Kunnel Krishnan discusses his early days as a migrant settler in the Mananthavady region of Kerala, India, his experience with the Jenmis and Adivasi communities, his association with the communist parties, and his activities as a member of the Naxal organization.
This transcript is part of a group of transcripts.
Born the fourth of five children in the early 1940s, Kunnel Krishnan begins by discussing how his family were originally migrant settlers who moved to the Mananthavady region in 1949. He recalls that Jenmi exploitation of Adivasi peoples who worked as their farm laborers, in the form of meagre rice wages was prevalent even in his childhood. In contrast, migrant landlords paid Adivasis in cash, improving their livelihoods but creating tension between Jenmis and migrants. Krishnan then briefly discusses his education, which he pursued until pre-university, but could not proceed further due to financial constraints.
He then discusses his political activism during his student days. At school, he was a classmate of Arikkad Varghese, who would later establish the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and the associated Naxalite movement. Krishnan was part of various student movements, working to build mass support for leftist parties, even though the technical school he attended had no internal student union. By 1958, his efforts led to the creation of a red flag post in Kattimoola village, which was until then a Congress Party stronghold. Krishnan explains that the Communist Party of India (CPI) was neutral towards Sino-Indian clash over the Siachen Glacier, and that the Marxist faction splintered from the CPI to form the CPI (Marxist) [CPI-M] in 1964 over diverging views about the nature of the Nehru government. CPI leaders like S.A. Dange saw the Congress administration as progressive due to its emulation of the Soviet socialist model. However, others saw it as continuing to entrench feudal relationships between the landed aristocracy and the farming class opting to form their own party instead.
As a grassroots party activist, Krishnan was not very aware of the different nuances in the various communist factions’ ideologies; and chose to join the splinter group due to his support for A,K. Gopalan, who campaigned strongly for the reallocation of lands to the farmers who cultivated them. The communists’ vision of providing every citizen with the basic necessities of life resonated with him. However, he admits to having an even more radical outlook than his CPI-M peers, which was more aligned with the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) Party (CPI-ML), that would split from the CPI-M in 1969. Krishnan was not present during the Naxalites’ attack on the Pulpally police camp in 1968, as he was then working at a factory in Delhi, returning in 1970 at the request of former classmate Varghese, only to find that he had been assassinated. He was briefly detained as a suspected Varghese supporter, but was released on bail after the Party intervened. In the early 1970s, he helped to transport many tribals who lost their lands to court to seek legal recourse, which was often successful.
Despite his stronger alignment with the CPI-ML, Krishnan remained formally registered with the CPI-M to avoid persecution for his association to Varghese, and even went into hiding in 1975 after the CPI-ML was banned under the National Emergency (1975-77). However, he still secretly worked to build support for the Naxalites amongst tribal and farming communities. Despite his efforts to evade detection, his wife was arrested and tortured, and had to flee to her parents’ place with her children. Krishnan was also involved as the second in command during the attack on the Kayanna police station in 1976, for which he was charged and detained until 1980. His time as a communist activist also hurt his future financial prospects, as he struggled to support his family and is still not as well-to-do as his siblings who did not join the movement.
In retrospect, Krishnan reflects that while the radical nature of the Naxalite movement was necessary, it was a mistake for him and his comrades to have directly fought the police establishment. Instead, he feels they should have built mass support by eliminating exploitative Jenmis in the local community and gradually risen as a legitimate party. While he still agrees with the objectives and slogans of the contemporary communist parties, he feels that their use of violent terrorist operations does not serve the cause. Rather, he hopes that the worldview of the larger society will evolve to be more inclusive and willing to invest in more universal forms of social security, as have been done in Europe.
7 April 2019
Kunhi: Your family was one among those who arrived here in the mid-twentieth century as agricultural migrants. Can you recollect anything about those early days?
KK. We are from Edamuruk, in Thodupuzha Taluk of Idukki district. We migrated to this region (Mananthavady, Wayanad district) when I was six or seven years old. This place is called Valad, Puthur. It is part of Thavinjal Panchayat. We came here in 1949. There was a great famine in India after the Second World War. Following this, the government encouraged agricultural migration to barren lands in the hilly terrain of Kerala, especially in its Malabar region. This policy started in the early 1940s itself, under the British colonial government. But we came here after India’s independence.
Kunhi: Do you remember those early days clearly?
Kunhi: Do you have any siblings?
KK. We were five kids. I have three elder brothers and one younger sister.
Kunhi: What do you remember about the tribal community in this locality during those early days?
KK. That was a period of many problems. There was relentless tension between migrants and Janmis. Janmis often filed fake cases against migrants and they used the police to blackmail migrant settlers. Under such Janmis, tribal life was in a pathetic state. Sometimes, they made tribal people work in their estates and paddy fields by providing mere rice water as wages. Generally, they paid only 2 ½ ser raw rice as wage for a day’s work of tribal labourers. It was the migrant settlers who rescued tribal people from such a terrible state of life. Migrant settlers paid money as wages to tribal labourers. It helped to create a good relationship between tribal people and migrant settlers. Tribal people always preferred to work on the farms of migrant settlers. This had created many tensions between migrant settlers and Janmis.
Kunhi: You said 2 ½ ser rice as wage. Is it for a day’s work? Do you know how much a ser will be in kilogram terms?
KK. Yes, 2 ½ ser Nellu (raw rice) was given as wage for a day’s work. It is called the vally system. 2 ½ ser will be about 1 ½ or 1 ¾ kilogram.
Kunhi: Where have you done your schooling?
KK. When I was a child, the migrant settlers in the region put in effort to create a school here. It’s called Azhuthupallikkodam. It was a set up for teaching reading and writing for kids, by using the sandy floor as a drawing board. Later it became a government recognized lower primary school. After completing primary school from there, I went to an upper primary school in Punur. It was called Sarvodaya UP School. It was under Madras University. There was an exam after the eighth standard. It was called the ESLC (Elementary School Leaving Certificate) examination. After clearing ESLC, I went to Mananthavady for completing SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate). After completing that, I joined Devagiri College Kozhikode for the pre-degree course.
Kunhi: Which year did you start your pre-degree course?
KK. It was 1961 or 1962.
Kunhi: What did you do after completing pre-degree?
KK. I was financially incapable to continue my studies after my pre-degree. Therefore, I joined a technical school, called ITC, after completing my pre-degree course. It was a draughtsman mechanical course.
Kunhi: You were not politically active in those years?
KK. I was part of various student movements since my school years. I was a member of KSF (Kerala Student’s Federation). The well known Naxalite Arikkad Varghese was my school friend. We were part of the same student’s union. Varghese was President, I was Secretary, and Velappan Master was joint Secretary. It was a five-member committee.
Kunhi: You continued your activism during your pre-degree years?
KK. Yes, but I was not a member of any student’s union. It was just a one-year-long course at Devagiri College and there was no students’ union in technical schools. However, I was active in building leftist political outfits in my home region during those days. I worked to mobilize people for various leftist agrarian movements and helped to build leftist farmers’ organizations in my home region. It was under my leadership a red-flag post (communist flag) was established in a village called Kattimoola, in 1958. The place was so important for the communist party as it was a stronghold of the Congress party.
Kunhi: Talking about the tension between the Congress party and the Communist party, can you recollect your experience during the India-China war of 1962?
KK. As EMS said, it was a war for a territory that India consider as its own and China consider as their own. Most of the Indian communist leaders did not support any side in that war. I believed that the party’s decision was correct.
Kunhi: There were two different views within the party in that context. Isn’t it?
KK. There was a debate on the nature of the Indian state during that period. The question was whether the Indian state is a bourgeois state or a socialist state. The CPI largely believed that it is the feudal landlords who manage the Indian government. However, a group within the party, under the leadership of S. A. Dange, argued that the Congress government under Nehru’s leadership is progressive, not a bourgeois government. They had reason to believe so. They were highly influenced by the strong ties between India and the Soviet Union. The Soviet government did provide some valuable support to India during that period. The Congress government of India was greatly influenced by the Soviet model of development. It was with this influence, they nationalized some key industries and established cooperative societies and public limited companies. They also copied the much-celebrated Five Year Planning model of development. Because of these policies of the government, a group within the CPI had believed that the Indian government is progressive and there is no need to build a movement to overthrow such a government. However, the other group within the party strongly believed that the Indian state is a feudal state, though it was implementing certain socialist policies. It is this difference within the party that eventually led to the split of the Communist Party of India.
Kunhi: Did you believe in those years that a revolution would happen in India and CPI would transform the country as a communist state?
KK. No. We, the common activists at the local level, were not much aware of the top-level ideological debate within the party. We were confused even when the party split in 1964 and a group of leaders left the party to form a new revolutionary communist party. I was following the approach of AK Gopalan, as I was greatly impressed by his approach towards farmers and farmers’ movements in this region. He worked for farmers and agricultural migrants in this locality. He came to Kottiyoor (near Pulpally, Wayanad) to do Satyagraha. As he contributed immensely to our fight against Janmis, we followed his stand during that period. Therefore, I also became a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) when it was formed in 1964.
Kunhi: What was the most important factor that forced you to remain with the communist party during that period?
KK. The communist party had certain demands during that period. It demanded that everyone should get basic things needed for leading a decent life such as food, clothing, and housing. It fought for ensuring such basic things of life for everyone. Unlike today, then the communist party had a genuine approach and it stood with the farmers and the working class.
Kunhi: Your family also supported the communist movement?
KK. Yes. My family was essentially communist. My father and elder brothers were actively supporting the communist movement.
Kunhi: Can you explain your major activities during the early years of your political life?
KK. I was part of the Taluk committee of the farmers’ organization. I was a member of the communist party. After getting the party membership, I led many tribal movements in this region. We led many protests to regain the lost lands of tribal people.
Kunhi: Do you remember in which year it was?
KK. I think it was in 1971-72.
Kunhi: When did you change your approach towards the party? Did you start associating with the Naxal movement by then?
KK. No. I was with the CPI (M), but ideologically I was greatly transformed by then. Since 1970, ideologically I was more close to CPI (ML). Ideologically I was more radical though officially I continued to remain with the CPI (M).
Kunhi: What was your approach when Naxalites attacked the police camp in Pulpally in 1968?
KK. I was not here during that time. I was in Delhi. I was working there in a factory.
Kunhi: When did you come back to Kerala?
KK. It was in 1970.
Kunhi: Were you aware of the Naxalite movement in the region when you were in Delhi? What was your approach towards the radical communist movement then?
KK. Yes, I was and I believed that it was necessary. I believed that the communist revolution must happen in India. Though India got independence in 1947, the basic problem of poor and working-class people in the country remained the same. For finding a solution to the problems of farmers and the working class in the country, we needed something more than a simple reform in the economic policies of the Indian government. We needed a total transformation. I still believe that we need such a transformation.
Kunhi: Do you think early Maoist movements in West Bengal had any influence on you?
KK. Then our slogan was Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism. After the Naxalbari movement in 1967, the People’s Daily of the Chinese Communist Party published a report titled ‘spring thunder over India”. CCP supported the Naxalbari movement in India. The Naxalbari movement was an attempt to regain agricultural land for farmers who cultivated the land. It was a movement against the Janmi system. I believed that such a movement should spread all over India. Because India didn’t implement any effective land reform after its independence. Even now, more than 80 per cent of the agricultural land is controlled by feudal-capitalist landlords, not the farmers who work in those lands. Even now, the majority of our farmers don’t get enough income for their daily survival. They continue to remain as half-naked poor people. We are yet to have an efficient land reform, though our constitution provides such rights. We still have the responsibility to transform this society.
Kunhi: When did you become a member of CPI (ML)?
KK. I became active in the radical communist movement in 1970. But I disclosed this identity only after 1975. The government banned the party in 1975, with the declaration of a national emergency. I had to go into hiding due to the ban on the party. I got exposed as a member of the Naxalite group during this period.
Kunhi: What was your experience with the police during that period?
KK. They came to search my house. Arrested my wife. They kept her in lockup and tortured her.
Kunhi: When did you get married?
KK. It was in 1973. She was also a supporter of the communist movement. Her name is Kanaka Valli. I have five children.
Kunhi: What are they doing?
KK. One son is a driver in the KSRTC bus service in the state. One is an MBA graduate with no specific employment. Another son is also an MBA graduate. My daughter was a nurse. But she is not working anymore. My youngest son is working in Saudi Arabia.
Kunhi: So, police couldn’t capture you during the period of the National Emergency?
KK. They did. It was after the Kayanna police station attack in 1976. I think it was on February 28.
Kunhi: How long you were under police custody?
KK. One month under police custody, in Malookkunnu police camp. It was a period of torture. After that, they produced me in court and sent me to jail. I spent almost five years in Jail. They released me in 1980.
Kunhi: How was your family during that period?
KK. My wife and kids stayed at her house. My father was dead by then. My mother was with my siblings. So, there was no one in my house.
Kunhi: You have a great deal of experience from that period. Can you tell me a little more about those days?
KK. Yes. I have good experience from the earlier period too. As I mentioned earlier, I was part of various movements for regaining the lost land of the tribal community. Leading a movement, we regained some land from an illegal occupier in Koolikkavu and redistributed it to tribal people. Such attempts created various police cases and legal issues against us. It was before the national emergency in 1975. During those days, there was no court in Wayanad. We had to go to the Thalassery court. It was very difficult to take tribal people to the Thalassery court. We had to spend from our small income to make travel and other arrangements for taking tribal people to the court in Thalassery. We won the case in court. It granted the land to the tribal people.
Kunhi: What was your role in the Kayanna police station attack?
KK. I was the second accused in that case. I was the second in command of that operation. Our Commander was K Venu.
Kunhi: Who was the first accused?
KK. Somashekaran from Vadakara. I was the second accused. I don’t remember Venu’s.
Kunhi: Can you explain your relationship with Varghese?
KK. As I said earlier, we were schoolmates. He was murdered on 18 February 1970. I reached back home from Delhi on 21st February. When I reached home, police came to arrest me and they took me into custody. K Padmanaban was then the party’s Mananthavady unit secretary. After he intervened, I was soon released from police custody. Since police realized that I was not in place in recent days, I easily got bail. The truth is that I came back from Delhi because of Varghese. I got two letters when I was in Delhi, one was from Varghese and the other was from Velappan Mash. The letters summarised that as we had wished the majority of Kerala’s population is about to come forward for a revolution. They (Velappan and Varghese etc.) all were already active in the front of that movement. Therefore, they asked me to resign from the job and come home as early as possible. When I got the first letter, I was a bit confused. When I got the second letter, I decided to resign from the job and head home to be part of that revolutionary movement. But I was not aware of the latter developments, that police took Varghese under custody and other unfortunate things happened. I was travelling while all these things happened. Then it took three days of train-journey to reach Kerala from Delhi. It is only when I reached home that I was informed that Varghese was murdered. As the police hunt for Varghese supporters was so active then, I did not disclose my allegiance to Varghese and continued to remain with the mainstream communist party. I continued my works on farmers’ organizations. However, secretly I worked for building a support base for the revolutionary communist party, CPI (ML). Secretly, mostly by working at night, we built revolutionary units in places like Kottiyoor, Meenangadi, Valad, Periya, etc. Publicly, we remained with the mainstream communist party. We provided shelter for revolutionary leaders who go in hiding. Then the leader of the party, K Venu stayed at my house for several days, when he was hiding from the police. We were working under his command. While we were operating like this, in 1975, the government of India declared National Emergency. The country was moving through various social, economic and political crises during this period. The three-decades-long Congress rule was a failure. Socialist leaders like Jayaprkash Narayan was leading strong resistance against Congress rule at the centre. Even the Naxalbari movement was a response to that crisis in the country. Naxalbari leader Charu Majumdar declared that the 1970s will become the decade of liberation for India. But the question was, what kind of liberation? We had to regain land for farmers from feudal lords. But how do we do that? Charu Majumdar prepared a policy outline for achieving such objectives. That plan suggested that we should liberate the villages in order to surround the cities and liberate them.
Kunhi: Kunnikkal Narayanan had some issues with Charu Majumdar’s approach. Is that right?
KK. No. He also accepted this approach. But they had different views on the establishment of a revolutionary communist party. He also welcomed the Naxalbari movement of 1967 and he wanted to bring a similar movement to other parts of the country. But, unlike Charu Majumdar, Kunnikkal believed that there is no need to establish a revolutionary communist party for bringing the communist revolution to India. He believed that the establishment of a communist party should begin from the base, from common people, not from the top, by creating a wing of leadership. It is due to this difference of opinion Kunnikkal left the National Coordination Committee of the revolutionary movement.
Kunhi: What do you think about the Thalassery and Pulpally movements held under Kunnikkal’s leadership?
KK. I don’t know whether he was ideologically correct. Kunnikkal wanted to attack all the machinery of the government. Charu Majumdar believed that we should eliminate local exploiters and feudal lords in the first place. If we attack the machinery of government, they will retaliate and easily suppress the movement. But if we lead the movement against local exploiters, nobody can deny its significance. Such an attempt could help to mobilize public support and the government won’t be seriously alert towards such a local level of tension. The experience proves that Kunnikkal was wrong and Majumdar’s approach was correct. But the fundamental emotion of Kunnikkal was always correct. We definitely needed to attack the government and the feudal exploiters. But the means that he opted for this goal was not correct, and he failed.
Kunhi: Other than the Kayanna police station attack, you were part of any other operation? Did you serve any other prison term?
KK. No, I was in jail only after Kayanna. I was part of many popular movements and movements against corporates after the release. For example, our fight against the coca-cola factory in Plachimada was so significant. With such popular movements, we gained massive public support. Unfortunately, our party got divided during this period. Venu left the party in this context.
Kunhi: What is your current approach towards radical communist politics?
KK. I cannot ignore its importance completely even today. But terrorism is not a solution to social issues. Terrorism is not a social service. But I cannot ignore their slogans. However, terrorism cannot help to transform society. It will end up eliminating the life of many young people. That is the problem with the contemporary Maoist establishments in India. Their terrorist approach eliminates the social life of many very talented youths in the country. Therefore, I cannot support their approach though I agree with their slogan. Their slogans are based on the essential problems of the oppressed communities in this country. But they cannot solve those problems with isolated terrorist activities. For finding a solution to such social issues, we need massive public support. For that, we need the support of various organizations, like farmers’ organizations, youth organizations, etc. and we need the support of writers like Gauri Lankesh and Kalburgi. Only with the help of such a massive support base, we can transform the social system.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about the worst experience in your life as a communist activist?
KK. I cannot say anything was a ‘bad’ experience. We always work with the political ideology that a particular context demands. Every three years, at the party conference, our party reassess ideological conflicts within the party. It is an attempt to understand the problems within the approach of the party and find a solution to such problems. It means, every three years we transform ourselves ideologically. Therefore, I cannot say I have had a bad experience in my political activism. But there are problems. I’m currently a member of CPI (ML) (Redflag). But it is unable to find a way to amass a large support base. Firstly because of our government, which is sponsored by imperial/corporate agents. Such a government cannot find a solution to the basic problems of common people. This system needs to transform for finding a permanent solution for the issues of common people.
Kunhi: Do you believe such a total transformation is possible even today?
KK. Yes, of course. It is a transformation that needs to happen in the understanding or worldviews of the people. Look at the eastern European countries. Though they were not brought by any communist establishment, the eastern European countries have undergone a dramatic transformation. The ruling establishments in the region ensure the protection of the common people. Therefore, the region is relatively peaceful. A radical change in people’s world views is a prerequisite for such a transformation. We know how reformation movements have begun in our region. Reformists like Srinarayana Guru asked society to transform by learning. Read and develop. It is because of the influence of such reformists the establishments like communist parties have built numerous libraries in the state. It is because of such libraries and reading halls communist parties emerged as a powerful political force in this state. Communist leaders encouraged various cultural movements that could help to transform society.
Kunhi: Have you ever faced any tension between your family life and political activism?
KK. Yes, yes, very much. These kinds of political activism don’t provide any economic remuneration. It is a social service. Naturally, the family of such activists would face severe poverty. I had problems with finding income for food and my children’s education. As I was mostly in hiding from the police, I couldn’t concentrate much on farming. I still experience the repercussions of those days of struggle due to political activism. My brothers and other family members are relatively rich people. I cannot have a lavish life like them.
Kunhi: Do you have any regrets about ending up in such a situation?
KK. No. I have recognition within society. I value that. Even you came here looking for me because of that social recognition. Other than that, society had a great benefit because of my activism. Today a tribal worker earns 500 rupees as his wage for a day’s work. Nobody attempts to illegally occupy the land of tribal people. They are getting formal education and employment opportunities.
Kunhi: OK. We can stop here. Thank you.
Interviewee: Kunnel Krishnan
Jenmi were the landed aristocracy of Kerala.
Adivasi is a broad term referring to any aboriginal peoples of India, in this case the Kerala region.
Satyagraha is a form of nonviolent protest first promulgated by Mahatma Gandhi.
What does the diversity of communist movements in postcolonial India suggest about the nature of India’s Cold War?
What does Kunnel Krishnan’s initial lack of understanding of the various communist parties’ ideological nuances suggest about the extent to which India’s Cold War was real, and the extent to which it was imagined?
How does Krishnan’s discussion of the ideological debates and the policy positions within India’s communist parties both reinforce and challenge traditional understandings of the global Cold War?
Consider the extent to which Krishnan and his peers were able to exercise agency in crafting their experience of the Cold War in India.