Intkheri, Raisen district, MP: Around 50 years ago, some 100 poor and landless men from Kerala went to Madhya Pradesh to teach the tribal people of remote Intkheri village how to grow rice and tapioca.
In exchange, they were sold 12 acres each through a government scheme that was launched by Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister. They bought the land at subsidized rates with a long repayment schedule.
Even though the mechanized farming project, as the scheme was called, was wound up in 1956, these people stayed back in Intkheri in Raisen district that has now become home to at least four generations of Malayalees.
No looking back: (left) Raghunathan come to Intkheri with this mother Kunjamma (right) and seven siblings as a part of Union government’s mechanized farming project. Though the project was wound up in 1956, the migrants stayed back in Intkheri in Raisen district that has now become home to at least four generations of Malayalees.
The few Malayalees in this area don’t form a vote bank for either of the two main political parties in the state—the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party. But their tale is one of survival against huge odds.
Intkheri falls under the Vidisha Lok Sabha constituency where the Congress party has no candidate. This makes the election of BJP candidate Sushma Swaraj from this seat, which goes to the polls on 23 April, almost certain.
Adapting to new conditions, including a new language, has never been easy for those who came first, especially the women. Kunjamma, who uses one name, came to Intkheri in 1955. She is now 82, but doesn’t speak a word of Hindi. All that she reads is Malayala Manorama Weekly, a popular Malayalam magazine. But at no point does she or other members of her family regret leaving Kerala. And they have no plans of returning.
“Our relatives back in Kerala make fun of us saying we belong to kaduvakkadu (wild forest). But for us, this is paradise. This is the soil that welcomed us when we reached here empty-handed,” says Ragunathan, 66, who boarded the train to Bhopal from Ernakulam in 1955, with his mother Kunjamma and seven siblings.
“It was a Vishu day (Kerala’s new year),” says Kunjamma, remembering the day she left Kerala for Intkheri. Her husband and around 100 others had left six months before. “When we came, they (her husband and others) had already planted kappa (tapioca),” she says.
“The Union government gave us everything. They brought us here by train, in which we travelled for two nights and a day to reach Bhopal. There were jeeps waiting for us at the station...here, we had houses with tin roofs to live in, cows and buffaloes to milk and land to plough... They gave us even sweaters for the winter,” she reminisces.
These landless migrant families came from different religious communities—upper caste Nairs, other backward class Ezhavas, and Christians from Kottayam and Ernakulam districts of Kerala. They came and settled in four villages in Raisen—Imillia, Urdumao, Majoos Kalan and Inthkeri. More Malayalee families live in Inthkeri than in the other villages.
In the early years, some migrants went back because they were homesick; they couldn’t stand the extreme weather or live with the tribals and the local people.
When new boundaries were drawn for Madhya Pradesh state in 1956, the farm project was wound up eight years ahead of schedule. The migrants were asked to repay the rest of the instalments as a lump sum. They had to run from pillar to post to contest this, and finally, many decades later in 1984, the Union government wrote off their debts, says Raghunathan.
Despite such a long wait, Raghunathan says he is happy here because he is now a prosperous farmer.
Says P.K. Lakshman, whose father came to this village from Kerala in 1955: “We would not have been happy in Kerala. There we will not be able to do agriculture and the (trade) unions there won’t allow us to even harvest our crop.”
Most Malayalee families here send their children to schools outside the village. Supriya, Kunjamma’s granddaughter, studies in Omvidya Mandir school in Bhopal, where her aunt is working as a nurse.
“The Malayalee families here have somebody or the other outside Intkheri, and they are richer than us because the government gave them land. So they can afford sending their children to schools outside,” says Om Prakash, a local farmer. “Earlier, we had problems with these Malayalees...but now we are happy with them.”
The initial unity among the Malayalee migrants in Intkheri has now given way to differences over religion and politics, says Lakshman.
On his part, Raghunathan alleges harassment by officials of the state-run agency that procures wheat from the village due to his political affiliations. “I am a Congress supporter in the BJP-ruled state,” he says. “They keep me waiting longer than others while procuring wheat.”
“Half of these people (including the migrants) are BJP men...even the one (his neighbour) who just left,” he says.
The Christians—four families, including two tribal families, who live in Intkheri—complain that the Nairs treat them like second-class citizens. When the Holy Family Church in the village wanted to build a home for priests working there, some members of the Nair community instigated a local Hindu, from whom the church authorities bought the land, to oppose the move to build the house, says Philip Alammoottil, the church priest, but he refused to disclose other details.
But the situation isn’t turbulent either. “Unlike Kerala, we can borrow money from anyone and can return it in a year or two. Nobody will come to slaughter you for that. These villagers are very humane,” said Kesavan, a second-generation migrant from Kerala who uses one name.
Alammoottil also says the Malayalees have “mixed well with the local culture”.