Punnapra-Vayalar Uprising – A Story of Communist treachery

via Dr. M. P. Ajith Kumar (Associat Professor of History, Sanatana Dharma College, Alappuzha) published on March 6, 2011

Punnapra-Vayalar revolt has been defined variously i.e. as a part of the freedom movement of India and also as movement against the declaration of Independent Travancore.

Was it India’s freedom movement? Or Did the Communists ever fight for India’s freedom? The answers to these questions can be had from a detailed and critical study of the CPI’s stand during the days of India’s freedom struggle. The CPI’s negative stand could well be understood by studying its activities against the backdrop of the Second World War scenario.

C P I in fact played a double headed chameleon when it worked for the Russian cause and declined the cause of the nation they lived in favour of the USSR. It Pooh-poohed the British war against Germany as ‘Imperialist War’ because in the early phase of the war England was fighting the alliance of which Russia was a member. The Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939 decided the stand of the Communists in India. Hitler having become the friend of Russia became the friend of peace in the descriptions of Indian Communists. Russia being the Communist fatherland and Germany its friend Indian Communists disparaged the British war against Russo-German combine as imperialist war.

1942 Operation Barbarosa against Russia made the latter fall out with Germany to become an English ally. This English alliance with Russia, the socialist fatherland changed the attitude of the C P I towards England overnight as if by the wand of a magician. British fight against the anti-Russian Germany became people’s war in the descriptions of the Indian Communists. Communists were now the bed-friends of the British with the result that not only did they non-cooperate with Indian freedom movement but tried their level best as well to sabotage it. (Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, History of the Freedom Movement in India, Calcutta, 1971, Vol. III, p. 567)

The Communist-British honeymoon reached its climax with Joshi-Maxwell correspondences. There were secret correspondences between the British Home Secretary Reginald Maxwell and P. C. Joshi, General Secretary of the CPI. The CPI had made contacts even with the South East Asia Command promising all help to the British to sabotage India’s fight for freedom. They offered to act as spies ferreting out for the British secret news about the moves of Indian freedom fighters and national leaders. This Communist offer though backed by the strong recommendations of Maxwell, was declined by the military authorities. Expressing their inability to entertain the idea of utilizing the services of political party, they said, “Besides we have our own ENSA organization”. It is thus a fact that Joshi as the General Secretary of the party offered unconditional support to the British Indian government to fight all the anti-English forces in India including the Indian National Army of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose whom the Communist dubbed a “Fascist stooge” and boot licker of the Japanese. He promised to help the British even to the point of helping Netaji arrested. Joshi characterized the leaders including Gandhi as “traitors” and “fifth columnists”. (Gene D Overstreet and Marshall Windmiller, Communism in India, pp. 180-181) More heinous were the activities of the Communist students’ organization. Communist section of the splintered All India Students Federation was active in antinational activities right from its origin. Its conference in 1940 led by Hiren Mukherji and K M Ashraf challenged the right of Indian National Congress to speak for the whole of India and passed a resolution declaring that “future India should be a voluntary federation of regional states based on mutual confidence”. Instead of arguing for a single nation comprising the entire Indians, the Communists upheld the idea that India should be a multi-national federation (R. C. Majumdar, op. cit, p. 567). They even celebrated the ‘Pakistan Days’ in their bid to enlist the support of the Muslims by conceding their claim of Pakistan. (M. R. Masani, The Communist Party of India – Short History, Bombay, 1962, pp. 66-67)

Not only did the Communists sabotage Indian freedom movement but turned turncoats even to the working class as well. Even among its own followers the CPI’s sincerity was looked suspiciously, especially in the context of the Kayyur martyrdom of 1943. It happened at a time when the Indian Communists were the bed-friends of the British. But the Communists did not pressurize the British nor even put a word with them to see the Kayyur revolutionaries released. Even Communist historians seem nonplused by this stand of the CPI. Thus writes Dr. K. K. N. Kurup:
The greatest paradox in this affair was that the Indian Communist Party was in cooperation with the British Government in India against a fascist war, when these semi literate peasant-cum-freedom fighters mounted the gallows.

(K K N Kurup, The Kayyur Riot, Calicut, 1978, p. 68; also see E. Balakrishnan, Communist Movement in Kerala, Kochi, 1998, pp. 176-178)

Also the party was so much in dire need of martyrs that it would not take any step that would mar opportunities to get them, a stand well reflected in the attitude of the Communist leaders like P. C. Joshi who wrote “The party is not loosing … but gaining four martyrs … inspired by four, we will win four hundred … four thousand new party members… (P. C. Joshi, ‘Kayyur Heroes’, article written in Peoples War, 1943 quoted in K. K. N. Kurup, op. cit, p. 110)

The veteran communist leader E. M. S himself confessed the erroneous policies the Communists followed during 1942 and after:

It is undoubted that the Communists had erred in many aspects, realizing the importance of 1942 anti-imperialist upsurge, in evaluating the importance of the emergence of the leftist socialist group following this, in assessing the diehardism involved in Muslim League’s Pakistan call …

A. Sreedhara Menon, ‘From Quit India to 1947’, Kerala and Freedom Struggle, Calicut, 2000, pp. 158-165)

While delivering the Gangadhar Adhikari Memorial Lecture on ‘Proletarian Internationalism Today’ on 5 June 1990 E M S admitted that it was a “mistake” by the then C P I leadership consisting of Gangadhar Adhikari, P. C. Joshi and B. T. Ranadive to have described the Second World War as the People’s war immediately after the entry of the Soviet Union in it and subordinated to it the question of national liberation movement. (Indian Express, Kochi, 7 June 1990.)

Policy of the Communist Party at the national level was thus to support British administration in India even at the cost of own comrades’ life. It is against this all India background of the CPI that one is to set the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising. It is indeed strange to conclude that the party which boycotted and sabotaged the national movement organized freedom struggle in the remote corner of Kerala! Besides the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising occurred only after 2 September 1946, the day when Nehru’s interim national government took over the Indian administration. Suffice it to say, the real transfer of power happened before the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising. The Punnapra-Vayalar revolt that took place only after the transfer of power can in no way be deemed fight for Indian independence.

Was it a movement against the declaration Independent Travancore?

Punnapra-Vayalar tragedy occurred in October 1946 i.e. before the declaration of Independent Travancore which came only later. It was only on 11 June 1947 that C. P. Ramaswami Iyyer, Diwan of Travancore declared at Bhaktivilasam, his official residence that the day India would become independent Travancore too would be an independent state. He did it not on his own but on behalf the Travancore king who C. P. said was prepared to face any eventuality.

At the 25th June 1947 press conference at VJT Hall Sir. C. P. elaborated that the Independent Travancore was the decision of the King and that the King took this decision owing to somebody else’s pressure was only a canard to defame the king. (Aswatitirunal Gauri Lakshmi Bai’s statement in a speech in 1977 that Travancore Royal family took the decision of Independent Travancore to free the state from the north Indian domination is to be remembered in this context.)

But facts were not taken by the ordinary folk which still believed that C. P. was the man behind the Independent Travancore declaration. Even now it is still difficult to convince the ordinary masses the realities regarding Punnapra-Vayalar uprising which they take as a part of India’s freedom movement and a fight against the C. P.’s move to balkanize the nation.

Was the full independence of Travancore aimed at?

A starving state Travancore appointed a trade agent to import grains from Karachi. But this was misinterpreted as the appointment of an Ambassador. Appointment of trade agent has been done in with the precedence and was fully legal.

It was also stated by the Diwan that Travancore like all other native states would decide on defense, external affairs, communication, etc, only after consulting the central leaders. It was also stated that he would fall in with any central decision regarding educational research and public health which would be in the best interest of the entire subcontinent. This very clearly brought out C. P’s conviction that an Independent Travancore had its own limitations and that it cannot help but only fall in with the interest of the entire nation.

19-21 July 1947 discussions with Lord Mountbatten and V. P. Menon C. P. agreed to join with the Indian Union giving over to it defense, external affairs and communication portfolios. Center had also agreed to Travancore’s handling its internal autonomy and trade affairs and not to poke nose into its rights to revenue collection, currency system, trade with foreign countries, keeping own troops etc.

On 23 July Sir C. P, touching down at Thiruvanantapuram told his colleagues about the decision to get Travancore united with the Indian Union. He is also said to have telegraphed this to his son C. R. Pattabhiraman at Madras. But this was not widely publicized. According to A. Sreedhara Menon the assassination attempt on Sir. C. P. would not have happened had he made an early revelation of these facts (A. Sreedhara Menon, Sir C. Piyum swatantra tiruvitamkurum (Malayalam)Kottayam, 1999, p. 21) But would not the assassination attempt have happened even if the decision of Travancore’s merger with the Indian union was widely publicized? Was the move to assassinate C. P. purely the result of Communist or popular movement?

A snake in the grass?

C. P. was a known scholar especially of Indology. A promoter of Indian studies, C. P. was an adept in India’s spiritual philosophy whose contribution to it earned him recognition of the international community of scholarship. His books like Fundamentals of the Hindu the Faith and Culture, Psychology, Western and Eastern, Culture Freedom and other Essays, Women in Vedic and Post-Vedic Times, etc and the forewords he wrote to many books like Beggar Princess by Dilip Kumar Roy, Indo-Chinese Relations by Chou Esiang Kuang, Sikkhism by Bhair Jodh Singh, U.N.O. by Jaganou Diagou, Numismatic Parellels of Kalidasa by Dr. C. Siva Ramamurthy and many other scholarly works on Indian philosophy are of world wide recognition. A wide-ranging intellectual, he was an internationally reputed jurist and educationist few could match. However C. P’s efforts as a great promoter of Hinduism and Hindu interests turned him to be a victim of attack by fundamentalist forces. His prevailing upon the King of Travancore to declare the Temple Entry Proclamation in Travancore had taken wind out of sails of certain sections of Kerala which were waiting for opportunity to convert the outcaste Hindus to their religious fold. His liquidation of the Christian owned Quilon National Bank and fight with the Christian Press, Malayala Manorama were issues that resulted in the ire against C. P. The recent revelation of Maheswari Amma, wife of the late N. Srikantan Nair in an interview to my journalist friend M. Balakrishnan that it was the Manorama Group that acted behind the assassination attempt on C. P is indeed noteworthy. It was not the communist plan to assassinate C. P. though fortunately for the Communist it inadvertently occurred that a K. C. S. Mani, an R. S. P. activist happened to be the man who attempted to assassinate him.

Economic poverty and the working class’ plight of Alappuzha belt at the time Punnapra-Vayalar revolt occurred could be duly reckoned with as one of the leading causes of the revolt. An analysis of the socio-political and economic backdrop of the revolt is much called for. Politically the high pitch of the Responsible Government in Travancore was over. True, the leaders like Pattom Tanu Pillai liked to try it. But the mass movement came against this and the call “throw the American Model to Arabian sea” (American model arabikkadalil) rent the air. The Communists, eagerly waiting for a chance to revolt, got a golden opportunity to incite armed insurrection against the government. Coincided with this was the post-World War (II) bleak economy of Kerala in general and Alappuzha in particular. With the increase in the prices of the necessary commodities the sufferings of the ordinary people and the working class beggared description (See Prof. A. Sreedhara Menon’s speech ‘From Quit Indian to 1947’ at Kochi on 8 May 1999 which this author translated and edited. See Kerala and Freedom Struggle, Op. Cit). The tenant-land lord clashes were common just as the skirmishes between the industrial workers and factory owners. The social chemistry of the area was also more or less the same with most of the land being owned by the upper class including the Syrian Christians and the downtrodden communities like Ezhavas and Pulayas constituting the labour force. Inequality was so rampant that it grew to abominable dimensions with the state police too siding with land and factory owners in times of labour disputes and consequent clashes. K. C. George in his Punnapra-Vayalar gives a touching description of this socio-economic condition of the downtrodden. He describes the plight of the fishing folk enslaved by the Christian priests and the misery of the agricultural labourers ridden roughshod over by the land lords. And to these suffering masses any fight against this type of tyrannies was so welcome that it would cultivate in them a sense of self-respect and manliness and establish their due rights through pugnacity and fearlessness (C. Narayanapilla, Tiruvitamkur swatantryasamara charitram (Malayalam), Tiruvanantapuram, 1972, p. 1086). Suffice it to say that the Alappuzha belt of Kerala with its pathetic socio-economic scenario was riot-prone. It was this sensitive state of affairs the Communists exploited

Why the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising?

As already noticed the antinational stand of the Communist Party made it completely isolated from the populace. And to the Communist it was a necessity to gain the lost popularity. If to quote the late Prof. A. Sreedhara Menon the Communists “now tried a new method, armed revolts”. They unleashed a false propaganda that though the Nehru government took the reigns of power the real transfer of power did not happen and lambasted Nehru as a bourgeois agent of the British. Nehru was ruling India on behalf of the British, they tried to convince the people. Hence the necessity of organizing armed revolts against the then government in power, they argued. Without martyrs the party would not get any grip in Kerala and a confrontation with the Travancore administration would help them in getting the martyrs, they knew. The leaders who sent the unlettered masses with false promises were not unwise to believe that an untrained group equipped with country spikes and the like weapons would withstand the heavily armed Travancore government forces. They would only be cannon eaters perishing like moths before the bullets, they knew. It gives one queer reading that not even a single leader gave up his life in the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising which the Communists described as a working class’ revolt. Even the Communist veteran P. Krishna Pillai, otherwise famous for his sincerity and uprightness, is said to have left the scene overnight, leaving the uneducated workers to C. P’s force. And the Punnapra-Vayalar bloodbath as the communists expected gave them martyrs. Hence the CPI’s sweeping victory in the forthcoming 1957 Assembly election in Kerala. Definitely the martyrdom of more than a thousand innocent people made the CPI stronger than it was before and the Party which had only a few followers in 1947 grew in the number of followers to become strong enough to get through the 1957 hustings resulting in the formation of the Communist government in Kerala. The blood of the martyrs thus became the seed of the party. Punnapra-Vayalar revolt was thus neither a fight for India’s independence nor a revolt against C. P’s declaration of Independent Travancore as the Communists propagate. It was in fact a sad story of the Communist leaders’ treachery to their unlettered and ignorant but sincere comrades.

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