Punnapra Vayalar: India’s singular history of an organized working class revolting against a govt, 70 years ago in Kerala

By Nidheesh M.K.

Vayalar (Kerala):

A thin man in white mundu (a garment worn around the waist) and shirt, with a pencil moustache and dyed black hair, hurriedly walks towards a noisy hall in Vayalar, in Kerala’s Alappuzha district, with his hands raised.

He is V.C. Das, 94.

On this exact day, 70 years ago, he was part of an agitation which culminated in the ‘Punnapra-Vayalar revolt’, probably the only time an organized working class in India has led an armed revolt against a government.

The agitation saw an army of the poorest of the poor, armed with tools such as arecanut staves, come face to face with a police touting guns, knowing fully well that they stand little chance.

“Indian working classes, to be sure, have conducted long, bitter strikes, and peasants have staged sustained revolts in the countryside. But only once, it appears, have workers in an industry fashioned weapons, set up armed enclaves and fought the military in pitched, if one-sided, battles,” Robin Jeffrey, media scholar, had written once in Indian Economic and Social History Review.

Why did the workers take up arms when none of their contemporaries in India had done so?

The agitation was a tipping point for the labourers, who were being harassed by the then ruler of the region, C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyer.

Aiyer, the diwan of Travancore, had the full backing of the British government and had just implemented governance reforms which gave him absolute powers like an American President, said V.S. Achuthanandan, Kerala’s 93-year old communist mass leader in an earlier interview.

“Just take the case of fishermen,” he said, in Malayalam, “Half of whatever they get would go into the hands of the landlord. Half of the rest would go to the Church (in memory of the soul of the dead landord). It was called Valla-karam and Palli-karam. There was nothing left for them after paying these two.” Achuthanandan, a major leader from the region then, was forced to go into hiding after the revolt, fearing police action. Nevertheless, he was picked up by the police in one of the nights after the revolt, and was brutally tortured under custody, the scars of which still lingers on his right leg.

“There were restrictions to enter temples, ponds or even roads. The women and the children suffered the worst. They had to pay taxes even to wear blouses,” said P.K. Medini. Medini, from Alappuzha, was a kid in 1946. She used to sing songs in the meet-ups (called cells) where the labourers planned the Punnapra Vayalar revolt.

At 24, Das was a worker at a nearby coir factory, or that was his day-job. He was not a member of the action-group which actually stormed the police camp, but at night, he assisted S. Kumaran, one of the leaders of the movement, who was living underground.

According to some accounts, some 50,000 men and women participated in the attack. Majority of them were workers associated with some trade union or the other. In those days, thanks to active politicking by communists, Kerala was heavily unionized. Almost all of the workforce had enrolled themselves in trade unions formed in their respective sectors, and in some sectors the left back unions monetized almost 99% of the total workforce in the sector.

Inevitably, the revolt took the lives of hundreds. Das says there were no real means to know how many. “Newspapers were banned, we were not allowed to step outside the house post the police camp attack. Anything suspicious (for the police) dropped dead.” he said.

Where did they bury all of those hundreds?

Das points to the ground beneath a statue of a black man with an arecanut stave aside the hall which was erected in memory of the agitation. “This place was a huge pond then, now it looks like a hill to you?”

“We buried the dead in that pond, threw soil over it,” he said.

The revolt is named after two of the places involved. It started under the leadership of undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) in a nearby place called Punnapra on 23 October, and lasted for 10 days until it culminated in Vayalar. CPI and the later born Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPM, leaders come together to celebrate the event every year, with week long festivities, culminating in a 32 km long torch lamp procession.

The uprising resulted in the displacement of Iyer and the establishment of an independent Travancore the year next. The debate over its pros and cons, however, is still going on.

“To the communists, it was the finest flowering of the working class against the exploitative forces of the establishment... the anti-communists think that the ignorant and innocent workers involved in the revolt were misled by the CPI, in directing the workers to use arecanut staves against machine guns, culminating in a massacre,” historian N. Sasidharan wrote in academic journal Samyukta in 2001.

Notwithstanding such debates, political analysts widely agree that the revolt gave a strong push towards a significant social renaissance, shaping up the modern welfare state which is bracing for its 60th formation year on 1 November this year.

“For me, the history of modern-day Kerala started in October, 1946. The sacrifice of the revolutionaries in Punnapra and Vayalar gave the base for not only the solidifying efforts but also all socio-political movements that shaped modern Kerala,” says K.J. Jacob, resident editor of Deccan Chronicle in Kerala.

©Livemint, 2016



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