Mr Sriram Koyon, along with three comrades joined the Jai Jagat padyatra on the 9th of December and walked along to extend solidarity to the message of justice and peace through the framework of nonviolence, for a week. There is a history to Mr. Koyan that makes him a living, practicing example of an ongoing nonviolent land struggle, for the Arippa movement that he leads has become a modern example of nonviolent resistance. His nonviolent method is not a premise but a solution that has been reached after a ten year long experience of organizing a social movement. Arippa represents a third and final stage of land struggle that is rooted in nonviolence and is organized by the tribal and the landless Dalits in Kerala.
Rajagopal P.V. was instrumental in inspiring Sriram to adopt nonviolence. His largely central India-based, hugely influential land rights movements, Janadesh in 2007, Jan Andolan in 2011 and Jan Satyagrah in 2012 left an impression on him. His account of the history of the movement showcased not only the stages that a rights based social movement goes through but also presented a lesson as to how nonviolence is a continuously evolving paradigm. Success may take time but when the results come, they come with a transformation of the repressor, the state in this case.
The tribal population of Kerala is hardly one percent of the state’s population while landless Dalits account for another nine percent. The tribal resistance has arisen out of historical marginalization and injustice handed out to the tribal and dalits. This resistance took the shaker for a demand to rights over land asking with the idea of self-rule drawn from within the constitution. This idea priced too much for the state which came down heavily upon the movements initially.
Land in the state has traditionally belonged to the Namboodripaths, a Brahmin high caste. A high percentage of this land had been leased out to plantations which is but a roundabout to avoiding the land ceilings act. Around 2009, much of this land became available as the lease period ended for the rubber plantation companies in Kovalam. The first movement known as the Mutunga Land movement led by Janaki C.K. and others took place here. Mr Koyon was a part of this struggle which was not rooted in nonviolence and eventually failed to sustain itself. It ended when a policeman and a tribal person got killed in a bitter confrontation.
The second stage of the movement can be identified with the emergence of a negative nonviolent resistance with the emergence of the Arippa movement. This was preceded by the Changra land struggle which failed after it got involved in state politics with the communist party opposing the movement and the Congress favouring it. This proves that the moment a people’s movement becomes political, it loses its essence.
In 2014, Mr Koyon, part of both previous struggles began a third movement in Thiruvananthapuram when some 500 tribal and dalit families went on to occupy 15000 acres of land that had been on lease to Manorma, a giant company based in Kerala. The land had been used for rubber plantation but the occupants took to natural farming following the traditional method of their ancestors whereby they didn’t use any tools and relied solely on their hands to sow vegetables and rice.
The settlers sought a communal right over the land and not individual claims. This again was met with violence against the protesting men and women by the state police. However, this time the people refused to retaliate and instead were ready with ropes hanging from trees and kerosene poured on body for self immolation as a protest against the police brutality.
This nonviolent approach paid off as the police were rendered helpless against such a resolve towards nonviolence, to the extent that they were ready to give their life and stay hungry but not break any law or react violently against the violence of the state. The state was forced to take notice as those in power began to empathize with their cause.
Rajagopal in a talk later suggested that this particular stage is also violent and termed it as negative nonviolence. Trying to kill oneself is also an act of violence. At the same time it is interesting to note that it was shortly after that a certain change in attitude of the government as well as the upper castes who were opposing the movement could be observed a change of attitude.
The state finally agreed to grant one acre to the settlers who promptly refused the offer demanding a communal ownership at first and now seeking at least 5 acres per family after the government raised the offer to 2.5 acres per family. This is where we identify the third stage of a nonviolent movement where positive solutions come to the fore and the community reaches for self sufficiency. The protesting community under Sriram began to seek alternative source of income through traditional methods of production. They are now making coconut based brooms and ropes and umbrellas for their secondary income. They continue to practice natural farming and are a model for sustainable farming that the world can learn from. They stay united and well organized and committed to a sustainable and respectful way of life that comes with a nonviolent approach.
The day had begun well with the learnings from Mr Koyon’s narration of his experience. The peace-walkers had gained an important lesson in learning about this nonviolent approach of struggle for rights to land. The movement in its ongoing phase is encouraging in its transformative power witnessed in the change of heart of the government and the others opposed to the movement.