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HVK Archives: A war over history

A war over history - The Indian Express

P. Venugopal ()
28 November 1997

Title: A war over history
Author: P. Venugopal
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: November 28, 1997

As the nation celebrates the 50th year of Independence. historians and intellectuals in Kerala are debating whether some of the popular uprisings in the State were part of the freedom struggle.

The controversy over two historic armed struggles m northern Kerala-the Moppila rebellion of 1921 and the Kayyur revolt of 1941-had hardly died down when the Punnapra-Vayalar struggle became the core of the debate. While the Communists interpret the Moppila and Kayyur rebellions as part of the freedom struggle, anti-Communists see them as agrarian struggles resulted from conflicts between the oppressed peasantry and the feudal landlords. They say the struggles had nothing to with the movement which won In
ia political freedom. The controversy over the Kayyur revolt acquired a new dimension recently when M.V. Raghavan, who was expelled from the CPM, challenged Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar to prove his oftrepeated claim that he was an accused in the Kayyur case.

Newspaper columns are now enlivened by a heated, and sometimes acrimonious, debate over another armed uprising in central Kerala-the Punnapra-Vayalar struggle of 1946. In terms of its role in changing the course of the political destiny of Kerala, Punnapra-Vayalar is the biggest struggle of its kind. Unofficial estimates put the number of casualties on both sides in the armed confrontation between the army of Sir C.P Ramaswami Iyer, the then Diwan of the erstwhile Travancore State, and Communist revolutio
aries in Punnapra and Vayalar at around a thousand.

What brought Punnapra-Vayalar once again into the limelight was the re-

cent initiative of the CPM-led Government m Kerala, using the good offices of CPI leader and Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta, to secure the Central freedom fighters' pension for the Punnapra-Vayalar agitators. In fact, the Congress government had turned down a similar recommendation made by the State Government in 1989, but the renewed request got ready acceptance from the Communist minister in the Gujral Government.

While Indrajit Gupta's gesture has warmed the hearts of his comrades in Kerala, it has infuriated parties such as the Congress and the BJP, as well as historians and intellectuals on the other side of the political spectrum.

The ongoing intellectual war over the true historical worth of Punnapra-Vayalar revolves mainly around three questions: Was it part of the freedom movement or merely a violent manifestation of the peasant-landlord conflict? What were the real motives of the Communist leadership in leading the agitation? Did the leadership err in giving proper direction to the emotionally surcharged cadres?

CPM patriarch E.M.S. Namboothiripad is very categorical in his assertion that Punnapra-Vayalar was a movement to establish 'democratic rule' in Travancore and to free the rural masses from the clutches of the gentry "The fact that land redistribution was the crux of the Punnapra-Vayalar rebellion has proved the Marxist-Leninist dictum that an agricultural revolution contains the essence of socio-economic components found in the struggle for freedom and democracy," he said. "The upheaval was not a sudden
purt of the people's ire against the Government but part of the struggle of the working class against the British Government and feudalism."

Disputing Namboothiripad's contention, historian Prof. A Sreedhara Menon said Punnapra-Vayalar was essentially a movement against the social and economic hardships imposed upon the peasantry by the landlords. mainly the Nairs and Christians, and the argument that the revolt led to the merger of former Travancore with the Indian Union is far-fetched.

"At the time of the uprising, there was no move for an independent Travancore. It was only later that the then Diwan, Sir C.P Ramaswami Iyer, brought out the idea of an independent Travancore. Later, even the Diwan was not convinced about the feasibility of his own idea and decided for the merger after a meeting with Sardar Patel and Nehru in Delhi in June 1947. Therefore, the merger of Travancore with the Indian Union would have come about even if the Punnapra-Vayalar movement had not taken place," he s
id.

Menon held all the three parties involved in the uprising responsible for its occurrence and disastrous consequence-the Diwan for being under the illusion that he could wipe out the Communist Party at Punnapra-Vayalar, the Communist leadership for instigating the cadre to brave the might of the armed forces and miscalculating the consequences and the party cadre for misreading the ground reality.

Incidence, there are two political heavyweights who hail from the battleground of Vayalar-Congress Working Committee member A.K. Antony and KPCC president Vayalar Ravi. Being active Congress leaders, both have chosen to go along with the official stand of their party which is critical; of the role of the Communist leadership in the struggle.

Antony is very guarded in his reaction to the controversy. He said: "It's true that I lived three furlongs away from the scene of police firing in Vayalar. But one cannot overlook the fact that there are different interpretations to many aspects of the struggle. The Congress is opposed to the fine of armed struggle advocated by the Communists. Even some Communists now confess that their Calcutta thesis and its offshoot the Punnapra-Vayalar struggle, were wrong. Nevertheless, it was the Congress-supported
Government under the leadership of C. Achutha Menon which granted State Government pension to the warriors of Punnapra-Vayalar and tried sincerely to secure Central pension also for them."

Ravi dismissed Namboothiripad's contention that India got Independence because of the Punnapra-Vayalar and Telengana agitations as an instance of the "Communist tradition of distorting history". He recalled that the agitators, throughout their struggle, had not even raised any slogans against British imperialism.

Echoing similar sentiments, historian M.G.S. Narayanan said that by instigating the cadres at Punnapra-Vayalar, the Communist leadership wanted either to capture power or to create martyrs by resorting to an armed uprising. "Instigating the cadres to face the bullets was an act of cruelty since all the leaders escape from the scene after hatching the conspiracy to attack the police camp."

Narayanan said the Communists never cared to publish the real statistics on the uprising. The families of the victim were not helped either. In fact, this feeling is shared by many family members of the victims of the uprising. "I do believe that the freedom movement is not something aimed at political freedom alone, but the freedom of the people from social and economic exploitation. As such, Punnapra-Vayalar was indeed part of the freedom movement.

But I'm deeply pained by the fact that the Communist leadership or the successive Governments led by them did not bother to collect authentic statistics about those who actually embraced martyrdom at Punnapra-Vayalar.

It's now too late to collect the statistics as most of those associated with the uprising are dead and gone," bemoaned M.P. Prakasam, whose house at Vayalar was the last meeting ground of the revolutionaries before the fateful day.


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