Kunnel Krishnan discusses the Jenmi system which was in practice in Wayanad, Kerlala, from the 1950s, the slave trade held during the Valliyoorkkav temple festival, the Jenmis’ relationship with agricultural migrants, and various early interventions of the communist parties in the region.
This transcript is part of a group of transcripts.
Krishnan begins by discussing the sociocultural diversity of Wayanad, where he grew up. While Adivasis were the majority group, there was also a wide range of migrants from various caste backgrounds in the region. He explains how the Jenmis would lease their lands to agricultural migrant families (such as his own), for a share of the rice yield, or 15 rupees per acre as annual rent, in a 12-year agreement. These were legally enforced contracts. Krishnan also notes that the Jenmi class was also diverse, consisting largely of the Nair caste, but also some Muslims. He shares that malaria was a major public health concern in the 1950s, which even led some migrant families to return to their homelands, and caused major financial strains for those who remained. This worsened income inequality between Jenmis and migrants.
Later, migrant farmers began purchasing Jenmi lands and diversified the crops they planted. Unlike Jenmi landlords, wealthier farmers, especially Christians, paid Adivasi laborers in cash instead of rice, making them a more attractive employer and fueling tensions between Jenmis and migrants. However, the migrant families put up a united front against the Jenmis to ensure their own survival, even without identifying with a common political party. In contrast, most Jenmis were affiliated to the Congress Party. Jenmis opposed the migrants’ better treatment of Adivasis as it contravened the traditional practice of slave trade at the temple, where Adivasi elders would lease their people to Jenmis for a year of servitude, at a price.
He then explains a brief history of communist activity in the region, beginning in the coffee and tea plantations of the Meppadi region in the 1940s, where they helped build unions. By 1955, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was very active in Krishnan’s village. It drew strong support from the farmer communities due to their weaker socioeconomic standing vis-a-vis the Jenmis. It built a farmers’ organization called Kisam Singam to resist Jenmi exploitation, such as demanding higher-than-agreed rents, or sexually exploiting Adivasi women. CPI also fought for the Adivasis’ right to be paid in cash instead of rice, and to be granted sick leave when required.
When the CPI splintered in subsequent years over ideological differences, their programs towards the Adivasi communities also evolved. The CPI (Marxist) [CPI-M] advocated unity between migrants and Jenmis as a larger farming community from 1964. Here, a sub-group of Jenmis, from the Variar caste, even offered shelter to communist activists going into hiding, encountering and embracing elements of communist ideology in the process. By the 1970s, the emergence of the more radical Naxalite group saw activists organizing farming communities against the Jenmis, with the goal of redistributing Jenmi land to farmers. The Naxalites’ more extreme approach led Jenmis to begin paying Adivasi workers better wages in cash, regardless of gender, and to reward them during festivals. Adivasi families also began to educate their children, which expanded their employment opportunities and enhanced their wages to match those of their peers from other backgrounds.
30th December 2019
Kunhi: I interviewed you once last year. You talked about various things in that interview. I think I have a lot more to learn from you. That is why I came for this interview. So, to start off, can you give a brief idea about the population in this locality?
KK: Adivasi communities constitute a major share of the population in this locality. They are not a politically conscious community. Migrants, from different religious backgrounds, constitute the rest of the population. As it is an area of migrant settlers, there is no tension between the communities here.
Kunhi: How was the local Jenmi’s approach towards early migrants? Can you recollect anything?
KK: Agricultural migration to Malabar was a government-sponsored project. The government encouraged agricultural migration in the 1940s, due to the shortage of food and other problems created by the Second World War. To address poverty, and increase agricultural production, the government encouraged migration to previously untamed lands in Malabar. The land was so cheap in Malabar during that period. Jenmis also considered agricultural migration as a positive development, since they could reduce their burden of land tax by selling untamed land to migrants. Moreover, it was an opportunity for Jenmis to maximize their paattam revenue. Farmers had to pay 2 paras rough rice as paattam to Jenmi for each acre of paddy they cultivated. If it is not a paddy field, farmers had to pay 15 rupees per acre as a pattam to Jenmis.
Kunhi: Does it apply to everyone?
KK: The land transaction was called the Marupattam system then. We get land from Jenmis with Marupattam documents. The dealing was for 12 years.
Kunhi: It was essentially Jenmis’ land, right?
KK: Technically it was Devaswam land.
Kunhi: The Jenmi-Migrant transactions were legal, right?
KK: Yes, it was officially registered transactions.
Kunhi: When did they discontinue this type of land dealings?, Do you have any idea about that?
KK: People bought lands from Jenmis with Marupaattam agreements. They started cultivating things like tapioca, pepper, cardamom, coffee, etc. A large number of migrants arrived at this time. However, the situation was not so easy. Malaria was the major villain. People suffered a lot and many of them lost everything.
Kunhi: What was the year of these happenings?
KK: We came here in 1949. These things happened in the 1950s. Many returned to Travancore because of Malaria. There were no facilities to provide treatments for Malaria. The only thing government provided for Malaria patients was a tablet called Koina. So, essentially people suffered due to Malaria and wild animals. On the other side, some of the farmers occupied way more land than what they bought from Jenmis with the Marupattam agreement. Such issues led to legal issues and tension between Jenmis and Migrants.
Kunhi: How common was Malaria deaths in this locality when you were young?
KK: Many died. Many returned to Travancore because of Malaria.
Kunhi: So, about the tension between Jenmis and Migrants. How serious was the problem in this locality?
KK: It was not a big problem, because farmers were largely united. It did not develop as violence. They filed many cases against migrants.
Kunhi: You said there was unity among migrant farmers. Is this anyhow related to any political party or organization?
KK: No, it was not based on any political party. It was a good relationship between neighbours. They all came here from different places. So, they needed safety. The attachment between these migrants was so intense. My family was the first family to settle in this locality. Those who came later required the support of the early settlers. They needed shelter until they made their own and they needed seeds to cultivate. Because of these reasons, they all depended on each other. But now the situation has changed. Everyone is safe in their own way. When we came here, we had no idea about the locality.
In those days, Jenmis highly discouraged Adivasis from going to work for Christian migrants. They often told Adivasis that Christians are cannibals. Essentially, Jenmis did not want Adivasis to learn new things by mingling with the migrant settlers. Migrants were providing money wages to Adivasi workers. That was not acceptable to Jenmis.
Kunhi: Did they stop working for migrants because of such a campaign?
KK: As they were getting money wage, they did not stop working for migrant settlers. In another sense, the agricultural migration helped to bring an end to slavery in Wayanad.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about the Valliyoorkkav slave auction or slave trade?
KK: It was not an auction. It was a slave trade, based upon an oral agreement. There will be no records of such transactions.
Kunhi: Who were the parties in such agreements?
KK: It is between Jenmis and Adivasi elders. Jenmis would go to the temple festival in Valliyoorkkav and select the Adivasi families he needed for work in the coming year. Once selected, he will give them some money to meet their expenses during the temple festival. The rule is that if they accept the money they should work the next whole year for the Jenmi who gave the money.
Kunhi: How much money these workers would get during such transactions?
KK: It was very low. About 10 rupees or less. It all depends on the character of Jenmi. Some would give 10, some would give only 2. The Adivasis were not good at making bargains. They would accept whatever they get from Jenmis and would go to Jenmi’s house the very next day to start their work.
Kunhi: Who were these Jenmis, mostly? I mean their caste and backgrounds.
KK: They were mainly Nair Jenmis. However, there were some Muslim Jenmis too in some villages. These Jenmis were early migrants from areas like Kuttiadi and Nadapuram. The Muslim Jenmis, who were essentially rich farmers, became Jenmis by buying hundreds of acres of land from Nair Jenmis. They were not originally from this area.
Kunhi: Coming back to the tension between Jenmis and migrants. I heard about a famous case in Pulpally, between Jenmis and Migrants. I think it was in 1967.
KK: Yes, the issue which led to the first Naxalite action. The problem was encroachment. Some of the migrants were active in encroaching way more land than what they bought from Jenmis, or cutting down trees from forest land which was essentially under Jenmis’ control, or killing cows of Jenmis for meat. These things happened. Sometimes, Jenmis filed fake cases against migrants by accusing them of these kinds of things. The natives of this region were largely less intelligent people and the migrants were relatively more intelligent. This difference often created tension between these two groups. Once they make some money, the migrants stop giving any respect to Jenmis. However, Jenmis tried to stick with their tradition and primitive approach towards social order. Such tension often led to Jenmis filing fake cases against migrants.
Kunhi: When did communist organizations begin to be active in this region?
KK: The beginning of communist activism in the region happened in tea plantations, in villages like Meppadi and Karappuzha. It must be in the 1940s.
Kunhi: Then it was CPI, right? In your early days, was CPI active in your village?
KK: Yes. They were active as a farmers’ organization that fight against Jenmis’ conflicts with migrants. It was an organization called Kisam Singam, formed under the leadership of AKG. It was through that farmers’ organization migrants resisted Jenmis’ exploitation. Though we say it was 2 paras of raw rice to Jenmis for each acre of paddy we cultivate, in practice often Jenmis did not follow this rule. Even if migrants pay the rent after the harvest, the Jenmis would approach them again after a few months for the same amount of rent.
Kunhi: The 2 paras of raw rice was the rent for a year, right?
KK: yes, it was for a year. But they would repeat asking for rent, even if migrants pay their due after the harvest.
Kunhi: Apart from 2 paras of raw rice or 15 rupees, was there any other responsibilities included in the Marupattam contract between Jenmis and migrants?
KK: Migrants would provide them bunches of bananas or a sack of tapioca or a share of whatever they cultivate.
Kunhi: Other than these, there was no cash involved, right?
KK: No no, we had to pay cash too when we buy the land. It was 10 rupees per acre in 1949 when we bought the land.
Kunhi: Apart from these 10 rupees, you had to pay either 15 rupees or 2 paras of raw rice. Is that correct?
KK: Yes. The Marupattam agreement would specify what is the amount of money and raw rice one need to pay to Jenmi each year.
Kunhi: You said the communist party was active in your village in your childhood days. Do you remember any of their activities in particular from those days?
KK: The communist party was very active in this area by 1955. Leaders like C Gopalan Nair, Alakkandi Krishni, E C Uthaman, PS Govindan Master etc were well-known among the public.
Kunhi: To which political party was Jenmis generally associated during that period?
KK: Congress party.
Kunhi: Later some of them became supporters, even leaders, of the communist party, right?
KK: It is not like that. When leaders like AKG was in hiding, they stayed in the houses of some of the Variar Jenmis. In this context, these Jenmis became familiar with communist ideologies. Therefore, they began to support the communist party. It happened mainly in the Thrissilery-Thirunelli area. They were mainly farmers even though they were Jenmis. They started associating with communist farmers organizations when they came in contact with leaders like AKG. However, Nair Jenmis were generally supporters of the Congress party. The migrant community was the main organizers of the communist party. Their socio-economic situation led them to communist parties. They saw the communist party as a platform for resisting Jenmi exploitation.
In Pulpally, R N Kuppathod was a well-known Jenmi who controlled Devaswam land. He was not only cruel, he sexually exploited migrant women.
Kunhi: So, Jenmis in general did not sexually exploit women?
KK: Though most of them did such exploitations, some of them became notorious because of their cruelties.
Kunhi: How did communists deal with R N Kuppathod?
KK: Leaders like Kisan Thomman, Adoor Joseph etc organized Karshaka Sangham activities against his exploitation. Kisan Thomman received the title ‘Kisan’ in his name because of his involvement with Karshaka Sangham.
Kunhi: He later joined the Naxal movement, right?
KK: Yes, he worked with Varghese. He participated in the Pulpally police station attack and went into hiding inside the forest. He died in an accidental bomb explosion while they were in hiding in the forest.
Kunhi: What happened to Kuppathod? Did Naxalite attack him?
KK: Nothing happened to him. He received police protection.
Kunhi: Shall we come back to early interventions of CPI in Wayanad. Do you have any recollections in this regard?
KK: Its early activities were focused in the Meppadi area, by organizing workers in Tea and Coffee plantations. They formed an AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress) unit in the village to organize the workers. I know early union leaders like Moorthy and Sadandan.
Kunhi: In the previous interview you mentioned that, more than ideology you were following the activities of leaders. You mentioned that you were following leaders like AKG.
KK: He was one of the most important leaders who workers for farmers. He helped to form farmers’ organizations and led many movements from the front. He argued that the Indian government under Nehru was an alliance of the feudal-bourgeois class. However, leaders like Dange saw Nehru as a socialist, because of his close relationship with the Soviet Union. They saw the Indian government as progressive. There were two different approaches to revolution. This is what ultimately led to the split of the communist party in 1964.
Kunhi: Coming back to my previous question. Can you recollect any of the CPI interventions in the area before the split?
KK: They formed farmers organizations. They fought for increasing the wage of Adivasi workers. They fought for eliminating the Vally system which was providing only raw rice as wage for Adivasi workers. Moreover, they fought against Jenmi exploitation of Adivasi communities. Jenmis did not allow Adivasis to take rest, even if they were critically ill. They brutally punished them. Jenmis did not give a damn, even when they suffered because of Malaria. They did not see the Adivasi as a human being, did not show any social responsibility. They considered Adivasis as creatures born to work for Jenmis. The communist party tried to organize them and tried to enlighten them to fight against such exploitation.
Kunhi: If the communists were working for Adivasis, how come there appeared a need for radical communist outfits like Naxalite organizations in this area?
KK: It is because of ideological differences within the party. Among those who came to split the party in 1964 by demanding revolution, a group argued that India needed a new revolution similar to what happened in China and the others argued that India should work for social revolution. Those who demanded the Chinese model revolution in India became Naxalites.
Kunhi: Ok. Was there any change in communists’ approach towards Jenmis after the formation of CPI(M) in 1964?
KK: They even started to support Jenmis in the later years. Their slogan was a unity between farmers and agricultural workers. They identified most of the Jenmis as farmers. Therefore, they did not attempt to organize agricultural workers against farmers. In this context, Naxalites tried to mobilize agricultural workers against farmers who belonged to the category of Jenmis. The Marxist party was not encouraging such mobilizations. Naxalites wanted to redistribute Jenmi land to agricultural workers.
Kunhi: Was there any evident change in Jenmis’ approach towards Adivasi workers after the entry of Naxalite organizations?
KK: Several changes. They started giving money wages to Adivasi workers. They started using the real measuring cup to distribute Adivasi workers’ share in the harvest. They had to give two pothi raw rice to every Adivasi male worker after the harvest. They also had to give other benefits to workers during the time of festivals like Onam and Vishu. Even female Adivasi workers were supposed to get similar kinds of benefits. However, Jenmis were not following these rules. Naxalites organized movements against such exploitations and forced them to give all traditional benefits to Adivasi workers. As they were afraid of Naxalites, they did not try to resist the change.
Similarly, Adivasis were not sending their children to school in the past. Because of communist interventions, they started sending their kids to school. They became more enlightened as they began to get a public education. They started getting the wages similar to that of a non-Adivasi worker.
Interviewee: Kunnel Krishnan
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.
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.