Karian discusses his life, socio-political views, struggles against Jenmi exploitation of Adivasi communities, and his encounter with the radical communist Naxalite movement, for which he was falsely imprisoned in the 1970s although he never joined the Naxalites.
Born in an Adivasi family in the 1950s, Karian experienced poverty and discrimination by the Jenmis from his early childhood. Adivasis were not allowed into tea stalls and were only served tea outside in coconut shells instead of cups, and shares a personal experience when he was verbally abused as a child for unknowingly flouting these rules. While he did not experience violence at the hands of Jenmis, he explains that Adivasis were exploited in other ways such as verbal abuse, not being paid monetary wages but rice, and receiving only 10% of the harvest yield while Jenmis took 90%. However, he shares that some Jenmis did indeed use violence on Adivasis, including women and children; sometimes even killing those who opposed their oppressive social order.
These experiences of exploitation made Karian sympathize with the radical Communist Naxalite movement, which dared to resist the Jenmis’ exploitation of Adivasis, while the mainstream communist parties in Kerala did not. In particular, Karian and his peers (who were children then) looked up to Naxalite leader Varghese. Varghese built strong ties with the Adivasis at the grassroots level, and many families offered him shelter and protection when he fled government persecution. Karian first met him when he stayed at their home, and recalls being encouraged by Varghese to excel in education to rise above Jenmi exploitation. In practice, however, the public school system often humiliated Adivasi students, and Karian braved these challenges with the encouragement of his uncle who also had been active in (or something like that)…. He also shares his favorite memory of Varghese, when Varghese encouraged a young cowherd to seek retribution against a Jenmi who had physically abused him by slapping him in public.
For sympathizing with the Naxalites, Karian was arrested in 1970 on his suspected involvement in the murder of a Jenmi, even though he never formally joined the Naxalite Movement. He explains that this was a political act meant to signal to Adivasis that associating with the Naxalites would have consequences. He served a five-year prison term before being arrested again during the National Emergency (1975-77) and serving another two and a half years, until the Emergency was ended. He feels that while the Jenmi system of indentured servitude has been dismantled, the lives of Adivasis have not really been enhanced to this day.
10th January 2020
Kunhi: Namaskaram (Hello). I’m a researcher, studying various socio-political movements that happened in this region. You are a person with tremendous experience in the struggles of Adivasi communities. I was wondering whether you could share some thoughts about your experience with us? I know you are not well and you can’t talk much. I promise that I will not take much of your time.
Karian: I was really unwell and hospitalised for many days. I won’t be able to talk much. But I don’t want to say no to you. You can ask whatever you want.
Kunhi: You are known for your association with the Naxalite movement. What were the factors which shaped your interests in radical communism?
Karian: I was not a Naxalite as many people believe. I did sympathise with the activities of some of the Naxal leaders, especially Varghese. They did some good things for Adivasi communities when others were ignoring Adivasi problems.
Kunhi: What were the most important problems of Adivasi communities during that time?
Karian: Adivasi problems largely remain the same even today. Maybe the issue of Jenmi exploitation is not present today. But various other exploitations continue to affect the lives of Adivasi communities. Even today, most of the Adivasi families have no agricultural land. The Jenmi system is not there anymore, but the social and economic status of Adivasi communities did not improve much over the years.
Kunhi: What was the nature of the Jenmi system in your early years? Can you recollect some of your early experiences with Jenmis?
Karian: They were the masters (Thambran). We had to stay away from their sight all the time. They did not pay any money as wage for Adivasi workers. The remuneration for the dawn to dusk work in the paddy field was 2 ser of raw rice. If we do our cultivation in Janmi’s land, they will take 90 per cent of the yield. While they take 10 paras of rice, they will provide us 1 para. Nobody can question these kinds of exploitation. If anybody violates the Jenmi’s rules, they will be punished with lashes. Some of them even killed those who questioned them. No one dares to do anything against them.
Kunhi: Have you experienced any punishment from Jenmis?
Karian: I did not get any lashes. But they did swear at me many times. They always used very abusive language against us.
Kunhi: Can you recollect any of your early encounters with a Jenmi?
Karian: The earliest of such memory is related to a teashop incident. It happened when I was a small kid. What could a child know about the rules of Thambran? I wanted to drink a cup of tea. There was a small teashop near Thrissileri school. I went there with money and sat on a bench inside the teashop. When the shopkeeper approached, I gave him money and asked for a cup of tea. After some time, when I was drinking tea, a Jenmi came to the shop. I did not get up or run away as he entered the shop. I did continue drinking tea, as I had no idea about the rules. The Jenmi who arrived there did not like the idea that an Adivasi boy is sitting inside the shop and drinking tea in a cup. They generally served tea to us only in a coconut shell. He couldn’t control his anger and started shouting all kinds of swear words at me.
Kunhi: What did you do then? Did he hurt you physically?
Karian: I ran away from there. What else can I do?
Kunhi: Since then, did you ever visit that shop?
Karian: Many times, with my grandmother. We didn’t sit on the bench inside. We were allowed only to get tea in a coconut shell from outside the shop. They did not allow us to use the cups in which they serve tea to others.
Kunhi: Can you recollect the names of some of the well-known Jenmis in this locality?
Karian: Kunjirama Varyar, Vasudeva Adiga, Shulapani Varyar, Appu Swami, Venkidi Aiyar, Keshavan Musath and many more.
Kunhi: All of them were equally cruel towards Adivasi communities?
Karian: Most of them. Some of them did not employ any violent method of punishment, though they used abusive language like others. Some of them always used a whip or stick to beat Adivasi workers. When giving punishment, they never considered whether it was a kid, girl or woman.
Kunhi: Without taking much time, I would like to know about your association with the Naxalite movement. You already mentioned that you were not an active participant in the movement. What were the factors which shaped your interest in the movement and made you a sympathizer?
Karian: They did what others could not do. They questioned Jenmis without any fear. All other parties, even communist parties, did not interfere in Jenmis’ business. They had the support of police and leaders. Naxalites, especially Varghese, fought for Adivasis. Jenmis were afraid of him.
Kunhi: Is it because of Varghese you became a sympathizer of the Naxal movement?
Karian: Yes. Not only me, but most of the other Adivasis. During those days, if Varghese called a meeting, everyone would come without any hesitation. When he visited our village, he stayed in Adivasi houses. He stayed in our house many times.
Kunhi: Can you recollect your early meetings with Varghese?
Karian: I met him for the first time in 1969. He came to stay at our house. When he arrived, I didn’t know it was Varghese. But I was familiar with his heroic activities in the region. Because of that, I was a great admirer of him even before I meet him.
Kunhi: How did you know about his activism?
Karian: Everyone was talking about him in those days. He was a major topic of conversation among us students in school since the Pulpally police station attack. He was a well-known leader even before the Pulpally incident.
Kunhi: Sorry to interrupt. Where did you go to school?
Karian: At the primary level, I studied in the Government school, Thrissilery. After that, I joined SKMJ school, Kalpetta.
Kunhi: Did you travel to Kalpetta from here every day? (There is almost 50km distance between his village and school)
Karian: No, I stayed in a hostel. Daily commuting was not even an option then.
Kunhi: Okay. Shall we come back to your first meeting with Varghese? Did you talk to him that night?
Karian: Yes. He told me to study well and get a good job. He greatly encouraged school-going Adivasi children. He said, it is because we are working for Jenmis they exploit us so much, if we don’t have to work for them they won’t be able to humiliate us as they do now. However, getting a school education was not an easy thing for Adivasi children in those days. There were many people to make fun of school-going Adivasi kids.
Kunhi: You also faced such humiliation?
Karian: Of course, many times. It is because of such humiliation I stopped my studies. “Why do you waste your time by going to school when you have nothing to eat in your home”, they asked always. I studied because of my uncle. He wanted me to study.
Kunhi: Was he a learned man?
Karian: No, he was an artist. A respected personality among our community. He wanted me to learn because he wanted me to help him read.
Kunhi: Can you recollect some of the early stories you heard about Varghese?
Karian: There are many. The one I liked most was about his encounter with Kunjirama varyar, a well-known Jenmi in the area. The incident happened on the backdrop of Varya’s brutality against an Adivasi boy named Choman. He was one among the many servants of Varyar. As a kid, he was mainly responsible for taking the Jenmi’s livestock to and from the farm to the pasture for grazing. One day, on their way to the pasture, some of the cattle entered the garden of another Jenmi and destroyed some crops. It was not a serious problem. Such incidents happen all the time if there are not enough people to control the herd. But, in this context, when the incident was reported to Varyar by someone else, he brutally punished Choman. He gave so many lashes on the naked back of the little boy by tying him up tightly to a coconut tree. Somehow, Varghese came to know about the incident. He went to see the boy and found many bloody lash marks on his back. He couldn’t control his anger when he saw the pain of the little boy. He took the boy to Varyar’s house. Many locals followed him to the Jenmi’s house to see their encounter. Varyar was in his front yard when they reached his house. Varghese’s approach itself frightened Varyar, as he was already well-known for his fearless attitude towards Jenmis. Everyone was anxious to see Varghese’s response to Varyar. Giving them a great surprise, he asked Choman to give tight slaps on Varyar’s face. When Varghese was there Choman had nothing to fear. But he was way shorter than the Jenmi. Varghese asked him to jump and slap. Choman jumped with all his energy and gave a tight slap on Varyar’s face.
Kunhi: Did Varyar or his people did not try to resist Varghese?
Karian: No. They all were afraid of Varghese.
Kunhi: Can you talk a little more about your relationship with Varghese after your first meeting?
Karian: I travelled with him sometime. He was very familiar with all walkable routes in the forest. He had no fear of wild animals. Plantation workers had great respect for him. No one betrayed him or revealed his presence in the area. He stayed in various villages in the area after the Pulpaaly police station attack. His presence was a great comfort for kids like me. Because Jenmis would not do anything against us when he is around. They knew that he won’t hesitate to kill them if they do something wrong.
Kunhi: How did you end up in jail?
Karian: Naxalites killed Adiga. He was an infamous Jenmi of Thrissileri. I was not part of the group that killed him. They arrested many of us just because we supported Varghese. Police also knew that we were innocents. I did not participate in any Naxalite action.
Kunhi: You were a school student when it happened. Isn’t it?
Karian: Yes, I was studying in the 9th standard. When the murder happened I was at home. It was a vacation period. We heard the sound of a gunshot that night. We thought someone might be hunting wild pigs. The next morning we came to know that Naxalites killed Adiga. We went to see what happened. His body was lying outside his house.
Kunhi: Did the police arrest you on the same day?
Karian: A few days later. Police arrested 32 people. Only 16 of them were part of the Naxalite group that killed Adiga. Others were innocents. They wanted to teach Adivasis that there will be repercussions if you support Naxalites. One of the main suspects himself told the police that I had no role in the murder.
Kunhi: Did they torture you after the arrest?
Karian: That is so obvious. Isn’t it? They did all kinds of torture in the beginning. Later, they stopped, after one officer intervened and asked them to stop torturing me. He knew that we were innocent.
Kunhi: Even knowing that you are innocent, they tortured you and charged a case against you and send you to jail. Why?
Karian: That is what I said earlier. They wanted to teach Adivasis a lesson that we should not support Naxalites. Police got the order from the government. Some of them were not cruel. Some of them don’t even care that we are human beings.
Kunhi: How long did you spend in jail?
Karian: Seven and half years. After five and half years, in 1975, the court dropped charges against us and set us free. But the police did not let us go. They arrested us again by charging MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act). Then we spend two more years in jail, till the end of the National Emergency.
Kunhi: How was your life in jail?
Karian: Jail is not a good place to live. I got a lot of time to read books.
Kunhi: Ok. Thank you so much.
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.
Para is a traditional rice measuring instrument in Kerala. 1 para of rice weighs approximately 8 kilograms.
What does Karian’s testimony reveal about the extent to which India’s Cold War was real, and the extent to which it was imagined? Whose interests did such imaginations reflect?
In light of Karian’s testimony, discuss to what extent India’s Cold War is part of the ideological clash between capitalism and communism as described in traditional historiography, and the extent to which it was a local conflict.
Consider the role of class and caste in shaping India’s Cold War on the ground.