Interview With C K Janu

C K Janu discusses her early life in poverty, her experience under the Jenmi system, and her relationship with communist parties, as well as her social activism to champion the rights of Adivasi communities since the 1980s.

6th January 2020


Kunhi: This is a multifaceted study. On the side, we examine the socio-political context that helped the growth of the radical communist movement in various parts of the country. On the other side, we are focusing on various social transformations, especially those which affected the lives of marginalized communities. You are an activist and you have immense experience in dealing with Adivasi problems. I believe that I have many things to learn from your life experience. Can you tell me, in brief, why did you chose activism?

Janu: My family was traditionally slaves of Jenmis. When I was a kid, my parents were slave workers of a Jenmi. 

Kunhi: What was your year of birth?

Janu: I was born July 1970.

Kunhi: Was slavery in practice even in the 1970s? Some people claim that after the Naxalite intervention in 1970, the Jenmis discontinued the practice of selecting slaves from the Vallyoorkkav temple festival. Is that correct?

Janu: That was just an opinion. The practice of slavery continued even after that. When I was a child, my parents were like slaves for a Jenmi. He never paid them any money wage. They received only some raw rice for their work. The work hours were from 5 or 6 in the morning to 6 or 7 in the evening. They had to work till it got dark. Clock time was not a thing then. My mother received 2 maanam (unit of measurement) raw rice for a day's work. It must be about 2 litters in terms of the present term of calculation.

Kunhi: What about the wage of male workers?

Janu: They received 3 litters of raw rice. We called it 3 maanam. It was a time when we had to work like this for Jenmis.

Kunhi: Can you recollect anything about the practice of selecting slaves from the venue of the temple festival?

Janu: I’m not too familiar with that practice. My knowledge of the subject is limited to what I heard from others.

Kunhi: You said both of your parents were working for Jenmis. What about the other Adivasis? Do you know about their relationship with the Jenmis in those days?

Janu: It was a general condition of the Adivasi community. It was not just my parents or a few selected families. 

Kunhi: Can you recollect the name of the Jenmi for whom your parents were working?

Janu: They worked for many Jenmis. 

Kunhi: Were they allowed to work for different Jenmis? Were they not in total control of a particular Jenmi?

Janu: By the time I was growing up, they were allowed to work for different Jenmis. In the past, they were not allowed to do so. Though there were many changes in the system by this time, the mentality of the people remained the same. It takes a generational change for transform such a mentality. It will change only with the death of all those who are associated with such a system. 

Kunhi: Did you work for any Jenmi when you were a kid?

Janu: By the time I started to work, the non-monetary wage policy was no longer in existence. 

Kunhi: What might be the period of such a change? Any idea?

Janu: I started working when I was seven or eight years old. They were providing monetary wage during this time. 

Kunhi: Do you know about the factors that influenced such a change? Is it because of any movement or interventions?

Janu: I think it happened because of the activities of leaders like Varghese. 

Kunhi: Ok. You started working when you were seven or eight years old. So, you never had an opportunity to get a formal education?

Janu: Correct.

Kunhi: When and how did you enter the field of activism?

Janu: I became an activist in the 1980s. 

Kunhi: I read somewhere that you became an activist by associating with a literacy movement.

Janu: In the past, we were working for Jenmis. Because of that, we had no opportunity to study. In those days, the Adivasi policy was that we will support any political party that fights for us to get a decent wage. It was not because of our understanding of any political party. They just watched who was talking about the improvement of their wagse. In those days, it was mostly left parties that had such discussions. Because of that, Adivasis mostly supported the leftist party. 

Kunhi: When you say left parties, do you have any particular party in mind?

Janu: It was CPI. In this area, it was CPI(M). 

Kunhi: Does that mean you were associated with the CPI(M) in the early days?

Janu: Correct.

Kunhi: What were the factors which later affected your interest in CPI(M)?

Janu: My association with CPI(M) was not so significant. In those days they used to come to the village to bring people to their conferences or other party events. They would arrange lorries for transporting people to and from their events. We rarely had any opportunity to get in a vehicle or travel. Therefore, we joined with them whenever we had an opportunity. It was just to enjoy the fun of travelling in a vehicle and seeing new places. 

Kunhi: Ok. What was the amount of wage you were receiving when you were a kid?

Janu: When I started working, the adults were getting 2 rupees for a day’s work. They gave us kids only 50 paise. 

Kunhi: I forgot to ask earlier. What was the name of your parents?

Janu: My father’s name was Karian and my mother’s name was Velichi. 

Kunhi: Do you have any siblings?

Janu: We are five children. I’m the second one. We are three elder girls and two younger boys. 

Kunhi: We were talking about the beginning of your activist life.

Janu: The beginning was not because of my special knowledge or interest in any political ideology. Even today, most Adivasis are clueless about political ideologies and the views of various political parties. 

Kunhi: When you were a child, what was your approach towards the existing practices? Did you see any problem in others’ treatment of your community? Were you aware of the exploitation?

Janu: No. Our way of life is a happy kind of system. That means we were happy with our groupings, traditions and other practices of our life. We lived mostly in a festive environment because of our groupings and traditional practices. Therefore, we never had a feeling that we are from a downtrodden community. 

Kunhi: Did have any caste-related experience in those days?

Janu: Yes, that was there. People never allowed us to enter their house when we went there for work or other things. When they give us any food, they would allow us to eat it only from the outside veranda of their house. They would clean the spot where we sat as soon as we left the spot. Earlier, they did not allow us to eat food on plates. They served it on banana leaf only. Later they started providing food on plates. But they followed a multi-stage cleaning process after we used it. However, when we were children, we never had a sense that these practices are part of caste discrimination. We are taught by our families from a very early age that the Jenmis are some important people we should always respect; and that we are poor, less important people. Watching our parents and grandparents, we learnt how to behave towards those ‘important’ people. Therefore, we always assumed that this is how they were supposed to treat us. 

Kunhi: You never felt to question such treatment?

Janu: No, not in those days.

Kunhi: When did you begin to realize that these are problems?

Janu: I became involved with various workers' issues. By intervening in those matters, eventually learned that they were severely exploiting us.

Kunhi: Does this realization relate to your involvement with left parties in any way?

Janu: The people who were exploiting Adivasis were also associated with leftist politics. Perhaps, I could say that my activism began as a resistance against the exploitation from left supporters. Since they became active here in the 1930s or 40s, they wanted the support of people like us. Therefore, they did certain things to earn that support. But that was not for helping Adivasi communities. It became very clear in recent decades. In the past, when they took us for their party events, it was mostly us and their leaders. Their family or relatives were rarely seen in those events. They used our numbers to display the strength of their party. Caste discrimination was very much present even in the left parties’ approach towards us.

Kunhi: Did you experience caste-based discrimination from the left parties?

Janu: I was thinking about such practices since I began to have a sense of realization about our issues. In the Wayand region, the Jenmi system continued for a long period, even after it was formally banned by the government. In those times, the left leaders were largely associated with the Jenmis whom we were working for as slaves. Essentially, the thing that happened when they declared the end of the Jenmi system was not the end of Jenmis. It was just a transformation of Jenmis as political leaders. The slaves continued to be slaves, though they named it differently. 

Kunhi: Which party were these Jenmis part of?

Janu: Mostly in left parties. When these Jenmis became left leaders, their slaves also became slaves of the left parties. 

Kunhi: What was the level of poverty among Adivasi communities when they were receiving raw rice as wages, or in the period they were receiving a very minimal amount of monetary wage?

Janu: It was a terrible situation. In my family, getting enough food remained a dream for many years. I started working for the Jenmi when I was a small kid, like sweeping their front yard or collecting wood, just to get enough food. They did not give us any wage, but they gave us a decent meal. In our house, most of the time we did not have enough food to eat. 

Kunhi: What did you do in those days if you became physically ill?

Janu: Getting sick was not so common in those days, like today. Unlike the present, food items were not poisonous. We were not dependent on the market. We collected many edible things from the forest and riverbank. We had fish or crab from the river and many varieties of leaves and roots. Therefore, getting sick was not a major problem then. 

Kunhi: When did you start buying things from the market?

Janu: Adivasis began to use the market since the destruction of traditional agriculture in the region. In the past, they cultivated many things. Now they adopted monoculture. Therefore, they have no other option.

Kunhi: What was the reason for the destruction of traditional agriculture?

Janu: We were not cultivators in the past. We were agricultural workers. Our people had no land or paddy field to do their cultivation. Even if they do something by clearing forest land, the Jenmi will come to claim the produce. He would say “it is my land, and I have received the title to this land.” Sometimes he would show some papers. These people with no education would never know whether that is an original document or just some piece of paper. In this way, Adivasis left every piece of land they cleared for cultivation and ended up as landless people.  Moreover, Adivasis never had time for tending to their cultivation. They had to go for work in the Jenmi’s field in the very early morning and they could return only when it got dark. Therefore, they had no other means for survival. They were completely dependent on the Jenmi.

Kunhi: The government provided land to landless Adivasis, right?

Janu: No. In those days, government intervention in the land issue was very limited. Even if they had land, they had no time for cultivation. They had no title to the land. Most of the time it was not properly measured, and they had no clarity about the boundaries of their land. It is a subject of Adivasi culture and their approach towards the land. Adivasis believe that land is not the property of anyone. Even now we have the same belief. We have the right only to live on the land. We have to pass it on to the next generation. As we do not consider the land as property, we are not looking to gain ownership or title over the land. This attitude is unchanged even today. However, in the present, we may not able to lead a decent life without getting titles to the land. If we do not follow this, it will become a threat to our own survival. We may face the threat of extinction. Adivasis approach towards land is part of their relationship with nature. It is this approach of Adivasis which was exploited by both Jenmis and migrant settlers. 

Kunhi: Can you tell me about the relationship between Adivasis and migrant settlers?

Janu: The migrants also exploited the Adivasis’ approach towards the land. They occupied Adivasi land and made titles to them. Once, Wayanad was completely the land of Adivasis. Now we are largely helpless in this land. 

Kunhi: Do you think both Jenmis and migrant settlers were equally exploiting Adivasis?

Janu: They were together in exploiting Adivasis. It was Jenmis who brought migrant settlers to this region. They sold the land to migrant settlers to make money.  

Kunhi: Someone I interviewed had observed that the relationship between migrant settlers and Adivasis was better, as they were providing money wages while Jenmis were giving only raw rice as wage. What do you think of that?

Janu: No, no. It was Jenmis who created opportunities for migrant settlers. Therefore, migrant settlers never stood against the interests of Jenmis. It was with the support of Jenmis, they gained titles to the land. 

Kunhi: You said earlier that Jenmis always came to claim the land if Adivasis cleared any forest land for cultivation. Are you suggesting that the same Jenmis did not object when migrant settlers occupied forest land for agriculture?

Janu: Yes, they did not allow Adivasis but they were fine with migrant settlers. They kept Adivasis as slaves. They did not allow Adivasis to do their cultivation because they were afraid that they will lose their workforce. It was Adivasis who were creating their main source of revenue. They were not working themselves. If Adivasis stopped working for them, they would not any income and they may stop being Jenmsi. That is the reason why they did not allow Adivasis to do cultivation and make any income outside of their work for Jenmis. 

Kunhi: Did the migrant settlers treat Adivasis in the same way Jenmis were treating them?

Janu: It was slightly different on the side of migrant workers. Jenmi provided food for Adivasi workers only on special occasions. Those who do their household work may get food regularly. Some of them don’t even provide drinking water to Adivasis. Migrant settlers provided a decent meal for Adivasi workers when they did work for them.

Kunhi: Some people observed that the Jenmis generally used obscene language to communicate with Adivasis. Can you share your experience?  

Janu: True. They behaved normally to us only because they cannot survive without our labour.

Kunhi: I heard about the issue of sexual exploitation by Jenmis. What is your take on that?

Janu: I also heard such stories. But I have no such experience. 

Kunhi: When did you begin to give attention to Adivasi identity?

Janu: I became aware of such issues in the 1980s. Adivasis were treated as something very bad and always faced caste discrimination and untouchability. Even today it exists to some extent. Kerala is often considered a model state because of the implementation of land reform here. But if we study the land reform, we can see the picture of caste discrimination in Kerala. The fundamental intention of the reform was to give land to those who were working in the land. In that sense, most of the agricultural land in Wayanad was supposed to come to Adivasi workers. They are the ones who created the Jenmis’ paddy fields, they are the ones who worked there in every step of the process, from planting the seed to harvesting. But none of them got any share of these agricultural lands. This happened only because of caste discrimination. It is through understanding such issues, I realized the problem of caste discrimination in Adivasi life. I enjoyed immense freedom within my community. It is that freedom that helped me to intervene in these kinds of issues. There is no gender discrimination within our community. Both males and females work together in the field. They do domestic work together. We were not aware of the practices outside our community. In our community, it is the women who get more respect and recognition. When we marry, it is the woman who gets dowry. 

Kunhi: I read somewhere that there is a different type of caste system within the Adivasi communities. What do you know about that?

Janu: There is a hierarchy. Each group claim that they are the superior caste. No caste could accept that they are the lower caste. I’m from the Adiya caste. There are Paniya, Kurichya, Vetta Kuruma, Then Kuruma, Mulla Kuruma, etc. among Adivasis. Some castes are not interested to join with others. For example, the Adiya community cannot accept Paniya. The Kurichya community is generally against all other castes. They are the ones who strictly practice untouchability towards other Adivasi communities. They think that they are Brahmins. 

Kunhi: Kurichiya community is economically in a better place compared to other communities, right?

Janu: Not really. Nowadays, they are a little more concerned about getting a formal education. In that sense, Kurichya and Mullakkuruma are doing relatively better. 

Kunhi: Can you tell me about your early interventions as an activist?

Janu: I started giving attention to the Adivasi issue in the 1980s, and addressed some cases of exploitation. In 2001 we started Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha. Since its formation, I’m the president of the organization. 

Kunhi: What are the factors which led to the formation of the Gothra Maha Sabha?

Janu: Starvation deaths amongst Adivasis was a major issue in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2001 itself about 32 Adivasis starved to death. The ruling community never accepted that there is a problem of starvation among Adivasi communities. They argued that the deaths are due to the consumption of alcohol, drinking unhygienic water, or malnutrition. They kept ignoring such deaths. When 32 people died in 2001, we started a protest demanding the government to pay attention to the issue of starvation among Adivasi communities. Even before this, I was doing my own studies about the situation. I realized that most Adivasi families had no land of their own to do any cultivation. And some of the forest laws significantly constrained Adivasi communities’ access to their traditional sources of food. Most of them were highly dependent on forest products for their survival. But many new laws controlled their access to forest products. In the past, there was no issue of starvation death because of the availability of forest products. The change in the forest also affected Adivasi life. The artificially created foresst, by planting Eucalyptus, Acacia, teak etc. destroyed various traditional forest products, including plants that were providing various edible leaves and roots. Along with that, because of the artificial forest, drought became a common phenomenon in the region. A region like Wayanad could never expect such water scarcity. The need to bring pipe water to this region itself shows the level of damage that has happened to its ecology. It was a land of streams and rivers, and it always had its unchanging greenery. When the river was healthy, there were plenty of fish and crabs.  When they created a monoculture forest, the natural forest was destroyed. It destroyed wetland, river systems and the traditional forest. When drought become common, it affected cultivation. They all intersected and the change most affected Adivasi communities. This is how starvation deaths began to happen. 

Kunhi: I read your comment somewhere that starvation deaths continue to happen in areas like Attappadi. Is that true?

Janu: It is very common in Attappadi. Infant mortality is also very high in the region. Since 1987, I have had a strong relationship with Attappadi. In the early years, Attappadi was full of lush green vegetation. Now it is just a dry hill land. 

Kunhi: What was the reason for such a change?

Janu: Because of the destruction of nature. The illegal occupation of forest land, exploitation of natural resources, unnatural methods of farming etc. It is the Adivasi communities who suffer the most from the destruction of nature. That is the reason why starvation deaths and high infant morality became an issue in Adivasi life.  The highest infant mortality in Kerala is in Attappadi. It means that the Adivasi communities in the area are in real danger of extinction. A community cannot survive for a long if there are not enough children to take it forward. It is a genocide and a clear violation of human rights.

Kunhi: What was the level of infant mortality among Adivasis in the past?

Janu: There were no such issues within Adivasi communities. They were healthy, because of the healthy environment in which they lived. The destruction of nature affected their health. But, they don’t have money to access standard medical care.

Kunhi: Can you tell me about the new identity issues within the Adivasi communities?

Janu: What I suggest is that everyone should fight for the protection of Adivasi communities. Because they are the natural defenders of nature. Society at large always benefits from Adivasi communities’ contribution to the protection of nature. We created a new political party to protect the Adivasi identity and champion their demands. We have no interest to work like the other political parties. But we need such a platform to survive in the present socio-political environment.  

Kunhi: What is the name of the new party?

Janu: Jandipathya Rashtreeya Party (Democratic Political Party). It aims to fight for the cause of Adivasis and other downtrodden lower caste communities. We also have equal rights to survive in this world. 

Kunhi: You already mentioned that the left parties are a problem for Adivasi communities. What is your take on the Congress party?

Janu: They are all same. They all have one intention, power. They all looking for opportunities to loot public resources. They all working for their personal gains. There is no democracy in India. 

Kunhi: What are the factors which created the need for asserting a new Adivasi identity, different from Hindu identity?

Janu: Adivasi live in a traditional tribal culture. Is there any temple for Adivasis in India? No. Is there any mosque or church for Adivasis? No. Is there any Adivasi in the present religious institutions and belief systems? No. We live outside the boundary of all the religions and belief systems of the present. If we were part of them, you could have found us as part of any of these religious institutions. Then how could we be termed as Hindu, Muslim, or Christian? We live in our traditional tribal culture. We are not Hindus. When we approach the government to make a certificate, they write the name Janu, father’s name Karian, caste Adiya and Religion Hindu. We are not the ones who said we are Hindus. They are the ones who filled “Hindu” in the column where they need to write religion. Our religion is decided by those who make certificates. Therefore, I would say that Adivasis need a new religion. Adivasi is a globally accepted term. Therefore, I would say that ‘Adivasi’ should become a new religion. If Adivasi becomes a religion, it will become the largest religion in India. 

Kunhi: What is the response of Hindu organizations towards such an idea?

Janu: That is not our concern. They could accept or reject it. They are the ones who made Adivasis part of the Hindu religion. My interest is that Adivasis should remain with the Adivasi religion. Adivasis in general accept that they are Adivasis. Then why should they be afraid of accepting Adivasi as their religion? People of other religions like Christians and Muslims demand their share of benefits from the government by showing their strength in each region. They are worried that if Adivasi becomes a religion, it will become the dominant religion in this area. I’m going to make it a major topic of discussion. In the Indian political system, caste and religion play a major role. You could understand that if you analyse the ward-level electoral process in a village. If it is a Christian dominant area, the winning candidate will be from that religion.  Political parties select candidates only from such dominant religions. If it is an Adivasi dominant area, they would not select an Adivasi as a candidate. In such areas, everyone would analyse the amount of support they have among Adivasi communities. This happens because of the lack of an Adivasi religion. 

Kunhi: Adivasis have some reservation in electoral politics, right?

Janu: It is 2 percent. How could Adivasi raise their voice with a 2 percent reservation in the representation?  It is not possible. In the past, our communities were educationally backward. But now the situation has changed. There are many young people with credible academic qualifications. But they are forced to continue their life in daily wage labor. 

Kunhi: How is the approach of the private sector towards the educated Adivasi people?

Janu: Caste discrimination is very much present even in the private sector. It is highly difficult for Adivasis to acquire a job without any reservation. 

Kunhi: What is the plan of your political party? Will it be contesting in electoral politics?

Janu: We have to contest in elections. We formed our political party only for that purpose. We are well aware that we are beginning from zero. But that doesn’t mean we will slow down our efforts. It will take some time. 

Kunhi: Shall we conclude this? You mentioned your daughter in the beginning. Can I ask about your family?

Janu: I’m not married. I adopted a girl from Chattisgarh. She is seven years old now and studying in the second standard. Since I was active in public life, I didn’t pay much attention to building a married life. Everybody needs someone to support them in life. We cannot lead a lonely life. We are going to be old. That is the reason why I decided to adopt. 

Kunhi: Ok. Thank you so much.

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