Ajitha Kunnikkal discusses her communist family background, her experience as a radical communist, and her activities as a feminist activist, explaining how she was motivated by personal, not ideological, reasons to join the Naxalite movement.
The daughter of Naxalite leader Kunnikkal Narayanan and his teacher wife, Ajitha recounts growing up in Kerala under the influence of her father’s radical communist ideology from 1950. She still identifies solely as a member of the Naxalites, but not with any Indian communist parties. As a child, she read much English and Malayalam literature, but her major turning point to the radical Naxalite movement came when she saw how the mainstream communist party alienated her father; once even bailing all comrades who participated in a protest, except him. Isolated from the larger communist party, her father had to struggle to find funds for the Naxalite organization, even resorting to selling the family’s furniture, while they survived on her mother’s income. Her father translated many Maoist works and attempted to publish pamphlets, but these efforts eroded the once-affluent family’s wealth.
Ajitha became a head girl in school and participated in many protests as a communist sympathizer. At age 18 in 1968, she discontinued her education to commit fully to the Naxalite movement, and was the only female member in the attack on Pulpally Police Station. She explains that the planned armed revolt failed because of poor communications between the two fronts of the attack, which relied on weak radio connectivity. As such, her unit was unaware that the Thalassery action had been thwarted, and were easily arrested in the days that followed. She explains that it was not the communist party itself that exposed the Naxalites hiding in the forest, but that the communist government had created a popular image of them as burglars; prompting the locals to report them out of fear. During her time in prison, she experienced police brutality, sexual advances, and had her chastity questioned by the mainstream communist parties. Ajitha and her mother served a year in prison before receiving bail, which was revoked a year later. She then served a second prison term until the end of the National Emergency in 1977, when the Janata Party rose to power.
Upon her father’s death in 1979, Ajitha attempted to revive the Naxalite movement with some comrades, one of whom she married in 1981. However, they could not afford to continue publishing their radical communist magazine, and she discontinued her political activity after getting pregnant. She returned to public life as a feminist activist in 1986-7, unaffiliated with the Communist movement, but working instead to advance women’s protection against sexual violence. One of her most notable experiences as a feminist activist was seeking justice for the victims of the Ice-Cream Parlor Case. While that lawsuit failed due to corruption in the judicial system, it brought much publicity to her women’s rights group, Answeshi, and strengthened their resolve never to compromise with corrupt politicians.
9th April 2019
Kunhi: Our study examines the social experience of the Cold War in India. We are looking into its various dimensions. For example, the emergence of radical communist outfits like Naxalite organizations, its interventions in Kerala society, its impact in transforming the traditional structure of exploitation, and society’s approach towards radical communist organizations, etc. You were part of the Naxal movement and you know better than anyone else about the early years of its activities in Kerala. I’m extremely interested in understanding the stages of development of the Naxalite movement in Kerala. Before going into that, Can you give a brief introduction of your family background and factors which brought you to the Naxal movement?
Ajitha: I was born in 1950. My parents were communists. They were members of the Communist Party of India, working together in Mumbai. They married with the blessings of the party leadership from Mumbai. After the marriage and I was born, because of some family issues, they returned to Kerala to settle here in Calicut. My father’s elder brother and his family were living in our ancestral home in Calicut during that period. On one of those days, he committed suicide, making his wife and kids helpless and alone in the house. Following this incident, some of the relatives demanded that my father should come back from Mumbai and settle here.
My mother was Mandakini Narayanan, a Gujarati communist. When we returned to Kerala, she joined as a teacher in the Gujarati school in Calicut. She was not familiar with the Kerala way of life. She was a Brahmin and a strict vegetarian. But she continued working for the party after settling here.
I was a small kid when they returned to Calicut from Mumbai. Once back in Kerala, my father started some businesses, with varying degrees of success. He also continued his work for the communist party, though it was different from his activities in Mumbai. As part of his social activities, he started a library called Kunjan Madhavan Vaayanashala, named after his brother, Madhavan.
Kunhi: When did you begin to get attracted to the communist party?
Ajitha: I was not attracted to the communist party. I was attracted to the Naxalbari movement only.
Kunhi: What was the major reason for joining the movement? Was it just because of the communist family background or any other reason?
Ajitha: I was a voracious reader when was young. I read many classics even when I was a small kid. I read both Malayalam and English literature.
Kunhi: So, what can you say about your attraction towards the Naxalbari movement? Was it the activities of your father or your readings that influenced you the most?
Ajitha: It was activities of my father. He acted against the official policy of the communist party when it began to deviate from the original communist agenda. He admired the ideological stand of Chinese communism and tried to popularize anti-revisionist literature in Kerala. He translated various debates in the international communist movement. The mainstream communist party under the leadership of EMS Namboodirippad didn’t like such attempts by my father. They tried to exclude him from party activities. On one occasion, when several communist activists were arrested by the police following a protest march and clash, the party came forward to bail everyone except my father. It was completely unexpected from a communist party. It was a shocking incident for me. It is due to such incidents, I decided to join the radical communist movement.
Kunhi: Can you tell me a little about your school and college days?
Ajitha: I studied in Achuthan Girl’s Government High School in Kozhikode. It was a Malayalam medium school. Then I joined, Providence Women’s College, Kozhikode. I did not complete the course.
Kunhi: Were you politically active in your school days?
Ajitha: I was the school head girl. I participated in several activities as a communist sympathizer. I participated in various strikes organized by the student’s wing of the communist party.
Kunhi: When it comes to 1968, the first armed action of the Naxal movement, how was your approach?
Ajitha: I was a second-year pre-degree student in Providence Women’s College when they were preparing for the action. I realized that politics is more important than my education. Therefore, I discontinued my studies and volunteered for the works of the radical group that was working against the mainstream communist party. I was the only woman in the group.
My mother continued her work in school. It was only because of her income we survived in those days. By that time my father stopped all of his business because of immense losses. He sold the furniture and other things in the house to find some income. He had to find the money for the activities of the radical group. He struggled to find the money for publishing pamphlets and the translation of Maoist literature. My mother’s income was only enough for meeting our household expenses, and he found income by selling our furniture to meet the expenses of the radical group. We had so much furniture in our house. However, in the end, we had to sleep on a grass mat with no bed and mattress. We were a privileged family, but we lost everything and became a poor family.
Kunhi: Can you tell me a little about the background of the Pulpally incident?
Ajitha: I wrote about these things in detail in my book (Naxalbari of Kerala: Memoir of Ajitha). You can read that. I don’t want to go through all things once again.
Kunhi: Ok. Sure. Do you think the result would have been different if you were a little more prepared for Thalassery and Pulpally action?
Ajitha: Of course, the result would have been different.
Kunhi: It was a failure of proper communication between the two groups which made the first Naxalite action a disaster, right?
Ajitha: Not exactly. Thalassery action did not happen as we planned in the beginning. We were solely dependent on radio news for the information. We only had All India Radio then. No telephone or mobile phone for communication. The land phone was available but we had no access to it when we were in the camp. When we received the news of the Thalassery attack through All India Radio, we attacked Pulpally Police Station. It was a successful mission. But the following events did not happen as we planned. Those who attacked Thalassery police station were supposed to do a victory march to Pulpally and join us in our camp in the forest. But nobody came to join us there. They all returned to their own business when they failed in Thalassery mission. That is the reason why police captured us in the following days.
Kunhi: Do you think the mainstream communist party supporters helped the police to capture Naxalites after the Pulpally attack?
Ajitha. They were the ones in power in Kerala. The police force was under the leadership of a communist leader, EMS Namboodirippad.
Kunhi: Was it the communist party supporters who informed the police when you were camping inside the forest?
Ajitha: No. It was locals. We can’t say they were communists. We can’t blame the locals, because newspapers created a monster image for us by this time. The Malayala Manorma newspaper was leading the mission. They called us burglars. How could people not get scared of us?
Kunhi: Ok. Can you recollect a little bit about the approach of the police?
Ajitha: We were trying to do an armed revolution. Perhaps the police had no other way to respond. But the approach was similar to that of the British colonial police who resisted the freedom struggle of the natives. They treated us without showing any humanitarian concern. They punished us brutally, without making any gender difference. As I was a woman, I had to face their attempts at sexual abuse too. I was the only girl in the group. The mainstream communist party also exploited this matter and raised a moral question. They insulted me for staying alone with fifty to two hundred male comrades.
It was not a problem of just the communist parties, all other parties shared the same mentality towards women. Even today, there is no change in the approach towards women. If a woman chose public life or decided to contest in an election, the first thing all these parties do is to analyse her sexual morality. That is the most powerful tool of the patriarchy against women.
Kunhi: Was it such a moral policing approach of our society that made you a feminist and inspired you to start Answeshi Women Counselling Center?
Ajitha: In the beginning, I didn’t care much about such things. I was not aware of the feminist movement then. Feminism as a concept was not familiar in our society.
Kunhi: I have read somewhere that you were critical of some of the approaches of your father, on the matter of early actions of the Naxalite movement. Can you explain a little about that issue?
Ajitha: No, that is not true. I had no difference of opinion from my father. But he later reevaluated some of the decisions they made during the first armed action. He concluded that they were not supported to act in a way that was needed for moving towards a communist revolution. He realized that they should have had worked for creating a popular uprising than doing an isolated attack on government machinery. In truth, from the very beginning, he was against the idea of a secret attack against the class enemies. He was always against such an approach of leaders like Charu Majumdar. But I can say that the element of patriarchy was evident even in the activities of my father. I realized the problems of such things since I became part of the feminist movement.
Kunhi: Ok. What was your approach when the Naxal movement began its second phase in Kerala by adopting some populist method?
Ajitha: The movement did not go ahead later, as many say. Police arrested and sent to jail all the comrades who were part of the movement. For many years, they all remained busy with police cases and court trials.
Kunhi: Some Naxal activists argued that the government failed in their attempt to create a negative image of Naxalites. They say that after the National Emergency, the public approach towards the Naxalite movement transformed significantly. What is your take on that?
Ajitha: It was not the government who tried to create the negative image. It was the mainstream communist party. Of course, it was the communist party that was in power then. But creating a bad image of the Naxalite movement was not an official policy of the government. They failed in their attempt. People did not accept that. It was a major problem in the beginning.
Kunhi: How was your approach towards communist parties after the release? Did you make any attempt to join the mainstream political party?
Ajitha: I have never been part of any communist party. I never tried to associate with them. I was part of the Naxalbari Movement and not any communist party.
Kunhi: I’m talking about the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), not CPI or CPI (M).
Ajitha: I was in jail and I was part of them. We, my mother and I, were released on bail for almost a year in 1969. My father and all other comrades remained in prison. When comrade Varghese was murdered, I was on bail. Then they withdrew my bail and I went back to prison. I spent two years in Kannur Central Jail and 5 years in Pujappura Central Jail in Trivandrum. They released us in 1977 when Morarji Desai’s Janata Party government came to power in the centre after the National Emergency, and decided to release all political prisoners.
Kunhi: After the release, you never tried to restart the movement?
Ajitha: Yes, we did for some time. But then my father became physically ill and passed away. We got released in 1977 and my father died in 1979. It happened on 25th August. Then I got married. My partner is one of the comrades who worked with us during the movement.
Kunhi: What was the year of your marriage?
Ajitha: 1981. We, my husband and I, tried to take the movement forward. We published a magazine called Red Guard. We managed to publish only five issues. Our financial situation was not good and we had nobody to support us financially. Then I became pregnant and became a mother. After that, my return to activism happened only in the 1986-87 period. It is not political activism in the conventional sense. But it was political activity. I became an activist of the feminist movement in Kerala.
Kunhi: Can you share some of your experience as a feminist activist in Kerala?
Ajitha: Both my good and bad experiences as a feminist is connected with the infamous Icecream Parlour case in Kerala. We realized by associating with this case how corrupted Kerala’s political leaders, police officers, and other public officials, including judges, were. They all worked together to hide the scandal and make sure that our case will fail to prove anything in court. But we received national-level attention because of this case. Our platform (Answeshi) became popular. With this case, Anweshi became a platform capable of leading any fight against any powerful corrupt politicians. Our day to day business of providing support to vulnerable women and children, victims of sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence, child sexual abuse, had begun to get public attention after the incident. People were largely unaware of our regular activities. The case did not succeed in the court, as they intended. The main accused, Kunjalikkutty, continued with his political activities. He became a Member of Parliament. We failed in the case, but we strengthened our principal policy that we will never make any compromise with any corrupt politicians.
That is our policy. Shall we stop here?
Kunhi: Sure. Thank you so much.
The Ice Cream Parlor Case was a sex scandal involving many prominent political leaders in Kerala.
How did gender, culture and ideology intersect to shape the Cold War experiences of women like Ajitha?
Consider the importance of family histories from individuals like Ajitha in enriching the historiography of India’s Cold War.