She walks alone from village to village in Thanjavur to the beat of Gandhiji’s favourite song ‘Ekla cholo re,’ the very embodiment of the Gandhian philosophy of Satyagraha and non-violence. In Chennai earlier this month at the inaugural function of the Micro and Small Enterprises Support Workshop, organised by Fair Trade Forum India, SIPA and IFFAD, among the luminaries present none stood taller than Krishnammal Jagannathan, winner of the Alternate Nobel Prize 2008.

A Dalit whom the citation hailed as the ‘soul of India’ and a lifelong Satyagrahi working for social justice and sustainable human development, Krishnammal has achieved what has been called a non- violent social transformation of the lives of the landless poor, particularly Dalit women.

This frail and beautiful lady of 85 who walked shoulder to shoulder with Vinoba Bhave in his Bhoodan Movement, ushered in a silent revolution of land distribution to Dalit women in remote parts of Tamil Nadu. She is the winner of Swami Pranavananda Peace Award given by the Gandhi Peace Foundation, the Jamnalal Bajaj Award (1988), the Padma Sri (1989), the Women’s World Summit Award, Switzerland (1989), the Opus Award, The Right Livelihood Award also known as the Alternate Nobel Prize (2008) and a host of other prestigious awards. She wears them all lightly.

Krishnammal came to the inauguration, where she was chief guest, clutching a fly ash brick in her hand. Manufactured by the Dalits of Kuthur village, she wants this eco- friendly hollow brick to be used by them to build their homes on the land which is now theirs, thanks to her relentless efforts. The fly ash hollow brick is a symbol of a collective dream which she hopes will translate into reality with the 5,000 homes for Dalits of the village. In this interview, she talks about her cause, her philosophy and the award…

What was the defining moment when you embarked on your mission of land distribution to the landless, particularly women?

Gandhiji dreamt of ‘gram swaraj’. I strongly feel that as long as land is held by landlords, there can be no freedom for those tilling the land. By tradition, Dalits are tillers of the land and are attached to it. Every day, women leave their houses early in the morning and plant paddy till late evening, yet they have no right over the land in the existing system. I was part of Vinoba Bhave’s padayatra and was walking with him pleading for land when news came on December 25, 1968, of the mass killing of 44 Harijan women and children at Keelavenmani in Thanjavur district, following a wage dispute between landlord and tiller. This horrific incident changed my life’s direction and I decided to go to Keelavenman and not leave till Dalits got their land. And I am still there! My husband and I began our movement by getting the temple land owned by a benami landlord distributed among the women with much struggle. About 12,000 acres of land were distributed among the Dalit women. This was my first fight against the system. I walked from village to village in the region to meet the women and slowly they became the wind under my wings. Although I was harassed, arrested and even jailed, I never lost faith. I used to gather children who worked in the fields and give them basic education.

The NGO Land for Tillers’ Development or LAFTI has become the cornerstone of your movement. How did it come about?

In 1981, I formed LAFTI, an NGO working for the socio-economic development of the marginalised classes. I decided to form village-based co-operatives for Dalit women to save money and collectively purchase the land which they tilled, from the landlords. I heard that the Government was helping Dalits buy land by giving them loans. I began to avail of these loans. Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi came to my office. Rajiv Gandhi created a separate wing for Dalit uplift called the National Scheduled Caste Development Corporation. Now that the Government gives us loans, I approach landlords, bureaucrats and other functionaries to purchase land and redistribute it among the women. They often pay back the loans in one installment. It is heart-warming to watch them cultivate their own land, and drink in the sight of green paddy fields and children playing there. Some 13,000 acres have been redistributed to women, and 11,000 will be distributed shortly. It has been a people-based action, a non-violent transfer of land through LAFTI. We use Satyagraha as a tool of liberation. We sing bhajans in front of the landlord’s houses in the mornings. We have been brutalised, attacked and once they even tried to pour petrol over me. But I just meditated and carried on.

What are LAFTI’s other activities?

LAFTI also runs village industries. We teach women mat weaving, tailoring, carpentry, masonry and run computer classes. We have built three hostels in Vallivalan for girls and boys. The students are doing well, with 20 studying to be doctors, engineers etc. We have also set up a brick kiln,which has helped in building ‘people participatory’ eco-friendly houses for 2000 families so far. My next goal is to build 5,000 more houses, to humanise the dwellings of Dalit families.

So that is your next goal…

When I first came to Keelavenmani, it was an act of desperation to give Dalits their land, to provide them livelihood and restore their dignity. Now my dream is to give every woman a house on her land with some modern facilities.

Is this fly ash brick which you have brought with you a first step in your commitment?

Yes. The brick is made out of fly ash which we get free. I approached ONGC and they donated the eco-friendly brick making machinery. The electricity took six months to come and our first fly ash bricks were made on 30 October. I brought this brick, freshly made straight from the village of Kuthur.

Tell us more about your propose LAFTI house…

My aim is to build 5,000 such homes measuring 200 sq.ft. each. The villagers themselves will make the hollow bricks and provide labour for construction. The house ‘patta’ will be given to the women. We are looking at sponsors for each house which will be named after them.

What do the Awards, specially the Alternate Nobel Prize mean to you?

What can they mean to me? I really don’t want these awards. Without my work, my life is a waste. I want to give dwellings to the homeless and the award money helps. I want every woman to have a dignified life and a home. All this will surely abolish caste and give them hope. I listen to Bhave’s Thiruaruppa song every morning at 2.30 a.m. and shed tears. When I am blessed to sit near him and listen to these words, what are these awards?

Your message to the people of the country which you so diligently serve…

Please help me financially to realise my dream of giving Dalit women homes. I appeal to every genuine heart to join me in this yagna.

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