Abstract: N. Sasidharan’s “The Punnapra-Vayalar Revolt and the Freedom Movement” is a comprehensive article about the events that lead to the famous Punnapra-Vayalar Revolt. He quotes extensively from the official records, and declares that the Revolt “was the outcome of the general strike of 1938”. It places the general strike, the Revolt and the leaders of the time in an unusual perspective, and depicts this illustrious chapter in the history of Kerala as a sort of well-scripted drama that deserves closer scrutiny.
Keywords: social and political radicalism, working class struggle, trade union, secular politics, Civil Equality movement, Non-Cooperation Movement, Abstention Movement, Coir Factory Worker’s Association, feudal suppression, Non-Agro Labourers, Factories Act, Trade Union Act, Agro-Labour Union
The revolt which erupted during the ten days (22 Oct 1946 to 31 Oct. 1946) that shook the political history of Travancore through a general strike by the A.T.T.U.C. (All Travancore Trade Union Congress) is called the ‘Punnapra-Vayalar Revolt. There a spontaneous unrest of the agro-labourers and industrial workers was sponsored by the local Communist Party which culminated into the revolt. About it Robin Jeffrey writes:
Indian working classes, to be sure have conducted long bitter strikes,
and peasants have sustained revolts in the countryside. But only once,
it appears, have workers in an industry, fashioned weapons, set up
armed enclaves and fought the military in pitched, if one sided, battles.
The event, named for two of the places involved, was led by the C.P.I.
in October 1946 in the princely state of Travancore, southern part of
what is today the state of Kerala.
Two views prevail about the ‘Punnapra-Vayalar Revolt’ and the ‘Freedom Movement’ – the communist view and the non-communist view. To the communists, it was the finest flowering of the working class against the exploitative forces of the establishment. It is regarded as part of the freedom movement in the sense that it was against the Dewan rule (despotism, and for the establishment of responsible government, based on adult suffrage). There was a move on the part of Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer – here after Sir C.P. to declare the state of Travancore a sovereign despotic state after the British departure. The anti-communists think that the ignorant and innocent workers involved in the revolt were misled by the C.P.I. in directing the workers to use arecanut staves against machine guns, culminating in massacre. Since the revolt was never endorsed by the ‘Travancore State Congress’, they refuse to regard it as part of the freedom movement.
This article looks at the Punnapra-Vayalar revolt from a different angle, based on the primary data connected to the evolution of social and political radicalism in Travancore from 1921. The primary sources used are confidential files of the Home Department of the Government of Travancore. Based on them, it can be established that the workers of Ambalapuzha-Sherthala taluks were already politicised and radical in their views. For strikes and other organised actions, they never waited for direction from the leadership. Even before 1946, back in 1938 they had used arecanut staves as a weapon and confronted Police and military.
The main organisation which radically politicised the working class of Ambalapuzha-Sherthallai taluks was the Coir Factory — Worker’s Association that later changed its name to the ‘Coir Factory Workers’ Union’. The government of Travancore was always conscious of the sensitive issues prevailing in this troubled spot. Inside the factory the leaders were activists of the trade union, outside it, they were in the fore front of socio-political movements. The dedicated work of the trade union, Coir Factory Workers’ Association, had taken the workers of Alleppey to the top of literacy, which could produce from among them trade union leaders, political leaders, speakers, writers and even editors of newspapers. To Robin Jeffery; “Travancore was the most literate area of India (68% male literacy in 1941), and one estimate puts the literacy rate of the coir factory workers at 75% in 1930s.
The trade union of the coir factory workers was the first melting pot of secular politics in Travancore. The welding of workers from most castes and religions into militant union was the evidence of growing class awareness. Ezhavas formed 80% of the work force, Christians 8%, Muslims 1%, Nayars 1% and the remaining 1% was formed by other non-caste Hindus 4. The founding secretary of the C.P.I. in Kerala, P. Krishna Pillai, was a coir factory worker. The coir factory was the meeting ground of workers of all castes and religions and these streams merged to form a single class.
The secret police reports down from 1921 reveal that the workers of the Ambalapuzha-Sherthalla taluks were deeply influenced by social and political radicalism. The D.S.P. of Kottayam reported to the Commissioner of Police on 24-5-1921 that very serious disturbances to public peace existed in the taluks of Vaikom and Sherthallai. In the same year the government was very much worried of the Civil Equality movement in Travancore and the Non Cooperation Movement in Cochin and Malabar. The British Resident wanted troop movement to be done to Sherthallai as a precautionary measure. In 1929 the Devaswom Commissioner of Ambalapuzha taluk was very much afraid of the temple entry volunteers forcibly entering temples, as the people of the locality were campaigning against temples. Hence he sought police protection.
In 1930 the government of Travancore sent a detailed report on political activities in the state to the British government. An analysis of the report reveals that 95% of political activists were rooted in social reform movement, and they follow political radicalism and they were from the Ambalapuzha-Sherthallai taluks. 64% of the members of trade union movements believed in class wars and were active in radical politics existed in those taluks. In 1938 the workers of Sherthalla were bold enough to attack a police party consisting of two magistrates. The police fled and were hiding till the arrival of the military rescue party. The military fired at the workers. The leader of the riot (‘the Kanichukulangara riot’) was A.K.Padmanabhan, the secretary of the Kalavancode branch of the labour union.
The coir factory workers took active interest in every progressive political movement of the time. In 1924 when the annual conference of the Association was in session, a message was received of the arrest of the leaders of the Vaikom Sathyagraha. At once the Association dispatched fifty volunteers across the back waters to assist the movement of the Indian Nation congress. When the Temple Entry Movement was taking place, Sahithya Panchananan P.K. Narayana Pillai, a native of Ambalappuzha, at the request of T.K. Madhavan, wrote a book on the temple rituals. It established that every Hindu must have the right of performing every ritual which a brahmin could perform. The Temple Entry League declared forceful entry into all temples managed by the Government. When the Salt Sathyagraha volunteers under the leadership of Ponnara G. Sreedhar went to Payyannur through Alleppey, K.C. Govindan, secretary of the Association welcomed them on behalf of the workers. He even said that if necessity arises, the Association would supply volunteers and money for the Salt Sathyagraha campaign.
In Travancore, the 1932-’36 period witnessed the Abstention Movement. The coir workers too actively participated in it. Their favourite leader was C. C.Kesavan. In the United Political Congress, there were moderates and radicals. C. Kesavan was the leader of the radicals. The support base of radicalism was the west-coastland. In 1933 he said, “Workers are 80% of the society. To improve their condition, leaders must arise from among them. Specific group of workers should have their own trade unions”. He was arrested on June 7, 1935 at Alleppey. There he gave the call, “My colleagues are to realise their birth rights through steady and fearless efforts, not through conciliation “. On September 25, 1937 Kesavan was released from jail. He was given a heroic reception by the Young Men’s Association of Sherthalla. There, a printed felicitation was presented to him which was drafted by the then Secretary of the Coir Factory Worker’s Association, R. Sugathan. It reads, “We started our life under the egalitarian flag of Sree Narayana Guru. We grew in proximity of the great poet Kumaran Asan, we studied agitational politics from T.K. Madhavan. We are taught humanism by K. Ayyappan, we want to transform Kerala into a land of justice. For that we have rallied on the battlefield, unarmed and impartial. Here the majority are workers, they work hard to make the country prosperous. Still out of starvation they sob. The workers who build multi-storied buildings sleep in dirty slums and under the shades of trees. They too wish to live like human beings. You are like Napoleon Bonaparte returned from Elba, your leadership will take us to the destination”. The revolutionary leaders like C.G. Sadasivan, K.C. Kumara Panikkar, Cheerappanchira Karunakara Panikkar etc., were ardent admirers of C. Kesavan. In 1946 C. Kesavan strongly supported the necessity of the general strike, and was even prepared to take up its leadership which culminated in the Punnapra – Vayalar revolt .
On March 31, 1922 the coir workers of Alleppey were organised by the head worker, Moopan, in the Empire Coir Works, Vadappuram P.K. Bava (1885– 1969) . Bava summoned the first meeting of the coir workers on March 31, 1922 on the open ground of Aalummottil Channar. The meeting was presided over by P.S. Muhammed. The organisation was named, ‘Labour Union’. It elected Dr. Antony as its President and Palpu Asan as its Secretary. Its second meeting was held in April; there the by-law of the organisation was made. In its third meeting in July, the name of the union was changed to ‘The Travancore Coir Factory Labour Association’. The first strike of the Association was in 1922 for ; (1) To reduce the working time from 12 hours to 10 hours and, (2) Payment of wages at every week end. The four hundred strong workers under the leadership of P.K. Bava conducted picketing in front of the Derasmail factory. When the European factory owner was blocked entry, he threatened Bava with his gun. With no fear Bava asked him to fire. There was a steady increase in the number of factories. In 1941 the number of coir factory workers was 32000 while that of cottage industry rose to 1,33,000. The coir industry of AlleppeySherthallai extending from Aroor to Vandanam had a distinct role of spreading the proletarian culture in the society, during the 1920s and 1930s. As small factories spread, a larger number of people were exposed to proletarian life of factory conditions. Men drifted into Alleppey for a few months or years, then drifted back to their villages and were displaced by others. To Robin Jeffrey:
The coir industry was thus distinct; large factories shading off into
rudimentary country workshops and finally into the huts of thousands
of people which produced coir Yarns.
In fact the coir factory workers were moving back and forth between their villages and factories. Thus larger sections of people were exposed to the ideas of class struggle. By carrying the idea of class wars into the countryside, the coir workers created around themselves a sympathetic rural buffer which could become a source of support at all times of crisis. The Coir Worker’s Association was instrumental in organising the rural poor, who were still living under feudal suppression, into various class based unions such as, Agro Labourers’ Union, Fishermen’s Union, Coconut Tree Climbers’ Union, Boat Rowers’ Union, Plantation Workers’ Union’ etc. The official newspaper of Workers’ Association, ‘Thozhilali’ had wide circulation among the working class.
The agro-labourers of Kuttanad learned the primary lessons of agitational politics from T.K. Madhavan, the General Secretary of the S.N.D.P. Yogam in 1929. Under his direction the agro-labourers of Kainakari launched an indefinite strike, when a landlord named Kalapurakkal Kochuthomman manhandled forty women workers. In the same year the Lime shell workers of Kumarakom and Kuttamangalam were organised to form co-operative societies of the workers by T.K.Madhavan, to terminate the exploitative monopoly of one P.Kuncheria of Pulinkunnu. Since 1938 the S.N.D.P. Yogam withdrew from active politics and became less interested in the problems of labour. The gap created was filled by C.S.P. leadership from Malabar. In 1939 A.K. Gopalan and A.V. Kunjambu directed the leaders of the Coir Factory Workers Union, V.S. Achuthanandan, S.K. Das, M.T. Chandrasenan, N.S.P. Panikkar, C.K. Kesavan and R.Thankappan, to organise the agro-labourers of Kuttanad. Even then V.S.Achuthanandan was noted for his simplicity, dedication and deep reading. The first meeting was held at Pallathuruthi on 8th December 1939. The 1939– ‘45 period witnessed widespread famine and epidemics throughout Kuttanad. There was scarcity of food hence the landlords stopped payment in paddy. The starving women agitated for : wages in paddy, rise of wage and noon interval. The agitations spread throughout Kuttanad. Violence of landlords was retaliated in the same coin. Though the government and the police adopted suppressive measures, most of the agitations ended in victory of the agro-labourers. From 1920’s the awakening of women can be seen in the west-coastland. Narayana Guru was giving special attention to the education of women. With the Brotherhood Movement of Sahodaran Ayyappan, women together with men, actively participated in its programmes like ‘inter-dining’. Coir factory workers had a women wing. Gomathy Dev was one of its leaders. In the later thirties, when labour got representation in the Legislative Assembly, the two representatives were, P.N. Krishna Pillai and Smt. K.Ponnamma. The present founder leader of the J.S.S. Party K.R. Gouri Amma hails from Sherthalla with the tradition of awakened womanhood. During the course of the 1946 revolt, the women marched against the ration shops with brooms in their raised hands, when low quality rice was distributed. There were incidents of starving women protecting the underground political leaders.
In January 1934, the second labour strike broke out in Alleppey. After striking work, the workers conducted a procession through the streets. In 1935 the association decided to conduct a march upto Trivandrum to represent their long standing grievances to the Maharaja. The government issued prohibitive orders and arrested the trade union leaders. Without any call from the leaders; the entire workers struck work and conducted demonstration. The 12th annual meeting of the Association was held on May 22, 1938. There the Association adopted red flag with sickle and hammer as emblem. The red flag was hoisted for the first time, by V.K. Velayudhan otherwise called ‘Stalin of Alleppey’. He was then the General Secretary of the S.N.D.P. Yogam. On July 24, 1938 the Association was renamed, ‘The Travancore Coir Factory Workers’ Union.
The Coir Factory Workers’ Association (Union) was generating a new culture in the ‘Ambalapuzha – Sherthalla – Vaikom’ taluks. At first, it was essentially based on the philosophy of humanism of Sree Narayana Guru. Hence it had a social reform background which radically reacted against feudal traditions. Secondly, it vitally reacted to the political developments at national and regional levels ie., the politics of the Indian National Congress and the Travancore State Congress. Thirdly, it developed a strong trade union sense throughout the west-coastland from Cochin to Kollam. Fourthly, from 1938, since the withdrawal of the S.N.D.P. Yogam from active politics, the vacuum was filled by the C.S.P. and later the C.P.I leadership.
The year 1938 was crucial in the agitational politics of Travancore – both for the State Congress and for the coir workers of Alleppey. On August 26, 1938 the Congress decided to start agitation against the government for responsible government based on adult suffrage and freedom of press. As part of the August agitation, the Congress decided that the labour leaders V.K. Velayudhan and R. Sugathan should violate prohibition and lead the State Congress agitation in Alleppey. The agitators shouted, “We will secure responsible government by force”, “State Congress zindabad”, “Inquilab zindabad”. They also declared:
Even if all our economic demands are sanctioned, we will not stop the strike if responsible government based on adult suffrage is not given.
At the same time, when the Congress leader Akkamma Cherian marched against the state military at Trivandrum, 25 red volunteers were despatched from Alleppey by the Coir Workers’ Association as her vanguard. When the labour leaders were arrested on October 7, with the coir factory workers numbering 50,000, the motorboat workers numbering 2000 and the country boat workers numbering 5000 also struck work. On October 19, the coir workers decided to strike work from October 23, onwards, presenting 30 demands. Apart from trade union interests it included the demands of the State Congress also. Accordingly, 50,000 coir factory workers in the 30 mile long coir belt from Aroor to Vandanam struck work on October 23, 1938. The striking workers in procession met at the beach. At the head of the procession marched 5000 strong red volunteers. By the time, there were unauthorised transport of goods from some factories. When the picketing started police lathi charge and subsequently military firing took place. Two men were killed and many were wounded. On the next day demonstrations and picketing continued. The red volunteers armed with arecanut staves confronted the military. In the firing five workers were killed and several wounded. Military destroyed the red volunteer camp at Sherthalla. At Kalavancode, the local people joined with the workers and demolished a culvert and erected barricade on the high way.
The C.S.P. Central Committee met at Trichur and decided to take control of the strike. The C.P.I. Central Committee member S.V. Ghate was specially invited to give guidance to the political strike. Disguised as a vegetable seller, P. Krishna Pillai worked as the mastermind of the strike. Other C.S.P. leaders A.K. Gopalan, K.K. Warrier and others were also present. From Malabar, A.K.G. led to Alleppey a march of supporters. From Trivandrum, 250 Youth Leaguers reached Alleppey to support the strike. Thus Alleppey became the ‘melting pot’ of the revolutionaries from north and south.
The strike lasted for 25 days. It resulted in the complete paralysis of water transport, commerce and industry. Though the government adopted severe oppressive measures to suppress the strike, it came out with a package of long standing benefits to the workers. V.K. Velayudhan and R. Sugathan took initiative for a negotiated settlement which the majority of the striking workers disliked. They assembled in front of the house of V.K. Velayudhan and ridiculed him and R. Sugathan. The settlement promised 6.25% of wage rise and a promise not to cutdown wages in future. The government agreed to constitute a high level committee, the George Committee, to enquire into the conditions of coir industry and its workers. Of the five member committee, two were to be labour representatives. As agreed, the government enacted Factories Act, The Trade Union Act, and The Dispute Act. in Alleppey an Industrial Relations committee was constituted. The long standing demands of the workers to abolish arbitrary fines, uniform wage and modern labour laws were realised. Wage was to be paid weekly and the account regarding it was to be shown to the worker.
During the strike for three weeks there was reign of terror by police and military in Alleppey. The coir factory workers who strongly supported the political agitations of the Congress, naturally expected help and support from the Congress. But its leaders like Pattom Thanu Pillai and T.M. Varghese helped only to create dissension among the workers. To mobilise State Congress forces against the workers, the government unconditionally released all Congressmen in jails. In 1946, when the workers decided to agitate against the ‘American Model’ reform of Sir C.P., the very same process of 1938 was repeated, which culminated in the ‘Punnapra-Vayalar revolt’. Analysing the 1938 strike, Robin Jeffrey observes:
The strike challenged a system not just an employer. Further the strike
brought home to all of Kerala that the coir workers were a force in
future to be recknoed with.
The Punnapra – Vayalar revolt of 1946 is taken to be a continuation of the strike of 1938. Except a few factors, almost all factors responsible for the 1938 agitation existed in 1946 which culminated in the Punnapra – Vayalar revolt. The new factors which existed in 1946 also that precipitated the revolt can be grouped into four – (1) post-war poverty, (2) formation of armed camps, (3) confused and inactive C.P.I. leadership at the regional and national level compared to the 1938 leadership and, (4) the American model constitution reform of Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer.
At first, the post-Second World War condition brought about large scale starvation, epidemics and deaths in the Sherthalla taluk. It was mainly due to the prevalence of feudal land holding in a socially changed system. While in other parts of Travancore, 2/3 of land belonged to the state and settlement was done directly with tenants, Sherthalla taluk was a gift of the Raja of Cochin to the Maharaja of Travancore and its feudal holdings remained undisturbed. Landlords believed that the body of the tenant was their property. There was no minimum wage nor minimum hours of work, the landlords even enjoyed the first night right. While landlords were sticking to old beliefs, the outlook of the farmers had fundamentally changed due to the clarion call of the social reform movement and due to the growth of trade unionism. With the emergence of proletarian culture, the worker became bold enough to resist the landlord. It was under this condition that starvation deaths happened in 1942– 43. In the Sherthalla taluk alone 20,000 people died of starvation. In 1946 again, when there was inflation and scarcity of getting rice, the trade unions struck work for 3 days from August 7, 1946. The strike was a success, the government assured standard meals at low price. Through the Coir Factory Workers Union, 5000 such meals were distributed.
In the Punnapra village, apart from a few land owning families, church was also a landlord. They owned fishing boats and nets. If eleven workers went for fishing in a boat, of the total fish catch, half had to be given to the land lord. From the other half, a portion had to be given to the soul of the dead landlord, to the church and the temple. The rest was to be equally shared among the eleven workers. The fish catch had to be sold to the landlord at his price. Starvation and slavery formed part of the life of the workers. Under this condition, workers were taught the lessons of self respect by the trade union movement, organised by V.I. Simon and V.K. Karunakaran at the direction of the Coir Factory Workers’ Union in 1942. It brought under control the entire fishermen of the Ambalapuzha taluk. The Agro-Labour Union, Toddy Tappers’ Union, Coconut Tree Climbers Union etc. had also spread to Punnapra. Against the trade unions, the landlords maintained rowdies with the support of police. In 1946, when a worker, Kuttappan demanded the price of his fish catch, the landlord filed a false case against him and he was arrested. The Fishermen Workers’ Union with the support of the Coir Workers Union, conducted an armed march to the police station and got the arrested men released. The jubilant workers set fire to the godowns of the landlord. On October 17, against the organised might of the workers, a police camp was opened at Punnapra in the house of Aplon Arouge. Since police suppression against the workers to satisfy the landlords was sure, the workers left their houses and started living in camps at Paravur, Vadakkal, Vattayal, Punnapra, Vandanam and Kalarkode, south of Alleppey. In the camp volunteers were given military training and political education.
The newly formed agro-labour unions demanded wages in kind, since there was steep rise of food price. For wage rise and the issue of wage in kind, strikes broke out. False cases were registered against members of the unions. Some landlords refused to give the traditional practice of theerpukatta. Dispute on it was wide spread in the Kuttanad region. Such an incident took place at Kanjikuzhi near Sherthalla. There, workers forcibly entered into the house of the landlord and took the kattas. Against them false cases were framed of stealing and looting. There were complaints of distribution of low quality rice containing stones and worms through ration shops. Infuriated women led by R. Sugathan marched to ration shops with brooms in their hands. On seeing the march, the shop owner ran away.
The organised strength of the workers infuriated the landlords. Paid rowdies were let loose on the workers. Instead of taking action against the law breakers, the police aided the criminals to suppress the workers. The poor worker could not move alone. Hence they started moving in groups. The workers organised themselves and prepared to pay back in the same coin. There were frequent clashes between workers and the rowdies of landlords. Raman, the notorious gang leader of Sivarama Panikkar was beaten by the workers and, on the third day he died. On October 15 more than 70 military men camped at Ponnamveli. The District Superintendent of Police, Vaidyanatha Iyer, presided over a meeting of landlords. As decided, at 7 o’clock, 600 paid rowdies conducted a violent march. On the 16th seven truck full of soldiers reached the place. The landlords with their rowdies moved in a procession and at the front and rear moved military trucks with soldiers carrying pointed guns. With the support of police and military, the landlords and their rowdies were establishing a reign of terror in Sherthalla. Three military camps were set up. In these camps workers were kidnapped and tortured. To quote K.C. George:
The camps which were formed by the people were systematised by the party expecting confrontation with the government. Necessary organisational and political activities were arranged. The control of the camp was with the trade council. The trade councils were controlled by the action committee. Besides the six camps in Punnapra there were nine camps in Sherthalla, Olathala, Vayalar, Vayalar north, Varakkad, Kalavankodam, Menasseri, Muhamma, Mararikulam and Kattoor. There were a total of 2378 volunteers in all the camps. The inflow was restricted due to lack of food”.
The general strike which was scheduled to be held on October 22, ultimately led to the Punnapra – Vayalar revolt. Preparations for the strike started two months earlier. Volunteers were given training by ex-service men. Camps were organised at several places. Since workers were getting food and protection, the entire working class of the locality with their family lived day and night within the camps. For protection they made arecanut staves. In the 1938 strike also, this weapon was used. It was sharpened at the house of ‘Kummadi Madhavan’. It was eighteen feet long so that it could be used effectively against bayonet charge.
The general strike on October 22 (Thulam 5), was to the police and military, the occasion to suppress the workers. The workers expected it and decided to retaliate. The tense situation in the ‘Ambalapuzha – Sherthallai’ taluks was deeply influenced by the general political condition of Travancore. About it ,the radical state congress leader C.Kesavan states:
“In my view, our country has never witnessed in her history, such an epoch making time, though full of sufferings. Everywhere, dark images of starvation exist. Cry for rice, cloth, kerosene and sugar can be heard all over. The government is employing its machinery to meet it. The ban on processions has been extended throughout Travancore. Meetings and strikes are prohibited. The army and reserve police are alerted. If we want the freedom struggle for which we have fought since 1938 to reach the final goal, we should not keep silent now. All prohibitive orders should be withdrawn and all political prisoners should be called back. The army that patrol the streets of our towns should be called back. We should get all the freedom of a free people. All parties, all patriots and freedom lovers should unite and agitate. It is my humble request to my fellow workers and countrymen”.
Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer wanted Travancore to remain a sovereign state after the departure of the English. To materialise it, he drafted an American model constitution and announced it in January 1946. The Congress leader Pattom was willing to try the new proposal of Sir C.P., but the radical leaders, C. Kesavan, Kumbalam and the left parties, C.P.I. and K.S.P. totally rejected it. In August 1946, the Alleppey workers struck work against inflation and scarcity. The government declared the strike as a national threat. The All Travancore Trade Union Congress (A.T.T.U.C.) met on September 4 at Kollam and sent a deputation of N. Sreekantan Nayar, T.V. Thomas and Kannamthodathu Janardhanan Nayar, to request the government to stop suppression of labourers. On September 9, the A.T.T.U.C met in Alleppey and decided to confront the aggressive move of the government by a general strike on September 15, which was a complete success. On September 24, 85 delegates of 55 trade unions met at Alleppey. The special invitees were P.T. Punnoose, the Secretary of the Travancore Communist Party and C. Kesavan, the radical leader of the State Congress. On 7 and 8 October 1946 the government summoned a tripartriti conference of workers, capitalists and the government. The Dewan presided over the meeting. There he announced 4% bonus to workers as deferred wage and other benefits. On the next day, 9 October, T.V. Thomas and N. Sreekantan Nayar met the Devan at his residence. There he wanted to know the response of the leaders about the American model constitution reform. When they said that the working class stood for responsible democratic government, the displeased Dewan threatened them by stating that, they must understand that they were speaking to a person commanding a police force of 8000 and an army of 4000. The meeting was a failure.
The next day C. Kesavan was arrested. The A.T.T.U.C met on October 9 at Alleppey, formed an Action Council to decide the date of the strike and elected T.V. Thomas as its convener. On 19, the date of the general strike was announced, as October 22. The strike projected 28 demands, which included political demands like; responsible government based on adult suffrage, withdrawal of the American model constitution, abolition of monarchy and the Dewan rule’.
The Punnapra – Vayalar revolt was the out come of the general strike declared by the A.T.T.U.C. To conduct it, there was an Action Council. It consisted of the activists of the Communist Party. To get the support of the top level leaders of the Party, K.V. Pathrose rushed to Calicut. On October 11 discussion were held with E.M.S. Namboodiripad, P. Krishna Pillai and K.C.George. George was sent to Bombay to consult the party General Secretary P.C.Joshi, but Joshi was in Calcutta. By telephone, he directed George to consult Dr. Adhikari. About it George writes:
”…the issue involving an inevitable confrontation with military, put
Dr.Adhikari in a difficult position, still he had to accept the decision of
the party committee of Travancore”.
On October 17 George arrived back at Calicut. He was assigned the
duty of going to Alleppey as the representative of the Party Committee
of Travancore. About the revolt the top C.P.I. leader of the time,
M.N. Govindan Nayar writes: “… with leaders of the agitation, I had
no contact. I did not know where they were… only later I got contact
with S. Kumaran, C.G.Sadasivan and S. Damodaran… . “
About the Punnapra-Vayalar revolt, E.M.S. Namboodiripad the then Central Committee member of the C.P.I. writes:
”The most mass based anti – independent Travancore movement’ was
given leadership by the trade unions of the Party. The share of
political leadership the Party had till then, within the left movement, it
lost due to its approach to the ‘August agitation’ and to the divisive
activities of the Muslim League. But with the origin of the ‘anti-
independent Travancore movement’, the party got the opportunity to
On 23 rd the Action Council met and decided to attack the Police Camp at Punnapra and to confiscate rifles. In the confrontation, about 30 workers were killed. Four policemen were also killed. Nine rifles were captured. On 25 October at Mararikulam, Muhamma and Sherthalla mobs blocked roads, cut culverts and bridges and telephone lines. The bridge at Mararikulam on the high way was brought down. On October 26, nine people were killed there. On 25 th martial law was declared. On 27th at noon time, the military attacked the Vayalar camp and fifty men were killed. On the same day, the Menassery camp was attacked 120 people were killed there. In the Olathala camp, eight volunteers were killed. On October 28, at 11 O’clock at night, the Action Council decided to disband all camps and instructed every activist to go underground. On 31 st the general strike was withdrawn by the A.T.T.U.C. On November 12, the martial law was withdrawn.
Regarding the role of the C.P.I. in the Punnapra – Vayalar revolt, E.M.S. Namboodiripad has stated that it was given leadership by the trade union. And that the C.P.I. has greatly benefited from of it. It gave a chance to the C.P.I. to regain its leadership lost due to the August resolution and the support the party gave to the two-nation theory of the Muslim League. Serious students of the working class movement in Alleppey are confused as to why P. Krishna Pillai, A.K.Gopalan and K.K.Warrier who were actively involved in giving leadership to the 1938 agitation took no significant role in leading the Punnapra – Vayalar revolt. He has to search out the answer.
1. Robin Jeffrey, “India’s Working class Revolt : Punnapra – Vayalar and the Communist Conspiracy of 1946”., Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol. XVIII, No.2. 1981, p.99.
2. M.T. Chandrasenan, Punnapra – Vayalar, Glowing Chapters, Kottayam : D.C. Books, 1991, p.113.
3.Robin Jeffrey, “Class status and Growth of Radical Politics”. 1978, p.138.
4. Nilkam Perumal, The Truth About Travancore, p.54
5. Robin Jeffrey, “Destroy Capitalism, Growing Solidarity of Alleppey’s Coir Factory Workers”, E.P.W., 21 July 1984, pp.1160-61
6. File No. 551, C.S., Govt of Travancore, 1921
7. File No. 772, 1929.
8. File No. 746, 1930
9. File No. 195-44, 1938
10.File No. 746 11. K. Sreenivasan, C. Kesavan
12. P.K.K. Menon, The History of Freedom Movement in Kerala, pp. 369-76.
13. File No. 1643,1937
14. K.C. George, Punnapra-Vayalar, Trivandrum : Prabhath, 1990, pp.49-52.
15. Remesh Babu, “The First Clarion Call of the Working class”, Kalakaumudi, March2, 1997, pp. 19-21
17. Census of India, Part I & II, Vol.XXV, 1941
18. Robin Jeffrey, ibid.; p. 1160
19. Interview with S.K.Das.
20. Interview with Kunjappi Kochappan, founder member of the Kumarakam Lime Shell Workers’ Cooperative Society’ No.1782
21. M.T. Chandrasenan, op.cit., p. 130
22. N.K. Kamalasanan, The Agro-LabourMovement in Kuttanad, pp. 58-128
23. Puthuppally Raghavan, Comrade Sugathan,p. 258
24. Thomas Isacc, “The Proletarian Supremacy and the Working Class Party: Practical Lessons from Alleppey.”, 1984, p.167
25. Puthppally Raghavan, op.cit., pp.78, 83.
26. C. Narayana Pillai,The Freedom Movement in Travancore, pp. 595-96
27. In 1936 the first unit of the C.S.P. in Travancore was formed in Alleppey, K.N. Datt was its secretary.
Puthupally Raghavan, p. 258
28. On October 15, 1938 in the Alleppey town,the southern regional cell of the C.P.I. was organised by P.KrishnaPillai.
M.T. Chandrasenan, p.23
29. ibid., p.157
30. Travancore Coir Factory Workers’ Union, 8 th Annual report, p.10
31. Puthupally, p.94
32. R.Jeffrey, p.1162
33. M.N.Govindan Nayar, Autobiography, p.207
34. Ibid., pp. 207 –208
35. K.C. George, p.23.
36. Ibid., pp. 104-106.
37. M.T. Chandrasenan, p. 113
38. C. Kesavan, statement, leaflet, “Lovers of Freedom Unite”,16-9-1946
39. K.C. George, pp. 106-107.
40. M.N. Govindan Nayar, pp. 211-12
41. E.M. Sankaran Namboodiripad, The Communist Party in Kerala, Vol.I,p.164.
N. SASIDHARAN. Is Director (Hon.) of Research, Post-Graduate Department and Research Centre of Political Science, Sree Narayana College, Kollam, Kerala. He was the Head of the Post graduate department and Research Centre of Political Science, S.N.college, Kollam from 1993 to 1998.