KM Venu discusses his personal life, political and social activities, and the caste-related issues in his village.
Born in 1956 as the oldest son and third of seven siblings to an astrologer, K M Venu recalls growing up in a relatively wealthy middle class family. Though not of Brahmin descent, his father, a strong Congress supporter, was well-regarded in their community for his religious knowledge and impartiality when dealing with querents of all castes. This was unlike Brahmin astrologers, who reserved godly names for upper-caste children. Venu’s family also had ancestral wealth from his maternal grandfather, who had been a restauranteur.
Venu’s academic abilities were recognized in his early childhood, and he was allowed to directly enter the third grade when he began schooling. As such, his official documents falsely record his birth year as 1954. While his older sisters were married off at the age of 12, Venu was allowed to continue his education, eventually enrolling in college for a pre-degree course. During his pre-university days, he began traveling away from home with friends, who had begun a literary circle. There they discussed various literary works, and Venu lost his focus on his studies, which worried his father.
He enrolled in law school in Karnataka in 1976, where he began to become politically conscious after learning about the Congress government’s abuse of power and human rights in the National Emergency. However, he returned to Kerala after a year and began work as a trainee in the Forest Department. That year, Kerala re-elected the Congress party in all constituencies in the 1977 election, which was a great disappointment for Venu and his peers who knew of its abuses during the National Emergency. This led them to develop growing sympathy for the left, and Venu became acquainted with the local Communist Party of India (Marxist) branch office [CPI-M].
In the late 1970s, he shifted his alignment towards the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) [CPI-ML], inspired by the ideas of Naxalite thinker K Venu; but did not formally join the party. After qualifying as a forest officer, he found that he still had a lot of free time to devote to his activism and creative endeavors, as his unit informally agreed to work in shifts. He utilized this time to publish articles and organize meetings related to his political cause. One such successful event was a meeting they organized within a Congress stronghold ward, explaining the role of each Congress leader in perpetrating the abuses of the Emergency, which shook its support base; as many local supporters did not know of the party’s leading role in crafting the policy.
He also campaigned for various other issues, such as corruption in Kerala’s public hospitals, and opposing various environmentally-destructive development projects. This was met with resistance from the mainstream communist parties, but they eventually reversed their position when faced with the risk of losing popular support. Watchful of international developments through the 1980s, Venu’s group also advocated anti-nuclearism through various publications, and critiqued the developments in the global communist movement based in China and the Soviet Union. In 1987, he co-authored a book on the communist perspective of radical feminism. Eventually, many of the thought leaders who had inspired him quit the party claiming that communism was incompatible with democracy.
Throughout his activist career, his family never interfered with his political choices, and worked around the differences in their views instead. He did not focus on maximizing his income or pursuing career progression, which his colleagues understood. Venu only formally joined the CPI-ML in 2008, after his retirement. As a party member, he attended to a case of harassment, where a female auto-rickshaw driver was being harassed by male colleagues from the rival CPI-M’s labor union to quit her job. She suffered repeated attacks on her vehicle and home, and even the activist organizations which tried to assist her withdrew their support claiming that she had poor morals. Venu responded by starting a parallel support group that managed to get her a new vehicle, but the attacks on her family continued. Venu still continues his work to address such issues, most recently, in opposition to an oil storage facility in Payyanur
Kunhi: Can you briefly describe your family background?
Venu: I’m from a family of Congress party supporters. My father was an ardent supporter of Nehru and Gandhi. He was highly inspired by Nehruvian secularism. He was an astrologer by profession. However, he was not a strict follower of tradition. He supported an egalitarian system. He did not give any importance to people’s caste or financial status when he dealt with them. In the past, there were Brahmin astrologers. They won’t choose any good names for the children of lower caste people. Consulting astrologers for naming the newborn was a tradition in our place. These Brahmin astrologers, called Pattars, would not suggest any good name for lower caste children. They reserved good names like Krishnan, Raman etc. only for upper caste people. I’m talking about the situation in the South Canara district.
Kunhi: Where were you born?
Venu: I was born in Kerala, in Payyanur, in 1956. As per the official record, I’m older than that. In my school certificate, my birth year is 1954. In those days, it was school teachers who decided our birthdays. There was no official birth certificate. I was a smart student when I was young. I started going to school when I turned 4, along with my elder sisters. There was no pre-school kind of setup in our village in those days. Later when my parents took me to school for formal admission, the teacher said that I don’t need to start from the first standard as I already learnt the basics of reading and writing, and some mathematics too. They said I could start from the third standard, by making a small correction in my date of birth. Thus, in my official documents, I became sixteen months older.
Kunhi: How many siblings do you have?
Venu: We are seven people. I have two elder sisters and four younger brothers. I’m the eldest among the sons of my parents.
Kunhi: How was the economic condition of your family?
Venu: We were better off than our relatives and neighbours. It was a middle-class family. My father earned well with his knowledge of Sanskrit and Astrology. He did not receive so much land as an inheritance. But he bought so much land with his earnings. He had a good reputation as Pothuval. He was a well-known astrologer in the south Canara district.
Kunhi: What about your mother?
Venu: She was also from Payyanur. My parents were neighbours.
Kunhi: So your family has no left background. Isn’t it?
Venu: My interest in left politics is totally disconnected from my family background. My maternal grandfather was a restaurant owner. He had restaurants in Payyanur and Kannur. He was finacially better off compared to other relatives and neighbours.
My elder sister got married when she was 11 or 12 years old. They did not consider it as a child marriage back then. Even now, the Rajasthan government in India demand that we should legalise child marriage. Back then, it was a common practice. Girls discontinued their studies to get married at the age of 11 or 12.
My mother later recollected that she wanted to study, instead of getting married. But her father did not allow that. Her parents took away all her school books to force her to accept their demands.
Kunhi: Where did you do your studies?
Venu: I studied in Payyannur government high school. Then joined Payyanur college for a pre-degree course. In this period my father was very anxious about my future. He found out that I was roaming around with all kinds of people.
Kunhi: What was the year?
Venu: It was in the early 1970s when I was 15 or 16 years old. It happened after my secondary school studies. In school, I was a very focused studious kid. But when I joined the college for a pre-degree, I started to enjoy life. I lost interest in my studies. I travelled with my friends, not anywhere very far. But I felt it was far away from my house. I learnt to smoke cigarettes in those days.
Kunhi: That friendship somehow influenced your life. Isn’t it?
Venu: Yes, they did. They socialized my life. They helped me to come out of the cocoon of family. They all were very good readers. We had a literature club there. We did several literary activities. One of them was a playwright. We all had some kind of literary taste. It was not articulated as left.
Kunhi: What kind of literature did you prefer in those days?
Venu: Mainly short stories, published in magazines like Mathrubhumi. We read many novels too. But political writings were very rare. Our activities were not politically motivated. I was not politically active until I became a student at Mangalore SDM law college.
Kunhi: When did you join there?
Venu: In 1976. We had a few teachers who always talked about politics, India’s National Emergency, the crisis of democracy in India, and Indira Gandhi’s wrong policies. As someone in the field of law, they would explain the merits of our constitution and our democratic rights. Gradually I became more serious about learning such things. The suppression of people’s rights during the nineteen months of India’s National Emergency became one of my favourite subjects. The killing of Snehalatha Reddy in a police encounter was a major topic of discussion during those days. Various civil rights and human rights movements were happening in the country in the context of the National Emergency. It was during that time that the recently murdered Gauri Lankesh’s father, Palya Lankesh, started the famous Lankesh Pathrike weekly magazine. His name was known in our circle as one of those fighting against the Emergency. Since I was studying in Karnataka, I used to compare the politics of Kerala and Karnataka. While Karnataka was fighting against the perpetrators of India’s National Emergency, Kerala re-elected the same Congress party which implemented the notorious policy. In the 1977 parliamentary election, the one held immediately after the Emergency, Kerala elected Congress candidates from all its 20 constituencies. It was a shocking result for all of us.
Kunhi: What was the situation in Karnataka in that election?
Venu: It was mostly Janatha Party. We had several discussions during that time. Some argued in those meetings that Kerala people like authoritarianism. They like being submissive to power rather than rebelling against it. These thoughts were very strong temptations for leaning towards the left ideologies. In this context, I tried to understand Marxism, its view of social structure, the history of people’s resistance, etc. I realized that there is a vital need to get engaged in politics rather than sitting and debating. Following this, naturally, I became a supporter of the CPI-M.
Kunhi: It was in the 1970s. Isn’t it?
Venu: Yes. I contacted our local CPI-M branch and built a good relationship with many of its members. In those days, most of the party’s local branch offices in Kannur district was in the same building where a beedi (local cigarette) company was located. When we entered a party office, we can see one guy reading newspapers and magazines loudly and all others making beedis. The one who is reading is also a beedi company worker. While he read loudly for all of them, they would do his work in the company. I became fascinated by this communitarian way of life.
However, my attachment with the CPI-M did not last. I sensed some problems in their approaches. I became critical of its leadership that include figures like EMS. What is the real contribution of CPI-M to the Indian communist movement? It was the period of the Naxalbari movements, following the second split within the Indian communist movement. The first split happened in 1964, dividing the CPI to form CPI-M. The second split happened in 1967, creating several Naxalbari groups. The message of the Naxalbari movement was reaching every corner of India.
Kunhi: Were you aware of the Naxalbari movement when Thalassery-Pulpally actions happened, as the first Naxalite armed action in Kerala?
Venu: I was a school student then. Perhaps in the tenth standard. It happened in 1968. In 1970 police killed Varghese. In those days, I was not at all connected to the left politics. I had no idea about the Marxist ideologies and the Naxalbari movements. My interest in left politics started only in the mid-1970s. My first memory related to this is our celebration of the defeat of Indira Gandhi, following the 1977 general election. We were keenly listening to All India Radio to hear the election result. We, some youngsters, were all sitting together outside my house when we heard the news of Indira’s defeat in the Raebareli constituency. We were not attached to any political party.
Kunhi: You were in Mangalore during this time. Isn’t it?
Venu: No, in Kerala. I studied only one academic year in Mangalore. In 1977 I returned home. From April to October 1977, I was training in the forestry department. I joined the Kerala Forest Development Corporation in October 1977. While I was doing all these, I was also active in the youngsters' group in our village. We had plenty of free places to gather and discuss everything under the sun. After the declaration of the general election following the National Emergency, our major topic of discussion was the election, and our major concern was the defeat of Indira Gandhi and the Congress party. We were highly critical of the Congress party, even though we were not attached to any left party. We were liberals, liberal-minded youngsters. Nowadays you can’t find youngsters discussing and debating politics we did back then. If they are active members of any political organization, it will be different.
Kunhi: What was your opinion about the Naxalite activities during that time?
Venu: Emotionally we were very much close to these radical left groups. The incidents like the murder of Varghese influenced our approach towards the Naxalites. We were very much convinced back then that Varghese’s death was a brutal murder by the police. We knew that it did not happen in an exchange of fire. In the following years, when K Venu became Secretary of Central Reorganization Committee (CRC-CPI-ML), we started a keen interest in their activities. We used to listen to the audio recording of Venu, which was secretly distributed. He was mostly in hiding in those days, as the CPI-ML was a banned organization. In those audio clips, he explained how the revolution is about to happen in India. He observed that the Indian army would take over the role of policing everywhere in the country and the army would try to suppress people’s struggle everywhere. He declared that when the army crushes hundreds of people, thousands of them would come out to the street to protest and bring revolution. In those days, Venu was an ardent supporter of militant activism. His voice was very passionate in those secretly circulated audio cassettes.
Kunhi: Which was the year, of all these developments?
Venu: Late 1970s. It was after the National Emergency and the formation of the Janatha Party government at the Centre. Before that, there were campaigns for releasing all political prisoners. That was a successful campaign. It received support from all liberal intelligentsia.
Kunhi: You were working with the Forest Department during these days. Isn’t it?
Venu: Yes. But I used to take long breaks from work, though it was not official leave. That was the system back then. The government had appointed 11 people for the same job in the same office. The work didn’t require that many people. Therefore, we did it liberally, by batches. When one batch works, the other would take leave. If one batch would work in the first half of the month, the second would in the second half of the month. Thus we got a lot of free time every month. It was an internal arrangement, not official. The point is that we got plenty of time for political activities and doing other kinds of creative work. I wrote and published several articles using this free time. I worked with AK Ramakrishnan, who is now a Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, to publish some works.
In those days, we organized several meetings. Once we organized a meeting when AK Ramakrishnan came to visit us from Delhi. He had first-hand experience of the National Emergency from Delhi. The meeting happened in a village dominated by Congress party supporters. These local-level supporters had no idea about the violence committed by the Congress party during the National Emergency. They didn’t know that thousands of people were killed by the notorious policy of Indira Gandhi. Such information was yet to reach the general public. AK explained to the people the level of brutality committed by Indira Gandhi’s men. He explained that what happened in many places was clear communal violence. Even I couldn’t believe that the Congress party could lead such communal violence. Those Congress supporters in the village were speechless after understanding the details of Emergency atrocities. The meeting made a strong impact on those villagers’ approach towards the Congress party.
Later, PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) published a detailed report about the human rights violations that happened during the National Emergency. It pointed out the role of each Congress leader in these events. It explained how it took place in each street and village. It revealed that mostly it was communal violence. It is only after publishing such reports, people came to about the atrocities that happened during the National Emergency.
Kunhi: Apart from organizing such meetings, were you part of any movements during those days?
Venu: We formed an organization called the Public Health Forum. It happened in the context of a protest against doctors in private hospitals. Their unjust practices, unethical approach, negligence etc were causing serious problems to patients. Later, a woman named Pushpavally died because of doctors’ negligence. It happened in a government hospital. The doctors demanded bribes for treating the patient. They asked for money for treating the patient. The patient’s family was not able to afford it. Therefore, doctors ignored the patient and she died. Following this incident, we led a strong protest against such practices and demanded that the culprits in the case must be punished. We did a hunger strike, lasting many days.
The Public Health Forum of Payyanur was active even before this incident. And we organized various other protests under this organization before the Pushpavally incident. However, the incident became a turning point.
Kunhi: When did this happen?
Venu: I don’t remember the year. Must be in the late 1980s. It was a well organized and successful struggle. During this protest, we had to face some issues with the mainstream left parties. The CPI-M threatened to dismantle our satyagraha panthal (temporary shelter where protesters sit) in front of the hospital. The mainstream left parties’ approach towards our protests depended on their role in the government. If they are in the opposition, they would wholeheartedly support our cause. If they are in power they would treat us as an enemy. When they were in power, they used police and other government machinery to suppress our movements. As a result of such movements, the condition of our public hospitals greatly improved. The left parties greatly helped such a transformation. The CPI-M intervened to end internal tension among doctors in the hospital.
Though the mainstream communist parties were not openly approving our protests, they were certain that the issues we raised were valid and genuine. They knew that there was something really wrong with our public hospitals. But when they are in power, they have other interests to consider. Later they realized that they would lose public support if they ignored such protests. In that context, they intervened in the issue and found a solution.
Kunhi: Did the mainstream left change their approach towards your protest movements after this incident?
Venu: No. For example, currently, we are leading a protest against a proposed oil storage facility in Payyanur. It is a large project in an ecologically sensitive area. It would take about 100 acres of land. The companies involved in this project, including Hindustan Petroleum Corporation, somehow secured environmental clearance. We are leading a protest against this project. Thousands of people came to attend a meeting called by the district collector, in the context of protest. Even then the CPI-M is not willing to see the problem. They call us anti-development activists.
Kunhi: In the 1970s and 80s, when you were beginning to be active in social issues, international politics was also going through various interesting developments. It was the period of the Cold War, the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. Were you concerned about international issues? Did they influence your activism?
Venu: Yes, indeed. During that time, we associated with several organizations leading anti-nuclear campaigns. There were some Gandhian organizations, leading the protest. They had a magazine called Anu Mukti (Nuclear Free). There were some Malayalam magazines too, like Vakk (Word), focused on this campaign. We associated with various NGOs and activist groups during this time. We organized seminars and workshops to discuss and popularize these kinds of issues, and question the very paradigm of development.
During these times people like Prof John C Jacob often attended our seminars. Once, in an event organized in the context of the Bhopal tragedy that killed thousands of people, he observed that we all create Bhopal in our own life. We all smoke cigarettes, damaging our health and supporting multinational corporations. The lifestyle habits of activists also came to be discussed in the later years.
Former Naxalites like Civic Chandran and K Venu are well-known activists. They have a large number of supporters. They left the party, arguing that communism can never be democratic. Venu says that capitalism can coexist with a democratic system but communism can’t. They claim that they try to strengthen the left movement. But their theories are helping to destroy the left movement. They claim they are progressive. But they don’t know how to become progressive. It is indeed very difficult to be progressive in both thought and action. We are seeing so many cases of killing over silly issues. Neither political parties nor the government machinery does anything to stop such incidents.
So, coming to your question about our involvement in international issues. We had a publication called Socialist Patha (Socialist Way). It was a quarterly theoretical publication. We published five issues. It was a well-received magazine. We translated various works and published them in Malayalam. We published works on the two-line struggle, discussed Deng Xiaoping’s revisionist approach and Mao’s traditionalist approach.
Kunhi: How was your family’s approach towards your activist life?
Venu: They generally tolerated. My father, despite being a Congress supporter, never said anything against my political approach. I always had guests in my house, both men and women. He never said anything against that. My wife also never objected to my activist life. She is from a very conservative family, the daughter of a school teacher.
When I was young, I was seriously considering marrying a Muslim girl. I was sure that my father would have reservations against that but he would not challenge my decision. He was an old tolerant Congress supporter. He was not like people we see today, filled with hatred. When I started bringing my friends, girls and boys, to our house and started eating beef, he built another house to do his traditional practices. He never objected to what I did. He secretly told my mother that he could not continue his traditional practices here because we started consuming beef.
Kunhi: Was he a vegetarian?
Venu: No, he would eat fish and chicken, but not beef. He never objected to our consumption of beef.
Kunhi: Didn’t your activist life affect your professional life?
Venu: I never took my professional life seriously. The profession was only for subsistence. I was not comfortable with my job. My subordinates were aware that my world was different. Many of them earned a lot of money, through corrupt ways, when they were in the forest department. It was not big corruption. The office would get a certain amount of money for meeting expenses. But they won’t spend that fully. They would equally share the balance. For example, if they got 10 lakhs, they would spend only 4 or 5 lacks. Rest is for them. Everything was ok and everyone was happy.
Kunhi: When did you formally join the CPI-ML organization?
Venu: In 2008, a year before I retired from my job. I joined the party after a major incident. Some CPI-M supporters harassed a woman auto-rickshaw taxi driver named Chithralekha. Driving an auto-rickshaw taxi in Kerala is one of the many jobs which women rarely or never take. Many men drivers did not like Chithralekha joining their profession. They started making issues. Later some of them set her rickshaw on fire. The culprits were members. of CITU, the trade union of CPI-M. Following this, there was a huge campaign on social media, and the issue received wide attention. It happened in 2005. A few months later, in 2006, some people formed a Chithralekha support committee. Many prominent activists came to support the protest. Chithralekha was a Dalit woman, coming from the Pulaya community. So, most of these activists who came to support her cause tried to show their superior status. They started giving her moral lectures that she should not behave in a particular way. It caused tension between Chitralekha and the activists and generally affected the goodwill of the supporting committee. Later, these activists managed to get a rented autorickshaw for her. She had to pay 100 rupees or so per day as rent to the owner of the vehicle. Her husband was also an auto taxi driver. They couldn’t afford the rent, as they were not making enough income because of the hostile environment in their town. All the local CPI-M supporters were very hostile towards them since they started talking against the party. They continued facing trouble. After a few months, the activists dissolved the support committee. Their justification was that Chithralekha didn’t behave properly and lacked discipline, etc. They claimed that she enjoyed the benefit of the committee but was not thankful for their help.
A few months later, I started another committee. We tried to restore her means of livelihood with the support of the general public. We wanted to collect 1.5 lack rupees to get her a new autorickshaw. The committee was based in Kannur city, not Pannur town where the whole incident was happening. The activists were also facing threats from members of CITU. The CPI-M supporters blamed the victim by accusing her of drunkenness, immoral behaviour, and all other problems one can attribute to a woman. The general public also started believing in these kinds of accusations. They started asking questions like why some would target her for no reason. They said there are many Dalit auto drivers, and none of them face any trouble from the public. Why is she the only one with so many problems? Even many activists began to ask the same question. I would say that Chithralekha dared to respond to the issues she faced, while others with a similar background suffer such harassment silently and remain obedient to these upper-caste men. For these upper-caste men, it was a moral problem, a problem of discipline etc. But for her, it was a way of reacting against those who harassed her. In 2008, we managed to get her a new vehicle. But the assaults against her and her husband did not stop there. In 2009, the issue escalated further. A group of CPI-M goons attacked their house one night and destroyed her vehicle. The attack was due to a small skirmish about taxi parking in Payyanur town. They always found some reason to bully and harass her.
During this time, we organized a four-member people’s enquiry committee to study Chitralekha’s harassment issues. The members were Professor Gail Omvedt, Prof. Niveditha Menon, author and activist V Geetha of Chennai, and Advocate KK Preetha of the Kerala High Court. Since these high profile people began to visit the town for enquiry, the issue became more serious and the CPI-M began to realise that they cannot continue like this. The committee studied the issue in detail by talking to several people, including CPI-M members, and the police. The CPI-M invited the enquiry committee to the party office, with a condition that we cannot take any photos or videos, or record any conversation. In that meeting, as usual, they made moral accusations against Chitralekha and we responded to their accusations with evidence like hospital records for her treatment. They realized the problem on their side. But the issue didn’t stop there either. However, in dealing with Chitralekha’s issues I became more and more politically active. Thus I decided to join the party.
Kunhi: In the beginning, you talked about a book on feminism that you wrote with Prof AK Ramakrishnan. Can you tell me a little about that work?
Venu: In 1986 or 87 a magazine called Vakk asked me to write an article about crime against women in Kerala. Working on this article, I came up with a lot of data. I wrote an article in Civic Chandran’s Pada Bedam magazine assessing the public approach towards crimes against women in our society. Following this work, many asked me to expand the study and make it a book. Even before that, I followed a feminist angle in my writings. When many people suggested writing a book, I took the idea to Ramakrishnan. He was then teaching at Mahatma Gandhi University. Even before that, we worked together for a writing job. It was a translation of a famous book on the problems within the field of medical science. Thus, in 1989, we published this coauthored work on feminism. It was largely a theoretical work. We tried to give a communist perspective for understanding feminism. During this time, the mainstream communists were rejecting radical feminist ideas, labelling them bourgeois theories. They argued that it is an elite upper-caste attempt to divert attention from the real issues. We rejected that argument and analysed the importance of the radical feminist view in our study.
Kunhi: Ok. Shall we stop here? Thank you
Interviewee: K M Venu
The Bhopal incident was a major industrial disaster in Bhopal, India (in December 1984). It happened in the Union Carbide India Limited’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. An accidental leak of toxic gas from the plant killed about 4000 people and seriously affected about 50000 people.
K Venu, whom this interviewee mentions, also participated in this project (interview available).
How did K M Venu’s social, economic, and educational background shape his experience of the Cold War?
Consider the significance of K M Venu’s decision not to join a Communist party until 2008 despite his lifelong career as an activist. What are its implications for our understanding of the Cold War in India, Asia, and globally?
Consider the various issues K M Venu and his peers campaigned for. What do they suggest about the nature of India’s Cold War?