Interview With Shaji P

Shaji P discusses the Adivasis’ issues and the Kerala government’s approach towards them.

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Shaji P begins by explaining the historical causes of Adivasi's poverty, and offers three key suggestions to alleviate their plight. As for the Adivasis’ poverty, he points out that these communities had to contend with both the mass migration of settlers to their traditional lands, and the environmental degradation the region suffered in the name of development (such as dam construction). These left Adivasi families landless and malnourished. Further, he explains that although Adivasi families are legally entitled to at least one acre of arable land in Kerala, this policy is blocked from enforcement by the cooperation of the bureaucracy with the land mafia. 

    To alleviate the plight of Adivasis in this context, he offers three suggestions. First, to change the mindset of the general public to be more open to employing educated Adivasis in the public and private sector. Second, he calls for the government to develop eco-tourism spaces in the region and to employ Adivasi workers, even in jobs that do not require much education. Third, he recommends restoring Adivasis’ access to protected forest resources to resolve malnutrition. 

    While mainstream communist parties claimed to be free of class consciousness, Shaji notes that even communist leaders continue to carry caste-based thinking in their personal lives (albeit less so than rightist parties), and were not truly concerned for Adivasis. In contrast, the radical Naxalites did not have such associations and were more successful in enhancing the wages and treatment of Adivasis by Jenmis. Unfortunately, the government used the Adivasis’ support for the Naxalites to paint them all as radicals and disregard their genuine concerns, resulting in the continuing impoverishment of the community.

15 January 2020


Kunhi: When did you start working as a journalist in this area?

Shaji: In 1998. I was in Delhi before that.

Kunhi: Where did you do your studies? 

Shaji: In many places. That is not important. If you ask me anything about Adivasi issues, I would answer. My personal life is not important. 

Kunhi: What do you think is the major problem of the Adivasi communities?

Shaji: Recently some mob killed an Adivasi boy named Madhu in Attappady, accusing him of trying to steal some rice from a grocery store. How does an Adivasi boy come to a situation of stealing rice? What are the things that led them to such a situation? Before he tries to steal some rice, many others have stolen their land and their resources. They never experienced a situation that force them to steal something from others. They never starved. They always had access to an enormous variety of forest products.

Adivasis came to this situation because of a two-way process. On one side, migrants arrived in large numbers to their land, from both Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and took control of most of the land which they traditionally used for their rotating cultivation. On the other side, massive environmental destruction happened in the name of development. Whether it is the construction of reservoirs, mining natural resources, or the use of pesticides for industrial-scale agricultural production, they all ultimately destroyed their living environment and made their life difficult. The dam gave electricity to many, but Adivasis had no benefit. They became displaced, they lost their homes and traditional land.

Kunhi: I can understand your point. But how do we completely criticize developmental projects like a dam?

Shaji: We started constructing dams here when some of the western countries started destroying their old dams, realizing the problems it creates for nature and other living beings. We have to utilize other environmentally-friendly options to generate electricity.

Kunhi: The environmentally friendly substitutes like wind or solar energy began to be popular only in recent years. In the past, there were no such eco-friendly options to generate a large amount of electricity. Isn’t it?

Shaji: In India, large scale wind energy production started only in the late 1980s. But various other countries in the world were producing megawatt-size wind energy since the 1940s. India should have attempted to learn that technology instead of going behind the conventional easy methods. One thing is correct, however: that the people were not aware of environmental issues in those days. People began to be aware of the consequences of such issues only in the later years. In those days, our leaders were saying that dams and large factories are the temples of modern India. We were trying to copy western modernity. What happened at the end? People weren’t satisfied with the temples of the industrial revolution. They started going to the conventional temples again. And now we ended up in this terrible political climate.

Kunhi: What is your suggestion? How do we help Adivasi communities to solve their problems?

Shaji: Firstly, society should change its attitude towards Adivasis. There are so many educated young Adivasis without jobs. It is not just government, people in the private sector also have a responsibility to bring them into the mainstream. Therefore, in the first place, they should get jobs both in the public sector and in the private sector. 

Talking about jobs, nowadays even this thozhilurapp (central government’s employment guarantee scheme) works also largely reduced. Though it guarantees a minimum of 100 days of daily wage works every year, nowadays people are not even getting half of that promised work.

Secondly, instead of allowing corporates and real estate mafias to steal and exploit the forest land and resources, the government should create eco-friendly tourist resorts in areas like Wayanad, allowing Adivasis and other economically backward people to get the benefit of tourism. Government can give jobs to so many Adivasi youngsters in this sector. This is not a sector that requires very complicated training and scientific knowledge. Therefore, the educational backwardness of Adivasi communities will not be a problem for accommodating them in the tourism sector.

Thirdly, Adivasis should get access to forest resources. For most of the Adivasi communities, the forest is a very inseparable part of their life. Their life and their health were completely dependent on forest resources for several centuries. When the government attempt to control even their entry into the forest land, it in fact trying to remove a part of their life and their culture. If they get access to forest resources, the problem of nutritional deficiency could be managed very easily.

Kunhi: You did not mention their land problem. Are you suggesting that giving them agricultural land is not an important step?

Shaji: No, I was only coming to the problem of landlessness.  As per the 1999 Restoration of Lands to Scheduled Tribes Act, the government is responsible to ensure that every Adivasi families in Kerala have a minimum of one acre of land. However, the government was not interested in implementing this law. Following this, in 2001 Adivasi people organized a protest camp in Trivandrum. In this context, then the chief minister of Kerala, A K Antony, called them for a compromise meeting and promised that the issue will be solved as early as possible. What happened then? Nothing. The bureaucrat-land mafia network does not allow Adivasis to get the land they deserve. Thousands of Adivasi families continue to remain landless. 

Kunhi: The Muthanga incident happened in this context. Isn’t it?

Shaji: Protests were held even before the Muthanga incident. Authorities did not try to address the demands of Adivasis. That led to occupying forest land in Muthanga. A K Antony’s government responded very brutally to this attempt. The Muthanga protest began in early January 2003. On February 19, the government brutally suppressed this movement. Two people were killed during the clash between protesters and police. Following this incident, the government bought some land from Aralam Faram and distributed it to about 600 Adivasi families. A large share of this land was not suitable for agriculture. As it was near the forest, the disturbance from wildlife was a major problem.

Kunhi: There was a Naxalite related issue during the movement. Isn’t it?

Shaji: The government tried to depict the protesters as Naxalites. Once you give a Naxalite tag to a protest, you can easily suppress the movement. You can justify any violent action against the movement. That is what the government did in the case of the Muthanga protest. Who are those two killed during the clash? One Adivasi activist and one Dalit police constable. The loss is always for the oppressed lower castes and Adivasi communities. For elites, these are nothing but fun.

Kunhi: Adivasi communities support of the Naxalite movement became a tool for degrading all their genuine demands. Isn’t it? 

Shaji: They had no other option. There was no one fighting for them. The so-called party of the working class and farmers did not give any importance to Adivasis. They did not even Adivasis as farmers or working class. For the mainstream community, Adivasis are primitive animals who are living inside the forest. They are not even considering them as human beings. If they do so, the incidents like the killing of Madhu would not have happened. They took selfies when that boy was struggling to breathe after their beating. They were able to behave like that as they did not consider Adivasis as human beings, with flesh and blood. Have you seen the pic of that boy? It is a heartbreaking image. 

Kunhi: That is indeed a heartbreaking image. I couldn’t even believe that such an incident happened in Kerala. Do you think the Naxalite movement anyhow helped Adivasi communities?

Shaji: Very much. It is because of Naxalite interventions, Adivasis began to get a decent wage. Before that, they were getting only raw rice as wage. You know about the slavery that existed in this region. Don’t you?

Kunhi: Yes, I know.

Shaji: The situation changed because of the Naxalite intervention. It is following the Thirunelli-Thrissilery actions, the Valliyoorkkav tradition came to an end. When the Jenmis began to have a fear of Naxal attack, they started giving money wages to these people. For the first time in history, someone came forward to address their problem. Someone came forward to declare that they are human beings just like all of us. Before that, no one cared even if Jenmis killed and hanged Adivasis. We read about the brutality of slavery in the United States and African countries. But we never really tried to understand the Jenmi system that existed in areas like Wayanad. Perhaps what we had was more brutal than slavery in other countries. 

Kunhi: Why did mainstream communists fail to address Adivasi issues?

Shaji: Who were their leaders? It was not a problem of communist ideology. Its leaders were people who were born and bought up in a system that refuse to consider lower castes and Adivasis as human beings. The ideology must have changed their worldview a little. But they cannot completely unlearn everything they learnt from their family. The caste system was very much alive within the communist party. See the case of EMS. He never abandoned his caste name. Why? Because he knew very well about the power of his caste name. The caste order is very much part of Kerala’s general consciousness. Just because someone starts supporting a communist party, they cannot free themselves from caste consciousness. A Namboodiri remains as Namboodiri and a Nair remains as Nair even when they become a member of the communist party. 

Kunhi: Do you think Naxalite groups were free from such caste consciousness?

Shaji: No. Perhaps they were a little better than the mainstream communist party. But they were not completely free from the caste constraints. I know a few upper caste Naxalites. They present themselves as free from caste-religious bonds. But deep inside their family, they keep that caste consciousness alive. We can observe it in their family life when it comes to events like marriage. When they find a boy for their daughter, their first consideration is his caste background. One of the interesting things is that some people don’t give a damn to religion. But they are consciously or subconsciously aware of their caste ranks.

Kunhi: Do you think Naxalite groups are important even today?

Shaji: The old Naxalite politics is no longer in practice in Kerala. The Naxalite groups abandoned their violent approaches. They are now focused on matters like environmental issues. I don’t think that violent Naxalite groups are necessary for the present political context. But we always need radical activists. They are the only ones who could challenge the ruling power all the time. If there is no such resistance, there will be no control over the actions of the government. The oppositions parties will criticize the ruling party only when they see a benefit. Even if they criticize a project when they are in opposition, they would bring the same project when they come to power. Most of the time, their interests are guided by financial benefits. If they get their share, they may not protest against any wrong policies of the government. But radical activists are not like that. They have nothing to gain financially. 

Kunhi: Have you ever been a member of any political organization?

Shaji: No.

Kunhi: What was your approach towards the Soviet Union?

Shaji: I’m not a communist. I do think that the Soviet Union was absolutely wrong in various matters. I can never accept some of its policies. It was an oppressive regime, there is no doubt about that. But we cannot ignore some of the contributions of the Soviet Union, especially in science and technology. 

Kunhi: What did you feel when the Soviet Union disintegrated?

Shaji: Nothing special. That was a necessary turn in history. But I did not consider the fall of the Soviet Union as the end of communism. 

Kunhi: Ok. Thank you

Interviewer: Kunhi

Interviewee: Shaji P

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Transcript Notes

  1. Jenmi were the landed aristocracy of Kerala.

  2. Adivasi is a broad term referring to any aboriginal peoples of India, in this case the Kerala region.

  1. In light of Shaji P’s reflections, can we consider the Cold War to have ended for Adivasi communities in Kerala, India?