Baburaj Thrikkaipatta discusses his life and political activities associated with various radical left-wing environmental groups, as well as his estrangement from them. He also talks about his current efforts to promote sustainable development in his community in Kerala.
Born in Wayanad in 1961 to migrant settler parents, Baburaj was able to pursue education to the tertiary level, earning three university degrees. His student activism began in high school, with the Students’ Federation of India (SFI). However, his views of the SFI evolved in university, where many radical authors were his classmates. He developed a view of what he terms “alternative politics” in university. In the early 1980s, he and his peers once skipped classes to protest the arrest of a journalist who criticized the police’s extraction of a dead porcupine after a natural disaster in an Adivasi region, instead of focusing on human casualties. While it did not create much impact, it drew broad support from the student body and evolved into a forum critical of the government’s education policy.
A key tenet of his brand of politics was environmental sustainability. In 1985, he and his peers organized a movement to destroy Acadia plants in the Forest Department’s nursery to oppose the creation of unnatural Acadia plantations that upset the ecology of the land. Baburaj feels that all mainstream political parties, regardless of their professed ideological leanings, are united in their disregard for the preservation of the environment in the pursuit of economic growth and their own popularity. He laments that even the radical leftist groups like the Naxalites, which supported students like him, changed their approach when they became established organizations. One anecdote he highlights is the Naxalites’ murder of a wealthy farmer in Kenichira, though he was not a Jenmi.
Disillusioned with politics, Baburaj returned to farming in the 1990s, and sought to combine his passion for creativity with agriculture. He worked to develop models of sustainable farming that did not harm the land, by avoiding the use of chemicals and reintroducing paddy. These efforts ran contrary to the government’s agricultural policy, and he continues to face opposition from the state. However, he notes, citing the examples of China and the Soviet Union in the 1990s, that societies cannot be oppressed in this way indefinitely. His efforts grew into his non-profit organization, Uravu, which promotes bamboo-based production and employs women, while promoting sustainable development in Wayanad. Baburaj still remains involved in farming, which is his primary source of income, while he works to advance his environmental activism.
27 December 2019
Kunhi: Shall we begin with a brief introduction to your background?
Baburaj: My name is Baburaj. I’m from a village called Thrikkaippatta in Wayanad.
Kunhi: How was your family economically when you were growing up?
Baburaj: My parents were daily wage workers. They came to Wayanad as agricultural migrants. They worked in plantations of settlers and Jenmis.
Kunhi: Where were they originally from?
Baburaj: My father is from Palakkad and my mother is from Thrissur.
Kunhi: You were born after they settled here. Isn’t it?
Baburaj: Yes. I was born in 1961.
Kunhi: Where did you do your studies?
Baburaj: I studied in a nearby school. It was an old village learning centre. Later it was converted into a government school. I studied there till the 4th standard. Then I joined an upper primary school, about five kilometres away from my house. It was a private school. After that, I joined Wayanad Muslim Orphanage High School to complete my secondary education. Then I did a pre-degree course from a private college. After that, I joined St Mary’s College, Sulthan Bathery to do a degree course in political science. I completed my postgraduate studies also from the same college, in the same subject. Then I joined an institute under the Calicut University to do a Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) course.
Kunhi: Were you active in any political organization during this period?
Baburaj: When I was in high school, I was active in the Students’ Federation of India (SFI). However, when I joined the college, my approach towards SFI began to transform. I don’t know the exact reason for this transformation. Perhaps because of my friendship with some of the radical writers. Authors like O K Johny were my friends in college.
Kunhi: What was the year?
Baburaj: From 1980 to 1985. Perhaps because of my association with radical groups in the college, I slowly changed my approach towards mainstream politics. I couldn’t accept the approach of mainstream political organizations. We were thinking about alternative politics. In college, especially during the undergraduate course, we worked as a group on alternative politics. We intervened in a few issues.
In 1984, there was an issue related to the police arrest of a journalist from the Mathrubhumi newspaper. His name was Jayachandran. He published a report about the wrong approach of the police in a site of natural calamity. There was a major landslide in an Adivasi village near Meppadi. About 7 Adivasis died in the incident. The wrong behaviour of the police that led to his arrest happened during the rescue operation. During this time, when they were removing debris to recover bodies, they found a dead porcupine. The police officials cleaned this dead animal and took it into their vehicle. The reporter took some pictures of this activity. The next day, the newspaper published a report on this incident. It asserted that police gave unnecessary importance to an animal dead body while ignoring the fact that it was a site of a major natural disaster that killed several human beings and many human bodies were yet to recover from debris. Following this report, police arrested reporter Jayachandran. The mainstream parties did not respond to the police approach. They did not even engage with the issue of the natural disaster that happened in an Adivasi area. Therefore, we tried to be a voice. We organized a protest march by skipping classes, in the context of the arrest.
Kunhi: How was the level of support in the college, among the students, for such a different approach?
Baburaj: There were many people with similar thoughts and views during that time. We had exceptional slogans and we had an exceptional approach. Though it did not make any change in the practice, it gained a good level of attention from the public. Later this group became an alternative platform in the college and organized various activities. It organized several discussions on the government’s policy on education. It became part of a protest against the policy of introducing self-financing courses at government-aided colleges.
The most important among our interventions was on matters related to environmental protection. Wayanad was going through a stage of severe environmental problems during that period. The environmental issues were not part of the agenda of the mainstream political parties. We did a major campaign in this matter during 1985. There was a platform called Wayanad Paristhithi Samrakshana Samithi (League for Environmental Protection of Wayanad). It was under the leadership of this platform, the first movement against the unnatural creation of acacia plantations was organized. We forcefully destroyed hundreds of thousands of acacia plants in the nursery of the forest department. We introduced a politics that accepts the importance of environmental protection. Even today most of the mainstream parties have no concern for the environment. Neither left parties nor right parties willing to take a strong stand against the use of plastic. They ignore us when we talk about the need to control unnecessary construction. Most of the political problems in contemporary Wayanad are connected to environmental issues.
Kunhi: What are the factors which influenced you to follow such an approach?
Baburaj: It is an important problem everywhere in the world. Some books, especially authors like T G Jacob and Venu, influenced my approach. What we see is that the mainstream left parties have no vision of inclusive sustainable development. They are driven by the goal of electoral success, like the other mainstream parties. Their idea of development is not sustainable. It often becomes anti-environmental and anti-social. For example their approach towards the quarries. They would say that it gives employment opportunities to hundreds of people. Therefore, we can allow it to operate even though it harms our environment. Their idea of development is driven by temporary benefits. What we need is a vision to see the future. The lack of willingness from the mainstream parties to adopt a sustainable development model is the source of most of the problems in our society.
Kunhi: You must have faced strong resistance from the mainstream political parties when you work with such a different approach. Isn't it?
Baburaj: Yes, we did. What is more interesting is that even those who stood with us to resist the mainstream parties later began to act like the mainstream parties when they became established political parties. I’m talking about some of the Naxalite organizations. When they become established political parties, they also ignore the serious questions about environmental protection. They also adopt the policy of other mainstream political parties.
We often challenged the idea of nationalism. We believed in the importance of regional and sub-national identities. Many of these groups had a similar approach. But when they become a political party, they somehow change their approach. The lack of creativity in their operation is a major problem of political parties. They become soulless entities. It is true even with the left radical organizations.
I left the mainstream political parties because of the lack of creativity in their approach. I associated with the radical left organization with the hope that they could provide an alternative approach in politics. But later I realized they also act largely in the same way. They all act in the same structure, like a tradition, in a mechanical way. There will be a meeting, there will be a campaign for collecting funds, there will be a lot of unnecessary discussions over very insignificant issues, and they all share many impractical ideologies. Because of this boring nature of politics, I returned to farming. I like to do creative activities. My approach is that we have to protect the spiritual and sacred nature of our environment.
When I returned to farming, my question was how to be creative in this field. I wanted to do something development-oriented, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. I wanted to follow an alternative approach.
Kunhi: What was the reason for seeking an alternative model in farming?
Baburaj: It is a realization that the conventional model is not sustainable. It was a realization that we need a sustainable alternative model. In every historical context, we have to address some kind of challenges of development. In the past, some people introduced massive cultivation of black pepper. They used various kinds of chemicals to get maximum yield. Later we realized the harm such cultivation did to our nature. It affected not only our environment but also our health. It was with such realization, I sought an alternative agricultural model. It is not just in farming, we need an alternative approach in other areas too, especially in production. We started a bamboo-based production activity in 1996.
There were not many people utilizing the possibilities of bamboo when we started this endeavour. Wayanad is known as the land of black pepper. It was a very expensive commodity in the market. Pepper cultivation was an easy way to make money. The government introduced many development projects to exploit the opportunities in black pepper. However, even with all these efforts, Wayanad began to undergo a severe financial crisis by 1996. It was not just a financial crisis, it was an environmental as well as an agricultural crisis. Following this, farmers suicide became a regular affair. Thus it became a major social crisis. It was in this context, we explored an alternative approach in agriculture and production. We tried to follow green politics, a different approach in using soil a different approach for production processes.
Kunhi: Some of the radical organizations were talking about the same issue. As we know, Wayanad was a centre of radical communist politics. What was their approach during this period of crisis?
Baburaj: They were largely inactive. As I said earlier, they had no creative vision to address these kinds of issues. I realized that these are soulless organizations. That is the reason why I discontinued my association with such groups. Their activities are largely limited within slogans. They have no activities beyond raising slogans.
Kunhi: What about their violent actions?
Baburaj: That was very rare. And I do not support violence. I believe in a Gandhian way of politics. We cannot bring any change through violence. They killed a farmer with their armed action in Kenichira. A farmer is a farmer, whatever the amount of land he owns. A farmer cannot be considered a Jenmi. He cannot be cruel like a Jenmi. I believe the Kenichira action of the Naxalite group was a wrong move. That farmer became rich by migrating to Wayanad and doing hard work in this soil. How could you consider killing that farmer a revolution? It is a question we have to ask ourselves. When we do so, we can see several faults in their policies. Their politics was just for the sake of their own existence.
Kunhi: It was during that time, we saw the fall of the Soviet Union. What was your approach to such issues?
Baburaj: The disintegration of the Soviet Union was a historical necessity. We cannot forcefully silence and oppress a society for a long period of time. Resisting oppression is human nature. The main reason for the fall of the Soviet Union was its internal problems, a tension within its society. Indeed the fall has given some new lessons to the world. Firstly, no one can oppress a society forever. I’m saying this not because I have some sentiment towards a capitalist system. I believe humans have a natural tendency to resist oppression.
Kunhi: What is your approach towards China?
Baburaj: They also have the same approach. However, they are a little more viable. Unlike the Soviet Union, they tried to understand their problem. They adopted privatization with this realization. But we cannot ignore the incidents like the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Such students movements happened only because of oppression. The point is that no country can oppress a society forever.
In this globalized world, no country can stay isolated. Similarly, no country can stay under a one-party dictatorship forever. All these matters are connected with the new technological revolution. No one can hide everything in this age of information. No country can manage everything under a centralized system.
Kunhi: So you are asserting that communism is not a practical idea. Isn’t it?
Baburaj: We don’t need a communist option. The idea of communism was a necessity in a particular context in history. It was a stage in political development. What we need now is a more advanced stage of politics. It must be beyond our conventional understanding of democracy. It must be an idea that asserts the importance of environmental protection, a sustainable way of life. It must be beyond the alliance politics and temporary interests. In that system, violence must be very low. I think we are heading towards such a system. Perhaps, the present technological development could take us to such a system. Technology helps to make people more aware of the problems. It could bring the idea of sustainable development to a maximum number of people.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about the relationship between your political life and personal life?
Baburaj: Both are connected. We started an institution called Urav in 1996 to promote production based on bamboo. It is our way of asserting alternative politics. At the same time, it is an alternative production process. It is a way of life respecting the value of our nature. It creates employment opportunities for several people. It employs about 300 people, mostly women. Ultimately, the venture asserts green politics. Instead of building large factories, we can promote these kinds of small sustainable production models. We planted hundreds of thousands of bamboos. When there is an economic opportunity, there is an inspiration to protect bamboos. It is an economic life that respects the value of nature.
Kunhi: This institute is your main source of revenue. Isn’t it?
Baburaj: We are just organizers of this platform. We do not make any money out of this. We are not taking any salary from this institute. My revenue source is agriculture. I have my cultivations.
Kunhi: What about your family? Are you married?
Baburaj: I married in 1992. I have two kids.
Kunhi: Can you tell me a little more about your project?
Baburaj: We are trying to find a sustainable model of development, one suitable for Wayanad, one that could provide economic benefit without hurting nature. For that, we have to reintroduce paddy cultivation. We have to look for appropriate crops and appropriate cultivation methods, by considering matters like climate change. Neither the mainstream political parties nor the conventional farmers are concerned about these kinds of things. We have to make it a topic of discussion and make farmers aware of the sustainable way of agriculture. We are focused on these kinds of matters.
Kunhi: Can you tell me whether these farming ideas are focused on a limited level of production or an industrial level of production?
Baburaj: We are thinking about an industrial level of production. It is not a family-centric or a community-centric approach. We are trying to build models that anyone can adopt and implement. If it is only for the benefit of a few families or a community, it is meaningless. We have to think about the projects that could benefit a large society. It is this approach that we implemented in the case of bamboo related productions. Because of that, the government recognized this village as a heritage village. With this recognition, we find immense possibilities in the field of bamboo related productions.
Kunhi: How was the initial response from the government when you introduced this alternative model?
Baburaj: We would definitely face challenges from the state. The state is an establishment that works against individuals. Its machinery, bureaucracy, and policies are designed in that way. We cannot expect otherwise from the state. It is always against individual freedom. It always tries to centralize power.
Kunhi: Ok. Shall we conclude here? Thank you.
Interviewee: Baburaj Thrikkaipatta
Jenmi were the landed aristocracy of Kerala.
Adivasi is a broad term referring to any aboriginal peoples of India, in this case the Kerala region.
Consider the significance of environmental histories of the Cold War in India and Asia more broadly.
How does Baburaj’s characterization of the leftist parties in India enhance our understanding of India’s Cold War?