Embers of a revolution
"It was in September-October 1968 that we decided to take up arms against the perpetrators of injustice. Our target was the Madras Special Police [MSP] camp set up at Pulpally to deal with the farmers who were agitating against [the decision of] the Forest Department and the Pulpally Devaswom authorities to evict nearly 7,000 farmers who had settled in a forest area and were engaged in cultivation for years... After travelling for days, we reached the MSP camp at Pulpally and executed the wireless operator and the sub-inspector who was in charge of the camp. Later we attacked the houses of two landlords and distributed the foodgrains stocked there among the tribal people. The failure of the Thalasseri operation under my father [Kunnikkal Narayanan] and the death of one of our leaders in a bomb explosion demoralised us. Subsequently, many left the movement. We persisted despite lack of food for several days. But I was caught by the police and landed in jail by the end of 1968... [I] remained in prison for nine years. When I came out of jail, the movement had faded away... circumstances were no longer conducive to revive the movement. So I chose to remain content with a mundane life."
THIS statement in a recent media interview by K. Ajitha, the star among early naxalites, could well be the story of a variety of groups that emerged in Kerala in the late 1960s, drawing inspiration from the Naxalbari uprising in West Bengal in 1967.
Naxalism is, however, known in Kerala today for the proclivities of its former leaders; the ideological disarray and confusion the myriad groups claiming its lineage have exhibited over the years; their propensity to split; their anarchic actions of the past; and their never-ending struggle to come to terms with the realities of the State and to "reorient and rectify" their programmes. Most of these groups have had to abandon the basic position of early naxalites when they challenged the programme, ideology and tactics of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
In popular perception, there were only a few categories of naxalites in Kerala: in the early years, they were seen mainly as either groups that attacked police stations or those that murdered landlords and looted their wealth; in recent years, they have come to be seen as either those who continued to believe in the annihilation of class enemies or those who took a moderate line and wanted to participate in elections.
The heyday of naxalism in Kerala was from 1968 to 1976 when the State witnessed almost all the major incidents of naxalite-related violence, including the Thalasseri, Pulpally (1968), Kuttiyadi (1969) and Kayanna (1976) police station attacks, and the murder or looting of landlords in the districts of Wayanad (1970 and 1975), Kannur (1970), Kottayam (1970), Kasaragode (1970), Kollam (1970) and Thiruvananthapuram (1970).
Many members participated in the early naxalite actions without realising that they were organised as part of a strategy by members who had already split from the all-India leadership under Charu Mazumdar. In April 1969, soon after the formation of the all-India coordination committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist- Leninist) under Charu Mazumdar, a State organising committee of the CPI(M-L) was constituted in Kerala under the leadership of Ambadi Sankarankutty Menon. The imposition of an "unpopular" leadership by the central committee was a fact that led to the first of the divisions within the movement in the State.
The `moderate' naxalite groups in the State today include the CPI(M-L) Red Flag (Unnichekkan group) and the CPI(M-L) (K.N. Ramachandran group). The latter formed a united party with CPI(M-L) Red Flag (Kanu Sanyal group) and it has been renamed CPI (M-L) Red Flag. It fielded candidates in the local bodies elections in September. CPI (M-L) Red Flag is active among farmers, the tribal population and labourers and has concentrated its action against multinational companies and international agencies. Its surprise actions have been mostly aimed at drawing media attention through symbolic acts of protests.
The groups believing in the annihilation theory include the CPI (ML) Naxalbari with its virulent front organisations, the `Ayyankalipada', an action squad for covert operations, and `Porattam', an ideological squad for overt operations. It has boycotted elections and is active mainly among the poor farmers of Wayanad, on whose behalf it has been attacking moneylenders and private banks and conducting public trials of moneylender mafias, forcibly taking possession of land and distributing it to the landless, and holding corrupt officials to ransom.
As a prominent former naxalite leader K. Venu said, the Maoist belief (popular during the debates between the Chinese party and the Soviet party) that it is not wrong to rise in revolt against "revisionists" has become the bane of the naxalite movement in Kerala, with several divisions being engineered on its strength. Moreover, as several former members often claim, the naxalites failed to realise the realities of Kerala and the impact of the progressive policies followed by successive democratic (especially Left) governments and, before them, other enlightened rulers. They failed to understand that the driving force of armed struggle as envisaged by Charu Mazumdar - the class rivalry of poor, landless peasants against the landlords - was already satiated to an extent in Kerala through social reforms, (though imperfect) land reforms, the crumbling of the landlord-tenant link, the organisation of the working class and the spread of literacy that made old-world-style exploitation impossible.
But in a few parts of the State, where signs of such distress still exist, especially in some tribal and backward pockets and in the predominantly agricultural areas of some northern districts, and in urban centres where front organisations of the naxalite movement have sprung a surprise on the delegates of global investor meetings or the regional offices of international agencies, the dream seems to be still held afloat, though by a dwindling number of extremists.