Interview With John Xavier

John Xavier discusses Adivasi culture, the Jenmi system in Kerala, and various other related issues.

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John Xavier begins by discussing the historical anthropology of the Adivasi communities in Kerala, from their beginnings as a pre-Vedantic society that spoke a Proto-Dravidian language. Today, Tamil is the common lingua franca of the various Adivasi groups. John explains how early Adivasis saw themselves not as individuals, but part of a collective “spirit”, visualized as a forest goddess, and viewed even non-human life as sacred. As the community was the basic unit of Adivasi social life, there was no room for individualism, which he feels was also a reason why Adivasis were unconcerned about Jenmi exploitation and were able to brave such abuse. Their values also nurtured ecological sensitivity within the populace — they preserved a variety of food sources in their gatherer society; and practiced ethical hunting by targeting specific animals during particular seasons, mindful to spare young or pregnant animals to replenish the biodiversity. Yet, John cautions that contemporary society must not romanticize the tribal Adivasi way of life just because they were a peaceful tribe, unlike violent tribes in Northeast India.

    This traditional way of life was disrupted with the introduction of industrial agriculture, which prioritized particular crops and reduced the diversity of food sources available to Adivasis. Adivasis then began working for Jenmis and began to suffer exploitation. Comparing the Indian, Chinese, and European peasantry systems, John argues that the Indian model was unique for its inclusion of caste, which introduced not only untouchability (common to all three) but unseeability, a key feature of the Jenmi system. With these antiquated practices now fading in Kerala, John credits three drivers of change. First, the rise of Abrahamic religions introduced new values like brotherhood into the society. Second, early social reformers began to challenge the oppressive traditions of the Jenmi system. Third, he credits the Communist movement, in particular the mainstream communist parties, for championing the rights of Adivasis. Notably, he argues that the mainstream communist parties were more focused on nationalism and domestic issues as opposed to the more internationalist slant of the Naxalites. Despite these successes, he emphasizes that more needs to be done to assist and uplift Adivasi communities, in particular, by addressing the entrenched mindset within Indian society that normalizes the dehumanization of Adivasis as an aboriginal “Other”.

25 January 2020


Kunhi: My study is an attempt to understand the social experience of the Cold War in India, by analysing various transformations that happened in Kerala’s caste-based structure of exploitation during that period. I’m particularly focused on the transformations that happened in the life of Adivasi communities. As an artist, how do you see Adivasi communities in Kerala?

John: I’m interested in their languages. It belongs to the category of proto-Dravidian. Perhaps it is older than the earliest Dravidian language we know, Tamil. It means the aboriginals were here even before the beginning of Tamil culture. Most of these Adivasi groups speak different languages, like Paniya, Kadar, Mullu Kurumba etc. However, Tamil is their lingua franca. It is the common tongue they all can understand. Some of their languages are more similar to Malayalam. When we think about the Malayalam language, we know about the influence of Tamil, Kannada, Sanskrit, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese etc in it. But we don’t know, how much these proto-Dravidian languages of Adivasi communities influenced the Malayalam language. A detailed study is required in this area.

Kunhi: Indeed. I interviewed several Adivasis for this study. One of the very interesting things that I learned is their approach to the land. I mean their traditional understanding of the land, that they belonged to the land and not the opposite. Most of them even today believe that land does not belong to anyone. The very idea of land ownership is not there in their culture. What do you think about that?

John: That is a change that happened during the neolithic period. It was the time people started doing agriculture. The structuring of language, like making symbols etc., also began in this period. With agriculture, many things began to change. Before this turn, people were largely gatherers. People’s approach towards the land is transformed with the developments in agriculture. 

Kunhi: Are you suggesting that they did not go through this proper channel of transformation in history? Is that the reason why they remain stuck with a type of relation to the land that existed before the neolithic revolution?

John: We cannot say that the Neolithic revolution was a proper pattern. It was a disaster as far as the ecosystem is concerned. People began to cultivate widely only a few selected plants. Many species of plants came extinct because of this practice. Before this agricultural revolution, even human beings were more robust. In a gathering community, the chances for malnutrition was very rare. They had a large variety of things to eat. Even if it was about collecting rice from wildland, they had an enormous variety of rice. With the agricultural revolution, only a few items began to be used widely. If we analyse the variety of grains Adivasi communities were using, we can understand that problem. They always had access to an enormous variety of grains and roots. When we began to approach agriculture with a commercial mentality, when we began to focus on industrial-level production, we lost our access to such varieties. The gathering community has no commercial mentality. 

Kunhi: Some of the people I interviewed for the study observed that there was no problem of malnutrition among Adivasi communities, even when they were being highly exploited by Jenmis. They had access to an enormous variety of food in the forest. But the situation changed with the massive agricultural migration. Interestingly, when they were under the Jenmis, they were not aware of the exploitation. They were happy in their ways, and they thought that life is supposed to be like that. They believed they should respect others and obey whatever they ask. What do you think about this?

John: Family as a unit became popular in agrarian societies. It later shrunk to become nuclear families. The concept of ‘individual’ also emerged in this system. But in the pre-agrarian society, in the society of gatherers, the community was the basic unit, not family. In our modern capitalist system, the individual is the basic unit, the citizen. We can see the concept of the citizen in Greek agrarian society. However, that was largely related to cities, aristocratic individuals. In a pre-agrarian society, the individual is not different from the community. In some of the Adivasi communities in the East, you can find concepts like Bonbibi, (Forest goddess). They consider themselves as part of this goddess, not different from that. In general, in an Adivasi community, the individual is not a separate unit. They all gather frequently, they dance, they sing, and they keep themselves in a festive mood. Their activities like gathering forest products or agricultural activities are collective efforts. There is no space for an individual to be isolated and unhappy. That is the secret of their happiness even when they were facing all kinds of problems from Jenmis. 

Kunhi: Is this concept of Bonbibi related to Aham Brahmamsi

John: No, no. Aham Brahmamsi is a Vedantic thought. The concept I mentioned is a pre-Vedantic one. That means these thoughts were here before the arrival of Vedas. 

I would like to add a point to the Adivasi idea of land that you mentioned, ‘I belonged to the land and land doesn’t belong to me. Most of these Adivasi communities are not only gathers, they are hunters too. It was ethical hunting, they won’t hunt every animal every time. It depends on the seasons. They would hunt only some particular animals in a season. Similarly, they won’t hunt pregnant animals or animals with small cubs. They had that kind of ecological sensitivity. They hunt only to survive, not for the fun of killing or to eliminate any animal species. 

Kunhi: As you mentioned the ecological sensitivity, most of the aboriginal communities in the world are ecologically sensitive. What do you think is the reason for this common character of aboriginals?

John: Firstly, they all acquire such knowledge through tradition. It is a result of their long years of experience. They are aware that if they overhunt a particular species from a particular area in a particular season, they won’t get it in the following year. 

Another important thing to note here is that we tend to romanticize aboriginal culture. We bring romanticism in studies related to aboriginals and their relationship with nature. They are not exceptionally great people. There are numerous problems within their life. One aboriginal community would not accept another one. Some tribes find greatness in killing anyone from other tribes. If they see someone outside their tribe, they would kill him immediately and cut off his head. They even kept skulls as trophies. Even cannibalism was common among some of them. These were very primitive tribes. Some of the Indian tribes, especially in northeast India, were violent like that. We can find such violent tribes even today in areas like Andaman. However, the Adivasi communities in Kerala are not such violent people. They are very peaceful people. Perhaps, we cannot find any violent tribes in South India. It is because of their peaceful nature, we have a very romantic approach towards their social life and culture. The point is that we cannot make any universal theory about tribal life. 

Kunhi: I’m not trying to romanticize the aboriginal life. But there are some values that we could see strongly among most of the aboriginal communities throughout the world. For example their relationship with the land. Their understanding of the land is largely similar if we consider Adivasis of Kerala or aboriginals of Australia or the similar communities in the United States. What do you think about that?

John: It is an anthropological question. It is connected with animism and the development of language. Before the development of the idea of the human spirit, before the evolution of the concept of God as we know it today, there was a concept of spirit. It was related to ancestry. The mystery of death led to the invention of spirit. Before the dominance of the human spirit, there was a concept that all beings possess a spirit. It is called animism. It gave a kind of sacred nature to the environment and other animals. However, we have to remember that throughout human history we can see violence between men and nature. Men killed animals ten or a hundred times stronger than them. Such violence even led to the extinction of many animals. 

Some scholars who studied cave painting observed that there was no distinction between their portrayal on the cave wall and their hunting practices. I mean that both were ritualistic practices. At some point in history, human’s concept of animals gets transformed. It must be because of cognitive development. The point is that the common values that you mentioned must be related to this stage of cultural development. 

Kunhi: Ok. Let’s come to the other side of Adivasi life in Kerala. The problem of Jenmi exploitation. What is your take on that?

John: It was similar to the practice that existed in other peasantry systems. There are three major peasantry systems. One is European, the other is Chinese, and another one is Indian. These feudalisms developed without mutual causation. Feudalism existed in one form or another in every agricultural society. The Jenmi exploitation was also related to agriculture. Beyond the common nature of feudalism, the Jenmi system in India had some features. The most important among them was caste. Neither in Europe nor China, we can find such a caste system within feudalism. Another major point is that, unlike the feudal system anywhere in the world, even in other parts of India, we could find ‘unseeability’ as a major issue within Kerala’s Jenmi system. The untouchability existed everywhere in India, but unseeability was a special feature of Kerala’s Jenmi system.

Kunhi: The untouchability and unseeability are no longer in practice in Kerala. What do you think as the major factors that helped such transformation?

John: Social reforms in Kerala. The social and economic development among other communities in Kerala. The strengthening of Abrahamic traditions, especially Christianity and Islam, also forced the traditional Keralites to change their way of living. When talking about the social reforms in Kerala, people generally do not give any importance to the role of Abrahamic religions. I believe it is the socio-cultural change in Kerala’s Abrahamic tradition that formed the base of Kerala’s social reform. When we compare it to north India, Kerala’s social reform is completely different. North India became subject to various invasions, Persianate, Sultanate, and Mongolian. But the larger force in Kerala was trade. Kerala had strong trade ties with the Arab world even during the pre-Islamic period. Later Islam came to Kerala through these trade relations. Islamic values like brotherhood became popular in Kerala. Similarly, Christianity contributed immensely to establishing the modern education system in Kerala. 

Kunhi: What do you think about the role of communism in Kerala’s social reform?

John: It played a very huge role. However, before we discuss that we have to consider the role of some social reformers, like Ayyankali, Sri Narayana Guru, Poykayil Appachan, Sahodaran Ayyappan etc. It was these early 20th century reformers who germinated the seed of transformation. The things that I mentioned earlier, like the contribution of the Abrahamic religions, can be seen only as underlying causes of the reform. You cannot say any of those things directly caused the transformation in our social system. However, these early 20th-century social reformers brought changes within the structure of each community. These reformers established various movements by challenging the traditional practices, like the temple entry movement, the fight against breast tax, the fight for the right to travel on the public road etc. It took only a few decades to change hundreds of years old traditions in Kerala. It happened only because of the movements led by these reformers. 

When we analyse the role of communists in Kerala’s social reform, we have to see that it was the foundation created by social reformers like Narayana Guru and Ayyankali that helped communists to have a foothold in Kerala. It was from the platform of modernity created by the early 20th century reformers, communists had started their journey in Kerala. It was these reformers who opened the way for modernizing the lower caste communities in Kerala. Later they became the mass that support the communist movement. When it comes to Christianity and Islam reformation happened differently. However, the caste system was not a textual problem for these religious communities. When it comes to practice, both Islam and Christianity in Kerala have their type of caste system. It is not based on their religious texts. And the extreme problems of the caste system in Kerala, like untouchability and unseeability, did not affect the lower castes in Muslim and Christian communities. 

Kunhi: What do you think about the role of radical communist organizations in Kerala’s social reform?

John: More than radical communist platforms like Naxalite organizations, the mainstream communist organizations contributed to the social reform in Kerala. India’s communist history is related to its independent movement. Most of the early communists were members of the Congress party. They were a radical wing within the Congress party. When India gained independence, the spirit of national liberation is replaced by the tension between Nationalism and Internationalism. Among the communists, it was a conflict between nationalists like PC Joshy and internationalists like Ranadive. It was two schools of thought, one upheld working-class unity and communist internationalism and the other group upheld proletarian nationalism. This tension, mixed with revisionism and anti-revisionism, later led to a split within the party. All these Naxalite groups emerged a few years after the 1964 split. These groups were from the stream that believed that internationalism is more important than nationalism. They challenged the electoral political interests of nationalist mainstream communist parties. They tried to bring an armed revolution in India. They were influenced by various developments in international politics, like the Vietnam war, May 68 events in France, etc. The revolutionary spirit was everywhere in the world during the 1970s. But the Congress government, with the support of mainstream communists,  brutally suppressed the Naxalite movement. They killed about 18000 Naxalites. It is not official data.

Kunhi: Ok. What is the current status of the caste system in Kerala? How problematic is it today, especially when considering the upper caste approach towards Adivasis and other lower-caste communities?

John: When you ask this question, the first thing that comes to my mind is the lynching of an Adivasi man named Madhu for stealing food from a restaurant. A mob attacked him brutally and they took selfies when he suffer. They later handed over this young man from Attappadi to the police. However, he collapsed in a police jeep and died. Think about this, the general public was able to take selfies when he suffer. That is their approach towards the life of Adivasis and other lower castes. 

Kunhi: Do you think it happened because of caste?

John: More than caste it is a clash of civilizations. There is a difference between Naad (village) and Kaadu (forest). One lives in cities, towns and villages and the other lives within the forest or peripheries of the forest. These are two different cultures. 

Kunhi: Ok. Thank you.

Interviewer: Kunhi

Interviewee: John Xavier

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Transcript Notes

  1. Jenmi were the landed aristocracy of Kerala.

  2. Adivasi is a broad term referring to any aboriginal peoples of India, in this case the Kerala region.

  1. How does John’s views of the various drivers of change in Kerala that uplifted the Adivasi communities enhance our understanding of the Cold War years in India?