A son remembers a life in Indian communism

Indian communists have a unique distinction that they normally don’t like to acknowledge: among the world’s communist parties, they have had one of the longest experiences of engaging legitimately with an electoral democratic process. I don’t deny that erstwhile communist parties of Western Europe, such as the French and the Italian, had sizeable support among the electorate. However, most of them went into self destruction mode after the Soviet Union imploded. The few remaining ones do not seem to be making any headway with the electorate. In India, not only have communists held their own in a few states even after the collapse of the Soviet state, but they have run the government in these and had a significant say at the national level during the UPA I days.

This legacy is however one they seem reluctant to claim as their own, as stated earlier. Perhaps they feel that it is an admission of their weakness, their lack of revolutionary fervour, that they have, in all these years, failed to bring about the revolution; that they have descended to the level of accommodating the parliamentary norms of bourgeoise  politics.

Now the concept of ‘revolution’ among the communists is one that would bear some scrutiny. Though often loosely bandied about, in Communist jargon it has a very precise meaning: it is the event marking the transfer of power from the ‘bourgeoise’ state, to one dominated by the working class, or the entry (or exit?) to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Beyond this point, there is only the steady progress towards that state called ‘communism’ to which all human societies should aspire. Or so they insist. (If this description bears a suspicious resemblance to any religious dogma, it is not intentional on my part).

So the communists in India also aspire to ‘revolution’; one which would change the nature of the state forever. Elections are perceived mostly as a temporary nuisance that the party has to put up with, till the revolution ‘arrives’. However, they are not united in their perception of how much elections matter. Since the Prophet obsessed about the role of the state, so must they. And depending on how they have interpreted the role of the state vis-a-vis the revolution, they have squabbled among themselves.

One can identify at least three streams among Indian communists, depending on the approach to elections. One, of course, rejects the electoral process outright as a sham and one calculated to mislead the ‘people’; therefore, they would have none of it. They seldom participate in elections, or if they do, their role is that of the saboteur. I don’t have to spell out who they are. The numerically prominent stream in India, the CPM, is convinced that the state is a reactionary entity; therefore, participation in elections is a temporary strategy calculated to intensify the class conflict in society to such an extent that revolution becomes the inevitable consequence. Or at least that they pretend. And with the revolution would be ushered in true ‘people’s democracy’.

There is one stream among the Indian communists that did think that the post independence state in India truly represented national aspirations. By engaging in the electoral process and playing by the rules of the game, this state can be made responsive to the needs of the poor and the marginalised, the true ‘constituency’ of the communists. Though the possibility of a distant revolution is never ruled out, the immediacy of everyday struggles of the people, and the role of the party in ensuring their rights, is more important. In this view, communists should not be ashamed to fully engage with the electoral process; the fig leaf of revolution is discarded in all but rhetoric. I call them ‘Joshi communists’, after the flamboyant General Secretary of the CPI in the forties, Comrade P C Joshi. Joshi engaged with national leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru in the pre and peri-Independence period, carefully maintaining the identity of the party, but willing to accommodate the thrust and parry of democratic debate rather than use the vitriolic hatred of revolutionary jargon.

Joshi was cut down to size in the 1948 Congress of the party. Comrade B T Ranadive, a hardened veteran from Maharashtra, carried the day with his ‘thesis’ that the time for revolution was ripe; that the party only had to give the call and people would take to the streets in large numbers to overthrow the state. Part of the surreality of this romantic make believe is described by Raj Thapar, wife of Romesh Thapar. The Thapars were ‘Cambridge communists’, elites who had converted to communism while studying in Cambridge in the forties, and had come back to India to hasten the revolution. Another remarkable figure in this genre was Comrade Jyothi Basu. Raj and Romesh are also famous as the founders of the left wing journal ‘Seminar’, still a recognisable voice in political circles. In her remarkably insightful autobiography written in the nineties (‘All these years, a memoir’- 1991), there is a passage which describes Ranadive’s appearance at their Bombay flat to warn them to be ready for the clarion call of revolution. They were supposed to wait for the sound of a siren which would announce the time of revolution, and then take part in an ‘operation’ to commandeer the All India Radio station in Bombay. Apparently he appeared at midnight, announcing himself with loud knocking at their flat. Raj found that he had woken up all the neighbours, who were curious to find out what was going on. The big comrade, ‘Number One’ to use an allusion from Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’, was dressed in shorts and some kind of distinctive uniform. When asked the necessity for such an outlandish attire, he apparently seriously remarked: ‘I am in disguise’. According to Raj, the siren never sounded on the appointed hour. (I am writing from memory; I don’t have the book to refer to).

Nevertheless, the 1948 Congress was a landmark in the history of CPI. The Joshi communists remained a minority; they were overruled and revolution was announced. The government at the Centre promptly banned the party- why shouldn’t it, when the party admitted its lack of faith in the Indian state-  forcing the leaders to go ‘underground’. Police stations were attacked in various parts, especially in states like Kerala where communists were in strength. Some policemen were killed. And then started a reign of terror by the police and the state against the communists, leading to a self fulfilling prophecy about state repression in many parts of India. But contrary to Comrade Ranadive’s expectations, people largely shunned them, and did not come out in large numbers to oppose the repressive state. A communist veteran who voted against the Ranadive ‘thesis’ in 1948, and was later member of parliament from Trivandrum, Comrade K V Surendranath, recollects in his memoirs how after weeks of existence in hiding, hardly getting enough food, with clothes in tatters and smelling from skin diseases, he was almost glad of his capture by the police.

‘Development’ communism

C Achutha Menon was definitely a communist of the Joshi genre. By his own admission, when Gandhi started his salt satyagraha, he had barely finished school. By the time he had become a fully qualified lawyer, the Mahatma had given the call for the Imperial power to ‘Quit India’. After a year of mixed success in law practice, Achutha Menon jumped headlong into the freedom struggle, an ardent Congressman.

In jail he was influenced by his many colleagues, some of whom introduced him to Communist ideas. As he wrote later, the poverty and suffering all around him in a war stricken and struggling Cochin state (as the principality was known), wrought in him a yearning for a better world, a world where people could live their dreams and aspirations, one where they would be happy with their dear ones and free from wants. One where they could live with dignity. And communism offered the magic solution. Like all communists of Kerala at that time, he belonged to the Congress Socialist Party. Later, when the CSP moved en bloc to form the Kerala unit of the Communist Party of India, he moved with it.

But though Gandhi was his inspiration to dedicate his life to public service, his great hero was Jawaharlal Nehru. He shared the young leader’s vision that the main justification for aspiring to political power is to work for betterment of the lives of the marginalised, and the rise of a more equitable society, through state action. And he shared Nehru’s undisguised admiration for Soviet achievements, especially with regard to the leading role of the state in development planning. In the forties, when he was incarcerated for a speech against the British rule, he used the time to write one of the first books in Malayalam on the Soviet Union, a laudatory tome. In 1948 he was a delegate to the Calcutta Congress of the CPI which had endorsed the ‘Ranadive thesis’; he was in the minority who voted against it. According to K V Surendranath, in a private communication he mentioned that ‘this position that we have not gained true independence, will set us back at least 25 years’. Nevertheless, a faithful party man, he promptly went ‘underground’ in Kerala to bring about the revolution, emerging only after the party ban had been rescinded and it had been reinstated as a legal entity by the Congress government in the Centre.

In 1956 the state of Kerala was formed by uniting the Malabar district of the Madras Presidency with the principalities of Cochin and Travancore. Achutha Menon by that time had become the Secretary of the Communist Party in Kerala. His dreams of the future Kerala were crystallised in a pamphlet titled ‘Towards a more prosperous and plentiful Kerala’, which became the manifesto of the Communist Party in the election. When the party came to power in the state in the first election in 1957, it was the programme outlined in his pamphlet which they largely proceeded to implement. Distribution of the principal asset of land in a more equitable manner, abolishing the absentee land-lord system, abolishing tenure cultivation to give land to the cultivators were some of the pillars of the program. It is this program of the first communist government in the state that set the development agenda for Kerala for the next several decades.

Meanwhile factionalism in the CPI, true to international communist traditions, had ripened to a point of crisis. Though the failure of Ranadive’s ‘thesis’ was acknowledged in the next Congress of the party, where they openly rejected the call to violent revolution and agreed to be part of electoral politics in India, Joshi was never re-instated to his former position of prestige. Ajoy Kumar Ghosh, the revolutionary from Bengal, was the compromise General Secretary. And he remained in that position till his death in the early sixties, largely successful in containing the rising tension from warring factions from breaking out into an open fight. It is also to be noted that his name inspired a number of fathers in left-thinking Kerala in naming their sons: you only have to look at the number of ‘Ajayan’s, ‘Ajoy’s, ‘Ajayakumar’s, and even ‘Ajai Ghosh’s born in the fifties in Kerala. (On a personal note, I narrowly escaped this fate due to the timely intervention of a devout grandmother, it seems, who insisted on her grandson bearing the name of Rama, in part mitigation for the sins of a godless son in law). Developments in the international communist movement did not help. Stalin was dead, and a resurgent Khrushchev had openly condemned ‘Stalinism’, giving rise to further ideological polemics. Communist China had more or less loosened itself from the grip of its socialist elder brother and dared to assume the mantle of revolutionary leadership across the world. These things were reflected in the Indian party also.

Achutha Menon remained with the much reduced CPI after the ultimate split in the Indian party in 1964. Personally the split came as a great shock to him; he was the Secretary of the Kerala unit of the party during the period, and could never believe that comrades could be so acrimonious in hurling abuse at each other. Another younger colleague, E Chandrasekharan Nair, recollects that during the tenure of his secretary ship, everyone knew that factional activity was rampant in the Kerala party and that a section was preparing to break away; everyone but the Secretary, that is. He refused to believe that the ‘comrades’ would split the party they loved. The conflicts surrounding the split precipitated his first heart attack at the young age of forty eight, an affliction he would suffer from for the rest of his life and which would severely curtail his potential.

 Coalition politics

Following the split in the party and his heart attack, he largely stayed away from electoral politics in the sixties. However, the two factions of the party which had split apart, came together again shortly during the coalition government of 1967. This was not to last long. In 1969, four smaller parties split away from the CPM-led coalition to form a government with the support of the Congress. And CPI inducted its best bet, Achutha Menon, to lead the government.

In the period lasting from 1969-1977, he led a coalition government which included the Congress, and won one election for the coalition in between- in 1970. He promptly started to implement the blue-print of development which he himself had outlined earlier. In a remarkable feat, he was able to convince his non-communist partners such as the Congress and the Muslim League, to come on board on this development agenda.

There was large scale redistribution of land, and the nationalization of forest land which belonged to the ‘kovilakams’ (former feudal landlords). He believed firmly in the power of Science and Technology, starting the first department for Science and Technology in any state in India- a model that has been followed by most states and the Centre. The Chief Minister himself remained in charge of this department. Under this department were started several key autonomous research centres, which would study the development problems in the state and feed data useful for their solutions. The principal ones among these were the Centre for Development Studies, the Sree Chitra Tirunal Medical Centre, the Centre for Earth Science Studies, the Centre for Water Resources Management, the Kerala Forest Research Institute, and many others. Dr K N Raj, noted economist, once compared his role in Kerala to that of his hero Nehru at the national level.

True to his beliefs in the public sector’s pre-eminence in industrialisation, he started Keltron- the Kerala Electronics Development Corporation- thus recognising the importance of electronics in a modern economy. He also inducted a Kerala born but world renowned technocrat to head this- K P P Nambiar. In a break from tradition, Nambiar who was not part of the state bureaucracy was given the rank of a full government secretary. This model was later followed at the national level in the ministries of Science and Technology. Thus his vision embodied what could be called development through public action led by a pro-active government, something that later scholars like Sen talks about. These were the days of transition to a modern state for Kerala.

But ultimately he had to pay the price of coalition politics. It is not unusual that politicians, especially those who have not shied away from taking unpopular decisions, are often criticised for their actions. Some of these criticisms may be unfounded, but have a tendency to persist in society despite lack of evidence. Achutha Menon has been severely criticised for presiding over the government in Kerala during the dark days of the emergency. And it is significant that he has never attempted to defend himself. It has been written by at least two of his colleagues in the CPI that in closed door meetings of the party, he pointed out the risk of continuing in government during a period when democratic rights were curtailed in the state- and both times he was outvoted in the party. The CPI in those times was too enthralled by the  Soviet communists. Whether they were actually under the remote control of the Soviet party or were merely being slavish in their attitudes is a moot point. The Soviet Union considered Mrs Gandhi too valuable an ally among Asian countries to lose. And who can blame them? In the global politics of the cold war, India was their only ally in a region dominated by unfriendly governments such as China and Pakistan. The CPSU was never known to be finicky about a few democratic rights, anyway. So they probably put pressure on the Indian party to support the emergency lock stock and barrel. And Achutha Menon was a disciplined party man, for whom the final word was that of the party. The net result of this was that he was the head of the government during the dark period of the emergency

It is difficult to say what his thoughts were on the emergency, because he kept them to himself. Part of his reluctance to communicate was because he took his oath of office seriously- perhaps too seriously- that he would never reveal facts which he came to know because of his position as a minister in government. He has categorically stated this as one of the reasons why he persistently refused to write an autobiography. In the post emergency election of 1977, the coalition to which the CPI belonged, and which was led by the Congress, won hugely in Kerala. This was despite what were widely perceived to be excesses of the Emergency. However, Achutha Menon refused to be a candidate in that election. He announced his retirement from electoral politics just before the election. He was only 64 at the time- an age when most Indian politicians start their ascent in the politics of power.

One can only guess what prompted his decision. Perhaps he was tired of the power games people played. Perhaps he felt personally responsible for some of the things that went wrong during the dark days. Perhaps he thought that he should have been more pro-active in trying to stop them. Perhaps it was his penance for the things that went wrong during the emergency- though it lasted but twenty months out of a total seven years of government. We shall never know.

Perhaps the incident for which he has been criticised most widely and without mercy, also was partly responsible for this decision. This is the ‘Rajan’ case. During the days of the emergency, when the press was effectively muzzled, Rajan, a student of the Regional Engineering College in Kozhikode, was taken into police custody, allegedly for harbouring extremist (Naxalite) political views. His father, Prof Eachara Warrier, ran from pillar to post seeking help to know his son’s whereabouts. He wasn’t successful. He later described how he had approached the Chief Minister himself, and was rudely turned down. Achutha Menon, on his part, in a letter to a journalist, says how he had enquired with the Director General of Police at the time, only to get the reply that ‘Rajan was not in police custody’.

Later it was revealed that the youngster had indeed been taken into custody, and interred at a police camp in Kakkayam, deep in the forests of Kerala. In the course of brutal physical torture the police, Rajan died. And the police had disposed of his body so that they could claim that he was not in custody. When all this came out after the lifting of the Emergency, the newly minted Chief Minister of the State, Shri. K Karunakaran, who was the state’s home minister at the time, had to resign. Though he was later absolved of active collusion in the crime, in the minds of the people, especially his political opponents, Karunakaran was always tainted by Rajan’s killing.

Some of that mud stuck to Achutha Menon, too. He refused to speak about the events during the emergency surrounding Rajan’s death, beyond stating he was not aware of these happenings. As the head of the government, he was indeed morally responsible for its doings. Perhaps that is one of the reasons he took the drastic step of staying away from power politics thereafter.

Forty years after the Rajan incident, there have been other instances of deaths in police custody in Kerala, even as recently as during the current (2016-) left government. Because of vigilant media and an active civil society, these are brought to light and debated widely. But there have not been fingers pointing at the Chief Minister or the Home Minister. The police in India, even in an ‘enlightened’ state like Kerala, continue to be a law unto themselves. Perhaps it was the nature of the Emergency with its air of mystery and intrigue which lent spice to the Rajan story.

The return of the native

After remaining in the capital of the state, the hub of all power politics, for over 20 years, he chose to retire to his native town, Thrissur. There was unabashed joy in returning to his roots, his beloved small town where he grew up, studied, started practice as a lawyer, and was initiated into political activity. He settled down to a more peaceful and domesticated life, walking the narrow streets of the town like any pensioner, watching processions and listening to political speeches in the commons in Thrissur. It is surprising that a man who had occupied the centre for power in the state for over six years, could live like any ordinary householder. There are stories about this phase of his life in Thrissur which would be unbelievable about most other politicians in India, but him. In one incident, he wandered on to the railway platform during one of his evening walks, to buy a newspaper. When he tried to come out, the ticket examiner stopped him, not identifying him for who he was; the man was from another state. He proceeded to give a proper dressing down to the old man who had not bought a platform ticket. Some railway official who recognised him, released the ex-chief minster from ignominy. The next day, at his house, as he opened the door in the early morning, Achutha Menon found the contrite ticket examiner waiting in the verandah. The poor railway official proceeded to fall at his feet and apologise, fearing the worst. Completely unflustered, Achutha Menon brushed him away saying the ticket examiner had only been doing his duty, and that he bore no grudge against the man. Coming from the neighbouring state with a totally different political culture, the man couldn’t believe his ears.

Though he stayed away from electoral politics, he continued to be part of social movements and write and speak about problems of the people. He had always been a proponent of development politics, because he believed that economic growth was a necessary step towards improving the quality of life of people. But in this phase of his life, when environmental issues were coming to the fore in India, he was prepared to listen to younger activists and learn from them. He joined hands with many activists and crusaders who were outside the mainstream political formations to push such agendas, such as the Silent Valley movement or the Narmada Andolan. Often this and his writings brought increasing discomfiture to his party who did not know how to deal with them. He was the only political leader prepared to speak publicly against the Hindu hegemony whose goondas beat up activists, who included the famous writer Pavanan, who protested against the decision to cover the ‘kodimaram’ (flagstaff) of the famous Guruvayoor temple in gold.

This was the time when Eastern Europe was increasingly restless under the Communist yoke. For a man who had boldly opposed the Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 and again in  Czechoslovakia in 1968- and was duly chastised by his party- these must have been exciting times. He was initially surprised at the resistance offered by Lech Waleca and Solidarity: he could not comprehend the concept of workers against the worker’s state. Some of his last writings show that he pinned great hopes on Gorbachev, unlike many other communist leaders in India. He thought that ‘perestroike’ and ‘glasnost’ would save his beloved soviet system. We can only guess now whether this was a naive hope or a possibility that was never realised, because Gorbachev was overtaken by Russian nationalism, and a corrupt system collapsed from within. Perhaps it was beyond redemption, anyway.

The passing

Achutha Menon passed on in 1991, following a massive heart attack. He had his first heart attack thirty years back, and most of his most hectic political activity took place after that. At a time when care for heart patients was primitive in India, it must have been mere luck that he survived so long: all his three brothers succumbed to heart disease in their prime.

It is perhaps fortunate that he did not live to see the complete collapse of his beloved Soviet Union, and the absolute descent into chaos thereafter. In a remarkably perceptive piece that he penned not long before his death, one of the rare articles he wrote in English, he chastised the ‘comrades’- including himself- for not creating a truly ‘Indian’ communist alternative. He asked the very relevant question that if Ho Chi Minh was to Vietnam and Mao was to China what Gandhi was to India, why Indian communists had failed to ‘convert’ Gandhi. They had gone one step further to denigrate him as a mere ‘bourgeoise’ leader, a term of contempt; the Indian populace, with equal contempt, had rejected the party in this. (As an aside, one of the most senior communists in Kerala, K Madhavan, has recounted in his autobiography how he brought a resolution in a communist party meeting in Kerala after independence that there should be a portrait of Gandhi in every party office, and he was voted down; there were only three people supporting the resolution, including himself). Achutha Menon stood for a communism in India that was firmly wedded to the Gandhian ideal of frugality and austerity, perhaps an impossible dream. The Workers’ State was never conceived to create a non-consumerist society: the point was to take on capitalism at its own game.

Some of the greatest criticisms he faced had come from his erstwhile communist colleagues, who were later in the CPM. One of their ideologues, P Govinda Pillai, in an interview given after his death, paid him a left handed compliment by labelling the government he led in Kerala as the ‘best Congress government the state had seen’. Though perhaps meant as sarcasm, this was not far from the truth, as his government could not have survived without the support of the Indira faction of the Congress party. EMS Namboodiripad himself had said on assuming office as the first communist chief minister in Kerala in 1957, that the party only intended to carry out the Congress agenda, and not go beyond that. Some of the choicest epithets have been used by his communist adversaries to abuse him- ‘revisionist’, ‘liberal’, and ‘social democrat’. To me, as a non-communist, ‘social democrat’ cannot be construed as a defamatory term, but then, communist jargon is a language unto itself. To a communist, they are the equivalent of telling a true baptised believer that you are a not a Christian, or a believing Muslim that he was a ‘kafir’. It must have hurt him badly.

What was his legacy? In a state riven by political faction fights, for the first time, he provided stability in government. He provided a model for coalition politics and largely corruption free and efficient administration that subsequent governing alliances tried hard to emulate. Looking back, it is remarkable that he was the head of a minor faction, the CPI, in the ruling coalition; it was only his political stature which made him acceptable to the larger party, the Congress. He used the legislature to effectively bring in legislation which favoured the marginalised, such as land reform. His term at the head of the state legislature is one marked by the largest number of legislative initiatives in Kerala.  He had the vision to see into the future- that it would be Science and Technology based institutions which could provide answers for the developmental problems of the state. In a sense, he forcefully brought the state from a feudal age into the modern era. Most important, he showed that the proactive state is a major tool in transformation of society in the hands of honest politicians. This was perhaps not perfectly in line with communist dogma, which insists that any bourgeoise state is by its very nature, anti-people.

Before the nineteen seventies, Kerala was among the poorer states in India. By the nineteen nineties, it had already started competing with much more industrialised states in per capita income. And in the human development index, it continues to beat every other state hands down. All this was, of course, not totally attributable to just one or two elements. However, it can be safely said that development oriented governance in the state received a big boost in his time.

Afterword

Achutha Menon was my father; what I have written about him is clearly coloured by this fact. However, as an author, I have to declare a greater conflict of interest: I am not a communist, and I have never taken communism as a guiding philosophy in my life. However, I have great respect and admiration for the communists of Kerala, of all streams. I think their contribution to making it the most liveable state in India should not be underestimated. And I am proud that my father could legitimately stake a claim to part of that legacy.

Dr V Raman Kutty is the son of Achutha Menon and a medical practitioner


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