Interview With Baburaj Kodungallur

Baburaj discusses his early struggles in life, his association with the Naxalite groups, and his activism for helping Adivasi communities.

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Born in 1970s in Valappad village, Kerala, in a socioeconomically challenged Ezhava family, Baburaj begins by sharing how his father struggled to make ends meet; first as a small grocer, and later as a dealer in coconut kernels for oil extraction, after a failed attempt to better his fortunes by working in the Middle East. As they could not afford to support all three of their children, Baburaj, the oldest, was placed in the care of his maternal uncle, who raised and educated him in his maternal home. Baburaj eventually pursued higher education, earning an engineering degree from 1989-1994. 

During his university days, the impending collapse of communism was a prominent topic in the tabloids. He became an active member of the leftist youth movement as an undergraduate, in the youth wing of the Naxalite party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Flag [CPI-ML]. His faith in the party was strengthened by the Naxalite leadership’s accurate foresight of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He also suggests that contrary to popular belief, there was no intra-party disunity within the movement. As a student, he traveled with the party, and was involved in efforts to build alliances between the Naxalites and the working class, as well as human rights groups. He then recounts how they were unable to help ice candy vendors peddling goods outside schools who faced the problem of free riders. These activities helped him strengthen his connection to his native village, and he also got close to a group of film enthusiasts who lived nearby. Once, he skipped school to attend a film festival with them, which hurt his attendance scores and led him to be suspended for a year. He dedicated that year to his party work, and to becoming financially independent, before returning to continue his degree for another year. 

At that time, the CPI-ML was facing an internal disagreement over the expulsion of a comrade. Baburaj and others who opposed the decision set up a temporary committee in Thrissur, and he relocated to save costs. In Thrissur, he worked in the party’s movements to better the lives of the working class in the fishing and diamond industries. He was involved in destroying dams constructed by mafia who controlled inland water bodies, to trap fish and reduce the catch of fishermen. The party also formed a union for diamond factory laborers to demand concessions. 

In 1994, after completing his degree, Baburaj was sent to work in Adivasi settlements in his district, to address the issue of Adivasis’ displacement due to the construction of a dam. They eventually merged with the Jana Shakti Naxalite group, and fought for the requisition of lands to Adivasi families. The government eventually gave the Adivasis new lands to settle, and funding to build homes. Baburaj supervised the construction of these homes and the development of a rubber plantation within the new settlement. When the rubber plantation began generating stable income for the Adivasi residents, they lost interest in retaking their traditional lands, and alienated Naxalite activists like Baburaj. 

He left the region in 1997, moving to Eranakulam to work on urban workers’ issues. There he faced tensions with the rival incumbent unions, but his group was able to garner support when they proved that the rival union had made compromises with the corporations that were not in the workers’ best interest. The Jana Shakti group split into three groups 2001, and he continued to participate in land struggles; for which he endured police brutality. In 2010, he quit his political activism to become a journalist. In retrospect, he feels that his early party work was not truly impactful, but still remains nostalgic. 

13 April 2019


Kunhi: Shall we start with a brief introduction to your family background?

Baburaj: I’m from Valappad village, near Kodungallur, in the Thrissur district of Kerala. My family belongs to the Ezhava community. Mine was an economically and educationally backward family. Perhaps, I must be the first person to pass the 10th standard examination from our family. 

Kunhi: What about your parents?

Baburaj: My father was running a small grocery store in the village. When I was a small kid, once he visited a Gulf country (Middle East) to test his fortune. But he returned home soon as he failed in this effort. When I was a school student, he was back at home. My village is known for its coconut plantations. Many people from the Ezhava community are engaged in the dried coconut kernel business. They would buy fresh coconuts and make dried coconut kernels suitable for extracting oil. Both large scale and small scale deals are there in this field. My father became one of the small scale dealers in this field.

Kunhi: Can you say your family belonged to the lower-middle-class category?

Baburaj: No. It was lower than the lower middle class. My father studied only the first standard in school. My mother studied till 10th standard in school. Her family belong to a village called Kurukkancheri, near Thrissur town. The truth is, I grew up in my uncle’s house in Kurukkancheri. I was with them ever since I turned one and a half years. I have two younger brothers. They stayed with my parents in Valappad. My parents were not in a position to support all their children. Therefore, I ended up in my uncle’s house. It was the house of my mother’s family. I did my schooling staying there. I was living in Kurukkancheri till 1988.

Kunhi: Where did you do your studies?

Baburaj: I studied in Chaldean Syrian High School and SN boys high school. After that, I joined St Thomas College, Thrissur, for the pre-degree course. Then, for a year I studied physics at SN College, Nattika, near Valappad. Then I wrote the entrance exam and joined Palakkad Engineering College. 

Kunhi: When did you begin to associate with the Naxalite movement?

Baburaj: It was in 1989, mainly after joining Palakkad Engineering College. The collapse of communism was a major topic of conversation in Kerala during that period. Malayalam newspapers like Mathrubhumi published a series of articles about the fall of the communist bloc.

Kunhi: Were they discussing this issue even before the fall of the Soviet Union?

Baburaj: Yes. By the time of the Soviet disintegration, I was active in the party. When this happened, I did not feel anything different. Our platform, the Naxal organization, was in a comfortable position during that period. I’m one of those who joined the Naxal organization in the later years. I couldn’t experience its early years. When I joined the party, the major discussion was about the fall of communism. I did not participate in the discussion, as I was a young man with very limited knowledge about these matters. I began to be more active after joining Palakkad Engineering College. I became involved with the Yuvajanavedi (Platform for youth) and Kerala Vidyarthi Sangadana (Student’s Organization of Kerala). Leaders like KT Kunkikkannan used to visit us on our campus. I was not at all disappointed during the fall of the Soviet Union. Our stand was that the Naxalites were already aware of the problem of the Soviet Union. Our leaders had foreseen the fall and talked about it in detail. So we felt the fall as a validation of our analysis. People like me, the lower level activists of the party, became more confident about the views of the party with the fall of the Soviet Union. Because it was proving that our party’s approach is correct. Unlike what the general public believed, there was no problem within the party. People considered the fall of the Soviet Union as a failure of all communist parties. But that was not the approach within the party. The party saw it as an event that proved its prediction about the Soviet Union.

Kunhi: Which was your party? I’m asking this since there are many groups within the Naxalite organization.

Baburaj: I was with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Flag. I worked with its student’s organization and youth organization. I became a full-time activist in the student’s organization when I was a student in Palakkad Engineering College, though I started associating with them even when I was in Thrissur. I helped to strengthen Yuvajanvedi and Kerala Vidyarthi Sangadana. My associates were one Mr Santhosh Kumar and one Mr Shaukat Ali. Santhosh is a lawyer now, practising in Thrissur court. Later Rupesh, who is currently in jail, also joined us. We all stayed in the same house. We travelled to many villages in Palakkad and formed youth organizations there.

Kunhi: So, you became active in the late 1980s. 

Baburaj: Yes. Perhaps, my experience may not help your study.

Kunhi: No such worries. It is certainly important for my study. Did you complete your studies at Palakkad Engineering College?

Baburaj: I did my degree course from 1989 to 1994. I studied in Palakkad till 1993. After that, I moved to an Engineering College in Thrissur. I did complete the course. I shifted my college because of a problem within our party. I did pass the final examination. But I did not work as an engineer. I didn’t even collect my degree certificate. I didn’t feel any need for that. Even passing the exam was not necessary. I did many activities while I was in Palakkad College. We formed a union for people who were selling ice candies near schools and colleges. Many people were doing this kind of job when I was a student in school and college. We formed a union based in Ottappalam in the Palakkad district. It was a strange experience. Most of the people who sold ice candy were peculiar characters. They shared their problems. Their main problem was free riders. They were giving free ice candies to several students as they had no money. They are forced to give them free candy, on the ground of humanitarian concerns. They can’t let poor students watch, while the other students who can afford are eating ice candy. It was a strange experience. We could not find any solution to their problem. 

There were many nostalgic places in Palakkad during that time. It was the beginning of the fall of the Naxalite movement. When we visited villages, people had something to talk about the Naxalites. In some villages, people showed us wells built by Naxalites. It was a great feeling for me, as a student who works with the Naxalite organization. When I analyse now, my work as a student activist, I do not feel anything great about it. It was a largely nostalgic activity. We tried to form several organizations. We tried to associate with some human rights organizations. Some people cheated us. Mainly we travelled to many places, talked to people, discussed issues with Naxalites. We associated with a campaign against fascism. Essentially, till 1992, my works were not properly organized. 

In the same period, because of my party activities, I started a connection with my village, Valappad. Before that, I rarely visited my village. Because of my party relations, I often visited some people who were staying in a place close to my village. It was a group of cultural activists. I was a movie enthusiast. I worked with their platform called Screen. One of the well-known Malayalam actors, Joy Mathew was a member of this group. Once I travelled with them to Kolkata to attend the film festival. It affected my attendance in college, and I got suspended for a year. It was a whole year loss for my studies. But it significantly helped my activities at the party. My family was not aware of this issue. I got one free year. The film festival became a major turning point in my life. 

In this period, I started working for finding some income. I started giving extra tuition to students in the evening and delivering newspapers in the morning. Before this, I was solely dependent on the small amount of pocket money that I received from my uncle.

Kunhi: When did you get suspended from college? Is it because of this incident you moved to Thrissur college?

Baburaj: It happened when I was a third-semester student in college. After a gap of a year, I returned to college. I think,  a year or so I continued my study at Palakkad Engineering College. Then a major incident happened within the party. Based on an insignificant issue, the party expelled a comrade named Gafoor from its membership. This incident became a major issue within the party. Many of us left the party following this incident and formed a platform called CPI (M-L) Red Flag provisional committee. It was a temporary set-up. We continued our work under this temporary committee. With this change, my party activities were largely based on the Thrissur area. Because of that, I shifted my studies to Thrissur. For financial reasons also. 

After the return to Thrissur, I worked with a fishermen’s union for some time. I was not in the leadership. I never considered myself a leader. I always worked with the party, joining other leaders. 

There are two types of fishermen in Kerala, one is marine fishers and the other is inland fishers. When the split happened in the party and we formed the provisional committee, we decided to focus on the problems of inland fishers. There was no one to organize inland fishermen. They were facing several problems related to the activities of hatcheries, management of inland water bodies etc. There was a mafia controlling inland water bodies. They created temporary dams within the water body to trap a large quantity of fish within it. Such activities affected the catch of common fishermen. The party intervened in such issues and destroyed such dams by resisting goons.

I came to Vadanappally in Thrissur in the background of many such issues. There we had many cultural activities, along with the problems for fishermen. Many Kunnamkulam based activists also joined our platform during this period. They were working mainly for workers in the diamond cutting factories in Kunnamkulam. No such factories are there any longer. They all closed. They formed a union for diamond cutting workers. Many people argued in this context that such a union would ultimately lead to the disappearance of that job in Kerala. But we ignored such arguments and addressed the problems of diamond cutting workers. In this period I began to be a member of some of the committees of the party. Thus, after finishing my studies in 1994, I moved to an Adivasi area to work for the party.

Kunhi: Which was this Adivasi area you were working in?

Baburaj: There are several Adivasi settlement areas in the Thrissur district. The first assignment I got was to work for those who were displaced because of the construction of the Chimmini dam. It was based in a village called Varandarappilly. During this time, our platform, the Provisional Committee, was having meetings with several organizations. We were looking for an appropriate political platform to associate with. We wanted to join a national-level organization that could accept our ideology. Interestingly, by this period, our ideology and world views had transformed significantly from what we had when we were part of the CPI-ML Red Flag. Our approach towards Dalit-Adivasi problems also transformed during this period. These transformations in the ideology and approach were directly linked to the collapse of the communist bloc and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Though we considered the fall of the Soviet Union as a validation of our approach, the questions that emerged in the following years, especially those related to environmental issues, had forced us to reconsider our political ideology. We realized that we cannot address every problem in terms of the conventional Marxist understanding. We discussed these issues with various left organizations, including the banned People’s War Group. 

In the same period, we developed a good relationship with a small organization called Jana Shakti (People’s Power) in Kerala. It was a very important platform. They were associating with CPI-ML Resistance. It was a Naxalite group focused solely on Adivasi issues in the Thrissur district. The Jana Shakti was a platform created by several organizations like the Resistance. One of the leaders of Jana Shakti was K Ramachandran, a leader of the Railway Workers’ Union. In the end, our Provisional Committee merged with Jana Shakti. Thus we became members of a political party. The Resistance group was already addressing the issues related to Adivasi displacement following the construction of the Chimmini dam. Since they began to fill the dam reservoir, many Adivasi families were living in a temporary set-up arranged in a nearby school. Most of them were members of the Malayar community, lived in a hamlet called Kallichitra. They were shifted later to a new place, and they again named the new colony Kallichitra. Perhaps, Kallichitra must be the only case of decent rehabilitation of the displaced Adivasi families in Kerala. It happened because of the involvement of the Resistance and leaders like K R Madhavan. They redefined the nature of protests in Kerala. If they led a protest march to a government office with demand, they would camp near that office until their issue is solved, even if it took several days.

When I arrived there, the new Kallichitra colony was in the process of construction after their initial struggle. The government provided some land and some amount of money to every Adivasi family for constructing a house. By the time I joined, they started construction of a few houses, and they were in the process of creating a rubber plantation in the land they had received as part of the rehabilitation package. Our comrades were helping them in these works. My initial responsibility was to oversee the construction works of houses in the colony. 

Kunhi: Ok. What was the general condition of Adivasi communities in the area?

Baburaj: There are 16 Adivasi hamlets in the Thrissur district. Most of these families have no land of their own. It created several serious problems. The Jana Shakti was beginning to address the land issue by the time I started working in the Kallichitra colony. There was a serious tension between the forest department and Adivasis, on the ground of an illegal settlement in the forest land. Forest officials often attacked Adivasis by accusing them of theft of wood or other forest resources. Another issue was with the famous Harrisons estate. People had to cross the estate to reach the location of the new Kallichitra colony. The estate managers are very strange people. They often ignored basic human decency when dealing with Adivasis. They often harassed Adivasis when they crossed the estate to reach the new colony. Adivasis had to walk through the estate at least half an hour to reach the new colony. The party had to do very serious intervention to transform managers’ approach towards Adivasis. 

Considering the land problem, Jana Shakti decided to organize various protests. Until that, no Dalit-Adivasi organizations were actively leading a protest with a demand for land. It was Jana Shakti that started asserting for the first time that the lack of their own land is the root cause of various Adivasi problems. It was the platform that organized the first Adivasi land reacquisition movement. The first attempt was for retaking land from a rich person named Advocate Paul. His family illegally occupied a large piece of Adivasi land near the Peechi dam in the Thrissur district. The party appointed three people, including me, to lead the protest and retake the land from Paul. 

As per the party direction, one early morning we moved along with several Adivasi comrades to Pattuvamkuzhi, to the land we had to retake. We entered the property and constructed several tents, without any major resistance. Several Adivasi families stayed there for five or six years. In the end, the court ruled against us. However, the attempt gained national-level attention and many started arguing that a forceful retake of Adivasi land is the best way to solve the issue of landlessness among Adivasi communities. Several such attempts happened throughout Kerala in the following years.

The party had to address several issues related to the retake of Adivasi land. One of the interesting issues was that Adivasi families were not really interested in settling in the land which we took from Advocate Paul. They liked to stay in the colonies where they were staying before this attempt. Another interesting thing that happened over the years was that the rubber plantation we helped to create in the Kallichitra colony had begun to generate a good income for many Adivasi families. With this stable income, they started ignoring the party. They ignored the fact it was the party that helped them in creating such a plantation and it was the party that trained them rubber tapping. When people had a stable income and a settled life, the party became an unnecessary thing. It was a very painful moment in my life, as I was part of all these processes. Suddenly I became an outsider to them.

Kunhi: How is their situation now? Do they continue getting a stable income from rubber plantations?

Baburaj: Yes. It is one of the best Adivasi colonies in Kerala. Many of them became government employees over the years. Most of the families in the colony still find a good income from the rubber plantation. 

So, the reacquisition of land for landless people in every Adivasi hamlet in Thrissur district was the plan of Jana Shakti. Thus we retook land in areas like Thamaravallachal. Later several Adivasi families received titles to these retaken lands from the government. When we did these kinds of protests, the later well-known Adivasi activists like C K Janu were nowhere in the scene. The well-known Adivasi land struggles like Chengara and Muthanga incidents happened in the later years. Now I realize that our party, Jana Shakti, had the vision to see landlessness as the root cause of many problems of the Adivasi community. The truth is that our party was an Adivasi party during those years. Our work was mainly in the Adivasi areas. Even our units were categorized as coastal area and forest area. I was working for a forest area committee. 

Kunhi: When did you leave the forest area committee?

Baburaj: In 1997. I began to feel so isolated there. I wanted to join my friends. Some of my friends were in Eranakulam. The party had a plan to start its activities in the Eranakulam area. Therefore, it allowed me to shift to Eranakulam. After arriving in the city, I started working with some of my friends. We tried to build relationships with workers in various companies. Though our attempts failed in the beginning, later we built a union by associating with workers in the Special Economic Zone. Many large companies like Tata Ceramics were operating in this area. But membership in our union was very limited. Later we started a few magazines to discuss the workers' problem in the city. We had some tension with other leading trade unions like CITU. We revealed some compromises these unions had made to help the companies, ignoring the workers’ interests. In this period I began to have some ideological differences with my friend Roopesh. He later joined a radical Maoist party. Some other friends followed him. In this period, I got married.

Kunhi: When did you get married?

Baburaj: In 2000. In the following year, a split happened within Jana Shakti. It became three separate groups with this incident. A group joined the Maoist Party, another formed a new CPI-ML group and the other group in which I was part of remained as Jana Shakti. The group I was part of included mainly those who were interested in addressing Adivasi issues. Thus we continued our work for Adivasi communities. We joined several land struggles. And some of us, including me, faced brutal attacks during the Muthanga land struggle. They tortured us brutally because of two reasons. One, a policeman got killed during the movement. Second, they did not like non-Adivasis participating in Adivasi protests. 

By 2010, I stopped my political activities and joined Thejas Newspaper. Then I moved to an evening newspaper called Thalsamayam.

Kunhi: What about your family?

Baburaj: My wife is a college lecturer. And we don’t have any kids. 

Kunhi: Ok. Thank you

Interviewer: Kunhi

Interviewee: Baburaj Kodungallur

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Transcript Notes

  1. Ezhava are a socioeconomically challenged community in IndiA that have in recent times successfully risen into financial and social stability. 

  2. Adivasi is a broad term referring to any aboriginal peoples of India, in this case the Kerala region.

  3. Dalit refers to the untouchable caste in the Brahminical caste system of India.

  1. How should the Cold War in India best be understood in light of Baburaj’s testimony?

  2. Given your answer to Q1, consider its implications for how the Cold War is understood in Asia. How does it converge and/or diverge from traditional understandings of the Cold War in Western historiography.

  3. Can we consider the Cold War to have ended in India today, in light go Baburaj’s reflections?