“There are academics who believe that Adivasis lack the capacity to act on their own. There are those in Kerala who think that they are vanavasis, forest-dwellers, like the elephant, the leopard.”
Chekkottu Kariyan Janu (born 1970) is the unquestioned leader of the indigenous peoples in Kerala. Formally uneducated, what she has nevertheless done is put the problems of Adivasis (tribals) on the world map. The movements she has led-most notably the Thrissileri struggle in her Wayanad district to regain the burial grounds of the tribals, and the Muthanga forest struggle which exposed the antitribal and ultraviolent nature of the state government-are the stuff of legend.
Chekkottu Kariyan Janu is barely literate and unaffiliated with any political party. Born into the Adiya (slave) tribe, one of the most downtrodden indigenous communities in the state, Janu started working, as a domestic help, when she was only seven years old. As she grew up, Janu found herself increasingly troubled by the myriad aspects of the tribal communities’ situation in Kerala. Then, she began speaking her mind out. The Adivasis identified with what she was saying-soon, her voice was their voice. In 1992, she was selected chairperson of the South Zone Adivasi Forum, an organization that coordinates the land struggles of south India’s indigenous peoples. She has since represented India at international conferences, meetings, and protest demonstrations, entirely understanding the need to interconnect her people’s struggle with similar concerns the world over. One of the first land struggles she led, in the 1980s, was for the right of the Adivasis to their burial land in Thrissileri in her Wayanad district. When a nontribal landowner summoned the police to harass and arrest the Adivasis, the women marched to the police station armed with pickaxes and shovels, had their men released, and reclaimed their land. Chekkottu’s engagement in the Adivasis’ struggle for land rights in the Muthanga forest established the viability of the tribal way of life and demonstrated the brutality of the government machinery. The danger of protests remains lethal: about 30 people disappeared after the police fired on them in February 2003. Children were incarcerated and women raped and tortured. Chekkottu called it a “war with racial overtones”. The government machinery is not the only adversary Janu has to face: mafia lords and political parties alike view her as a threat. But she continues with her work, pretty much undaunted and unchangeable.
Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha
South Asia | India