Interview With Mathew Joseph

Matthew Joseph (pseudonym) discusses his personal life, Jenmi exploitation, and the Naxalite presence in his village.

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Born in 1941 as the fourth of seven children in a migrant farming family in Wayanad, Matthew Joseph begins by sharing how his parents moved to what is now Kerala in 1948, in search of a way out of poverty. His father bought land from a Jenmi, and the entire family worked on the farm. Their Jenmi landlord was more reasonable than most others, and allowed Matthew’s father to remain focused on his cultivation without disruptions. In contrast, many other Jenmis disturbed the migrant farmers often. These migrant farmers were also very united and helped one another during difficult circumstances such as poor yield due to wild boar attacks on their fields, thereby avoiding starvation. Matthew recalls that the threat of Malaria was also a major public health concern in the region, which even pushed some migrant families to return to their hometowns. Later, when migrant farmer families became more affluent, some employed Adivasi laborers for monetary woes, as opposed to the Jenmis who paid in rice. However, this was not a widespread practice in his community as migrant farmers often tended their own fields with their families.

    While his three older brothers only attained primary education, teachers noticed Matthew’s academic abilities and encouraged his father to educate him. He eventually completed his pre-university course and joined the forest department in 1965, where he served until 1995. It was during his service that the Naxalite movement emerged in Kerala. Matthew explains that neither he nor his family had a strong allegiance to either the Congress or Communist parties; while his father supported Congress, he would vote for Communist candidates when they implemented beneficial policies. Similarly, Matthew does not identify with any party, but asserts that he has his own brand of politics. 

    As a result, he holds an ambivalent view of the impact of the Naxalite movement in enhancing the lives of Adivasis. Though he acknowledges the necessity of certain early Naxalite raids on Jenmi homes led by Varghese, he condemns all forms of violence. Further, he explains that while the Naxalite actions did result in Adivasis receiving (increasing) cash wages from Jenmis, the Adivasis’ support of Naxalites was also used against them in the form of false accusations and wrongful imprisonment as suspected Naxalites. His view of the Soviet Union is similarly balanced: he notes that although the communist system has its merits, the level of oppression it bred in Russia made its collapse inevitable beyond a certain point. Matthew’s assessment thus disputes the notion that the Naxalites (and communism) singularly helped oppressed communities like the Adivasis.

4 January 2020


Kunhi: Hi. I’m a researcher, studying various social and political issues that affected people’s life in Wayanad. Some people told me that you know everything about this village. I mean, they said you know very well about those days of tension, Naxal violence etc. Can you share some of your experiences with me?

Mathew: I can tell you the things I know. No problem with that. But I never had any relationship with the Naxalites. If you are looking for any of their organization related information, I may not be helpful for you.

Kunhi: My study is largely focused on social experiences related to the Naxal violence and other issues, like the Jenmi system that was in practice in this area. It is not a study on the history of the Naxalite organizations. So, no such worries.

Mathew: Ok. You cannot publish my name anywhere. I don’t want to get into any trouble. 

Kunhi: No problem. This is an academic study. We are not going to publish your details in any magazines or newspapers. Can I ask you some questions? You are born and bought up in this village. Isn’t it?

Mathew: My family settled here when I was a small child, maybe seven or eight years old. We are originally from Thodupuzha.

Kunhi: Ok. Do you know the year of migration?

Mathew: in 1948.

Kunhi: So you are eighty years old now. Isn’t it?

Mathew: 79 years old.

Kunhi: Ok. Do you have any siblings?

Mathew: I have three elder brothers, two younger sisters and one younger brother. We were seven children. Only three of us are alive today. 

Kunhi: Why did your parents migrate to Wayanad? Do you have any idea? 

Mathew: Poverty. That was a season of agricultural migration to the Malabar area. Many people from Travancore migrated to the hilly regions of Wayanad, Kannur and Kasaragod districts during that time. These were not separate districts then. Wayanad and the Kannur area were part of the Malabar district, and Kasaragod was part of the South Canara district. There was no Kerala. All these areas were part of the Madras presidency.

Kunhi: Can you tell me about your early days in this village as migrant settlers?

Mathew: That was a time of struggle and suffering. My father and elder brothers worked really hard to feed our family. Sometimes, my mother also helped them. We kids would also do tasks that required no hard labor. Most of the time, the entire family worked in the field. Apart from this struggle in the field, there were several other issues. We had to face the threat of diseases like Malaria on the one side and the disturbance of wild animals on the other side. If we lose our attention, wild boar would destroy the entire cultivation. In the past, many settlers died and many returned to Travancore because of Malaria. By the time we settled, the situation was better. But the fear of fever existed even during that time.

Many people from the Travancore area already settled here by the time we arrived. They helped us if we lost our cultivation because of wild boars. Therefore, we didn’t starve. Other than that, life was really difficult in those days.

Kunhi: Didn’t your elder brothers go to school?

Mathew: They did. They completed primary level studies. My father had no means to send them to high school. They all had to work in the field, to make some income and feed our family. There was no other way. We had no house back then. We lived in a temporary shelter. With their hard work, they built a house and sent us to school.

Kunhi: Where did you do your studies?

Mathew: I learned the basics, such as reading, writing and some level of mathematics, at an Azhuthupallikkodam (village level school) in our village. When my teachers realized that I’m good at studies, they asked my father to send me to school. Thus I joined Sarvodaya school Mananthavady. After completing school education, I joined Kozhikode Christian college for a pre-degree course.  

Kunhi: What did you do after completing your studies?

Mathew: I joined the forest department in 1965. I was in the service for thirty years, till 1995.

Kunhi: Ok. That means when Naxal violence happened, you were in the government service. How was the situation in your village in the early days, when the Jenmi system was in practice?

Mathew: Only a few families were settled in this area. They were all farmers and they lived very harmoniously. Jenmies in this area ware not so problematic. We had to give them something when we harvest. Other than that they did not bother settlers. 

Kunhi: You are saying there was no issue of Jenmi exploitation in this village. Isn’t it?

Mathew: My family bought land from a Jenmi, known as Krishnan Nambiar. He was not a brutal person like some others. There were some Jenmis who disturbed migrants all the time. They often filed cases against migrants. The highly brutal Jenmis were mostly from Chetty or Adiga like castes, not Malayalis. They were Kannada speaking Jenmis. Their ancestors migrated to Wayanad from the Karnataka region.

Kunhi: How was the life of Adivasi communities in this village?

Mathew: Their life was really difficult under Jenmis. They had to work like slaves, without any wage. The Jenmis’ relationship with Adivasi communities was different. They easily controlled Adivasis, because of their obedient nature. But migrants were not like that. If Jenmis disturb us, we would file police complaints against them.

Kunhi: What were your major cultivations back then?

Mathew: We had 15 acres of land. We cultivated everything, from tapioca to coffee.

Kunhi: Was your family associated with any political organization?

Mathew: No, but we had our politics like everyone else in Kerala. We were not part of any political organization. My father was a Congress party sympathizer. But he had no problem with giving the vote to the communists in elections. Sometimes, when communists do good things, he supported their approach. One of my brothers was a strong supporter of the communist party.

Kunhi: What was your approach towards communist violence, especially the Naxalite violence?

Mathew: I cannot support violence, whoever commits it. However, some of the early movements against the Jenmi exploitation was very necessary. Varghese-like energetic communists were fighting against exploitation even before they turned into Naxalites. When we talk about communist violence, it was not just Naxalites who did such armed actions. The communist party has a long history of violent struggle against the Jenmi system in Kerala. Varghese-like leaders were a late entry in that history. I’m not judging whether their violent actions were right or wrong. What I’m simply asserting is that most of the early violent struggles were a historical necessity. The life of lower castes was so miserable under some of the Jenmis. There were no other ways to change the social system.

Kunhi: Varghese was popular even before he become Naxalites. Isn’t it?

Mathew: I don’t know him personally. But I never believed that he is a brutal robber as newspapers portrayed him in those days. I think, he was a good communist. However, we cannot support all the violence and killings. When they came to power, some of the communist leaders became worse than leaders from other political parties. Many of these leaders had a good relationship with Jenmis. Therefore, they won’t do anything against Jenmis. Once they had the support of political leaders and the police, Jenmis could do whatever they wanted. Nobody would question them even if they killed and hung an Adivasi. There were several such cases. 

Kunhi: I read somewhere that when Naxalites raided a Jenmi’s house, they found a CPI leader chatting with the Jenmi.

Mathew: Yes, yes. In Appu Swami’s house. He was not a brutal Jenmi. He was a coward. He must have been exploiting Adivasis. I don’t know about that part. The truth is, Adivasis were very calm obedient people. Anybody could exploit them. Other than that, caste was a big concern back then. The upper caste people, they need not be Jenmis, would not allow Adivasis to approach anywhere near them. 

Kunhi: The issue of untouchability and unseeability. However, it was these Adivasi workers who were doing all their agricultural works. Isn’t it?

Mathew: Yes, yes. Some of them lived in a small temporary hut on the brinks of the paddy field. I mean that was their house. They had no other place to go. They would do all the work for Jenmis. They would guard the crop day and night. They had no benefit out of that job. The Jenmis would give them only some raw rice. That may not be sufficient even for their food.

Kunhi: How was the migrants’ relationship with the Adivasi community?

Mathew: It was better than the Jenmi-Adivasi relationship. When we hired them for any work in our field, we paid them their wage in money, not in raw rice. I don’t know how other migrant families treated them. However, one important point here is that migrants often did all the work in their field by themselves. They won’t hire anyone from outside. They would only think about a way to save the money they may need to give workers when they hired someone. Another point is, most of the migrant settlers were very poor. They came to settle here in this remote forest area because of that in the first place. Moreover, unlike today, everyone in the family would be working in the field, father, mother and their children. Therefore, they needed no outside help in their field.

Kunhi: Coming back to the question of Naxalites. What did you feel when you heard about the death of Varghese?

Mathew: I did not believe that he got killed in a fire exchange between the Naxalites and police. Even before police constable Ramachandran Nair revealed the secret, many people were certain that it was a killing by the police. That was not a big secret. His revelation helped to send people like I G Lakshmana to prison. 

Kunhi: The Church did not allow Varghese’s body to be buried in its cemetery. Isn’t it?

Mathew: That is a matter of belief. I cannot comment on that. The Church never accepted communist ideology. It couldn’t accept those who worked for that ideology. There were not many Christian communists during that time. I believe Varghese was a good communist and he worked for oppressed people. He fought against the exploitation of Adivasi communities. They considered him as one of their gods. But I don’t support his violent actions, including killings. Similarly, I believe what the police did to him was complete injustice and it should not have happened in a democratic country.

Kunhi: Were you in Wayanad when these incidents happened?

Mathew: No, I was working in a different place, in a different district. 

Kunhi: Do you believe that the Naxalite actions anyhow changed the life of Adivasi communities?

Mathew: There was no one to talk against the exploitation of Adivasi communities. Before joining the Naxalite organization, Varghese tried to lead a movement against Jenmis under the Karshaka Thozhilali Union (Union of Agricultural Workers). It did not go well, because of the opposition from the communist leaders in Wayanad. The point is that many Jenmis were supporters or members of the communist party. The party could not stand against these Jenmis. If the communist party turned against them, they would naturally go to the Congress party. 

There is no direct answer to your question whether Naxalite actions helped Adivasi communities. On the one side, Naxal violence became a tool for justifying some of the notorious police actions against Adivasi communities. Police often raided Adivasi colonies, took many innocent people under custody and tortured them, on the pretext of the Naxal movement. Ever since Adivasis supported Varghese’s movement, it became very easy to depict their colonies as a hiding place for the members of the Naxalite organizations. Many innocent Adivasis spent several years in prison because of the Naxalite movement. When you consider these kinds of issues, you can say that the Naxalite movement adversely affected Adivasis’ life. However, on the other hand, you can see that Naxal violence had brought massive attention to Adivasi problems. With this, even mainstream parties came to a situation where they could not completely ignore Adivasi problems. Thus, eventually, Adivasi workers also began to get wages like non-Adivasi workers. Many of them got land and financial assistance to build houses. Many of them became farmers. Their children started going to school and so on. Such positive changes also happened, though we cannot say it happened only because of Naxalites.

Kunhi: Ok. Coming back to the Jenmi system. You never faced any problem from Jenmis. Isn’t it?

Mathew: My family had no major issue with Jenmis. As I said, Jenmis in our neighbourhood was not problematic people. My father did not like to intervene in other people’s business. He was completely focused on his cultivation. Therefore, no one intervened in our life.

Kunhi: Are you suggesting that we should not intervene in social issues?

Mathew: No, never. My point is that my parents did not intervene in social issues. They had no time or education for doing such things. I’m not an anti-social person. I believe we all have duties and responsibilities in a democratic system. Isn’t that why we vote in elections. Though I’m not a supporter or member of any political parties, I have my politics. I associated with various organizations in the past. Even today I work with some platforms. But today we don’t have problems like Jenmi exploitation, that require violent struggle. We have venues for finding a peaceful solution to any problem.

 Kunhi: Ok. Maoist violence that happens even today in some parts of our country is not suitable for our present socio-political context. Isn’t it?

Mathew: We have the means to find a peaceful solution to any problem. We cannot justify violence in the present social context. We have a democratic system. People should go to court if they find that the government is ignoring their problems. That is how a democratic system is supposed to work. If they don’t find any solution even from the court, they can lead protests. But that should be a peaceful protest, not like our hartals. Our political parties declare hartal for every issue. What is the benefit? Nothing, for the public. They are meant only to disturb common people. Because of such hartals, common people would lose their income for a day. Political leaders have nothing to lose from such an unnecessary method of protest.

Kunhi: Were you aware of the Cold War, the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, in international politics?

Mathew: Yes, I read. I’m interested in all kinds of politics and international issues. I read at least one or two newspapers every day. I keenly followed newspaper reports during the Vietnam War and Gulf War. 

Kunhi: What was your view when the Soviet Union disintegrated?

Mathew: That was necessary. You cannot oppress a society for a long time. They will resist and fight against the oppressor. I’m not against communist ideology. It has several positive sides. But the life of normal people was highly difficult in most of the countries where communists came to power. They killed several innocent people. How many innocents died in China because of communism? We cannot ignore these kinds of issues only because the communists give a voice to poor working people. 

Kunhi: Agree with that. Shall we stop here? Thank you for your time. 

Interviewer: Kunhi

Interviewee: Mathew Joseph

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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. Consider Matthew’s views of politics, party allegiance, ideology and the Naxalite movement in light of his position as a veteran civil servant. What does that suggest about the nature of the Cold War in India?