Interview with Dilip M. Menon and J. Reghu – By Abhish K. Bose
More than hundred years after the beginning of the Communist movement in the country, Asian Lite is reflecting on the incidents and factors that shaped the long journey of the Indian Communist movement with special reference to Kerala.
Asian Lite’s Abhish K. Bose is interacting with two eminent scholars, Prof Dileep M Menon on the history of the Communist movement with special reference to Kerala and J Reghu on the underlying force of caste which influences the communist movement. Dilip M Menon is Professor of History, Department of International Relations and Director, Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of the Witwatersrand. Dilip does research in World Literatures, Cultural History and Cultural Anthropology. His current project is on thinking the historical imagination in South Asia. J Reghu is one of the most prominent and controversial public intellectuals in Kerala. He studied economics at the university and he dropped out of his doctoral program, which was registered under the title “Mercantile Capitalism in Kerala”, to take part in the currents of left politics in the 1980s. Reghu had compiled, edited, and translated the writings of Kosambi when he was studying in the university. During the emergency he was interrogated by the police. He served four prison terms between 1980 – 1983, while being the state secretary of the Revolutionary Students Organisation. He was one of the figures who created a secular intellectual movement in Kerala preceding the demolition of the Babri mosque, with other eminent writers, including M. T. Vasudevan Nair. In the expanded name of Reghu Janardhanan, he is the author of several academic publications in international journals, including French, and he has published on social history of caste, positive political effects of colonial rule from the lower caste point of view. Recently he retired as editor from the Kerala Encyclopedia.
INTERVIEW WITH REGHU JANARDHANAN: Caste oppression is the central question of Indian politics
Abhish K. Bose: The Communist ideology is not a regional ideology, however it has been a regional party in India with its presence only in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. Why did this happen? Now in Indian politics communist parties exist as relevant only in Kerala, where they are still in power. There are scattered presences in other states, but there is no indication of a possibility that these parties can become nationally relevant in anywhere other than Kerala. Can you explain the historical circumstances that led to the formation of the Communist movement, especially in the context of Kerala? Why did the movement begin in 1920?
Reghu: Marxist and Leninist discourse and the news about communist movements were beingclosely watched by many political currents in India. In Kerala and Tamil Nadu it was the lower caste leaders and intellectuals who first found the possibility of activating a communist politics as an emancipatory strategy. How many people would today know that “Sakhavu”, the Malayalam translation for the term “comrade”, was invented by Sahodaran Ayyappan, the leader of the lower castes and the president of SNDP during 1935-1941? It was in a poem written in 1919 saluting the October Socialist Revolution. The poem says,
Perennial servility was it for long,
The land of Russia had it to mourn,
But with glory at the end did it attain,
A model freedom of world renown.
Create here, oh! Comrades (Sakhaakkale), and strive apace,
And dazzle the world with echoing histories.
(Translated from Malayalam by Anil Khan)
But the upper castes could see the danger in a formation of lower castes for emancipation through a Bolshevik like movement which could have destroyed the upper castes dominance over the whole society, with international support. The upper castes who were wealthy, resourceful and had cultural and political clout soon formed their own communist movements in India. Opposed to the lower caste people’s position, that communism in the Indian context was a matter of the destruction of caste based society, the upper castes subverted it through the adoption of a class thesis. Class as an abstract concept had no bearing on Indian society, and it does not have any bearing even now. If you compile a list of the 20 richest men in India will there be a lower caste in it? No. If you consider the biggest corruption scandals of India in recent decades will there a lower caste who amassed extreme wealth? No. So, the adoption of “class theory” was a way to eradicate the anti-caste movements. This is of course a two-pronged strategy, which combines with the invention of Hinduism.
Abhish K. Bose: I had conducted an interview with Prof Divya Dwivedi recently, which became viral and controversial. Prof Dwivedi spoke about the invention of “Hinduism” in 20th century as a strategy to subordinate the lower caste people under the upper castes. Her point was that as long as upper castes controlled this religion, which is almost a state religion, the lower castes as its members could never start a true liberation movement.
Could you say something about this two-pronged strategy?
Reghu: I had written a long essay with Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan in the Caravan Magazine titled “Hindu Hoax”. But for now I will say something from the context of Kerala. British rule had destroyed the basis for the organic concept of family, sexual life, matrilineal order of the Nairs, and their transactional power with the Namboothiris. It challenged the hypophysics of social order through the introduction of modern education, humanist discourses, and the sciences.
Throughout India, the familial and social orders were (and still are) defined by what Dwivedi and Mohan calls “hypophysics” (Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019). The concept of hypophysics is a great analytical instrument and it shows that there are conceptions of nature, man and society which are neither scientific nor metaphysical. According to hypophysics the nature of a thing is identified with its value. When a thing moves away from its own nature, that thing loses value. For example, when Indians see beauty and merit only in fair skin colour. An even better example is the varna system itself. It is a hierarchy based on birth and colour. The people high in the caste ladder have perfection—the Brahmins—and as people come down the ladder they become eventually inhuman, unworthy of touch and even gaze. Hinduism is a modern appropriation of the hypophysics of caste under constitutional norms. This concept of hypophysics is essential to understand and foreground a democratic left politics in India. It was in this context that both “Hinduism” as a religion which is recognised by the state on the one hand, and class theory as an interpretation of society on the other hand, were adopted by the upper caste people in India. They both happened at the same time. Hinduism allowed the upper castes to control the social life of the lower caste people and also represent them before the colonial government. Class theory allowed the upper castes to present Indian social ills in a way that was foreign to India, and therefore ineffective in India. Both the Congress party and the communist parties were united in these moves. This two-prongedmove was very clever!
Abhish K. Bose: But there was a good understanding of India as a caste based oppressive society in the Marxist discourse which came from the west. Did not the upper caste leaders find their erasure of caste oppression for the illusion of “class theory” in conflict with the international left of that time?
Reghu: The upper castes were able to represent Indian society before the colonial administration through Hinduism effectively. The same thing happened with the international “communistoverlords”; that is, the upper castes could become the representatives of Indian left as the vanguard through class theory. Lenin’s colonial thesis of 1919 asserted that communist parties in all colonies must support ‘bourgeosie-democratic liberation’ movements. But M.N. Roy who participated in the second congress of the Communist international, was of the view that there are different groups of ‘bourgeosie democratic movements’ and alliances could be built only on the basis of their class nature. He argued that the Indian National Congress, though a bourgeois democratic movement, could not be trusted because he apprehended that it would at some point be co-opted by the imperialists camp. On the basis of Roy’s criticism, Lenin’s original term of ‘bourgeois-democratic liberation movement’ was reframed as ‘revolutionary movements of liberation’. No matter how much they differed, both Lenin and Roy had never enquired into the indigenous natureof Indian society. They were concerned only with the conflict between imperialism represented by the British and the ‘Colony’. Had Lenin carefully read Marx’s 1853 article on India, he would have changed his colonial thesis.
But you are right about Marx who understood the casteist character of India. In ‘The Future Results of British Rule in India’, Marx portrayed British Rule as beneficial to India. Marx, though critical of colonialism, praised the British for destroying the caste villages… which, ‘had always been the solid foundation of oriental despotism. He went on to say that England had become the ‘unconscious tool of history in bringing about the revolution’. (Karl Marx, The British Rule in India, New York Herald Tribune, June 10, 1853). In this article, quoting an official report of the British house of commons on Indian affairs, Marx observes that we must not forget this undignified, stagnant and vegetative life of caste oppression. We must not forget that these little communities were defined by distinctions of caste and slavery, that they subjugated man to external substances instead of elevating man as the sovereign of circumstances. Marx wrote, “man, the sovereign of nature fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, sabbala, the cow…. Whatever may have been the crimes of England, she was the unconscious tool of bringing about that revolution….” (Karl Marx, ibid)
Abhish K. Bose : What was the relation E. M. S. had with lower caste emancipatory movements? Did anything progressive happen through his encounters with the lower caste movements? How are he and other upper caste Marxist leaders perceived today?
Reghu: Narayana Guru, Dr. Palpu, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy,zzDr. Ambedkar were viewed by E.M.S. as ‘the Sandmen’ who haunted his Brahmin-ness which was camouflaged under the rosy picture of communism. His lifelong ambition and project was to exorcise “the Sand Men” and for him communism was the bewitching invocation. E.M.S. occasionally praised the progressive nature of the lower caste movement, but since the ‘progressiveness’ comes from the bottom filthy layer of the caste hierarchy, it deserves to be ‘purified’ by subduing it to the top. This top position was the pure domain of ‘nationalism and class struggle’, which were led by the upper castes under the “Hindu” and “Communist” banners. In the hierarchy created by E.M.S., nationalist politics becomes paramount not because he believed that politics was the domain of freedom and revolution but precisely because his own brahmin kinsmen and other upper castes happened to be associated with it. That was why he was unapologetic in chastising and disparaging the lower caste leaders for their refusal of the communist rhetorical narrative of anti imperialism as the ‘principal contradiction’.
This thesis of the principal contradiction was presented to trivialize and demonize the anti-caste struggle and the lower cast movements. With the formation of SNDP (Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam) of the Ezhavas in 1903 and SJPS (Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham) of Pulayas in 1907, both untouchable castes, there was a determined refusal by the lower castes “to live in the old way”, which in turn, entailed the inability of the upper castes to maintain the traditional way of life. It was this forced deprivation of the ‘natural right’ to be the oppressors and dehumanizers, had hurled the Nambudiri-Nairs in a state of fear and uncertainty. The previously acquiescent lower castes began to contempt, deride and challenge the upper castes pretense of superiority. This created a situation in which the newly educated Nambudiri-nairs desperately sought for a place, acceptable to the rebellious lower castes. Communism became a panacea to anchor themselves and also to justify themselves.For the founders of Communism in Kerala, their very existence was in a horror.
The presence of the British generated two “spectres’’ for the upper castes, one the attrition of theirown inner life, and, the second the “horror” of the awakening of those hitherto despised as subhumans to the self-aware “humans”. Their questions and rebellions started to tear down the ‘dharmic domain’ of the upper caste privilege and power. For the upper castes, this was extremely melancholic and made them to find solace behind the mask of communism. Dr. Palpu, Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and Sahodaran Ayyappan were the lower caste adventurers who had undergone the perturbing but enlightening experience of being exposed to new ideas and values. They dared not to “wish for the easier life of ignorance” imposed and institutionalized by the Nambudiri–Nair leeches. (Jim Josefson, Political philosophy. In the Moment. Narratives of freedom from Plato to Arendt, Routledge, New York, 2019, p.11) What impacted the Nambudiri-Nairs during the British rule was that they were no longer able to perpetuate the “wish for the easier life of ignorance”. The upper castes’ unfettered authority to deny the lower castes the fundamental human right ‘to live in freedom and dignity’, their customary power to exploit the labour of the lower castes and humiliate them had been undermined. The British rule was a fatal blow on the Nambudiri-Nair self, built on arrogance, exploitation and barbarism. What was solid like a rock for many, many centuries began to melt away. This was, to use a phrase of Milan Kundera, “the unbearable lightness of being” (by lightness Kundera means insignificant, wispy or evanacent). In the early decades of 20th century, the Nambudiri-Nairs were thrown into such an “unbearable lightness of being”.
Abhish K. Bose : Why did Dr. Ambedkar never trust Indian communist?
Reghu: Dr. Ambedkar had a theoretical and pragmatic understanding of what was taking place in India in the name of “communism” led by the upper caste people. He already made it clear that – “The governing class in India is a Brahmin–Bania combine”, and not a vague bourgeoisie. He scorns it, but in India surprisingly the ‘supercilious brahmins’ are found to have been preaching the ideals of Marx with red flags in their hands which are already stained with the bloodspots of the helpless producer classes called Sudras…. It is surprising that Indian ‘popes’ have actually come down to revolt against the ‘popedom’ trying to be revolutionaries (cited in, Swapan K. Biswas, Nine Decades of Marxism in the land of Brahminism, Other books, Calicut, Kerala 2008, p.22) Ambedkar observes, “the brahminical communists have always been well aware of the class-cum-caste status and the role they were to play in it…. Therefore, they invented a suitable terminology to tackle the challenge of their anti-Marxist caste bias. Indian Marxist had fancifully invented a term, “de-classing” and always use to refer to the term “De- classed”. They used the term to refer to the governing caste members who wanted to follow and preach Marxism…” (S.K. Biswas, ibid, pp. 43-45) That is, just as “Hinduism” was a tool for the upper castes to hide their oppressor status before modern constitutional set-ups, “de-class” and “communism” were another tool for them to hide their oppressor position in society. So, for Ambedkar both “Hinduism ” and “Marxism” were new instruments of oppression which were also simultaneously able to hide the long history of oppression.
Abhish K. Bose: Do the Communist parties have a future in India? And is there any meaning in saying that somebody is in the left and somebody else is in the right in politics in India now?
Reghu: I don’t think that the existing ‘communist’ parties have any future in India, because they are communist only in name; it is therefore a meaningless label. At the same time we should not hesitate to say an emphatic ‘No’ to the right wing and liberal dream, that the ‘left’/right political distinction has been buried deep. With all the rhetoric of right wing and the ascendency of rightist ghosts in certain countries, the question of the political distinction has become all the more urgent and important. It should be remembered that left and right were not rigid, absolute things. What is left at one place and in one period may be right in another place and time. At the same time, there is no in between or midway between the left and right spectrums of political life and according to Norberto Bobbio, ‘nothing in politics can be both left and right at the same time” (N. Bobbio, The Left and Right: The significance of a political distinction, University of Chicago press, 1996. ibid, P.X.)Bobbio adamantly defends the left/right political distinction, because, according to him, “the left tends towards equality and the right tends towards inequality. Bobbio distances himself from the liberal discourse of ‘inclusion/exclusion’ because it is only peripheral.
It is true that inclusion/exclusion paradigm sometimes welcome immigrants, grant them citizen rights, stop discrimination on the basis of foreign origin. But for, Bobbio, equality is not embedded in inclusion, care, etc, but in Justice and freedom. For Bobbio, justice implies two principles: rule of law and equality (all are entitled to be equal before the law). Equality is the particular instantiation of the absolute, the abstract and the universal, which is Justice. The difference between left and right is in the approach to the question of the degree within which a particular historical and cultural composition deals with the questions of equality and inequality. Massimo Cacciari argues that, “Equality makes diversity possible, makes it possible to count everyone as a person, quite unlike that abstract totalitarian idea of equality which means the elimination of those who are not the same”. (Massimo Caccaiari, ‘Dialoghetto Sulla “Senisters”, Micro Mega, 1993, 4, P.15)Again, from this it is clear that the real left in India are the Dalit-Bahujan majority and those who take the lower caste position in politics in India. Because those are the people who strive for an egalitarian political order.
Abhish K. Bose : Finally, can there be a communist today? Or what is the meaning of being a communist in this time?
Reghu: I think I am communist in my everyday life. I share everything I have and my friends share with me. If a friend comes to town they live with me. In a very Marxist way, people can move as much as possible away from the tyranny of the market through sharing, and also making things. In this way there is a kind of communism in everyday life and I urge everyone to practice. I try my best not to mediate my everyday life with my friends through the market. But it falls short of politics, which is about creating freedom collectively. So communism now is a kind of moral rule.
There is another meaning of being a communist, which I hold to be important for the formation of political movements from the left position. It is to belong to and participate in a community as Jean-Luc Nancy defined it; for him the reality of a human community was the very fact of the human capacity to come together without attributing to this community any particular essence (Nancy, The Inoperative Community, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1991). The community has only one meaning in Nancy’s work, the “being-with” of the people and that is why he called it “inoperative community”. Human beings don’t have any transcendent ends, or super-sensible values to hold on to, which were destroyed by philosophy and the sciences. So we are today “forsaken” from the point of view of transcendent goals. So this kind of community can also be interpreted as a fact of humanity today as “the forsaken community” as Dwivedi and Mohan called it, and you know that Nancy, Stiegler, Dwivedi and Mohan were friends. The point I am making here is something more. You need to first imagine and practice living and thinking together as a community in this way so that you can create political movements for freedom.
INTERVIEW WITH DILIP M MENON ON THE HISTORICAL ASPECTS
Abhish K. Bose: The Mappila rebellion of 1921 has invited much controversy in the state of Kerala. There are narratives that the rebellion is part of the national movement whereas there are other view points to the effect that the uprising was communal. Certain scholars also says that it was a period in which the communal amity of the state was damaged for a brief period. It was also termed by some as a precursor to the Communist mobilization in the state. What are your views on the Mappila rebellion and its historical significance?
Dilip M Menon – The Mappila Rebellion is an interpretation in search of events. In the 19th c the East India Company sought to delegitimise previous Muslim sovereignty; the Mughals in northern and eastern India, and the brief rule of Tipu Sultan along the southwestern coast. The inland Mappilas who had enjoyed a brief period of mobility as military labour and benefited from the rearrangements of land, once again found themselves in a subordinate situation within the agrarian hierarchy. Any sign of protest on their part came to be seen as motivated by their religion, either the end of Muslim rule, or an innate fanaticism. British historiography created a geneaology of fanaticism which allowed for a suppression of any form of dissent. In the late 19th c, the Collector of Malabar, William Logan, a Scotsman and victim of the internal colonialism within the United Kingdom that had dispossessed the Scots, Irish and Welsh, created another narrative. His interpretation moved away from religion to economics and painted a picture of a Mappila tenantry oppressed by a Hindu landlord class.
When the Mappila Rebellion occurred in 1921 (sparked by the Non Cooperation movement and the Khilafat movement against the post war dismantling of the Ottoman state), both religion and economics were on display. There was a third element that surfaced, that of Indian Ocean Islam. For a few hundred years, and preceding the onset of the Portuguese or the British, there had been a traffic of people, ideas and commerce between the Hadramawt in Yemen and South East Asia with Malabar as a mid-point. Many Arab traders and religious specialists had travelled through this arc, sired families and established connections through Islamic theology. The involvement of Syed Fadhl, with his family connections across the ocean, with the agitation, convinced the British authorities that Muslim fanaticism had raised its head again. Meanwhile, the attacks on Hindu landlords arising from the unequal and hierarchical land relations convinced both Hindu nationalists as much as Mahatma Gandhi that there was an element of Muslim communalism involved.
With the rise of socialism from the 1930s and the subsequent organization of peasant movements in Malabar by the Communist Party, a new narrative had to be constructed. EMS Nambudiripad in the 1941 issue of Deshabhimani, the party newspaper wrote about 1921 having been the birth of the peasant movement in Kerala, reviving the argument that Logan had made, but recast in the language of class. This underlay the narrative about peasant radicalism in Malabar and over time 1921 was normalised into a larger historical genealogy of peasant uprisings. With the land reforms of 1959 and programmes of land to the tiller many of the Mappila peasantry found a new stability which allowed them to take advantage of the demand for labour in the middle east following the oil price boom of the 1970s. By the 1980s, many Mappila families had been enriched by remittances and had managed to buy land creating alarm among declining Hindu families.
The Mappila parvenu returning to Malabar and buying ancestral Hindu land became a trope in Malayalam cinema and in literature particularly in the works of MT Vasudevan Nair. This created a new resurgence of communal feeling and going back, among conservative Hindus, to the loss of land and violence in 1921. For Hindu nationalism in Kerala, 1921 has come to be seen as a repressed historical event, and it is not surprising that there is strong support for the BJP in areas like Palakkad where land redistribution in the 60s had hit upper caste Hindu families. The formation of Malappuram district in 1967 as a result of a political understanding between the Muslim League and the CPIM cemented a left narrative of 1921 as a resolution of Mappila agrarian discontent. On the other hand for upper caste Hindu nationalists the connection between 1921 and 1967 as a betrayal of the Hindus became the dominant narrative. So the nature of 1921 remains a contested history.
Abhish K. Bose :Three of the landmark Communist mobilizations in the country is the Telengana struggle, the Punnapra – Vayalar struggle, and the Tebhaga peasant struggle. What is your take on the allegations that the life of innocent peasants were sacrificed without taking adequate preparations at these struggles? What are your views on these two struggles?
Dilip – All three uprisings, Tebhaga and Telengana as uprisings of landless labourers and tenants, and Punnapra Vayalar as a working class revolt in the coir industry were preceded by at least two decades of political mobilization by the communist party. The 1940s were a febrile decade both because of the fallout of the Bengal Famine, the second world war, and economic discontent as well as the lead up to the independence of India, following Quit India and the RIN Mutiny. The religious violence in the northwest and northeast of the Indian subcontinent following the partition of India was another dimension of the unsettled nature of authority in India. Arguably, the moves towards independence and the gradual withdrawal of the colonial state, moving towards a near absence during the events of the Partition, created a sense of anarchy and disequilibrium in India. Meanwhile, following the war and the successful mobilization of peasants by Mao Tse Tung in China against both Japanese invasion and traditional agrarian hierarchies, led to the formation of the Peoples Republic in 1949.
This was a major ideological fillip for the communist party in India, a largely agrarian nation, which allowed for a departure from classic Marxist conceptualisations of industrialisation, the growth of a working class and revolution. After a period of collaboration with the British government during what came to be termed the “war against fascism”, the communist party moved towards the idea of agrarian revolution by the agricultural proletariat. So ideologically as well as in terms of social and historical conjuncture, the time seemed ripe for revolution. In 1948, the communist party threw its weight behind the agricultural proletariat as the vanguard of the revolution emboldened by the upsurges in 1946 in Punnapra Vayalar (which led to the downfall of the autocratic Dewan of Travancore, CP Ramaswamy Aiyar and the merger of the princely state of Travancore with India).
Tebhaga too had shown that sharecroppers were willing to fight for their rights. So when in 1948, when the Nizam of Hyderabad refused to accede to the Indian Union, and the feudal elements supported the demand for succession, the peasants of Telengana were seen as both forces of revolution and integration. However, the nascent Indian state, after the horrors of the partition, and the incursion of insurgents in Kashmir from Pakistan in 1948, was in no mood for negotiation or compromise. The Indian state came down hard on both the Nizam’s supporters as much as the peasantry and established its authority over the new Indian Union. Arguably, it was less a misreading of the agrarian situation and more the determination of the new Indian state to put down all dissent that was the main issue. The brutal repression of the uprising in Telengana was a wakeup call for the ideologues that pragmatism rather than violence was the answer. In 1951, the communist party moved towards parliamentary communism and in the 1952 general elections emerged as the major opposition party in Parliament. It was this that enabled the subsequent success in Kerala and the formation of the first ever elected communist ministry in the world in 1957.
Abhish K. Bose : In Kerala it was said that the Communist movement furthered on the basis of the social platforms provided by the renaissance movements in the state including that of Sree Narayana Guru and other strands of renaissance movements. Could you explain the social and historical circumstances that enabled the growth of Communist party in Kerala?
Dilip – This has been dealt with in detail in my work as well as the historical work of Nissim Mannathukaren, Robin Jeffrey and Chandramohan among others who write in English. The SNDP Yogam, the movements led by Sahodaran Ayyappan and Ayyankali, as much as the Nambudiri reform movement and the efforts of Nair reformers like Mannathu Padmanabhan Nair and Chattampi Swamikal created a sense of the need for equality within a deeply divided caste society. The parallel organisation of the peasantry by the communist party towards equalisation of land ownership attacked the economic base of the caste hierarchy. It was one of the significant features of the communist movement in Kerala that it carried through the programme of caste egalitarianism in its social and economic dimensions and in many sense represented the fulfilment of the unfinished business of the reform movements as much as Indian nationalism.
Abhish K. Bose : How do the Communist parties in the state reconcile caste and class. The Communist mobilization across the world is said to be based on class base and not caste based. However It was often said that the main constituent of the CPIM in Kerala is the Ezhava Community in Travancore and Thiyya in Malabar and dalits. Why these two communities became the CPMs core base. If the Communist mobilization in the state is said to be class based why none of the other communities did not became the dominant members of the Communist parties in the state?
Dilip – Since the communist party built upon a legacy of anti-caste reform, they carried in parallel the agitations against caste hierarchy as much as agrarian class hierarchy. However, there were many political compromises that emerged from its very inception that continue to dog it to this very day. Most of the leadership emerged from the declining rural gentry and were of upper caste origin. This meant that the party was dominated by an upper caste which saw itself as playing an avant garde role in relation to backward castes, Dalits, and tribals. In the 1940s itself conflict had begun to emerge within the party leadership for its exclusion of Tiyyas like CH Kanaran from leadership. EMS had then made the argument that the party leadership was not intended to be a showcase of castes. Again while there had been mobilization of backward castes many groups like Dalits, adivasis and fisherpeople were left in the backwash of political activity. Subsequent movements relating to the environment and the dispossession of tribals as much as the appeal of the Christian church for fisherpeople along the coast, has shown the limitation of the party’s appeal to both caste and class. The loyalty of the Tiyyas and Ezhavas was an inheritance of the earlier movements against caste as also the Congress adoption of prohibition as a matter of Gandhian principle that served to alienate a community that controlled the production of toddy and liquor. Excise duties continue to be a major source of income for the state and Kerala ranks very high in rates of alcoholism in India.
Abhish K. Bose : The land reforms legislation and the education policy undertaken by the Communist party in Kerala in 1957 government of EMS Nampoothiripad is said to have precipitated the liberation struggle. Do you think the two land mark decisions of the Communist government was effectively implemented in the state. There are allegations that the legislations were diluted as a result of stiff opposition. How do you perceive the effectiveness of these two legislations with the impact it created in the Kerala society in the current context?
Dilip – If the communists were not successful, or rather remained uninterested in gaining the support of Dalits and adivasis, one section that remained indifferent, even oppositional to the communists were the Syrian Christians who controlled the plantation sector as well as education. The 1957 government could go only thus far with its reforms on land compromising on the kayal lands and limits to land ceilings on rubber plantations. This was also necessitated by the lack of industry in Kerala, because of the reluctance of capitalists to invest in a state with a strong trade union movement. It was the move to curb the monopoly of Christians on private education that led to the Vimochana Samaram as it came to be called. Both land reforms and attempts to check monopolies in private education had to be curtailed because of Christian opposition and their alliance with the Congress at the centre. The Catholic Church exercises considerable sway over land and education to this day.
Abhish K. Bose : There are allegations that the US intelligence agency ( CIA) funded the Liberation struggle of 1959 against the EMS government. Former US Ambassador to India Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his book ‘ the dangerous place’ alleged that the CIA had given money twice to the Congress party and once through its then president Indira Gandhi for conducting fight against the Communist government of EMS. Later Ellsworth Bunker, who was the US Ambassador to the India during the said period also revealed this. What are your views on these revelations?
Dilip – I know only what I have read and am aware of the CIA’s role in attempting to destabilise communist regimes in Asia and Africa. The CIA funded not only Congress opposition to the communist party but also journals like Quest and Imprint as part of the campaign for cultural freedom as the USA termed it. However, the interference of the CIA was minimal in comparison to its intervention in Indonesia (leading to the large scale massacre of communists) and in countries like Africa (the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in Congo).
Abhish K. Bose : Do you think the liberation struggle strengthened or weakened the Communist parties in the state in the long run ?
Dilip – The liberation struggle created political faultlines that exist till today. Private education is largely controlled by the Christian church and its allies and the alignment of the Christian community remains disposed against the communists.
Abhish K. Bose : Do you think that the coalition politics of Kerala strengthened or weakened the Communist movement of Kerala?
Dilip – Coalition politics has actually strengthened the communist movement in Kerala since it has allowed the ideology of the communist movement both to get dispersed more generally in the public sphere as well as prevented the party from becoming doctrinaire as was the case in Bengal. A large role was played in this by EMS with his pragmatic politics that stood against an alienation of political groups and engaged in innovative political alignments as in the case of the arrangement with the Muslim League.
Abhish K. Bose : Do you think that the peoples planning had strengthened the social base of the Communist party in Kerala. How could the Communist party which is centralised in power could implement decentralisation programme as part of the peoples planning?
Dilip – Here again we must understand the importance of a pragmatic political orientation that allows work with parties of a different political practice, within limits. While the party structure itself is centralised, and decisions are taken by the politburo, there is considerable room for engaging with local opinions and practice. This attempt at establishing roots in the community has been considerably helped by the long tradition of public debate and political literacy which is reflected in the commitment of communities towards concerted action towards grassroots engagement and change. So it is not a contradiction that the party is governed by democratic centralism but it pragmatically devolves local administration to the community.
Abhish K. Bose : Amidst many controversial allegations of corruption the LDF led by the CPIM came to power in the state of Kerala in the last assembly elections for the second consecutive term, which is a rare instance since its beginning. This rare feat has been secured by the LDF by taking an audacious stand in the Sabarimala women entry controversy by aiding the entry of women at the temple. What do you think helped the LDF to retain the state of Kerala when they lost their traditional bastion of West Bengal where they ruled to many years ?
Dilip – The first reason is the absence of a doctrinaire politics (except for a largely patriarchal mindset that has set its face against feminism) that allows for an engagement with other parties and factions. The second is that over the years widespread literacy has created a constituency that is interested in governance and the maintenance of public goods like education and health. The party has made sure that the benefits of these have extended to all classes. The third is the fact that the party has not hesitated to engage in violence to curb political opposition from the Hindu right (as can be seen in the long standing political conflict between the RSS and CPIM cadres in Kannur). This fact alongside the maintenance of political arrangements with other parties has meant that new forces like the BJP have been able to make little headway. Finally, when it comes to the crunch whether developmentally – the handling of crises like floods or Covid – or ideologically – the entry of women into Sabarimala as a democratic good – the party has been able to adopt a strong and consistent stance not giving in to the vagaries of public opinion. The histories of mobilization as much as the levels of political literacy (which have been consistently promoted) have also helped.