Interview With Kelu Mooppan

Adivasi elder Kelu Moopan discusses his family’s traditional agricultural practices, their relationship with Jenmis, and how they benefited from the Congress and Communist governments’ wage and land reforms, respectively.

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Nonagenarian Kelu Moopan discusses how his family traditionally farmed paddy and vegetables on Jenmi land, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture in a crop rotation format. He is from the Kurichiya subgroup of Adivasis, who unlike the Paniya Adivasis, did not work as laborers on Jenmi farms but rented land to work as independent contract farmers. Now the elder of an Adivasi ancestral home, he explains how his large family of over 50 members lived in a single household and took care of the family farming enterprise, such that they did not have to enlist external labor. However, the rent, taken as a share of the crop, was high, and it was often difficult to feed such a large family with the rice that was leftover after paying the Jenmi, causing starvation. In addition, they had to pay a cultivation tax to the government. To make ends meet, they sold rice straw to traders and worked second jobs in other paddy fields at a tenth of the wage, and used wild roots as substitutes for rice. 

    Though he remains a Congress Party supporter, and recalls how the Congress government raised the wages of agricultural workers, he acknowledges that his family benefited from the Communist state government’s land reforms that allocated former Jenmi lands to Adivasis. Jenmis resisted this policy and sought compensation in courts, but the majority of Adivasi families, including his, did not have to pay for the land. As an independent farmer, he did not face much exploitation by Jemis like other Adivasi groups. However, he notes that the radical approach of the later Naxalite movement, which even assassinated some cruel Jenmis, forced other Jenmis to treat their Adivasi laborers better. Yet, he also acknowledges that some Adivasi groups like Paniyas also pose problems  in recent years, such as demanding alcohol before beginning work, although they worked hard. Moopan received a plot of land in 1984 and moved from his original ancestral home to Mananthavady, where he still lives. He was able to educate his children up to tenth grade, and his children were able to build their own homes on the allocated land.

26th December 2019


Kunhi: Can you tell me a little about your tharavadu?

Mooppan: Ours is the oldest Kurichiya tharavadu in this area. We strictly follow our traditional customs and practices even today. We are farmers and we cultivate paddy and other vegetables. We have some coffee plants too.

Kunhi: How many members are in this tharavadu

Mooppan: This is a large tharavadu. But not everyone is staying in this house. They all have their own houses now. I have seven kids. Three girls and four boys.

Kunhi: Are they all educated people?

Mooppan: Not much. They all studied till tenth standard in school. No one is in a government job. 

Kunhi: Ok. What do you remember when you think about the Jenmi exploitation of Adivasi communities? 

Mooppan: In those days, if we plant one pothi seed, we had to give one pothi raw rice to the Jenmi. One pothi means 62.5 ser (1 ser is 933 gram). 

Kunhi: How much seed you were planting in each season in those days?

Mooppan: Not much. Ten to fifteen pothi. 

Kunhi: That means you had to give ten to fifteen pothi rice to Jenmi after every harvest. How much yield you did get in a harvest?

Mooppan: It depends on a lot of things. Sometimes we got about fifty pothi rice from a harvest. Sometimes less than that. Unlike today, we had only one growing season in those days.

Kunhi: Okay. That means a large share of your yield will be going to Jenmi after every harvest. You paid such a large share of your grains to Jenmi even after cultivating in your own land. Right?

Mooppan: No. We had no land in those days. All land in the region belonged to Jenmis. We did our cultivation in Jenmis paddy fields.

Kunhi: Okay. You have your own land now. Right? When did you gain titles to your land? Do you remember that?

Mooppan: That happened recently only. Maybe twenty years or so. I don’t remember the exact year. When the government banned the Jenmi system, we had to pay a particular amount of money to Jenmi. It was 5000 Rupees or so for an acre of land. But there was a direction that Adivasi should not have to pay any money to Jenmi to acquire titles to the land in which they were cultivating traditionally. Therefore, only some families paid such compensation to Jenmis.

Kunhi: Did your family pay any compensation to Jenmi?

Mooppan: No. Some Jenmis, including ours, filed cases against those families which refused to give them compensation. But in the end, the court dropped such charges. Therefore, we didn’t have to pay anything. 

Kunhi: All these happened in a recent period. Right?

Mooppan: Yes. In 1984, I think.

Kunhi: So, before all the transformation, you were technically leasing land from Jenmis for your cultivation. Right? Apart from your family-owned farming, did you ever work in Jenmi’s field or plantations?

Mooppan: Jenmis in this area owned only paddy fields. But they generally claimed all land as their own. If we do any cultivation by preparing an unoccupied and uncultivated land, they will come to claim their ownership over the land. In such cases, we will be forced to pay the rent.

Kunhi: Ok. Even then, compared to those who were in working Jenmis’ plantations and paddy fields, you didn’t suffer extreme exploitation of Jenmis. Am I right?

Mooppan. Correct. We Kurichiar did our own cultivation. We paid our rent regularly. If anyone violates that, Jenmis will make them suffer. They will not allow such people to do any cultivation.

Kunhi: As you paid your rent regularly, your life was not disturbed by the Jenmi system. Is that what you are saying?

Mooppan: In those days, about 50 people stayed in a house. It was the joint family system. We all had to survive with the amount of yield we get from our cultivation.

Kunhi: Was that enough to feed such a large family?

Mooppan: No way. Starvation was normal in those days. Our yield was depended on many other factors. If the season is dry, the yield will be low. If it rains during the harvesting period, we may lose the entire yield. If any wild animals destroy the crop, the amount of yield will be less. 

Kunhi: Whatever is the yield, you had to pay a fixed rent to Jenmi. Am I right?

Mooppan: Yes. The amount of rent was decided by measuring the amount of seed we planted. The yield was not a matter. 

Kunhi: If the amount of yield is low, you may need to starve for a longer period. Right?

Mooppan: Yes. The rice we cultivated was never enough for feeding our large family. That’s why we did some other cultivation too, in a few acres of land. Mostly, muthari or ragi (finger millet). Such cultivations happened mostly in forest land. We cleared a particular area every year for ragi cultivation (slash-and-burn agriculture). A government official, we called him Adhikari Menon, would visit the area by the time of harvesting. He measured the area of our cultivation and charged a particular amount as tax. We had to pay that amount to the government.

Kunhi: How much was that tax?

Mooppan: I don’t remember the amount.  Anyway, it was not a huge amount. Getting money was so difficult in those days. The normal wage for a day’s work in those was about 60 paisa.

Kunhi: Did your family face difficulty in paying that tax to the government? 

Mooppan: We had to pay that tax. When we had no money, we borrowed from someone else and paid.

Kunhi: Ok. Once you paid the tax, will you be allowed to use the cleared land for cultivation in the following seasons?

Mooppan: No. The tax was for the crop, not the land.

Kunhi: So, you can’t use that land for further cultivation. What happens to that cleared land then?

Mooppan: It was forest land and the forest will grow again in the area. It should be a good shrubby area. Then only we could get a good yield from muthari cultivation. We cut down and burn all the shrubs and trees in the plot to prepare the land for cultivation. If we did cultivate in a particular hill this year, next year we will go to some other hill.

Kunhi: Ok. So, ragi was used as a substitute for rice. Right?

Mooppan: Yes. We made puttu with ragi. Sometimes, we cooked it in a large pot and served it with some curry.

Kunhi: You said starvation was normal. Was there any starvation deaths in those days?

Mooppan: If the yield is low, starvation was inevitable. There was no one with plenty to borrow during such times. But I don’t think there was any starvation death in our place. When there is no grain left at home, people will go to the forest and collect some roots or honey. There were many types of roots in the forest. People would go to the forest for collecting such roots after the rainy season.

Kunhi: Do people still go for collecting such wild roots?

Mooppan. No. Now they have regular work. They get wages. They could buy anything from the market. In those days, there was no other option. We had no one to ask when we ran out of grain.

Kunhi: As you talked about wages, let me ask you about the wage system in those days. It was well known that most of the Jenmis were not paying any money wage to Adivasi workers. There was a lot of resistance movement against such type of Jenmi-exploitation. Can you share your recollections regarding those issues?

Mooppan: Such a situation affected mostly the Paniya community. They were workers of Jenmis. But Jenmis would say “I don’t have money” when they ask for a wage. Poor workers would starve. What else can they do? Varghese killed some of those Jenmis, like Kenichira Mathai, because of such exploitation of Adivasis. There were many such exploitative Jenmis, a Muslim Jenmi, Kotta Moosa, and many chettys (a land-owning upper-caste in South India). 

Kunhi: Was there any change in the situation after killing those Jenmis?

Mooppan: No. They died. Adivasis in general had no benefit because of that. But, Jenmis began to worry that they would be facing a Naxal attack if they do not give wages to Adivasi workers. Such a change happened because of that. But we were not part of these issues. 

Kunhi: Ok. You were farmers and not workers like other communities. That is why you were less affected by such issues. Can you tell me some more about Jenmis’ approach towards your community?

Mooppan: We had not much relationship Jenmis. In other areas, Muslim Jenmis, Chetty Jenmis and Nair Jenmis were highly exploiting Adivasis. But we had no contact with such Jenmis. We paid our rent and tax properly. We were fully focused on our agriculture. 

Kunhi: You said that yield was not so good in those days. And I hope that you had to sell a portion of your yield for getting essential money. Right?

Mooppan: No. We had not enough yield to sell.

Kunhi: Then, how did you find the money for other needs? For paying tax and other things.

Mooppan: When such a situation comes, mostly we sold rice straw to some Muslim traders. Sometimes, we had to sell a portion of raw rice also. Sometimes, we got work in other plantations or paddy fields. We worked for way less wage, like 6 annas (a currency unit used in British India. 1 anna = 6.25 paise).

Kunhi: I hope that was in the very early periods and the rate of wage increased in the later years.

Mooppan: Correct. Later it became 8 annas or 9 annas. 8 annas are equivalent to 50 paise of today. Then it became 11 annas and 2 rupees and so on. After independence wages began to increase. The Congress Party helped to increase the wage. 

Kunhi: Is it the Congress party or the communist party? Which party helped the most to improve wages of Adivasi workers?

Mooppan: There was no communist party during those days. Later we voted for all those symbols, bullocks carrying a yoke, cow with a sucking calf, Palm, Ears of corn and sickle and hammer, sickle and star. We wasted many votes. 

Kunhi: So, you were a Congress party supporter. Are you still a Congress supporter?

Mooppan: There was only the Congress party then. Now we vote for different parties. People have many different views. Even my children’s views are different from mine.

Kunhi: As the political views of the people transformed over the years, do you think there is any change in people’s approach towards Adivasi communities?

Mooppan: The situation is changed a lot over the years. Now we have many privileges. We could get free rations. The government provide 30 kg of rice and 5 kg wheat for free to us every month. We had no time to think about other things. We were so focused on our agriculture.

Kunhi: Ok. The situation is improved. Which are the Adivasi communities focused on their own cultivation? 

Mooppan: Kurichiar only. Other communities are mainly workers. In those days, if you were a Jenmi, you would take at least four male and four female Paniyas with you as slaves to work in your paddy field and plantations. They will be allowed to build a hut near Jenmi’s paddy field. They will do all kinds of work from morning to evening. In the evening, Jenmi will give 4 ser raw rice to each male worker and 3 ser to each female worker. They had to sell a portion of it to get money for buying things. Paniyas had no land, and house. They suffered greatly in those days. We Kurichiyas were different. We did not have to suffer that much.

Kunhi: How was the situation of other communities, like Adiya?

Mooppan: They were also like Paniya. Worked for Jenmis, and suffered. Cherumakal is also part of that group. They were also Jenmis’ workers. These are all lower caste communities.

Kunhi: Which is the lowest cast among these groups?

Mooppan: They are all lower caste only. But now they are in a better position. Wage is improved significantly. They get almost 600-700 rupees for a day’s work these days. They could buy whatever they want from the market. In those days, there was only one small shop in the area. Now they have immense freedom. Because of that their attitude also changed. These days, it becomes a little difficult to get them to work. Some of them ask for brandy, even before starting work.

Kunhi: Really? Do you have to give them brandy for work? I suppose you have to give them a normal wage also.

Mooppan: Yes. We have to give them brandy and wages. It is a recent change, maybe since the last four-five years. But they will work a lot. They are really good workers.

Kunhi: Do they work for you also, in your field?

Mooppan: No. We never had any need to call them for work. Our agricultural work is done by ourselves. We have many members in our family to do this work. 

Kunhi: How many members are in your family now?

Mooppan: They all stay in different houses. But not far from here. We got this land as part of a governmental policy. This land belonged to the revenue department, not the forest department. There were two types of land in the area, one is revenue land and the other is forest land. The government introduced a new policy a few years back. That directed that all the revenue land in this area should be taken under the control of the forest department. When this policy was introduced, there was a good Tahsildar in Mananthavady. He knew that Christian migrants would occupy most of the revenue land in the area even before the implementation of such a policy. We were not very interested in occupying the land. Therefore, that Tahsildar helped Adivasi communities and distributed a share of revenue land to many landless Adivasi families. He asked us whether we have any land. We said no. That is how other members of my family, including my children, got land for building their own houses. 

Kunhi: Okay. I believe that decision of Tahsildar changed the life of many families. Did you receive any other agricultural lands when the government abolished the Jenmi system? 

Mooppan: That was the paddy field where we were cultivating traditionally. We got that land when Jenmis lost the case in court. Actually, our original ancestral home is different. It is on the other side of this paddy field. It is a structure of four houses and an open courtyard. We shifted to this place when we got the revenue land. We needed some land in our own name to get any bank loan…That is how our life was.

Kunhi: Which government do you think helped you really to improve your living conditions? Was it the communist government or the Congress government?

Mooppan: They are the only two governments we had. Of course, Marxists helped us to fight against Jenmis. It is because of them Jenmi system transformed. 

Kunhi: Okay. Thank you so much for your time. I don’t want to disturb you by asking so many questions today. I will come to meet you some other time. I want to know your traditional practices and customs.

Interviewer: Kunhi

Interviewee: Kelu Mooppan

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Transcript Notes

  1. Tharavadu is an ancestral home.

  2. Jenmi were the landed aristocracy of Kerala.

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

  1. Consider the significance of Kelu Moopan’s discussion of the diversity amongst Adivasi communities in colonial and postcolonial India in enriching the historiography of India’s Cold War.

  2. How does his alignment with the Congress Party despite his Adivasi origins further nuance our understanding of the Cold War in India?