We speak with Right Livelihood laureate, Krishnammal Jagannathan, an 82-year-old activist from southern India. She was active in the Gandhian struggle for Indian independence and the movement to restore land to the landless. With her husband, she founded an organization called "Land for the Tillers’ Freedom" that has redistributed land to some 13,000 Dalit women. She and her husband received the Right Livelihood Award for "two long lifetimes of work dedicated to realizing in practice the Gandhian vision of social justice and sustainable human development, for which they have been referred to as India’s soul." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m joined right now by Krishnammal Jagannathan. She is eighty-two years old. She’s from southern India. She was born to a landless Dalit family, active in the Gandhian struggle for Indian independence and the movement to restore land to the landless. With her husband, she founded an organization called Land for the Tillers’ Freedom that’s redistributed land to some 13,000 Dalit women. She and her husband received the Right Livelihood Award this year for, well, according to the jury, "two long lifetimes of work dedicated to realizing in practice the Gandhian vision of social justice and sustainable human development, for which they have been referred to as India’s soul."
She joins me now in the studio. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
Your husband, who is ninety-five, unable to join us because his health is not well.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us and to provide this forum for you to speak to the world, Krishnammal. Explain what Dalit is.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Dalits are the native people, are native of South India, Dravidians. But because of their work, physical labor, they are considered to be low-caste people.
AMY GOODMAN: Low-caste.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: In the West, the word "untouchable" has been used.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Ah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: A very derogatory word.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Ah, yes. You see, because they are mixing their brain and intelligence and the physical labor on the land, working on the land, cultivating the land and the dirt. Their hands and their body, everything is dirty because of the soil. And they are considered to be untouchables. Don’t touch. Other people are not working on the land, their looks very nice and neat. These people working on the land, their looks are dirty. So the word has come: "untouchable."
AMY GOODMAN: But you have challenged this in your life.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Yes. When I am in childhood and my parents have got that interest in education. If we educate the children, they will escape the untouchability like that. They are very particular to send us to school and educate us. And then I have studied up to university course. Then, the childhood sufferings in the village, in a poor hut, always prepared to me to devote and to dedicate my life for the upliftment of the community.
AMY GOODMAN: You met Gandhi?
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Yes. When I was in the university, I met Gandhi. His idea of solving a problem in nonviolent way touched me and inspired me greatly. Then, after finishing the course, university course, I joined Vinoba Bhave, the direct disciple of Gandhi. Vinoba Bhave worked throughout the country fourteen years, appealing to the landlords to give land to the landless poor people.
AMY GOODMAN: Vinoba Bhave is considered the spiritual heir of Gandhi.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Ah, yes, a spiritual heir.
AMY GOODMAN: Not as well known in the United States to a non-Indian audience.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Ah, yeah. He’s a saint. He didn’t want the name, publicity, all the time praying and working in the village, appealing to the hearts of the landlords to give land to the people.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what happened in 1968, forty years ago, what inspired you to move?
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: When I was with Vinoba Bhave working in the village, getting the land and distributing the land to the Dalit people, fortunately, my husband became the leader of the — of our state. Vinobaji asked him to shoulder the responsibility of Bhoodan land gift movement in Tamil Nadu.
AMY GOODMAN: Tamil Nadu, the state of Tamil Nadu.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: In Tamil Nadu state. So we both there, organizing the people for gramdan, surrender the land to the community. That is the idea of Vinoba Bhave. To get gram swaraj, independence to the village, means the source of — the instrument of production should come to the community, that the land should become in the common property of the community. In that spirit, when we are going around the villages, certainly we heard the news that in 1968, on Christmas Day, forty-four women and children were burned in Nagapattinam district in Kilavenmani. Then we went there, stopping all the work we were doing then.
AMY GOODMAN: Who were they killed — who were these forty-four women and children? Who were they killed by? Who burned them?
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: And this, just they wanted to have little increment in the wage, for that, the landlords —- were in that place, fertile lands, very fertile lands, all the land in the hands of the landlords, or it belonged to the temples. Again, the temple lands will go to the landlord -—
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, so the land either belonged to the landlords or the temples.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Temples. Even an inch of land is not with the Dalits. They are completely landless. And it is very difficult for them to find a place to build their huts, because in the village all the lands, even the tanks with the water, even the roads, are with the landlords, not with the landless. They are not supposed to walk through the street in that village. So we went there. And we — my husband is a freedom fighter.
AMY GOODMAN: Sankaralingam.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Sankaralingam. And Sankaralingam Jagannathan, that’s what his name is. Father name is Sankaralingam. His name is Jagannathan.
So he left the college when there was a call from Gandhi: come and join the movement. At the age of eighteen, he went and joined Gandhi. So, many times he went to jail. And his work in the movement is just organizing the youths to send to jails. But when they were in jail, they know freedom is going to come. And in the jail itself, they used to discuss about it: what about the freedom to the people who are working on the land?
AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up marrying? He was high-caste, upper-caste Indian, and you were —-
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: A low-caste.
AMY GOODMAN: —- born into the lower caste. It’s hard to even say it —-
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: I’ll say it.
AMY GOODMAN: —- to categorize people in that way.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: But it is there now, and what can we do? But he’s elder to me, but I couldn’t go and meet him like that. But luckily, he was working with G. Ramachandran, a freedom fighter, a great leader. And his wife, Dr. Soundram Ramachandran, a Gandhian, she adopted me as a daughter. And so, these people arranged our marriage also.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. King, Dr. Martin Luther King, stayed in your house. When was that?
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Not in my house; in our ashram. We have Gandhigram in Madurai district. Gandhigram, an institution, our ashram is there.
AMY GOODMAN: A community, a village?
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Community of people and a community living in Gandhian way. At that time, one Reverend Cayton [phon.] from Minnesota, Minneapolis, he came to India as a missionary. And in later times, he joined Gandhiji. He became a Gandhian worker. He invited Martin Luther King to come for war resisters conference. For three days, he stayed with us. But I told him, “You are talking about war resisters and peace and this. What about the village? You just go to one village, you can see how the people are — untouchables are living. Just outside the village they are living, and they are bonded laborers to the landlords. You go.” So, he went and visited the villages, and he started talking about the untouchables in India. I had the privilege to prepare food for him.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you prepare for him?
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Dosai, I prepared for him.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you think the Indian government needs to challenge how Dalits are treated today?
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: You see now large changes there, but the caste system is very deeply rooted in their minds and hearts. So, all the time, with the hatred only there, there is conflict within these two groups. Last month, it was very sad to tell you, in Law College there was clashes within the scheduled-caste students and the upper-caste people. Even after sixty years, this kind of social discrimination is very painful.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain how you’ve challenged the landlords, how you would go to their houses and just sleep outside to negotiate the giving of land back to the people, to the Dalits, to cultivate.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: You see, when I went in 1968, it was a surprise to see — it is here — fertile lands. We have studied about the district that is the granary of Tamil Nadu. So much food is produced, plenty produced. But these people just have a small colony out of the main village and are living there just to serve the landlords. Their condition was very painful. Early in the morning, 5:00, they had to start to march to the landlord’s house. Only 8:00 evening, late in the night, 8:30 only, they were allowed to return back. This here is — what is it? Where is the freedom for these people?
AMY GOODMAN: How did you win so much land from the landlords?
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: And then what happened, they told me, when I went to there — the landlords got angry with me. “How can you bring equality between these two peoples? They’re untouchables. They are wretched people. They are snakes.” They used to scold them like they’re snakes. “You have come to plead for them? You want to bring equality between these two groups?” And the untouchable wanting one land, he is a landlord, and I am having ten acres of land and the landlord. So the landlord, equality you want to bring, so you go out. Then, I just take it and think about it. One day I will change it, one day I will change it. No conflict with these people, no compromise, but one day I will conquer. That is, I used to deeply thinking, thinking, but again and again I will go on to them, “You have so much here, land. Why not give to these people?” “No.” “Alright, one day I will take it.”
AMY GOODMAN: Your slogan: “no conflict, no compromise.”
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: No compromise. One day I will conquer. I conquered. Last June, I conquered. How? First, when these people are threatening me — so many times they used to threaten me with the weapons. You know, this prawn struggle, they brought oil early in the morning, walking in the street. They wanted to pour the oil and set fire. Suddenly I got an idea, if I run, just to throw the oil and throw the matchbox. Then, with the claws relaxed, I sat down, began to pray.
AMY GOODMAN: Your message to people around the world? It has been some, oh, twenty-eight years or so, twenty-seven years since you founded Land for the Tillers’ Freedom with your husband. You’ve won over 13,000 acres for the most impoverished people of India.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: And, you see, last June, it was a thrilling experience for me. I decided I should take all the lands from the landlords who involved themselves in the killing. It happened. They brought all the documents. They came in three cars and gave it to. And I have a saint following, Ramalinga. His message is, that is, “Every human is endowed with a divine light.” So I used to say to my sisters who are working on the land, “Don’t think you are dirty people. Don’t think you’re untouchables. God has given you the divine light. You are very precious. You have got the treasure in your heart, the divine light. So, you must come forward to this fight.” Like that, I talked. So, these people brought all the documents and placed it in front of the saint in our prayer room and said, “Amma, now we understood you. You are for a common cause. You suffered a lot. We gave you so much trouble, but you take it with no retaliation. You are very kind. You are our mother.” So, they have given all the lands, like that. Now they are cooperating.
Not only that, after four days, I got a letter from them, “Now we want to give you a very big house for your work.” They gave it to me. Like that, in that area, I have succeeded.
But what I mean to say, because of this award in the international level, my work is recognized, but I’m wanting to see a joint effort, a united effort of all the people in the world. We should put an end to this social discrimination. Why this discrimination between the human beings? We are all same.
AMY GOODMAN: Krishnammal, I want to thank you very much for joining us on the broadcast.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Then, I have many friends in USA. They have formed the Friends of LAFTI in San Diego. One friend, Peggy Burns, she’s the director, and our friend David is cooperating. So now, lastly, what I want to do is — not only the social discrimination is painful to us, what about the natural calamities like cyclone and tsunami? Every time they are disturbing the life of the people and great damage to their huts. Last week, there was a cyclone in our area. All the crops and huts submerged under water. It is very painful to me. So, I am going to spend this money, and I’m going to organize other things also to give them a comfortable house.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Krishnammal Jagannathan, thank you very much for being with us, a 2008 Right Livelihood Award winner.
KRISHNAMMAL JAGANNATHAN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from our break, we will be joined by Dr. Monika Hauser of Germany. Stay with us. Thank you.