Aspects of the Peasant Movement in Malabar
An Interview with E. K. Nayanar
*Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, firstname.lastname@example.org.
I interviewed E. K. Nayanar on June 4, 2003. I was then a Ph. D. student working on the socio-economic characteristics of agricultural workers in Kerala, a study that involved the study of Morazha, a village in north Malabar. Morazha was part of the erstwhile Chirakkal taluk, the region of north Malabar characterised by one of the most complex and oppressive forms of landlordism in the period prior to land reform. Chirakkal taluk was also the region from where some of the most well-known organisers of the peasant movement in Malabar — K. P. R. Gopalan, Keraleeyan, Vishnu Bharatheeyan, and E. K. Nayanar — came. The first efforts to organise agricultural labourers in northern Kerala into a separate organisation were made in Morazha in 1948. Peasant and agricultural labour movements in the Chirakkal taluk against landlordism and British rule — including the movement that culminated in the Morazha Conspiracy Case of 1940 — are well-known and widely recorded events in Kerala’s modern history. On September 15, 1940, the Left wing of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee organised a rally against British rule at Keecheri, a few kilometers from Morazha village. When the local police denied the organisers permission to hold the rally, the organisers shifted the venue to Anchampeedika, a part of Morazha village but outside the jurisdiction of the police station that had denied permission to the organisers. On September 15, hundreds of peasants marched to Anchampeedika. E. K. Nayanar was among them. K. P. R. Gopalan, who was E. K. Nayanar's uncle, and famously called “Kerala's Bolshevik” by P. Krishna Pillai, led the rally. Soon after the meeting began, a police group led by Sub-Inspector K. M. Kuttikrishna Menon arrived in Anchampeedika and asked the demonstrators to disperse. Gopalan asked them not to leave. Kuttikrishna Menon ordered a lathi-charge on the crowd, and a pitched battle between peasants and police ensued. Two policemen, including Kuttikrishna Menon, were killed in the violence. Gopalan was sentenced to be hanged for the murder of the two policemen. The sentence was reduced to life imprisonment after a special intervention with the British government by Mahatma Gandhi. One of the most vivid descriptions of the Morazha struggle is in Nayanar’s autobiography, My Struggles.
Morazha was thus a village that was witness to — and indeed the site of — many historic events in the agrarian history of Malabar and Kerala. Nayanar was from the neighbouring Kalliasseri village. It was as a student of agrarian change in the region and in Morazha, then, that I sought an interview with E. K. Nayanar.
The text below is an edited transcript of my interview with E. K. Nayanar, conducted in his office in the A. K. G. Centre, Thiruvananthapuram. We have in this interview a first-hand account of aspects of a peasant movement that laid the foundations for land reform and different forms of public action in Kerala. Nayanar did not use notes during the interview. The unedited transcript is dotted with the question for which he was well-known: edo, manassilaayo (roughly, “have you understood?”) and the jesting that the people of Kerala knew to be inimitably part of E. K. Nayanar’s style.
R. Ramakumar: You joined the Communist Party of India in 1939. Was your entry into the Party influenced by the state of agrarian relations in Malabar at the time?
E. K. Nayanar: I joined the undivided Communist Party of India through the national movement. I remember that, in 1930, when I was a boy, I watched a large procession from Kozhikode to Payyannur under the leadership of K. Kelappan, a procession that passed through Kalliasseri and Morazha. The police had enforced Section 144 in Kalliasseri.1 K. P. R. Gopalan (KPR), who was my relative, asked me if I would join him in organising a reception for the demonstrators. I agreed. We were students at that time. The speeches at the conference held in Kalliasseri to welcome the demonstrators were mainly on the freedom movement, the conditions of poverty of the Indian people under British rule, and the need to abolish feudal dominance. I was greatly influenced by these speeches. Later, I accompanied the procession to Taliparamba. This was my initiation into the national movement.
Although most of the teachers in our school were against the Indian National Congress, we would wear the Gandhi cap to school. I would proudly tell my friends that I was a Congressman. Our teachers often punished us for wearing the cap. We were asked to leave the classrooms, made to stand on the benches, and given other such punishment.
In this period, a number of leaders of the national movement in Kerala, such as KPR, A. K. Gopalan (AKG), P. Krishna Pillai, and Keraleeyan, were frequent visitors to Kalliasseri and Morazha. I remember seeing, at the head of the procession led by Kelappan, Comrade Krishna Pillai singing
“Vazhka vazhka Bharata samudayam vazhkave,
Veezhka veezhka British bharanam veezhkave...”
(Long live, long live, India’s society [civilisation],
Down, down, with British rule…”)
These were the first lines of his song [laughs]. That is all I can remember now, two lines [laughs]. Krishna Pillai, who was the singer, came regularly to Kalliasseri and Morazha. Much later, we became close comrades.
Coming to agrarian relations in that period, the Morazha–Kalliasseri region was entirely dominated by the janmi (landlord) system. My family and KPR’s family had a monopoly over the ownership of land in the region. The Dalits and poor peasants of Kalliasseri lived under the dominance of such landlords. Tenancy relations were characterised by rack-rents and almost all the produce had to be passed on to the landlord as rent. The national movement, under leaders like Kelappan, emerged in this kind of a society, one characterised by slavery-like agrarian relations.
The social system was very oppressive. When a Dalit or person of the oppressed castes stood in front of a landlord, he did so with his back bent forward and hands clasped in front of him, or else he would be punished severely. A Dalit was not permitted to wear a lower garment (mundu) that extended beyond the knee. He had no right to wear slippers or to wrap a towel-cloth around his head.
Dalits in Kalliasseri and Morazha were not allowed to attend schools. I was deeply moved by an incident that took place at that time. In 1927, two Dalit boys who had come to study in the Kalliasseri Higher Elementary School were beaten up by upper-caste people and thrown out of school. I could not understand why Dalit children were not permitted to sit with other students in the school and study with them. The incident assumed very serious proportions. Many leaders of the national movement visited Kalliasseri in the days that followed to enquire into the incident.
It was in those days that we started, under the leadership of KPR and AKG and the instructions of Mahatma Gandhi, to work for the upliftment of Dalits. Another important leader of this effort was Swami Anandatheerthan. He was a Brahman, a graduate, a disciple of Sree Narayana Guru, and later, a full-time worker of the Congress Party. The mission of his life was the upliftment of Dalits. As part of this mission, he came to Kalliasseri and established an ashram there. We Congress workers and comrades such as KPR worked in close cooperation with the ashram. I, along with other young Congress workers, was in the forefront of the ashram’s activities, which included bathing Dalit children in the village ponds, clothing them, and escorting them to school in order to protect them from attack by upper-caste people.
Under the janmi system in Malabar, more than 80 per cent of the tenants’ produce had to be surrendered to the janmi as rent. There were also a number of illegal exactions by the janmi under different names, such as nuri, seelakasu, and vechukanal. In Morazha and Kalliasseri too, such exactions were very common.
It was during this period that the Dalits of Travancore organised a powerful agitation against untouchability under the leadership of Ayyankali. This agitation inspired the movement against untouchability in Malabar as well. The difference was that the movement in Malabar was under the leadership of the Congress, that is, the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC).
R. Ramakumar: The Socialist group within the Congress?
E. K. Nayanar: The Socialist group had not yet been formed. In those days, EMS [E. M. S. Namboodiripad], AKG, and others were Congress leaders in Kerala. In 1936, EMS was Secretary of the KPCC. In 1935, AKG was President of the KPCC — were you aware of that fact? A clear conclusion that emerges from the history of political mobilisation in Malabar is that it was through the national movement that the mobilisation and organisation of Dalits, Adivasis, and poor peasants began.
In 1934, under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan, the Congress Socialist Party was formed within the Congress Party at the national level. Almost all the Congress leaders in Malabar joined the Socialist group. It was as a consequence of the formation of the Socialist group that Gandhiji resigned from the Congress in 1935. He resigned at the Bombay Congress of 1935. After 1935 till his death, Gandhiji was only an adviser to the Congress.
In Malabar, not long after the Congress Socialist group was constituted, mass organisations such as the peasants’ union (Karshaka Sangham), trade unions, a children’s organisation (Bala Sangham), and a youth organisation (Yuvajana Sangham) were set up. A large Congress conference was organised in Bakkalam in Morazha. The Forward Bloc of Subhas Chandra Bose also participated in this conference. Mohammad Abdul Rahman Sahib was President of the KPCC then. A conference of the children’s organisation was also held at the same time in Bakkalam and I was the chief organiser of that conference.
The Karshaka Sangham was growing day by day. It was the representative of the national movement and the successor of the Congress Socialist Party. In Chirakkal taluk and its surrounding regions, the Karakkattidam and Kallyatt families were the most powerful janmi families. The Karshaka Sangham organised strong agitations against the Karakkattidam janmi and Kallyatt janmi, in Chirakkal taluk, Irikkur, Payyavur, and the eastern hill regions. We held regular demonstrations at the houses of the janmis. In many places, violent clashes ensued. Through these agitations, we were able to put an end to a number of exploitative exactions from peasants, such as vasi and nuri.
It was on one of these occasions that the tenants of the Chirakkal Raja in Karivelloor village organised a protest against the forced transport of harvested paddy by the Raja to his godown. A group of peasants, led by A. V. Kunhambu, Krishnan Master, and a comrade by the name of Kannan, blocked the transport of paddy to Chirakkal. The Raja called the police. The police arrived and opened fire on the group. Kannan (an agricultural labourer) and the 16-year-old son of a peasant comrade died in the firing. The police did not stop at that. The police and the goons of the landlord let loose a reign of terror in the region against peasant families.
In 1946, there was another important agitation in Kavumbai village. This was a struggle for agricultural land and for land under punam cultivation, or the cultivation of fallow forest land. Because of severe food shortages after World War II, the Karshaka Sangham called for increased agricultural production and the distribution of the produce among the poor. Small peasants demanded possession of punam land owned by the Karakkattidam janmi for cultivation. The landlord called the Malabar Special Police (MSP) to suppress the agitation. The MSP opened fire on a demonstration and four peasant comrades were shot dead. That was the famous Kavumbai struggle. We organised many such struggles throughout Malabar.
The famous Morazha struggle began on September 15, 1940. The Congress had called for a peasants’ conference to be held in Morazha on that day to protest against the Government’s decision to participate in World War II, and to demand assistance for the rural poor affected by food shortage and drought. EMS, P. Narayanan Nair, and K. Damodaran were Secretaries of the KPCC at that time. EMS was in hiding in a house in Kalliasseri when the Morazha incident took place. The police issued orders prohibiting the organisation of the conference in Morazha. Other small conferences that were to be organised on the same day in Mattannur and Thalasseri were also prohibited. However, we went ahead with the conferences in all those places. I was one of the organisers of the conference at Morazha, along with KPR and Vishnu Bharateeyan. The police employed a brutal lathi-charge to disperse the gathering. Led by KPR, we resisted. It was in the ensuing clash that Sub-Inspector of Police Kuttikrishna Menon was killed. So…
R. Ramakumar: As was Head Constable Gopalan Nair.
E. K. Nayanar: Yes, he was with Kuttikrishna Menon. Both died. After that incident, the police unleashed terror in the region. At that very place, KPR advised me to escape to Kasargode. That was my first experience of going underground.
On the same day, in Thalasseri, two comrades were killed in police firing: Abu and Chathukutty. One was a schoolteacher and the other was a labourer. Similarly, in the police firing at Mattannur, one comrade was killed. Comrades who participated in these agitations were also beaten up cruelly.
Another incident occurred at Munayankunnu near Payyannur on May 1, 1948. There was an agitation at Munayankunnu demanding the distribution of the large quantities of paddy that were stored in the landlord-owned godowns to hungry peasants suffering as a result of severe food shortages. What was the situation? The landlords' godowns were filled with paddy while everyone else was starving. The Karshaka Sangham took out processions to the houses of the landlords and demanded distribution of paddy to the hungry peasants. They were even ready to pay a nominal price for the paddy. When the landlords rejected their demand outright, our comrades forcibly entered the godowns and took the paddy out. Agitations of this kind were organised not just in Payyannur but throughout Malabar.
So, about the Munayankunnu struggle: Munayankunnu was situated to the east of Payyannur town. On a rainy night on which a group of comrades were sleeping at a place on top of a small hill, the Malabar Special Police arrived, surrounded the hill, and opened fire. Six of our comrades, including Kunjappu Master, died in the police firing. There is still a pillar erected in their memory at Munayankunnu. Have you been there?
R. Ramakumar: Yes.
E. K. Nayanar: You have? I was there on May 1 this year.
R. Ramakumar: I went there two years ago.
E. K. Nayanar: Two years ago? You should go there on May 1. Have you been to the place where the police opened fire?
R. Ramakumar: No, only to the pillar.
E. K. Nayanar: Ah, do go. It is a bit in the interior. So, six comrades died in the police firing at Munayankunnu. The police themselves buried them. Their families were not allowed to see their bodies. Every year, our Party commemorates the day.
In the same manner, in Korom panchayat in Payyannur firka, a Karshaka Sangham demonstration was passing by, led by Pokkan, a Dalit comrade. The demonstration was going towards a landlord’s house. The Malabar Special Police arrived and opened fire at the demonstrators. Pokkan died on the spot. The police used lathis on the demonstrators to disperse them. On the same day, seven comrades died in Korom panchayat. Four comrades were arrested and put in Salem jail.
A consequence of all these courageous struggles was that most of the peasant leaders of Malabar were arrested and interned in the Salem and Vellore jails. On May 11, 1951, warders in Salem jail, armed with guns and other weapons, brutally beat Malabar peasant leaders who were prisoners in the jail. When our comrades hit back, the police opened fire: 22 comrades were killed. Of the 22 who died, three were from Tamil Nadu and the remaining 19 from Malabar. Many comrades who were injured in the Salem Jail firing were alive till very recently in places such as Thalasseri. Many of them had been shot in the head and chest. One of them died only last year. After the incident, the Minister for Jails in Madras State, Kozhiprathu Madhava Menon, visited Salem jail. “Ours is Ramarajyam,” he said in a speech to prisoners. His speech angered our comrades, who spat with contempt on the floor in front of him.
KPR was a prisoner in Salem jail when the firing took place. The court had sentenced him to death for his involvement in the Morazha incident of 1940. My brother was also with KPR in the jail. He had been sentenced to six years of imprisonment in the Morazha case.
R. Ramakumar: Your brother, E. N. Nayanar, was not in Morazha when the incident took place, although you were. I understand that it was a confusion of your initials, E. K. and E. N., that led to your brother, and not you, being accused in the Morazha case. Is that true?
E. K. Nayanar: [Laughs] Yes, yes. They confused the initials of our names and I escaped from being accused in the case. EK became EN (he was Narayanan and I, Krishnan). There was yet another story about this incident. Samuel Aaron, a prominent industrialist and owner of the Aaron Mills, had some personal enmity with my brother, and it was said he used his connections to include my brother’s name in place of mine in the list of accused persons. I am not sure which of these stories is true.
There were nationwide protests and agitation against the death sentence given to KPR. Mahatma Gandhi wrote an editorial in Young India against the sentence. Pandit Nehru also intervened in the matter. T. Prakasam was then Chief Minister of Madras State. As a result of these protests, the death sentence given to KPR was reduced to life imprisonment.
We were all underground throughout this period, that is, from 1940. I was in Travancore along with A. V. Kunhambu; Subramanya Shenoy was in Kochi. The police searched intensively for us across the State. We were doing Party work in Travancore; I was in Alappuzha. In June 1946, the Prakasam ministry withdrew the arrest warrants against us, and we came out of the underground and began legal Party work.
R. Ramakumar: Who were the janmis in the Morazha–Kalliasseri region at that time?
E. K. Nayanar: Mainly my own family — the Erumbala taravadu. Another janmi family was the Chandroth taravadu. Chandrothu Nambiar was, I remember, a very powerful and cruel janmi.
R. Ramakumar: The temple managements (devaswam) also owned large tracts of land.
E. K. Nayanar: Yes, but they were controlled by these very same landlords.
R. Ramakumar: Was there a distinct class of landless agricultural labourers in northern Malabar (including Morazha and Kalliasseri) at that time? Or were poor peasants the main source of labour?
E. K. Nayanar: That is an interesting question. Yes, there was a class of landless agricultural labourers. Dalits, for instance, were not allowed to own land. But they did not constitute a large share of the population and were not the major sou