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Torn between two homes

March 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Profile of a Refugee Activist

The life and dreams of a young activist who works for the rehabilitation of Sri Lankan refugees in India.

Chennai, 4 March 2010 

A fearsome boat journey cutting throughthe choppy waters of Indian Ocean, twenty years ago, brought Senthil Kumar (name changed for privacy reasons) to the shores of Tamilnadu, which has become his temporary home since then.

Sri Lankan refugees coming to India, Photo courtesy:www.protectthehuman.com

Now he works for people like him who had fled the troublesome Sri Lankan soil and has taken refuge in India. A young, confidant-looking, energetic man dedicated to the cause of helping refugees, Senthil had a mark of soberness on his face and a slight tone of dissatisfaction in his voice.

“We are always grateful to the Indian government and the people here. We are given free food, shelter, electricity, and provisions for education .There are people in India who do not have access to all these. We are treated very well in the refugee camps. But when the situation is all safe there (Sri Lanka) I will definitely go back. We have to fulfill our responsibilities towards the nation. We will have to start everything from the scratch”, said Senthil.

Senthil (24) was born in Mullaitivu, a small town on the north-eastern coast of Sri Lanka which was an important military base of the LTTE till the Sri Lankan army took control of the town in a fierce battle in Januray 2009.

After August, 1989, with the start of Eelam War II, around thousands of Sri Lankans left their homeland in fear for their lives. Senthil’s family also decided to leave. They stayed in the Mannar forest area for sometime and then went to the coastal region of Thalaimannar. His uncle owned boats and in that they came to the shores of Nagapattinam.

After screening, the refugees are initially sent to quarantine camps where they are provided preventive medication. Then, they are taken to the Mandapam Camp and finally sent to one of the 115 refugee camps for Srilankans in different parts of Tamilnadu.

Senthil’s family has been in the Samugarengapuram camp in Thirunelveli since then. His father was shot dead during the war. Senthil and his mother work with OfERR (Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation). His elder sister works as a teacher and younger sister is in her final year of graduation.

Senthil did his graduation in B.Sc,Chemistry in Thirunelveli and completed Post-Graduated Diploma in Conflict Transformation from Henry Monte International Institution For Reconciliation Programs. His educational expenses were paid by OfERR. Now he works as a Programme Monitoring Officer in the Advocay Unit of OfERR .

When asked about his life in India Senthil said,” Tamilians in India have an ethnic affinity to Sri Lankan Tamils. We were kindly accepted; they listened to our stories and offered us help. ”

He recalled that during his college days his colleagues had always stood by him. The Eelam IV war had reached its peak during May 2009 and student protests were taking place all over Tamilnadu. It was a perturbed situation .Many of his friends from Tamilnadu were supporters of LTTE. (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

“Earlier even I sympathized with LTTE’s cause, but gradually I learned about their “pros and cons”. I realised that they have committed many unpardonable mistakes like using helpless people as human-shields.”

Senthil feels that the restriction on the movement of refugees is more beneficial for their own safety and protection, since they are a very vulnerable group. Refugees are required to sign in while they leave the camps and they should be back by 8 p.m. But OfERR has given Senthil a bonafide certificate that would allow him to stay away from the camp to work for the organization.

“Half the Sri Lankan Tamil population in India wants to go back to their homeland. The other half has comfortably settled here. If they go back they will have to start everything anew. So they do not want to go back”, said Senthil in a bitter tone. “The war may have ended but the conflicts will not die down soon. By not going back we are subsequently allowing the Sinhalese to take over our land there. We educated young Sri Lankans have to go back and rebuild our nation”, he added.

 

Written for ACJNEWSLINE- the student E-Zine of Asian College of Journalism, http://acjnewsline.asianmedia.org.in/Nileena_Refugee_Profile.html

Critiquing the empire – The Jensen way

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Chennai,19 March 2010

 Robert Jensen introduces himself as a Professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas with a sarcastic remark, “Yeah, we are quite famous .You know!’ – but he is quick to add, “Though I live in Texas, I grew up in North Dakota.”

Jensen sternly criticises American imperialist ambitions and the self-interested ideologies that dominate politics in the United States. He said that capitalist ideas are so ingrained in American society that it is seen as a natural and intrinsically American economic system; ours is a society that unregretfully enjoys the privileges that come with whiteness and affluence.’

Robert jensen, Photo Courtesy:University of Texas,Austin

 

As Jensen puts it, “It is very tough to step back from one’s cultural affiliations and criticise the system in which we live.” He admits that he has not succeeded in shedding away all the negative influences that this culture has imparted on him.

This open mindedness – to look at his own mistakes and learn from it; to see the flaws and immoral practices inherent in the system to which he belongs; and to stand up boldly against them – makes Jensen’s writings and activities more than interesting. His writings and speeches signify his ability to laugh at his own mistakes, a fine way of refining one’s own personality.

He jests at his own identity.” I come from a very privileged part of the world. In the first place; I am a male in a predominantly male dominated world, I am a white man in a world which has been and still continues to be dominated by whites. And I belong to a well-off middle class family and finally; I am a citizen of the country that has always tried to and continues to dominate the world.”

Jensen opines that the emergence of United States was a turning point in history; it was a break away from the early European colonial ideologies and strategies. In fact, it re-fashioned the previous ideologies to suit the changing times. ”Oh boy! We are always there to help you out,” says Jenson, hinting at the imperialist strategies that US routinely adopts to gain control of any region that had kindled their interest. America has always been interfering in the political affairs of other countries in their attempt to acquire control of the valuable resources in those countries.

“We are great. We are always ready to admit our mistakes. We were very confused about the Iraq issue and that is why some mistakes happened on our side there.” This was Jenson’s comment on the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States on allegations of possession of weapons of mass destruction, which turned out eventually to be false. 

‘There is no sense of history among the people of the United States and this often takes them off-track.’ In his article ‘No Thanks to Thanksgiving’ Jensen says that the Americans think of themselves as adventurous rebels who left England and founded a new nation where they are free to do what they wanted to do. Jensen draws our attention to the massacre of American Indians that continued until around 98% of the American -Indians were exterminated; and the rest were left to be assimilated into the white society. He also quoted George Washington, the first President of the US who called the aborigines ‘wild beasts’.

Jensen writes,”Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures — such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq — as another benevolent action.” The article also points to the example of British historians who highlight the benefits that the British empire had brought to India, while the right wing political movements in India try to make the mythology of Hindutva a historical fact.

A strong campaigner of anti-war movement in the US, Jenson advocates an entirely new foreign policy based on opposition to the long US drive toward empire, in the context of the continuing US atrocities in Iraq. The wounds caused by US interventions in Vietnam, Laos Cambodia, Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan still continue to bleed. According to Jensen, the only way to transcend this ugly history is through an honest national dialogue and the promise of a sea change in US policy.

Jensen urges the people of America:” Such empires are typically brought down from outside, with great violence. But we have another option, as citizens of that empire who understand how this pathology of power damages our country as well as the world. Imagine what would be possible if we — ordinary citizens of this latest empire — could build a movement that gave politicians no choice but to do the right thing.”

In his remarkable speech given at an anti-war rally in Austin (on 11 September 2005) he said, “There was nothing special about the pain of Americans on September 11, 2001. And there is no hope for this world until we in the United States — the most powerful and affluent country in the history of the world — understand that.”

At this point when the much celebrated Obama Administration has also failed to bring about any change in the aggressive policies of the United States; lone voices like Jensen’s remain the only hope of resistance against imperialist dominance.

 

Written for ACJNEWSLINE- the student E-Zine of Asian College of Journalism,http://acjnewsline.asianmedia.org.in/

Categories: Reports

Mother of the unheeded

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

K. Lakshmikutty, an activist and anganwadi worker, has been a pillar of support for the adivasis of Thirunelli and has stood by them in their fight for justice.

Thirunelli, January 8: Jochi was terrified and shattered. But she did not think twice before running towards Lakshmikutty teacher’s house for help. Lakshmikutty was her only ray of hope in times of distress just like she is for all other adivasis in Thirunelli.

Jochi, a young Adiya woman and a mother of two, had become a widow at 30. The owner of the house where she was working as a domestic help had tried to molest her. It was Lakshmikkuty who helped Jochi to find a new job at the Forest Department and stood by her in her legal battle against Raghavan, a teacher, who threatened her with dire consequences if she didn’t return to work at his home.

Lakshmi kutty,Photo – Nileena.M.S

Down a narrow rocky trail near the Thirunelli temple lies the Gunnigapparambu anganwadi facing the lush paddy fields. Lakshmikkutty in her early fifties, with graying hair, was briskly running around looking after a hundred things at a time. Often she would come out of the inner room to take a look at the kids who were being fed their breakfast by the helpers. She welcomed us with a warm smile into the small room with two benches, a table and a chair that served as the classroom for the kids.

K Lakshmikutty, social worker and a caretaker at the Gunnigapparambu Tribal Anganwadi under the government’s Integrated Child development Scheme, works among the poor in the tribal hamlets of Thirunelli. 

‘We grew up playing on their (adivasis’) lap and helping them in their fight for justice gives me satisfaction’, replies Lakshmikutty modestly when asked about her successful interventions into problems faced by the adivasis. 

Born in 1951 into a conservative and patriarchal Nambeesha family at a time when women were miserably oppressed, Lakshmikutty lived through a childhood of difficulties. Her father Shankaranarayan Kaloor was a Tulu Brahmin with roots in Karnataka. He was the main priest of the famous Thirunelli temple. Her mother Nangeli a.k.a. Saraswathi Amma had borne eight children. Her father, being an orthodox priest, was very concerned about what an astrologer had forecast about Lakshmikutty that she would be the cause of bad reputation to the family. ‘My father even made me promise that I would never go in the wrong path’, recollected Lakshmikutty. 

Being members of the upper caste, Lakshmikutty’s family owned land and the male members of the family had good jobs. Back then, education was not considered necessary, especially for girls. Lakshmikutty was determined to study and attended till Standard 5 in the nearby Lower Primary School. Later she continued her schooling in Thrishillery and Perambra in Calicut. After completing S.S.L.C in 1974, Lakshmikutty had to stay at home to look after her ailing father. Property disputes then darkened the family atmosphere. It only got worse with her father’s death in 1976 age 88. 

Lakshmikutty narrated how she landed the job as an anganwadi worker. She had accidentally seen the job advertisement in a piece of newspaper which was used to wrap chillies. Her uncle who was the District Medical Officer in Thirunelli, helped her to get the job. She began on a salary of Rs 75 per month. She took on the responsibility of looking after her family. 

There was a voice in her that spurred her to work to create awareness among adivasis and to help them to find solutions to their problems. A warm and loquacious person, Lakshmikutty’s interest to talk to people and listen to their grievances furthered her popularity amongst the adivasis. Her intervention in the adivasi issues invited the animosity of many people. They had even tried to stop marriage proposals from reaching her. But her uncle’s son came forward to marry her and from then on he has been the rock behind all her endeavors. 
From 1980, she started working for the Kasthurba Mahila Samajam, an organization under the Government scheme to look after the needs of adivasis. She studied more about the tribals during her field visits to the colonies. 

A major problem among adivasis in Thirunelli was the issue of ‘unwed’ mothers. According to her the number of unwed women in Thirunelli was played up to divert government funds meant to rehabilitate them. After the sensational coverage by the media in 1989 people came to believe that adivasis here were selling their bodies due to poverty. Lakshmikutty and her supporters have even nabbed and beaten up men who came to the colonies in search of women willing to sell their bodies. “After 1997 these shameless men started coming in jeeps and Tempos,” said Lakshmikutty quoting the registration number of those vehicles- still engraved in her sharp memory.  

She said that the actual number of unwed mothers in Thriunelli would be 69 while the media reported it to be over 500. She said that all of them were not rape victims. The marriage rites and rituals of adivasis have also contributed to added numbers and many women had also fallen prey to false promises of non-tribal men and migrant workers.
Laksmikutty explained that many of these helpless women had to resort to brutal abortion methods. But the situation, she said, was changing; till 1952 these tribals were bonded labourers and had to abide by the landlord’s wishes, but now they were becoming strong enough to stand on their own. 

Fighting for adivasis’ rights meant inviting the discontent and hatred of many, including officials and politicians. She was subjected to torture and harassment many times. But Lakshmikutty said that she has never faced problems from political parties or organization but only from individuals. She helped poor tribal women to find jobs in Sughandhagiri Tribal Rehabilitation project and in schemes for pickle and curry powder making. The dissenters meanwhile spread it around that that Lakshmikutty was taking adivasi women to brothels.  

Once they influenced an anganwadi helper and trapped Lakshmikutty in a case for hoarding rice allotted for the anganwadi. But later she was proved innocent in the SC/ST Court. The accused had tried to kill her when she helped an adivasi woman called Mara who was sexually exploited and cheated. After a long legal battle, he agreed to look after her three kids.

Lakshmikutty says that in many of the cases people know who the culprits are. “It is all the game of money and power. “ In Jochi’s case, the local politicians and the officials had tried to influence Jochi and Lakshmikutty, but the corrupt Circle Inspector was suspended later. She said that she had got the support of the Collector, R.D.O (Revenue District Officer), Tribal Department and some police officials in her activities. Earlier the adivasis had remained totally ignorant and were timid and oppressed. Today the women are coming forward and their situation has improved much, financially and socially. 

Political parties have tried to exploit the popularity and support that Lakshmikutty enjoys by offering her seats in elections. “But who wants money and power that they offer?” asked Lakshmikutty. She smiles assuring about her determination to fight for the adivasis’ rights and efforts to support and uplift them. Lakshmikutty, always eager to bring the real facts behind shady stories about her village into light, is now busy with her efforts to draw the attention of the administrators to the negligent state of the tribal students’ hostel and the sexual exploitation happening there.

 

Written for the ‘Covering Deprivation’ section of ACJNewsline.(http://acjnewsline.asianmedia.org.in/index.html)

Categories: Reports

Adivasi struggle at Cheengeri

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

The moopans (tribal heads) of Cheengeri Ambalakkunne Paniya Colony, Prabhakaran and K. Lakshmanan speak out on the discrepancies in land distribution in the Cheengeri Tribal Rehabilitation Project.

Cheengeri, Jan 7: About 53 km away from Kalpetta town lies the Cheengeri Ambalavayal Paniya colony. The adivasis here have been on a continuing struggle to get the land promised to them by the government. The colony comprising of small huts lacking the basic facilities stand testimony to the discrimination against the adivasis and the hollow promises given to them by the government.

The colony has around 100 paniya families. There was a time when they were bonded laborers of the feudal lords. ”There is only one difference in our condition. Earlier we were slaves of the janmis (landlords), but now we are slaves of the government (authorities),” said Prabhakaran. Paniyas are found in the districts of Wayand, Kannur and Malappuram of Kerala.

Prabhakaran Moopan Photo:Nileena.M.S

“There is hierarchy even among adivasis. Paniyas and Adiyas are at the lower strata. Kattunaikkars and Kurumars are comparatively better off. They have hold in higher places. So, they get the better share of all the benefits given to adivasis”, Prabhakaran complained. “See what happened with the land distribution scheme for the adivasis here. The lands are allotted by taking lots and with their influence in the bureaucracy,they bribe the officers to get better lands.” “We often get rocky useless land”, added Lakshmanan.

Cheengeri project is one of the many projects in Wayanad for the rehabilitation of adivasis, but most of the promises still remain in paper and the benefits never reach those in need. Wayanad was under the Madras Presidency till 1957 and the first communist government of E.M.S.Namboodirippad bought 526 acres of land from Madras state using tribal funds for the Cheengeri project to rehabilitate the tribals. According to the project, each tribal family is entitled to 5 acres of land. ‘Adivasis who are living here for the past 50 years are still not given pattayams (original record of the ownership of land). But there were attempts to give the land to non- tribals. Pattayam mela to distribute pattayams was a big farce”, Prabhakaran pointed out.

“We are on strike since 1973 and will continue it till we get justice. We need pattyam for at least the land that we live on”, explained Prabhakaran. The adivasis had organized a massive agitation campaign in 1995 and had forcefully occupied 180 acres of the project land by building huts over there. About 226 people were arrested. But the land still remains in the hands of the government. He continued, “Crores are being spent on these plans but the bureaucrats and the middle men consume it. There were starvation deaths among the tribals under the Sughandhagiri and Priyadarshini rehabilitation projects and we don’t want it to happen here. Political parties keep jiggling with these projects and schemes.”

According to Lakshmanan, in many cases even if the adivasis get land, they couldn’t make a living out of it. Even to start agriculture in that land money is required. There are even restrictions on taking the forest products from the land given. “Since we do not have pattayams, we are denied the benefits of various government agriculture schemes”, he added.

In 1966, 100 acres were allotted for coffee plantation under the Agricultural Department and later another 50 acres was added to cultivate food under the tribal department for the project ‘Model Food Products Farm’. Again, thirty two acres were allotted for a Vanilla Development Scheme in 1992.But irrigation was not done properly and it failed. A co-operative society with government nominees were appointed to manage the Cheengeri project. The Minority Rights Group International Report on ‘The Adivasis of India’ (1999) said that from 1957 to 1995, Rs 5,700,000 have been spent on this project.

“The General in charge at that time was a rascal, who got the documents acknowledging the receipt of tree saplings signed by the adivasis, and made them plant it in his land. He destroyed the files”, said Prabhakaran fuming with rage. According to him the corrupt bureaucracy and the middle men who take advantage of the adivasis are the real beneficiaries of all the funds and schemes. Now the farm has just two permanent staff while earlier it was 110. The employees here got the benefits of All Kerala Government Scheme for Farm Workers and pensions up to Rs.4000.

‘We are poor illiterate people unaware of government policies and laws.’ Adivasis are ignorant of the laws and legislatures to protect them. Education is necessary to create awareness and uplift them from their oppressed and miserable condition. A few of the adivasis manage to get government jobs in Forest departments and as ‘tribal volunteers’ known as ‘ST promoters’ who act as a intermediaries between the government and the tribals in health, education, housing and other issues. Lakshmanan opined that tribals areeither unable to send their children to school or are unasssware of the importance of education. So, compulsory education programs should be implemented by the government.

Lakshmanan and Prabhakaran emphasised that the government should give pattayams to all the adivasis and should maintain the farm to employ them. New schemes should be introduced. “If it is not possible to give us land here, let the government give it some where else”, said Lakshmanan .

 

Written for the ‘Covering Deprivation’ section of ACJNewsline.(http://acjnewsline.asianmedia.org.in/index.html)

Categories: Reports