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When a unique protest for Adivasi land rights held Kerala’s breath for nine hours

The day was October 4, 1996. Kerala woke up to the news that at 10:30 am that day, a gang of four men had taken WR Reddy, the then district collector of Palakkad, hostage in his office. Information flowed out that the gang had in their possession guns, bombs, pipes and dynamite.

Kallara Babu, Ajayan Mannur, Kanjangad Rameshan and Vilayodi Sivankutty of the Ayyankali Pada, named after the Dalit social reformer Ayyankali, had just one objective: withdrawal of the amendments of the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction of Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act passed by the then CPM-led government of EK Nayanar.

The outfit put forward the demand for a mediator at the discussion and underlined that it would come for talks after a team of the state’s then only private TV channel Asianet arrive at the scene. Both these demands were accepted by the government and the police. Popular criminal lawyer Veerachandra Menon was made the mediator.

It so happened that the outfit released the IAS officer from its custody at 9 pm that night after receiving an assurance from the government that it would look into the issue of the amendments seriously and that there would be no criminal cases charged against the group for taking the IAS officer hostage. Stepping out of the IAS officer’s room, the group, led by Kallara Babu, read out a prepared statement in front of reporters. It went something like this, “Our demands are very small. You must show justice to the constitution and the law and order system. The amendments to the land rights act, that violate humanitarian concerns, must be recalled. We will resist with all our strength your move to protect your dirty system by destroying the unity of the exploited.”

For an operation that put the state police and the administration on tenterhooks for several hours, the group also revealed that it had merely used a toy gun, some PVC pipes and balls of wool to imitate actual weapons. In reality, the aim of the ‘Ayyankali Pada’ was to bring to the forefront the issue of tribal land rights. 25 years after that incident, however, the problems faced by tribals in the state continue to be serious. It is in this context that a new Malayalam film named ‘Pada’, directed by journalist-turned-filmmaker KM Kamal, recreates that momentous day from 1996 for an audience that may have never heard of it.

‘Pada’ movie director KM Kamal with actors Dileesh Pothan (a director too) and Joju George

‘Pada’ is Kamal’s second film after the critically-acclaimed 2012 Hindi-language film ‘I.D’. The film stars Kunchacko Boban, Joju George, Dileesh Pothan, Vinayakan and Prakash Raj in lead roles and is set to release on March 11. The film’s cinematography has been done by Sameer Thahir.

iemalayalam.com had an exclusive chat with the original four members of the ‘Ayyankali Pada’ that made the IAS officer hostage back in 1996.

Story behind the operation

“We took part in that agitation as four people who had sacrificed our lives for the betterment of the society. We had observed the streets of Palakkad and the district collectorate for about two weeks before the operation,” said Kallara Babu.

On several days before the operation, the group visited the office of district collector Reddy posing as environmental activists to get a look around the place. On those days, the officer was busy allotting land for tribal families and was usually outside the office. On the morning of October 4, the group of four entered the officer’s cabin introducing themselves as environmentalists. As soon as the door closed behind them, quickly, the group tied the officer to his chair and one of the members burst a cracker, which scared the officer and his staff.

As soon as they realised that the officer was under their control, they untied him and placed their demands. They also contacted the state’s chief secretary, the Asianet TV team in Kozhikode and the mediator through the office landline. They called the IAS officer’s wife too, asking her to step up pressure on the government to accept the group’s demands.

Kanjangad Ramesan, one of the group members, told iemalayalam.com that they had packed a lot of food including cashews, dates, vitamin-C tablets, bread, biscuit and fruits in case the hostage situation went on for more than a day. “We explained to the officer our political motives and later offered him food. Although he was reluctant at first, when pressed, he ate it,” Ramesan recalled.

Though the group first thought of human rights activist Mukundan C Menon as the mediator for the talks, he was away in Thiruvananthapuram. They then veered towards Justice VR Krishna Iyer who turned out to be unavailable as well. Their third choice was Adv. Veerachandra Menon, who immediately rushed to Palakkad and mediated the talks which eventually ended at 8:30 that night.

Conspiracy, ‘weapon’ stocking

Ramesan said the conspiracy for the hostage operation began in September 1996. Though the group initially planned to target the district deputy collector, his office was away from the city. Ajayan Mannur, one of the members, described the group as an “unarmed suicide squad”.

The operation had to be postponed several times due to various reasons including one of the members backing out at the last minute. Subsequently, all four members were given their respective duties. Babu was the political commisar and Ramesan the military commander. To boost their self-confidence, they were given lengthy training execises under the leadership of a comrade who was trained in martial arts.

Director KM Kamal with actors Unnimaya Prasad and Dileesh Pothan

The principle of the Ayyankali Pada was to overpower governments without using any weapons. That’s how the group arrived at the idea of using fake weapons. A toy gun, that Ramesan’s friend brought from Mumbai one time, was the primary ‘weapon.’ The next was making bombs out of egg-shells. After carving out the whites and yolk of the egg, sand was filled and the egg-shell was tied by thread. A ‘dynamite’ was made by tying together PVC pipes.

“It was to show that we controlled the weapons, not the other way around. The main weapon was the style of politics that we held aloft and our resolve to fight for it. We used the operation to prove that the administration was nothing but a paper tiger,” said Sivankutty.

It was Ramesan who pointed the toy gun at the collector’s head upon entering his cabin, which terrorised him and his staff. The staff were shunted out and the cabin was locked. It was Ajayan Mannur who burst the cracker inside the toilet, the sound of which shocked the collectorate. It was Sivankutty who tied up the IAS officer. By then, the office of the district’s highest officer was in firm control of the Ayyankali Pada.

Behind the idea of a unique agitation

“Our agitation was against the amendment of the tribal land law by the Nayanar government in Kerala which was enshrined in the ninth list of the constitution. Ruling party leaders, bureaucratic heads and allied organisations are all responsible for reducing the tribals to the position they are in today. If Adivasis have land, they will live on it. We have a unique bond with the Adivasis. We may have been killed, but that’s only if we feared death. We did not,” said Babu.

Mannur added, “The agitation was to break the status-quo of the Kerala society.”

Though the group thought about using other modes of agitation, they believed all such methods were dated. “The political situation then was such that revolutionary outfits were ebbing. Ayyankali Pada was formed when marginalised sections were forced to speak out and established protests had been dated. Those on the left and right of the political spectrum including poet Kadamanitta Ramakrishnan came together in the Assembly to overthrow the Adivasi land law. Only late KR Gowri Amma resisted the bill,” said Sivankutty. Gowri Amma was a veteran Communist leader who was the only woman member in the state’s first cabinet in 1957.

The agitation was aimed at attracting public attention and end in a non-violent way. But all four of them were prepared to die, endure police torture or get hauled into jail. “I see my life now purely as a bonus. I was never sure of returning to a normal life after the protest. The mediation dialogue took place when a team of the central paramilitary forces had landed at Coimbatore and were preparing to drive down to Palakkad. If they had reached, the protest would have taken on a new form and history,” said Sivankutty.

Why Palakkad was chosen

The group said Palakkad was chosen as the place for the operation because a large section of tribal land was usurped in that district. Also, Reddy was compassionate towards the problems of tribals there. “The Adivasis in Palakkad were struggling more than those of Idukki and Wayanad districts. That’s why we chose Palakkad,” Mannur said.

KP Ramesh, who was a cameraman with Asianet then, remembered being driven to Palakkad with reporter K Jayachandran as soon as the call from the collectorate came. Asianet was the only private TV news network at the time. “Hearing Babu read that statement in front of us and reveal the truth about the fake gun, bombs and dynamite feels like it happened just yesterday. Visuals of the incident was broadcast two days later in a special TV programme called ‘Kannadi’ (spectacles). The delay was because the tape had to be sent from Palakkad to Thiruvananthapuram for editing and then sent outside Kerala for uplinking,” recalled Ramesh.

Arrest, time in jail

Following the successful mediation and the release of the IAS officer, the four departed for Thrissur from where they split in different directions. Though one of the conditions of the deal was that no case would be filed against the group, the police forced the IAS officer to file a complaint over the incident and registered an FIR against the group on charges including criminal consiracy, Sivankutty alleged.

All four members were engaged in secret activities following the Palakkad operation. The first to be arrested was Mannur from Muvattupuzha within seven months of the incident. Within one and a half years, Ramesan and Sivankutty were arrested from Wayanad and Attappadi respectively. Babu surrendered before the Palakkad court only in 2010, 14 years after the incident.

Director KM Kamal with actor Kunchacko Boban

All except Babu were found guilty by the courts. Though the court had initially sentenced them to 13 and a half years in prison, taking into account the operation’s noble idea and the compassion shown towards the IAS officer, it was reduced to three and a half years. On appeal, it was further reduced to one year. A further appeal against this sentence is pending in the High Court. Across different periods, the three men have spent at least 113 days in remand.

Babu escaped punishment because Reddy couldn’t recognise him in court. When the judge asked Reddy if he could recognise Babu, the former pointed to a man who stood by the side of Babu. The judge smiled and told him it wasn’t Babu. Reddy then said he couldn’t recall, Babu said.

If the operation happened in today’s time

“The strike in Palakkad was the first such incident in Kerala where the administration was held hostage. Naturally, the ruling powers were astounded. Maybe that’s why the police acted that way then. If it was today, it could have been ended in a different way,” said Sivankutty.

Ramesan said the strike’s timing was special. “It was when EK Nayanar, the then CM, wasn’t a member of the state Assembly and was preparing for the bye-election in Thalassery. We believed there wouldn’t therefore be a quick police response to the incident. If it was today, all four of us may not be alive,” he said.

Mannur is the only member of the gang who’s currently involved in active politics. He is the state secretary of an outfit called the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF). Sivankutty is a human rights activist. All four still retain the same revolutionary sentiments.

“I have no regrets about the 1996 strike. I maintain the same stand today. Each time I think about that strike, I get more excited,” said Sivankutty.

Expectations about the movie ‘Pada’

All four men unanimously said they believe the movie has done justice to the 1996 strike and the rights of tribals and that they have high hopes in the film’s message. “The director has social commitment. We have only asked him to present the strike’s perspective then in the Kerala society in the film. We believe he has done that. The problem of Adivasi land rights remains unsolved even today,” said Sivankutty.

As part of preparations for the film, the director had met the four members separately over the last four years, they said.

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