The rift between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Communist Party of India (CPI), its number two partner in Kerala’s ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) over land encroachments has escalated into direct confrontation with both parties taking to the streets.
While CPM activists supported a 12-hour strike called by the Munnar Protection Committee—a joint body of merchants and building owners—in 10 panchayats of Idukki district, the CPI opposed the agitation. A fresh eviction drive was launched jointly by the CPI-controlled revenue and forest departments.
The stand-off led to clashes in many places. Supporters of the strike reportedly went on a rampage, attacking vehicles and shops.
A vehicle carrying tourists was stopped at Munnar town and the driver assaulted. Media persons who tried to record the incident were also attacked.
The strike was called to ostensibly protect small farmers and traders who owned tiny parcels of land in Munnar and its surrounding areas.
But it seems those backing the strike were provoked by the cancellation of the title deeds of 25 acres of land held by CPM-backed Independent MP Joyce George and his family at Kottakmabur in the tourist hotspot of Munnar.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who belongs to the CPM, gave a clean chit to George by asserting his ownership of the disputed land. But revenue officials found that documents furnished by Joyce were fake and cancelled the deed after George could not prove otherwise.
CPM Idukki district secretary KK Jayachandran insisted his party’s support for the strike had nothing to do with the action against George.
He said the agitation was called by the Munnar Protection Committee after the revenue and forest officials started targeting small land owners under the eviction drive.
“We supported the agitation because we found their concerns genuine. The actions of the officials go against the understanding reached at the all-party meet convened by the chief minister in May. The meeting decided to spare small land holders from eviction but officials paid the decision no heed,” Jayachandran said.
However, CPI district secretary K Sivaraman denied this accusation. Sivaraman said the drive was directed against those who have grabbed large swathes of land by forging documents. He said the CPM was trying to protect their interests and sabotage the move to clear encroachments from Munnar.
Curiously, the last drive against the encroachments was halted in April after revenue officials targeted an evangelical Christian group.
Sub-collector Sreeram Venkitaraman, who led the drive, was shunted out. The drive was stopped in the wake of the demolition of a cross erected atop a hill allegedly encroached by the Thrissur-based group.
Environmentalists were skeptical of the success of the drive since it came soon after the CPI took the LDF government to the brink of a constitutional crisis, a stand-off which was defused by the resignation of Thomas Chandy.
A high court verdict questioned Chandy's locus standi in challenging a district collector’s report confirming encroachment of part of a lake at Alaappuzha by a backwater resort he co-owned with his wife.
Chandy put in his papers only after four ministers belonging to the CPI boycotted the Cabinet meeting to protest his presence in the aftermath of the high court verdict. Pinarayi Vijayan and the CPM viewed this as a serious breach of coalition dharma by the CPI.
CPM leaders said that its junior partner mounted extraordinary pressure on Vijayan to seek Chandy's resignation to protect its image as a crusader against encroachment.
CPM legislator AN Shamseer said the CPI used pressure tactics even after Vijayan gave sufficient indications that Chandy would resign.
The young MLA wondered if the CPI was cultivating its image to switch over to the rival camp when the time was ripe. He pointed out that the CPI had a history of working with the Congress.
The revenue department took on Joyce George, who is the CPM's blue-eyed boy even as the parties were training their guns on each other. Environmentalist John Peruvanthanam said Revenue Minister E Chandrashekharan should have waited until the wounds had healed.
John told Firstpost the haste shown by the revenue department may thwart the drive and that the government made its intentions known by shunting out special tahsildar AJ Thomas, who prepared the blue chart for evicting those encroaching on large portions of land.
The CPM has, on the other hand, started taking aim at Devikulam sub-collector VR Premkumar, who is following the footsteps of his predecessor Sreeram Venkitaraman and clearing Munnar of encroachments.
While party legislator S Rajendran alleged that Premkumar passed IAS through copying, his senior party colleague and Electricity Minister M Mani called the young IAS officer 'deranged' and accused him of acting like a feudal lord.
John said the CPI would never be able to end encroachments in Munnar since all political parties were hand in glove with resort owners and the real estate mafia. John added that the parties were equally culpable of grabbing large quantities of land in the ecologically fragile region.
At least two CPM committee offices, one legislator and several relatives of the electricity minister figure in a list of encroachers prepared by the revenue department for eviction. Environmentalists believe that the CPM opposed the CPI move against encroachers because they feared it would ensnare the party and many of its leaders.
Environmentalists said the resort lobby has been trying to grab land in Munnar because it attracts tourists from all over the world.
However, they forget that tourists visit Munnar because of its unique geographical position and rich biodiversity, they added.
They further warned that if the land mafia and the resort lobby continued their activities unhindered, Munnar, which is 5,200 feet above sea level, will disappear from the map.
Updated Date: Nov 22, 2017 19:20 PM