The Proletarian Uprising of Punnapra-Vayalar: 74 Years Later

punnapra vayalar

The most romantic and probably the only proletarian insurrection of the subcontinent is also the most tragic and the most damned. The Punnapra-Vayalar revolt of October 1946 was Travancore’s ill informed imitation of the Great October Revolution, misled by the Brahmin-Bhadralok leadership and un-Marxist Marxism it preached. The insurrection was based on a single, broad issue – the rejection of the Feudal barbarism of the Travancore Royalists, and the continuation of the process of Colonial Civilization. It was triggered by the debate on the question of independence of Travancore, who had been for the past century pressured by the British to concede the basic humanitarian demands raised by successive protesters – from the right to use roads, to wear decent clothes, to entering temples. The proletariat feared that without the moral checks offered by the British, the Travancore Royalists would regress to their worst.

Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary praxis. The largely Ezhava and Pulaya proletariat of coastal Northern Travancore had no revolutionary theory. What they had instead was a fierce unionization and an organic class consciousness, which summed up as militancy. The leakage of Soviet vocabulary into Malabar and northern Travancore (where the villages Punnapra and Vayalar are located) was yet slow, two places that would later become heartlands of the Shudra Marxism of Kerala. Therefore, the local leadership relied on empirical experiences and vague legends they heard from across the seas. The disconnect between the local leadership and the Brahmin-Bhadralok leadership of CPI would become evident in the foolishness of the uprising.

Punnapra-Vayalar must also be the lone example of a Marxist movement in the world which invited imperial rule. It was an Indian Nationalist uprising, demanding that the kingdom be transferred from the hands of Padmanabhaswamy into the hands of the leadership of the Nationalist movement, whom they referred to in their party documents as “national bourgeoisie”. If the Malabar Revolt of 1921 proclaimed allegiance to the hopelessly distant and weak Ottomans, the Punnapra-Vayalar Revolt proclaimed alliegance to the equally hopeless and equally distant, but much stronger, Hinglish Savarnas.

1946 was an year of uprisings across the country. Only one of them would be Proletarian. It is said that in this case, however, the local leadership decided to grab power and establish their own rule in Travancore.

The suicidal uprising ended with the sacrifice of nearly a thousand proletarian lives, killed by the well trained Kshatriya-Shudra police. In return, it gained nothing apart from a bitter historical lesson. The central leadership of CPI spoke about “revolution” and “uprising”, and the proletariat of coastal Northern Travancore – coir-factory workers, fishermen and an assortment of agricultural workers – who were already buoyed by unprecedented success in their economic struggles, seem to have responded. The Brahmins, Baniyas, Bhadralok and Ashrafs who populated the CPI leadership were historically least acquainted with wars – the least they could have done was to recruit Kshatriyas or militant Shudras to the leadership. The Bhadralok Marxists knew little about class war, and even less about class characters.

Popular sympathy for the revolt greatly contributed to the legitimacy of Kerala Marxism which was until then largely underground affair, and has been milked by the two generations of Marxist leadership since. Even the progressive bourgeoisie which was forming in the region would lament the failure of the revolt. At the dusk of the Punnapra-Vayalar generation, the lesson of uprising remains the same, but it is an unarticulated one – do not trust the Bhadralok Marxism, ever the noisy but empty wing of the Revolution.

And so it is that the National Question was the weak spot in the Punnapra-Vayalar Revolt, where the hegemony of Marxist theocrats destroyed the possibility of Shudra-Proletarian dictatorship. The Proletariat were barely able to speak, let alone dictate. Even today, after two Chief Ministers who rose up from the same Proletariat which conspired against the Travancore barbarians, the hegemony of Bhadralok Marxism stunts the minds of the Kerala Proletariat. The Communist priesthood which has caused the deaths of Bahujans everywhere and then feasted on their martyrdom are still the ones whose teachings are blinding the Revolutionary Proletariat. The National Question plagued Kerala Marxism from its birth, and continues to do so under the influence of comprador theoreticians who aspire for European recognition and therefore continue to perform for the gaze of the Post-colonials and the Nehruvian Marxists, so that they may reach European cities through Delhi or Kolkata. The most stunted Kerala Marxist theory, verging on hogwash, can be found under the heading of Nationalism.

Even today, one finds little to no concern being paid in ideological terms to the internal colonization happening under the Indian nation-state. The original categories of analysis in Kerala Marxism are all too Bengali or Hindi at best, and at worst, the tradition of devoted repetition of German, Italian, French, Russian and English categories continue. In practice, Kerala Marxism has survived longer, but weaker, than many Marxisms around the world. It is yet to theorize the source of its vitality – the early awakening of its Shudra-Dalit Proletariat, which reached its early and tragic pinnacle at Punnapra-Vayalar.

The ghosts of Punnapra-Vayalar are yet dissatisfied, burdened by the historical mistake of trusting armchair bourgeoisies to lead a war. A war is not what they needed or were capable of. The descendents of Punnapra-Vayalar are the ones tasked with laying to rest the souls of the Great Revolutionaries. They are the ones who are furthering the Peaceful Proletarian Revolution, and ending the suicidal cries of Bhadralok Marxism. The extended Enlightenment is the cultural form of the Proletarian Revolution, de-Brahminization of education and democratization of capital is its political form. Automation, dignity for labourers, an efficient bureaucracy, democratic digitization, people’s media are the calls of the future. The souls of Punnapra-Vayalar will not forgive us for repeating their mistake, they would be laid to rest only by a successful Shudra-Dalit-Proletarian dictatorship.

Arjun is a student of Mass Communication at AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islam



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