“I am not making any new promises,” says C K Janu, 46, the face of some of the biggest tribal agitations in Kerala in recent years. She is contesting from the hill district of Wayanad as a candidate of the Janathipathya Rashtriya Sabha, a party she founded before the polls. It is now an ally of the BJP-led NDA combine.
Janu says she knows what it is to live with unfulfilled promises. “Successive governments have made promises to the tribal community, only to break them. So it makes no sense to make new promises. I am asking people to vote for change,” she says.
Janu was born to a family of Adiyas, an extremely backward tribal group whose members once worked as bonded labourers. She worked as a domestic help and a farm hand before joining the Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union, a farm labourers’ organisation affiliated to the CPM. But she quit in protest against the Communist party’s alleged failure to take up tribal issues. The literacy drive in Kerala of the 1980s transformed the unlettered young woman into a leader. She attended classes and mastered Malayalam. Her oratory appealed to the tribals as she took up their causes.
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Janu shot to prominence in 2003, when she, along with tribal leader M Geethanandan and hundreds of their supporters, occupied vacant forest land at Muthanga wildlife sanctuary in Wayanad, in protest against the government’s failure to allot agricultural land to tribals. The agitation turned violent, leading to the death of a policeman and a tribal.
In Wayanad, land is a touchy issue among tribals and settler-farmers, with the former accusing the latter of encroaching on their land over the years. It was her fight to give tribals a right to their land that shaped Janu as a leader. Which is why, her silence on land issues this election is telling. Instead, in her campaign speeches, Janu talks about the “need for change” from the region’s bipolar politics.
Of the district’s 2.10 lakh voters, about 53,700-odd are tribals. In this constituency reserved for STs, Janu will be up against Congress’s sitting legislator I C Balakrishnan and CPM’s Rukmini Subramanian. While Janu belongs to the backward farm-worker community of Adiya, Balakrishnan is a member of Kurichiya, a socially and economically progressive tribal group. Subramanian is a Kuruma, another forward tribal community.
Janu needs no introduction in Wayanad. Her candidature has enthused tribal colonies, with the men at Pakyam and Chethalayam volunteering to accompany her on door-to-door campaigns. “Her presence has served as a morale booster for the community. However, the tribal votes will be divided among the Congress, BJP and CPM,” says E B Ragesh, an engineering graduate at Kattunaika tribal colony. To buttress his point, Ragesh points to his neighbour Unni, a school dropout, who is busy preparing election slips for the CPM candidate.
Janu’s decision to join the NDA fold, however, has made several of her fellow activists suspicious, with M Geethanandan, her close aide who was arrested during the Muthanga agitation of 2003, disassociating himself from her politics. “It is true that her candidature has energised the tribals in Wayanad, but her decision to join hands with the BJP has alienated groups that have been fighting for the tribal cause. By bringing Janu into its fold, BJP may have succeeded in weakening tribal sentiments against mainstream parties,’’ says Geethanandan.
While many saw her induction as a coup by the BJP, which has been struggling with its anti-SC/ST image at the national level, her supporters now say that the party hasn’t pitched in enough. Though local BJP leaders and Ezhava party Bharat Dharma Jana Sena occasionally campaign for her, no senior BJP leader has turned up in Wayanad, except for a rally that Union Minister Smriti Irani held in Sulthan Bathery, the main town in the district. Unlike other NDA candidates, Janu was not invited to share the dais with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he held his election rally at nearby Kasargod.
Many landless tribals are also sceptical of Janu’s political move. “There is an impression that she abandoned the tribals for her political ambition. She took us for the Muthanga land agitation in 2003. But what have we got? We are still waiting for land to be allotted. The Congress government has at least given us free rice,’’ says V Balan, a villager at Irulam in Wayanad.
That makes it a difficult battle for Janu. The tribals are divided while the settler-farmers are suspicious about voting for a woman who has led many a agitation to get them evicted. In 2014, Janu had staged a ‘Nilpusamaram’, where ST demonstrators stood outside the Thiruvananthapuram secretariat for 162 days demanding Panchayat Extension to the Scheduled Area (PESA), under which Adivasis can have their own panchayats. While the government eventually gave in, the promised PESA is still to be implemented. But it’s something the settler-farmers of Wayanad fear. Some in villages in Pulpally and Mullankolly panchayats openly say they will not support Janu. She dismisses these fears. “Ordinary farmers have little to worry from PESA,’’ she says.