Kabani is not just a river-People’s March

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Kabani is one of the main tributaries of the Kaveri, which has sources in both Karnataka and Keralam. Originating from the high­elevated grasslands of Brahmagiri and Talakkaveri, it flows East through the Deccan plateau and cascades down the Hoganakal falls to flow on over the plains of Salem, Erode and Karur in Tamil Nadu. It then enters the deltas of Thanjavur before joining the Bay of Bengal. The Kabani gives water to the tribes in the mountains, peasants in the plains and dwellers in the cities and towns, irrigates tens of thousands of hectares of crops of various types and supports thousands of square kilometers of multifarious forests teeming with wildlife. It connects several tribal peoples and nationalities, such as the Malayali, Kannada, Tamil, Kodava and Tulu.

The banks of Kabani have been witness to several historical tribal revolts, peasant upsurges and anti­colonial wars. The valiant Pazhassi Rajah and his Kurichya tribal commander Thalakkal Chandu and the Mysore Lion Tippu Sultan waged their wars against British colonialists here. The historical Kuruma, Kurichya revolts against the colonialists and their lackeys took place along its banks. Kabani is not just a river, the life line of so many species; it is the life blood of history itself. During the historical armed upsurge of Naxalbari, the waters of Kabani once again turned red. Intellectuals and revolutionary youths responded to the call of Naxalbari’s spring thunder.

The banks of Kabani reverberated with the slogans of Naxalbari. Thirunelli in Wayanad District (Keralam) was the epicenter of the struggle. Comrade Varghese, fondly known as the peruman (elder/leader) of adivasis led this historic movement. The sufferings of toiling adivasis ­ the Adiyas and Paniyas ­ and that of the migrant peasants fuelled it. Revolutionary intellectuals in the cities dreamed of the PLA marching down along the banks of Kabani to liberate the country. A radical film maker P.A. Bakkar, later made a film titled “When Kabani Turned Red”­ dealing with the lives of the revolutionaries of those days. The flow of the Kabani never stopped though the revolutionary movement faced a set­back.

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Even though re­organising against left ­adventurism ended­ up in right opportunism, the social condition of lakhs of adivasis and peasants remained the same, if not worse. The land question of adivasis and the landless and poor peasants, the agrarian crisis of the middle peasants, rocked the banks of Kabani repeatedly. Starvation deaths of adivasis and suicides of peasants continued. Adivasis and peasants were forcibly pushed out of their habitats in the name of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, reserve forests and other infrastructural and developmental projects. More are on the verge of displacement. The plight of adivasi women in the treacherous ginger fields of Kodagu, the cries of those forced to become domestic helps in urban households, the sobbing of the unwedded mothers and their hungry children… the tears of the toiling masses mixed with and flowed on with the waters of the Kabani.

Spontaneous militant struggles of adivasis and peasantry broke out up in the 1990s. The land question of adivasis resulted in militant struggles like Panavally and Ambukuthi, and finally culminated in the Muthanga land struggle, where hundreds of armed reserve police unleashed a reign of terror. Com. Jogi was martyred in police firing and several adivasis were brutally beaten ­up and tortured. An ‘adivasi­ hunt’ was launched all over Wayanad. They were pulled of buses, hounded, arrested and tortured. Their lifelong earned assets were put on fire. Even suckling babies and older women were not spared. The banks of the Noolpuzha, one of the main tributaries of Kabani bore witness to these police atrocities.

Severe price crash of coffee, ginger and pepper resulted in a serious agrarian crisis which pushed the small and medium peasants into the debt traps of private finance companies (popularly branded as ‘blade’ companies for their ruthless style of operation and exorbitant rates of interest) and co­operative societies. Reformist organisations like Farmer’s Relief Forum tried to organise these peasants. A revolutionary mass organisation, Porattam, led militant struggle against the money­ lenders. The LDF, and later UDF, governments tried to stem this unrest with suppression and a few lollipops of debt relief. Coupled with a pickup in agrarian crop prices, this exerted a negative influence on struggles for some time.

But the basic issues remained and the yearning of the masses continued. The movement of armed squads of CPI (Maoist), doing organisational work in the forest areas of Western Ghats, at the tri­junction of the three States of Keralam, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (KKTN), has now catalysed a new stirring up. When the squads were noticed and hit the headlines of the mainstream media, the Kerala State immediately carried out massive deployment of special commando forces (Thunderbolt, Scorpio) and launched a combing operation throughout the forest areas adjacent to the Kabani, its rivulets and tributaries. At the same time their counter parts in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu responded quickly by engaging the Anti ­Naxal Force (ANF) and Special Task Force (STF ­ formed by Tamil Nadu to hunt down Veerappan). They started combing on their side of Kabani and the adjoining forest areas. This joint combing operation, ‘Operation Brahmagiri’, was aimed at destroying the new Maoist movement in the KKTN tri­junction in its budding stage itself.

Hundreds of crores of rupees have been spent and several battalions of forces, including special commando forces, have been mobilised. Arms and ammunition in the police stations in the area were shifted to more secure places. In areas situated on and around the banks of Kabani, security of police stations was strengthened and commando forces deployed for their protection. The appearance of police stations have changed — bunkers, high­beam lights, fortification with sand bags and closed circuit cameras are now the norm. Media reports on the squads have been more sensational than factual. When this became a regular affair, police supplied more masala by specifying dates like February 18 (Com. Varghese martyr day), and then July 28 (Com. CM martyr day) as the dates for possible police station raids.

 

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The Northern Inspector General of Police declared a 15 days plan to eliminate the ‘Maoist threat’. It was extended for a period of two months and further repeated. As of now it stands converted into a two year plan. A section of petite ­bourgeois intellectuals, especially ex­-naxalites (appropriately termed ‘exalites’ by the late poet Kunjunnimash) questioned the re­emergence of Maoist activities in Keralam. They claimed that the relevance of Maoist movement in Keralam was over by the period of mid 1980s. They reminisced over their involvement in building the movement in those days and claimed that they had later abandoned it after ‘realising’ that a revolutionary movement is an impossibility in an “advanced democratic society like Keralam which would frown at the Marxist concept of proletarian dictatorship”.

Another section, representing capitalist production theorists, declared that Maoism and armed struggle are not relevant in Keralam since it is ‘advanced’ unlike backward areas like Chhattisgarh or Bihar where classical type of feudalism remains. This section also attacks Maoists as ‘anarchists’. A growing influence of new­ left ideas in the early 1980s among some leading intellectuals and activists associated with the erstwhile CRC, CPI (M­L) in Keralam and the Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi (People’s Cultural Forum) related to it, later merged with postmodernist trends in the 1990s. They became the front runners of NGOs and the movements of the marginalised. Meanwhile, the main ideologue of that time, K. Venu, then the Secretary of CRC CPI (ML), launched a disguised attack on Marxism with a so ­called new concept of proletarian democracy, and soon went on to openly reject Marxism altogether.

All of this dominated the intellectual sphere of Keralam over the years. Its leading lights have vehemently opposed the Maoists. Naturally, the re­birth of an armed Maoist movement has provoked them and their hard­core started a counter campaign which is used by the state against the revolutionary movement. That of course is not the whole picture. A section of intellectuals have been critical, of both the state and the revolutionary movement. Another section, after initial scepticism, later extended support. The squad moving along the Wayanad­ Kodugu area is named after the Kabani due to its historical significance in tribal and peasant struggles and the early phase of Maoist movement. The high elevation mountain ranges of Banasura, Brahmagiri, and Vattappana hill tracts and the evergreen forest cover and rocky hillocks makes for tough movement but it gives enough space for maneuvering. Even while the six months long rainy season makes everyday life of the squad difficult, it helps to mould the guerrillas to be strong enough to face any difficulty.

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