Born on October 20, 1923, VS Achuthanandan joined the Communist Party in 1940 when he was just 17 years old.
Abject poverty and deprivation were the only things that flourished in Punnapra, Kerala, in those days. My father had a grocery shop close to our house so we did not suffer too badly when we were young. He was a social activist and a SNDP Yogam leader and respected by all. He had leased some land from the landlords in Vendhalathara and cultivated it. He built a house there too. In this way, along with the grocery store, we could make ends meet.
Punnapra school had only up to class three, so I joined Kalarkode school to do class four. It was in an area where the upper caste lived and one had to walk past the temple to go to school. The elite would ridicule the less fortunate, beat and chase them away. Many children discontinued their studies. I was once attacked by the well-to-do students and they asked me. “Who are you to walk this way to school?” I tried to stand up to them and return their abuses but finally ran away. I didn’t go to school but returned home and told my father all this. My father was a person who did not put up with any form of caste or religious intolerances. He made a big waist chain for me and told me to use it if attacked. Just as we expected, I was attacked the very next day. I took out my waist chain and whirled it at my attackers and they ran away.
When I was six or seven years old, my mother died of smallpox and my father passed away when I was eleven. I gave up my school education and started to assist my elder brother in his cloth shop. I soon got acquainted with the socio-political issues of the place. The workers from Aspinwall Company and other coir factories used to frequent the shop and discussed union work and politics with us. I decided to work in a factory and joined Aspinwall. The Second World War had broken out and Aspinwall received a slew of orders to make tents for the soldiers. I joined the coir factory workers’ union and became involved in its activities and was soon noticed. Kuttanad Ramakrishna Pillai and K S Joseph were State Congress leaders then and they made me a member of the State Congress in 1939. The company’s union workers started giving me Communist party pamphlets in secret.
The communist party’s taluk secretary was Simon Asan. To organise the fish workers’ union Asan used to visit my hometown and he used to ask me to assist him. In 1940, Simon Asan offered me the Communist party membership. He did not check whether one should be above 18 to be a member. The reason he gave me a party card was because of my impressive speeches and my union activities.
Trade unionism was buoyant in Alappuzha and the coir workers’ union had successfully boycotted work. Their most important demand was an increase in wages by one Anna. Some of our demands went unmet, so the union was divided about discontinuing the strike. However, Krishna Pillai taught us that we should withdraw the strike, strengthen the efforts of the union and then take up the unmet demands at a later period. He taught us how to deal with situations. After this event, classes were held for two months in Alappuzha. The workers’ union president, P N Krishna Pillai, a lawyer and later the state labour commissioner, took the trade union classes for us and others like Comrade Krishna Pillai, R Sugathan and Govindan took classes. In my political life, these classes were a turning point.
In 1943, at the Communist party’s first state meeting, ten of us attended it representing ten union branches of Aspinwall. I met for the first time Comrade Sundaraiya, SV Ghate and others. EMS and AKG already knew me. I had first heard EMS speak at a public meeting on the Alappuzha beach in 1938. When AKG was hiding in Muhamma, it was my responsibilty to reach secret letters and newspapers to his hideout. I knew him well. In 1940, as a party member, it was my duty to organise the many unions like toddy tappers’ union, coconut tree climbers’ union, etc., and work among them as a leader. In the 40s, when I was the president of the toddy tappers’ union, during a strike, I was arrested and put in jail for three months. That was my first jail experience.
One day, in 1943, Comrade Krishna Pillai came to Alappuzha. He called a few of us to the party office and began to discuss how to make the trade unions grow. “Is it enough to do some company work and some union work? Don’t you want to give all your time and effort to the party? Don’t you want to organize the poor paddy field workers? Comrade you can do that. So resign from your job, go and live in Kuttanad and work there. What do you say?” Krishna Pillai asked me. I told him my difficulties- my family needed my support. After a few days of contemplation, I sent a message to Krishna Pillai that I would do as he bid. So M D Chandrasenan, R Thankappan, Ramakrishnan, few of us went to Kuttanand. There we established the communist party wing and I became the secretary. We would eat what was given to us, bathe in the temple ponds and sleep where ever we could. In the mornings we would set out for the paddy fields and speak to the workers there. We would go to their homes and understand their problems and invite them to the party meetings. Many workers became cadres and I resigned as secretary and made Comrade Thomas the secretary. A strong paddy field workers’ union was created and we made similar unions in other areas too. For three years I was totally dedicated to this area. We worked towards eradicating caste intolerance and because of the presence of the unions it declined. The news spread all over Travancore and in 1945, at Ramankary, near Muttar, the Travancore paddy field workers’ union meeting took place.
The paddy workers’ union was very active in the Mangalam wetlands. The land owners employed permanent and temporary workers. The permanent workers were like slaves and were given only half the wages of what the temporary workers earned. During the harvest season, the permanent workers got a bundle of grain as the day’s wages, and at the end of the harvest after some phony calculations about 10 to 15 measures of rice grains were given to each of them. But this time, the permanent workers at Mangalam demanded 100 measures of rice. And they began to strike- the harvested sheaves of grain were left without threshing for 12 days. The strikers withstood all kinds of threats and beatings. In the end, the landowners came down on their knees and agreed to give 100 measures of rice as wages. I stayed near Kavalam and engineered the strike from there. This strike created huge tremors both in Kuttanad and outside it and was pivotal in building the paddy field workers’ unions. Only after I had successfully finished the work that Comrade Krishna Pillai assigned me did I return to Alappuzha in 1945. I then started work in Punnapra-Vayalar, which later turned into an uprising.
-As told to Minu Ittyipe
-As told to Minu Ittyipe
The edited version was first published by Outlook Magazine: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?282721