led different phases of the adivasi land struggle in Kerala as well as the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. She organized several land struggles in Wayanad, Kannur, Palakkad, Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts to fight for the return of adivasi lands.
Over the years, the government machinery is not the only enemy she's made. Mafia lords and political parties have often issued death threats to her. But Janu continues with her work peacefully; she will not let them change her. "But we are being taught that, in order to assert our right to live on the land of our birth, we must resist all forms of power. Resist with an indomitable will power," she says.