P A Muhammed discusses his political awakening at an early age, his participation in student activism affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI), his career as a party member from 1960, and the Party’s successes in addressing the exploitation of the native Adivasi communities by the landowning Jenmis.
Born in 1937 in Waynad, Kerala, P A Muhammed begins by sharing that he does not know his exact date of birth, though his official documents record it as July 15, 1939, due to a two year delay in his commencement of schooling. He and his sisters were raised by a single father, who worked a combination of farming, trading, and wage labor jobs. Due to his proficiency in mathematics, Muhammed was allowed to skip the second grade.
He then recalls his early exposure to politics, right from third grade. When India gained independence in 1947, he observed that the Muslim community refused to participate in the victory procession, which only celebrated Mahatma Gandhi; the authorities then had to appease the Muslims by including a picture of Ali Jinnah. A year later, he remembers seeing posters put up by the now-banned communist party in his village, at a time when posters were uncommon sights. His cousin then warned him that communists had invaded their area, and that the police would arrest him if he consumed their propaganda, which then piqued his interest in communism.
Muhammed’s first direct participation in student activism came in during the local elections in 1952. Students like him were tasked by the Communist party to put up posters opposing the incumbent Congress candidate, Madhava Menon; who as then Home Minister was being held responsible for the police’s extrajudicial killings of 22 communist prisoners. He became even more involved in 1954, when the Communist Party decided that all businesses and organizations (including schools) should close to protest police violence in Goa. While the headmaster did not dismiss his students, Muhammed and some peers skipped classes, and informed the Party of his decision, after which Party leaders successfully demanded the students’ dismissal. For their actions, the activist students were suspended from school, on condition that they could return if they publicly apologized. Some of Muhammed’s fellow activists did so, but he and others declared that they regretted the school’s political position; and later required further negotiations by Party leaders to have his suspension rescinded. In 1956, Muhammed was almost barred from taking his final examinations to graduate high school on “disciplinary grounds” for his political activities. He maneuvered around this predicament by deceiving his teachers that he required a certificate of good conduct to begin a job, which they gladly obliged believing that he would leave school. He then used the certificate to threaten legal action against the school if he was disbarred from the examinations.
The next year, he enrolled in the Christian College for tertiary education, but returned to his hometown shortly after to work in the Communist Party’s election campaign as a full-time member. He also worked in a bank until mid-1959, when he was fired by the bank’s President, a Congress Party member; for having participated in a march protesting the Central Congress Government’s dismissal of the ruling Communist Party state government in Kerala. He then began working solely for the Party in Meppadi Village from 1960, which he has continued to this day. He also had a brief encounter with the Naxalites, who tried to recruit him, but he was not convinced by their ideological program. The Naxalite movement did not really gain mass support in Waynad.
He also discusses the Jenmis’ exploitation of the Adivasis in Kerala. Notably, Muhammed finds that the Adivasis were not as severely exploited in his region than other parts of Kerala. Jenmis held more reasonable demands for rents on their lands than elsewhere. While they used Adivasis as farm laborers without cash remuneration, Adivasis were given raw rice as wages that they could sell for cash, and were paid even on days without work. Some Jenmis also helped their Adivasi workers. As such, the Adivasis enjoyed food security even without having much money. On the day of harvest, they also received some rice and would then participate in the temple festival where they would be auctioned off to a Jenmi by their elders for the year. There were some variations to this practice by locality.
While the exploitation Muhammed observed was not as harsh, the communist party fought to end corrupt practices by the Jenmis against Adivasis, such as measuring the rice-based land rents in a larger vessel than the one used for measuring wages. He also discusses the issue of Adivasi girls becoming pregnant in Jenmi homes, recounting the case of Manchi, who was given herbal medicine to cause an abortion but ended up damaging her health, which led to much public attention. In another case, the Communist Party helped an Adivasi seek legal recourse against his eviction from the land by the Jenmi. Finally, he briefly discusses the activism by C K Janu to advance the rights and protections of Adivasis, suggesting that she was used by Christian missionaries as a top to gain Adivasi support.
20 January 2020
Kunhi: Shall we begin by talking about the beginning of your political career?
PA: The truth is that I’ve been active in politics since my childhood days. I was born in a village called Kaniyampatta in Wayanad, in 1937. I don’t know the exact date of my birth. My official documents say that it was on July 15, 1939. The two-year difference is because of the delay that happened at the beginning of my schooling. In those days, it was normal to start schooling at the age of eight or later. I lost my mother before I turned seven. Since then my two sisters and I were with our stepmother. I started my schooling in 1946. It was a higher elementary school in Kaniyampatta. The school was under the Malabar district board of education.
Kunhi: Can you talk a bit about your father?
PA: His name was Alikkutty. He was a poor farmer turned small-scale merchant, a conventional Muslim family man. We can’t singularly identify him as a farmer, or a trader, or a wage labourer, as he was not solely into any of these fields. He was a mix of all these things. Essentially, ours was a poor family.
Kunhi: Was it a migrant family?
PA: I may need to explain a little bit of history to answer that question. My father was from Nediyiripp, near Kondotty. Many members of my family were involved in the Mappila Rebellion of 1921. One of my father’s elder brothers of, Lavakutty, was a famous leader of the rebellion. He escaped to Persia when the colonial authorities began the hunt for rebels. He returned home later when India gained independence from the British. He was a crazy man who dared to travel by foot from Persia to India. The long travel by foot had transformed him greatly by the time he reached home. After his return, he ate only dry roti and meat cooked in an open fire.
There were continuous military raids in Kondotty in 1921. Many rebels fled to the forest region to escape from the military. My father and one of his brothers, along with 25 other members from our distant family, walked through the forest for a few days and arrived in Kalpetta. That was one of the few places in Wayand where human settlements existed in those days. Once reached here, they approached a Jenmi named Neelikkandi Moideen - the Kalpatta Government College is named after this person. He helped them to contact another Jenmi named Chattu Nambiar in Kaniyampatta. Nambiar helped them to find a place to stay. The land was not a commercial property then in this part of Malabar. They required only permission from the Jenmi to settle here and start their cultivation. My father was a small boy when they arrived in Wayanad.
Once settled here, my father also started working with other members of the family. During this time, they came in contact with a teacher who was preparing a learning centre for kids in the locality. He insisted my father join the centre. Because of him, my father learned to read and write Malayalam. Getting non-religious education was a revolutionary act for normal Malabar Muslims in those days. Being literate, my father gained a critical approach towards conventional practices. It was his progressive approach that helped us to get a proper school education.
He had a small shop in the village. Though it was a small shop, it helped me to learn basic maths before I began school. Since I was good at maths, I skipped a grade after the first standard and joined in the third standard. When India gained independence in 1947, I was in third standard in school.
There was a victory march in the village on the day India gained independence. But Muslims largely refused to be part of this procession. It was a Friday. Muslims gathered in the mosque and registered their difference. The reason for their decision to boycott the event was that the organisers of the march did not include a picture of Muhammed Ali Jinnah along with a picture of Mahatma Gandhi which they planned to carry on top of an elephant in the front of the march. Following this decision of Muslims, the organizing committee agreed to carry a picture of Jinnah too in the procession, to avoid any disputes. The political discourse in the region was largely different from what we have today. This procession was the first political event I saw in my life.
Kunhi: Did Muslims participate in the event at the end?
PA: Yes, yes. Once they noticed that the procession is carrying a picture of Jinnah too, they all joined with them. Muslims were chanting Allahu Akbar. So, this was the first politics I saw in my life. My next experience happened in 1948. I don’t know the incident, but I remember that the communist party was banned by the government in this period. When police started to hunt for communists in the state, some of them escaped to remote villages like ours. One morning, when I was going to religious class with my sisters, I noticed a poster on a tree along our way. I curiously looked at the poster and tried to read the content. I was not fluent in reading Malayalam in those days. More than reading, I was curious about the poster itself. Because a poster was not a normal thing in our village in those days. When I was curiously looking into the poster, one of my cousins came on that way and warned me that communists have arrived in the village and police will take us into custody if we read their posters. He asked me to run from the scene. From this incident, I became curious about communism.
Later, the 1952 general election happened. A candidate from Malabar was Kozhippurath Madhava Menon. He was then Home Minister of Madras, and husband of Kutty Malu Amma.
Kunhi: Who was Kutty Malu Amma?
PA: A freedom fighter. She served a prison term and gave birth to one of her kids in prison. Madhava Menon was also a freedom fighter. He was also a Minister. He was the Home Minister of Madras when the Salem prison police encounter happened. It was a major incident; in the firing 22 people were killed. The encounter happened in the context of a clash between jail wardens and communist prisoners. Therefore, the communists were against Madhava Menon. They called him a killer minister and campaigned to defeat him in the election at any cost. Even other parties shared similar views against Madhava Menon, because of the Salem firing incident. It was a highly controversial incident, like the Jalianwala Bagh massacre.
Kunhi: He was a member of the Congress party, right?
PA: Yes. Congress was the only party in power everywhere in India then. The campaign against Madhava Menon became a trend in the region. His opposition was Padmaprabha Gauder, father of well-known writer M P Virendra Kumar. He was a candidate of the Praja Socialist Party (PSP). His decision to contest against Madhava Menon was based on their family dispute. But that is important. They all were well-known Jenmies and owners of large plantations in the region. The communist party decided to support PSP, by forming a political alliance. Thus, the popular campaign in Wayanad was for defeating the killer minister. Even kids like me became part of that campaign.
Kunhi: What was the name of the constituency?
PA: It was Wayanad constituency. Wayanad was one of the constituencies in the Madras Legislative Assembly. Then Wayanad constituency included not only the areas which are part of the Wayanad district of the present. It included some parts of the present-day Kannur and Kozhikode districts. It was a large double-member assembly constituency. One seat was reserved for the Harijan community. Now we have separate reserved seats for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Then there was no such separation. In general, it was called the Harijan reservation. Thus, Padmaprabha and one Mr Vellan were the socialist candidates from Wayanad. Their election symbol was a Banyan tree. The symbol of the Congress party was a pair of Bullocks. Being a son of a Jenmi, Padmprabha was one of the richest people in the region. Since he was rich, he employed as many people as possible for his election campaign. Thus a large group of socialists arrived from different parts of Kerala, and camped in Wayanad to lead his election campaign.
Communist leaders like E K Imbichi Bava, K P R Gopalan, Kunjambu, P Yeshoda etc. also camped in Wayanad to lead the campaign against Madhava Menon. Being part of this trend, the work of students like me was to draw and paste pictures of the Banyan tree everywhere. We tore out papers from our school notebooks, drew the picture, and pasted it everywhere. That was my first political activity. I did this not because I was aware of communism. I had no clue about the communist party then. The only intention was to join in on the public sentiment against the killer minister. This is my answer to your first question.
Kunhi: Ok. This is how you started your political activities.
PA: Yes. Later, when I was studying at SKMJ High school Kalpetta, I became a little more involved in political activities. Then there was only one High school in Wayanad, SKMJ high school, Kalpetta. In 1954, there was a police firing incident in Goa. Many volunteers from Wayanad were also participating in the Goa liberation movement led by communists and socialists. The Portuguese police opened fire towards their march and killed some volunteers. Following this incident, the next day, political parties decided to observe hartal. As part of this event, some of the socialist and communist leaders came to our school, demanding that classes should be dismissed and students should be allowed to participate in the protest march. The headmaster promised them that the classes will be dismissed after an assembly meeting. Following this, the headmaster called an assembly meeting and presented a statement denouncing the use of violence against protesters in Goa. But he did not dismiss classes as he promised the leaders. Later I came to know that his decision was due to some other influences. When they left the school, the leaders informed some of us students about the promise of the headmaster, that the classes will be dismissed after the assembly meeting. Therefore, when the headmaster violated his promise and decided to continue regular classes, a group of students including me decided to boycott classes on that day. We left the school and went to meet the leaders who came to school with the hartal campaign. We informed them about the headmaster’s decision. Following this, they came back to school and to talk to the headmaster. In the end, the headmaster decided to dismiss the classes. However, he identified us who boycotted the classes and informed the leaders. Due to this finding, the management decided to suspend us from school. The most important member of the management was M K Jinachandran, a younger brother of Padmaprabha. He later became a member of parliament and worked for a nominal salary of just one rupee. He did not take the regular salary of parliamentarians. My point is that these are some of the good aspects of this family.
Kunhi: Ok. What happened after suspension?
PA: Even then parliamentarians had some 300 or 400 rupees salary. Jinachandran was a member of the Congress party. It is due to their differences within the family, that his brother Padmaprabha joined the socialist party and contested in the election.
Kunhi: Who got elected in the 1952 election?
PA: Padmaprabha. He became a member of the socialist party, not because he was a socialist. He wanted a venue to challenge his brother and the Congress party. Later he might have learned about socialism. His son followed his tradition and became a socialist.
Kunhi: So, what happened after suspension from school?
PA: They asked me to go with my father to meet the management. If I tell these things to my father, I would get tight slaps from him. Therefore, I went with a guy posing as my elder brother and told them that my father is busy with work. The management decided that we should apologise publically in the assembly meeting. Following this decision, two of my associates apologized in the assembly. I, along with another friend, declared in the assembly that we regret that the management declared our act of boycotting classes were wrong. Annoyed by our statement, the management refused to withdraw our suspension. Then again I went to meet those leaders. They came to talk to management and finally, they withdrew our suspension. So, this was my first political protest.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about the Jenmi exploitation of those days?
PA: It was indeed a time of brutal Jenmi exploitation. But there is another side too. The Jenmi-peasant relationship in this region was not similar to what we had seen in other parts of Malabar. The rent demands of Jenmis were relatively liberal here. They did not make any strict demands like the Jenmis of the Kannur area. They accepted anything that peasants gave them. But they were strict about traditions. Peasants had to visit them with gifts during all special occasions, like Onam and Vishu. Generally, the gifts were a bunch of bananas, jackfruits, and other fruits and vegetables they cultivated in their field. We cannot say that what we had here was brutal exploitation.
Kunhi: Did they all have the same approach to peasants? I heard that some of them were very cruel?
PA: I will answer that. A well-known Jenmi in this region was Maniyamkode Krishna Gauder, father of Padmaprabha. He had some 3000 acres of plantations. Even today his family own that plantation. For managing such a large plantation, he used one horse, one dog and one Paniyan (member of an Adivasi group). He helped his Paniyans (Adivasi workers/slaves). Of course, he was not afraid to kill those who stood against him. There are stories about his killings, he trampled many to death. The exploitation that happened here was not similar to that happened in Kannur or Travancore. However, slavery was real here. It also had another side. What they paid the workers as remuneration was not cash, it was raw rice. If my memory is correct, during my childhood days, remuneration for a male worker was 2 ser raw rice. It must be about one and a half litres by present standards. If the worker was a woman, the wage was one ser raw rice. On days they had no tasks to assign, Jenmis paid them the same amount of raw rice or food. Jenmis never allowed them to starve. It was the positive side of the system. These workers had no other needs. The Paniya people were happy to live in a shed with six wooden pillars. They didn’t even bother to have walls for those sheds. In the middle of such sheds, they would make a bonfire. They would sleep on the mat around such bonfires at night. They did not use any lamps. The only need for them was food and Jenmis were providing that always. We cannot call this exploitation. But they had to work from early morning to sunset. In that sense, it can be seen as exploitation. No doubt about that. However, those who were working in that condition never had a feeling that they were being exploited. They were happy because there was no problem with food. Moreover, he got a piece of cloth called Karikka once every year. The woman also got the same.
Kunhi: What was Karikka?
PA: It was something like mundu or lungi. A thick piece of cloth. A male worker would get a mundu and a thorth mundu. They were happy with that. The other thing they wanted was betel leaves and tobacco.
Kunhi: What about the women workers?
PA: They also received a similar piece of cloth once a year. Apart from this, on the day of harvest, they would get 5 pothi raw rice. This is also once a year. They would get this during the time of the Valliyookkav temple festival. But there is no guarantee that the worker will join the same Jenmi after the temple festival. They would go with others from the venue of the temple festival. The festival was the venue of the slave auction or slave trade. The Jenmies would make deals with elders in the group by giving them some money. The worker would not get any money. They would just obey whatever their elders say. They would spend the following year with the Jenmi suggested by their elders.
Kunhi: Ok. Who would take the five pothi raw rice, elders or workers?
PA: Paniyan would sell that to traders to make some money. It is with that money they go to the temple festival. So, it was largely a system that was in practice in this area during those days. But it was not common everywhere in Wayanad. The traditional practice was different in some parts of Wayanad. The thing I explained now is dealing with the Paniya community. In the Mannthavadi area, we can find the Adiya community. They were like Paniyas, but their system was different. But some exploitations were equal everywhere.
Kunhi: What was the approach of communist parties towards such exploitation?
PA: It is only since the communist parties began active, such exploitations came to be a subject of conversation. It is not because of Adivasis that people began to address such issues. In the first place, the communist party made them aware of the exploitation. It was not their own enlightenment. They do not have the thinking power to reach such enlightenment. It is their problem. They needed a force for inspiring them. The Communist Party became that force of inspiration. The change first happened in the Thirunelli area. The Valliyoorkkav slave trade became an issue.
Kunhi: What was your involvement in bringing such a change?
PA: The problem was not severe in this area. It was a major issue in North Wayanad, Mananthavadi Thaluk.
Kunhi: Are you saying that slavery did not exist in this area?
PA: No, no. That was everywhere in Wayanad. I’m talking about the movement against such a system. It happened in the Mananthavady area. I mean, the beginning was there. Later it spread everywhere, even in my village. It was under the communist party. It was not a movement of farmers organizations. The party leaders directly managed this issue, by talking to Jenmis and rich farmers. They negotiated directly with them to increase the wages of Adivasi workers. In those areas where rich farmers and Jenmis refused to increase wages, the party led some protests.
Kunhi: It was the Communist Party of India, CPI, right?
PA: yes, CPI. Then we had only CPI.
Kunhi: How effective was CPI in changing the situation?
PA: CPI was the only party then which was fighting against exploitation in Wayanad. No other party addressed these issues in those days. It was because of CPI’s intervention that a new wage system emerged. The Valli system, or the raw rice wage system, transformed because of CPI intervention. The Jenmies started giving daily wages in cash. Another thing that we have to know about the Valli system is that Jenmis were using a different type of raw rice to give wages to their workers. It was not a good quality raw rice, you could find more chaff than rice in it. Similarly, there was a major issue with the measuring cups that Jenmis were using for distributing wages. One of the measuring cups was what we called Pattappara and Koolippara. The Pattappara was a large one which Jenmis used to measure the rent they receive and Koolippara was a similar-looking smaller which they used to distribute wages. These kinds of exploitation existed. But nobody challenged these things as it was generally accepted as a common local practice. It was because of communist interventions people began to question these kinds of practices. Following such interventions, most of the Adivasi communities became supporters of the communist party. In this context, the Congress party and Muslim League provided full support to the Jenmis. It created various disputes in almost every village in Wayanad. It never led to a major armed fight, but created serious tension.
Kunhi: Can you talk a little more about the practice of the slave trade in Wayanad?
PA: The slave trade as a regular practice was held only in the Valliyoorkkav temple festival. It was a process that connected an Adivasi family with a Jenmi. The Adivasi elders who arranged the contract with Jenmi would get an amount as commission. The selected Adivasi families would make an oath with the diety of Valliyoorkkav, called Valliyooramma (the mother of Valliyoor), as the witness, that they would work for that particular Jenmi in the following year.
Kunhi: Is it a temple of Adivasi communities?
PA: They believed in Valliyooramma. But they were not allowed to go inside the temple. For that matter, they were not even allowed to approach the front yard of the temple. The temple is now under the Devaswam Board of Kerala.
Kunhi: So, Adivasis are not allowed to enter the temple?
PA: In those days, they were not allowed to enter the temple. The temple sits on top of a hill. They were allowed to pray only from the lower area. There is a sacred grove. They were not allowed inside the grove. But they had high regard for Valliyooramma. Therefore, they would not break the pledge they make from Valliyoorkkav.
Kunhi: Who managed the temple in those days?
PA: A few old Nair families. Even today, they are the ones who manage the temple affairs. The temple is now under the Devaswam Board, but they manage the affairs. If you want to know more about the temple, you can talk to Mr Gopi. He is one of the members of its management committee.
Kunhi: Sure. So, once they take a pledge from Valliyoorkkav, they are not allowed to go for any other work. Right?
PA: Yes. In Adivasi families, it is not only adult males and females who do works. Even kids will do some kind of work, like watching the grain when it is kept in the front yard for drying, taking cattle to pastureland, etc. They will not get any wage for such work. They will get food. The entire family would work for the Jenmi, though it was not forced labour. When these kinds of issues began to be considered as a problem, many things happened. One of them was the Machi incident in Thirunelli. It was a continuation of various incidents in the past. However, because of various reasons, this issue received wide attention. The issue was that a girl named Machi who was working in a Jenmi’s house got pregnant. Following this, the Jenmi or someone from his family gave some kind of traditional medicine to this girl to cause an abortion. However, the abortion did not happen, instead, the girl became critically ill and hospitalized.
Kunhi: Which year are we talking about now?
PA: It happened after 1970. I don’t remember the exact year. In the past, these kinds of incidents happened all the time. No one gave any attention then. Many Adivasi girls became pregnant in Jenmi houses, and many had an abortion. But it was not a problem for the public, as were accepted these kinds of things as common local practice. When the situation changed, it became an issue. I’m talking about the Machi case as one of the many incidents that happened in those days. Machi’s case became popular because of the intervention of the Mahila Association, and its president, comrade T Devi. Because of their intervention, it became a police case. The girl got admitted at the Medical College, transferring from a local hospital. It took month-long treatment to get her well. Later, Jenmi forced the girl to change her statement in court.
Kunhi: Did she deliver a baby?
PA: No, an abortion happened later. The point is that when the incident happened, it received wide media coverage, it became a topic of discussion, it changed the conventional public approach towards these kinds of incidents. Following this, the Jenmis’ sexual exploitation of Adivasis became relatively low. In the past, many Adivasi girls delivered the children of these Jenmis. We can identify these kids by looking at their faces. But no one cared about these kinds of issues. With the Machi incident, the situation began to change.
Similar to the Machi incident, some other cases also became instrumental in transforming the living situation of Adivasi communities. One of them is Kootakkan case in Vengapalli Panchayat. In the past, Jenmis evicting Adivasis from their land was a common practice. Kootakkan was an Adivasi farmer. When the Jenmi came to evict him from his land, he resisted and refused to vacate the land. The Jenmi filed a police case against him, accusing that he occupied the Jenmi’s land, and had all the documents. Adivasis never cared about making or keeping documents. When it became a case in court, the communist party took the lead and supported Kootakkan. In the end, the court decided against Jenmi, in support of Koottakkan. With many such cases, evicting Adivasis from their land became a little difficult.
Kunhi: What was the year of this incident?
PA: It happened after the 1960s. I don’t know the exact year. All these interventions happened after 1957, after the formation of a communist government in Kerala. It is only after that that communists even realized that they could approach Jenmis with such demands. Before, nobody talked about any rights of Adivasi communities, though there was a general discussion about the wage issues.
Kunhi: Even the communists were afraid of Jenmis?
PA: Yes. But later communists led many movements to change the situation. One of the famous ones among them is the land-rights movement in Panavalli village. It was a movement led by the Karshaka Thozhilali Union (Union of Agricultural Workers), after its formation. But I don’t know the year. It happened in the recent past, not more than 20 or 25 years. In those days, C K Janu was one of the members of the district committee of Karshaka Thozhilali Union. Hope you might have heard that name?
Kunhi: Yes. I interviewed her a few days back.
PA: She is from this Panavally village. She was a member of the Karshaka Thozhilali Union district committee. Later, some Christian missionaries influenced her to form the Adivasi Sangham. Christian missionaries organized an All India Adivasi Conference in Mananthavady. I don’t remember the year. If you want to know the year, I will ask someone else. So, they influenced C K Janu and organized an All India Adivasi conference. They did not allow any local media reporters to this venue. But they invited media people from outside, including cities like Mumbai and Delhi, and made the conference a piece of international news. This is how they took C K Janu to European countries and other platforms. If my memory is correct, she even went to speak at the United Nations. Later, Janu left them and started her own platform.
Kunhi: So, you are saying C K Janu’s activities were influenced by Christian missionaries?
PA: If you want details, I could write to you with all the pieces of evidence later. All these happened in North Wayanad, in Tirunelli. Our party district secretary, P V Sahadevan, is one of the persons who are well-informed about this subject.
Kunhi: Why did Christian missionaries approach C K Janu?
PA: They realized that they could make her a tool for influencing Adivasi communities. They spent a lot of money on this. Christian missionaries made many such interventions in Kerala, especially in Wayanad. For example, there is a farmers’ union called Infarm. It is in their control. They are about to organize a Kerala level conference. One of the priests who are part of this organization collected a load of agricultural products from Wayanad with a claim that they are going to start regular exports to Europe. But it ended up as a meaningless promise. Now he is one of the accused in a criminal case. He raped or tried to rape a nun in a convent.
Kunhi: What is his name?
PA: I don’t know his name. The point is that such things also happen here. Another incident related to the Adivasi community was that the communist party organized a march to Trivandrum when a starvation death happened in a village near Sulthan Bathery. This event also happened under Karshaka Thozhilali Union. It was a state-level campaign led by deceased leader A Kanaan.
Kunhi: What was the year of this incident?
PA: I don’t remember the exact year. But in the recent past only, not more than 15 years ago.
Kunhi: So, what you are saying is that the communist party was continuously intervening in Adivasi affairs, to transform their living conditions. My question is, why did radical communist outfits like the Naxalites come to be active in the area if other mainstream communists were continuously working to improve the living conditions of Adivasi communities?
PA: We cannot say that Naxalites received mass support from Wayanad. They were strong in some villages. But it didn’t expand as an organization. They gave a platform to people with terrorist mentality. We cannot say that it developed as a movement in Wayanad. It was mainly people who came from outside the Wayanad who organized the Pulpally police station attack, though some of the locals were also involved in it. Most of those who joined with them by leaving the communist party are returned to the party later. Even now some of them are alive.
Kunhi: What do you think of Varghese?
PA: He was a native of Wayanad. He was a really good organizer. He was a good comrade. It was comrade AKG who took him to Kannur, to work as the party office secretary there. Later he returned to Wayanad to work with Karshaka Thozhilali Union. It was due to the influence of Kunnikkal Narayanan, he joined the Naxalite group and led the Pulpally police station attack. He was one of those overly passionate people. Mostly, thinkers and intellectuals fall inro this trap. They know theories but lack practical knowledge. That was the problem with the Naxal movement. Kunnikkal Narayan stayed in my house one day when he was in hiding. He did not identify himself as Kunnikkal Narayanan. He identified himself as Kuttan, from Kunnamangalam. He said he is a communist in hiding. He wore the attire of an agricultural worker.
Kunhi: Did he mention what the reason for his hiding was?
PA: It was after this Pulpally action. He was in hiding and trying to influence some young communists. I was one of his targets. Somebody who knew about me had informed him about my activities. Therefore, he came to my house intending to influence me to join their group. I was not in the house when he came. My wife and kids were there. He told my wife that he is Kuttettan and came to meet PA. Communists in hiding often came like that. So, there was nothing to doubt. But that I couldn’t meet him. He returned a few days later. We talked, not about the Naxalite action. However, he mentioned some ideological conflicts within the party. We gave him food, and he stayed in my house that night. If we talk about Kunnikkal, we may divert from the subject. You came to learn about Adivasi, not PA Muhammed, right?
Kunhi: No problem. I’m interested in this topic.
PA: Ok. He talked about the ideological tension. But I told him my opinion. He was referring to Lenin’s book What is to be done. I told him, “I have that book and the thing you mentioned is not accurate.” Then he said, “you feel so because of translation mistakes in the Malayalam version of What is to be done.” The argument continued in this way, and I started doubting his motive. I told him that if you are here to convert me, you are mistaken and I don’t believe that you are Kuttettan. I asked him to reveal his identity if he intend to continue the conversation. I told him that I’m not going to report him to the police. He left that day without trying much. A few days later, I came to know that he was Kunnikkal Narayanan. That was normal, it was not wrong. I would also have done the same if I wanted to recruit somebody to my group.
Kunhi: Your wife was also a communist activist?
PA: No. She was a normal housewife, the daughter of a plantation worker. She was born on a plantation. She was the daughter of my mother’s uncle.
Kunhi: We talked about the things you did while you were a high school student. What did you do after high school?
PA: I passed secondary school in1956. It was a major event, as I was involved in various political issues in SKMJ School. There was a practice of barring students from sitting the public exam. There were 51 students in our class, sixth form, in 1956. Then the school system was a little different. The sixth form is similar to what we have 11th standard today. The third form is similar to the eighth standard. We were under Madras Presidency, and it was the Madras University that conducted the school exam. The school had to inform the university in advance about the number of students who were going to attend the final exam. The communication between the school and the university was through telegram. The school informed the university that 45 students will sit for the final exam, barring six students including me. I somehow came to know about the school’s decision in advance. What I did was to approach two most senior teachers in the school (one of them was headmaster), with a request for a conduct certificate. I told them that I will be discontinuing school soon as I have to join a wood factory in Coorg as early as possible. I requested a conduct certificate for this purpose. They happily gave me a “good conduct” certificate, as they believed that my troublemaking will be gone from the school. When I received these certificates, I approached my class teacher and told her that I’m aware of the decision to bar us from attending the exam. I told her that I have a good mark in the mid-year exam and I received a very good conduct certificate from two of the most senior teachers in the school. I warned her that I will take legal action against her if she allowed the school to prevent us from attending the exam. It worked. They allowed me to enter the exam by cutting off someone else. I performed far better than what they expected from me in the exam. I was the first Muslim student to pass the sixth form exam from Kaniyampatta village.
I didn’t know what to do after school. Many villagers approached my father with a request to allow me to continue my studies. Father told them that he has no money to support my studies. We had no college in the Wayanad district then. We had to go to Kozhikode for further studies. The villagers told my father that they will sponsor my education. A man named Paithal Nair sponsored my education. He was like a brother to my father. He took me to Kozhikode to join the Christian College. We tried other colleges also but didn’t get admission.
Kunhi: What was the subject of your higher study?
PA: The conversation is going out of control. Let’s stop here.
Kunhi: Didn’t complete the course?
PA: No. We are diverted from our topic.
Kunhi: Ok. We can return to the subject of your political life. When did you return to politics?
PA: I’m active in politics since the Goa firing incident that I mentioned earlier. I was associated with the communist movement since the time of my high school days, though there was no communist students organization in the school then. In 1956 I completed high school and joined the Christian College. A year in, in 1957, we had a general election. I had to return to Wayanad to be part of the election campaign, since I was a full-time activist of the communist party. I worked in a cooperative bank for a short period. It was during the time of the EMS government in 1959. The Central government under the Congress party dismissed the EMS government on 31st July 1959. Following this, there was a protest march under the leadership of Krishna Pilla. I also participated in this event. The next day, when I went to the bank to work, the bank secretary told me that the president asked me to meet him before I start my work. The President was a well-known figure in the region. He was a freedom fighter, a friend of AKG, and a member of the Congress party. His name Darmaraja Iyyer. When I went to meet the president, he told me that he is aware that I’m a communist. He said, in the changed political context, his fellow party members were not happy with my presence in the bank. That is how he fired me. Then, there was no workers union to raise my complaint or give me any support.
When I returned home with the news of being fired from the job, my father was waiting outside the gate of our house. He said I can’t enter the house as long as I worked with the communist party. I was shocked by his approach. At that moment, a couple of people came to advise me that I should obey my father and leave the party. I seriously doubted their behaviour. I told them that I will accept what they said and will write my resignation letter to the party if they could convince the President to take me back to my job. They said they will do so. When they approached the president, he said that no such resignation from the party will work as they can never be certain that I will not be working with the party in secret. He told them that I should join either the Congress party or Muslim League, only then would I l get my job back.
I waited outside our house, till they returned with the news from the president. Some of our neighbours were watching the scene. When they returned, they told me that I should join either the Congress party or Muslim League as suggested by the president. I left my house at that very moment.
Kunhi: Where did you go after that?
PA: I became a full-time party worker. I returned home after six or seven months, because of requests from some others. On 1960 March 15, the party-appointed me as a full-time worker in Meppadi village. I came here as an office secretary. From that day onwards till today, I’m in Mepppadi as a party worker. Later my family, including my father came to meet me. It is late. I already told you everything I know.
Kunhi: Ok. One last question. Why most of the Adivasi families did not get land when the government introduced land reform?
PA: It is not true that all Adivasis did not get land when the government implemented land reform. All Adivasi families from Kuruma and Kurichya communities received land because of land reform. These are the only people who had any document about the land in which they were cultivating. Some Adiya families in the north Wayanad also received the land. Other Adivasi communities had no document. The communities like Paniya, Urali, Naika were not permanent settlers. They did not cultivate, they worked with Jenmis or they lived by collecting forest products. As they had no documents, they didn’t get any land during the land reform.
Kunhi: Ok. Thank you. We can stop here.
Interviewee: P A Muhammed
Jenmi were the landed aristocracy of Kerala.
Adivasi is a broad term referring to any aboriginal peoples of India, in this case Kerala.
How did communal politics shape the lived experiences of people in late colonial and postcolonial India?
Consider the importance of student activism by youth like Muhammed in shaping independent India’s political landscape.
Is India’s Cold War best understood as an extension of international conflict, or as a local conflict?
What were the key drivers of Kerala’s Cold War conflicts?
How did traditional culture and values shape the lives of Adivasis in postcolonial India and facilitate their exploitation by Jenmis?