Kuruman discusses the Jenmi system that was in practice in his village and the Naxalite interventions he witnessed in his youth.
Adivasi elder Kuruman begins by explaining the diversity of Adivasi communities in the region, and then recounts his experiences working under the Jenmi system. Laborers were bound to serve a particular Jenmi for a year at the temple festival, where Jenmis would lease entire Adivasi families, men, women, and children from the elders. Kuruman and other Adivasi workers were tasked with all farming-related responsibilities on the Jenmis’ fields, ranging from plowing to guarding the crops from wildlife. Jenmis would violently punish them if they did not perform their duties satisfactorily. Initially, Adivasis were not paid monetary wages and only received raw rice, with special meals or extra rice only on special occasions. To make ends meet, some Adivasis worked for the Forest Department planting teak trees, while others took second jobs with a different Jenmi. In the latter case, the original employer may demand reimbursement of the advance payment of rice given to the Jenmi, which they may borrow from the second employer. They also supplemented their nutrition with wild roots.
The Adivasis’ situation began to improve with the agitation of Communist activists against the exploitative Jenmis, particularly the Naxalites. Kuruman recalls that the Naxalite movement killed some of the more brutal Jenmis, which frightened other Jenmis into treating Adivasi workers better. He also shares his personal encounter with the Naxalite unit that attacked the Pulpally police station in 1968, when they came to threaten his Jenmi employer into redistributing some surplus rice to the workers. However, Kuruman and his colleagues returned the rice when they had left, and later testified against the Naxalite group in court. After the 1968 raid, Jenmis gradually switched to providing cash wages, and increased the amount over time. In the 1970s, the temple-based slave trade was abolished.
Despite these successes, Kuruman shares that Adivasi communities do not hold a singular allegiance to any one political party, having voted for both Congress and Communist parties in elections. The political parties too, tend to ignore Adivasis after the elections, as seen from how most Adivasi families, including his own, did not receive any disaster relief aid after the floods in 2019, while other regions in Wayanad with personal ties to the politicians, did. Kuruman is now engaged in an Adivasi agricultural cooperative practicing organic vegetable farming.
19 January 2020
Kuruman is an Adivasi mooppan in a hamlet near Pulpally town in Wayanad. He was a daily wage worker. Though he never participated in any political activity, he was one of the eyewitnesses of the Naxal raid in his village. The interviewer met him at his house. In this interview, he talks about the Jenmi system that was in practice in his village and the Naxalite interventions he witnessed when he was young.
Kunhi: Can you tell me which are the Adivasi communities mainly settled in this area?
Kuruman: In this area mainly Adiaya, Paniya, Kaattunaika, Vettakkuruma, and Mullukkuruma communities are settled. I belong to Adiya (also known as Ravula) community.
Kunhi: You speak Ravula language. Isn’t it.
Kuruman: Yes, that is our language.
Kunhi: How was the situation in the village when the flood happened last year?
Kuruman: Very bad. It affected our cultivation. We have a tribal cooperative society, engaged in organic vegetable farming. Most of its vegetable cultivation is lost due to the flooding. It affected other cultivations too. Food shortage was severe in the hamlet during those days. There was no demand for daily wage workers, for three or four months. That affected everyone in the village, as most of us are daily wage workers. Moreover, most of us did not get any relief kit that arrived in Wayanad during the flood. No political parties came here to help us. They distributed relief kits to their own people. They didn’t even bother to give some rice to us.
Kunhi: Why did no political parties come here to help you during the flood? Don’t you vote for them in elections?
Kuruman: They need us only during the elections. A lot of assistance arrived in Wayanad during the flood, as various food and non-food products. I don’t know whether they received any money. But only a few Adivasi families received any share of those relief materials. I didn’t get anything.
Kunhi: Which political party do you generally support during elections?
Kuruman: We support all of them. We voted for communists and Congress parties.
Kunhi: Ok. How many members are in your family?
Kuruman: I have a son.
Kunhi: Do you remember the early days? Do you remember the period of the Jenmi system?
Kuruman: We all worked for Jenmis. I started working for them when I turned 12 or 13. Life was very difficult during those days. We had to work without any money wage. They would give us only 2 ser of raw rice as wage for a day’s work. Women received only one ser raw rice. Children won’t get any wage. They would get only food. But everyone had to do their work, men, women and children. The situation changed over the years. First, they increased the wage to 3 litres of rice for a day. Then it became one rupee for a day. Then it became 3 rupees. And so on.
Kunhi: Now Adivasis also receive wages like other workers. Isn’t it?
Kuruman: Yes. But living expenses also increased a lot. In those days, one rupee was enough to buy everything we needed for a week. For one rupee we could buy salt, chilli, dry fish etc for a week. Now, even 500 rupees is not enough to meet the expenses of a week. Then we had only two small shops in the village. Now large shops are here. All changed with the arrival of migrant settlers.
Kunhi: With no meaningful income, did you face starvation during those days?
Kuruman: Very rarely. When we run out of grains, we would borrow from Jenmis for whom we worked. We had to return that later.
Kunhi: You had some forest resources too to eat in some seasons. Isn’t it?
Kuruman: Yes. We used to collect various roots and leaves from the forest.
Kunhi: How did you find money in those days when Jenmies were not paying any money wage?
Kuruman: We had works of the forest department, mainly planting teak trees. We are the ones who planted all the teak trees in the forest that you see on your way to the village. For the works of the forest department, they would pay us 1.5 rupees a day. Women would get only one rupee per day.
Kunhi: Did Jenmis allow you to go for such works?
Kuruman: Some Jenmis won’t allow us to work in any other place. Some of them won’t make any issue if we go for other works. But they won’t allow us to go anywhere during the seasonal work in the paddy field. That was only for a few weeks in a year.
Kunhi: I think most of the Jenmis you worker for was not very strict. Is that correct?
Kuruman: No. They disturbed us very much. Some of them won’t hurt us physically. But all other kinds of problems were there.
Kunhi: Is it after the Naxal violence such a situation has changed? Do you remember the Naxal ride in this village?
Kuruman: Yes. The Chettis (a landowning caste in the area) were afraid of Naxalites. Their disturbance towards Adivasis declined after the Naxal attack. They worried that Naxalite would kill them if they disturb us anymore. But it took some more years to change the situation completely.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about the system that was in practice here before the Naxal attack? I mean the Valliyoorkkav temple festival and related deal-making with Jenmis.
Kuruman: Every year we travelled to Valliyoorkkav during the time of the temple festival. We had to walk through the forest all the way. No bus or anything like we have today. We would carry some food with us. Once reached Valliyoorkkav, we would stay there until the festival is over.
Kunhi: You received some money in advance from Jenmis, from the venue of the Valliyookkav temple festival. Isn’t it?
Kuruman: Yes. We would get some money in advance for a years’ work from Valliyoorkkav. Apart from money, a husband and wife would get 6 pothi (about 350 kg) of raw rice also as advance payment. But there will be differences in the amount of money and raw rice we get from Valliyoorkkav. If we borrowed any money from Jenmi in the previous year they would reduce it from the money they give us as an advance payment. Similarly, if we borrowed any rice in the previous year, they would reduce that from the advance. Most of us always had debts with Jenmis, both as money and raw rice. Therefore, we always received less money and less raw rice as advance payment from Valliyoorkkav. After the Naxalite incident, the situation changed a little.
Kunhi: When did they stop this Valliyoorkkav tradition completely?
Kuruman: A few years after the Naxalite attacks. First, they increased the wage. When the wage began to increase, the practice of advance payment came to an end. After that, we were allowed to work for anyone we want.
Kunhi: When the Valliyoorkkav system was in practice, what would Jenmi do if they find out that you sometimes work for others?
Kuruman: They would ask us to give back the advance money and raw rice that we accepted from Valliyoorkkav. If we give back those things, then there will be no problem.
Kunhi: You may not be able to give those things back. Isn’t?
Kuruman: We can get advance from the new Jenmi we are working for and pay back dues of the old one. If we couldn’t do that, they would disturb us.
Kunhi: What were the major works that you had to do for Jenmis?
Kuruman: We had to do everything. We had to work from early in the morning to late in the evening. From rearing their cattle to ploughing, planting, and harvesting paddy. We did everything. There were no other workers. During the paddy season, from morning to noon, men had to do ploughing and other land preparation works with bullocks. After that women would come to transplant rice seedlings in the prepared field. We had to assist them in this work. Once the work in the paddy field is over, we would be doing other works in the field. Most of the time, we had to guard the cultivation because of wild animals. Sometimes, we had guard duty in the orange plantation. Then there were no fences to keep wild animals away from the cultivation. During the paddy season, a few of us had to stay awake all the time to watch wild animals.
Kunhi: Even doing all these works, they did not bother to give you any decent wage. They were providing special meals to you on some occasions. Isn’t it? Can you tell me about that practice?
Kuruman: They would give us meals on occasions like the annual festival of Onam and Vishu. It was generally rice and one or two curries. Nothing more. After the meal, we would get some betel leaf and tobacco to chew. That was the tradition.
Kunhi: They did not give you anything else during the festivals like Onam and Vishu?
Kuruman: Yes. We would get some extra raw rice on occasions like that.
Kunhi: Did they often use lashes to punish workers?
Kuruman: Some of them were very brutal. If anything go wrong from our side, they would beat us like that.
Kunhi: Is it because of Naxalite all such things changed?
Kuruman: They were afraid of Naxalites. I don’t know how everything is changed. Naxalites killed some Jenmis who were very brutal to Adivasis. Maybe because of these incidents, others might have frightened and stopped punishing Adivasis.
Kunhi: Did the Naxalites come to this village?
Kuruman: Yes. They came to raid some of the Jenmi houses in the area. When they came here, I was working in a Chetty’s house. They came to attack Dasan Chetty’s house. He was a very brutal Jenmi. Even other Jenmis were afraid of him. All police officers were under his control. Some of the Jenmis who came here were in police uniform. They were coming after attacking the Pulpally police station.
Kunhi: How many Naxalites were in the group that came to this village?
Kuruman: Maybe 20 or so. One of them was a woman. Later we came to know that she was Ajitha.
Kunhi: Did Naxalites talk to you?
Kuruman: Yes. They told us not to worry. I was so afraid of them, because of their slogan shouting.
Kunhi: Did they harm Dasan Chetty?
Kuruman: No. They threatened him and checked all his documents. They were holding guns. Therefore, no one tried to resist them. Some of them collected raw rice from Jenmi’s storage and distributed it to Adivasi workers. I also got some rice. But I returned that to the Jenmi once Naxalite left his house.
Kunhi: Did the other workers also return the share of raw rice they received?
Kuruman: Yes, everyone returned to Jenmis what they received from Naxalites. No one can do otherwise. Because everyone was afraid of that Chetty. He could do anything.
Kunhi: Did his approach towards Adivasis change after the Naxal raid?
Kuruman: Not very much. He took us to the police station, as we were witness to the Naxal ride in the village.
Kunhi: Ok. Did police disturb you on the ground of the Naxal raid?
Kuruman: No, they questioned us. We told them everything we knew. We had no connection with the Naxalites. Later they took us to the court during the trial. In the court also, I told them what I saw.
Kunhi: Did you get any land from the government during the land reform?
Kuruman: I don’t know about that. But we received land from the government. In the first, a few families received one acre of land. I was one among them. Later some families received 30 cents of land.
Kunhi: Do you have any cultivation?
Kuruman: Yes, we cultivate organic vegetables.
Kunhi: Ok. Thank you.
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.
What does Kuruman’s response after the Naxalite raid, and his comments on the electoral allegiance of Adivasis, suggest about the relationship between the Adivasis and the Communist movement in India? What are its implications on our understanding of India’s Cold War?
Consider the role of communal politics in India during the Cold War and beyond.