I don’t consider myself to be a Liberal. In fact, I am disgusted by welfare dependency and I abhor the political correctness and self-victimization associated with the political left.I find liberals to be nothing more than posers pretending to give a rat’s ass about the working class.
Nevertheless, I’ve always been fascinated with the left-leaning labor movements of the early 20th century. People like Mother Jones and Eugene Debs sacrificed tremendously to secure basic workers rights. Heck, without them, we wouldn’t have this length of time known as the ‘weekend’.
In Southern India, left-leaning movements also took hold, inspiring a myriad of disguntled youths to join the cause. My grandfather was one of those aspiring activists.
The last time I visited my grandfather was in the summer of 2012. He passed away a few months afterwards. My grandfather, Thottukadavil Yohannan (or Appachan, as we used to call him), had a multi-layered personality. He was loving and playful. Yet he was also blunt and short tempered. He had a domineering personality and never hesitated to speak his mind.
Appachan was born into a poor family. In fact, he dropped out of school at the age of nine in order to assist his family with the financial burdens. In the outskirts of Punalur, within the shadows of the Western Ghats, Appachan worked as a rubber tapper, a low wage occupation where the workers were unappreciated as they worked up to 16 hours a day. These sweat-drenched workers used to unwind by lighting a cigarette or two, a habit which Appachan started as the age of ten, only to affect him drastically in his old age.
The entire Indian subcontinent was still under the whip of the British Raj. As agricultural laborers toiled under the heat, a group of western-educated Anglophile Indian lawyers, known as the Indian National Congress, continued to spearhead their quest for Indian independence. They constructed their ideology through a combination of Classical Liberalism and Socialism, which, ironically, they acquired from British-run educational institutions. It wasn’t long before a radical communist clique would emerge within the Indian National Congress. This inner circle became a movement of its own.
My grandfather was in his late teens when a pivotal moment in history would affect the rest of his life. In the Alappuzha-Ottanad region of Travancore (present day Southern Kerala), a rebellion broke out as a crusade of low caste coir workers, led by Communist activists, protested against Diwan CP Ramaswami Iyer’s proposal for an Americanized system of government, coupled with a lassiez faire capitalist system.
Wealth inequality prevailed in Travancore despite the surge in GDP. Agricultural tenants and factory workers were heavily exploited by industrialist and upper caste landlords. An American capitalistic system was perceived as a threat to these wage slaves. Their livelihoods were at stake so they fought.
This movement is now referred by history books as the Punnapra Valayar Uprising, named after the two villages in which the protests took place. Although the primary objective was to uphold the dignity of worker against an exploitative system, the ultimate long-term goal, as claimed by one of its leaders, T K Varghese Vaidya, was to instigate a widespread revolution, eventually leading to a Communist India.
At the end, the Diwan, known for his aggressive, hawkish stances, called for martial action and thousands of protesters were killed by gunfire. Yet the blood of these martyrs would be the fuel of a new social revolution, changing the political landscape of the region.
News of the Punnapra Valayar Uprising circulated throughout Travancore and neighboring Cochin. Appachan and his colleagues were shocked that their own government would use force against their own citizens.
The year was 1946. The British Raj was entering its twilight years. Uncertainty and instability reigned across the Indian subcontinent. Many younger Indians were petrified by an unknowable future. All the more reason to be attracted to radical politics.
Today, communism is the norm in Kerala, with its opportunistic career politicians (VS Achuthanadhan and Pinayari Vijayan come to mind), Hartals, economic stagnation, and luddite attitudes. However, back in the day, communism was such a major threat to the state that meetings had to convene underground, hidden from the public’s eye.
As the pitch-black night sky enveloped over the villages of Central Travancore, Appachan would be found at a fellow comrade’s home, accompanied by other young men. They discussed the recent developments involving the dawn of their nation and their aspirations for a classless society.
As Appachan, a fourth standard drop out, attended those underground meetings, he became educated in economics, sociology, history and political theory. He became acquainted with the works of Karl Marx, Leon Trosky, Vladimir Lenin He would have been in the same league as Saul Alinsky if he came from a well-off background.
However, unlike most of his comrades, he would not give up attending Sunday Mass. He was a devout Christian, from a clan that contributed a innumerable clergymen to both Orthodox and Malankara Catholic Churches. He was vibrantly active in his local parish, holding positions of treasurer, trustee, along with memberships in the building and ministry committees, respectively. He would never abandon his religion.
Although hardline communists and leftist trade unionists in Southern India were predominantly atheist, they weren’t as antireligious as their Soviet and Chinese counterparts. Politics is a numbers game. A politician in Kerala would be alienating the majority of his own state’s population if he espoused antireligious rhetoric.
Nevertheless, the Communists would find themselves in a hostile rapport with Roman Catholic clerics. We’ll get to that in a moment…..
A couple of years after the Punnapra Vayalar uprising, leading to Appachan’s adherence to Communism, his parents arranged his marriage to a 16 year old girl from a nearby village. The couple had a blissful marriage, producing six children, the youngest being my mother.
Growing up in the 1970s, my mother recalled her father’s comrades having chai and kappa with fish curry in their kitchen as they discussed the latest political issue with Appachan. My grandmother (whom I’d call Ammachi) would leave the kitchen with a huff. As someone without a political bone in her body, Ammachi hated the mere mention of words like sarkar (government), manthri (minister), or inquilab (revolution).
Appachan never failed to put his family first. He was a loving, sensitive husband and a devoted father who would, undoubtedly, sacrifice his own life for his children. Even when he travelled to states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, leading protests with the trade unions in those respective regions, his wife and children were his first priority and never hesitated to return early to meet their needs.
A decade passed since Appachan joined the revolutionary cause. The sociopolitical political landscape had drastically changed in Travancore.
In 1947, when Lord Mountbatten and his fellow countrymen left the jewel of the British crown (while possessing the Koh-e-Noor!), Travancore and their fellow Malayalis to the north, Cochin, merged to form the uncreatively named State of Travancore-Cochin.
Under the State Reorganization Act of 1956, the Malayalam-speaking regions of Madras State (Malabar district, Kasoragod taluk) merged with Travancore-Cochin. Meanwhile, the Tamil-speaking region of southern Travancore separated to form the Kanyakumari district of Madras State(present day Tamil Nadu).
The remaining result is the present day State of Kerala, known for coconuts, Ayurvedic massages and kallu shops.
The Communists were no longer an underground movement. In fact, they were now a major political party contesting in the 1956 state elections! Their candidate for Chief Minister (CM) was EMS Namboothiripad, a Namboothiri Brahmin (allegedly the most elite of all Brahmins in India) with a distracting case of stuttering. You couldn’t have a more suitable representative 😂😂😝
The Communists won sympathy and support from the masses and emerged victorious in the election. Yet they would soon be forced to abdicate….
Namboothiripad wanted to address the social inequality plaguing the newly-formed Kerala. His administration introduced two new bills. First, the Education Bill, written by Education minister Joseph Mundassery, addressing the sub par working conditions and inadequate salaries in management school, which were often run by Catholic dioceses. The second was the land reform bill which transferred ownership of land from the upper caste landlords to their share cropping tenants who toiled day and night for their muthalali.
The Catholic bishops were enraged by these new laws. The Church operated those schools and now their power was being threatened. The Nairs were also equally livid. After all, having one’s land get taken away is always an unwelcoming surprise.
The Catholic Church in Kerala and the Nair Service Society launched the Vimochana Samaram (liberation movement) in 1957 to combat the Communist-led government. In Catholic parishes, tirades against Namboothiripad’s administration replaced spiritual lessons in homilies, as parish priests encouraged their parishioners not to be swayed by the ideals of the red state.
Appachan now faced intense pressure from his fellow Church members. They constantly questioned his political stances and accused him of being Catholic-in-name-only, to which Appachan severely rebuked. While devout Christians expressed their support for the Indian National Congress, Appachan was the lone wolf who abided by his leftist principles.
Irony presented itself as the underground movement became the establishment. Ten year previous, they were agitating against the status quo. Now they were the status quo and faced their own agitators.
Furthermore they were not above the militaristic tactics of Ramaswami Iyer. On the fateful day of June 13th, 1959, police open-fired on an anti-communist demonstration. Seven people, including a pregnant fisher woman, were killed. After that incident, the democratically elected Communist government was dismissed by the Centre government in Delhi and Kerala was placed under President’s Rule.
Namboothiipad would return as CM in 1967 and the Communists still contest in the elections to this day. However, it is no longer the idealistic revolutionary movement Appachan joined as a young adult. Communist politicians are no different from any other politicians–corrupt, cynical, power-hungry.
Despite these turn of events, Appachan still clinged to revolutionary Leftist ideals until he drew his final breath. In that empty, off-white, one story house, pamphlets with the iconic portrait of Che Guevara still lie on the coffee table next to a crusty, old Malayalam Bible.