S. Chandrasekhar : Tribal Land Grabber Turned Ex-PM

(by Mukundan C. Menon)

Who is S. Chandrasekhar? Any student of general knowledge would answer: Former Indian PM.

And, what is he as an individual? The answers are many: A radical gandhian; ardent socialist; a desciple of Maharshi Dayanand Saraswathi; follower of Godman Chandraswamy, etc. etc.

Put these questions to an Adivasi of Attappadi, the predominant tribal belt in Kerala's Palakkad District . The rapt answer, unmistakenly and without hesitation, will be: He is a grabber of our ancestoral land!

Evidence? The tribals will show you vast acres of land, and a monumental palace-like building, near Attappadi's nerve centre Agali, standing in the name of Chandrasekhar's "Bharat Yatra Centre" (BYC) as testimony.

Chandrasekhar and his local lieutenants, however, affirm that these are "clean non-tribal lands" duly purchased from non-tribal owners in early 1980s. The stout counter comes from leaders of Girijan Sevak Samaj (GSS), the major tribal body in Attappadi, who vouch that these were original tribal lands possessed illegally by the owners before it reached the former PM's possession. Notably, the controversial land deals were effected by Chandrasekhar long after the Kerala Assembly enacted the Tribal Land Act in 1975. Included in the 9th Schedule of Indian Constitution, this Act mandatorily made all tribal land transactions since 1960 as null and void, and also promised to restore all such lands back to its original owners after seizing it from the "illegal encroachers and occupants".

It is an altogether different story that the successive Communist-led LDF or Congress-led UDF governments of the past 25 years deliberately thwarted implementation of this noble Act. However, Chandrasekhar's landholding in Attappadi raises many fundamental questions concerning social justice. The foremost question is : Why should a Thakur Saheb from far away Uttar Pradesh possess the scarce land in Attappadi tribal belt to remain as the VVIP absentee landlord of the area when Kerala Revenue Minister, K. E. Ismail (of CPI), repeatedly asserts that there is no land in Attappadi to rehabilitate the landless tribals?

The "Bharat Yatra Centre" at Agali was established under "Bharat Yatra Trust", a registered body under Charitable Trust Act, in connection with Chandrasekhar's celebrated "Bharat Yatra" from Kanyakumari to Rajghat (Delhi) in early 1980s. However, the tribal belt of Attappadi, about 70 kms away from the national highway at Palakkad, does not fall enroute the Kanyakumari-Kashmir "yatra" jaunts undertaken by several other politicians. Yet, apart from Attappadi, the BYT is said to have established similar Centres in several states, including North Arcot in Tamilnadu and Chickmagalur in Karnataka, before establishing its headquarters at Bhondsi village near Gurgaon on Delhi-Haryana borders. While the Bhondsi HQ of BYC continues to catch national attention as epicentre of Chandrasekhar's occasional political moves in "national interest", the Centre at Attappadi and its huge building remains deserted and unoccupied. Although the avowed aim of BYC is said to be rendering social services, Attappadi tribals can hardly cite an instance in support of this claim. Quiped one tribal : "Chandrasekhar comes here once in two or three years alongwith a few friends to spend a few days. Since land is acutely scarce for us in this tribal belt, the ex-PM's possessing vast areas only for this occasional jaunts is a criminal anti-social activity". He also challenged Chandrasekhar to cite a single social service activity rendered by BYC for the hapless tribals of Attappadi ever since it was set up in 1984.

Ironically, none of the five-member permanent Trustees of Bharat Yatra Trust is a Keralite. With Chandrasekhar as its Chairman, yet another known leader of Gandhian values, former Karnataka CM and Union Minister, Ramakrishna Hegde, is yet another Trustee.

According to Mannarghat Sub-Registrar Office records, Sadananda Singh Chandrasekhar had purchased the land on June 27, 1984, from one Baby John of Thiruvananthapuram who acted on behalf of his wife, Ms. Thankam, whose name figures as the owner. The deal (No. 2240) was effected for Rs. 49,950 for a total of 4.715 hectars spread over two Survey Numbers 1147 (covering 1.440 hectar) and 1146 (for 3.275 hectar) of Agali village in Attappadi. Besides, the BYC also possess about 14 acres across the famous Shiruvani river at nearby Sholayur area. The palatial BYC building at Agali was constructed later, which carries the Agali Panchayat No C-7-487 (III/264).

When the Adivasi land issue caught nation-wide attention in 1996 following the "Ayyankali Pada" Naxalites held the Palakkad District Collector, W. R. Reddy, as hostage, the Kerala Civil Liberties Committee (KCLC) wrot to Chandrasekhar requesting to hand-over the BYC property to the landless tribals of Attappadi. The KCLC told the former PM that such a noble gesture from him could inflluence other non-tribal occupant settlers of the area to follow suit. However, Chandrasekhar never bothered to respond. A few months ago, the issue against caught attention when the Malayalam Television Channel, 'Surya TV", held a debate on the trivial tribal land issue at the BYC building premises at Agali. Chandrasekhar's local lieutenant and in-charge of Agali BYV, N. J. Antony, tried to block the shooting as well as shot a letter to "Surya TV" not to telecast the debate. The letter said that the "recording took place covertly" and when he realised "that a malicious, capricious, vitiated criminal and illegal activity is going on at the premises", he objected to it. Antony also alleged that the recording was done "with an intention to malign Chandrasekhar" and that Surya TV, owned by immediate relatives of Tamilnadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi, 'is nursing a grouse against Chandrasekhar on political reasons". Ironically, the letter said that Surya TV "have no right to encroach on the property and recording, photographing and televising without any permission which is violative of the private right of a citizen".

Notwithstanding this letter of May 16, 2000, "Surya TV" went ahgead with telecasting the debate on its weekly human rights talk-show, "Rights and Violations", in two episodes on June 11-17, 2000, with six participants, including then Agali Block Panchayat President, GSS General Secretary and President, etc. Wjo;e GSS leaders firmly vouched that Chandrasekhar's BYC land was indeed tribal land originally, neither the Panchayat President nor the settlers' representative disputed it during the talk show. Interestingly, before the debate started, the BYC in-charge Antony voluntarily opened locks of the unoccupied and unused building for the sake of TV cameramen and the inside portion of the building was also shown. Asks Producer C. S. Jayachandran : "As such, how can Antony claim that we encroached unauthorisedly? Where does the question of privacy comes for a totally unoccupied building? How can privacy and private right of Chandrasekhar be raised at BYC building, which is supposedly a public institution rendering social service for the poor tribals in the area? The voice-over of the TV show said that the debate was held at Chandrasekhar's premises only to symbolise the extend of absentee landlordism thriving at Attappadi at the cost, and peril, of the hapless tribals who are mostly landless.

According to Antony, the revenue authorities have enquired about the status of the land and were satisfied on the non-encumbrance of Adivasis before giving clearance by issuing "Pattas". This claim should be read alongwith the widely acknowledged fact that almost all tribal lands of Kerala, especially in Attappadi and Wayanad tribal belts, were "legally" possessed by the encroacher-settlers from the plains with the connivance and abetment of corrupt revenue officials, who are also from plains, and through manipulation or alteration of land records. The gullible and illiterate Adivasis could not see through these games of the wise and clever men to check it in time. In fact, till a few decades back. the tribals were totally unaware on the need for government document and land tax receipts for their ancestoral property in forest areas since they traditionally worship aqnd treat forests as Gods ("Vanadevan") or Goddess ("Vanadevi"). While introducing the Tribal Land Bill in the Assembly in 1975, then Revenue Minister Baby John (RSP) said : "The tribals had lost their land through fraud transactions by settlers offering dry fish, tobacco and petty cash. Whatever may be such modus for transactions, we consider all the lands lost by the tribals as stolen property. And, it is the firm intention of this Government to restore these stolen properties to its original owners - the tribals."

Justifications offered by Antony, on behalf of BYC and Chandrasekhar, cut little ice since the former PM is known to have encroached even land of Border Security Force (BSF) in the name of the same BYC, which he was forced to return to BSF on February 16, 2000, following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court. The PIL, filed by B. L. Wadhera, alleged that the BSF had filed a complaint accusing BYC of encroaching upon 10 acres of its land at Bhondsi village and also informed the Home Ministry that it could be a security threat to BSF's 25th Battalion which has a test centre for sophisticated weapons and gadgetary. When the case came up on April 14-15 before the Supreme Court Division Bench comprising Justice K. T. Thomas and Justice R. P. Sethi, Additional Solicitor General, Kirit Raval, who appeared for the Centre and BSF, informed that "the land belonging to BSF has been returned to the security force after filing of the petition. The Deputy Commissioner of Gurgaon also informed the Court that the demarcation of the encroachment of BSF land in the revenue estate of Bhondsi village was conducted on February 16 and the land found in possession of BYC was returned to BSF the same day.

In his PIL, Wadhera also had challenged gifting of 568 acres of land to Chandrasekhar, alleging that though it was given for building a hospital and a women's polytechnic, it had been used for political and personal purposes. He charged that the Bhondsi village panchayat had gifted 33 acres of panchayat land to BYC in 1983 for setting up a hospital, immediately after Chandrasekhar undertook the "Bharat Yatra" from Kanyakumari to Rajghat. And, after Chandrasekhar became Prime Minister in 1990, the panchayat gifted another 500 acres to him for a hospital, women's polytechnic and for greening the Aravali Hills. But, no hospital or polytechnic has been set up so far. Instead, a sprawling farm house, besides a multi-storeyed conference complex and a guest house has come up, Wadhera pointed out in his petition. The Gurgaon Deputy Commissioner told the Court that the Bhondsi village panchayat had allowed BYC only to plant trees on its land measuring 500 acres and that it could not be described as a gift. The DC said that the BYC had informed the Haryana Government that a women's polytechnic, "Stree Niketan", had been established in 1992 to provide employment-oriented training to women from rural areas as well as weaker sections of the society in weaving, pottery, embroidery and food processing.

Interestingly, almost all these noble causes at Bhondsi in Haryana were also the avowed intentions behind the BYC at Attappadi in Kerala, although no such social activities had ever conducted there. While Chandrasekhar thrives in Attappadi as the foremost VVIp absentee landlord under the BYC cult, the LDF Government organised a land distribution ceremony at Agali last year to "rehabilitate the landless tribals". Countering stiff opposition from native tribals, and under heavy police deployment, it was attended by Chief Minister E. K. Nayanar (CPM) and Revenue Minister K. E. Ismail (CPI). However, none of the tribals who got the document has so far occupied the land they received from a "benevolent" LDF Government. Says U. C. Kunjan, President of GSS : "All these lands are far away from Attappadi on the Tamil Nadu border. The weather condition and land pattern there is impossible for either human habitation or cultivation. The government only wants to drive us away from Agali, which had become a township now, for the sake of the illegal settlers who occupied our ancestoral property". Ms. Easwari Resan, a tribal and former Agali Block Panchayat President belonging to CPI and who lost in the recent polls, admits that no tribal had taken possession of the land "since there is no road to reach there". According to her, once the road comes up, "tribal beneficiaries" would move to settle there. However, the LDF Government's much acclaimed scheme of resettling landless tribals by rehabilitating them on "gifted lands" has already become yet another "Bhoodan" fiasco of late Gaqndhian Vinobha Bhave, which was started in early 1950s from the very Telangana village of Pochampadu in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh where the armed agrarian struggle by the undivided Communist parties started in late 1940s. The same communists, who opposed "Bhoodan" movement by terming it a farce, had repeated the same farce at Attappadi by "gifting away" one acre land to each tribal family, which is beyond human habitation or cultivation.

Last year, Chandrasekhar was also appointed by Lok Sabha Speaker, G.M.C. Balayogi, as the first Chairperson of the newly constituted Ethics Committee of the Lok Sabha. This 15-member Committee was supposed to oversee the "moral and ethical conduct" of Lok Sabha members. Speaker Balayogi (of Telugu Desam) decided to constitute it since he believed that conduct of members outside the House was as important as their conduct inside the House. With Sharad Pawar (NCP), Somnath Chatterjee (CPM), K. Yerran Naidu (Telugu Desam), Vaiko (MDMK) and N. Janardhan Reddy (Congress) as some of its prominent members, the Committee is expected to examine complaints and petitions against the MPs against their "moral and ethical" conduct. A New Delhi report said : "The Ethics Committee assumes significance in view of the growing cynicism about politicians as a tribe with charges of corruption and nepotism."

And, merely ten days ago (on February 12), a Division Bench of Delhi High Court was informed by the Union Government that three separate suits for recovery of dues from three former PMs, including Chandrasekhar, for using Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft for personal purposes when they were in office, were filed. The government has sought recovery of Rs. 12.47 crores from Chandrasekhar, Rs. 8.93 crores from Narasimha Rao and Rs. 77 lakhs from Deva Gowda. Notably, among the three, although Chandrasekhar occupied the PM's seat for a much lesser period of 6 months, he tops this defaulters' list, too. The Court was also informed that although initially the three former PMs owed less amounts of Rs. 5.92 crores, Rs. 5.72 crores and Rs. 54.61 lakhs, their total liabilities have gone up after computation of 12 per cent interest on the principal amounts. The Court was also informed that before being dragged to the court, the three former PMs were served notices in May last year, but their replies were not satisfactory. Chandrasekhar, in particular, replied that he be sent copies of requisitions so that he could send a detailed reply to the notice. He also said that for the present, it was suffice to state that he did not admit any of the allegations fastening the liability on him.

The same Chandrasekhar heading the Lok Sabha Ethics Committee, formed "in view of the growing cynicism about the politicians as a tribe with charges of corruption and nepotism", is surely a matter of amusement not only for the Attappadi tribals but for all Indians.

Source: In-house report
Referred by:Mukundan C. Menon
Published on: February 21, 2001
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