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A Prehistory of Violence? Revolution and Martyrs

in the Making of a Political Tradition in Kerala

Dilip M. Menon

To cite this article: Dilip M. Menon (2016) A Prehistory of Violence? Revolution and Martyrs in the
Making of a Political Tradition in Kerala, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 39:3, 662-677,
DOI: 10.1080/00856401.2016.1195452

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VOL. 39, NO. 3, 662 677

A Prehistory of Violence? Revolution and Martyrs in the

Making of a Political Tradition in Kerala
Dilip M. Menon
Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

The Communist Party of India (CPI) adopted a revolutionary line in Communism; Kerala; political
1948, but agrarian insurrection was efciently suppressed by the violence; Walter Benjamin
newly independent Indian state. The CPI moved towards an
engagement with parliamentary communism, and in 1957, Kerala
became the rst state in the world to elect a communist government
to power. However, the idea of transformative, revolutionary violence
stayed alive and became the premise for brutal internecine warfare
between the Left and its opponents in the northern part of Kerala. This
paper argues, pace Benjamin, that this violence must be seen as
instituting another law than that of the state, positing the ideal of
justice over the mere rhythms of parliamentary representation.

The south-western Indian state of Kerala in India has been studied for its many achieve-
ments: the rst state anywhere in the world to elect a communist party to power in 1956;
the highest levels of literacy in the country and an extremely sophisticated political cul-
ture; and the highest levels of access to medical care with very low levels of infant mortal-
ity. There are darker statistics that are the underside of what has come to be called the
Kerala model, including high levels of unemployment, suicide, alcoholism and domestic
violence.1 What has been less studied is a hidden history of continuing political violence
in the northern part of the state in Kannur district between the Communist Party of India
(Marxist) or CPI(M) cadres and the political activists of the Hindu nationalist organisa-
tion, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The ongoing violence, which has assumed
the nature of a blood feud over forty years or more, has resulted in almost two hundred
deaths. Since the 1970s, more than four thousand workers of the Left and Hindu Right
have been tried for criminal intimidation, attempted murder and so on.2 While the

CONTACT Dilip M. Menon

1. Robin Jeffrey, Politics, Women and Well-Being: How Kerala became a Model (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001); J.
Devika, Egalitarian Developmentalism, Communist Mobilization and the Question of Caste in Kerala, in Journal of
Asian Studies, Vol. 69, no. 3 (2010), pp. 799 820; K. Ravi Raman (ed.), Development, Democracy and the State: Critiquing
the Kerala Model of Development (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010); and Jocelyn Lim Chua, In Pursuit of the Good Life: Aspi-
ration and Suicide in Globalizing South India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).
2. Ruchi Chaturvedi, Political Violence, Community and its Limits in Kannur, Kerala, in Contributions to Indian Sociology,
Vol. 49, no. 2 (2015), p. 163.
2016 South Asian Studies Association of Australia

numbers may appear small, there are a few distinctive features of this violence. First, kill-
ings of individuals have been public and gory, involving decapitation and the hacking off
of limbs.3 Second, these killings happen within a space demarcated into CPI(M) and RSS
dominated villages with the boundaries clearly marked with ags and inscriptions on elec-
tricity poles and other visible landmarks. Third, those who knew them well killed the vic-
tims.4 It is an intimate violence of community and internal histories of sociability,
animosity and ideological afliation. Ruchi Chaturvedi, in her pioneering and sensitive
ethnography of this phenomenon, draws upon Jean-Luc Nancy to argue that the impera-
tive to community generates a corresponding desire to homogenise through violence.
Notions of sacrice, martyrdom and bonds of affect require us to be sensitive to struc-
tures of feeling as much as to larger political ideologies. She observes that the narratives
provided by CPI(M) and RSS workers evoked a vengeful spirit but also loss, grief, cama-
raderie, kin-like relations and even love (sneham) that the two groups shared.5 This
was the mood of the national award-winning Malayalam-language lm Shantham (2000),
directed by K.P. Jeyaraj and set in Kannur (and inspired by Krzysztof Kieslowskis Three
Colours trilogy), in which a man confronts the fact that he has killed his best friend in a
street war. Intimacies and entanglements inect the seeping of violence into everyday life
and the very possibility of friendships.
This essay tries to develop an argument about the prehistory of this violence, rather
than engaging with the contemporary affective manifestations of political and community
enmity. It explores the construction of a genealogy of violence by the Communist Party in
Kerala as part of its strategy of distancing itself from the conservatism of nationalist ideol-
ogy towards issues of social inequality, particularly what was seen as the undue inuence
of a Gandhian political pragmatism. The idea of revolutioninquilab or the Malayalam
term viplavamand the attendant, required violence has been embedded in the political
vocabulary and practice of the Communist Party in Kerala since the late 1930s. The tran-
sition to parliamentary communism in 1951, after a spurt of agrarian radicalism between
1948 and 1950, was bitingly characterised by the renegade party theoretician, K. Damo-
daran, as a move from ultra-leftism to parliamentary cretinism.6 The fact that
the revolution was over was not acceptable to many and violence (to stake out turf,
to win adherents, and as a supplement to peaceful persuasion) continued within
the organisation of tribal groups in Wayanad district,7 in student politics in southern

3. When the Hindu youth leader K.T. Jayakrishnan was murdered in 1999, there were 48 ante-mortem injuries on his body,
while T.P. Chandrasekharan, murdered in 2012, had 51 stab wounds. See Jeemon Jacob, Murder Politics in Kerala,
Tehelka (13 Jan. 2016) [, accessed 13 January,
2016]. For graphic photographs of decapitated victims, see
ala-warning.html, accessed 14 Jan. 2016. This violence is ongoing and the gruesome attack by CPI(M) activists on a BJP
worker, E.K. Biju, as he was taking children to school in his auto-rickshaw on 9 March 2016 is but the most recent incident.
Shaju Philip, Kerala Attack: BJP Worker Hacked in Front of Children, The Indian Express (9 Mar. 2016). For an extensive
survey of information in the media, see Refugee Review Tribunal Australia, IND34462, 25 Mar. 2009 [http://www.refworld.
org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/rwmain?pageDsearch&docidD4b6fe2465&skipD0&queryD IND34462, accessed 23 Mar. 2016].
4. See references in footnote 3. Descriptions of incidents all remark on the fact that victims and killers knew one another
in a face to face context.
5. Ruchi Chaturvedi, North Kerala and Democracys Violent Demands, in Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. XLVII, no. 42
(20 Oct. 2012), pp. 23 4.
6. K. Damodaran, The Tragedy of Indian Communism, in Tariq Ali (ed.), The Stalinist Legacy (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1984), p. 355.
7. Shobha Rajgopal, The Legacy of Ajitha: Unearthing a Subaltern Indian Revolutionary and Political Prisoner, in Bad Sub-
jects, Vol. 71 (Dec. 2004) [, accessed 16 Mar. 2016]; and Ajitha
(Sanju Ramachandran, trans.), Keralas Naxalbari: Memoirs of a Young Revolutionary (Kozhikode: Srishti, 2008).
664 D. MENON

Kerala,8 and, of course, in the war between the Hindu Right and the Left in Kannur. Of
these several phenomena, only Kannur has remained a continuous site of violence since
India became independent. In the internecine warfare of the last forty years or more, one
can see the afterlife of concepts such as revolution that have seemingly become routinised
within local histories. To make a historical argument is not necessarily to point to the
piquancy or eccentricity of the survival of ideas of revolutionary violence in a corner of a
redoubt of parliamentary communism. It is, rather, to ask the question of the transforma-
tions of ideology over time, and how local issues and transnational ideologies come to
mesh with each other in interesting ways. The website of the Students Federation of India
lists the names of students who have been killed in internecine political warfare under the
category of martyrs, with the iconic image of Che Guevara on the websites banner.9 The
site brings together disparate local deaths into a history of violence and martyrdom with
the gure of Che signifying the liation with International Revolution.
This essay works with Walter Benjamins exploration of the relationship of violence to
law and justice in order to understand the political killings in Kannur as something more
than merely structural, anarchic or nihilistic. Given the scepticism fostered by a radical
Left politics to the institutions of the state and the assertion of popular sovereignty outside
of the rhythms of parliamentary elections, the idea of violence as instituting a law in itself
demands consideration. Benjamin carves out a third position distinct from what he calls
law making and law preserving violence, that of a divine, revolutionary or sovereign
violence which is outside the law as pure, immediate violence.10 Howard Caygill argues
that this position collapses Benjamins nascent and speculative account of the relationship
between experience and freedom into an idealistic celebration of pure violence, and as an
erasure of complexity in the positing of an absolute freedom.11 However, what is crucial
in the argument for our purpose is precisely the categorical casting-out of the law, rather
than its re-casting. Benjamin makes possible the addressing of the question of whether
violence can in principle be a moral means to a just end. The Communist Party in Kerala
created a historical discourse that questioned the legitimacy of the colonial state as much
as the post-colonial one, and presented law as a form of violence. The impossibility of jus-
tice within the power-making function of the law made, as it were, the destruction of law
in principle obligatory.

The Creation of a Tradition of Violence Towards Justice

The idea of violent action towards justice had to be constructed within a particular social
context and a political conjuncture. Within a caste society, the imperative was towards
enforcing an acceptance of hierarchy by those at the bottom. Meanwhile, the Gandhian
intervention in national politics meant a disavowal of violent action in the public sphere,
despite violent incidents like Chauri Chaura in 1922. When the incipient Communist
Party began to break away from the Congress in Kerala, rst through the formation of a

8., accessed 23 March 2016. The histories of student violence in southern Kerala and
the deployment of the language of martyrdom are yet to be written.
10. Walter Benjamin, Critique of Violence, in Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (eds), Walter Benjamin: Selected
Writings, Volume 1, 1913 26 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 252.
11. Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 28.

socialist bloc and then the announcement of the founding of the Communist Party itself,
it had to separate itself ideologically from the philosophy of non-violence. Communist
Party theoreticians carefully crafted the question of the genealogy of violence. They
aligned themselves with an alternative indigenous tradition: that of revolutionary terror-
ism. E.M.S. Namboodiripad, intellectual and party theoretician, wrote in his autobiogra-
phy about his conversion to the ideals of the revolutionaries of the Swadeshi movement as
a result of his incarceration alongside Bengali revolutionaries in Cannanore jail between
1930 and 1932 following the Civil Disobedience movement. [Kannur was earlier called
Cannanore.] This invented genealogy smoothed the transition away from the khadi and
Gandhian constructive programme of the local Congress towards legitimating the increas-
ingly confrontational nature of peasant unions and their socialist and then communist
organisers from the 1940s. It allowed for the Communist Party to be seen as nationalist,
yet not of the Congress variety. In 1946, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the
Mappila Rebellion of 1921 that had brought to a violent end the Khilafat Movement in
Kerala, the Communist Party newspaper Deshabhimani brought out a special edition. It
criticised the general view of the Khilafat Movement as communal and violent and pro-
posed the nomenclature of Malabar rebellion over Moplah rebellion. This re-denition
went alongside the appropriation of the 1921 rebellion into the partys new genealogy,
which accepted political violence and the idea of revolution as necessary. The special issue
stated in no uncertain terms that the party is of the opinion that any non-violent struggle
and all sectional struggles are bound to fail.12
After the general elections of 1946, the secretary of the Communist Party of India, P.C.
Joshi, visited Malabar and complimented the Mappilas on the 1921 rebellion (by this
time, the number 1921 had acquired an iconic status). E.M.S. Namboodiripad wrote
articles for Deshabhimani and produced a booklet in praise of Variyankunnath Kun-
hamed Haji, the leader of the Mappila rebels. At a signicant meeting in 1946, committees
comprised of communist sympathisers and party members from the princely states of
Travancore and Cochin and the district of Malabar came together to argue for an armed
struggle against landlords and British rule.13 1946 was to be the tipping point in the trans-
formation of politics under the banner of revolution. Even the princely state of Travan-
core witnessed what was arguably the rst working-class revolt in India, at Punnapra-
Vayalar, in the coir industry.14 However, it was in northern Kerala that the triad of revolu-
tion, violence and martyrdom came to be burnished.
Youth and death were central to the Communist Partys creation of a tradition of revo-
lutionary violence (or, in other words, the only great revolutionary was a dead one). From
the 1940s on, every confrontation with the police was planned to create a pantheon of rak-
tasakshis (martyrs), either shot dead by the police or hanged under colonial law for the
killing of policemen. The deaths of Abu and Chathukutty in 1940 in Thalassery as a result
of police ring, the hanging of the Kayyur four (Kunhambu, Abu Baker, Madathil Appu

12. Extract from Deshabhimani, Home Political, 5/40/46 Poll (I), National Archives of India, New Delhi (henceforth
13. Letter from chief secretary to government, Madras, to secretary, Government of India, 9 Sept. 1946, S/1667-1/46, Home
Political, 5/40/46 Poll (I), NAI.
14. Robin Jeffrey, Indias Working Class Revolt: Punnapra-Vayalar and the Communist Conspiracy of 1946, in Indian Eco-
nomic and Social History Review, Vol. 18, no. 2 (1981), pp. 97 122; and Robin Jeffrey, Destroy Capitalism: Growing
Solidarity of Alleppeys Coir Workers, 1930 1940, in Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 19, no. 29 (21 July 1984),
pp. 1159 65.
666 D. MENON

and Chirukandan) in March 1943 for having killed a police constable, and the deaths in
police custody of P.T. Narayanan Nambiar and Moyyarath Sankaran in 1948 created a
tradition of martyrdom that continues to the present. Each martyr was celebrated through
pamphlets, verses and the naming of reading rooms after them. The language of
these pamphlets was stirring and spoke to a virile, and at the same time fragile, masculin-
ity. P.C. Joshis account of his prison visit to the Kayyur sakhakal (comrades) in 1943
gives us a sense of the fervid prose that created an affective history of revolution.
They looked so young and clean, their bodies had grown thin after a whole year inside the
condemned cells, but light and courage shone on their faces . The very rst glance con-
vinced me that these lads will mount the gallows with a rm step and COMMUNIST
PARTY ZINDABAD on their lips . With the jailors permission, Pillai translated me sen-
tence by sentence. The ood of tears over my cheeks made the ow of words out of the
mouth possible, or I would have got [sic] choked up and collapsed.15

The contexts of martyrdom changed with the inauguration of the 1948 agrarian insur-
rection line (the Ranadive Thesis), the Naxalite agitations from 1969 onwards, the interne-
cine warfare between student organisations in the 1970s and 1980sthe Students
Federation of India (SFI) aligned with the CPI(M), the Democratic Youth Federation of
India (DYFI) and the National Students Union of India (NSUI) aligned with the Con-
gress, and the ongoing low-grade war between the CPI(M) cadres and the RSS in northern
Kerala. What remained constant was the generation of narratives of heroism and an ico-
nography that incorporated these deaths into a larger history of Revolution that included
Bhagat Singh as much as it did Che Guevara (Figures 1 and 2).
The martyrs are celebrated in a hyperbolic and allusive prose, as can be seen in these
words from a DYFI poster:
O owers of ame, who have sieved the blood from the sacricial altars and made a tilak of
heroism with which you adorn your forehead, Time itself bows its head before the ritual kill-
ing elds that you ceaselessly generate.16

The Historical Context of a Tradition

The historical question that needs to be explored is how this culture of sacrice of youth
came to be integral to the idea of revolution and a rejection of the law of the state. If we
consider the remarkable transition that Kerala underwent in the twentieth century, from
being a society of extreme caste restrictions in the early twentieth century to a society gov-
erned by the idea of radical equality by the mid twentieth century, we need to consider
seriously the relationship between law, violence and revolution. Caste relations and the
regulation of inequality and hierarchy, then as now, both in Kerala as elsewhere in India,
were governed by violence and the threat of violence. Coercion was central to the mainte-
nance of the caste order and this was evident in extreme punishment for transgressions.
The performative tradition of the teyyam (ritual performances involving spirit possession)

15. P.C. Joshi, The Kayyur Heroes, in Labour Monthly, Vol. 25, no. 8 (Aug. 1943), pp. 251 3. See also pamphlets like
Moyyarath Sankaran: Congress Fascisathinte Raktasakshi (Moyyarath Sankaran: Martyr to Congress Fascism) (Malabar
Communist Party, 1948).
16. The banner is part of a Democratic Youth Federation of India poster extolling raktasakshikal (martyrs) to political vio-
lence [, accessed 25 May 2016].

Figure 1. Image of Bhagat Singh and Che Guevara from a Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI)
wall poster in Kerala. Source: photograph by author, December 2015.

Figure 2. Image from a CPI(M) wall poster in Kerala of Che Guevara with the founding stalwarts of the
Communist Party of Kerala (L R) A.K. Gopalan, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, E.K. Nayanar and P. Krishna Pillai.
Source: photograph by author, December 2015.
668 D. MENON

that deied victims of caste violence and ritually reiterated their stories within annual
performances at shrines in northern Kerala recalled the violence that underlay the law
of caste.17 Central to the daily regulation of self was both an elaborate semiotics of
appropriate behaviour by lower castes as well as narratives of the condign punishment
that attended transgression. It can be argued that there was an implicit notion of moral
community that emerged in the textual record, the thottams or verses of the teyyam
tradition, a recognition of mutual spaces as much as of resentment towards the arbi-
trary exercise of power. The dominant matrilineal landowning householdsthe thara-
vadustheir labourers or dependent castes and the amorphous community of
worshippers recognised limits to behaviour and action. Violence was naturalised, yet
its limits were recognised and embodied in the idea of unjust deaths. The performance
of the teyyam represented a liminal space of reckoning. Within its enactment, a tran-
scendent idea of a cosmic law and a commentary on the arbitrary exercise of power
was juxtaposed against the naturalisation of violence that underlay the working of
caste. Both at shrines as well as on waysides, the medieval tradition that celebrated her-
oes who had fallen in battle, and those who had been killed for transgressions, contin-
ued. The Communist Party built upon this tradition by creating a territorial inscription
of martyrdom marked by raktasakshi mandapams (martyr memorials) dedicated to
those who had fallen in political struggle. At important junctions in almost every village
in northern Kerala, there is a red conical structure inscribed with the names of martyrs
and ying the ag of the Communist Party. These martyr memorials occupy public
spaces alongside churches, shrines, statues of local politicians and religious gures and
the ubiquitous teashops. They mark a condensation of the history of violence, revolu-
tion and martyrdom in the countryside.
The authority of the colonial state supplemented the customary prescriptions of caste
authority as heads of tharavadus came to be incorporated into the lower echelons of the
revenue bureaucracy. Revenue divisions in most instances became congruent with the
sphere of authority of an upper-caste household. From the early nineteenth century
onwards, the village police were placed under the authority of heads of villages. Moreover,
by the late nineteenth century, it became one of the cardinal principles of police recruit-
ment that lower castes could be recruited only when higher caste recruits were unobtain-
able. In northern Kerala, the upper-caste Nairs comprised two-thirds of the constabulary
by 1920, a fact that continued after Independence.18 The elements of coercion and the
threat of violence were strong, with the tharavadus being both judge and jury. Moreover,
they had extra-judicial powers that allowed them to intervene in caste and religious dis-
putes. Alongside the colonial constabulary, some tharavadus kept retainers from other
castes who rendered them service by acting in the tharavadus quarrels and as the private
armies of the landlords.19
In northern Kerala, which was to become Kannur district (the locus of this study), the
communist organisations were able to entrench themselves, while ecology and the politi-
cal economy played a distinctive role in the radicalisation of politics. The process of the

17. Dilip M. Menon, The Moral Community of the Teyyattam: Popular Culture in Late Colonial Malabar, in Studies in His-
tory, Vol. 9, no. 2 (1993), pp. 187 217.
18. David Arnold, Police Power and Colonial Rule: Madras, 1859 1947 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 41.
19. A. Aiyappan, Iravas and Cultural Change (Madras: University of Madras, 1944), p. 49.

expansion of cultivation had always been tied up with the establishment of branches of the
tharavadus as pioneering outposts. Many of the younger members of tharavadus were
involved in cultivation, while the older men and women were employed in supervisory
functions. The degree of interaction between the tharavadus and the cultivators was close;
personal contact produced familiarity, but also allowed for strictures on unusual, or unac-
ceptable, behaviour. This mix of uneasy intimacy and formal hierarchy was accentuated
by the dependence of labourers on the tharavadus for subsistence within an agrarian
economy short of food-grains. As the prices of cash crops like pepper and coconut had
soared in the late 1920s, many of the younger tharavadu members had attempted to strike
out on their own by setting up independent branches through the partition of property.
The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 put paid to that as pepper prices crashed dra-
matically, leaving these new branches with few resources to sustain themselves or their
network of relationships with cultivators because the parent households controlled the
wetlands and granaries. Moreover, many of these new branches lacked the clout to negoti-
ate with unruly, wily tenants and encroaching cultivators, and so were forced to resort to
diplomacy rather than force. Links had to be forged not only to play off one faction or
competing tenant against another, but also to withstand the parent tharavadu. Socialist
and communist organisation in this period relied to a large extent on the relations forged
between younger members of tharavadus and cultivators. In the previous decade, the
younger members had reached out to dependent labourers, organising them under a
broadly Gandhian philosophy of cleanliness and temperance. Now there was a new vocab-
ulary and ideology, new pressures arising from a depressed economy, and a political idiom
that was more militant.
In the period 1934 to 1940, the undermining of deference and the question of a just
existence was central to the organisation of peasant unions by activists of the Kerala
Congress Socialist Party, founded in October 1934. Political activity was not only about
criticism of inequalities of landholdings or calling for a wholesale transformation of land-
holdings. The fundamental thrust was towards a questioning of the rural structures of def-
erence and inaugurating a revolution in the minds of those who yielded to authority. The
younger members of tharavadus were products of the new intellectual climate that
rejected caste, but they were able to work and organise cultivators and labourers, not only
because they had worked alongside them in cultivation, but also because they commanded
respect as members of the rural elite. It was a paradoxical programme, in one sense, as a
renegade rural elite organised on the basis of a vestigial deference to their position against
the very idea of deference itself. In a situation governed by the epistemic and actual vio-
lence of caste, and buttressed by custom as much as by colonial law, the new politics cre-
ated a narrative of revolution to which violence and the idea of another justice were
In August 1938, the socialist wing of the Congress held a peasants conference at
Blathur, in northern Kerala, attended by seven thousand members of peasant unions. The
organiser, Bharateeyan, wrote of the conference that the atmosphere was so overcharged
that no resolutions could be passed unanimously. A meeting was held near the dominant
tharavadu of the area with ten representatives each from neighbouring villages. The land-
lord was told that he could no longer attack the wives and daughters of his labourers with
impunity. In future, he would be called by his name, Anantan Nambiar, and no honorics
would be sufxed when addressing him. Moreover, peasants would not move out of the
670 D. MENON

way when he passed them on the road, nor would they stand up when he went by.20 In
Panniyur, peasant union members forced the landlord, Iswaran Nambudiripad, to give
receipts for loans and the interest paid on them, as well as to forgo feudal levies.21 Lower
castes began wearing waistcloths that reached below the knee and refused to take off their
headcloths in the presence of landlords. Reporting for the newspaper Prabhatham on the
changes happening in the countryside, P. Narayanan Nair wrote that following the forma-
tion of the peasant unions, more peasants had begun to sprout moustaches and wear
shirts.22 The word janmi, used to refer to larger landowners, was now inected with the
pejorative implications of feudalism; from this emerged the concept of jenmisampra-
dayam, or the institution of landlordism.23
The experience of going on jathas (processions) was vitally important in relating the
question of bodily comportment and deference to the idea of justice. Rather like the
regions seasonal religious pilgrimages, the political processions ensured anonymity as well
as a sense of community. Many of the jathas adopted confrontational stances against thara-
vadus and landlords, formerly regarded as unassailably superior. At Kurumathur, the land-
lord was kept awake all night by the banging of coconut shells by members of a massive
jatha, until he acceded to their demands. This jettisoning of deference escalated to become
social boycotts of landlords, non-payment of rent, denial of labour and squatting on waste-
lands that were then reclaimed for cultivation.24 Jathas were about the recovery of the self
through these acts of insubordination. They were also about recovering modes of being
within a geography once dominated by tharavadus and by strictures on the movements of
the lower castes. The symbolic violence of caste and the silencing or suppression of lower-
caste speech was contested through a politics of noise: slogans, drumming, and all-night
vigils that projected the lower-caste voice into the heart of the tharavadus.
Alongside this reconstitution of self-respect was the larger idea of socialism and revolu-
tion. What did socialism mean to both socialist leaders as well as to workers and peasants
who joined political processions, raised slogans and gathered in reading rooms and at tea
shops? K.P. Gopalan observed with characteristic candour: we had socialist aims without
knowing anything about Socialism.25 Articles published in the newspaper Mathrubhumi
on Capitalism and Labour were remarkable more for their polemical fervour than for
an exposition of socialist ideas. Ignorance is the fundament of capitalism. Anger is its
armour, cruelty its weapon. And again: The synonyms of capitalism are treachery,
oppression, deception, selshness and contempt.26 The word muthalali, which had meant
a property owner, now came to mean a capitalist with all its pejorative connotations. Most
peasants and workers addressed their employers as muthalali; the ambiguity now meant
that deference began to carry an edge of mockery and deance. From 1932 onwards,

20. V.M. Vishnu Bharateeyan, Adimakal Engane Udamakalayi (How the Slaves Became the Masters) (Trivandrum: Prabhath
Publishers, 1980), pp. 127 8.
21. Prabhatham (Sunrise) (28 Nov. 1938), npg.
22. Prabhatham (9 Jan. 1939), npg.
23. Mathrubhumi (Motherland) (8 Mar. 1936), npg. See also E.K. Nayanar, My Struggles: An Autobiography (Delhi: Vikas Pub-
lishing House, 1982).
24. See Dilip M. Menon, Caste, Nationalism and Communism in South India, Malabar, 1900 1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1994), pp. 139 40.
25. Quoted in N.E. Balaram, Keralathile Kammyunistu Prasthanam (The Communist Movement in Kerala), Vol. 1 (Trivandrum:
Prabhath Publishers, 1973), p. 50.
26. Mathrubhumi (9 Sept. 1933), npg.

articles on Leninism and Marxism had begun to appear in Mathrubhumi, while the Soviet
Union became the embodiment of a worker-peasant Utopia.
A special edition of Prabhatham in 1939, proscribed by the colonial government, con-
veyed the excitement and explosive potential of Marxism to its readers. Articles written
by Communist Party leaders listed the ways in which caste inequality, poverty, illiteracy
and starvation could be ended. K. Damodaran stated that with the aid of this science
(Dialectical Materialism) we can forecast the future of man and society and thus control
it. In Damodarans 1939 play, Raktapanam (Draught of Blood), the hero Sanku is shot by
the police following the brutal suppression of a strike. Before dying, he addresses the
grieving labourers: All the present-day laws and the Government we know are to perpetu-
ate the injustices of the exploiting class; but we shall not inch.27 The idea of martyrdom,
of dying for justice, was introduced here for the rst time in Malayalam literature as a rev-
olutionary ideal. Along with Damodarans other play, Pattabakki (Rent Arrears), Raktapa-
nam was performed all over the countryside by peasant unions in the last decades of the
1930s and the rst half of the 1940s. As a result, the idea of the revolutionary martyr-hero
gained considerable traction in the popular imagination and became an exemplar of revo-
lutionary action.
A printed pamphlet titled How the Malabar Peasants Should Fight and For What?,
published in 1940, was clear in stating its objective: a state without British rule, or land-
lordism or capitalism. The peasant unions were to become the means for redress of all
local grievances.28 Gandhian strategies were increasingly seen as ineffective. As K.P.
Gopalan observed in his speech to a peasants conference in 1941, our grievances will not
be redressed by petitions or demonstrations, or deputationswe have to ght against a
force which has no sympathy or sense of justice. Peasants had to be enabled to snatch
what we want. Moreover, stopping the payment of tax to the government and interest to
moneylenders would mean undermining the police and military that underwrote imperi-
alism in its entirety.29 At camps for communist volunteers run by the Communist Party,
the rhetoric to be employed would cut the ground out from under all forms of institu-
tional authority, particularly that of the police: There is police repression in the interior
villages. Police should be abused severely at these meetings. Then even those who are
afraid of the police will come close to us.30 A Malayalam leaet titled Bury the Police
Rule, issued by the Communist Party, listed the names of martyrs from Abu and Chathu-
kutty to Narayanan Nambiar and ended with an exhortation to make sure that the British
Empire tumble down.31 In these leaets, there was no systematic understanding of the
relationship between capitalism and Empire; rather, they belonged to the litany of enemies
of the people. The reference to capitalism (heraldic as it may have been) represented a

27. Extracts from the proscribed edition of Prabhatham, special number 1939; and K. Damodaran, Science of Marxism,
Public (General) Dept., G.O. 1351 (Condential) 17 Aug. 1939, Kerala Secretariat Archives. The translated excerpt is
from Raktapanam.
28. Extract from a printed pamphlet issued by All-Malabar Karshak Sangh, How the Malabar Peasants Should Fight and
For What? (Calicut: Prabhatham Press, 1940), Home Political, F 7/9/41, NAI.
29. Extract from speech by K.P. Gopalan at Second Chirakkal Taluk Peasants Conference, 1938, Home Political, F 7/9/41,
30. Extract from notebook written by V. Narayan, a trained volunteer, on how to organise peasants and labourers, Home
Political, F 7/9/41, NAI.
31. Extract from a Malayalam cyclostyled leaet issued by Kerala Committee of the Communist Party of India, Bury the
Police Rule, Home Political, F 7/9/41, NAI.
672 D. MENON

further complexity to the Congress position of anti-imperialism and allowed for an

engagement with the structural economic inequalities that underlay rural power.

The Iconic Events of a Revolutionary Tradition

On 15 September 1940, meetings were held all over north Malabar. The most vehement
demonstrations were at Calicut, Tellicherry, Pappinisseri, Mattanur, Morazha and Canna-
nore. In Calicut (now Kozhikode), seventeen people were arrested as they attempted to
march to the beach and the police dispersed a stone-throwing crowd. At Badagara (now
Vatakara) and Payyanur, large crowds assembled, but were contained by massed police.32
In Tellicherry (now Thalassery), on the coast, the police had to resort to ring to disperse
a stone-throwing crowd of over a thousand, and two beedi workers, Abu and Chathu-
kutty, were killed. Further north and in the interior, where peasant unions were strongest,
crowds proved more difcult to contain. At Mattanur, ries and ammunition were
snatched from the police. In the most signicant engagement between demonstrators and
the police, a sub-inspector was killed in Morazha. On Protest Day, a total of 108 arrests
were made all over north Malabar.33
A close analysis of the events at Morazha and Mattanur demonstrates that calls for the
observance of Protest Day and objections to World War II were of less consequence than
the presence of local rivalries and tensions. The subversion of rural authority had been ini-
tiated by political processions, which led to the jettisoning of deference and the formation
of unions. This process reached its climax in 1940, with pitched battles between the police
and the volunteer squads who represented the peasants. In a sense, the authorities too
were more apprehensive about local conicts than the nationalist implications of Protest
Day. To prevent any trouble at Pappinisseri, where the workers at Aaron Mills were
known to be militant, sec. 144 of the IPC (Indian Penal Code) was enacted to ban the
assembly of more than four persons. Soon it was extended to those areas where the work-
ers had been recruited. As a result, the demonstrators moved to Morazha where, to escape
the ban, the meeting was held in the local bazaar. It was a strategic choice: a narrow road
with rows of shops on both sides and a wide space in the middle, where Congress and
communist ags were hoisted. A crowd of 700 to 1,000 had gathered. Most of the volun-
teer organisers there had been workers at the Aaron Mills until their dismissal during a
strike in April 1939.
The sub-inspector of police, Kuttikrishna Menon, was known for his proclivity for vio-
lence. During the strike at Aaron Mills, Menon had been responsible for removing pros-
trate picketers bodily, and on one occasion, had charged at and dispersed a crowd of
workers with only four constables to assist him.34 At Morazha, when he asked the crowds
to disperse, their leader Vishnu Bharateeyan lay down on the ground in front of the police
and refused to move. The captain of the volunteer force blew his whistle and sixty volun-
teers faced off against the police. When Menon attempted to remove Bharateeyan, there
was a cry of All the people should join together and resist the police. A lathi charge was

32. Report of district magistrate (DM), Malabar, to chief secretary, Madras, 17 Sept. 1940, Home Political, F 5/18/40, NAI.
33. Home Political, F 5/18/40, NAI; and All India Congress Committee Files 58/1940, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library,
New Delhi.
34. Report of DM, Malabar, to chief secretary, Madras, 17 Sept. 1940, Home Political, F 5/18/40, NAI.

ordered, and in the melee that followed, Menon was struck on the head with an iron ladle.
Two others in the crowd threw stones at him, telling him, This is your end, and then he
was killed.35
At Mattanur, as at Morazha, the crowd departed from the Congress reading room hold-
ing aloft the tricolour and a red ag. They assembled on the local common and when the
police attacked, their lathis were snatched from their hands. While the police ran for mus-
kets, Sub-Inspector Anandan took refuge in a shop. He saw people snatching the muskets
from the police and a policeman hit with an iron rod. There were shouts of Kill the police.
One member of the crowd, Kupyatt Govindan, was overheard telling a policeman, You
sent my elder brother to jail. You ought to be killed. The police were attacked with sticks,
umbrellas and stones. Although there were no casualties on either side, the change of
mood was evident. Force had been met with force when a disciplined volunteer force had
acted as the backbone of the randomly-expressed anger of the marchers and bystanders.36
It was the killing of a policeman in Kayyur village on 28 March 1941, and the subse-
quent hanging of the four youths responsible (who had been identied from the crowd),
that acquired iconic status in the burgeoning narrative of revolution, violence and martyr-
dom. A telegram from the collector of South Kanara district on 30 March 1941 stated
tersely that a crowd of 150 communists carrying lathis and stones had attacked PC 97,
killed him and thrown his body into the river at Kayyur.37 A report by the district magis-
trate a day later provided more details. On 12 March, a uniformed group of six belonging
to the peasant union in Hosdurg had gone on a procession in Kayyur shouting anti-war
slogans. Two of them were arrested. In order to arrest the other four, two police constables
were detailed to remain in Kayyur from 23 March. A union member stabbed one of them
on the night of 26 March when he was in the house of a local ofcial, a potail. Two days
later, at 4 pm, when PC 97 was in a shop, three processions of peasant union members,
numbering some two hundred people, went by shouting communist slogans. They tried
to force PC 97 to join them and carry a socialist ag and shout slogans. When he refused,
they beat him, stabbed him and threw his body into the river. They surrounded the
potails ofce so that he could not send for help. By the time the deputy superintendent of
police reached Kayyur on 30 March, all the men of the village and of the three neighbour-
ing villages had left.38 The report of the murder gave the names of the accused as Madathil
Appu, V.V. Kunhambu, E. Krishna Nayanar, Payyan Kelu Nair and two hundred others
who were from Kayyur and the surrounding villages.39 J.S. Wilkes, the deputy superinten-
dent, expressed surprise that such an event should have occurred, considering that all
other communist foci [had been] extracted from the badly infected areas in the south of
this district and the north of Malabar.40 He added feverishly: Even in 1938, the frame-
work of a communist government was in being which now holds the countryside well
under the OGPU-Gestapo type of control. The only way forward was a spring offensive

35. Court of Sessions, North Malabar division, Saturday, 16 Aug. 1941, Sessions case no. 6 and 11 of 1942 (Tellicherry Court
Record Room); and Home Political, F. 7/9/41, NAI.
36. Court of Sessions, North Malabar division, Saturday, 16 Aug. 1941, Sessions case no. 6 and 11 of 1942.
37. Telegram from collector, South Kanara, to chief secretary to government, 30 Mar. 1941, Public General Department, G.
O. no. 811-12 (Condential), dated 24 April 1941, Tamil Nadu Archives, Chennai (TNA). All references up to footnote 41
are from this le.
38. DM, South Kanara, to chief secretary to government, 31 Mar. 1941.
39. Grave Crime Report Mangalore Sub-Division, no. 6/41 Hosdurg Cr. No. 35/41 sec. 147-9 and 302, IPC.
40. From DSP J.S. Wilkes, Western Range, to inspector general, Madras, dated 31 Mar. 1941.
674 D. MENON

that would bring the general run of people into right ways.41 Despite such belligerent ini-
tial proposals, the police later decided on pragmatism; they talked to the villagers in an
effort to win their support and wean them away from the peasant unions.
As investigations proceeded, it was clear that there were peasant unions in every village
in Hosdurg and in the adjacent villages within the Kasaragod station limits; each union
was named after the village it was in. There appeared to be rules governing the formation
of peasant unions all over Malabar, and Hosdurg and South Kanara were regarded as part
of the Kerala Congress province, though they were technically in another administrative
division. The unions were in existence by December 1937 and the leaders of the Congress
Socialist Party, A.K. Gopalan, Vishnu Bharateeyan and K.P.R. Gopalan, were active in
forming an organisational structure. There were 34 village committees with a total mem-
bership of over ten thousand in Malabar district. The peasant unions carried on a cam-
paign of social boycotting of landlords, intimidation, personal violence and no rent
campaigns. At times, impromptu judicial proceedings were carried out by ofce-bearers
of the unions. For the British, the constant processions and the formation of organisations
of children were felt to belittle authorities; in effect, a parallel government that paid little
heed to the police force had sprung up.
From August 1939, an anti-war and anti-recruitment programme had begun, aided by
the Communist Party and a leadership that included mainly upper castes and the lower-
caste Tiyyas.42 With the onset of World War II, the socialist party had begun to train vol-
unteers and the numbers had risen rapidly to some 250 volunteers in 23 centres in Mala-
bar. Regular drilling by ex-servicemen and study classes were a feature of these centres. In
1940, Protest Day was observed at Hosdurg, and in 1941, village conferences were held by
communist organisers at Madikkai and Pilicode. The volunteer squads engaged in propa-
ganda and public shaming, as when communist leaets were pasted on the wall of the
house of a right-winger. As part of their training, volunteers were told that they should
be ready to lose their lives if necessary because the landlords lived off their blood.43 As a
result, battalions of the Malabar Special Police were stationed in the area to make the peo-
ple realise that the government really rules and not communism.44 On 25 April 1941, an
extraordinary gazette from Madras announced the banning of peasant unions.45
However, the banning of the peasant unions was of little consequence because by the
end of 1940, local communist organisations were in place, functioning through a provincial
secretariat and a provincial committee. A subordinate chain of regional and district com-
mittees and local communist cells fed into the provincial communist committee, aided by
the technical apparatus of an informal postal system used to disseminate publications now
deemed illegal. Mahe, the neighbouring French colony, was used for the production of

41. From DSP J.S. Wilkes to inspector general, Madras, dated 3 April 1941.
42. By 1944, the relationship between the Tiyyas and the Nair and Nambudiri party leadership had soured to such an
extent that a terrible ght of factions had broken out. C.H. Kanaran and Raju, both Tiyya trade union leaders, were
removed from the central committee of the CPI. Party Sanghadakan, Vol. 6 (1944), pp. 3 6. However, CPM politics in
Kannur now reects an acceptance of the domination of the Tiyya community in the region. See the perceptive article
by M.R. Biju, Lok Sabha Polls 2014: Kerala Bucks Modi Wave, Mainstream Weekly, Vol. LII, no. 28 (5 July 2014) [http://, accessed 10 June 2016].
43. Report of W.F.A. Hamilton, SP, Special Branch, CID, dated 13 April 1941, Public General Department, G.O. no. 811-12
(Condential), dated 24 April 1941, TNA.
44. Report F.C.S. 6/41, dated 14 April 1941 to IG Madras, ibid.
45. Fort St George Gazette, 25 April 1941, Extraordinary, ibid.

literature and the newsletter Malayalam continued to come out regularly. Study classes,
along with the circulation of a regular party letter and a weekly communist bulletin, were
essential to the infrastructure of a party in hiding. On 21 August 1941, cyclostyled posters
appeared everywhere titled Twenty Years Before. They commemorated the twentieth anni-
versary of the Mappila Rebellion, which had occurred during the Non-Cooperation move-
ment. A genealogy of revolution was being created in which the Mappila Rebellion was
being viewed less as a sectarian phenomenon of the Mappila Muslim religion and more as
a form of Marxist class agitation between peasants and landlords.46
When P.T. Narayanan Nambiar died in prison in September 1946 while awaiting trial
for the Morazha incident, cyclostyled pamphlets were distributed asking the public to take
revenge for what was characterised as his murder. The production of martyrs occurred in
tandem with trespassing on estates and cultivating wasteland. As a proscribed pamphlet
put it: The redress of all grievances should be effected only through the sangh. Those who
disobeyed the union directives would be subject to social boycott. A calculated programme
of creating a new revolutionary paradigm, premised on promoting fearlessness among the
peasants through a disregard for colonial law as much as for traditional forms of authority,
was put in place. The police were to be abused severely at meetings; increases in rent and
illegal collections of cesses by landlords were to be opposed; and peasants were encouraged
to go to shops, pay the price recommended by the Party and walk away. A parallel politi-
cal society was to be constituted through peasant organisations.
By the end of the 1940s in northern Kerala, the idea of violence as a revolutionary act
that generated the law of the people had become axiomatic. Violent appropriations of the
commons had continued after Independence in Cannanore district, and had segued into
the agrarian insurrections of 1948. However, the brutal suppression of agrarian radicalism
by the Indian government led to a shift in the Communist Partys policy at the national
level. In 1951, the Party moved away from its ultra-radical line of agrarian revolution and
rejection of Independence as incomplete, to an engagement with parliamentary politics.
This stand seemed vindicated when it secured over 70 percent of the vote in Taliparamba
and Mattanur (Kannur district) in the rst general elections in 1951. The Communist
Party tried to instil the idea that the law of the state was not the same as the law of the
people. One of the Communist governments most controversial policies in Kerala in
1957 was police neutrality: that the police could not be deployed against peasants and
workers. But the government was forced to constantly negotiate the dilemma between
whether the state and its organs were instruments of struggle or of administration. In the
end, revolution was shelved for the exigent tasks of educational and land reform and the
institutionalisation of the Communist Party. However, the genie had been released from
the bottle. In Kannur, the assiduous and systematic creation of a tradition of violence that
delivered justice outside the law of the state would be a long time dying.

Reecting on a History of Violence

The idea of the martyrraktasakshi or blood witnesshas been central to the politics of
revolution in Kerala. Revolutionary politics entails violence, but the politics of revolution

46. Summaries of information relating to Communist Party of India activity, Home Political, 7/1/41, NAI.
676 D. MENON

requires also death, as much of the class enemy as of those practising revolution. Mean-
ingful death, a death with consequences and moral valence, is intimately connected with
the idea of justice so crucial to the idea of revolution. Only if one is willing to die can one
kill with justice, since it is not the idea of life itself that is exalted, but the possibility of giv-
ing it up for a cause higher than the mere conservation of life. This fundamental difference
between mere existence and a just existence is what raises the question of life to something
other than simply being alive. Benjamins essay on the relationship between law, justice
and violence criticises an understanding of violence that limits itself to the realm of the
law and its functioning alone. The proposition that existence stands higher than a just
existence is false and ignominious, if existence is to mean nothing other than mere life.
As Benjamin writes, the legal system tries to erect in all areas where individual ends could
only be usefully pursued by violence, legal ends that can only be realised by legal power.47
The politics of revolution resists this hermetic circularity by positing a violence originat-
ing outside the law from the space of a plea for a just existence. It is not merely a violence
aimed at securing material benetsa politics of thingsbecause that would require only
a primitive form of predatory violence. Benjamin points towards the law making charac-
ter inherent in violence: the force that creates new conditions as a new law.48
This essay has dealt not only with the idea of revolution (viplavam) that underlay the
communists mobilisation of peasants in Kerala in the rst half of the twentieth century,
but also how violence came to be written into the narrative of a revolutionary tradition. It
has also explored the consequence of a narrative that exalted the idea of violence, leading
to a persistent, internecine politics of killing and revenge that continues into the present.
By removing the idea of justice from the realm of the law, the idea that violence generated
its own law became the dominant narrative structuring politics in north Kerala. It could
be argued, pace Fanon, that post-colonial violence followed from the epistemic violence of
caste and the structural violence of the colonial state: That same violence [was] claimed
and taken over as subalterns decided to embody history in [their] own person.49 How-
ever, important as it is to locate the historical roots of a seemingly structural feature, what
I have tentatively explored here are the transformations effected in a seemingly local his-
tory. Trans-regional ideological formulations (located in the history of communism in
India) and the transnational movement of icons (for instance, Che Guevara) circulate
through local settings and inform the intimate violence of community. It is the narration
of revolutionas present practice and future Utopiathat provides the rationale for
political violence within the functioning of a parliamentary democracy. It is this dilemma
of squaring the apocalyptic nature of revolutionary action with the reiterative electoral
rhythms of democracy that produces a tension in political parties and their constituencies.
Violence is located at the cusp of this dilemma as a force for generating newness and
The conguration of violent political struggle in northern Kerala is consistent at one
level with the idea of democracy, as Ruchi Chaturvedi has argued. It is a violent demand
from within the space of parliamentary democracy.50 It reects a form of subaltern

47. Benjamin, Critique of Violence, p. 238.

48. Ibid., p. 240.
49. Frantz Fanon (Constance Farrington, trans.), The Wretched of the Earth (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001), p. 31.
50. Chaturvedi, North Kerala and Democracys Violent Demands.

politics that refuses to be subsumed in the mere idea of the citizen, or cast in developmen-
tal discourse as the simple recipient of the states largesse. Amidst the hidden manipula-
tions of electoral politics, and the delegitimising of all forms of popular participation
other than the ritual of the vote, violence becomes its own justication as a form of sover-
eignty that stands outside the politics of elections and parties. It is the recognition of the
fact that the narratives of democracy and of popular sovereignty may only occasionally
intersect, and it is the idea of revolutionary violence, that sutures these two concepts. Vio-
lence generates not only its own law, but also a space of face-to-face conict, which, while
appealing to a higher ideal, is also about intimacy and affect. This elision is common in
the narratives that portray the Communist Party as a force for revolutionary politics that
nevertheless operates within the repetitive reiteration of elections that has become the
manifestation of democracy.
Violence and the readiness to give up ones life seem to signify a higher assertion of the
sovereignty of the individual: one is present as an actor asserting a self rather than allow-
ing for a mere representation of ones self through an elected member of a legislative
assembly. The new men emerging out of this cycle of violence create an intimate com-
munity that is bound by the idea of revolutionary violence rather than the law of the state.
Violence has become central to the constitution of these male spaces of political agonism,
and rashtriya sangharsham (political struggle) has replaced the transcendent idea of revo-
lution even as it seeks justication in its name. In this involution of violence, revolution is
expressed in the here and now, as a retreat from, and a rejection of, the state and its law in
the forging of a community in northern Kerala.

The author wishes to thank Ruchi Chaturvedi and J. Devika for their close critical reading and also
the anonymous South Asia referees for their pointed observations.

Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.