Civic Chandran discusses the factors which shaped his interests in communist politics, his life as a teacher in Wayanad, his interventions as a writer, his involvement as a communist, his days in prison, and his major activities after leaving the Naxalite organization.
Born in 1951 in Thrissur in a lower-middle-class family, Civic Chandran recalls growing up keenly aware of the plight of downtrodden communities, as his family lived near a Dalit village. Despite not having a strong educational background, many in his community responded to international developments in whatever capacity they could. Families named newborns Gagarin after the first Soviet Cosmonaut, and celebrated the rise of the first communist government in Kerala, which had appointed a Dalit as a minister. However, his family did not influence his move towards the left.
At age 7 in 1958, Chandran read about African socialist leader Patrice Lumumba. As the divide between the two major blocs of the Cold War became more apparent in his adolescence, he and his peers leaned towards the Soviets. Youth developed a sense of ownership over the local Soviet-sponsored Bhilai Steel Plant. In his high school years, Chandran joined a reading group in the local library, where they read a mix of communist, existentialist, and anarchist literature. This highlighted the weaknesses of the mainstream communist parties to them. One of his peers in the reading group later became a Naxalite leader.
However, Chandran was unable to afford higher education, and enrolled in teacher’s training, after which he was posted to Wayanad in 1971 as a primary school teacher. By 1974, he met a local Naxalite leader who introduced him to banned radical communist literature, which led him to sympathize with the movement. Chandran’s political views were also deeply influenced by the poem “Bengal” at the time. He had become an established writer by 1974, with a few published plays, and was asked to serve as an editor for a Naxalite publication.
The following year, his publication was banned, and he was arrested by the police due to the growing popularity of his most recent play. Chandran was detained with Rajan at the Kakkayam police camp before being transferred to Kannur Central Jail, where he remained until the end of National Emergency in 1977. As a somewhat famous person, he was treated less harshly by wardens. He credits his prison term as a time of great political education for himself, as political prisoners were not made to work and thus passed the time by reading political literature. The Jail library had many pioneering works by early communist leaders, and inmates across the political spectrum would participate in debates. Chandran thus considers his imprisonment a blessing in disguise.
Upon his release, he worked to get his works written in prison published. He also published poetry by Naxalites held at Kerala’s 3 central jails, which garnered public support for their movement. The people of Kerala also regretted re-electing the Congress Party, which had mounted the National Emergency policy, and began supporting the Naxalite counter-movement. In response, many Naxalite activists began participating in electoral politics and left their families. Chandran however, disagreed with this practice and avoided becoming a politician; marrying and starting a family instead. He also returned to his teaching career, and decided to limit himself to working as a cultural activist.
His cultural platform conducted many activities, such as introducing ideological street theatre productions to Kerala, importing Eastern European films that opposed the established communist parties in the West, and publishing books. They also created a new form of “street debate”, where different groups could post their views on a public noticeboard near bus stops, and others could reply using their own boards. The most radical action his Naxalite group conducted was the public trials, which also garnered mass support. Notably, Chandran’s family never opposed his activities, as he was the first in his family to enter a civil service job, and became the sole breadwinner. However, they also had to face financial hardship when he lost his job during the Emergency.
Despite the successes of the Naxalite movement, Chandran and his collaborators lost faith in communist ideology following the fall of the USSR and the capitalist turn of Deng Xiaoping’s China. Chandran explains that Communist ideology was not equipped to address questions of caste, feminism, and sub-national political identities. They disbanded their cultural group and began a new publication, Pada Bhedam (Alter Text), which is still active today. It argues for the importance of environmentally-conscious green politics in India, advocates a secularism that provides universal religious freedom to individuals rather than denying religion, and other social issues. It has now taken a position against the Modi government. In retrospect, Chandran admits that he and his family have paid a great personal cost due to his activism, but also shares that he would still do the same, albeit more skillfully, if he was ever in a similar political context again.
16th April 2019
Kunhi: My study is focused on various developments that happened in the region during the Cold War period. On the one side, I examine the emergence of radical communist politics in Kerala, the social acceptance it gained, and the transformation it brought into the lives of downtrodden communities in the region. On the other side, I examine the influence and impact of Cold War ideologies in Kerala’s social life. You were part of the radical communist movement in Kerala, and you have immense experience in dealing with various social as well as political issues in the region. I hope you could help me a great deal in this research?
Chandran: I’m a person who started his public life by associating with radical movements in the 1970s.
Kunhi: Was it during the period of India’s national emergency?
Chandran: No, a few years earlier than that. I approached my youth years in the late 1960s.
Kunhi: What is your year of birth?
Chandran: I was born in 1951, in Thrissur.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about your family background?
Chandran: I’m from a lower-middle-class family. My house was situated near a Dalit village. Therefore, I was well aware of Dalit realities in the region. It was that experience that shaped my political views. That is how I became sympathetic towards communist ideology. The political awareness in my family was really good. For example, they wanted to name newborn babies Gagarin (after the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin) ever since the first manned space mission of the Soviet Union happened in 1961.
Kunhi: So, your family members were communist party supporters. Right?
Chandran: No. My family has no political or academic background. The first communist government in Kerala was formed while I was a student in primary school. It was celebrated as a downtrodden Dalit community’s ascent into political power. Moreover, one of the leaders who was working with the Dalit community in our region also became a minister. The first SC/ST minister. In my whole life, I garlanded only two people. One was this Minister when he arrived in our village for the first time as a minister. When the villagers organised a welcome party for the minister, they selected me to present him with a flower garland. The second one was during my wedding.
Kunhi: Ok. It was not your family background that shaped your approach towards communist ideology. Can you tell me about your early readings?
Chandran: The first political writing that I read was a pamphlet about the murder of Angolan President Patrice Lumumba. It happened in 1958, from the venue of the All Indian Kisan Sabha conference that was being held in Trissur. It was during that period Lumumba was murdered by the CIA. Essentially, my childhood was highly influenced by various developments in the world, as people in my village were naming their newborn Gagarin in honour of a Soviet cosmonaut, and they were discussing CIA conspiracies against a communist leader in an African country.
When I reached adolescence, my political views matured a little more. It was a time the world was divided into two. We leaned more towards Soviet politics. For example, a guy from our village went to work in Bhilai Steel Plant in Chattisgarh. We identified the plant as our own place, as the plant was one of the Soviet Union-funded projects in India. That was our political awareness during those years.
Kunhi: All these happened in the late 1950s?
Chandran: Yes, in the second half of the 1950s. When I was a high school student, I was part of an intellectual group based in a library in our village. It was all about buying, reading and discussing new books. Some of the members in that group later became well-known personalities in Kerala. One of whom became a well-known Naxalite leader, one became a well-known saint in India, one became a scientist who received the gold medal from President, and so on. It was my communist background. But I have never been part of any political party. I could say that most of the books I tried to read in those periods belonged to the category existentialist literature. In this period, the mainstream Indian communist parties began to be part of the ruling alliances or they ran governments. Moreover, several bad news began to appear from the communist bloc of countries. It began to make us aware of the contradictions between communist ideology and the practice of communist governments. There was no systematic study of politics. We read everything we had access to. It was a period with mixed influences of communism, existentialism and anarchism in my life. With this background, I became a primary school teacher and ended up in the Wayanad district.
Kunhi: What did you study for higher studies?
Chandran: After primary school, I opted for TTC (Trained Teachers Certificate). I needed a job. The situation did not allow me to continue further studies. It was the concluding period of the early rigour of the Naxalite movement in Kerala. By this time, Varghese was murdered and most of the leaders were arrested. But on the cultural front, radical ideology was very active.
Kunhi: Which was year did you arrive at Wayanad as a teacher?
Chandran: It happened in the early 1970s. I think, in 1971. Radical communism was gaining its hold over Kerala’s culture. Many new periodicals with radical communist backgrounds began to appear. A monthly magazine named Inqilab, with Naxalite leader K Venu as its editor began to be published. It was banned soon by the government. I was reading all these publications. It was during this time K Shankarapilla published a poem titled ‘Bengal’. That was one of the most important pieces of literature which influenced my political approach. The poem was about the radical communist situation in West Bengal. In this period, I met a Naxalite leader. He introduced me to many banned works of Naxalite ideology. We discussed the work of Charu Majumdar and others. I would say, he is the person who greatly influenced my approach towards the Naxalite movement.
Kunhi: It happened in 1971?
Chandran: No. The year was 1974. I was a writer by that time. I published a couple of plays. After meeting that Naxalite leader, I ended up in a Naxalite periodical called Yenan. I became a member of its editorial board. My associates were V. C. Sreejan, a well-known literary critic, and K. K. Kochu, a famous Dalit thinker. By this time, one of my plays called Akshohini became popular in Wayanad. The play brought police attention to my activities. When National Emergency was declared in 1975, the government banned Yenan, and police took us, editors, into custody for questioning. Later police released other editors. But they arrested me for making the play. They took me to Kakkayam police camp. I spent two weeks there with Rajan who was murdered by the police. After that, as per MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act), they took me to Kannur Central Jail as a detainee.
Kunhi: It all happened in 1975. Right?
Chandran: Yes. In the 1975-76 period. I spent a year and a half, till they withdrew National Emergency in 1977, in Kannur Central Jail. Most of the mainstream communist party leaders, including our present chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and communist leader M V Raghavan, and almost all Naxalite leaders were there in jail during those years. Naxalite leaders like Ajitha, Mandakini, Kunnikkal Narayan, K Venu, K N Ramachandran were my prison mates. Some of the RSS leaders, including its state president K. G. Marar, was also included among those jailed in this period. In fact, my university was Kannur Central jail. As a detainee, I got the immense opportunity to be part of many political debates, learn many things and read many books. I became a political graduate when I was in prison. Perhaps, if the police didn’t arrest me and send me to jail, I would have ended up as one among the many unknown primary school teachers in Kerala.
Kunhi: Ok. Thus prison days became a major turning point in your life.
Chandran: Yes, indeed.
Kunhi: In jail, you had no restriction for interacting with other inmates?
Chandran: Yes, we were allowed to have debates. There were representatives of all political ideologies, from the extreme left to the extreme right.
Kunhi: You were allowed to organize open meetings?
Chandran: No, no. We were in a closed prison. They allowed us to go to the open area only on some occasions. But we had many other opportunities to interact with others. We were together when we eat, bathe, or when we go to the hospital etc. We exchanged books with each other. There was no other job to do. They provided us with food to eat on time.
Kunhi: You were not required to be part of some activities like other prisoners?
Chandran: No. We political prisoners had no such work to do. We were engaged mainly in reading. There were many students among us. They were allowed to get their study-related textbooks from outside. Using such opportunities, we smuggled many banned books to prison by changing their cover. Moreover, the best library in Kerala is in Kannur Central Jail. Because these political prisoners will bring with them many good books and they will not take them back when they get released from jail. It was a practice for generations. We could find books of the earliest communist leaders like AK Gopan in the Jail library.
Kunhi: Did you face any police torture from the police camp?
Chandran: Of course, it was a concentration camp. But I may be the one who suffered relatively less police torture. It was because of many reasons. One is that I was a little famous personality as a writer. Secondly, there were not many secrets for me to share with them. Thirdly, I was not a healthy person. Moreover, the death of Rajan made them a little more cautious about their methods of torture. Even then, I also received my share of punishment from the police.
Kunhi: They will not let you go free without taking that share. Right?
Chandran: Yes, yes…As I mentioned I was a writer by that time. But I couldn’t write anything long from prison. Therefore, I started writing poems. The first thing that I did, after getting released from prison, was work to publish my prison poems. Along with my poems, I edited and published poems of Naxalite prisoners in Kerala's 3 Central jails. The publication helped us to increase our popularity. Moreover, after the National Emergency, there was a sense of repentance among Malayalis as they did not resist the notorious National Emergency policies and reelected the same political party which implemented those policies. Therefore, we easily gained social acceptance after the National Emergency. Changing their previous approach towards the Naxal movement, many considered us as resistance heroes.
Kunhi: Is it in this context, the Naxalites turned into some populist campaigns?
Chandran: Yes, yes. There were two important factors. Firstly, many Naxal activists began to prioritize politics and they became politicians. I never wanted to be a politician. I have politics but I don’t want to be a politician. Secondly, in general, Naxalites adopted their activist life by detaching themselves from their family. However, I refused to follow that direction. I decided to marry and make a family.
Kunhi: Which was the year of your marriage?
Chandran: It happened after getting released from prison, in 1978. I was the first Naxalite to marry and make a family.
Kunhi: Who did you marry?
Chandran: Finding a partner was so difficult for Naxalites, as nobody will be willing to give their daughter to someone who could be going to prison anytime. I was in love with a girl. That is the reason why I had to marry her. After the marriage, I went back to Wayanad, to rejoin as a teacher. It is in this context, I decided to be a cultural activist. I already decided that I will not be joining any political parties. We formed a cultural platform called Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi. Even before the formation of any communist party, there were many progressive arts and literary societies in Kerala. It was through such platforms most of the well-known progressive Malayalam writers emerged. Vayalar, P Baskaran, Puthusheri Ramachandran, O N V Kurup, Thakazhi, Thoppil Basi, are the best examples. These progressive writers, leaning towards communist ideology, created the first pink decade of Malayalam in the 1950s. We are the ones who created the second pink decade of Kerala in the 1970s and 80s.
Kunhi: Ok. What were the major activities of Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi?
Chandran: We are the ones who introduced street plays in Kerala. We were highly active in mainstream theatre. We created several well-received plays. Making posters, pamphlets and writing on the walls, we continuously intervened in Kerala’s public sphere and created several highly critical debates and discussions. We created a street media system. It was largely a notice board placed near a bus stop or similar places where we could easily attract public attention. Everyone was welcome to publish their views and opinion with regards to concerning matters on the board. When we put our poster on board, other organizations and parties would respond to it with their poster. It was a form of street debate. We created many film societies and brought several east European movies to Kerala society. In those days, Eastern European countries were largely against communist dictatorship. Their movies clearly conveyed this message. We screened such movies to make people aware of the problems of mainstream communist parties. Moreover, we published several books, mostly translations. We translated poems of authors like Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda. Our slogans, posters and pamphlets etc. made these authors and their poems very familiar to Kerala society.
Ours might be the last platform that introduced any new slogan in Kerala’s public sphere. All others are stuck with the same boring age-old slogan, Inqilab Zindabad. Our slogans were creative. For example, “Aneethikkethire Kalaaapam Cheyyunnath Nyamaanu (Revolt against an injustice is a justice)”, “oru theruvil oru aneethi undayaal, neram irittum mumbe ath chodyam chayyappedanam, ellenkil aa theruvu kathi nashikkum” (If an injustice happens in a street it should be questioned before the sunset, otherwise it will burn the street). We created our poems as our slogans and our slogans became poems. With such activities, we created a major change in Kerala’s language. All major Malayalam poets of the present are contemporaries of our activities. Poets like Sachidandan, Balachandran Chullikkad, Shakara Pillai, Ravi Varma, Vinaya Chandran, A Ayyappan, etc. became mainstream in that period.
In the end, we introduced the idea of Janakeeya Vicharana (public trial). We turned against many corrupt public officials. For example, we publicly trialled a corrupt doctor in Kozhikode Medical College, by making him wear a garland of used slippers. After the incident, 9 major newspapers in Kerala supported our attempts through their editorials. They stated that somebody should do such things to end the never-ending corruption of public officials in the state. From Chief Justice Chandrachud to former Chief Minister of Kerala, C Achutha Menon, many appreciated our attempt. Such activities greatly helped us to gain public support.
In the earlier period, Naxalites were not so connected to the general public. They were known to the public only through news reports. Since we introduced the new approach, Naxalites became familiar to everyone. They saw us every day singing poems and making street plays.
When we were at the peak of social recognition that an activist can imagine, internal conflicts began to appear in our organization. There were many reasons for such a failure. Firstly, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s transformation, there was no credible communist model in the world. Secondly, anti-communist sentiment became strong with the failure of communist countries. Thirdly, Marxist ideologies couldn’t address the identity questions that emerged in India since the 1970s and 80s. Marxist ideologies failed to address Feminist movements and Dalit movements. It was not equipped to address questions related to internal colonization or sub-nationalism and regionalism with the country. Naturally, because of all these, we lost our hope in Marxist ideology and political outfits based on that ideology.
Kunhi: It was the end of Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi?
Chandran: We could have continued our activities like Yuvajana Kalasamithi of the Communist Party of India, or Purogaman Kala-Sahithya Sangam of Communist Party of India (Marxist). Perhaps we could have continued as a larger organization than these. But we decided to liquidate ourselves. In this period, we were associating with some green movements. Therefore, we decided to begin a new red-green dialogue. It was a declaration that all political ideologies that do not recognize the importance of environmental protection are irrelevant for the future. It was also a declaration that all environmental organizations that were not willing to question the political establishment were also irrelevant for the future. It was an alignment of politics and environmentalism. That is how we started a red-green dialogue and formally dissolved Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi. We discontinued our publication (newspaper) Prerana. Thereafter, we started associating with various new social movements.
Kunhi: That was your entry to the post-Marxian period?
Chandran: Yes. Since then, we started a new monthly magazine called Pada Bhedam (Alter text). We are still publishing that magazine. The magazine brings the views of new social movements to people. We introduced to our readers various local, regional and international environmentalists and their views. Since associating with environmental organizations, we have corrected many of our views which were considered very important when we upheld Marxian ideologies. For example, the view that large dams and mega factories are the temples of modern India. We criticized India’s green revolution. We argued that the green revolution will destroy India’s conventional agriculture. We asserted that the very idea of ‘development’ itself is a method of new imperialism. We published an anti-secular manifesto. We are not secular. In India, we are following a leftist-Western idea of godless secularism. In a country like India, the majority can never accept such an idea of secularism. What we needed is not a leftist or Western or Nehruvian idea of secularism. We have to uphold the Gandhian idea of secularism. We need secularism that gives importance to god and the belief system. Personal level, each individual have the freedom to be a believer or an atheist.
We formed our opinions in terms of the concerned topic. For example, when the Supreme court of India declared that there should not any gender barrier for entry into the prestigious Shabarimala temple in Kerala which was traditionally not allowing entry for women in their menstruating ages we did not try to lean with any group involved in this debate. We argued that believers have the right to protect the dignity of their belief system and resist any change in the traditional practice of the temple. The court has no role to play in it. But there is a gender question. The believers should discuss it and find a convenient solution. That is the democratic way of doing things. The way it happened in Kerala, the court ruled and the government implemented, is not a democratic way. This is how we have a different stand in every concerned issue.
As far as the upcoming election is concerned, we are strongly against Modi at the national level, but at the regional level, we cannot support the approach of either the right-wing alliance or the left-wing alliance. Therefore, we created a black list containing names of
selected contesting candidates who should never be allowed to win an election. The candidates who promote violence, like the names of P Jayarajan, K Sudakaran, who promote patriarchal values, like the names of Innocent, and who does not value the importance of environmental issues, like the names of Anwar and Joyce George, and bad role models like KS Radhakrishnan, etc. are included in the list. We included Rahul Gandhi also in the black list as he opted for the wrong constituency for the contest. He should not be contesting from Wayanad, as he belonged to his original constituency Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. He is definitely one of the leaders who should be at the forefront of India’s national politics. This is our contemporary approach to politics, as somebody said we are neither left nor right but in the centre.
Kunhi: Ok. We can say it is the general picture of your political life?
Chandran: Yes. In the first phase of my life, as someone who was brought up near a Dalit colony, during the years of the Cold War, in a context of oppression and exploitation, I stood with the left ideology. In the second phase, I was part of new leftist politics and radical politics. Associating with this movement, I served a prison term. I’m glad that I was part of Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi, one of the most important cultural platforms in Kerala’s history. In the last phase, naturally, I’m with post-Marxian ideology and new social movements. That is my life. I lived my life. Now I’m ready to retire.
Kunhi: Do you think that you were more rational in your youth and you became a little conservative as you grow?
Chandran: (Misunderstanding the question). I was never been an atheist, not a believer either. When I say that I’m not a believer, my meaning is that I never needed God and God never needed me. I’m not interested in asserting neither the existence of God nor its absence. I’m not bothered about such things. However, as a person who was raised near a Dalit village and travel with leftist ideology, I’m very ethical in my life. I believe that being ethically correct is more important than being politically correct. In that sense, I’m not religious, but spiritual.
Kunhi: What was the approach of your family when you decided to be part of the radical left movement? I mean in the period, in the 1970s.
Chandran: I was the earning member of our family. As a lower-middle-class family, they were highly dependent on my income. That is why there was no questioning of my approaches from the side of my family. I was the first person from my family and tharavadu (ancestral home) who passed the secondary school exam. I was the first person in my family to get a government job. Therefore, there was no intervention from my family in my other doings. I lived my life in a way that I liked. I did what I wanted to do. However, there were some issues because of my way of life. I was suspended from my job for a continuous period of ten years. It happened after the national emergency, because of my political activities. I had no income in those days. We stayed in rented houses, in different parts of Kerala. We survived with the small income that my wife earned by giving extra tuition to a few students in our neighbourhood. Most often, we had nothing to eat for two times a day. Naturally, we have to pay a price when we select a particular way of life. My family and I have paid that price. My wife was mentally disturbed because of our living conditions. In the end, she committed suicide.
Kunhi: Sorry to hear that. What about your kids?
Chandran: Two girls. They had to do everything themselves to get their education and build their career. They survived, studied well and got the job. One daughter is a class one officer in government service. The other one is an architect. They did well in their life. But that was not because of me. In that sense, I paid a huge price. But I became a notable personality in Kerala. My writings, collection of my essays and collection of my poems, created many controversies in Kerala. My play, ningal aare communistakki (Whom did you make a Communist?), became a major controversy. The cases related to the play is still going on in theSupreme Court.
Kunhi: What comes to your mind when your think about all those years? Are you satisfied with the way it happened? Do you have any regrets?
Chandran: I already withdrew partially from almost all activities in my public life. I don’t have any regrets. I will live similar life if get born again in a similar socio-political context of the 1970s. Perhaps I could reduce some mistakes and act a little more mature.
Kunhi: Ok. Can I ask a question related to the first Naxalite armed action in Kerala? Related to the Naxal attacks in Thalassery and Pulpally. Do you think they could have made a different result if they had planned well and implemented it carefully?
Chandran: Week people can’t make plans like that. It could never have happened systematically. That is how terrorist organizations work, everywhere in the world. Terrorist organizations become important not through judging the correctness of their mode of operation. When you raise your finger to the moon, you should not start a discussion about your finger. You should look into the moon, not the finger. I’m still an admirer of terrorist organizations, all kinds of terrorism. The reason is that terrorism makes its own contribution to history. We could say that history is a clock that sometimes stops working. It is the extremist organizations that charge the clock when it stops moving. Everyone thinks about the clock, not about its charge to work. If there was no Bhagat Singh, we could never have had a Gandhi. If there was no Naxalites in Bihar, we could never have had a Jayaprakash Narayan. This is how radical organizations always help history.
Interviewee: Civic Chandran
Dalit are the untouchable caste within the Brahminical caste system.
SC/ST refers to Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes, identified groups of economically disadvantaged or aboriginal peoples who are entitled to government support and reservation quotas in higher education and civil service employment.
Patrice Lumumba was the first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, not the President, as the interviewee incorrectly claims. Lumumba was killed in 1961, not 1958, as the interviewee misremembers.
Rajan was a student of Regional Engineering College in Calicut. He died in the Kakkayam police camp because of extreme torture by the Police. After the incident, police disposed his body to eliminate the evidence for his murder. Though his body was never recovered, police confirmend in court later that he died in police custody.
How were Civic Chandran’s political views and experiences during the Cold War shaped by his social, economic, and educational background?
How does Chandran’s testimony illustrate the agency of individuals in navigating, and creating, their lived experiences of the Cold War in India?
Consider the significance of oral histories from a cultural activist like Chandran, who kept away from electoral politics. How does that enrich our understanding of the Cold War in India and Asia more broadly?
In light of his discussion of various international developments during the Cold War era, discuss the extent to which India’s Cold War was connected with, and the extent to which it was distinct from, the Cold War in the West. Consider the implications of your answer for the traditional historiography of the Cold War.
Given your answer to Q3, consider the extent to which the Cold War in India was real, and the extent to which it was imagined