The Lede finds out about the people behind the protests against quarries in Kannur
The state government of Kerala has alleged that the protests against the stone quarries in the state were being instigated by alleged Maoists.
Protesters have insisted that these are “people’s protests”.
What is the truth?
The Lede set out to Keezhattur and other parts of the state to find out.
Keezhattur is a small village, a kilometre and a half downhill from Thaliparamba town in Kannur. Rs 30 by auto rickshaw to be exact.
It was here that a few years back an uprising derailed the idea of “development” as espoused by the state.
In 2016, the NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) proposed to build a bypass road running through Keezhattur. Local CPM workers protested against this proposal claiming it involved filling of paddy fields.
The protests grew in strength and significance. The CPM party leadership tried to reign in the workers and expelled those who headed the protests.
Meanwhile, the BJP, the ideological opponent of the CPM, arrived, extending support to the protesters.
The protesters, mockingly called Vayalkilikal by the CPIM party leadership alluding to the seasonal birds which visited paddy fields took the name for themselves. Vayalkilikal soon gained support across Kerala.
Visitors to the village pledged their support to the cause of the Vayalkilikal (farm birds).
Political leaders of opposing streams of thoughts visited in numbers and gave statements in support.
Parties opposed to the ruling CPM lend credence to the BJP’s picturisation of Keezhattur as the next Nandigram, the protests in West Bengal which ended CPM rule in that state.
Nandigram leader Rahul Sinha was brought in by the BJP leadership to inaugurate a protest march led by BJP National Executive Member PK Krishnadas from Keezhattur to Kannur.
The local CPM party leadership discredited the protesters calling them Maoists and renegades who joined hands with communal forces.
The Vayalakili protesters meanwhile met the minister for road transportation Nitin Gadkari, who pacified them and promised a just outcome.
Nothing came of anything.
The local BJP leadership which had come running with support soon disappeared. As did the Congress and other political parties.
When Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan visited New Delhi to push the ministry to hasten road development, the union minister berated the babus for the delay. “Don’t make me a Naxalite again. How many times will you make the CM visit Delhi for the same thing?” he asked.
The message was clear. The greens may protest, but the state and its occupants, across party lines knew where to draw the boundary. Whatever political support that came the way of the Vayalkilikal, evaporated once public interest shifted.
Notifications issued by the government of India made clear that the route the road was to take was final, protests notwithstanding. The protests were a failure, the local CPM leadership exalted.
“The Vayalkilikal were duped by the BJP to believe that it could persuade the NHAI to change the bypass alignment,” said CPM district secretary P Jayarajan at a press conference in November 2018. “The Vayalkilikal should now call off the stir immediately and disband the group,” he had said.
Protesters took the protests to the court. Filings raised objections about the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment).
At present, the land acquisition and the compensation process is in a standstill and NHAI is delaying response in court as per the protesters’ account.
The small temple in Keezhattur by which the protest pandhal once was remains desolated.
This is but not the end of Keezhattur. But the beginning.
“Keezhattur shone light as to what environmentalists should do to make their protests successful,” says Suresh Keezhattur, the man who led the protests against the national highway expansion project at Keezhattur in Kannur district.
“They may say we weren’t successful. But it was a success. Even the Narmada Bachao Andolan if judged in terms of general consensus was not a success. But if you look at the long term impact it has had across India, NBA was a vastly successful movement. Keezhattur has to be looked at similarly,” he says.
It was in Keezhattur that the war cry of environmental protectionism ruffled feathers of the established politics. For it was in Keezhattur that the cross party penetration of the politics of the green showed its worth.
“In Keezhattur, the politics of the green slayed that of the red,” says Suresh. The politics of green, referring to environmental related activism has taken off ever since.
And the state of Kerala has been witness to many more protests like Keezhattur. Alappad, Shanthivanam, Kandankali, and now Pedena and Manjumala, the list grows longer.
“For many years until Keezhattur, environmental protests in Kerala had been muted. Keezhattur showed the way forward,” Suresh says, seated at his modest house in Keezhattur.
While earlier the protests against quarries were related to employment and wages, now it is singularly about environmental protection across Kerala.
What made the protests in Keezhattur vastly different and virulent was the tacit understanding the protesters held about the general politics and its strategies and how best to use them to their advantage.
“Earlier protests would end with the leader of the group being bribed. There were so many protests which ended that way. It was what made environmental protests lose credibility. But we had already been educated about those risks.”
This education according to Suresh proved worthy.
Keezhattur to begin with, was a party village in Kannur.
“It was what made Keezhattur special,” says Suresh. “Apart from the fact that here was a protest raised by CPM workers against its party leadership, that the combined forces of the BJP & RSS entered a party village and hoisted their flag was what got us the attention to begin with,” he says.
The media attention came with its own perils, says Suresh.
From being a localised protest, Keezhattur soon captured attention of an entire state. And with it came attempts to hijack the protests.
“The issues we were raising were deemed less important. This happens everywhere. We knew it will happen. The focus was only on BJP entering the party village. All types of people try and hijack people’s movements. BJP tried its way. But none of the people here were fooled.”
The state BJP leadership failed to hijack the movement and the protesters stuck to their demands eventually showing the political support for what it is.
“When was the last time you saw a political party leading a people’s protest?” asks Suresh. “Protests have become a yearly affair for them. This January there will again be a hartal against hike of petrol prices. One day of ceremonial importance and everything goes back to normalcy. This is what our political parties have become. They no longer stand up for people’s rights.
Here too, we realised that all the mainstream parties are deeply involved in sharing the profits of the roads that were being planned to be built. From the quarries to the local politicians everyone saw an opportunity to make money. There is no doubt that it is why the mainstream politicians can never truly back people lest they lose their perks.”
As for developmental requirements, Suresh says, he is not against development, provided nature is cared for.
“An alternate route existed. But to protect vested interests, the government chose these paddy fields.”
Suresh’s foray into environmental activism according to him, was rather recent.
“I used to laugh at these environmentalists earlier. That was what we were taught by the party. More development was the most logical need we had been taught.”
But he says his stay in Africa changed his mind. Suresh had worked in Africa for more than half a decade before returning to his homeland.
“There I saw what our future would look like. People were being forced to shell out a fortune to access clean drinking water. Corporatisation meant that companies like the one I was working in made money while the poor spent 25% of their income on water.
In Keezhattur, the paddy fields which were being planned to be levelled would affect the ecosystem of the area and lead to severe drought.
It is the paddy fields which refill the groundwater. These fields here are the lowest lying areas in and around Thaliparamba. If they are to be levelled, soon we will see water shortage here.
What made the opposition to the project in Keezhattur noteworthy was its organisation and discipline. Most of the protesters were CPM party workers. We knew a thing or two about protests unlike many previous environmental movements,” says Suresh.
“We were well trained in how to conduct protests. Being party members we had the discipline and expertise to organise which the environmentalists often lacked,” he says.
It wasn’t just organising that the former CPM cadre were good at. Their open acceptance of support from BJP and RSS raised many eyebrows, especially given the leftist orientation of the protesters.
“Whether it is RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) or SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India) which extends support to a people’s protest, we will welcome them. But gone are the days when such groups could come in and hijack movements,” he says. This strategy was to prove a harbinger of what was to come in many more protests.
If it was RSS and BJP they sought support from in Keezhattur, in Pedena which the Save Kerala Campaign Committee has been helping organise, the anti-quarry protests have taken active support from SDPI and Muslim League.
In a message sent to the protesters after the leaders of the Manjumala protests were arrested by the police, Suresh evoked the biblical story of David and Goliath to motivate the protesters and assure them of eventual victory against the Goliath that the state and its machinery was.
Manjumala and its surrounding areas, for context, are mostly made up of Christian migrants from southern Kerala. Horses for the courses thus seems to be a strategy. But Suresh does not answer the question as to whether it is a strategy.
“It is not wrong to say that even though people of Keezhattur are leftists, we are not blind supporters of the party. None of us in Keezhattur are anymore. That much we can say with certainty,” says Suresh.
“How Keezhattur differed from other environmental protests before it was in the involvement of youth from across the state. This was never the case with environmental protests earlier,” he says.
But this has been a permanent fixture with environmental protests in Kerala ever since. The use of social media as well as troll groups to amplify the messages too has been a permanent fixture.
“While earlier environmentalists would talk alarmingly about issues and no one would pay heed, incidents like the floods and landslides in Kavalappara has made clear to people the dangers that lie ahead. This has made it easier to get people to listen,” he says.
Told multiple times that the landslides in Kavalappara was not related to quarries, Suresh insists it was.
“There are more than 20 quarries in a 10 km vicinity there. You should talk to Noble, he has all the maps and details.”
Asked if such wrongly propagated sensation seeking information was intentional, Suresh did not give a clear answer. Asked if the alarmist claims as made in Alappad would affect the credibility of environmental movements in the long run he said, “Sometimes people make emotional appeals to make people understand or get public attention.”
In the case of Alappad, that more than 90% of the 89 square kilometres of land has been lost to the sea, was the claim which pulled in people. The actual loss was less than a few acres.
Asked if this was a strategy, Suresh who did not answer the question when repeatedly posed, later said, “It is what the Save Kerala Campaign in Kannur is trying to avoid. We help protesters to raise valid concerns and give them facts based on proper studying of the data available.”
It is here that certain things begin to appear hazy.
The protests in Keezhattur had wedded environmental activism with an air of Nandigram around it.
The tactical acceptance of support from those of opposing viewpoints as witnessed in Keezhattur was a peculiar feature of Nandigram as well. Admissions that the then opposing Trinamool Congress had taken support from Maoists have been openly made ever since. The leadership itself has now joined BJP.
Allegations of Maoist involvement in Keezhattur has been raised by the CPM party leadership as well. But Suresh is unfazed by such criticism.
“They try to paint all protests as Maoist inspired. Maoism is a tag which helps corner public protests very easily. Even now if you see, special branch police go around telling people where we are organising protests that we are Maoists.
The moment people hear such a thing, they become vary about talking or getting involved. So what I do now is to talk about the Maoism question at the start of meetings itself.”
Asked about why this was so he says, “CPM doesn’t want its cadre to be exposed to their literature. If you ask me, the recent arrest of two youths in Kozhikode is a signal by the party to its cadre not to get involved with such literature. Moreover the days when people could understand Maoist positions by reading notes are over. People are not that equipped any more. But the party is still trying to tell its cadre what not to read.”
On a visit to Alappad in May, while going around inspecting the beaches with a gang of 3 youths - 2 boys at the turn of adulthood, one a young soldier under training, visiting on leave and a girl still in college - the topic of Maoism had propped up.
Chirping away happily they had mentioned Maoism. When asked whether there was any Maoist support in the protests in Alappad, all three had smiled without answering.
Ducking the question, they had said, “The police call us Maoists with no basis.”
The protests in Alappad was built on an emotional pitch with social media acting as the amplifier. It was vastly successful in getting people’s attention, mostly the youth. Many of the young visitors to Alappad had been from northern Kerala too, something the police in Karunagapally had termed as curious.
Suresh says he is an ordinary common man. Having tried his hand in many professions, Suresh now runs a small hotel in Thaliparamba. Once back in Kerala from Africa, he had run a hotel on lease once before.
“I was interested in cooking. I wanted to learn to run hotels,” he says. “I had made decent money. But all of it was spent during the protests. I exhausted all my savings,” he says.
Today, Suresh caters to small functions as well as delivering afternoon meals to workers in and around Thaliparamba.
While Suresh seems to have settled into a more mundane life, with a phone incessantly ringing with queries about what all to buy from the market while talking to The Lede, the protests and the cause of environmentalism has stuck to him he says.
“Keezhattur in a way united the environmentalists in Kannur.”
And this unity helped organise other protests. A direct result of this unity was the Save Kerala Campaign Committee, a body of environmentalists in Kannur helping organise and coordinate protests across the district.
It still remains unclear whether the Committee came first or the protests. While the Chairman of the committee says that the committee was formed seeing the support the protests in Keezhattur got, Suresh does accept that he had sought the Chairman’s support before starting the protests in Keezhattur.
“The Save Kerala Campaign Committee provides help to villagers raising their voice against the state and its organs,” says Suresh.
“I was new to environmentalism, he was the one who guided me,” says Suresh about seeking help from the Chairman of the Save Kerala Campaign Committee, Noble M Paikada.
Held in high regards by protesters across the district, Noble has a backstory which makes his involvement interesting.
“The police records must be showing my history with the CPI (Marxist Leninist). That might be why the minister said that,” says Noble M Paikada when asked about the protests he helped organise in Keezhattur being called a Maoist initiative.
Noble M Paikada is Chairperson of the Save Kerala Campaign Committee which coordinated the protests in Keezhattur and is presently coordinating other protests in Kannur such as that in Pedena and Manjumala or the ones in Kandamkali.
“Maoism is a tag which doesn’t go away, no matter what one does,” he says as an afterthought.
A former BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited) employee who took VRS (Voluntary Retirement Scheme) a few years back, Noble was instrumental in giving shape to the protests in Keezhattur.
Noble says his role is limited to providing guidance by educating the protesters, helping them raise more technically sound objections and to train the protesters and inform the villagers not to expect miracles from the protests. This helps hold the protests together for longer, he says.
His Maoist connection belongs to an era when CPI (ML) still had an over ground presence, he says.
“Charu Majumdar had visited Kozhikode in those days. That was how across the area, the ideology spread. Literature was widely available.
We used to think that within a maximum of 5 years, the rule of the working class will arrive. Those were naïve times,” he says smiling at what seems like a youthful naivety. A very soft spoken Noble smiles often between his sentences when recollecting his CPI (ML) days.
Having been exposed to the ideology through the mainstream left organisations, Noble says he, like many other young ones, took to it with vigour. But the fall of the Soviet Union broke the conviction.
“We were blinded by the sudden revelations about the horrors of the Soviet Union. We had always imagined Stalin had leadership issues but none of us had any idea as to the extent of the problems.”
The break-up of the Soviet Union he says left many former supporters of the Marxist Leninist approach heartbroken and disoriented. The party has split innumerably ever since. CPI (ML) itself is now nothing more than dozens of splinter groups, inseparable from each other than by the small abbreviations marking the factions.
“With the weakening of labour unions, we were left without our anchor. Many former leaders moved away. Some stuck to the peripheral interest groups they had been leading.” Noble had been one of those.
The peripheral mobilisations were meant to organise the victims of state oppression such as the Dalits, the tribal communities, minorities and those discriminated against by the state laws and its machinery.
People affected by environmental degradation and displacement for developmental works was one such peripheral grouping. Noble had been involved in protests involving environmental protests since the beginning.
“These were supposed to eventually act as parallel movements to aid the labour uprising at the time they were proposed. Workers were the mainstay,” he laughs.
Today devoid of leaders or causes or the workers’ collectives, the leftist movement seems to be going on only in bits and pieces everywhere.
“Others like me are also involved with people’s protests and movements in their own individual capacities. A few have joined mainstream parties. Many have moved on,” he recollects.
“The value system of today is vastly different from my era. We were trying to do good for the society. To stand with the weakest. Today, everyone is interested only about their own wellbeing.
Social media dissipates any urge one may feel to help the less fortunate in the society. You type something, make a comment, get a few likes and you suddenly feel like you are some kind of a giant activist. Or that you have done your part. Nobody gets down to the ground to do anything at all.”
Now retired to his house, just a kilometre away from the forests bordering Karnataka, Noble leads a quiet life. His son still studying in college, the same one that Pinarayi Vijayan once studied and became a leader in. Noble says he no longer leads a public life.
His house itself is hard to reach but for the few buses that ply from Alakode, the nearest town. The agricultural lands in the vicinity are all being overrun by animals.
The leader who should have been heading the workers’ government had their plans worked out, sits on a leaning chair where he smokes by the shades. Visitors such as Suresh from Keezhattur visit him for guidance before starting protests.
“We are just 9-10 people who are active in the Save Kerala Campaign Committee. We help the protesters with legal aid when they get arrested or help them articulate their case better. We use the government data to nullify their own claims.” One such claim was that of Kavalappara.
Asked about it, he opens the desktop which is kept in the living room, and types in Kavalappara on the state disaster management team’s hazard zonation map. He loads another map and bunch of pins mentioning names of quarries pop up around the Kavalappara in Malappuram district.
“There are 23 quarries around Kavalappara in a 10 km radius. It is not even marked as landslide prone area. This is data given by the state. These are not made up by me,” he says.
When told it can’t be true and to search for Pathar, the map moves away to a nearby location, all marked in red denoting high landslide prone area and with no quarries anywhere near. When told it is this Kavalappara which had witnessed landslides he says, “This is data given by the state. These are not made up by me. Maybe it is wrong. I have not been to the place.”
The location of quarries have been mapped into the hazard zonation map of Kerala by individually picking all the coordinates from each license issued by the department of geology. Whose mistake it really was, is not clear.
An old man who did not visit the site while using government data to nullify the government itself with the intent raising a revolution, or the government officials who wrongly punched in name and location in the map probably thinking no one in the world would ever check them. It is difficult to judge. But a mistake there is.
Asked about the involvement of seemingly radical Islamist organisations in protests of a leftist orientation he says, “The connection with groups such as PFI (Popular Front of India) came from the attempts to organise minorities and prepare them in the early days. It was only since Madani took over that they became so virulent. Until then these organisations were moderate and left leaning.
Until recently they used to send me the editorials of Thejas for editing. After the incident involving Professor Joseph, I refused to do it.” Thejas was a Malayalam news daily run by Intermedia Publishing Ltd, a public limited company based in Kozhikode associated with the Popular Front of India.
It was booked for spreading anti-national content and has ceased operation on 31 December 2018.
PFI activists were involved in chopping off the hands of Professor TJ Joseph, a professor of Malayalam at Newman College, Thodupuzha, for allegedly blaspheming Prophet Muhammad and the Quran through a passage in an exam which allegedly showed the Prophet in bad light.
Asked why would minorities in Kerala who face no particular discrimination would need a separate mobilisation he says, “It was not Kerala specific. It was aimed at India in general.
The protests against quarries is a result of the coming together of the various environmentalists across Kannur as a result of the protests in Keezhattur. There is a good understanding amongst the various environmentalists of Kannur now,” he says.
Asked if there existed any such understanding or groups coordinating protests across Kerala, he says, “There were attempts but nothing has come of it. In Kozhikode there was an attempt to emulate the model of Save Kerala Campaign Committee. I am not sure how successful they have been. We are organising protests in Kannur only. We are starting another protest nearby next week.”
Asked if he still believed in the overthrowing of the state to bring in a revolution he said, “We are working within the democratic set up. I think that it is maybe the better of the lot.”
It was a Sunday that The Lede met him at his house. By afternoon his wife returned home from church.
After a while he said, “But we are using their own data to show their untruthfulness.” The rebel in him was alive still.
Whether there was anything more to Noble than he accepts is not known. And while the anti-quarry protests in Kannur suggest there is a good amount of hyperbole and exaggeration thrown in to evoke interest, it does not in any way mean that there are no problems with the way quarries are being operated across the region.
In the final part of the series, The Lede makes note of what exactly is the issue with the way the quarries are being operated and why services of groups such as the Save Kerala Campaign Committee find numerous takers.
(To be continued...)