Venu discusses his family background, the social issues that influenced him, and his ideological views and activities as a radical communist. While he argues that such radical efforts were necessary in the past, he notes that communism is fundamentally incompatible with democratic politics.
Born in 1945 into a Nair family with a feudal background, Venu begins by sharing how his family lost their ancestral wealth due to his father’s financial mismanagement, forcing him to grow up in poverty. While they did not starve, they experienced very modest prosperity, living off the income from land his mother inherited. His brother, who had been with the Congress Party during colonial rule, moved to the Communist Party of India (CPI) after India gained independence. As such, many in his family became communist sympathizers. Venu himself recalls arguing for atheism with his classmates in primary school, but is unable to explain where that influence originated.
Venu was successful in school, and eventually pursued higher education. While he resonated more with the CPI during his high school days, his brother was affiliated with its splinter group, the CPI (Marxist) [CPI-M] party. He graduated as the valedictorian of his undergraduate course at Christ College, but earned the ire of the administration when his speech denounced the clergy-administrators’ pursuit of wealth, departing from the social reformism espoused by Christianity. He then pursued his Masters’ degree in Calicut, after which he became involved in the youth wing of the CPI-M, from 1968. At this time, he began writing periodicals for leftist publications, which were well-received, and was later asked to translate foreign writings into Malayalam. However, he opposed the violent radical methods of the Naxalite group, and made speeches against their acts of “terrorism”, particularly, the attacks on police stations.
Yet later, in late 1969 he would change his views, finding that the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) [CPI-ML] party had a more authentic vision of communist ideology. He was giving lectures on rationalist thought at various venues, and published his first book in May 1970, shortly after the assassination of Naxal leader Varghese. He initially considered starting his own publication instead of joining the Naxalite movement, but lacked the manpower support. Torn between two dreams of wanting to realize the communist revolution in India, and of an academic career as a scientist, Venu eventually decided to quit his PhD in endocrinology to focus on his political activism.
In late 1970, as the heavily-decentralized Naxalite movement began building an alliance with the CPI-ML, Venu contacted some members who had evaded imprisonment; and became the mediator between the CPI-ML leadership and the disparate Naxalite units. He eventually met CPI-ML leader Chart Majumdar and organized a meeting to centralize the command and control of the Naxalite organization. This emboldened the radical activists, who carried out major attacks in the following weeks, uninstructed. Venu was arrested for his suspected involvement in these attacks, though he did not order them.
He served over 4 years in prison, and did not seek bail under Party policy to disregard the “bourgeois courts.” While in prison, he authored a document criticizing the anarchist approach of the Naxalite movement, calling for centralized control as advocated by Lenin. Venus writings were smuggled out to Naxalite members with the help of friendly wardens. Upon his release in 1975, he returned to the local Naxal unit that had been reorganized according to his suggestions. As National Emergency was declared shortly after, they operated largely in secret. They then organized an attack on the Kayanna Police Station in 1976, which Venu led. He was again arrested and imprisoned until 1979. When a new arrest warrant was issued after one of his previous cases were retired, Venu went into hiding.
He got married in 1981, while in hiding, in accordance with party policy that he himself had proposed: that members could only marry fellow proletarians, who had to be from lower caste communities, within a small age gap between partners. During his time in hiding, Naxalite activists conducted a public trial of a corrupt doctor. While this initially garnered public support, Venu worried about the violence spiraling out of control, and the potential for it to be abused, by summarily trailing innocent individuals. The mainstream communist parties also opposed the growing popularity of the Naxalites, and even attacked the Naxalites’ street theater performances. However, Venu insisted on not retaliating with aggression, which was unpopular, but won them public support.
Yet again by 1987, Venu and his peers began to accept electoral politics and the democratic process. After the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, his faction supported the student uprising; and he left the movement in 1990. In retrospect, while he feels those radical methods were necessary at the time, he sees communist ideology as fundamentally incompatible with democracy and has renounced his previous political affiliations, which he expresses in his later writings.
th April 2019
Kunhi: My study is focused on the social experience of the Cold War in India. It is multifaceted research. On one side, I’m analyzing the social context which led to the emergence of the radical communist movement in India. On the other side, I’m assessing the impact of such movements on the lives of downtrodden communities. You were part of the movement and are one of the most knowledgeable people on the radical communist interventions in Kerala society. Shall we begin with a small introduction to your family?
Venu: I was born in a family that has a traditional feudal background. However, by the time was born, my family status declined to the level of the lower middle class. Our family survived with an income from the land that my mother inherited. My father was broke, as he squandered everything he received from his family with some imprudent habits. It is because of him we that fell into poverty. Our life was miserable because of various financial problems, though we did not starve. We had no privileges of middle-class life. This was the situation in my house when I was a primary school student.
Kunhi: What was the political position of your family during these years?
Venu: My elder brother was socially active. He associated with the Congress party during the time of India’s independence struggles. After independence, he was with the communist party. Therefore, there was a communist background in my family. Most of the members of my family, including my mother, were communist sympathisers. I don’t know why, but I remember arguing with my friends about the non-existence of God while I was in primary school. I don’t know the source of influence that shaped such ideas in my mind. Essentially, I was a rationalist from my early childhood and I became a strong proponent of rationalism while I reached secondary school.
Kunhi: Where did you study?
Venu: For the primary level I studied in Pullut Government High School, Kodungallur. Then I studied at Kodungallur Boys High School. After completing school, I joined Christ College, Irinjalakkuda, to do a BSc in Zoology. The well-known poet Schidandan was my senior in college. He was also one of my first cousins. Because of his presence as my elder brother, I was a peaceful good boy in college. And I became the topper in my department. Therefore, because of my good boy image, they invited me to give the valedictory speech in my final days in college. Unlike their expectations, my speech at the event was very controversial. In the speech, I revealed that I didn’t get the thing that I expected from there, from a Christ college. I told them that I joined Christ college with my idea of a revolutionary Jesus Christ. But what I saw in the college was a group of priests who sought nothing but maximum luxury in their lives. As the speech had reversed the management’s views of me, I did not try to continue in the same college for MSc, even though a seat was reserved for me as a BSc top rank holder. I joined Malabar Christian College, Calicut, for MSc. My brother was running a spare parts shop in Calicut during those days. It was in those days, the Naxalbari incident had happened in West Bengal and the Naxalites in Kerala had started their activities.
Kunhi: Was it from the Malabar Christian College that you started associating with the radical communist outfits?
Venu: No. I did not associate with the radical outfits when the Naxalbari incident happened. The radical leaders like Kunnikkal Narayanan and Ajitha had organized a campaign against the Marxist party in the context of the Naxalbari incident. But I was not interested in their politics during those days. I was a sympathizer of the Communist Party of India when I was in Kodungallur, because of leaders like V K Rajan. But my brother was a Communist Party of India (Marxist) sympathizer, the new party formed in 1964. Because of him, I was getting more attracted to the ideas of CPI(M) when I was in Calicut. This is the reason why I was not interested in the politics of Naxalites like Ajitha.
Kunhi: Did you associate with the CPI(M) in that period?
Venu: I returned to Kodungallur in 1968, after completing my MSc. In those days I did associate with the youth organization of CPI(M). I did make some speeches at their events, on subjects like terrorism and the right-wing turn of communists. I was an emerging writer by this time. I started writing in periodicals when I was a student at Malabar Christian college. My earliest writing was for Anweshanam magazine which was published from Madras city for serious readers. Moreover, I was associated with some rationalist groupings in those days. I was working on an article series criticizing Hindu philosophy based on Bhagvat Gita. I challenged the concept of life and mind in Hindu philosophy and asserted a modern scientific view on these subjects. I wrote this work in 20 chapters while doing my MSc. My first choice for publishing this article series was Mathrubhumi magazine. But they refused to publish it. Therefore, I sent them to the CPI’s Janayugam magazine. It was a very popular magazine then. With this publication, I started getting public attention. Many called me to give lectures. In my lectures, I tried to summarise the history from the beginning of the universe to the formation of communism. There were many rationalist platforms in Kerala during those days and they often organized days-long camps and debates. Knowing me through such activities, Deshabhimani editor P Govinda Pillai invited me to Trivandrum. He asked me to translate some books to Malayalam for Deshabhimani. As I was a sympathiser of the communist party, he had no other concerns. In 1969, when Deshbhimani started its weekly magazine, they asked me to be a member of its editorial board. It required membership in the communist party. Therefore, I declined the offer. I was a sympathizer, but I did not want to be a party member. I did start to question some of the approaches of the mainstream parties by this time, though I was against radical activism. In those days somehow I ended up in a group that included filmmakers like K P Kumaran. It was from that group I began to learn about the activities of the Naxalite movement in Kerala. I got copies of Liberation magazine which was secretly published from Kolkatta by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI (M-L). I learned through this group that the approach of CPI-ML was more correct than other communist parties.
Kunhi: It happened in 1969?
Venu: Yes. 1969-70 period.
Kunhi: What was your approach when the Thalassery-Pulpally incident happened?
Venu: In 1968, I was totally against their approach. I problematized their approach through my speeches on terrorism.
Kunhi: What was the general social attitude towards radical politics in those days?
Venu: Though there was some sympathy towards their revolutionary approach, in general society was against violence. They did not get the support they expected.
Kunhi: Ok. What happened after your new realization?
Venu: I stopped associating with the mainstream communist parties. I started working on a book, based on the article series that I already published in Janayugam. After every lecture on rationalism, I received suggestions that I should make it a book. That’s why I wrote Prapanjavum Manushyanum (Men and Nature), a book that completely focused on the scientific explanation of life and nature. The first edition of the book was published in May 1970. It was during the time comrade Varghese was murdered by the police. It happened in February 1970. Even then, I was not fully prepared to join the Naxal movement. I wanted to start an independent magazine, similar to the Frontier magazine published in Kolkata. Many people associated with me were highly interested in such a magazine in Malayalam. However, as they all were busy with their jobs, no one had time to spend on the work of a magazine. I was the only unemployed person in the group. I desired to become a scientist. And I was doing my research in endocrinology by registering for a PhD at Mar Ivanios Collge, Trivandrum. I did this research for almost six months. I was also associated with another project. I worked as a part-time sub-editor for Vishwa VujnanaKosham, the first encyclopedia in Malayalam. In those days, my mind was fluctuating between two dreams. On the one side, I wanted to be a scientist, and, on the other side, I wanted to be a revolutionary. I couldn’t make a decision. I lived like this for one and a half years. In the end, I decided to take the path of revolution.
Kunhi: Ok. How did your family respond in that context?
Venu: My mother was alive. I have seven siblings. I’m the youngest one. They did not accept what I was doing. But I was not at home. I was in Trivandrum. One of my brothers and his family was there with our mother in our home in Kodungallur. In those days, my mother was mentally disturbed. I don’t know how much my political activities affected my mother’s condition.
Kunhi: Ok. Did you join CPI-ML after deciding to take the path of revolution?
Venu: I had no relationship with CPI-ML of Charu Majumdar. All those Naxalites of Kerala, like Kunnikkal Narayanan and Ajitha, had no relationship with the CPI-ML. In the past, Kunnikkal once tried to associate with them. But he had some ideological differences with the approach of Charu Majumdar. Therefore, he walked out of the coordination meeting with CPI-ML. However, many Naxalites in Kerala, including Varghese, were not aware of this development. Later, when he learnt the truth, Varghese contacted Charu Majumdar. He sent some comrades to meet Charu Majumdar. After this meeting, they officially aligned with the CPI-ML and formed a party unit in Kannur. Soon after this development, Varghese was murdered by the Police.
Kunhi: Kunnikkal and his team were in prison in those days, right?
Venu: Yes. They were in prison. Some of their associates like Vellaththuval Stephen was not in prison. I wanted to join with those who associated with CPI-ML at the national level, not with any isolated fraction of Naxalites in Kerala. I contacted some of them who connected me with the official unit and I became a mediator between the Kolkata wing and the Kerala unit. They used my address to secretly deliver copies of the banned magazine Liberation to Kerala. I brought all these materials to comrades in Kannur. Those comrades were not proficient in English. Therefore, they asked me to go to Kolkata. I told them that I can’t become anything more than a messenger. Anyway, I finally travelled to Kolkata and met Charu Majumdar. In this meeting, I explained to him the condition of Naxalite politics in Kerala, that they are largely dispersed groups with no central command. He asked me to call a meeting and unite them. When I returned I informed the Kannur unit of the directions given by Majumdar. Following this, we called a meeting in Trivandrum.
Kunhi: What was the year of all these development?
Venu: It happened in November 1970. Many dispersed Naxalites like Vellaththuval Stephen attended the meeting that we called. Two weeks after this meeting, one of the largest Naxalite attacks happened in some parts of the Trivandrum district. I had no direct link to these incidents. But the police arrested me the very next day, because of this meeting. They came to know about my trip to Kolkata and my role in organizing the meeting. My arrest was based on some conspiracy charges. They had no solid evidence against me. Anybody could have bailed me out with no difficulty. Even my brother came to get bail for me. But our official policy was that we will not accept the bourgeois court of India. Therefore, we decided not to try for bail. I spent four years and a few months in jail, as an under-trial prisoner. After the trial, the court set me free, as there was no evidence against me.
Kunhi: How old were you in this period?
Venu: I went to jail when 24 years old and got released when I was 29. I came out of prison in 1975 January. The infamous National Emergency was declared about six months after my release. While I was in jail, I prepared a document arguing for the need to organize the Naxal movement along Leninist principles. I criticized the approach of Charu Majumdar. It encouraged terrorist activities by dispersed groups. His idea was that even if police captured one group, they should not get from them all the secret information about the entire organization. With this approach, each group worked in their own different ways. This was an anarchic approach. The document I prepared from prison in 1972, challenged such an approach. In my early prison days, they did not allow me to write. Then I started a hunger strike demanding them to allow me to continue my writing activities. They accepted my demand after my 21-day long hunger strike.
Kunhi: Didn’t they check the content of your writings?
Venu: Yes, they did. I had to keep them in secret. We influenced some jail wardens and smuggled them out of prison. These writings reached some new members of the organization in Kodungallur. They started reorganising the unit as we suggested. Thus, when the court set me free in 1975, there was a small active unit of the organization. However, while I was trying to restart revolutionary activities through this unit, the government declared National Emergency. Our activities were largely in secret. Therefore, we had nothing to worry about when they declared the emergency. In the past, the Naxal movement followed two approaches. On one side, Charu Majumdar argued that the bourgeoise-feudal system should be the target of the Naxalite attack. On the other side, the early Naxalites of Kerala, like Kunnikkal Narayanan, targeted only the ruling class. However, in practice, they only attacked police stations. During the time of the National Emergency, we accepted that we had to target both the feudal system and the ruling establishment. Following this, we planned some events. The famous Kayanna police station attack happened in this context. It happened in February 1976. We attacked the station and stole two rifles from there.
Kunhi: You were directly involved in this attack, right?
Venu: Yes. I was the leader of that squad. The police arrested me on 20th June 1976.
Kunhi: How long did you spend in prison following this incident?
Venu: Almost three years. They withdrew the National Emergency in 1977. But there were many cases against us. Naxalites organized many such actions during the National Emergency. I was the state secretary of the organization in those days. Therefore, they charged me in several cases, with conspiracy charges. All the state committee members were charged with ten or more cases.
Kunhi: By this time, it was a fully organized communist party?
Venu. Yes, CPI (M-L).
Kunhi: The CPI-ML that we have today is anyhow related to this organization.
Venu: There were many groups. Every group claimed that they are the authentic CPI-ML.
Kunhi: Ok. You went to jail after the attack. Then what happened?
Venu: We were in jail till July 1979. It took some more time after the National Emergency to settle our cases.
Kunhi: What was the approach of your family when you went to jail?
Venu: I was not married then. My mother was alive. My brother also became a sympathizer of our approach by this time. There was no major problem in the family because of my arrest and jail term.
Kunhi: Many believed that revolution was possible in those days, right?
Venu: Yes, that is correct.
Kunhi: There was confusion among the public regarding the difference between the Chinese model of communism and the Soviet model, right?
Venu: We accepted the approach of the Chinese communist party. Mao called the Soviet Union a social-imperialist in 1968, in the context of Soviet interventions in Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union transformed into a different version of capitalism. We were closely watching the Chinese communist party. By the time of Mao’s death, we were certain that a new leadership with a pro-capitalist attitude is emerging in China. We realized that the pro-capitalist fraction will emerge powerfully in China, especially with ascent of Den Xiaoping to power. It became true in the later years.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about your activities after your release in 1979?
Venu: After the release, they took one of my cases for retrial in late 1979. In this context, police issued a new arrest warrant against me. But I didn’t let them arrest me this time. I went into hiding, for almost four years. It was totally unnecessary, as I could have attempted for bail. Police hunts for Naxalites were not so strong in this period. But we did continue our activities undercover. It was during these hiding days, my marriage happened.
Kunhi: The party was following its revolutionary activities, right?
Venu: Yes, we were. But we did largely abandon violent activities by this time. We were following populist revolutionary methods. It was in this context our famous public trial happened in Kozhikode. The target was an infamous corrupt doctor in Kozhikode Medical College. A small team of our activists arrived in the hospital one morning and took him to a public place near the medical college. They forced him to wear a garland of slippers and asked him to confess his crime. He confessed in front of a couple of hundred people who gathered there to see the event. The event got serious media attention. Even the Chief Justice of India appreciated our attempt against such corrupt bureaucrats. Many agreed that Naxalites should do such kinds of activities to control the corruption of public officials. But we had to stop such public trials, as it could lead to unintended results. The mainstream Marxist party did not like our approach and they strongly campaigned against public trials. In this context, we were worried that the situation would go out of control if anybody took any violent action during such a trial, or if anybody trials innocent people because of this policy.
Kunhi: When did it happen?
Venu: In 1981, while I was in hiding.
Kunhi: At this time, how was the public approach towards Naxalites?
Venu: We were doing many social activities in those days. It was largely a fight against corruption and the corrupt system. Because of these activities, Naxalites gained massive public support in those days. It lasted only three to four years.
Kunhi: Can you tell me a little more about your marriage? Considering the official no-marriage policy of Naxalites.
Venu: Yes. It was a policy when the party was focused on terrorist activities. When we changed our policy and started using populist method for our activities, we abandoned such policies. I was the one who initiated this change. I suggested some conditions for marriage. I was 35 years old by then. My first condition was about the age difference. I suggested that there should not be more than three to four years of age difference between partners. The second condition was that the partner should be from a lower caste community. I’m of Nair background, I wanted someone who is from a lower caste. The third was that the partner should be a member of the working class. These are the suggestions I presented to our comrades.
Kunhi: Who did you marry?
Venu: I married a working-class woman, with no formal education. I have two kids.
Kunhi: How did the social acceptance of Naxalites affect the mainstream communist party?
Venu: It was a challenge for them. Many of their members left the party to join the Naxal movement. Many people accepted that we were the real revolutionaries. It was a major problem for them. Therefore, they tried to attack us in many ways. When we started the policy of public trials, they tried to destroy its credibility. Similarly, they tried to intervene in our other activities. For example, we were the ones who introduced street drama in Kerala. Some of our dramas were very popular. When we held such performances, the mainstream party supporters would come and attack our activists and performers. In the 1981-83 period, the Marxist party supporters attacked us in at least 500 to 600 venues. My direction at that time to our activists was not to counterattack against the Marxist party. Some of them criticised my approach by calling me a Gandhian. If that was not the policy, at least two hundred murders would have happened. About 2000 people died in Kolkata in the 1979-80 period due to fights between the Naxalites and Marxist party members. I didn’t want such a thing to happen in Kerala. Many comrades did not like our peaceful approach. They wanted to us retaliate against anybody who used violence against us. But in the end, the no-violence policy helped us significantly. It helped us to gain public support.
Kunhi: What was your approach towards electoral politics during that period?
Venu: In 1987, we accepted the idea of electoral politics. By this time, many internal fractions emerged within the Naxalite movement.
Kunhi: Why did you leave the movement? It happened in the 1990s, right?
Venu: I left the party in 1991. It was not because of the problems in the Naxalite movement. I realized by this time that the ideology of communism itself is a problem. I realized that communism is not democratic. My approach towards communist ideology changed in 1989, in the context of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In the context of the event, we passed a motion in support of the rebellion in our party meeting. Following this, in our central committee meeting, I presented some problems with communist ideology and requested a six-month leave from the party activities for a study. They allowed the leave. In this period I prepared a document titled On Proletarian Democracy. The document was in English. Then we had an international level coordination committee of about 30 Maoist parties. I submitted the document to this forum for discussion.
Kunhi: It happened in 1990, right?
Venu: yes, 1989-90 period. The major point of my thesis was that the Leninist understanding of party organization is essentially undemocratic. Because of that, I argued, communism with Leninist ideas can never be democratic. I suggested that there should be a democratic communist party, a party that could accommodate democratic values. I did not abandon communism. I wanted to make it a real democratic party. A year later, in 1991, I realized that the communist parties can never be democratic. Therefore, I resigned from the party. I wrote a book based on my thesis On Proletarian Democracy. I published the book in 1992. I was still a little bit communist even when I wrote this book. Recently I published another book. In this work, I totally abandoned communism.
Kunhi: How do you assess your activities in those days?
Venu: Many asked me this question. I have never seen those activities as a problem or something bad. Because the situation demanded such activities. No one with social commitment could have ignored the importance of such a radical movement in that context. I know many who regretted not joining the movement in those days. I corrected myself whenever I had such realizations.
Kunhi: Can you accept the radical politics of the present?
Venu: No. Now my approach is totally democratic.
Kunhi: Ok. Thank you so much.
How have Venu’s views been shaped by his social, economic, and educational background?
What does Venus movement across various groups in the Communist movement in India suggest about the nature of India’s Cold War?
How does the change in Venu’s views and actions across his political career illustrate his agency in navigating the Cold War? How does that challenge the traditional historiography of the Cold War?