Rajiv discusses his personal life, social activism, and the problems faced by Adivasi communities in the region.
Rajiv begins by discussing how he initially dreamt of pursuing graduate studies, but had those plans derailed when he suffered a long illness after receiving his undergraduate degree in botany. He then settled for helping his father with his business, and developed an interest in social issues. Rajiv does not identify fully as an “activist” in any sense; instead, he raises funds to to help individuals facing sudden financial or medical crises. He does this through his arts initiative, with the support of youth volunteers, but also works independently at times.
Turning to the issues faced by Adivasi communities, he explains that they are plagued by both material and non-material hardships, some of which can be resolved in the short run, while others require more time. The primary issue they face, in his view, is their landlessness. He recommends the reallocation of new arable lands to Adivasis as a crucial first step to uplifting the community, as returning the Adivasis to agriculture would alleviate both their financial burdens and nutritional deficiencies, as seen in the Kurichiya subgroup of Adivasis. However, he acknowledges that more entrenched issues such as the discrimination most Adivasis face when seeking higher education or civil service jobs; but has hope that their situation will improve in future. In his view, both the Congress and Communist parties contributed to improving the Adivasis’ circumstances, and assigning credit to only the communist parties or the radical Naxalites would be reductive.
He and his organization do not identify with any particular political party or ideology. They are primarily focused on finding pragmatic solutions for people in hardship. He finds that the governments (and their critics) in India often take an excessively theoretical approach to these issues, getting embroiled in unnecessary debates instead of taking action. Further, he notes that when the authorities finally do commit to some tangible development initiative, opposition groups resist it uncritically in the name of environmental activism. He observes a similar problem in the different waves of the communist movements in India, where the early Naxalites where too focused on killing class enemies, while their contemporary successors are paralyzed by theoretical debates.
Rajiv advocates for the middle ground, where both theory and action must be utilized as the situation requires to find swift solutions to people’s problems. Given his relatively distanced view of Communist ideology, he shares that he did not have strong feelings towards the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; explaining that most Keralaites reacted more to the Gulf War, as many of their fellow Malayalis were working there instead.
15 January 2020
Kunhi: Where did you do your studies?
Rajiv: Till the 10th standard, I studied in NSS higher secondary school Kalpetta. After that, I joined Devgiri St. Joseph’s College. I graduated with a degree in botany from there.
Kunhi: What did you do after graduation?
Rajiv: I wanted to continue my studies. I wanted to do MSc and PhD, if possible. But I couldn’t continue my studies because of a medical issue. With treatment and rest, I lost a few years. By this time, I lost interest in my studies. Even my worldview was transformed by that time. My best friends were books during the troubled days in my life. I even wrote some poems. After recovering my health, I started helping my father in his business. We have a shop in the town. It is not a big business or anything. But enough for survival. So, I got settled with that business life.
Kunhi: Who else is there in your family? Do you have any siblings?
Rajiv: I have siblings, a sister and a brother. They have their own houses. My wife and our two kids are there in our house. My mother is alive. She stays with my elder brother most of the time. He is a doctor.
Kunhi: What is your wife doing?
Rajiv: She was a teacher in a private school. She is a B.Comm graduate. But she is not working any longer. Somebody should stay at home to take care of kids. Isn’t it?
Kunhi: Of course. How did you end up in activism? What influenced you to focus on social issues?
Rajiv: First of all I’m not an activist in the conventional sense. Sometimes, I cannot even agree with the way some of our activists work. When you need to find an immediate solution for a problem, you have to find a way to solve that particular problem. For example, you have to take a patient from a remote area to a hospital in the city. It is a medical emergency. If you don’t help the patient at that moment, the patient may die. There is no road or any other facilities to get a vehicle to that area. What will you do? It is time to be practical. It is not a time to theorize the situation and criticize the system which led them to such a problem. Some of our so-called activists are like that, instead of finding a practical solution in an emergency context, they will start theorizing and criticizing the government. I’m not saying our governments are doing everything correctly, and that we should not criticize the government. In a democratic system, we always have to watch every policy of the government and we have to correct it when it does something wrong. But we cannot just criticize the government all time, instead of thinking about a practical solution.
Kunhi: So, your activism is focused on the practical solution. Is that correct?
Rajiv: We try. We try to help those who need any emergency assistance.
Kunhi: What are the kind of issues you address mostly?
Rajiv: We help people who are struggling because of critical illness and have no money for treatment. We help people who lose everything because of some natural disaster like a landslide. This is a hilly area, such incidents happen every year during the rainy season.
Kunhi: How does it work? You give them financial assistance?
Rajiv: If required. There are some people we could approach and ask for a financial contribution in such situations. Nowadays, we could help struggling people by organizing an online campaign for financial assistance. Even in this troubled political context, I see a lot of good people with a willingness to help others who suffer because of diseases or some critical financial problems. We see so many campaigns in Kerala these days collecting money for people with a critical illness. Some of such campaigns collected crores of rupees within a short period. These kinds of campaigns show us the goodness of human beings, in this period of hate crimes and killing people in the name religion or caste.
Kunhi: Are you doing such work independently or are you part of any organization?
Rajiv: We have an arts-and-sports club here. Most of our voluntary work is done as an activity of the club. Sometimes I work independently also. If we really want to do a good thing, we don’t need a banner of an organization. We have many youngsters here who would go for any voluntary work in emergencies.
Kunhi: What do you think is the main problem of Adivasi communities in the region?
Rajiv: There are several problems. If you ask me what is the most important, I would say it is their landlessness. I’m not saying that if they get land, all other problems will be automatically solved as some people argue. I would say giving them enough agricultural land is the beginning of addressing their problem. It may take years or generations to solve some of their serious problems. For example, the discrimination they face in mainstream society. We cannot change that social discrimination overnight. But we can find a practical solution to various other problems. If they have enough land to cultivate, they could find some income and the problem of nutrition deficiency can also be solved to an extent.
Recently we saw in a movie how co-workers treat Adivasis. They face discrimination everywhere, whether it is in school, college, or the workplace. That is their reality, it is not fiction. We see people arguing against reservation. Such critics do not understand the fact that people from lower castes and Adivasis don’t even get a chance to enter the mainstream job sector if there is no reservation. The same thing is true in education. If there is no reservation, they won’t be able to get higher education. Even after getting an education, they face various forms of discrimination. Neither their higher education nor their job in the government service changes their social status. That is a sad reality. It will take years to transform that situation. But it will change. See the case of the Ezhava community. What was their status in the past? They were not allowed to go anywhere near the upper caste. What is their status now? It transformed completely. Similarly, over the years the status of Adivasis will change.
Kunhi: You are suggesting that solving their land problem is the first step in the right direction. Isn’t it?
Rajiv: Yes. Have you seen their colonies? There is no privacy. Please don’t say that they don’t want privacy and they were living like that in the forest. Only a few Adivasi communities lived inside the forest as completely disconnected from mainstream society. All others were agricultural workers or slaves. They all lived together only because they had no place or resources to have independent houses. I would say that forcing them to stay in colonies is a crime. Colonies are like refugee camps. It denies them the dignity of life.
Kunhi: What is the situation of Adivasis with the land? Do you think their life is transformed because of getting agricultural land?
Rajiv: Absolutely. Look at the people of the Kurichiya community. They all have land and they do agriculture. Their life is far better than other communities. They study in colleges and they get government jobs. It is the people from these communities who mostly use the benefit of Adivasi reservation in the government sector, whether it is in education or employment. People from other Adivasi communities cannot compete even with people from these relatively better-off communities. If this is the situation, how could they compete with people from mainstream society? Once you have the basics, you can grow from there. When you deny them the basics, they get stuck in that primitive stage.
Kunhi: Who is mainly responsible for Adivasi problems? What is your take on that?
Rajiv: We cannot accuse anyone. But everyone played a role in that historical process, whether it is migrants, political parties or upper-caste landowning castes. I would never say that agricultural migration made them landless. There is enough land for everyone. Moreover, many good things happened here because of migrant settlers. It is migrants who built most of these schools, colleges, hospitals. It is the hard work of migrants that brought economic prosperity to Wayanad. However, many bad things also happened because of migration. The migrants are farmers and they looked for opportunities to maximise their share of land. They encroached on forest land and other unused lands which were traditionally part of the land in which some of the Adivasi communities were doing their shifting cultivation. The authorities did not try to address such problems during the period of migration. Because of their political influence, they all got titles to all the land they occupied. You cannot do anything about that. Government should find other lands to distribute landless Adivasis.
Kunhi: Which political party helped migrants mostly to secure titles to the land they illegally occupied?
Rajiv: As I said, we cannot blame a single political party. Both the Congress and the Communist Party helped migrants to secure the title. These are political parties. They have various interests. They cannot think about moral questions and humanitarian concerns when it comes to electoral politics.
Kunhi: What is the role of communist parties in Adivasi issues? Did they fail completely to address the problems of Adivasi communities?
Rajiv: I don’t think so. They led several movements in the past for increasing wages of Adivasi workers. A kind of slavery or bonded labour system was in practice in Wayanad till the 1970s. Adivasi workers were not receiving any money as wage. They would get some raw rice as remuneration for their work. The communist parties led several protests to change that practice.
Kunhi: But that system changed only after the Naxalite intervention. Isn’t it?
Rajiv: Who were these Naxalites? They were communists. Varghese was working for Adivasi communities even before he joined the Naxalite organization. He was a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Kunhi: Yes, he was with the CPI(M). But the mainstream party leaders did not support him when he tried to organize Adivasi workers. That is why he left the party and joined the Naxalite organization. Isn’t it?
Rajiv: That is not completely true. He joined the Naxalite organization because of his different understanding of revolution. The mainstream communists were not interested in bringing a working-class revolution into India. They thought that they could come to power through the ballot box and that there was no need for armed revolution in the country. However, the Naxalites wanted to bring a Chinese model revolution here. Varghese, like young energetic communists, easily got attracted to this idea. That is how he ended up in the Naxalite organization.
Kunhi: Many of the mainstream communist leaders had a good relationship with Jenmis. They did not protest against the exploitation of Jenmis. And many Jenmis were members or sympathisers of the communist party. This is another view. What do you think about it?
Rajiv: It is a complex topic. We cannot say what was right or wrong without proper analysis. Firstly, the Jenmis were not only a landowning class but also voters. They were economically powerful. Many of their younger members were highly educated. Some of them were in key position in the government. As a political party, the communist parties can’t ignore these people. Moreover, many youngsters from the Jenmi families were highly interested in communist ideology. Leaders like AKG greatly influenced their worldviews. If communist parties did not pay attention to them or started working against them, they would start supporting the Congress party. Because of such reasons, they couldn’t lead a total fight against the Jenmis. Saying this, we have to remember that communists fought for improving the wage, working conditions, etc. of agricultural workers, including Adivasis.
Kunhi: Are you a communist party sympathiser?
Rajiv: I’m not against any political party which is not active in propagating hatred within the society. I won’t support any political party that tries to organize people in terms of religion or caste. For me, both the Muslim League and BJP are doing the same thing. And I have never been a member of a communist party or its youth or student organizations.
Kunhi: Were you a member of any political organization when you were studying in school and college?
Rajiv: No. I was not at all concerned about politics when I was a student. I was completely focused on my studies and other activities. I was interested in sports too. I’m still interested in sports. Politics was not part of my area of interest. It all changed when I started reading. That gave a new direction to my life.
Kunhi: What was your family’s approach toward politics?
Rajiv: They are common people, not really interested in politics. They would vote for both the communists and the Congress. The majority of Keralites are like that only. That is the reason why we see a power shift after every election.
Kunhi: What is your approach towards the Naxalite movement?
Rajiv: In general I’m against violence. And I do not like unnecessary theoretical debates. Earlier Naxalites were busy killing people. When they stopped that they started focusing solely on unnecessary theoretical debates. I don’t think they even understand what they are talking about. They still don’t know who is the working class and who are farmers. They are still debating to define these kinds of things. As I said earlier, I’m interested only in a practical solution for people’s problems. When people need a road to travel, the government should construct the road. Our government generally works like a tortoise. When it comes up with a development project finally, such as the expansion of the national highway, these kinds of groups would start protests. For them, expansion of a road is an environmental problem, construction of a power project is an environmental problem. For them, every developmental project is an environmental problem. People are suffocating on Kerala’s roads because of traffic. But these groups won’t let any change happen. They have only a very preliminary understanding of the environment. Their arguments are not based on a proper understanding of costs and benefits. Protesting against anything and everything is their job.
Kunhi: I meant the early Naxalite movements. Their movements against the Jenmi exploitation.
Rajiv: That is what I mentioned in the beginning. Then they were busy killing people. I cannot accept violence. Their main activities killing people and throwing bombs at the police stations or village offices. How could you consider these activities as revolution? They must have been influenced by various developments in the world. But they couldn’t do anything productive in India.
Kunhi: You do not consider that their armed actions helped to get public attention to the problems of Adivasi communities. Am I right?
Rajiv: I don’t know about that. Perhaps it helped to get public attention on some of their issues. But I don’t think their activities anyhow changed the life of Adivasi communities. The land reform helped a section of Adivasi communities. It was a project of the communist government, not the Naxalite group. The wage of Adivasi workers increased because of various interventions. When I criticise Naxalites, I do not mean every one of them was wrong. I think we can never ignore the struggle led by leaders like Varghese. There is an unnecessary nostalgia about the period of the Naxalite movement in our public discourse. I think that is a major problem.
Kunhi: You must have been a school student when the Soviet Union collapsed. Do you have recollections about that?
Rajiv: I read those things in the newspaper. It was an international event. More than that I was not bothered about that incident. As I said, I was not interested in politics during that time. When we read about incidents like Gulf War in newspapers, we have a feeling. Many Malayalees were working in Gulf countries. Many of our relatives or neighbours were there. We somehow connected with that incident. But there was no such element that connect me to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Kunhi: Ok. Thank you so much for your time.
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
Consider the role of charitable and self-help groups in shaping the lived experiences of the Cold War on the ground in India and Asia more broadly.