Haridas discusses his political life and the ideological debates within the Naxalite organization from 1970.
Born the oldest of five children in Ezhimala Village of Kannur District, Kerala, into a largely pro-communist family, Haridas participated in the Children’s Wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from an early age. While his parents were not formal party members, they supported communist parties. He became active in the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) from 1970, but grew to associate with the communist party after the assassination of Communist leader Kunhikkannnan, who was his village council president. He later began associating with the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) from 1982, when he was in university.
Haridas was drawn to the CPI (M-L) and Naxalite politics because of Naxalite leaders’ opposition to the development of a military base in his hometown. He had previously held disagreements with the Naxalite organization when he was with the CPI (M); over its characterization of the Indian rural economy as feudal, and its view that even the leading communist parties globally in China and Russia were capitalist. When they opposed the views of the mainstream communist parties, which only characterized the project as a welcome development, he was convinced by their criticism of the problems it would create for the village.
By 1982, the Naxalites also began to demonstrate an openness to reconsider their old policies, which he found to be a welcome change. That year, they presented new studies at the party conference rejecting their previous characterization of the Indian economy as feudal; but also newly arguing that India did not have a singular national identity, and was a patchwork of many regional identities instead. It was the task of the Communist party to facilitate coordination across these many identities, they argued. This convinced Haridas that the Naxalites had the most realistic view of Indian politics, and he joined.
It was also a time of crisis within the party, as its mass support was eroding after some mistaken interventions. Within this climate, many party members were unwilling to take up positions of responsibility in the party, but Haridas seized the opportunity to become a valued member in party committees. He also became secretary of their youth wing. The leadership was also divided on thought leader K Venu’s introduction of gender and caste as non-class lines of analysis. This was seen as a departure from Marxist theory, upsetting many members. They also disagreed on the extent to which the Naxalite organization could support the student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Similar divides emerged when the USSR collapsed two years later, and Venu was tasked to analyze the implications for the party, to which he again responded with non-class and non-material lenses of analysis Haridas and a colleague opposed Venu on both these fronts, arguing for the continued use of the material lens in party philosophy, and that the bourgeois nature of the Tiananmen protests could not be overlooked, which the party agreed with. Venu then resigned from the party, and it disbanded shortly after.
Haridas and his peers then launched a new state-level party, the Kerala Communist Party, which then grew into a national party, but he resigned when its leaders adopted caste-based loyalties. His many years of involvement in Kerala’s communist movement did not pay well, and he worked with publications and wrote books to find income. He remains a staunch communist, and is still looking for ways to update Communist ideology to be more relevant and appealing to contemporary society, in light of K Venu’s criticism. It is his hope to launch a new communist party when these philosophical questions are satisfactorily addressed
14 April 2019
Kunhi: Shall we begin with a short introduction to your family background?
Haridas: I was born in a village called Ezhimala, in the Kannur district of Kerala. I’m from a working-class family. We had some land then, about two or three acres of land. My family did some cultivation in the land. However, it was not their major source of revenue. I have five siblings, four sisters and one brother. I’m the eldest among them.
Kunhi: Are you from a communist family?
Haridas: Yes, they were supporters of the communist party. They were not members of any political party.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about the beginning of your political activities?
Haridas: My beginning was by associating with the Students Federation of India (SFI) when I was a school student.
Kunhi: What was the year?
Haridas: I was active since 1970s. I did participate in the programmes of Balasangham when I was very young. There is a special reason for my association with the communist party. There was an incident in our village when I was young. A highly respected communist leader, O K Kunhikkannnan, was killed in a clash between the communist party and Muslim League. He was the president of our panchayat. This incident influenced me to work actively on the platforms of the communist party. Since then, I became an active member of SFI.
Kunhi: Where did you do your studies?
Haridas: In a nearby school called the Ramanthali government high school.
Kunhi: Did you go for higher studies?
Haridas: Yes. I studied history at Payyannur College.
Kunhi: Were you active in SFI during your college days?
Haridas: No, I left SFI before that. By that time, I was active in the ML organization (CPI-ML).
Kunhi: When did you join CPI (M-L)?
Haridas: In 1982.
Kunhi: What was the reason for leaving the mainstream party and joining the CPI-ML?
Haridas: There was another personal matter. It was related to the subject of the Cold War. It was related to the Soviet project called Star Wars Program. In the context of this program, the Indian government decided to build a Naval Academy in Ezhimala. This decision was somehow related to the project. During that time, the United States was building a military base in the Diego Garcia islands. The Soviet Union wanted a project to challenge this base of the United States. So, it was said that India is building its Ezhimala Naval Academy under the direction of the Soviet Union. There were two issues related to this project. Firstly, it was an attempt to be part of the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. Since it was a project helping the Soviet Union, the mainstream communist parties did not attempt to criticize the initiative. They argued that it is a developmental project and the Kannur district will benefit greatly from this project. The only political platform that challenged that move was the Naxalite organization. They organized a camp in Payyannur in the context of this development. It was from this venue they decided to organize a movement against this project. The Naxalite leaders like Somashekaran, C R Parameshwaran, Civic Chandran etc. attended the camp. They argued that we have to resist the project as it would transform the Ezhimala village as a military camp. This argument attracted my attention. When no one was challenging the project, they were the only ones talking about the problem it could create in the village. With this, I became attracted to the politics of the Naxalite organization. Before that, when I was in SFI and DYFI, I was highly critical of Naxalite politics. Then I was a member of DYFI, and I was working in an area committee of SFI.
Our criticism of Naxalite politics was based on two reasons. Firstly, the Naxal organization was arguing that all communist parties, including the Soviet Union and China, have already arrived at a stage of capitalism. They did not consider these countries as socialist countries. We used to argue with Naxalites over this topic. For us, the Soviet Union was a socialist country as it was not encouraging privatization and exploitation. During this time, K Venu wrote a book titled Viplavathinte Darshanika Prashnangal (The Philosophical Problems of Revolution). This book provided a theoretical answer to the questions related to the failure of socialism in the Soviet Union. After reading this book, I realized there are good some points in the Naxalites’ understanding of the Soviet Union.
The second point of tension with Naxalite was that they were arguing India is a semi-feudal and semi-colonial country. Based on this view, they argued we can bring communist revolution in India by eliminating feudalists. I couldn’t accept this view either. In our view, the Indian production process was not a feudal one. The most important feature of feudalism is bonded labour. That was not the case with India, that system was transformed. The workers were free to do their work and they received a wage for their work. Considering these matters, I was not convinced by their view about the Indian system.
Though I had these two problems, their view about the Ezhimala Naval Academy project had attracted my interest in their politics. As their explanation about the need to challenge the project was based on the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the problems that a military base could create in the life of villagers, I found it quite convincing.
Another factor is that by that time Naxalites began to share the view that they had to give up their old policies. They were beginning to reconceptualize the idea of the semi-feudal and semi-colonial system.
Kunhi: What is the year we are talking about now?
Haridas: 1982. They began to accept the need to transform their approach by this period. The reason is that they cannot see feudalism as the primary contradiction in the case of India, whether it is in the sector of agriculture or production. They accepted that India has moved away from the feudal system in the process of production. They decided to do new studies about the Indian system and their future approaches. Thus they discussed these issues at the 1982 conference. They appointed a committee to study these matters. This committee later presented a study rejecting their previous understanding of the semi-feudal and semi-colonial nature of India. Their view was based on agricultural transformations that happened in states like Punjab. They saw the agricultural development in those states as capitalist, as it was highly mechanical and market-oriented.
At the same time, they began to assert the view that India is not a single nation, instead, it is a collection of several national identities. They argued that all these different nationalities should have the right to self-determination. They suggested that the main responsibility of an Indian communist party is to coordinate between these different nationalities, similar to the case of the Soviet Union.
When I came to know about these ideological changes in the Naxalite organization, I realized that it is the most realistic communist party. Thus I decided to leave my organization and join the Naxalite party.
Kunhi: It was in 1982. Isn’t it?
Haridas: During that period, I decided to take responsibilities within the Naxalite party. It was a period of crisis within the party. Because of some wrong interventions by the party, like the killing of Somarajan and Mathai, internal differences were growing strong within the organization. Before that, for a period, Naxalites enjoyed wide public support in Kerala because of the activities of the platform like Janakeeya Saamskaarika Vedi and interventions like the public trial of a corrupt doctor in Kozhikode Medical College. When I joined, the tension within the party was both ideological and policy-oriented. The argument that the policies and approaches of the Naxal organization did not match the requirements of our society had become strong within the party. It eventually led to the disbandment of the party. After that several district-wise leading teams have emerged. During the time of disbandment, the national level secretary was K Venu and the state secretary was K N Ramachandran.
Since it was a time of tension within the party, many experienced members were not willing to take up responsibilities within the organization. Thus I became a member of the Kannur district committee, and got an opportunity to be a valuable member of CRC CPI-ML (Central Reorganization Committee of Communist Party of India -Marxist Leninist) under the leadership of K Venu. Later, at the state convention, I got elected to the state-level committee of the organization. This is how I become an active worker of the CPI (ML).
Kunhi: What was your major activities during that period?
Haridas: We had a youth organization. As part of the ideological tension within the party, there were serious discussions about the national level problem that the Naxal organization must address. Following this discussion, we formed a youth organization called Keraleeya Yuvajana Vedi (Youth Organization of Kerala). I became state secretary of this organization. In this time, we addressed issues like caste and gender.
Leaders like Venu asserted that caste is a non-class problem in Indian society. The gender issue is also seen as a non-class issue. It was a new theoretical approach within the communist party. We were not aware of the political danger involved in such an argument. We also supported such views without understanding various aspects. Later two major issues happened within the party, related to international issues. One was related to the students' protests in Tiananmen Square and the other is related to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The national-level committee under K Venu fully supported the students' protests in China. When it came to the discussion in the state-level committee, some of us argued that we cannot fully support the students’ protest in China, without any qualifications, as it was a movement with some bourgeoise character. Their argument was that students’ protest should be seen as a continuation of the Cultural Revolution that happened in China. It is the revolutionary spirit of the Cultural Revolution that forced the students to organize such a protest. Though it has some bourgeoise character, such movements are progressive in a social fascist country. Therefore, we had to extend our support to the movement without any conditions. However, we argued that we cannot fully agree with the points as members of a communist party, even though we support the students’ protest in Tiananmen square. We had to understand the limitations of the movement, as it was not aimed to take the socialist system forward. Even though it has bourgeoise character, we can see it as progressive. In the end, the convention accepted our view by correcting the view of leaders like K Venu.
Following this, the Soviet disintegration happened. In this context, our national president K Venu suggested in the national committee that we have to study the new development ideologically and find the philosophical problems involved in the subject. Considering this suggestion, the committee entrusted him to prepare a new study in the matter. Following this, Venu presented a paper titled About Working-Class Democracy, as a primary form of his findings of the new development in the communist world, in the national committee. After discussion, the national committee accepted his study. They argued that we have to find a new approach if we have to get away from the mechanical nature of the communist system. When the document came to the discussion in the state-level committee, some of us strongly criticized the proposal. We found that About Working-Class Democracy could not be seen as a proposal forwarded by a communist party that works for the working class. In general, the proposal had a bourgeoise character.
There were two philosophical criticisms in that document. Firstly, as I said earlier, it presented a category called non-class. Secondly, it presented a category called non-materialism. These are two non-Marxist concepts. Therefore, as Marxists, we could not accept the document prepared by K Venu. Considering our critical views, the statement asked us to prepare a document based on our critical approach and present it in the next state committee meeting. Thus, we presented our document asserting that the concept ‘non-material’ should not be accepted by a Marxist whose theoretical views are based on dialectical materialism. A Marxist cannot accept a category called non-class, as it is against the Marxian understanding of class war. When you make a new category called non-class, you are making a philosophical dichotomy. It is not dialectical. In essence, the new concepts they proposed are not based on the method of dialectical materialism. However, Venu did not accept our view. He asserted that his views are completely based on dialectical materialism.
Considering our criticism in the state committee meeting, Venu said that his document About Working Class Democracy is a primary study prepared in the context of Soviet disintegration and he would prepare a detailed study soon. Following this, he published a book titled Communistkarante Janadipathya Sankalpam (A Communist’s Concept of Democracy). A response to this work, we published a book titled Communistukarum Janadipathyavum: Lenin Muthal Venu Vare (Communists and Democracy: From Lenin to Venu). In this book, we presented our criticism in detail. The well-known communist leader EMS wrote a critical note about our work in his column in the Deshabhimani weekly. He criticised Venu’s book also through an article series published by the Deshabhimani newspaper.
Following this debate, Venu resigned from the party and the party under his leadership dissolved. Then we operated as a state-level party, the Kerala communist party. Venu did not cooperate with this new party. Later, under the leader Murali Kannanpalli, we decided to reorganise the party as an all-India communist party. I was one of the members of this committee under Murali’s leadership. Later this leadership began to take a casteist approach. In this context, I left the committee and resigned from the party. They formed a new party called CPI (M-L) Naxalbari. It later merged with the CPI (Maoist).
Kunhi: What did you do after resigning from the party?
Haridas: After leaving the party, we did not consider forming a new communist party. Because there were several questions that needed to be addressed philosophically, as observed by K Venu, even though his approach was wrong. The fall of communist bloc and the disintegration of the Soviet Union had created several questions. Communist ideology became less attractive to the general public everywhere in the world. In this larger context, we had to study the real problems and find ways to address those problems. Without having such a theoretical understanding, there was no point in forming a communist party. Therefore, we kept ourselves away from the communist parties after that meeting.
We were active in ideological debates, especially to address the problem Venu raised in his book. But that problem still remains unsolved. We know that we cannot take Marxian ideology forward without the support of Dialectal Materialism. Marx introduced the concept of dialectical materialism by borrowing from the thoughts of Hegel. Marx himself made it clear that we cannot understand dialectical material understanding the Hegelian concept of dialectics. Lenin also observed the same thing in his philosophical notebook. During the time of the Chinese revolution, Mao also observed the same. We know that Lenin and Mao became successful in their effort for bringing revolution because of their correct understanding of Marxian dialectics, and various other countries failed to establish a socialist system because of their incorrect understanding of dialectical materialism. Therefore, we had to have a correct understanding of Marxian dialectics and study our social condition with such an understanding. No communist party can be successful without having an appropriate philosophical, theoretical and practical approach for understanding and addressing social problems. As there is no communist party that share dsimilar views, we did not associate with any communist party. We are still in the process of studying how to build a real communist party.
Kunhi: Apart from party activities, are you engaged in any other activities in your public life?
Haridas: No, no other major activities.
Kunhi: Do you have any job for finding income?
Haridas: I did associate with a few publications. I wrote books.
Kunhi: Are they related to the party activities?
Haridas: It was in the beginning. After leaving the party, I’m doing it independently.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about a bad experience related to your political activities?
Haridas: When we were active in the party, Venu encouraged us to have a critical approach. He always asserted that such differences are essential for a healthy democratic system. Even when we problematized his thesis as non-Marxist, he did not express any personal difference with us. When I took such a critical position in the state committee, my associate was Divakaran. It was both of us together who problematized Venu’s thesis. The rest of the members of the committee were not interested in a serious discussion. They acted like blind supporters of the party. The main reason for this approach was that they all thought K Venu is the ultimate word, as he is the intellectual head of the party. They did not give much importance to us as we were local level workers of the party. In their view, we are incapable of having correct theoretical and philosophical views. There was that personal dislike towards us from members of the state committee. That was a really bad experience as a member of the party. Other than that I have had no bad experience at the party. Most of the discussions were healthy and democratic.
Kunhi: How was your family’s approach towards your activities?
Haridas: I had a relationship in the past, though it was not in a conventional pattern. When I left the CPI-M to join the Naxalite party, tensions appeared in our relationship. Later we decided to end the relationship. After that, I met my current partner Suja. She is a journalist by profession. We married in 1996. We have a son. He is studying in a law college.
Kunhi: Ok. Thank you
Balasangham is the children’s wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
Panchayat is the term for local village council.
Consider, in light of Haridas’ recollections, how Indian Communist leaders were reacting to and creatively translating the implications of developments in the global Cold War for their domestic context. What are its implications on our understanding of the nature of India’s Cold War?