In this interview, Father Mani discusses his life, his human rights activism in Attapadi and the failure of the mainstream communist parties in addressing the problems of Adivasis and other lower-caste communities in Kerala.
11th April 2019
Kunhi: My study is focused on the social experience of the Cold War in India. On the one side, it examines the development of the radical communist movement in various parts of the country, the social condition that facilitated such a movement, and the impacts of such a movement in social life. On the other side, my study explores various kinds of transformations that happened in the life of Adivasi communities during the Cold War period. Attappadi was one of the centres of Naxalite politics. What do you think about their activities in this area?
Mani: They sincerely worked for a good cause. I respect them for that reason. More than that, I have no relationship with them. I cannot accept their methods and approaches. I respect that they became ready to sacrifice their life for a worthy reason.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about your family background?
Mani: I was born in a village called Kadappur in the Kottayam district. I’m from an upper-middle-class Christian family. My family belonged to what we call Syrian Christian or elite Christian groups. My father was a farmer, though he was the old matriculation exam. My mother studied till the 7th standard or so.
Kunhi: So, your parents were educated, by considering the level of education in our society during those years.
Mani: Yes. My father was the only person in our village who could speak English. He had good knowledge in matters related to survey and traditional medicine.
Kunhi: Do you have any siblings?
Mani: We were six children. I have one elder sister, two elder brothers and two younger brothers. They were farmers, to an extent. My eldest brother lived as a farmer his whole life and passed away. He was a leader of a left organization.
Kunhi: Where did you do your studies?
Mani: I studied in a school in our village till the upper primary level. After that, I joined a seminary in Aluva. Later moved to Angamali. I spent 9 years in the seminary.
Kunhi: How long did you serve as a father?
Mani: 34 years. From 1971 to 2005.
Kunhi: Have you been interested in social issues since the early years?
Mani: I began to be active in social issues during the time of the National Emergency in 1975. It was the period I began to be concerned about politics and social issues. It was a period of transformation in my character.
Kunhi: What was the nature of your early interventions?
Mani: I was mainly concerned about the violations of human rights. The violence committed by the state on its citizens during the time of Emergency had forced me to focus on such issues. It was a decisive moment in my life. I started associating with various anti-Emergency activities. It was my first engagement outside the work of a priest.
Kunhi: The radical communists conducted a few armed actions in some parts of Kerala before the National Emergency. What was your approach towards Naxal violence during those years?
Mani: I didn’t pay much attention to such issues. I was aware of Varghese’s activities in Wayanad and his death in a police encounter. I was a student in seminary when all these incidents happened. Therefore, I did not give any importance to such issues.
Kunhi: What was your role in Church in 1975, when you began to be active in social issues?
Mani: We have a religious society based in Angamaly. I was working for the society, and I was in charge of its head office.
Kunhi: What was your earliest intervention as a human rights activist?
Mani: In the context of the National Emergency, human rights violations became a normal affair in the state. Leaders like M M Thomas organized anti-Emergency campaigns by asserting such issues. I have directly contacted M M Thomas to associate with his activities. He was a prominent leader of Marthoma Church, chairman of a department in the world council of churches, a writer and a politician. He later served as governor of the Indian state of Nagaland. His younger brother M M Cheiyan was a well-known member of left politics. I formed an organization called Clergy Fellowship for Human Rights with the help of M M Thomas.
Kunhi: It happened in 1975, right?
Mani: Yes. The organization included members from different churches in Kerala.
Kunhi: What was the important activity of the organization?
Mani: My initial activity was to collect anti-emergency writings from North India and distribute them in Kerala. The north was the centre of human rights violations during the time of the National Emergency. The writings came to Kerala through M M Thomas. The government did not arrest him, as he was famous internationally. The first person to go to jail by leading the anti-Emergency campaign was Dr N B Manmadan. I contacted him and several others who were organizing anti-Emergency campaigns. It was the beginning of my public life.
In 1977, after the National Emergency, during the time of the Janatha Government, a meeting of human rights organizations that participated in the anti-Emergency campaigns was held in Delhi under the leadership of people like M M Thomas. I got an opportunity to meet several interesting people when I went to Delhi to attend this meeting. With this event, I lost interest in Church and its activities. I realized that Church and religions are nothing but an establishment to sedate human beings. During this time, somebody within Church had started a platform called Liberation Theology. When I was preparing to quit the Church, considering the radical transformation in my thoughts, members of Liberation Theology approached with new promises. They said we can work bringing change within the Church.
When I visited Delhi to attend the meeting in 1977, I became a member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a human rights body formed by Jayaprakash Narayanan. Following this, I began to be part of its activities in Kerala. I severed as its vice state-vice president for a long period. I was its state secretary for two years. All these happened while I was with the Church.
In 1977 itself I realized that Church is a problematic establishment. I told them that I will not be participating in any of their official activities. I was acting as principal of a technical school in Aluva during this time. I resigned from this post and started my travel to different parts of the country. It was during this time, I learned more about tribal communities. I learned about the activities of Varghese and others. I went to meet Adivasis who worked with Varghese. I went to visit North East India and stayed with the Santhal community for a month. I talked to Kanu Sanyal, one of the important leaders of the Naxalbari uprising. I think it was from the same house where we met he later committed suicide. I went to meet several activists. In this period, from Bihar, I met a priest and nun who left the Church. Their names were Joshna and Alocius. They were dealing with various social issues after quitting the Church. Under the banner of Liberation Theology, many priests and nuns were being increasingly active in social movements. That was the only reason that helped me to stay with the church in those years.
After 1977, I did only those things in which I’m really interested, though I remained as a father. I had several issues with Church because of that approach. Since I was part of the Church, I had to do some work for it. That is the reason why I extensively travelled in Wayanad, Idukki and Attappadi, to find an ideal location for my church-related works. When I was travelling Idukki district, I met a person named Mathew Arakkal. He is a mafia boss and a Bishop of the Catholic Church in Kerala. He is the guru of Franco Mulakkal (the first accused in a highly controversial case of the rape of a nun). During that time, Mathew Arakkal was busy in Idukki with a project for tribal development. They registered an NGO called Peerumedu Development Society. I stayed with him for a few days and realized that he is working only for making money. It is through such works he emerged as a mafia boss. Those who get promotions in the ranks of the church are these kinds of people.
Kunhi: When did you begin to be active in Attappadi?
Mani: In late 1977. I came here not to join the Church. I was learning about the situation. I planned to rent a house somewhere here and work for the Adivasi community. In this context, the Bishop in charge of churches in this area called me for a meeting. He requested me to take care of some of the churches in this area. There were not enough priests to manage church affairs in this area. I told him that I’m not here to do Church obligations. However, because of his insistence, in the end, I accepted to do Sunday obligations. Thus I became in charge of Sunday obligations in three churches in this area. Because of this duty, I started staying in a church instead of renting a private house. In this context, they added one more church under my responsibility. Since these duties demanded a lot of travel, I bought a horse. Thus I became the first Kuthirakkaran Achan (Equestrian father) in Kerala.
Kunhi: What happened to your activism since you started to do church obligations?
Mani: I continued my work. I was active in tribal hamlets all the days, except Sundays. You can ask anyone. I’m welcomed even today in any Adivasi hamlets in Attappadi.
Kunhi: Were the radical left groups active in this area during those years?
Mani: No, they were not present in this area. A few years after I became active here, a Naxalite named Mundoor Ravunni came to visit this area. One of the people he knew was staying in this locality. His name was Gopalakrishnan, a person who resigned from the communist party. Soon I came in contact with this person, and we started sharing the same rented house. In those days, I had a few rented rooms in different parts of this region. I shared these rooms with other activists. One of the people with who I shared the room was Baskaran Nair. He was the first activist who started working for the causes of Adivasi communities in Attapadi. He was an old soldier from Trivandrum.
Gopalakrishnan was a person with numerous contacts. He was the one who built the base for the communist party in Attappadi and Mannarkkad areas. He belonged to a Jenmi family called Moopil Nair. He had no wife or children. He spent his entire life for the communist party.
Kunhi: Was he part of the CPI-M?
Mani: Yes, he was with CPI-M. The first area secretary of the party in this area. He resigned from the party in 1979. His difference with the party was that they did not support his activities related to workers issues. The party kept a soft approach towards Jenmis and estate owners. Most of the leaders accepted gifts from these bosses. Therefore they did not support any activities against these bosses. Gopalakrishnan led several movements for improving the wages of workers. However, in the end, the party leadership made compromise talks with Jenmis and estate owners and destroyed his effort. That was the reason why he resigned from the communist party. Along with him some others also resigned from the party. I remember the names of Muhammed Uppa, Mustafa, Saidutty from the group.
Gopalakrishnan had contact with some radical communists during those days. He was in jail for some time with those radical communists. He was highly influential in Attappadi because of his party activities. When he began to associate with the radical communists, he helped the Naxal activists stay in hiding. Thus many Naxalites came here for hiding. In the end, police arrested Gopalakrishnan, though they couldn’t find anyone who came for hiding.
Kunhi: How was your relationship with Naxalites during those years?
Mani: Some of them, like Ravunni, came to visit me if they are in Attappadi. I shifted my stay in church to different rented rooms in 1980. Later we built this hut here. When I was staying in church I had many encounters with mafia groups, who were exploiting the Adivasi community. When I questioned them, they asked me whether I’m here to serve them or Adivasis. I told them that I’m here to serve humanity and no one should expect any special consideration from me because of their connection with the church. It was because of such issues, I stopped my stay in the church.
Kunhi: You said some of the Naxalites often came to visit you, right?
Mani: Ravunni and some others. One of them was Subash, the one in charge of all their activities in the Palakkad district. His real name was Sebastian. Most of the time they stayed in my hut. I still have contact with some of them.
Another interesting thing also happened during that period, when I was staying in Church. I came in contact with a young guy who was looking for a job. I think someone brought him to church to introduce me. He was a Christian, named George, and he somehow ended up in this area. I asked him to stay in the church as an assistant. Later we realized that he is a member of the Naxalite organization. I didn’t know about it in the beginning. He was a lazy guy. By the time we find out about his connection, he made some important contacts in the area. Then he left the church. I also stopped my stay in the church. Later he bought an acre of land near my hut. He was a married guy, with a child. He left them to join the Naxalite movement. He told me later that he has a wife and kid in Pulpally, in Wayanad. Following this, I went to meet his family. I asked his wife to come to Attappadi to meet him. Eventually, she came here to here meet him. They stayed here for some years. After that, they sold the land and went to Thrissur. From there, he committed suicide. Last week I came to know that someone recently killed his eldest son. I’m planning to meet his wife and other kids.
Kunhi: Why did he commit suicide?
Mani: He was involved in various nasty businesses. It must be connected to some of those issues. I don’t know the truth.
After this incident, I got another assistant. He came through one of my relatives in Iritty. He was a member of CPI-ML. He didn’t inform me about his Naxalite connection. Once here, he started working for establishing a new radical group in the area. He included my former assistant George, one Shankar, one Gopi and Jose etc. in that group. They were five or six people. After that, they attempted to conduct an armed action. While attempting the action, police arrested them. They were aware that I have sympathy towards their movement. But I was unaware of their plan. I came to know about their activity through newspaper reports. After the release from the police custody, one of their associate, Gopi, became mentally abnormal. We don’t know why it happened. We don’t know whether it happened because of police torture. He is still here with the same condition, lives because of the mercy of his elder brother. He has a son, a painter. Police arrested his son recently because of his involvement in making counterfeit alcohol.
Kunhi: What was the police’s approach towards you during that period, by considering your good relationship with some of the Naxal activists?
Mani: I was known as an activist and trouble maker by that time. I was the first one in the area to file a police report against someone who raped an Adivasi girl. Before that incident, Adivasi women assumed that they have no right to raise their voices. Everyone in the parish questioned my approach when I filed that case. The main accused was one of the members of our parish. Though I didn’t give a damn about their sentiment, they managed to throw the case out. The police always stood with settlers, not the Adivasi community. They also sexually exploited Adivasi women. Many hamlets in the area were brothels. Many elders in the Adivasi community acted as pimps. The nearest hamlet, Pattimalam, was a well-known brothel. In those days, if you say you are going to Pattimalam, it means you are going to meet a prostitute. The elders received some money and local liquor from the visitors. Therefore, they were not concerned about turning their hamlets into brothels. The local policemen were regular visitors in the hamlets.
Since the local police were not giving any attention to Adivasi issues, I contacted the district police superintendent. He called both the victim and the accused to his office. It happened a few days after the incident. By the time of their meeting, the accused influenced the victim, with the support of political leaders. They convinced the girl to change her statement. Thus the girl told the superintendent that her former complaint was based on my pressure. That is how police dismissed the first case. But I continued fighting, filing several cases in 1980. The first case was in 1979.
I filed cases against various kinds of caste discrimination. They were allowing Adivasis to have tea only in a coconut shell. They did not allow Adivasis to use public wells and taps. My activities were two folded. On the one side, I filed police complaints. On the other side, I organized meetings in public places and revealed that these and these people have done these and these nasty activities. It was the biggest punishment for them. You can’t change them with physical violence. But these kinds of public announcements really affected their image in society.
Kunhi: Didn’t they attempt any physical violence against you?
Mani: My position as a priest was a good help for me. Moreover, I had the support of a gang of about fifteen youngsters. They were from all castes and religions, Hindus, Muslims, Adivasis and Christians.
Kunhi: Did any developments in international politics, that happened in the context of the Cold War, influence your activities?
Mani: In the late 1980s, I was in contact with the chairman of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando. There was a father in Thrissur who had a good relationship with this person. This father is no longer part of the Church, as they dismissed him in the later years. This father formed a platform called Neethivedi (Venue for Justice). He is a lawyer by profession. Through him, I became involved in various issues.
They called me communist father. My activities greatly helped the growth of the communist party in the area. It was a stronghold of the Congress party. It was because of my support, the communist party ensured their first victory in a panchayat election in the area. The presidential candidate in the election was one of my friends. I indirectly helped his campaign, though I did not do anything openly. I told the people in the parish that he is a decent man with a Christian name. I told them to vote for him by considering his personal qualities. Thus he won the election and became the first communist Panchayat president in Attappadi. His name was Avarachan Vettikkatt. He later left the communist party. He was an uncorrupt genuine leader. If people like him remain in the leadership, there is no problem with the communist party. But that is not the present situation of the communist party. Such people no longer get any importance in the party.
Kunhi: Did you pay any attention to the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, during those days?
Mani: Yes, I was highly concerned about all those developments. I revealed the truth about the communist dictatorship in Eastern Europe in various venues. The communists did not like what I say, even though they were my friends. I’m interested in Marxist ideology. I liked three ideas from Marx’s thoughts, democracy, social man, and abolitions of wage labour. But I cannot accept what happened in communist countries throughout the world. They became worse than the right-wing conservatives. They did not give any importance to the philosophy of Marx. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a historical necessity. What they wanted was the centralization of power, amassing of wealth and enforcement of discipline. Where these three join together, there we can find fascism. Therefore, I would say that it was in the Soviet Union, not in Germany, fascism worked with its full potential. German fascism was not so systematic like that happened in the Soviet Union. They kept it as a part of the ideology of their party.
Kunhi: When did you begin to be an atheist and start associating with the rationalist movement?
Mani: I was an atheist in heart even when I was part of the Church. Many fathers used to blame me that I have no belief in God. I reflected my views through my writings even when I was a priest.
Kunhi: You left the Church in 2005, right? What forced you to take that step?
Mani: I wrote a resignation letter in simple words. It said I have a few things to do in this world, which are completely different from what you could think. My relationship with the church and my friendship with priests would be a hindrance to my works in that direction. Therefore, I do not need the support of the church. I’m planning to lead my life by finding an income in a way that I like. But you can contact me anytime if you are interested.
Kunhi: What was your worst experience as an activist?
Mani: My worst experience is related to the approach of the communist party. In 1994, I organized a year-long anti-alcohol campaign in Attappadi. In the 1990s, the total population of Attappadi was 56000. However, the total number of bars in the area was 50, 35 arrack bars and 15 toddy bars. Moreover, each one of these bars had from 3 to 7 door to door distributors. You can calculate the level of alcohol consumption in the area. Adivasi hamlets were struggling because of poverty. There was no house without poverty. Men spend all their earnings in liquor shops. Women and children in the family suffered from no food to eat, no money to buy books for their children etc kinds of issues. I couldn’t stay away from the problem after seeing the suffering of various families, though I was not ideologically against alcohol. I started picketing one liquor shop. Soon, so many people came to join the protest. Thus within one week, the picketing extended to 10 liquor shops. Everyone supported the movement, except the left parties and the Congress party. The reason communists had for not extending their support to the movement was that most of the workers in these bars were their supporters. The Congress party also joined with the left. They together organized many meetings to destabilise my movement.
Kunhi: What was the approach of the church towards the movement?
Mani: It remained largely neutral, though it was afraid to hurt the sentiments of rich contractors. However, when the movement became victorious they came to take the credit of the movement. They organized a large meeting by bringing Bishops from other parts of the state and making me the chief guest in the event. Till then they did not support the movement. Moreover, they secretly took disciplinary action against some of the fathers who supported the movement.
Kunhi: What was the outcome of the movement? Did they close all those liquor shops?
Mani: In 1993, the Ministry of Welfare of the Central government released an order discouraging the sale of alcohol in tribal areas. It is a tribal development block. That order of the government came to the Attappadi Taluk Office too. But they did not publicise the government order. When I started the movement, a staff in the office gave me a copy of this order. This is the reason why I have confidently led the movement. Following this, in early 1994, the government amended the minimum distance rule for operating bars and liquor shops, to include Adivasi hamlets too in the list of places where the minimum distance rule should be applied. In the past, the list included only schools, colleges, cemetery and places of worship. Based on this direction, in the context of our protest, the district collector gave an order for closing down all the liquor shops operating near Adivasi hamlets. It was our first victory. Most of these bars were owned by a member of the communist party. His name was Kumaran.
These kinds of involvement seriously affected the image of the communist party. They tried various methods to destabilise our movement. I got a call from the police superintendent's office, telling me that there is a threat to my life. They asked me to stay vigilant and not to go out at night. I did not pay much attention to such threats. I was confident that there are people to support me. Some people came to stay with me as security in my house. I told them I don’t need anyone’s security. A few times, some goons tried to attack me. I filed cases against all of them and took them to court, though they did not get any punishment in the end.
I would say that the mainstream communists are the ones who are least interested in the problems of the people. They were like this from the very early years. Look at their land reform policy. Who got its benefits? They gave land to Christian, Muslim, Ezhava and Nair peasants and settlers. The agricultural labourers had to make do with 3 or 5 cents of rocky land. Even today, these lower caste communities live in colonies. There are about 26000 such colonies in Kerala. In the 1970s, the CPI-M had the best opportunity to do proper land reform. If the government had distributed at least one-acre land to each Dalit-Adivasi family, they would have reached a far better position today. They are the ones who really work in the land. If they had land, these colonies would not have emerged in the area. All these happened because of Brahminical communism.
Kunhi: How is your life in the days' father? Are you okay with calling ‘father’?
Mani: People can call me whatever they want. Most of the people in the area call me ‘father’. Some people call Mani sir. Life is a little difficult nowadays. I quit the church to live with an income that I could make in my own ways.
I have a different concept of life. I want a life free from religion, caste, and traditions. In my concept, marriage, family, kinship etc have no importance. I want to make small collectives of people who share the same world views. It should be a collective of 10 or fewer people. I bought some land for implementing this project. Many people came to stay, but no one stayed long enough here. They all left, giving me a substantial financial burden. In the end, I sold that land. That was a wonderful land.
Kunhi: Are you living alone here?
Mani: I have a friend. I’m not married. I’m completely against the concept of marriage. But we live together. I live with her since December 2005. I left the church in April 2005. She is from Sulthan Bathery, a divorcee. She was a teacher. She did PhD after coming here. Now, we lead a retirement life. We have no children.
Kunhi: Ok. We can stop here. Thank you.