Opus Prize Questionnaire
Questions to Krishnammal Jagannathan from OpusAugust 22, 2008
Why did you start LAFTI?
Interesting and important question indeed!
I never planned to start LAFTI. In truth, I plan only for each day of my life as it comes, and all the rest, particularly the more important things, I leave to the Supreme Being. I am convinced there is a Divine Hand guiding me in all my actions, and I just surrender to It. The people’s needs of the time, the Sarvodaya (“Welfare of All”) movement that I have been associated with all my life, and the unique people I have known are the prime factors behind the birth of LAFTI, much more so than myself as an individual.
When I reflect on this question, three major forces in my life come to my mind, along with the inhuman and horrendous episode in Kilvenmani that took place on Christmas night 1968 in which 43 women and children were burned alive by a landlord and his henchmen in retaliation against a demand for a hike in agricultural wages.
The three major forces in my life are, first, my mother Nagammal and my own childhood as a girl-child born of a Dalit (“untouchable”) woman in an oppressive society. Second is the influence of my life-partner Jagannathan and our sources of inspiration and guidance, Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. Third is the divine grace of Swami Ramalinga Vallalar, the late 19th Century Tamil poet and saint.
My mother Nagammal suffered greatly. Born in the lowest and most oppressed caste (the Dalits), she raised us single-handedly. She gave birth to 12 children, of which only seven of us survived, and she was widowed at the age of 32. She used to climb up the mountain range near my village early in the morning to bring gather for the cattle. Due to dire poverty, she had to do this routinely even in advanced states of pregnancy. Once, on the way she developed labor-pains, delivered the child with the help of her companions, and trekked back home with the child and bundle of grass. My alcoholic father used to beat her daily. In the village Ayyankotai in southern India where I was born, many Dailt women faced similar if not greater hardships in life. All this made a deep impression on me, so much so that when I read of the killing of Dalit women and children in Killvenmani, I rushed to the scene.
The second influence is Jagannathan, my life-long partner who, inspired by Vinoba Bhave (a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi whom Gandhi called his ‘spiritual guru’) has striven all his life for the landless poor. I marched with him with Vinoba in his ‘silent revolution’ to appeal to the landlords to surrender their land voluntarily to the landless. Vinoba called himself a ‘spiritual terrorist’, setting fire to the hearts of the people. I was fired within when I came to know the problem in Kilvenmani village and resolved to end the suffering of the landless poor, particularly the Dalit women, in a non-violent way.
The third and most important influence is Swami Ramalinga Vallalar, to whom I have prayed since I was eight-years-old. In the morning after hearing of the atrocities at Kilvenmani, I prayed to Ramalinga for guidance, and I resolved to go there in person, come what may. Jagannathan was away, and I called him to convey my decision and he said, “Go ahead. I will join you.” We never have rested since then. So many struggles, achievements, and challenges!
The birth of LAFTI was an historical necessity; I just happened to be there.
What was your main mission or objective?
My mission was, and is, to liberate Dalit women and their families from their misery and their servile bondage to the landlords in the Tanjore area, the traditional rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. They planted the rice, weeded the rice fields, and harvested the paddy. But they had no food to eat. They were eating crabs and rats to survive. The Dalits were banned from wearing chappals (footwear), collecting drinking water from the village well, and were denied entry to the temples. They were tied to trees and forced to eat excrement or drink water mixed with cowdung when they broke the norms. All this happened during the 1970s and I resolved to change this, to bring an end to some of the worst forms of apartheid practiced in the 20th Century.
My mission is to provide a livelihood by abolishing landlessness among the poor and bringing humanity and dignity to their lives.
If they were not allowed to enter temples to pray to God, my mission was to bring the Divine Light and Godliness into their humble dwellings, the thatched huts.
What were your major challenges?
Thank you for asking this question. Challenges were aplenty! I am thankful for their existence, too, for challenges are no less than real blessings.
There were challenges from the landlords, from the leftist movement, from government authorities, from the people themselves, and even from our own colleagues within the Sarvodaya movement who were not in agreement with LAFTI’s approach.
The landlords who were not afraid of the armed struggle of the extreme leftists felt daunted when I marched with Dalit women in front of their houses singing prayer songs in the early hours of the morning. They used to tease us and sometimes threw chappals at us. During the later movement against the shrimp farms that were destroying the coastal ecosphere, thugs hired by multinational companies that owned the shrimp farms waylaid me (in 2001) and threatened to douse me with kerosene and set me afire. I refused to budge and said, “Go ahead!” When I recollect that moment, even now I am aghast and wonder, “Where did I get the energy from, to face such challenges?”
Unfortunately, though we were both fighting for the rights of poor, our friends from the leftist movements felt equally threatened as the landlords by our non-violent means. They were afraid of losing their ‘vote-banks’, their holds over the people. Even though we are always politically neutral and do not take sides, they boycotted the ‘all-party meetings’ that we convened to discuss the people’s problems. When we organized loans through government programs to the Dalits for the peaceful transfer of land that rightfully belongs to them, the leftist party cadres tried to incite the people not to pay back the loans, just to tarnish the image of LAFTI and create stumbling blocks. Though they have reluctantly conceded the success of our approach, even now they remain harder to convince than government officials.
The government and bank authorities were skeptical that the Dalit families would be able to pay back loans, and they refused to offer loans as there was no precedence. Land was not seen as a ‘productive improvement’, unlike, for example, a milk animal. I had to knock on the doors of government and bank officials constantly to get them waive the stamp-duties for land registration, which was 25% of the cost of the land, and to convince the banks to consider land as a form of capital. Not only did the banks and the government relent, but they were highly appreciative to the LAFTI beneficiaries for repaying the loans. The Dalits in the area recently surprised the Minister for Social Welfare, when they organized a function to pay back $150,000. This Minister remarked that in her entire lifetime, this was the only function where she received money from the people, having been used to doling out free gifts under various schemes herself!
Initially, the people themselves were a challenge, mired in poverty, apathy, and disbelief. They wondered how can this khadi (hand-spun, hand-woven fabric)-wearing tiny woman face the challenge of the landlords and, later, the multinational shrimp farm owners and the politicians with whom they are hand-in-glove. Now, they have realized their own strength. When thousands of women marched in silence to protest against the shrimp farms which robbed them of their livelihoods, and against government-owned liquor-shops – alcohol being the main factor behind domestic violence - the District Collector (local governor) came in person to collect their petitions. Gradually, the people, particularly the Dalit women, have realized their collective power, and now within a day’s notice thousands of them are ready to rally around at our call.
A greater challenge was from our own colleagues in the Sarvodaya movement. When we started the struggle against benami (illegal land-title) land ownership, a system by which landlords and temples held lands that should be right have belonged to the people, Vinoba himself felt that the issue in the Cauvery Delta was too complex and was concerned that we might be caught in the violence between the landlords and the leftists. After our initial success, he blessed our efforts and encouraged us to go forward. Having become used to obtaining lands for free in the 1950s, our colleagues in the Sarvodaya movement were critical when we started the peaceful transfer of land to Dalit women through the land-purchase program. This, however, was a win-win situation, where the landlords were wiling to sell the land at 30% lower than the market value, and the landless Dalits felt more responsible for their ownership and were productive as they understood the need and undertook responsibility to pay back the ‘soft’ government loans. It took time for my colleagues to appreciate this, and some of them continue to differ with LAFTI’s approach, even if they see the radical changes in the lives of the Dalit communities in Nagapattinam District.
How many people have been helped because of the work of the organization?
The work of the LAFTI team and of the people themselves has directly and permanently changed the lives of more than 12,000 families in the area where we work. These families were bonded laborers for many generations and they are now liberated from this slavery once and for all, having received fertile land from which through their labors they can gain sustenance. An equal number of families have benefited from our education and small industries programs. Perhaps even more important is the women’s empowerment program through lamp-worship, which brings dignity and sanctity to their homes. They are able to address collectively such issues as domestic violence and the illicit brewing and selling of alcohol, as alcoholism in this area leaves many families destitute.
Our participatory and environmentally friendly house building project is currently benefiting about 5,000 families. We hope another 5,000 will benefit in the next three-to-five years. The public sector-owned Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) has agreed to give us fly-ash (a byproduct of coal-fired electrical generation) for free, and the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) of the Government of India has donated a brickmaking machine with which we will be able to build environmentally friendly houses, making use of the fly-ash, and which will not require wood (leading to deforestation) for firing bricks, which would be required if using conventional brick-kilns. With the Opus Award money, I hope to establish a housing federation which will further augment our efforts to humanize the dwellings of Dalit families, too many of whom still live in leaky and vermin-ridden mud-and-palm-leaf huts. As part of our housing projects, entire villages gather together to rebuild all of own houses at the same time, so that the whole community is transformed and people can take pride in their homes.
Indirectly, LAFTI’s work continues to change the lives of Dalit women all over Tamil Nadu and India, as the Government of India is considering LAFTI’s approach of peaceful transfer of landownership from landlords to landless tillers through ‘soft’ loans as a viable option to solve the problem of landlessness.
At the behest of Shri Jayaprakash Narayan, Jagannathan and I went to Bihar in 1975 to organize the landless poor in the Bodh Gaya area, where Buddha attained enlightenment. A Mahanth (head of a temple) held thousands of acres illegally and was sexually exploiting Dalit women. We organized a huge rally and brought these issues to light, and 20,000 acres were recovered and redistributed among the landless poor in 30 villages. This we consider as an extension of LAFTI’s work in one of the poorest regions in northern India.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
The most rewarding aspect of my work is meeting like-minded-people serving the needy and marginalized worldwide. I tell my children Bhoomi and Sathya that we may not leave them with any bank balance (we don’t have any) but they both will have an extended family all over the world. More than the Award, I am happy that the OPUS Foundation members, Seattle University, and the people of Seattle will be part of our extended family.
Seeing change in the lives of oppressed Dalit women, even if slow and gradual, is very satisfying. Bridging the gap between the rich and poor, bringing the landless and landed rich to the negotiating table to share and care for each other, is most fulfilling for me. Providing hope in the midst of misery and poverty, by lighting the lamp in the homes of Dalit women, is an enriching moment for me.
Marching hand-in-hand with visionaries and selfless souls such as Vinoba and joining the prayer meetings of Mahatma Gandhi were unique moments, and left me with indelible memories.
It is deeply satisfying to see the change of heart in the landlords who heeded neither the government land-ceiling laws nor the violent movements of the left, but respond to the call of LAFTI to take part in this silent revolution.
Where do you draw your inspiration and strength to help others as a humanitarian?
It’s a secret! I thought I shall not reveal it to anybody. But I shall make an exception.
The morning star! I get up around four in the morning every day. Even the birds are asleep, and I see the morning star rising behind the small mountain at Gandhigram, which fills my very being and seems to radiate all the answers for the day’s challenges and problems.
The birds are coming alive, and the early lights of the dawn are just touching the buds of the trees. I contemplate the “Arut Perum Jothi” (the graceful divine light), Thani perum Karunai (greater-compassion)” the sayings/ teachings of my guide and mentor Swami Ramalinga Vallalar.
Boundless benevolent shining light
God in-dwelling in that shining light
The light of compassion coming to rule the world.
I feel energized to meet the day, and I go out into the world with the firm belief that He is there to guide me in every step! Next to the morning star, Ramalingar Vallalar is my inspiration and constant source of guidance and support.
My mentor and godmother Dr. Soundram Ramachandran, who adopted me, gave me the opportunity to study at the university, introduced me to Mahatma Gandhi as her own daughter at the Palani temple, and asked me to sing a prayer song in his presence. She was my role model and even now when I have challenges at work, I think of her commitment to the service of the downtrodden and of her simplicity, despite being the daughter of TVS Iyengar, the “Ford family” of southern India.
Jagannathan my life-partner has been a life-long source of strength and inspiration. I learnt ‘the art of living sans attachment’ from him. When we were married he told me, “We shall possess only mud-pots as our kitchen utensils, for it will be easier to abandon them and move from place to place in the service of the people.” Though our kitchen has a few more items than he desired, our home in Gandhigram has no locks. He was an inspiration to me to forego mundane things, living close to the people whom we serve and living with contentment in the service of others. Sathya and Bhoomi, my children and our extended family in the States - David Albert and Ellen Sawislak in Olympia, Washington; Peggy Burns and Randa Blanding from San Diego; Natarajan Gowda from the Bay Area; Jenny Ladd from Northampton, Massachusetts – and friends in Italy, Britain, and Japan are all important sources of support and inspiration for me to continue in my mission.
Finally, my colleagues in LAFTI, who sacrifice their lives for the mission often to the neglect of their own and family’s needs, are a constant source of nourishment.
What does it mean to you to be a recipient of the 2008 Opus Prize?
I see the OPUS Prize as recognition and acknowledgment of the struggles and achievements of Dalit women, not only in the Nagapattinam area, but all over India.
It means vindication of the cause and the non-violent means of addressing social conflicts that Jagannathan and I have stood for all our lives. It honors and strengthens the contribution of the friends of LAFTI all over the world, particularly in the United States.
Above all, it is a celebration of the interconnectedness of all of us, the universal sisterhood and the divine force that binds us all together.
What were your initial thoughts when you heard you were a recipient?
“Yellam Kai koodum, En Anai Ambalathe!” (“Everything will come to fruition, so I proclaim!”), a saying of Ramalinga, is a constant source of spiritual sustenance to me. I was determined to transform the inhuman dwellings of the Dalit women but I did not have the time to write project proposals. This Award is not just for Krishnammal as an individual, but for all Dalit women, starting from my mother Nagammal. Therefore, the tribute and the bursary should go to the uplift of oppressed women. My dream of 10,000 houses in our area will finally come true!
I thought of all the great souls I have come across in my life - Gandhi, Vinobha, Jayaprakash, Sankar Rao Dev, and Keithan - and reflected that this award is honoring the values they stood for such as nonviolence, truth, and social justice.
It has been almost two decades since Jagannathan and I came to North America and it is again an opportunity to meet and connect with our friends and the extended Sarvodaya/LAFTI family.
I was also impressed and gratified to learn of the connections of the OPUS Foundation to Seattle University, a center of learning committed to social justice and spirituality. I think it is a wonderful opportunity to meet the people behind the Award and learn more from them.
What advice would you give others on how to make a difference in the lives of others?
I am not sure I can advise others on how to make a difference in the lives of others, except by sharing my life story and experiences. However, I am glad to share some of the epic poems that have inspired me.
“Thunbam uravarinum Seiha, Thunivatri Inbam paayakum Vinai” says one of the 1,332 couplets of the Thirukkural, the ancient Tamil book of wisdom, the meaning of which is as follows:
Even if suffering walks in-hand with you like a close relative,
With courage continue to act in ways that give happiness and contentment to others.
The Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi wrote, “Thani Oruvannukku Unavilleyal Jagathinai Azhithidiuvom!”
If even single soul goes hungry tonight,
There is no reason for the universe to exist.
Friends, let us share and care for the hungry and eliminate poverty so as to give meaning to the existence of every being in this world.
“Awake, arise and stop not until the goal is reached”, proclaimed Swami Vivekananda, the monk who received a thundering ovation when he commenced his address to the World’s Parliament of Religions, with “Sisters and Brothers of America” in the year 1893 in conjunction with the World’s Fair in Chicago.
Let me say to my sisters and brothers of America, “With your scientific knowledge and thirst for freedom and democracy, you have so much to contribute to the rest of the world, particularly to suffering humanity, when you weave social action and spiritual commitment together in every moment of your life.”