Naxalite activist couple Sivadasan and Shylaja discuss their family life and their involvement with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Flag, stating that they both feel that their Party work brings meaning to their lives, despite their financial struggles.
Sivadasan begins by sharing how he was born the sixth of nine children in Attapadi, Kerala in 1959. While both his parents struggled to make ends meet in his father’s carpentry trade, he notes that his mother still made time to keep herself abreast o current affairs by reading newspapers. His family had a strong Communist background, and most of them became affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI-M]. He, however, became interested in Naxalite politics during his student days in 1976 at the height of National Emergency; and was the only member of his household to join the CPI [M-L] from the 1980s, where he remains a district secretary today.
His divergence from his family’s political alignment did cause many disagreements and debates at home. One key tension arose when his brother contested in the local village council elections as a CPI-M candidate in 1977, and Sivadasan chose not to support his brother, as the CPI-ML had denounced electoral politics. Still, his brother won the elections with a small lead and established the region as a communist stronghold, wresting power away from the incumbent Congress Party. This angered the Congress Party, whose members held marches outside his home and hurl slurs at his mother. He also recalls how his mother would attempt to diffuse tensions at home by reminding them of the different communist parties’ shared histories. Like her, he would learn to try and mediate ideological disagreements between various members of his family. True to their Communist convictions, his family did not mark any family occasions with religious rituals, merely holding gatherings to mark death anniversaries.
Even before formally joining the party, Sivadasan participated in many Naxalite protests and marches from 1977, on issues such as police torture and custodial deaths during the Emergency, the public trial of a corrupt doctor, and on the issue of land reform for Adivasis. For his actions, he too, was arrested and subjected to police brutality, requiring hospital care to recuperate. After becoming a party member, Sivadasan worked in the organization’s press, performing all tasks from writing to delivering the finished product to readers from 1982-86. Some of his more notable actions within the Naxalite movement include his involvement in the public trial of another corrupt doctor in Kozhikode, and in the Kakkayam march in 1990. He served multiple month-long prison sentences for each of these actions. That year, he married his wife Shylaja, a fellow participant in these actions, with the blessings of CPI-ML leaders in 1990. The couple later moved to Attapadi in 1997 on Party orders.
Shylaja then shares that she too, was arrested in the 1990s for participating in her husband’s Naxalite activities, and their oldest son, then an infant, also had to be taken into custody as he was being breastfed. Like Sivadasan, she too was raised in an atheistic family, and was introduced to communist ideology by her uncle, who now works with the CPI-ML Red Star. In closing, Sivadasan explains that he still believes the revolution may arise in future, but that he does not fault the Chinese for moving towards low-wage labor, which has lowered the cost of consumer goods globally. As a Naxalite, he takes greater issue with the Soviet model’s insistence that the class war could end after the revolution. Shylaja shares that while serving the Naxalite organization did not pay and left their families with no savings, they both find unparalleled fulfillment in advancing its cause.
12 April 2019
Kunhi: Shall we begin with a brief introduction about your family background?
Sivadasan: My name is Sivadasan Kutty. I was born in Murad village, in Koyilandi Thaluk of Kozhikode district, in 1959. Most of the members of my family were full-time members of the communist parties. My mother was one of the well-known communist activists. My father was also an active member of the party. He was a carpenter. My family was struggling in the depth of poverty. We were nine kids. Both of my parents worked hard to look after the family. My mother always helped my father in his work. While having all these troubles of life, my mother tried to keep her up to date about the general affairs. She read newspapers regularly, most importantly Malayala Manorama. After reading Manorama, she would say that they spreading lies.
Kunhi: Among the nine siblings of you, what was your position?
Sivadasan: I was the sixth one. I have two younger sisters and one younger brother.
Kunhi: What about other members of your family?
Sivadasan: One of my elder brothers is a carpenter. One of my elder sisters married a congress party supporter, though she is a strong communist. Most often women try to accept the political view of their husbands after the marriage. But my sister did not make any change in her approach after the marriage. They always have a healthy debate about political matters.
Kunhi: All of your brothers and sisters are communists, right?
Sivadasan: Yes, they are all communists.
Kunhi: Where did you do your studies?
Sivadasan: I studied in our local schools only. After school, I joined Madappally Government College.
Kunhi: So, you were a member of the Students Federation of India (SFI), right?
Sivadasan: Yes, while I was in school it was KSF (Kerala Students Federation). When we were school students, there were two students organizations. The Communist party’s KSF and the Congress party’s KSU (Kerala Students Union). We were highly enthusiastic about the activities of the students’ organization.
Kunhi: By the time you joined college, SFI was formed, right?
Sivadasan: Yes, yes. I joined the college in 1976, during the time of the National Emergency. It was a time of several problems, no freedom for organizing political activities. The government banned all kinds of public meetings. During the final stage of the Emergency, the government was allowed to conduct public meetings inside the halls. Among the mainstream communist leaders, most of them were in prison or hiding. EMS and AKG were the two prominent leaders who did not go to prison during this time.
Until the National Emergency, KSU had no place in Madappally College. The College was totally in the control of SFI. However, the situation changed during the time of the Emergency. In this period, KSU strengthened their organization and widely targeted SFI members. They attacked us several times using the police. Once it was during a campaign for collecting some funds to support a meeting of EMS that was held in Jayabharati Theatre in Vadakara. We planned to give a garland of currency notes to EMS when he come to talk at the event.
Kunhi: What was the course you were doing at Madappalli college?
Sivadasan: It was a pre-degree course, not a degree. When they lifted National Emergency, I was a second-year pre-degree student.
Kunhi: When did you begin to change your political approach?
Sivadasan: We read news about various developments during the National Emergency. Issues like the Kayanna Police Station attack in 1976 by the Naxalites helped to shape my interests in Naxal activities. I started seeing them as heroes who work for real change in our social system. Many members of SFI were always talking about the activities of Naxalites. Through their words and various events that happened during this time, I became highly interested in Naxalite politics.
Kunhi: When did you join the Naxal movement?
Sivadasan: That happened a few years later, after 1980.
Kunhi: Were you aware of the ideological debates within the communist movement during this time?
Sivadasan: I learned that both the mainstream communist parties in India are revisionist. There were many discussions about the great debate, the ideological debates between the Chinese communists and the Soviet communists. On one side, the Soviet communists argued that the age of imperialism has come to an end and the coming years will be an age of world peace. On the other, was China’s strong stand against Soviet revisionism. I became interested in all these theories only after joining the Naxal movement. Before that, I did not think much about the ideological aspect. When I became a member of CPI-ML, I wanted to learn about the theories that could justify my involvement with the movement.
Kunhi: What were your major activities after joining the radical movement?
Sivadasan: From 1982 to 86, I worked in Kottayam, for the party publication called Comrade. We had to do every task related to the publication by ourselves, from writing to publishing and sending the published material to readers. In 1986, I returned to Kozhikode. From 1986 to 1990, I worked with an independent cinema movement and associated with the Odessa Collective formed by John Abraham, one of the greatest filmmakers of India. The independent cinema movement, which made movies by collecting money from people, had made a great impact on Kerala’s social life. From 1990 to 1997, I worked in a publishing house of the party in Kozhikode. It published several small books and pamphlets.
Kunhi: What was your understanding of the future of CPI-ML when you joined the movement? Did you believe that the movement will come to power by leading a revolution in India?
Sivadasan: We continuously talked about the revolution. I believed that the revolution was possible in India. In the beginning, I believed that the CPI-ML will become the largest party in India. We had really good public support during those years. But the situation changed over the years. Many issues and many cases changed the public approach towards the movement.
Kunhi: Were you involved in any of those cases?
Sivadasan: There were several cases against me. One of them was related to the public trial of a doctor in Kozhikode Medical College.
Kunhi: Were you involved in the public trial of the doctor?
Sivadasan: Yes, I was one among them. Police used force to dismiss the trial. And I was seriously injured in the police Lathi charge. Following this, I spent about 10 days in the hospital. I faced similar police attacks in various contexts. One was related to the Rajan murder incident. Party faced many crises in the later years.
Kunhi: What was your approach towards the party’s revolutionary activities during the early years?
Sivadasan: I believed in the party. I believed that all its approaches are correct. Later, I came to realise that it is important to have unity among various organizations of the working class. The Marxist party has the responsibility to form a united front of various organizations to fight against class exploitation. It took several years to gain such an understanding.
Kunhi: What were the major changes that happened in your personal life during this period?
Sivadasan: I never had any regret in my personal life. Compared to others, I had no job that could help me to make some income. I never had any savings.
Kunhi: When did you marry?
Sivadasan: In 1990. It was an event that happened with the blessings of the party. I did not spend any money on my marriage.
Kunhi: Whom did you marry?
Sivadasan: She is also a member of the party. Her name is Shylaja.
Kunhi: You had some restrictions for choosing your partner, right?
Sivadasan: No, why?
Kunhi: One of the people I interviewed told me that the party members were only allowed to marry other members of the party, a member of a working class family etc.
Sivadasan: No, no. There were no such issues. Maybe in the early period. No such restrictions were there when I married. By the time I joined the party, it started accepting social realities.
Kunhi: The Party became liberal by then, right?
Sivadasan: Our marriage was a simple event. There was no element of luxury. We did not follow any traditions related to religions. We did not organize any event related to tradition and customs.
Kunhi: Are you a believer?
Sivadasan: No, I did not give any attention to religion.
Kunhi: What about your family?
Sivadasan: My family also had the same approach. We did not conduct any funeral rites or rituals after the death of my father. The same was the case when my mother died. She died only four years back. Conducting various rituals and rites in the context of a death in the house was a common practice in our place. But we did not follow that tradition. Our link with the party was extremely strong. It was often the local secretary of the party who explained the rules in the context of death. There will be a few days of mourning. But we observe death anniversaries. On such occasions, there will be a family get together.
Kunhi: What was the situation in your wife’s family? They also did not follow any religious tradition?
Sivadasan: They were also not influenced by any religion. No religion or belief system has any role in our life. I never visited a temple. If you ask whether I have no belief, it will be a little difficult to answer. There must be a little element of belief in God in the depth of my heart. But I never practised religion.
Kunhi: Do you have any children?
Sivadasan: Yes, I have two. One of them studying in Wayanad and the other one is in Coimbatore.
Kunhi: What is your present relationship with the communist party?
Sivadasan: I’m the district secretary of CPI-ML Red Flag. It is one of the registered parties in India. Its official name is the Marxist Leninist Party of India-Red Flag.
Kunhi: Is it active in electoral politics?
Sivadasan: Yes. The Naxal movement did not accept electoral politics till 1996. In 1996, CPI-ML accepted the idea of a left alliance in electoral politics. In the past, there were many interesting developments related to electoral politics in my life. In 1977, when we were actively campaigning against the election in the context of the National Emergency, my elder brother became a candidate in a Panchayat election. He was then a branch secretary of CPI-M. I did not support him, as I followed the party order. I did not cast my vote in the election. But the issue was that the ward in which my brother contested was a stronghold of the Congress party. Congress candidates were continuously winning the ward. The CPI-M wanted to win that ward at any cost. They led a strong campaign for my brother. It was in this context, the younger brother of the candidate was himself campaigning against the election. How could they accept that? They all came to dissuade me. Many requested me to withdraw from the active campaign against the election, considering the fact that one of the members of my own family was a major candidate in the election. But I did not consider their request. I stood with the approach of my party.
Kunhi: What was the result of the election?
Sivadasan: They defeated the Congress party. My brother won, with a lead of about 35 votes. It was a major event in the village. With this election, the Congress party lost its support base in the village. My mother was highly active during the time of the election. In the earlier days, she was not associated with any organization. Later she became a member of various committees of the Women’s federation of the communist party. Since my mother was very active in politics, the Congress party workers used every opportunity to attack my family. When they win the election, they would march through the road passing our house by raising extremely nasty slogans against my mother. It was like Narayani-Polayadi. With such abuses against my mother, they would throw several at our house. By my mother’s final years, the CPI-M started continuously winning in our ward, in our assembly constituency and the Parliamentary constituency.
Kunhi: Unlike you, your family members are with CPI-M, right?
Sivadasan: Yes, they are all with CPI-M.
Kunhi: Who else from your family is active in electoral politics?
Sivadasan: My sister was a Panchayat member for 10 years. The wife of my brother was also an elected member. My brother was in government service. Another brother is an advocate in Wayanad. All of them are associated with the party.
Kunhi: How was their approach when you joined the CPI-ML?
Sivadasan: We had a difference of opinion as we belonged to two different communist parties. We had issues to debate and argue all the time. When the left parties came to accept the concept of the left alliance, the situation in my house changed. Now the group politics within the CPI-M reached our family. Sometimes, I act as a mediator when the two CPI-M groups in my family argue over issues. My mother did not like our family members having political arguments by joining different groups within the CPI-M. In such contexts, I worked to make peace between our family members.
Kunhi: You must have seen a lot of political debates in your house.
Sivadasan: Yes, yes. My mother always talked about history when we were having arguments.
Kunhi: Did you live in your family home even after your marriage?
Sivadasan: Yes. There was no tension in my family. We always had healthy debates.
Kunhi: When did you shift to Attappadi and this house?
Sivadasan: I came to Attappadi in 1997. It was due to party orders. The Party appointed me to work in this area. When I came here, the party had a strong support base in the area. But the situation changed over the years with two major splits within the party. One new group was formed under the leadership of K N Ramachandran. Another group that left the party joined the CPI-M. With these changes, the party became weak in the area. It was a centre of Naxal politics. The party intervened in various land-related issues in the area.
Kunhi: Can you tell me a little more about those interventions?
Sivadasan: The land was mainly Adivasi land. We intervened in genuine cases only. Before 1975, there were no legal restrictions for buying Adivasi land. In 1975, the government nullified all Adivasi land transactions between Adivasis and non-Adivasis after 1960. All the transactions before 1960 are legal. We organized many protests against illegally occupying Adivasi land. We conducted a campaign against encroaching the land of an Adivasi mooppan in Boothvalli. We conducted a campaign against the forest department when they took about 300 acres of Adivasi land in Koolikkadav by forcefully evicting about 200 families settled in the area. Forest officers destroyed the cultivation of these families and burned down their huts. It was one of the large campaigns that we led in relation to Adivasi land issues.
Kunhi: Did you face any police brutality because of your involvement in such political activities?
Sivadasan: I faced police torture when I participated in the public trial in Kozhikode, when I participated in the Kakkayam march and when I intervened in a nomad group’s issue in Koyilandi. Related to this Koyilandi incident, police tortured us a whole night. That was a very bad experience. I faced several attacks while I was a college student. In one situation, in 1977, I was about to die from the attack of KSU members. It was an attack of a mob. A person named Asif Ali, who later became a public prosecutor in Kerala, somehow saved me from the mob. After this incident, I was on total bed rest in a hospital in Vadakara for about two weeks.
Kunhi: Did you serve any jail term?
Sivadasan: Yes. They jailed me for the first time after the public trial in Kozhikode. For about 30 days. Then again related to our protest against Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. It was also about a month. A similar thing happened after our Kakkayam march. My wife also served a jail term. She had a small baby, our elder son.
Kunhi: Can I interview your wife? It would help me collect her experience as a party worker.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about your jail experience?
Shylaja: It was following picketing against overcharging in a restaurant. After the picketing, police charged many members of the party. But I couldn’t go to the court when it called us for trial. In this context, the court issued a warrant for my arrest. The next day police arrested me and produced me in court. The court remanded me for a few days. Our elder son was only a few months old. They could not separate him from me, as I was breastfeeding him. Therefore, they took both of us to prison. The following day, newspapers published a report saying that a baby is punished for the crime of a mother.
Kunhi: Where did this incident happen?
Shylaja: Vadakara. We were active in Vadakara in those days.
Kunhi: What was the year of this incident?
Sivadasan: In 1990. I went to prison after the second public trial too. In the first incident, our target was Dr George, in the second it was Dr Srinivasan.
Kunhi: When was the first public trial?
Sivadasan: The first one is in 1980 and the second one in the 1990s. The second one happened after our marriage. This one also happened in Kozhikode Medical College.
Kunhi: Any other members of your family have any connection with the Naxalite movement?
Shylaja: My uncle, Edacheri Dasan. It was he who introduced me to the party. He is with CPI-ML Red Star now. After the split, we became part of two different parties.
Kunhi: How would you rate all these years you spent with the party?
Sivadasan: There is nothing that could give you more satisfaction than being part of the party activities. I feel alive when I engage with various social issues. I don’t see my political activity as a social service. I consider it a revolutionary activity. The ultimate purpose is the transformation of the system.
Kunhi: What was your approach when eastern Europe abandoned communism and the Soviet Union disintegrated?
Sivadasan: We started our politics by criticizing the politics of Soviet communists. We questioned their approach towards imperialism and their idea of peaceful coexistence. They believed that there is no need for class conflict after the revolution. However, we argued that we cannot stop the class war after the revolution, as there is a chance for the bourgeoisie to dethrone the purpose of a socialist government. EMS like mainstream communist leaders supported the Soviet approach. He wrote in an article that humans will not go back to becoming monkeys. His article created a controversy. Later, the fall of the Soviet Union proved that his approach is not correct.
Kunhi: Do you think Mao was correct? Do you believe his idea of continuous revolution is the correct one?
Sivadasan: When it came to practice, Chinese communists made so many mistakes. When they say let a hundred flowers blossom on the one side, they killed hundreds of their opponents on the other side. It is a subject for self-criticism.
Kunhi: Do you still believe that there is a chance for transforming the system?
Sivadasan: Of course. It is inevitable. Marx defined capitalism. In the end, society cannot lead a peaceful life in a capitalist system. They will desire change and ultimately revolution will bring the change. There are huge economic inequalities in the world. 80 percent of wealth is in the hands of 2 percent. However, there is no credible organization to change the system. The communist parties in India today indeed have no capability to come to power through electoral politics. It needs the support of every organization that share similar views. It should unite all those organizations to fight against the exploitative system.
Kunhi: Do you think it is okay to have an alliance with any non-communist organization?
Sivadasan: We can form an alliance with any democratic organization. It is not a direct entry to socialism. However, even the bourgeoise democracy cannot accept capitalism after a few years. It was the bourgeoise community who fought against feudalism, for the right to capitalism. They will not encourage liberal capitalism anymore. We can see the growth of fascist organizations everywhere in the world. We can see now how they are destroying a democratic system. They imprison all those who protest against their approach. They bring draconian laws to destroy the democratic rights of the people. They reformed labour laws and allowed corporates to increase the work hours of labourers. They becoming anti-social in every aspect of governance. They exploit not just workers. They exploit nature. They destroyed the level of equilibrium in nature. Capitalism is not interested in saving the environment. It has only one goal, make a profit. They try everything to increase their profit. Because of this, they are not at all concerned about the harm they cause in nature. Capitalism is total exploitation, it is not just the exploitation of workers.
Kunhi: What do you think about the Chinese model?
Sivadasan: They do not consider themselves socialists. In their party congress, they are still talking about economic inequality. But I don’t know whether China is attempting to head towards a socialist system. Perhaps China must be doing what is required in a globalised world. With the pure socialist form of development, they cannot compete with the United States and Japan. They should save themselves from what happened to the Soviet Union. If we think in this way, perhaps we cannot criticise the Chinese model. China produced the cheapest labour in the world. In the 1980s, we needed at least 20,000 rupees to get a television. Today we can get standard television for just 4000 rupees. It happened because of cheap Chinese labour. Most of the brands used Chinese labour.
Kunhi: Do you consider it a positive development?
Sivadasan: We cannot say it is a negative thing.
Kunhi: I think we can conclude here. How do you rate your political life ma’am?
Shylaja: Working for the party was a thrill. I never felt any disappointment. When I was active, the party had a very strong support base. All those activities were necessary.
Kunhi: I feel both of you are happy with your life. I believe you don’t have any regrets about the years you spend on party activities.
Sivadasan: We are not bothered about the fact that we have no savings. We have the troubles of poverty. But it did not affect our happiness.
Interviewee: Sivadasan and Shylaja
Lathi charge is the Indian term for a police baton charge.
Rajan was a student of the Regional Engineering College in Calicut. He died in the Kakkayam police camp because of extreme torture by the Police. After the incident, police disposed his body to eliminate the evidence of his murder. Though his body never recovered, police confirmed later in court that he died in police custody.
Narayani was the name of his mother. The word Polayadi is one of the casteist insults in Kerala. It literally means someone who was born in the lowest caste called Pulaya.
Adivasi is a broad term referring to any aboriginal peoples of India, in this case the Kerala region.
Given the strong influence of Communist ideology on Sivadasan and his family, discuss how it shaped their lived experiences; and more importantly, their responses to those experiences, during the Cold War.
In light of Sivadasan and Shylaja’s testimony, how should the Cold War Era in India be understood: as part of a global clash between capitalist and communist ideologies, or merely a localized clash of ideologies within postcolonial India? Evaluate the merits and limits of both arguments.