Vasu discusses his activist career, from the mainstream communist parties in India, to the more radical Naxalite organization. In particular, he details the failure of the Thalassery Police Station attack in 1968, and explains how the various communist movements in India failed to bring about revolution due to overlooking caste in the Indian context.
This transcript is part of a group of transcripts.
Born in 1929 in Kozhikode to a poor family, Vast begins by recalling how his father, an agricultural laborer, only had temporary employment, and shifted across various jobs, including quarry and construction work. The family experienced hunger during his phases of unemployment. Vasu developed an early interest in the Communist Party of India (CPI) from 1946, under the influence of his cousin, who was an active member. He had to discontinue his education after fifth grade to begin work at a nearby weaving factory from 1947, where he was exposed to trade unions. Despite leaving school at an early age, Vasu read Russian literature widely, and kept himself abreast of most ideological developments abroad, which shaped his own political views. Though his family did not keenly follow politics, his father was a Congress Party supporter; yet he respected his son’s decision to participate in communist politics.
Turning to the events of 1962, when anti-Chinese sentiments heightened opposition to Communism in India, Vasu notes that the strong mass support for the party in Kerala (due to their campaigns against Jenmi exploitation) prevented them from suffering violent attacks, unlike communists in other states. However, the CPI had also begun to withhold secrets from lower-level members and keep them out of ideological debates. Even an avid reader like Vasu was left unaware of the Sino-Soviet split in 1956, until a decade later. He explains that these developments would at best be communicated to district-level committees, but not lower jurisdictions, where members like himself worked, despite their immense experience within the party. This shook his previous sense of almost blind faith in the party.
For these reasons, he moved to the splinter CPI (Marxist) Party when it split off in 1964, following leader AK Gopalan, who was striving for the betterment of farmers’ lives. He also continued working in the factory and organized labor campaigns as a union leader in 1964 and 1966. By late 1967, he was no longer convinced that the CPI-M would take action to bring about revolution in India; and joined the Naxalite Movement, which was more radical and seemed willing to take tangible actions to advance the cause.
Vasu was part of the failed 1968 Naxalite attack on the Thalassery Police Station with Kunnikkal Narayanan. He finds the primary cause of their failure to be a lack of sufficient preparation and equipment, as well as Kunnikkal’s improper strategy. He disagrees about the choice of target, arguing that they should have mounted guerrilla warfare from the rural regions of Wayanand instead of staging an urban revolution by attacking a city police station. While subsequent attacks in 1969 were more successful, helping to end slavery in Wayanad, he separated from Kunnikkal. Still, Vasu was arrested four days after leader Varghese’s assassination in 1970, and imprisoned until 1977. He shares that police brutality occurred only during the short 9-day remand before he was produced in court, but that he did not experience violence in prison.
Upon his release, he continued working as a coordinator for the party, and organized a few actions such as the public trial of a corrupt doctor. However, he began to disagree with the Naxalites’ blunt approach of meting out justice to any exploitative individual. Vasu strongly felt that the communist movement should keep its efforts focused on ending class warfare. To that end, he resonated with Ambedkar’s treatment of caste in the Indian context, and began to see caste as the manifestation of class divisions in India. However, his party colleagues saw his views as a deviation from Marxist theory, and excommunicated him from the party in 1981.
In closing, Vasu identifies revolution as his primary goal. He feels that the communist movement in India was hamstrung by its unwillingness to contextualize Marx’s ideas of class in the Indian context, and suggests that this was a product of how Brahmin leaders like K Venu were still upheld as intellectual authorities in the communist parties. Further, he even argues that the mainstream communist parties were not even true agents of communism, as they had embraced electoral politics (which he views as a capitalist construct) instead of being genuinely committed to revolution. He observes a similar problem in the feminist movements of India, suggesting that women’s activists falsely identify men as the enemy, when they should be opposing the patriarchal teachings of Brahminical philosophy instead of simply transplanting Western conceptions to India. Despite such shortcomings, he does not have regrets, noting the small changes the communists were able to create in enhancing the wages and lives of Adivasis.
9 April 2019
Kunhi: When did you begin your political career?
Vasu: It must be when I was 16 years old, in 1946. I was born in 1929.
Kunhi: Did you begin it by associating with the communist movement?
Vasu: Yes, I was interested in the activities of the CPI.
Kunhi: How did that happen? Can you recollect the beginning?
Vasu: Some other members of my family were associated with the communist movement. My cousin brother was an active member of CPI and he influenced my views since early childhood. He was working with well-known communist leader, comrade Krishna Pillai.
Kunhi: What were your parents approach towards communist politics?
Vasu: They were not particularly interested in politics.
Kunhi: What was their field?
Vasu: My father was an agricultural worker. My mother had no employment other than managing the family. Father worked in other fields also, for some time he worked in a quarry and for a period, he was a manager in a road construction site.
Kunhi: How was your student life?
Vasu: I was able to get the formal education only till the fifth standard in school. I discontinued my formal education in 1946 to join Commonwealth Handloom Weaving Factory, Kozhikode.
Kunhi: Ok. It must be the place that led you to trade union activism, I assume.
Vasu: Yes. I became a member of the trade union of the communist party soon after I joined the factory. A year later, in 1947, I became a full-fledged member of the Communist Party of India.
Kunhi: It was a crucial time in Indian history. Most of the Indian communists were expecting a revolution in India. The radical thesis of B T Ranadive was accepted by Calcutta Party Congress held in 1948. What was your thinking in those years?
Vasu: I was just 17 or 18 years old then. I believed that the party was in the right direction and that we all have to obey the party decisions whatever it is. Our daily life was really difficult in those days. We experienced hunger and poverty whenever my father was unemployed. So I believed that a total transformation through communist revolution is the only permanent solution to existing socio-economic problems. As a voracious reader, I was well aware of the situation in Russia and other parts of the world. I was well aware of Marxist thinkers and leaders, and the promise of communist ideology. We had a good library in our place.
Kunhi: Do you remember any foreign literature that you read in those days? Maybe Russian literature?
Vasu: My connection with Russian literature started only after 1948. It happened mainly after the launch of Prabhath Book House by the communist party.
Kunhi: Russian authors like Maxim Gorky was very popular in Kerala in those years. Do you have any recollection of that?
Vasu: Gorky’s books were available in Deshaposhini Public Library, Calicut. I read authors like Gorky and Rahul Sankrityayan even before I turned 16. I was a member of Deshaposhini Library since I was 13 or 14.
Kunhi: We can say your reading greatly helped you in shaping your political ideologies, right?
Vasu: Of course. Very much.
Kunhi: Skipping a few years in the beginning, I would like to know about your approach during the India-China War of 1962.
Vasu: Why this question? Why this sudden jump from 1948 to 1962?
Kunhi: Sorry. I thought we could move directly to the period of tension within the communist party and the matters related to the split of the party in 1964. As you may have a lot to talk about that period, I thought it's better not to trouble you much by lagging through the 1950s.
Vasu: 1948 was a very important period in the Indian communist movement. But we could continue the conversation as you intend. It is a vast topic and you could choose whatever area you want to talk about.
Kunhi: I would like to know about the approach of local-level party workers during those years of tension within the Indian communist movement.
Vasu: The local level members were largely unaware of such ideological debate in the early 1960s. We became aware of the debate only in the later years. I learned about the split within the international communist movement only in 1966. The split happened in the 1956 party congress in Moscow. Such ideological issues could influence the communist structure at most up to the district committee of the party, not below it. I don’t think it could reflect in sub-district and branch level committees. These kinds of debates were party secrets. They loved keeping unnecessary secrets.
Kunhi: A major reason for my particular focus on the issue of 1962 was that a group of Indian communists attempted to bring communist revolution in India by using the context created by the India-China tension in the Himalayan frontier. From your previous comment, I assume that local level members were totally unaware of such thoughts.
Vasu: Correct. The mainstream party leadership was strongly against such an attempt. They never attempted to influence the local members’ approach towards the India-China war. The party leadership did not try to make the lower level members aware of the ideological differences within the top-level through any reports or opinions in party publications.
Kunhi: Anti-communist sentiments were strong in various parts of the country during the period of the India-China war. There were many violent incidents targeting communists and communist party offices. What was the situation in Kerala?
Vasu: The Party was strong in Kerala during by that period. Therefore, there was no targeted attack against communists in the context of the war. In Kerala, the communist party represented the majority of the population, especially workers and farmers. It had many charismatic leaders. They were fighting against the Jenmi system and the exploitation of farmers and the working class. It was a time of blind commitment to the party. Therefore, challenging a majority that supported the communist party was not a good option for those who were standing against communism. They could attack communists in places like Delhi and other north Indian states, but not in the states where communists were strong. They did not attack communists in Kerala, West Bengal, Tripura, and Andhra Pradesh.
Kunhi: Talking about Andhra Pradesh, what do you think is the main reason for the communist party losing public support in the region?
Vasu: Everyone expected that Andhra would become the first state to elect the communist party to power. In 1952, communist leader Ravinarayana Reddy received one of the largest majority in the Indian parliamentary election, larger than one Nehru had from his constituency. But electoral victory should not be a concern for the communist party. History shows us that the electoral victory could destroy any communist party. See the cases for European communist parties. The party was very strong in Italy and France. They participated in the election. What happened to those parties? They became meaningless. The parliamentary democracy is a construction of capitalism. By taking a role in that system, no one could reach socialism and communism.
Kunhi: Ok. What was your approach in 1964, when the split has happened within the Communist Party of India?
Vasu: I joined the new party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). I followed the approach of leader A K Gopalan. Most of the working class and farmers in Kerala followed the approach A K Gopalan. When the leader became part of the Marxist party, we all became Marxists.
Kunhi: When did you begin to realise that CPI(M) is not going to work for a communist revolution in India?
Vasu: It happened soon. Two years after the formation of the new communist party, we received some reports from the Chinese communist party. This is how we understood the debates within the international communist movement. Wasn’t it in 1962, that the Communist party openly registered its differences with the Soviet communist party? People like Kunnikkal Narayanan started publishing those debates within the international communist movement. By 1966, most of the members began to understand the debates within the party. Till then, only leaders were aware of the ideological debates. Even serious readers were not aware of such debates. I was a voracious reader. I finished reading almost all the books of Desaposhini Public Library within four or five years. I used to wait for the 250 books they buy each year. Even with such a level of reading, I never had a chance to be part of the ideological debates within the party. It remained only among the leaders.
Kunhi: Were you continuing your job in the factory in 1966?
Vasu: Yes. I was the general secretary of the workers union. I led a major movement in 1964. I led a campaign of all the weaving workers in Calicut in 1966.
Kunhi: When did you start associating with the radical communists?
Vasu: I resigned from the party in the later months of 1967. The Thalassery-Pulpally attack happened in November 1968. I was part of the Thalassery action.
Kunhi: What was the reason for the failure of the Naxalite action in Thalassery?
Vasu: In simple words, the leadership did not do anything that help the success of such an action. I’m not blaming them. But, the truth is that they had no idea about armed revolution. It was their first attempt. How could anyone go to attack a police station with a torchlight procession?
Kunhi: Is there any truth to the story that the group dispersed by misunderstanding the sound of rushing cattle herd as the sound of police march?
Vasu: That is not true. When we arrived at the station, the gate was locked with a chain lock or something. We tried to open the gate, but we couldn’t break it easily. Therefore, we threw a locally prepared bomb at the station. It fell somewhere on the noticeboard and did not explode as expected. With this, the frightened police constables in the station started crying for help so loudly. Most of the members in our group had no idea about the things that were happening.
Kunhi: How many members were there in the group?
Vasu: About 300 people were there. When police started crying for help so loudly, some of our members started withdrawing with fear. They were not trained to do armed revolution. They were just normal locals. When a few started running from the scene, most of the others followed them. The ‘rushing cattle’ is a story constructed by the police. They can’t let the public know that they cried for help when we went to attack the station. It would be a humiliation for them. Therefore, they constructed such a story. About 300 people marched with a torchlight to Thalassery police from the stadium. They all reached the station and stood there for about 15 minutes. If there was a cattle herd, they could have seen it in the first place.
Kunhi: How many constables were there in the police station?
Vasu: Only four or five.
Kunhi: Even by seeing these few constables, most of the members ran away from the spot. Why?
Vasu: Didn’t I say they had no idea of guerilla warfare? What occurred on that day was a torchlight procession, not a guerilla attack. Moreover, there were many internal tensions within the group. Many members left the group even before the beginning of the march. I was not part of the leadership. But when the march was happening, Kunnikkal Narayanan asked me to stay in the front. Therefore, I remained in the front.
Kunhi: Did you ever feel any disappointment about the things that happened on that day? Have you ever felt that you should have prepared seriously before mounting such an attack?
Vasu: What happened there was totally wrong. The leadership had no idea about guerilla warfare. If they had any such understanding, they would never have attempted attacking a police station. Studies were suggesting that Wayanad is an ideal location for guerilla warfare. Starting the revolution from a city by attacking a police station was wrong. It also happened without any plan or preparation. That is how it became a humiliating disaster.
Kunhi: Who is really responsible for that failure?
Vasu: If we have to find one person to blame for the failure of the action is it should be Kunnikkal Narayanan. However, I will not do so. Because it was his first attempt. As he was inexperienced, it was certain that the action will end failure.
Kunhi: The first attempt was failed. How were the actions that followed?
Vasu: Some of our later attempts were successful. Isn’t it because of our action in Thirunelli-Thrisslery that slavery came to an end Wayanad? It happened in the very next year after the Thalassery action. In 1968, the Thalassery action occurred. Though we ended our relationship with Kunnikkal Narayan and the team after this event, they attacked a police station again in 1969. Those who attacked Kuttiadi police in 1969 were his comrades. The same year, two months after the Kuttiadi station attack, we did the Thirunelli-Thrissilery action.
Kunhi: When did you separate from Kunnikkal Narayanan’s team and why?
Vasu: It happened a few months before the Thrissilery action. In August or September 1969.
Kunhi: When did Kunnikkal surrender to the police?
Vasu: He surrendered immediately after the Thalassery action.
Kunhi: You were actively working with Varghese. How were those days?
Vasu: I was with him in the 1969-70 period. He was murdered after the Thirunelli-Thrissilery action. I was arrested four days after his death.
Kunhi: What happened after the arrest?
Vasu: They kept me under custody for 9 days. Then they produced me in court and send me to jail.
Kunhi: How long did you spend in prison?
Vasu: It was 7 years and 3 months, without bail.
Kunhi: You were in prison during the time of the National Emergency. Right?
Vasu: Yes. I was released in 1977 April.
Kunhi: Can you share some of your experience with police brutality from jail?
Vasu: There was no police brutality in prison. The brutality happens before they send us to prison. During the time of the National Emergency, they kept people under custody for months without producing us in court. They did all kinds of torture. This is how people like Rajan was murdered. Once you reach jail, then there is no such torture. If you fight with wardens, then there will be consequences. Otherwise, jail is free from cruel torture methods.
Kunhi: How were your political activities after your release?
Vasu: We tried to coordinate various Naxal outfits. I was the state convenor of the coordination committee.
Kunhi: Did you participate in any Naxal actions after the release?
Vasu: The medical college public trial was an action. I was the captain of that public trial.
Kunhi: How was the public approach towards the Naxal movement during this time?
Vasu: We received massive public support. The brahminical leadership of the Naxal movement later destroyed that public support. Leaders like Venu was the major problem. They created a politburo, by excluding experienced members like me. They did some activities which should not have happened. They did an action in Alappuzha, against a coir businessman. They were supposed to lead the action against feudalism. But their action against businessmen like Mathai and Thomas created sentiments against the Naxal movement amongst minority communities. These businessmen were bad people and they were exploiting workers. But communists can’t just murder these people, compromising their ideology. We are supposed to fight against feudalism, not against all cruel people. We cannot kill such people and create fear of Naxals within society.
Kunhi: What was your role in the party during this time? They did not include you in the politburo.
Vasu: They humiliated me on several occasions. Therefore, I resigned from the party. All these things happened after I left the party.
Kunhi: When did you leave the party?
Vasu: In 1981.
Kunhi: You did not associate with the Naxal movement after that?
Kunhi: Did you associate with any other communist party after that?
Vasu: Do we have any other communist party?
Kunhi: You are not considering the mainstream Marxist parties as a communist?
Vasu: I left them because of their problems. I cannot accept their approach to electoral politics. They are still part of electoral politics. How could I go back to them? If I go back, what principles do I have?
Kunhi: You left the mainstream parties because of their lack of interest in revolution. You left the Naxal movement because of their wrong approach. What is your understanding of revolution?
Vasu: I believe what Maoists do today in other parts of India is correct. What they started to accept in the last ten or fifteen years is what I was talking about for the last 35 years. I argued many years back that caste is the biggest problem in India. They also argue today that the Brahminical system is the key problem of India. When I raised the caste issue, both Naxalites and communists called me a casteist.
Kunhi: What you are suggesting is that our communist parties failed in understanding the difference between caste and class. Is that correct?
Vasu: Yes, they failed to make the difference. I was talking about this problem for the last 35 years. Now many others also talking about the same. For the last 35 years, they humiliated me for my attempt to bring this issue to the forefront of the discussion. When they changed the leadership of the Chinese communist party, I told my comrades that it was sabotage. I was in jail, mostly in solitary confinement, in those days. When I said this, my comrades thought I went mad because of solitary confinement. Similarly, when I started supporting the thesis of Ambedkar, they humiliated me. I argued that we cannot implement communist ideologies in India without accepting what Ambedkar said. For them, it was like accepting Ambedkar as something better than Marx, Lenin, and Mao. They cannot accept Ambedkar as better than Marx or Mao. But the truth is, Ambedkar is the one who understood the Indian condition better than Marx, Mao or any other communist leaders. I know that Marx is the greatest thinker in the world. But as far as the Indian condition is concerned, Ambedkar's thoughts are more valid. Therefore, we need a communist ideology that incorporates the thoughts of Ambedkar. Every Indian communist should learn about the thoughts of Ambedkar.
Kunhi: Can I clarify something? Did Ambedkar address the problem of class?
Vasu: He is the one who addressed the real class-related questions in India. No one addressed it in a better way than Ambedkar. In India, class means castes.
Kunhi: Are you suggesting that we should treat both caste and class as the same in the Indian context?
Vasu: In India, both caste and class are the same. Ram Manohar Lohia argued that the caste is solidified class and the class is liquefied caste. That means both are the same. In India, caste is evolved during a process of transformation of the forces of production. It emerged as part of the process of utilizing the tools of production in society. In the past, caste was part of the production relations. Production happens as different parts. In terms of that, different castes have emerged.
Kunhi: Can we see it as completely similar to a class, especially when we consider the existence of numerous sub-castes in India?
Vasu: Why not? For example, the artisans of Kerala are divided into Ashari, Moosari, Thattan, Kollan etc. and they all are subcastes of a caste. They are all part of the production process. While Ashari does woodwork, Kollan work with iron and Thattan work with precious metals like gold and silver. What happens between them is a division of labour. What is a class then?
Kunhi: What you are suggesting is that we cannot build a communist system in India without addressing caste. Is that correct?
Vasu: Yes. The primary agenda of the communist movement must be the elimination of the caste system. We cannot work for materialising the communist ideas of equality and democracy without eradicating caste. If we have to eliminate the system, we have to learn the factors which drive the functioning of castes in India. Most of the members of the communist party have no understanding of the meaning of ideology. Even the majority of the Naxalites have no such understanding. They don’t know the meaning of ideology. If Marxism is an ideology, what Ambedkar talking about is also an ideology. We are all part of the Brahminical ideology. That is the reason why we call ourselves Hindu or associate ourselves with a caste. This ideology is based on the Hindu concept of God. It is this concept of God that facilitates the existence of caste. The caste rules are based on what is written in Smritis and other religious texts. In essence, if we have to work for the elimination of caste, we have to work against Brahminical Gods. That is why Ambedkar said that as long you remain loyal to the Gods of Brahmins, Brahmins will rule you.
Kunhi: I have doubts about the ‘rationality’ in Ambedkar’s approach. Because he became a follower of Buddhism, after leaving the Hindu religion. What is your approach in this regard? I mean when you ask people to abandon their Brahminical Gods, you have to give them back something. For Ambedkar, it was Budhism. You are a communist, and I believe you cannot accept any God.
Vasu: Yes. A communist can’t give people a God. But Ambedkar can. In fact, there is no God or caste in Buddhism. The real problem is not selecting Buddhism. It is that Ambedkar believed in bourgeois democracy. He started something but did not complete that. We have to develop from Ambedkar's thoughts. I did not say that we have to follow Ambedkar completely. What I argue is that as long as caste remains a problem, communists in India cannot ignore what Ambedkar suggested. We can work for a communist system, only by recognizing the importance of Ambedkar thoughts.
Kunhi: Feminism is another movement that addresses the question of exploitation. Some radical communists are part of the feminist movement in Kerala. What is your take on that?
Vasu: I’m not familiar with the movement. But what I think is that they also follow the same mistake of Indian communists. They also trying to implement a European ideology without considering social conditions in India. In India, the problem of women is almost similar to the problem of Dalits and other lower-caste communities. Their oppression is based on a particular ideology. The feminists of India would not talk about that. They will go to the temple in the morning to pray and they will talk about equality, oppression, exploitation for the rest of the day. They do not understand what the real source of all these things is. As the enemy is invisible, they think it is male. Who is the one who started patriarchy in India? They cannot accept that patriarchy is an ideology. They cannot accept that Brahminism is the prime source of patriarchy in India. They are telling stories by reading texts written by European feminists.
Kunhi: What do you think about the future of the communist movement in India? Will it ever emerge as a powerful movement?
Vasu: Can I ask a counter-question? Do you think Brahminism, Corporatism and the Indian feudal system have reached a peaceful stage?
Vasu: Then the other question has no importance.
Kunhi: What was the approach of your family when you were part of the radical movement?
Vasu: As I mentioned earlier, my family suffered a lot because of poverty. When I first bought a few comrades to my home for hiding, my mother did not sleep for three days. But she managed to get three meals for them every day. Most of the time she served them without saving anything for herself. My father was a Congress supporter but he never criticized my approach. My parents were not educated, but they were aware that communists are trying to eradicate poverty.
Kunhi: Do you have any regrets about the failure of the movement?
Vasu: Such failure is so common throughout history. I have no regrets. Progressive organizations can’t achieve overnight success. After our action in Thirunelli and Thrissilery, Jenmies of Wayand stopped auctioning slaves from the Vallyoorkkav temple festival. Adivasis started getting money wages. In the past, these Jenmies gave them only 2 ser rice as wage for a day’s work. These are the Jenmies who fought to overthrow the first communist administration in Kerala. But they could not resist the change when Naxalites started their actions. Many of them did not attempt to save their land when land reform was implemented, as they feared the Naxalites would attack. Like these, there were many hidden results. The class war happened throughout history. Some classes will win, others will perish. The history of human civilization is like that. Interpreting history in this way is historical rationality. All those against this are just historical ideas.
Kunhi: As you mentioned land reform, how successful was land reform in Kerala?
Vasu: It was like throwing a rock in a pond to remove mosses.
Kunhi: A complete failure? Ok. Thank you so your time.
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.