Former Naxalite activist Raghavan discusses his family background and the nature of Jenmi exploitations in his village, as well as his political activities in the Naxalite Movement.
Born in 1957 in Atholi village, Kerala, as the son of a fisherman, Raghavan recalls growing up in a large joint family which included his grandparents and father’s siblings. Their family was not well to do, but everyone pooled their efforts to ensure that nobody starved. Right from childhood, Raghavan observed the exploitation of lower-caste communities by the Jenmis, who sometimes also used gangsters to terrorize the locals. Fishermen were also required to give a share of their catch to the Jenmi, who also wielded influence in the district courts. There was also a group of Ezhava Jenmis, who were originally from the downtrodden Ezhava caste. While they did not have caste superiority, they became rich by gradually seizing farmer lands and legalizing their occupation of the land with the help of corrupt officials who gave them titled deeds. Raghavan’s father was a communist, and became popular in the community for openly resisting the Jenmis’ exploitative practices.
His son continued that association, joining the student activities of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI-M] from the 1960s. He explains how the CPI-M itself broke away from its parent party, the CPI, given the latter’s growing alliance with the Congress Party. His breakaway from the CPI-M in 1976-77, towards the end of the National Emergency, when he realized that the mainstream communist parties were also aligning with the Jenmis and ceasing to resist their exploitation; in order to win elections. This also coincided with widespread outrage amongst students in Kerala over the death of a pro-Naxalite student, Rajan, in police custody. It strengthened the Communist-affiliated Students’ Federation of India (SFI), which was until then much weaker than the Congress-affiliated Kerala Students Union. Raghavan and many of his peers then moved to the Naxalite organization, as they felt the CPI-M did not respond adequately to the Emergency.
Within the Naxalite movement, Raghavan participated in many radical actions from 1978, beginning with protests against factories’ water pollution and campaigns for farmers’ rights. He, along with other radical students, also participated in a protest against a Jenmi’s illegal occupation of farmers’ lands, threatening armed violence; due to which the Jenmi compromised. In 1980, he was involved in the public trial of a corrupt doctor, for which he served a month in prison. The Naxalites then set up “Public Courts” in each village, where exploitative elites were charged and beaten by the public. This was done as part of the Naxalites’ efforts to move away from killing their enemies, in light of a spate of unnecessary killings; giving them a chance to reform instead.
However, by 1987, the Naxalite movement again diverged, with one faction prioritizing the militant approach of using guerrilla tactics to surround cities and kill enemy elites, while the other supported building mass movements among the working class. Raghavan was part of the latter group, and did not expect the disagreement to cause a split, as the party had always encouraged healthy dialogue. After the split, he served as the secretary for the Agricultural Workers Union and convener of the Adivasi United Front, posts he held until 2005. He then started a new movement, the Mass Movement for Socialist Alternative, in 2007, which has membership across Kerala. In closing, he feels that his faction of Naxalites understood the global communist landscape most accurately, foreseeing the collapse of the Soviet Union and the struggles of Eastern European Communist states. Yet, he feels that the crisis of capitalism is most acute in the present, and is optimistic that revolution is still possible.
29 December 2019
Kunhi: Shall we begin with a brief introduction to your family?
Raghavan: I was born in a village called Atholi in Kozhikode district, in January 1957, in an economically backward working-class family. My father was a fisherman. My parents had only a primary level school education. There was no educated person among my relatives. I was born in the same year when the first communist administration under the leadership of EMS came to power in Kerala. I heard that it was a great moment of celebration in our village. My family was also celebrated that moment. When I say my family, I mean my joint family. I was born in a joint family, my grandparents, four of my father’s sisters and two of his brothers were part of that family.
Kunhi: How was life in such a large family? Was it really fun?
Raghavan: There were several problems with living in a joint family. It is difficult even to understand those who are born and bought up a nuclear family set up. We had only a little land. We did some cultivation in that land. But that was not enough for the needs of a large family. They had to do other daily wage work. They worked and lived together. My father was involved in various kinds of work, especially those related to fish and shellfish. He was also active in a small scale business of quicklime production from seashells. Though we were economically backward, my family had the character of a business family. Therefore, we never had to face problems of poverty even though we were economically backward. My father’s siblings were also really hardworking people. They all worked together in the shell processing unit that we had near our house. With these collaborative efforts, life in the joint family was jubilant.
Kunhi: You said there were some problems in the joint family setup. What were those?
Raghavan: By the time I was growing up, my village was greatly disturbed by the exploitation of the Jenmi system. On one side we had a happy life in the family, but on the other side, we suffered a lot because of the infringement by the Jenmis. It was mainly because of my father. He was a well-known, just person in our village. He challenged the Jenmi system. I saw many clashes at a young age. People belonging to lower caste communities had no freedom to travel. They did not allow us to use public wells. I mean, I grew up in a time of many such issues.
Kunhi: Was your father a communist?
Raghavan: Yes, he was. He celebrated the formation of the left government in Kerala in 1957. He was a daring, adfventurous character. He did not bother about the Eazhava Jenmis who were in absolute control of our locality. These Jenmis were the decision-makers. Whoever questions them will be tackled by their goons. They attacked and destroyed our house almost completely in 1968. It was following a clash between my father and the Jenmi’s goons. This clash eventually transformed into a movement against Jenmis in our locality. The fishermen, workers in the coir industry, workers in the coconut fibre industry, and agricultural workers joined this movement against Jenmis. They all were suffering because of that Jenmi whose goons destroyed our house. Since my family tried to resist the Jenmi, they all came to protest against the Jenmi system.
Kunhi: What was the nature of exploitation by these Jenmis?
Raghavan: They will take a share from the catch of fishermen without giving them any money. The sexual exploitation of women was a very common practice. Everyone had to respect them, like they were all slaves of these Jenmis. For example, one of these Jenmis had a venture near the bank of the Kallayi river in Koyilandi. Those who were transporting wood through the river were not allowed to go together with a load of their wood. If these workers and wood traders travel in a group with their load of wood, when they reach near the venture of this Jenmi, they had to unload the wood and take it to the other side individually. The Jenmi implemented this rule as a practice showing respect to his authority.
Kunhi: What was the name this Jenmi?
Raghavan: His name was Kunjiraman Vaidyar. He was a brutal character who would sexually exploit any women he wanted with the help of his goons. His victims were mostly Ezhava women. People say that most of those who were in the Ezhava community in our locality during that period are his children. He was powerful both economically and politically. I’m one of the people who have real experience of the brutal Jenmi system that existed in Kerala.
Kunhi: How was the approach of political parties towards such brutal Jenmis?
Raghavan: Most of the parties, including mainstream communist parties, were incapable of addressing such a problem. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) often took a lenient approach towards Jenmis like Kunjiraman Vaidyar. Most of the communists gradually became supporters of these Jenmis, by accepting their gifts and money. They abandoned their strong stand against the Jenmi system by the 1960s. In the later period, people became increasingly aware that the mainstream communists are in service of these Jenmis. There was no need for any political ideology to understand the relationship between communists and the Jenmis. The venture of Kunjiraman Vaidyar that I mentioned was a large attic. It was visible from any side of the river. The gangs of his goons and several dogs often camped in the area. The unwritten law was that anyone who catches fish from the sea or river should make sure that a share is given in this attic. If anyone questions this rule, they would kill them. They hanged several people after brutal punishment. Sometimes they burned people by tying them under a doon of coconut fibre. The workers later discovered several skeletons from such burning areas. I witnessed several such incidents in the period between the 1960s and 1970s. In the later years, by the late 1980s, he discontinued such activities following several protests from the public.
Talking about his political power, if any police officer came to take charge in the stations, they would first visit him for his blessings. There were incidents like the Magistrate in the local court directing the court employees to give him a special chair to sit in when he arrived at the court for a trial. That was his level of influence in the system. These kinds of situations were very common throughout Kerala during that time. It was not a problem of just Atholi village. The brutal Jenmi system was in practice everywhere in Kerala during that time. The communist party had to lead an appropriate movement against this system. But they did not.
Kunhi: The Jenmi system was in existence throughout Kerala till the 1980s. Is it correct?
Raghavan: Yes, it existed till the 1980s. Even in the 1970s, CPI (M) was afraid to deal with Jenmis like Kunjiraman Vaidyar.
Kunhi: Were you a member of the CPI-M in the early days?
Raghavan: I left the CPI-M during the 1976-77 period, during the time of India’s National Emergency. Even when the National Emergency was in practice, CPI-M was unwilling to lead a protest against Kunjiraman Vaidyar. Although the entire village was against him, CPI-M did not dare to lead a protest against him. Most of the leaders of the CPI-M enjoyed some kind of benefit from him. It was not just a problem of branch level leaders, even the area committee members of the party were his supporters. The reason for their surrender to his superiority was that most of the leaders of the mainstream communist parties were from middle-class upper-caste families. Most of them belonged to upper castes like Nair, Namboodiri. They cannot see him as a problem because of their caste commitment. It was the problem of the communist party.
Kunhi: Ezhava is not an upper caste. How did people from the Ezhava community become Jenmis?
Raghavan: They became rich by illegally taking the wealth of Namboodiri families. They used muscle power to encroach properties of weak Namboodiri families. They forcefully evicted several Namboodiri families from their traditional mansions and took control of their entire property. Most of the land they occupied was coconut plantations. Several highly valuable trees like teak and mahogany also existed in such properties. These people received support from all the branches of the executive for such activities. They controlled Panchayat Adhikaris (the traditional village council officers). These Adhikaris were the ones who assigned titles to the land in that period. They helped them gain titles to the land they occupied and to pay the land tax to the government to assert their ownership over the land. There was an authority called Menon over Athikaris. They were the ones who managed the activities like land surveys. It was called the Menoki system. This job belonged to those who are coming from the Menon caste. The communist leaders like Achutha Menon belong to this caste. The point is that all land-related matters, revenue matters, were under the authority of Adhikaris’ and Menons’. All these people were under the control of Jenmis. Unlike all upper caste Jenmis, the Ezhava Jenmis had no traditional caste privilege. They had no caste-based authority to sexually exploit anyone they want. The only thing that they had was muscle power. With that, they became rich and gained everything.
Kunhi: Why did you leave the CPI-M?
Raghavan: The communist party was going through a major crisis in the 1970s. Before coming to that point, we have to look at some other points. The leaders of the Naxalibari movement that happened in West Bengal, in the late 1960s, were CPI-M members. Many people are not aware of this point. Most of the well-known farmers' movements in that period were led by members of the CPI-M. I mean, after the 1964 split within the communist party, it was the CPI-M that led all these kinds of movements. In the period between 1945 to 1951, we saw major agrarian movements in places like Kayyur, Karivellur, Muniyamkunn, Padikkunn, Onchiyam, Thillankeri, Moraya etc… under the leadership of CPI. After the split in 1964, CPI-M took control of such movements and the CPI began to align with parties like Congress to come to power. When CPI decided to make an alliance with the Congress party, the CPI-M members raised a slogan, “Veyyada Valatha Chenkodi Thazhe, Pokkada Valatha Moovarnnakkodi” (The right-wing supporter should put their red flag down and raise the three colour flag of the Congress party). This slogan was part of an ideological protest. However, the CPI-M never discussed the factors which forced the CPI to make an alliance with the Congress party. They tried to move ahead as a revolutionary organization without paying attention to such problems. But the same party began to face a major crisis by the 1970s. They came to a situation where they had to suppress the movements that were organized under the leadership of their own members. It was in this context, in the 1969-70 period, the CPI-ML (Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist) formed.
All the movements that I mentioned have emerged as a resistance to Jenmi-Feudal exploitation. The movements that happened in Kerala was similar to what happened in states like West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. They all had the goal of getting agricultural land to farmers. These movements highly influenced my approach towards the communist party. The CPI-M came to the crisis that I mentioned because it diverged from the goal of securing agricultural land for farmers. They moved away from the idea of building a democratic revolution in India by organizing farmers. They became incapable to lead the farmers’ revolution and thereby a democratic revolution of organized farmers. It happened because of their ideological and organizational transformations.
Kunhi: That is the reason why you left CPI-M. Were you active in politics before joining the CPI-ML?
Raghavan: Yes, I was active in the students’ organization of CPI-M.
Kunhi: What was the immediate reason for leaving the CPI-M?
Raghavan: The immediate reason was their approach towards the National Emergency. I was not the only one in our village who left the CPI-M during that time. Almost all members of CPI-M from our village left the party in that context to join CPI-ML. The death of Rajan under police custody was a major factor that influenced this decision. We led campaigns on campuses, holding the picture of Rajan, to strengthen SFI. Our victory on campuses was based on the martyrdom of Rajan. Before that SFI was a very weak organization on campuses. The Congress party’s KSU was the powerful students’ organization on most of the campuses. The SFI was a small group of students who always had to face the attack of KSU goons. It was the martyrdom of Rajan which made the SFI the largest students’ organization in Kerala. In the beginning, I was not aware that Rajan was a supporter of the Naxalite organization. When we came to know about this fact, we bought it to a large number of members within the CPI-M. Then the Naxalite party was a secret group. They had no public organization. But they were secretly active within CPI-M. They gave secret lectures and recruited many members of the CPI-M to their group. In their lectures, they tried to inform us that the CPI-M had already transformed into a party similar to the Congress. They asserted the point that CPI-M is focused only on parliamentary politics and they work only for electoral success. We were convinced with these views. The CPI-M was not interested in anything beyond parliamentary politics. They were unwilling to lead a farmers revolution. After the success in the 1965 assembly election, the CPI-M did not lead any major agrarian movement. After 1970, other than a few land movements led by AKG, the CPI-M didn’t try to organize a major agrarian movement. After the land reform, they led some isolated protests to ensure the right to settlement in the land for some families. It was not a land movement. It was a protest for ensuring the right to build a house in the land where they had been settled. Several lower caste families were facing the threat of eviction from Jenmis’ land after the implementation of the land reform. It was a protest for them. But it was not a movement to get them any agricultural land. Because of these kinds of problems, we were highly dissatisfied with working for the CPI-M. There were several such dissatisfied groups within the CPI-M. We operated as a secret group within the CPI-M for two or three years. In that period, we tried to educate a maximum number of people about the flaws of the CPI-M. We asserted that the CPI-M had transformed as a social democratic party and such a party cannot bring a bourgeoise democratic revolution in India. With this realization, we left the party during the time of the National Emergency.
Kunhi: What were your major activities during the period of the National Emergency?
Raghavan: We campaigned against the National Emergency. We put up posters saluting those who died during the protest against the Emergency. We campaigned in support of revolutionaries who fought against the Emergency. It was a secret campaign. Such campaigns created major waves within the party. In public, we were CPI-M supporters, but in secret, we were Naxal organization members. Our posters were largely based on Mao’s slogans. We led campaigns on campus declaring that communists should not be afraid of ideas. We were essentially trying to take anti-revisionist Maoist literature to a large number of CPI-M members.
Kunhi: What were the major movements you became part of after joining the Naxalite organization?
Raghavan: It is difficult to remember those things. But I can give you a big picture. My first participation was in a farmers’ protest in the Malappuram district. Before that, in 1978, when I was a student, I participated in a campaign against the Gwalior Ryon factory’s anti-environmental practices. They were disposing of their wastewater in a place called Chungappalli. It was affecting fish and shellfish resources in the Chaliyar river. It was polluting the river and affecting the quality of drinking water of several thousand people living on the banks of the river. We did this campaign as radical students. Following this, we organized a farmers’ protest in a village called Karukamanna in the Malappuram district to resist the exploitation of a Jenmi. It was a movement against the Jenmi’s illegal occupation of farmers’ land. It was a protest of hundreds of Muslim agricultural workers. It was a village where both Adivasis and Muslims lived together. We went there and talked to the villagers. We asked them whether they dare to join a protest to get back their land from the Jenmi. They said they are ready for a movement, but they will not get any support from political parties. We promised them that we will lead the movement. Following that, overnight we created a temporary wall around all the land occupied by the Jenmi. We camped there as red guards in the following days. We were prepared to resist the Jenmi’s goons and the police.
Kunhi: How were you planning to resist them?
Raghavan: We were ready for armed resistance. We had weapons. We had guns and bombs.
Kunhi: What was the year of this protest?
Raghavan: Early 1979. We arrived there as a guerilla squad. The goal of the organization then was to expand such guerilla struggle. We selected all possible localities for such guerilla struggle and led protests in such areas. The farmers were ready to join us during that period. The fight against a Jenmi in a village expanded to another village. The resistance in one place became an inspiration to resistance in other places. The farmers were willing to join armed resistance.
Kunhi: What was the outcome of your resistance in Karukamanna village?
Raghavan: That Jenmi arrived on the scene following our act of construing the temporary wall. When he saw us he realized that it would become a large movement. He came forward for a compromise talk and gave the land back to the farmers. He was aware that if he tried to challenge us we would kill him. His name was Beerankutty Haji. Like Ezhava Jenmis in my village, he was a crownless king in that area. He was exploiting farmers in that locality. During that protest, the police did not try to attack us. We organized a public meeting in Mambad town, explaining the situation. In that meeting, we declared that henceforth the farmers in the locality would be the owners of the land that we occupied from the Jenmi. In this context, the Jenmi accepted our demand without any resistance. Before the public meeting, we organized a protest march through the streets. The villagers were thrilled by the march and a large number of people gathered for our public meeting. Thousands of people came to listen to us in that meeting. It was a major experience in my life. It was our first public appearance. We did several small protests before. But those were with a kind of secret character. We were highly concerned about not getting into the trap of the police. We operated in the shadows. About 10 or 20 people would go to a street and lead a small march with slogans. We would announce the point we wanted to convey to the public and we would disappear from the scene before the police came to catch us. It was our normal practice.
Following this farmers’ protest in the Malappuram, a major incident I was part of was the public trial of a doctor in Kozhikode Medical College. The name of the corrupt doctor was KM George. The trial happed in 1980. This incident gained wide attention throughout Kerala. It was the beginning of our cultural movement. We decided to organize the public trial in the same meeting we organized in Kozhikode beach to discuss the matter of Janakeeya Samskarikavedi (a cultural platform of the Naxal organization in Kerala). Months before the public trial, we conducted a detailed study about the situation in the Medical College. We interviewed several people to know about the problems in the procedures of the Medical College. We had a strong support base within the Medical College. Our students’ organization was active there. It was not the Kerala Vidyarti Sangadana, it was Viplava Vidyarthi Sangadana (Radical Students Organization). We conducted the study with the help of these students. Following the public trial, the students’ organization, RSO, became very influential on Medical College.
After the medical college trial, police arrested 82 people. I was one among those who got arrested. I was a member of the squad that was created for bringing the doctor under our custody. Activists like A Vasu were part of that group.
Kunhi: How long did you spend in jail following this arrest?
Raghavan: Only a short period, about a month. We got bail after two remand periods. Later, after the trial, the court set us free from charges as the police failed to prove the case against us. We conducted many such trials in the later years. In villages, we put some of the notorious Jenmis on trial. We created a Janakeeya Kodathi (Public Court) in several villages. We appointed judges in those courts. Those who exploited the poor and women were brought into this court. It was not in the line of the present Maoist politics. It was organized with the support of the general public in the villages. It happened in public places, not in the forest in secret. For example, in our Atholi village, a feudal elite exploited a woman by pretending love and promising to marry her. Later, when she got pregnant, he gave her some kind of poison to have a miscarriage. But it went wrong and the girl died. We produced that man in a public court, even resisting the parties like CPI-M.
Kunhi: How did this trial go? What happened to him?
Raghavan: He faced the trial. Women beat him with the used brooms and made him drink Naikurna podi (the powder of Mucuna Pruriens). We were against killing, changing our previous approach. We accepted that people need to get a chance to correct themselves. It was a change created by the Janakeeya Samskarikavedi. It was a realization that emerged as an outcome of some wrong actions and killing, as that happened in Kenichira and Kanjiramchira. In Kanjiramchira Naxalites killed a coir businessman Somashekaran; and in Kenichira they killed a man named Madathil Mathai. These wrong actions were a major setback to the movement. They were not the ones who deserved to die. They deserved a chance to correct their previous mistakes. They would definitely change their exploitative attitude when they see a mass protest against them. There was no need to kill them. It happened because of the interest of a special group within the Naxalite organization. I don’t want to talk about that. At the same time, there was a strong view within the organization that we should not follow such approaches. We needed to build many mass movements. We needed strong organizations of youngsters, students, farmers, agricultural workers and other workers. The strong view within the organization was that we could work for the revolution only after strengthening these kinds of organizations. There is no correct way for approaching a revolution. In the later years, we organized several mass protests, especially in the Kozhikode districts. Most of them were in villages and most of them were successful. In the cities, we tried to build a movement against the exploitation of multinational corporations. We formed a youth organization for that purpose.
Kunhi: What were the major factors that caused splits within the Naxalite organization?
Raghavan: After the 1980s, we saw a split in 1987. It totally divided the Naxal organization in Kerala. The reason was some people’s interest in annihilation. We called it a sectarian approach. They forgot that our main purpose in the present is to build a class-mass organization. They forgot that we have to focus on class protests and mass protests. They tried to stick with the previous understanding of revolution, liberate the villages and encircle the cities. It was an old guerilla tactic. It was not suitable for the present. They tried to implement this in places like Kenichira and Kanjiramchira. They tried to annihilate those who held power in villages to create a new power centre within the public. It was a wrong concept that emerged within the party. People like Civic Chandran strongly criticized such stands of the party. Many left the party in this context. The question during the split in 1987 was whether we need a militant approach with on mass support, or whether we need a mass approach with militant support. Those who preferred annihilation argued that we need a militant approach with mass support. It is an important ideological question, based on Mao’s Yenan report. Mao suggested a process that reduced the power of feudal landlords and increased the power of the party. The report suggested that revolution can’t happen overnight. It required time and a slow transformation within the social system. Based on this idea of Mao, we had a two-line struggle within the party. We believed that the correct approach will emerge only through a constant debate between two different approaches. The split happened within a party that promoted such a space for two different views. Since we saw the differences within the party as a positive thing, we did not expect a split.
Kunhi: What was your position within the party?
Raghavan: After the split, I was the state secretary of Karshaka Thozhilali Union (Union of Agricultural Workers), and state convenor of Adivasi Aikyavedi (Adivasi United Front). I left in 2005. Then, in 2007, we formed a platform called Mass Movement for Socialist Alternative. We have members in every district of Kerala. We have strong units in Kozhikode and Kannur districts.
Kunhi: What was your approach during the time of disintegration of the Soviet Union?
Raghavan: The Soviet disintegration was not a surprise for us. We had a correct reading about the condition of the Soviet Union. The Naxalites observed in the 1970s that the Soviet Union is increasingly becoming a capitalist country by diverting from its socialist goals. All the changes that happened in the Soviet Union in the later years were a continuation of their diversion from the socialist system. We questioned the theory of communist leader EMS that there will be no going back to capitalism once a socialist system is established in a country. When Gorbachev introduced perestroika and glasnost, the world began to see the fall of communism. In this context, EMS argued that humans could never go back to becoming monkeys. Since we were aware of the faults in the Soviet Union, its disintegration or the fall of the communist bloc did not surprise us. We were not disappointed either. We had a correct understanding of not just about the Soviet Union, we were correct about China, and countries like Albania.
Kunhi: Do you think revolution is possible even now?
Raghavan: Why not? We don’t have any other option. Capitalism is in a major crisis today. It is the most critical time in the history of capitalism. It has no way to survive other than oppression and war. The level of inequality is in its worst state now everywhere in the world. Socialism is the only alternative we have. We are seeing movements against neoliberalism everywhere in the world, even in the United States.
Kunhi: Ok. We can conclude here. 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.
How does Raghavan’s testimony illustrate his agency in navigating the Cold War in India?
How does Raghavan’s discussion of the ideological diversity and tensions within the Communist movement in India enhance our understanding of India’s Cold War, and the Cold War in Asia more broadly?
Consider, in light of Raghavan’s recollections, the extent to which the Cold War in India was real, and the extent to which it was imagined