Janardhanan Vythiri discusses his personal life and political activities associated with CPI-M from 1977.
Born in 1955 in Wayanad as the oldest of seven children, Janardhanan recalls growing up in financial hardship. His father, a retired soldier, was given 7 acres of land as part of a state development project for military personnel, but lost it due to mismanagement. While all of Janardhanan’s siblings were able to pursue education and now have professional careers, he did not continue his education past sixth grade, despite his father’s encouragement, due to the family’s financial situation.
He became interested in politics during the National Emergency (1975-1977), reading newspapers’ critiques of the government’s policy. After Emergency in 1977, he began working for the leftist alliance’s election campaign. There he encountered police attacks, but was able to facilitate a pay raise for workers. He was then working in the Chelod estate, and in 1978, formed a Center of Indian Trade Unions chapter at his workplace. The Christian management was opposed to this communist organization, but its membership grew from 1980, when Janardhanan and his peers organized a strike, and now remains the largest union in the estate. That same year, he officially became a branch leader in the Communist Party.
In 1983, he quit his position in the party to pursue his dream of working in Dubai. However, this never came to fruition as he was deceived twice along the way. First, when he sought assistance from his Christian manager at the estate to arrange agent fees, the manager tried to exploit his poor command of English to deceive him into signing a resignation letter in exchange for the funds, which he saw through. He then arranged funds through another friend, but nearly lost it to a bogus agent who held them in Mumbai for two weeks. Discarding the plans to work in Dubai, he returned to his estate job and resumed working for the party.
Two years later, he was promoted to local leader, and in 1991, was allowed to contest in the elections as the Communist Party candidate. While some observers had misgivings about his suitability given his low education level, he ultimately defeated his rival, a lawyer. However, the party did not enjoy a similar success in the 1992 Assembly Election, where it was defeated by the Congress Party. As a party leader, he also dealt with issues such as the difficulty of garnering support for the communist movement from Muslim majority regions. He continued his association with the party, and rose to become the CPI-M area secretary in 2014.
Despite his strong identification with the Communist Party, Janardhanan strongly disagrees with the radical approach of the Naxalite movement. He cautions that all revolutionary movements need to be built to suit the social contexts they operate in, and feel that the Naxalites’ violent methods were incorrect, despite his personal regard for their leader Varghese. He notes that the Naxalites were not active in his immediate vicinity. However, Janardhanan and his peers lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union, as they had hoped that socialism would flourish in whichever form across the world. Turning to the issue of contemporary politics, he feels that there is no meaningful difference between the Congress and current Bharata Janata Party, as they both reverse their policy proposals to preserve their popularity. He also observes that a key impediment to the spread of Communist influence to other states of India is the lower educational attainment in states beyond Kerla, where he feels the building of mass support should be prioritized.
17 December 2019
Kunhi: Shall we begin by talking about your family background?
Janardhanan: My name is Janardhanan M. I was born and bought up in Chelode estate, near Chudel village in Wayanad. I was born in 1955. I studied only till the 6th standard in school.
Kunhi: How was your family, economically?
Janardhanan: I grew up in a really bad economic condition. My father had seven kids, four boys and three girls. He was a soldier and my mother was a worker in the estate. Later my father retired from the military service and joined as a worker in Chelode estate. He received 7 acres of land in a place called Vaduvanchal as part of a government project providing agricultural land to military personnel. However, he later lost this property because of his negligence. My father died in 1978 and my mother died in 1996. I’m the eldest among the seven of us. Though my father kept telling me that I should continue my studies, I couldn’t focus on it because of our economic condition. That is the past. Now, one of my brothers became an employee in the court, one became a worker in the estate, and one became a clerk in a cooperative bank in Vythiri. Among my sisters, one became a pre-school teacher, one became a clerk and one is a housewife. I have two kids, a girl and a boy. My daughter is a doctor. She is doing her postgraduate studies now. My son was studying in an Engineering college in Kochi. But couldn’t complete the course. Now he is doing BBA in a college in Bangalore. My wife, Shanthakumari, is a nurse. She is working in a clinic in Vythiri.
Kunhi: When did you begin to be active in politics?
Janardhanan: During the general election in 1977, after the controversial National Emergency. I was a keen observer of political developments during the time of the National Emergency. I was keenly studying newspapers like Mathrubhumi and Malayala Manorama during that period. These newspapers were actively campaigning against the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Perhaps because of reading these newspapers and their criticism of the communists, I became highly interested in the activities of the CPI(M). Thus I worked for the left alliance during the time of the 1977 general election. In that election, our candidate was M P Virendra Kumar of the Janatha Party. His party was one among three parties included in the left alliance. The other two were the Kerala Congress of Pillai and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The CPI-M was the largest party among these three.
It was a time of wide sentiment against the National Emergency. Various movements against Emergency were happening throughout India when the government declared the general election. Youngsters like me expected that the left alliance will come to power in Kerala as the public sentiment against the Congress party was strong in the context of the notorious National Emergency. It was because of that expectation I worked with the campaign for Virendra Kumar. I was not eligible to vote during that election, because of age. Then the minimum age for registering as a voter was 21 years. The problem was that I had no idea about registering on the voter list when I turned 21. The Congress party candidate in our constituency was Dr K G Adiyodi. It was a very tough competition. In the end, M P Virendrakumar lost in the election for a margin of about 2000 votes. It happened when entire India was turning against the Congress party because of National Emergency. Their leader Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, contesting from Rae Bareli constituency in Uttar Pradesh, against Janatha Party candidate Raj Narain, had lost for a margin of about 56000 votes. A new government under the leadership of the Janatha Party alliance came to power in the centre. But in Kerala, the Congress party was victorious. In the assembly election, the left alliance manage to win only 17 seats out of 129 seats. The United Front under the leadership of K Karunakaran came to power in Kerala. The Communist Party of India (CPI) was one of the members of the United Front. In 1978, CPI left the alliance, when they realized that their policy of supporting the National Emergency was incorrect. They reconsidered their approach in the context of widespread anti-Emergency discourse at the national level. After leaving the alliance, they started associating with the CPI-M.
Kunhi: What was your activities during that period?
Janardhanan: I was working in Chelod estate. In 1978, we formed a unit of CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) in the estate. With the formation of the unit, I began to be active in various political activities. The estate management was under a Christian church based in Kozhikode. They naturally had a strong anti-communist sentiment. They could not accept the communist party or its trade union. They were highly irritated by our activities under the banner of CITU. The unit formation in the estate was under my leadership. We had seven members in the beginning. In 1980, we organized a strike. Following this incident, the membership in the unit began to increase. Presently, CITU is the largest trade union in the Chelod estate.
Kunhi: When did you become a member of the communist party?
Janardhanan: I became a member in 1980. In 1983, I became the branch secretary of the Chundel unit of the party. During this time, in the same year, I left the state with a dream of working in Dubai. I went to Mumbai, as an agent advised me. I spent several days in Mumbai. But I couldn’t go to Dubai, because of some reason. Later, I returned home by leaving my Dubai dream.
Kunhi: Did you stop trying to go to Dubai completely with that incident?
Janardhanan: Yes. I returned home. Some interesting development happened before I left for Mumbai. At this time, the manager of Chelod estate was Father Devasya. As a worker in the estate, I asked him for some money to give the agent who approached me with an opportunity in Dubai. I needed at least 6000 rupees to meet the expenses. The estate manager told me that he could arrange money. He asked me to meet him on the very day I was supposed to leave for Mumbai. My train was in the afternoon, and I had to meet him in the morning. As he asked, I went to meet him that morning. He said that there is nothing to worry about as he arranged the money. But he made a simple suggestion that I should sign a document as evidence for this transaction. Though I’m not good at English, when I checked that document he gave to me for signature I realized that it is my resignation letter. I conveyed my concern to him to clarify the matter. When he realized that I can understand a little bit of English, he admitted that it was indeed a resignation letter. He said the estate needs a benefit when they provide me money. As my union activities were a headache for them, they considered it as an opportunity to get rid of me from the estate. He was certain that I cannot arrange money from any other source in the few hours I had before my train departed from Kozhikode. I told him, I cannot resign from the job in the estate. I wanted to return to the same job if my Dubai visit went wrong somehow. I left his office without money, with a decision that I’m not going to Dubai by resigning from the job that I already have.
After leaving his office, I went to a teashop with total disappointment. The teashop owner was one of the people I know. During that time I used to sell peanuts near a movie theatre, along with my works in the estate. I was a huge movie enthusiast. Over this peanut selling business, I was on good terms with that teashop owner. His name was Krishnan Kutty Nair. When I told him what Father Devasya did to me, he said I should not give up my dream of going to Dubai just because of the lack of money. Thus, he arranged 6000 rupees for me. Then, the 6000 rupees was a large amount of money. But luck was not on my side. I couldn’t go to Dubai. The agent was trying to cheat us. He took 82 people from the Malabar area to Mumbai by promising a job in Dubai. He was a native of Kozhikode. Among these 82, most of the people lost their money. But I didn’t give them any money in advance. When I arrived in Mumbai I kept the money in the toilet. I knew that they would check my bag when I’m not in the room. All the people who were in my room in Mumbai had lost their money. I also lost some money because of travel and other expenses. But I managed to save that 6000 rupees.
Kunhi: The cheating happened in Mumbai. Isn’t it?
Janardhanan: Yes. We stayed 14 days in Mumbai. Then I returned to my old job. I rejoined as the branch secretary of the Chundel unit of the party. I continued my rigorous activism for the party. Thus, in 1985, I became a local secretary of the party. Today Chundel and Vythiri are two different local units of the party. Then, both of these places were under the same local unit. After 6 years, in 1991, I contested in an election to District Council. I became the CPI-M candidate from the Vythiri division. My opposing candidate was Advocate K Narayanan. Many campaigned that an estate worker cannot defeat an Advocate in an election. In the end, I got elected with a margin of 653 votes. In that election, the left alliance came to power in 13 out of 14 district councils in Kerala. Following this, in 1992, with the confidence of the victory in 1991, the left alliance approached the Assembly election. But the Congress party under the leadership of Karunakaran came to power in Kerala following the election, defeating the left alliance.
Many things happened within the party during this time. In 1985, the party expelled leaders like M V Raghavan, because of their demand for an alliance with the Indian Union Muslim League. In the same period, because of EMS like leaders’ strong stand against the issue of Talaq in the Muslim community, the All India Muslim League that was traditionally part of the left alliance left the alliance. But, contrary to everyone’s expectation, the left alliance came to power in the 1987 election, under the leadership of E K Nayanar, by resisting all these changes within the party and the left alliance.
Kunhi: I have some questions not related to the party’s political history. As we know, the Naxalite organization became active in areas like Wayanad in the late 1960s and early 1970s. What was your approach towards such radical left interventions?
Janardhanan: I had not much knowledge about the Naxalite organization. I was aware that the police brutally killed the Naxalite leader Varghese. He was a member of the CPI-M. He was the party’s office secretary in Kannur. He was a highly intelligent and smart person. He was extremely good at organizing people. But what we can do, he chose Naxalism. We cannot bring revolution in India by killing someone. We cannot destroy capitalism by killing some people. We can resist capitalism only with a strong campaign. His thoughts were wrong. The same mistake happened in the past too. In 1948, the party corrected that mistake. Before that, there were many attempts for revolution, like what happened in Telangana. Then it was the Communist Party of India. The split within the party happened in 1964 and formed CPI-M. In 1967, the radical group left the CPI-M and formed the CPI-ML. I joined the party, 9 years after this incident in 1977, as I told you already.
Kunhi: The Naxal organizations did not influence you at any point in time?
Janardhanan: No. They were not active in this area. They were active only in other parts of Wayanad. They were active in areas like Pulpally, Mullankolly, Nadavayal, Kenichira etc…I never had any interest in the Naxal organization. Ever since my adolescence, I was interested in the left alliance. My father had no politics, though he liked to vote for the left alliance. Perhaps, that also influenced my interest in the left party. I never had any regrets about my commitment towards the party. And I will never doubt that commitment in the future. Because people with intelligence have expectations only from the left alliance. Time is proving that approach of the left alliance is the right one.
Kunhi: What were your thoughts in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the communist bloc had fallen and the Soviet Union disintegrated?
Janardhanan: It was a painful period. We were highly disturbed when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced perestroika and glasnost.
Kunhi: Were you a Soviet supporter during that period?
Janardhanan: No. We were the supporters of socialism. Whether it is in China, Vietnam or Cuba, we wanted socialism to thrive everywhere in the world. The majority of youngsters in Kerala shared the same wish. We grieved when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990. With the fall of the Soviet Union, people began to argue that the age of communism is over. But we were certain that the communists will return to power. The corporates became so powerful over the years. Both the Congress party and the BJP are supporting them. There is no major difference between BJP and Congress.
Kunhi: What was your approach towards revolution?
Janardhanan: We can build revolution only in a way that is suitable for that particular society. After the revolution in Russia, several Indian leaders visited Russia. They understood that each society needs find its appropriate way for revolution. The revolution happened in Cuba and other countries. We cannot implement a Cuban model of armed revolution in India. We can organize farmers, workers and agricultural workers only by asserting their separate problems. We can organize them only by leading separate strikes. I think the biggest problem of the communist party is that the other states in India remain way behind Kerala in the matter of education. We can teach people communism if they are not educated. We cannot build a communist organization in such areas. If Keralaites try to build communist parties in other states, that will not be successful. Many tried to do so, but that did not become successful. But some of the farmers' movements in the recent past helped to change people’s approach towards the CPI-M, especially in Maharastra. Perhaps that will help the CPI-M in the upcoming general election. It may win a Lok Sabha seat in Maharashtra in the next general election.
Kunhi: Can you explain some of your experiences during your party work?
Janardhanan: I faced police attacks several times. Once we led a movement with the demand for increasing wages of workers. It was during the time of the National Emergency. I was part of this movement. We were leading a march through Chundel. Police blocked us there and asked us to disperse the march. They brutally attacked during this protest. It was a bad experience. But that helped to bring a small change in the wage of workers.
I always faced several issues when I tried to organize people. Different areas had different problems. For example, it was difficult to get people to work for the communist party from Muslim majority areas. Now the situation has changed. They realized that the Congress party is cheating them. As I said earlier, there is no difference between BJP and Congress. When BJP was in opposition, they strongly criticized globalization. When they came to power, they became strong supporters of globalization. They now implement the same policy that Congress introduced when they were in power from 2004 to 2014. They are selling off most of the public sector companies. At the same time, Congress is proving that they are also equally good in adopting Hindu communalism.
Congress now says they will also work for protecting cows as BJP does. It was because of the Congress Party that BJP increased their hold in Indian politics. If they did not allow BJP to destroy the Babari Mosque, they would not have become successful in Indian politics.
If I talk about my personal life, I won that election to District Council in 1991. I became the chairman of the Standing Committee on Education. A person with low education became the chairman of the Standing Committee on Education. In 1995, I contested in a Panchayat election. I couldn’t win this time, even though I was the presidential candidate in the election. In 2000, I contested again in a Panchayat election. This time I won and became a standing committee chairman. In 2005, I contested again and became Panchayat vice president. In 2014, I became CPI-M area secretary. Now I’m an area committee member of the party.
Kunhi: Ok. We can stop here. Thank you.
Panchayat is the term for village council.
How does Janardhanan’s reflections reveal greater complexities in the Communist movement of India during the Cold War?
Given your answer to Q1, consider how that enhances our understanding of the Cold War in India and Asia more broadly.