K Damodaran: An Unfinished Chapter
K P Sasi is an award winning film director and a political activist. He can be reached at kpsasi36[at]gmail.com.
Once, an ant walked behind an elephant. Those who were walking behind the ant told him: `Your foot prints are very small compared to those of the elephant’.
The social and political journey of my life was similar to that of the ant. Com. Damodaran left large foot prints when he walked – as a Marxian intellectual, as one of the founders of the communist party in Kerala, as powerful orator, as a writer and last but not the least, as a human being. His youngest son, that is me, walked with tiny footprints. Well, it is not my fault that my feet are small.
When I was asked by Mathrubhumi weekly in Malayalam to reflect on the relationship between the two journeys, I was quite happy. If this had happened a few years back, I would not have had the courage to take up such a task. In case this exercise becomes a product of the small vision of an ant with small feet, I request the readers to forgive me considering my disabilities.
For the benefit of the readers, I would focus my reflections on the social contexts of Com. Damodaran and my own contexts. It is difficult to remove the personal side. If some of the readers feel that this is coloured either due to my personal or by my political interests, I would sincerely apologise and describe it as a limitation.
For a long time, I never tried to introduce myself as my father’s son in public. Perhaps, it was out of a complex. Perhaps, it was due to a fear of comparison. Perhaps it was due to an uneasiness of exercising undeserving power and attention to me. Perhaps, it was due to a fierce need to be independent and clear my own path. And perhaps, it could be a combination of all the above.
Hence I shied away from all situations whenever I was introduced as K.Damodaran’s son. Com. K. Damodaran was well known in Kerala as well as a smaller circle at a national level. I considered it socially and politically incorrect to use his credibility for my own growth. I started my professional life as a cartoonist. After leaving `Free Press Journal’ in Bombay , I was about to join a magazine called `Current’. It used to be a tabloid weekly on the format of `Mid Day’. The editor, Mr. Ayub Syed, I knew was an old time communist. I had also known that he respected my father. Ayub Syed used to follow my cartoons which used to come out in the Free Press Journal. Negotiations on the job did not take much time. We were discussing politics after that. During the discussions he noticed my left leanings. He started asking me about my background. The news editor who was sitting with us suddenly mentioned that I came from a communist family background. Curious, he asked for the details. I had to spill out my father’s name. The reaction surprised even the news editor. Ayub Syed jumped up and all his powers appeared to melt. He asked me: `Why didn’t you tell me this before?’ I replied: `I thought you were trying to employ a cartoonist.’ He asked me whether I knew that he was a friend of my father. I replied that I knew. He thought for a while, held my hands and said that he had a lot of respect for me for not using father’s reputation for a job.
Sometime back, an old communist told me that I was ashamed to introduce myself as K. Damodaran’s son. In reality, I was not. I was proud deep inside. But, I could not handle a bundle of expectations out of such an association. Today, I am in a better position. My footprints might have been small. But I do believe that I have left some small footprints behind on my own.
Com. K. Damodaran left deep influences on a large section of Kerala’s civil society. As a young boy, I had opportunities to listen to some of his speeches. I was amazed at his oratory skills. Before starting an oratory explosion he would chew a handful of small onions with sugar crystals ( kalkkandam). This was meant to clear his throat, so that he could speak for a long time. During the initial stages of the communist movement, the leaders would make public speeches for a long time. And the audience was prepared to sit and listen. A few years back, well known film maker K.P. Kumaran mentioned to me that when he was young, he had listened to my father’s public speech of four hours. K.P. Kumaran is older than me. When I was young, I could only listen to his two hour speeches. Today, when we organise meetings as social activists, we tell the speaker to speak no more than ten minutes. There is a remarkable difference between the speakers and audience during the pre-independent India and the post globalised India . The concept of time has changed. I believe, listening to my father, the oratory skills were also different. When he spoke, theoretical notions mixed with observations about the day-to-day social contexts would flow like a gushing river. If anybody compares Com. Damodaran’s public speeches with my oral presentations, they have a right to feel that I am more a cartoon than a cartoonist.
K. Damodaran was like a living Buddha in our large family. Most of his time, he was away with his own pre-occupations of reading and writing, while his physical presence was there with us. He would wake up at 4 0’clock in the morning (a habit he acquired right from his childhood) and by 4.30 he would start his work after brushing his teeth and drinking a cup of tea.
He constructed a house in Trichur with loans after he came back from Rajya Sabha. His writings barely met his needs for his books, forget the loans. He had a large library with extremely rare books. Books occupied more space than the entire family’s requirements. If his conscience asked him whether rice for the family or books were more important, we were sure what he would have chosen. I was a shy child with my own world of cartoons, comics and a bit of music, mainly flute. When the time came to pay my fees at school, I would go to his room and stand there. He would be busy reading or writing. He would look up after some time with a questioning look. I would utter one word: ` Fees’. And I always knew that he did not have the money. He would say: `Tomorrow’. And the next day, he would borrow from somewhere and give me the money. There was very little communication between us. But once in a while, he would surprise us by calling all his children and my mother and say, ` let us discuss’. We would crowd around a bed, and that was certainly some of my happiest moments in life.
I used to feel that most of the early communists in Kerala were more Gandhians in their lifestyle than the Gandhians. They were Gandhians with a Marxist ideology. People like Sharmaji, K.V. Surendranadh and many others fit in very easily to this framework. They could live with limited needs. Apart from tea, cigarettes and books, Com. Damodaran’s personal needs were also extremely limited. All his friends in Delhi told him that he deserved a flat from JNU when he became the deputy director of the Archives of Contemporary History of India , in JNU. They told him to write a letter or meet the registrar, who respected him a lot. But he chose to live in two rooms subletted from the flat of his own private secretary. Before that it was only one room of around 10 x 12 square feet in which five of us lived. There was no kitchen and the toilet was shared by another family. But he paid most of his debts of his life living like that.
He was extremely fond of tea. I can certainly understand that because most of my activist friends were addicted to tea. I do not know the real extent of connection between tea and activism. But I have read somewhere that the French revolution started from a coffee house. In India , during emergency, there used to be a large coffee house in the heart of Connaught Place in Delhi . Any time of the day, you could see hundreds of people standing there and having tea. Activists, journalists, professionals and workers from all states used to visit that coffee house. Till today, I have not seen a larger coffee house in my life. While the press, radio, television and all channels of communication were politically censored by the Indira Gandhi Government at that time, this coffee house publicised everything which did not come out in the press. Thus, information about the Turkman gate issue, Rajan case and a number of atrocities during emergency was disseminated through this coffee house to all states. No wonder, the coffee house was closed down later. The early communists in Kerala may not have used this coffee house for their political communication. But they have used a large number of tea shops throughout Kerala for their political dissemination. During the eighties, I used to meet environmental activists in Kerala who would not consume tea due to environmental principles. When it comes to me, I take many things more than tea.
My father was certainly one of the most civilised persons I have met in my life. He had no need to talk behind the back of anybody. He spoke what he felt directly. He had immense capacities to listen. He rarely lost his temper. And when he lost it, it would take time to regain. With me there were only very few occasions like that. In Delhi , when we were staying in his secretary’s flat, one room was used by my brother and me. The room was filled with his books, of course. Once in a while, he would come to our room to refer his books. As a teenager, I had developed the habit of smoking by then. Once he came suddenly to our room. I hid my cigarette. He noticed my cigarette for the first time in his life. He was boiling with anger. He blasted me for two hours that day. Not for smoking. But for hiding it. He said he was ashamed of having me as a son. All his life, he did what he believed openly. He yelled: `If you don’t have the guts to smoke in front of your father, why do you smoke?’ At this point, my mother intervened.
K. Damodaran started of as a rebel right from his childhood. During his childhood there was an incident, where the head of his family (Karanavar) brought one of his old dalit labourers in front of his house, got him tied to a tree and punished him with beatings. The young Damodaran went to the labourer and tried to release him, much to the shock of everybody. The labourer told him: `whatever is happening between your uncle and me is between us. You don’t have to interfere. After all, if I face any problem in life, he is the only person who would extend support.’ Young Damodaran had to face the consequences of acting against the will of the head of the family. It might have taken him enough time to understand the complexities of feudal exploitation in India . This is also a constant reality all activists face today in relating with the concept of freedom among the oppressed.
Personally, I feel that the biggest contribution to K. Damodaran’s intellectual input was due to his time in jails of the British government. He could read, write, discuss and reflect a lot during his several terms in jail. First time he was arrested in 1937 according to my readings. He says: `What brought about my arrest on this occasion was a speech I made to a conference of Youth leaguers in Trivandrum . I had been asked to preside over the meeting and in my opening speech I mounted a diatribe against imperialism. I attacked British imperialism and the Maharajah of Travancore as embodying the oppression which was being meted out by British imperialism. The right-wing leaders of the State Congress had been saying that the Maharajah was a great man and it was only his local satraps who were to blame and were misleading him. I attacked this absurd concept head-on and utilized the experiences of the French and Russian revolutions, observing that their method of dealing with the monarchy was rather more effective than that of the Congress leaders! I also explained to the meeting the necessity of involving the peasants and workers in the struggle and concluded with the slogan of `Inquilab Zindabad’ (Long Live Revolution) which was joyfully taken up by the whole meeting. That same day, there were anti-imperialist demonstrations and clashes with the police in Trivandrum . The next morning I was naturally arrested, together with the Youth League leaders. We spent two or three months in prison and were then released. From then on prison became a regular part of my existence.’ (Memoirs of an Indian Communist – New Left Review…)
The reasons why I quote Com. Damodaran’s interview taken by Tariq Ali in the New Left Review more often in this article are only two: One, this interview has a lot to do many self reflections for many communists. Two, this is the only proper available reflection of Com. Damodaran on himself and his relationship with the party.
The British government did not know that they were brewing a communist intellectual by putting him in jail. Though Com. Damodaran had to fight and negotiate for his rights to use paper and books in jail, it provided a right atmosphere for his intellectual growth – away from the tensions of running a family. I have heard stories of tension created by the police during underground days, generating enough concern for my mother, her relatives, his mother and his relatives. I can only imagine the tensions my mother might have faced to bring up her children as well as to generate resources to sustain the family while facing hostile situations. But luckily, her own mother and sisters stood by her. Otherwise, I might not have been born. I never shared or witnessed such tense situations of my family. As for his own mother, the jail was certainly better than his underground days. She did not have to worry about the safety of her son.
There is a joke about his constant jail terms. It appears that soon after marriage, he went to jail. He came back after a few years. By that time, there was a child running around in front of our house. That was my eldest brother. My father was happy to spend time with his son. But he went to jail soon after that. When he came back, he found a girl. That was my sister. He was happy again. Well, the production of children went on along with his imprisonment in jail in parallel terms like that. Jokes apart, the real change was with my arrival. He was never imprisoned after that. Because I was born in 1958, just after the communist party forming the government through ballet box for the first time in the world. I came to this world along with the mainstreamisation of the communist movement in Kerala. There were no more underground days for my father. My film maker friend P. Baburaj, son of Com. C. Unniraja, was also born more or less at the same time. According to him several communist leaders produced children at that time, because they were spending their real time with their families in such a situation. We used to count different communist leaders’ children who were born in 1958.
While it was true that the Communist Party of India came to power before I was born, with no more underground or jail terms for my father, it did not mean that it was an end to internal conflicts. One of the conflicts he narrated, it seems, is extremely relevant in today’s context also. Com. Damodaran says:
`An important test for the new government arose a few months after they had been elected. Workers in a factory near Quilon, a town close to the capital city of Trivandrum , went on strike. The union in that factory was under the leadership of the RSP (Revolutionary Socialist Party). The strike was not against the government, but against the employer in that particular factory. It was a typical trade-union struggle. I remember vividly how the situation developed. We were sitting at a meeting of the State Council of the CPI (which consisted of about sixty comrades) when news was brought to us that three workers on strike had been shot dead by the police. We were stunned. Workers had been shot dead by the police while the Communists were in office. The immediate response of all the comrades present was to condemn the firing, institute an immediate enquiry, give compensation to the bereaved families, publicly apologize to the workers on strike and give a public assurance that such a thing would never happen again while we were in government. This was our instinctive class response. But a discussion started which lasted for two hours and at the end of it the decisions taken were completely different to our initial response. In my view the whole business was unjustifiable, but it is necessary to understand the context of the time.
The reactionary groups and parties had started a campaign against us under the demagogic slogan of `Join the Liberation Struggle against Communist Rule’. They had begun to exploit our weaknesses. The movement was spearheaded by the Roman Catholic priests (as you know Kerala has a significant Catholic population) and the Nair communalists. But all those who opposed were to the CPI joined them including the right and left social democrats (the Socialist Party and the RSP) and the movement was beginning to gather mass support. It was in this context that the police firing took place. The logic of the comrades who advocated changing the initial position on the firing went something like this: if we attack the police, there will be a serious decline in their morale; if there is a serious decline in their morale the anti-communist movement will be strengthened; if the anti-communist movement is strengthened our government will be overthrown; if our government is overthrown it will be tremendous blow against the communist movement. The final resolution passed by the party defended the police action. It was then decided that someone must go to the spot to explain our point…….I was asked to go and speak on behalf of the Kerala CP. My response was to refuse and maintain that I had been unable to digest the decision taken by the Council and therefore I could not defend it. I was then formally instructed by the party leadership to go and defend the party. I went. I spoke for about an hour and a half and it was pure demagogy.
I blamed the deaths of the three workers on the irresponsibility of the RSP and asked them to publicly explain why they had led these workers to be shot. I made vicious attacks on the strike leaders. That night when I returned home I really felt sick inside. I could not sleep. I kept thinking that I should have refused to defend the party and I felt that I was going mad. I shouted at my wife. Instead of having shouted and hurled abuse at the party leaders, who had put me in such a situation, I took it out on my wife. The next day I was asked to speak at three different places and make the same speech. This time I refused pointblank and my refusal was accepted.’
The above reflection, I felt, is beyond historical specificity. A large number of comrades have gone through similar experiences. I am sure even after the massacres in Nandigram in West Bengal , several comrades within the party apparatus would have gone through a similar feelings. Prakash Karat and the party leaders in Bengal might have justified the killings in Nandigram because of various logical factors created by themselves for the welfare of the party. But the truth remains that people were not convinced. Even if you mobilise the mass opinion on this, the central questions remain. What was being debated was who and how people were killed or raped. I would like to raise the question, why were they killed? For a chemical hub? The very functioning of a chemical hub can create more disasters than what it has created so far. Secondly, who was bringing the chemical hub? The Salim Group, the right hand industrial empire of Suharto who killed thousands of communists in Indonesia . The daughter of Suharto has been one of the directors of this company. Before Suharto died recently, he made a public apology through his daughter for the mass killings in Indonesia . Prakash Karat and the Bengal leadership should have done that long back instead of defending the incidents with whatever logic. The public accountability of a bourgeois dictator seems to be greater than our communist leadership.
The second question I would like to raise is something that any feminist could raise in this country. The question is: `If you have a problem with the party leadership, why take it out on your wife?’. This question also crosses all historical specificities. It may be common to most communist leaders even today. Otherwise, in a state where the number of women and men are more or less equal would have had similar equal number of women in the leadership of the parties. The history of the communist movement in that sense is a history of wives who willingly or unwillingly bore the biggest burden of the revolution. One may ask, why single out Communist parties for your criticism? Well, we do that because we still have more expectations from the communist parties. We do not have similar expectations from BJP and Congress.
None of his five children had much interest in politics during his life time. I am not sure whether this has to do with Com. Damodaran or the mainstreamised context of communism in which his children grew as adults. I do remember one incident when my father shifted from Delhi to Trichur. Many almerahs, shelves and boxes of books had to be shifted. The truck came to our rented house in Nehru Nagar and the head-load workers’ union jumped in as usual. They argued that the coolies who were brought along with the truck had no right to shift the materials since it was the right of the workers’ union of the local area. Negotiations on taking the goods to the house did not appear to be affordable. Finally it was decided that we will do the job ourselves without the help of any workers. The union activists did not appreciate the idea but could not say anything at that time. They preferred to watch us doing the job. While we were transporting the goods from the truck to the house, there were snide sexist remarks from the workers on the women from our house doing the job. My father went to them and said that he was one of the persons who initiated various trade unions in Kerala, but he did not dream that it would end up like this. At a later stage, I found my brothers extremely against all organised movements. I must say that I was also swept away by such a feeling at that time. It appeared that more than the power of state or capital, the power of organisation could dictate life in Kerala. The degeneration of the mass organisations of the parties has resulted in generating a large number of cynics.
My interest in politics began after the death of my father. As a teenager, I was exposed to some of the situations during emergency. I was swept by a political wave after that – a wave that has not grounded me yet. During the initial phase of my interest in Marxism I started reading my father’s books. I was amazed at his capacity to express complex thoughts of Marx in very simple language, without losing their deeper essence. Com. Damodaran was a deep political influence on me after his death. Before his death, he might have shaped certain values in us. As a teenager discussing politics with my friends on the streets of Delhi , I had often missed the presence of my father – to discuss my emerging political views. I still do. Now if I say something, the readers may find it funny. I used to discuss such unfinished areas with my father after his death in my dreams. During the first ten years after the death of my father it used to happen very often. After that the discussions with him in dreams became rare.
Com. Damodaran was an important part of setting up a communist tradition in Kerala. Different currents of this tradition emerged later. Apart from the differences of structures of this tradition there is something common to all. An acute desire to be socially meaningful.
When I met Com. Charu Majumdar’s son, Abhijit recently in Bengal , I had an instant affiliation with him. Com. Charu Majumdar, popularly believed to be killed by the police in jail was one of the architects of the modern Naxalite movement, popularly known as the Maoist movement. Charu Majumdar, whether we accepted his strategies or not, was on the other side of establishment, while my father by then was part of a party running the establishment. Like me, Abhjit was the youngest son and he was too young when there was state intervention in his family. Like me, he could agree and disagree with his father. While Charu Majumdar gave a call to students to leave educational institutions and work with the peasants, his wife insisted that their own children were educated properly. Abhijit recalls that while this contradiction was a criticism among the political circles for a long time, Charu Majumdar’s children are combining politics and life better now. Abhijit is working as a lecturer in Siliguri. When the older generation of naxalites gave a call to the students to leave education and do political work in the villages, there were even students who tore their certificates and joined the naxalite movement. Later, when the period of frustration came, their own livelihood sources were affected due to this bold act. Between educational institutions and villages, the earlier naxalites while transplanting one community to another, forgot that both needed constant struggles for restructuring within.
As far as my own education, it was my own father who insisted on the education of his children. While the education system was rejected by some communists, the early communists preferred to work with it. After school, I was not at all interested in joining a regular college. My dream was to join an arts college. My father discussed this with well-known writer O.V. Vijayan, who used to visit my father in those days. Vijayan suggested that I should continue my studies, because it is very difficult to survive with art these days. I had no option but to join a regular college. Disgusted with myself, I burnt all my drawings which I had made till then. The next two years of my life, I would not like to remember. Though I still survive with artistic capacities, today I am glad I did not go to that particular arts college where I wanted to join. I have seen some awful works of the teachers from that institution.
At a later stage I used to meet Vijayan often either in the Sapru House Library canteen or in Rafi Marg in Delhi . My head was filled with Marxism at that time. We used to have long discussions with disagreements all the time. Once he advised me saying: `Just because your father was a Marxist you should not give a sentimental attachment to it and follow the same.’ I replied that I was attracted to Marxism not because my father, but because my own social context during emergency. During those days, I perceived Vijayan as an anti-communist. Later, I corrected myself and saw him as a valuable critic of the process of communism in Kerala and many left leaders accepted this at a later stage. Marxism is a bug that once bitten will never move away from your body. It took time for me to identify the bug in Vijayan.
Cinema was a passion for me right from the early days. My father also used to like watching films. Malayalam actor of those days, Satyan, was one of his favourite actors. I used to bunk classes and cycle to Girija theatre in Trichur to watch films. Girija theatre in those days used to show only English or Hindi films. Later, the quality of their selection declined. My father and I went to watch a Hollywood comedy film called `Black Beard’s Ghost’. I found myself laughing throughout the film. He looked bored. At a later stage, in Delhi , he took me to see Satyajit Ray’s `Pather Panchali’. He had seen it before. Probably he wanted to see it once again or he wanted to expose me to a different cinema. He was a fan of Satyajit Ray. I must say that this film changed the perception of my taste for cinema. I started watching all kinds of international art cinema after that. For a person who ardently advocated `art for social change’ at one stage of his life, I still cannot understand his taste for cinema.
Com. Damodaran intrigues me on several occasions. He could manage several languages including Russian and different European languages. We used to make fun of him about his pronunciation of certain words in English. But he could read and write many languages that we are incapable of. With his time spent in Kashi Vidyapeeth, and association with Hindi writers like Prem Chand, his readings on Hindi literature were good. He used to teach Hindi to fellow prisoners, I have often wondered why. My Tamil activist friends may find it ridiculous today when Hindi has a colonial presence over many regional languages. But at that time, it was a part of struggle against the British. The grasp of diverse languages within him had surprised me during many occasions. And here I am, sitting in front of a computer with a feeling that I do not even know one language properly.
What was most amazing for me in K. Damodaran’s writings was his capacity to write extremely complex ideas in simple language. At a time when the term `liberation theology’ was unheard of, he wrote a pamphlet called `Jesus Christ in Moscow ‘ portraying Jesus Christ as a revolutionary who worked for the poor and slaves and politically crucified. He equated Jesus Christ as a communist by extensively quoting connections between Bible and Marx’s writings. Fr. Vadakkan from Trichur replied with a counter pamphlet `Jesus Christ in Moscow ?’ His arguments were to place the differences. Spot came the reply: `Yes. Jesus Christ in Moscow ‘. This time, the arguments of Fr. Vadakkan were demolished. Fr. Vadakkan and K. Damodaran remained friends in spite of this polemical debate. I was only concerned about the symbol ` Moscow ‘. At that time, the communists did not know that the real architects of the revolution, their families and followers were butchered and killed in that wonderland. However, I felt that the content of the pamphlets were valuable for its interpretations. The liberation theology in Latin America emerged much later with a similar framework. It was only after the Latin American liberation theology movement that intellectuals like Fr. Kappen, Samuel Rayon and others initiated a similar process in India . While these inspiring traditions have made their own impact, I still cannot understand how and why a communist initiated a debate on liberation theology much before these people.
We studied in a Christian missionary school for a couple of years. The head master who was a priest found out that my brother was an atheist. He told him to enter school only with his guardian on the next day. Naturally, my father had to visit the school. By that time, the priest had pulled out all papers to remove my brother from the school. According to his vision, an atheist could corrupt the minds of other students. My father talked about Bible, more or less from a liberation theology angle at a time when liberation theology was not active in Kerala. The priest was highly impressed. He placed the papers back in his shelf.
It was only when I read comrade Damodaran that an unresolved question emerged in my mind. It is true that the liberation theology in Christianity was heavily influenced by Marxism. But comrade Damodaran’s writings gave another dimension of an original liberation theology which influenced even the radical thinkers before Marx. The fact that Jesus, Mohammed Nabi, Budha and many other similar prophets stood for the poor, slaves/lower castes or marginalized, gave their work a spiritual, social, political and revolutionary framework. It was due to this political value that thousands of followers of Christ, Mohammed Nabi and Budha were killed during the initial stage. At a time when every repression strengthened the mass support for such visionaries, the Kings and Emperors started accepting them. When the State accepted a revolutionary spirituality, the institution of religion emerged and this caused the decline of the revolutionary spirituality. Hence whether the origins of religions influenced Marx or Marx influenced liberation theology at a later stage can still be debated. The communists often quoted a famous quotation from Marx, that `religion is the opium of the people’. This has resulted in creating some sort of untouchability towards religious people by the communists. But the communists rarely quoted the complete original quotation: `Religion is the opium of the people, it is spirit of the spiritless people and a sigh of the oppressed’. It is time for the communists to think loud about what Marx meant by such a positive interpretation of `spirit of the spiritless people’ and `sigh of the oppressed’. Thus, the first communist ministry in Kerala in 1957, did not know how to handle religion. As a result, all religious forces joined together to bring the Government down. After this experience, the communists understood the value of religion in elections, but the liberative potentials were never recognized.
The liberation theology in Christianity in Kerala has reached a stage of a downfall. But there is a liberation theology in Islam in Kerala which is not yet recognized by the radical circles. You can find Islamic youth in almost every struggle related to development, invasion of natural resources, anti-globalisation movements, anti-nuclear movements or even the struggles of dalits, adivasis and fisher people. These muslim activists are committed to their Islamic faith, but there is an inherent interpretation of liberation theology in their faith. I would say, what liberation theology in Christianity could not achive in Kerala is getting realized by the liberation theology in Islam on the ground.
Karl Marx was extremely good with the use of polemics in debates. Marxist intellectuals in general followed that tradition. Com. Damodaran was also good when it came to polemics. Polemics can give you an additional power over the opponent’s argument. Even unreadable texts can become readable with the use of polemics. However, the function of polemics is to defeat the other and assert that `my stand is correct and you are wrong’. It can put an end to discussion.
When the act of putting an end to discussion is translated into organisational politics, it can become highly unfair. The tendency today is to put an end to differences by sheer muscle power of the organisation. Nandigram is only one of the examples. Political differences must not be dealt with physical power. The Maoists tried it with the concepts of `annihilation of annihilation of class enemy’ and `armed struggle’. For people like me who believe that every human being has a right to life and with that feeling when we oppose the capital punishment initiated by the Indian State , we feel that the capital punishment executed by the Maoists should also be opposed. My problem with them is on their incapacity to respect human life and understand that every human life is precious. We must begin all politics with respect to life and assert that all life forms – whether human or non human, are important. Communists of the early years were prepared to face guns if necessary. Many struggles like the Punnapra Vayalar, there are records of activists showing their chests against the guns of the state machinery. I am not very fond of such male exhibition of courage now. Martyrs could be a necessary phenomenon to maintain the power of the leaders. But today, we have communist leaders who have to carry guns before facing the public. How can you be a leader of the people if you are afraid of the people? How can you live up to the tradition of activists who were not afraid even to the bullets of the state?
No killing can be justified even if you build socialism after that. The brutal murders and tortures of Stalin were justified by the communist movement from the standpoint of preserving socialism. History has proved that socialism could not be preserved with muscle power. Com. Damodaran was an ardent believer of Stalin during the first half of his political existence. The transition is extremely interesting.
Let me quote some of his reflections:
`We were told that Stalin was the `great teacher’, the `guiding star’ who was building socialism in the USSR and the leader of world socialism. And being both new to communism and relatively unschooled in Marxism and Leninism I accepted what I was told. There is a tradition in Indian politics of political gurus enlightening the masses and this tradition suited Stalinism completely. Party elders. This was the atmosphere in which I was brought up as a communist. However, there were some comrades who were extremely perturbed at the information on the massacres which was coming out of Moscow . Philip Spratt, one the communists sent to help build the CPI from Britain , became so demoralized and disillusioned with Stalinism that he abandoned communism altogether and became a liberal humanist and towards the end of his life an anti-communist. He was an excellent comrade who played an invaluable role in helping us at an early stage……The study classes I conducted in jail for our comrades were very much coloured by Stalinism. In fact we identified Stalinism with Marxism-Leninism……I myself began to rethink radically a whole number of questions after 1956. I wanted to defend Khruschev for his attack on Stalin even though I had been a staunch Stalinist up till that time. For two or three nights after the 20 th Party Congress I could not sleep. A man we had been taught to worship, the idol of our world movement, had been attacked by his own former comrades. Even after reading Khrushchev’s secret report I remained in a state of shell shock; I could not believe it for some time, but after re-reading and thinking I came to the conclusion that Khrushchev was correct and I began to defend him against the supporters of Stalin.’
For those comrades who still believe that Stalin might have made some excesses but he has to be accepted for his role in building socialism, may read Lenin’s last writings, popularly known as `The Last Testament of Lenin’, in which he says:
`Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using the authority with sufficient caution.’ Lenin, Letter to the Congress, December 25, 1922 .
The addition to this letter is even more interesting: `Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.’ Lenin, January 4, 1923.
The question that may come up in the minds of any student of communism could then be: `How is it that a person whom Lenin suggested to be removed from the leadership, became such a leader to be worshiped by all communists in Kerala including Com. Damodaran? The writings of Lenin on this issue came up before the Communist Party of India was established as a party in Kerala. The only answer to this is the capacity of `suppression of facts’, a talent which is widespread even today. Needless to say that `The Last Testament of Lenin’ was published in Russia only after Perestroika. It appears that the history of the communist movement did not really believe in the right to information. If it had happened today, we could have thought of booking the Russian leaders under RTI.
The central issue to be discussed is not Stalin in today’s context. The relevant issue to be discussed today is the approach to crush all differences to prove one’s own correctness. Stalin did it by killing and torturing thousands of people. Khrushchev crushed differences in a different way. The communists today are doing it in their own ways. While accepting Khrushchev’s criticism on Stalin, Com. Damodaran realised at a later stage that Krushchev was no different. This became clear after his personal meeting with Khrushchev. He says:
`A further change took place in 1958 when I had the opportunity to visit the Soviet Union . I visited Tashkent in 1958 as a member of the Indian Writer’s Delegation to attend an Afro-Asian writers’ conference. The Chinese delegates were also present and were quite open about explaining their differences with the Soviet Union . But I also had an opportunity to see the Soviet Union and while the tremendous advances made cannot be denied, there was another side which made me uneasy. In Moscow there was a special reception for the Indian delegates which were attended by Khrushchev. During this there was a cultural show and to my surprise I discovered that the empty chair next to me had been taken by Khrushchev. So I used this opportunity to discuss with him and attempt to clear my doubts. At that time you may recall the Pasternak case had excited a great deal of attention. So I asked Khrushchev how he justified the treatment of Pasternak. How was it possible that, fifty years after the Revolution, the Soviet government still felt threatened by a novel written by Pasternak. I explained that as a writer I could not justify the treatment meted out to him even though, as a Marxist, I disagreed with his political line. I explained to him that in a country like India where many anti-imperialists had been sentenced to prison for their writings including poems and short stories, it was impossible to justify and genuinely defend the Soviet party on the Pasternak issue. Khrushchev denied all responsibility for the episode and claimed that it was done by the Writers’ Union and suggested that I discuss the matter with them. It was obvious that he was not anxious to discuss the issue. We then discussed the problem of drinking in the Soviet Union and I asked if he had considered prohibition. He replied that they had, but if there was prohibition then immediately illegal distilleries would begin to spring up and it would create graver problems. I responded by suggesting that similarly if they continued to ban books, illegal distilleries of books would spring up and could also create problems. Extremely irritated by now he suggested that we concentrate on the ballet! I began to understand the limits of `destalinization’. ‘ (Memoirs of an Indian communist – New Left Review)
After visiting West Bengal recently, I was convinced that the communist parties are very different in both the states where they are ruling. Stalinism is more deep-rooted in West Bengal than in Kerala. The scale of bungling like Nandigram and Singur disasters may not have taken place in Kerala. Because in Kerala, there is still a stronger civil society partly moulded by various small struggles outside the political parties.
Articulations of the struggles of fisher people, adivasis, dalits and various struggles related to natural resources are much more effective in Kerala than in West Bengal, even though the issues are much more graver in West Bengal. West Bengal has never allowed any political space outside the control of political parties. Kerala is also the only state which stopped two nuclear plants through people’s action, despite the support of all political parties to the proposed nuclear plants in Kothamangalam and Peringome. The tradition of autonomous politics of people’s movements like Silent Valley, Pooyankutty, Chaliyar, Plachimada, Pathrakkadavu, Chengara, Kathikkudam, anti-Endosulfan movement, Muthanga, various struggles of the fishing community, Lalur, etc. has certainly made an impact to a certain extent, even if it is a minority space of the civil society in Kerala. Ex-chief minister of Kerala, VS Achuthanandan, could even try to lift a strong finger against the property of Tatas, even if the process and outcome are debatable in Kerala. But while inaugurating the Nano cars, the Tatas were in full appreciation for the government of West Bengal . When the bourgeoisie pats on the back of the communist, there is something wrong somewhere.
There could be many things that we can learn from K. Damodaran in terms of contemporary political life. But what are the limits? One of the main limits as far as I see could be in his perception of modernisation and capitalist growth. Like all Marxists he too believed that capitalist growth meant opportunities for the working class as well as for the civil society. There is not much of a difference between the concept of growth and development in Marx, K. Damodaran and the present communist party positions. It appears that the questions, `what are the priorities of production’, `how they should be produced’, `development for whom and at whose cost’, etc. have still not occurred seriously within the minds of the communist leadership. Our country may be an emerging nuclear power state with some of the richest people in the world. But the daily earnings of eighty per cent of the labour force in India are quoted to be less than twenty rupees a day even by official reports. This may be a shock to many Malayalees and we may argue that our wages are much better. True. But if you look into their average earnings, calculating the available working days, the findings of the official report can be considered true for many workers even in Kerala. Let us not forget that there were starvation deaths in recent times among tea estate workers both in Kerala and West Bengal . Let us accept that the present concept of growth is making some people richer and richer and another large majority of people pauparised, even to the extent of forcing them to commit suicide. This issue cannot be understood without a proper reflection on the development model and the use of natural resources
The limitation of the frame-work of com. Damodaran was the historical context of his political growth. Karl Marx never witnessed a nuclear war, problems of nuclear energy, pollution, deforestation, global warming, globalisation, problems of chemical pesticides, hazards of modern medicine, modern mining, large dams and many other contemporary hazards. The political context of com. Damodaran was also similar. But today, at a time when thousands of people’s movements are questioning the development model of our country, questioning the invasion of the natural resources, questioning the capitalist expansion wiping out a large sections of adivasis, fisher people, farmers and dalits, questioning the very process of sustenance of the future generations, a strict working class analysis may not be sufficient to provide answers. To a certain extent, com. Damodaran can be forgiven for his lack of understanding on developmental issues. But this is not the case with com. Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury and other leaders in the post globalised context. It is high time that they wake up from their slumber and listen to the voices of the struggling people’s movements throughout the country questioning the existing vision of development. The left in Kerala may be apologetic today about bringing Coco Cola plant during their regime in Kerala. But the real issue is on the vision which made them bring Coca Cola Plant to `develop’ Kerala. The tragedies in Nandigram and Singur happened because of the same vision. It is extremely heartening to see Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri taking a bold stand on the nuclear deal. But let us not forget that the people are struggling against the nuclear plant planned by the West Bengal government in Haripur. In Tamil Nadu, the Koodamkulam nuclear plant seems to have received blessings from the left, while people are struggling against it. Let us also be clear that the Koodamkulam nuclear plant will affect the people in Kerala in many ways. The central issue behind the nuclear deal is radiation to the civil society. If Chernobyl released 1000 times more radiation than a Hiroshima bomb, the Russian authorities are answerable to the whole world and the future generations. There is nothing called `American radiation’, `Russian radiation’ and `Indian radiation’. Radiation threatens all life with no boundaries. Till today, the modern science has not found an answer to the problem of nuclear waste. Energy is needed. But not by risking the lives of millions of people for generations. But I also understand that the process of rethinking has also started within the established left. In this context, I sincerely hope that one day the communists in India will open their eyes to the real issues of development, caste, gender, sexuality, adivasis, fisher people, environment and the grave issues of sustaining an equitable world. This is the minimum they can do to their own memories of the search for justice during their own past, so that many K.Damodarans can rest in peace.
The difference in history is very clear. Thirty six years after the death of my father, here I am, sitting in Bangalore , reflecting on what all shaped me as a person. During these thirty six years, there were several struggles of the adivasis, dalits, fishing communities, women, sexuality minorities, nationalities, anti-communal movements, environmental movements, struggles against nuclear energy and nuclear bomb, large dams, movements of organic farmers, globalization, WTO, privatization of water, invasion on other natural resources, alternative experiments, movements of alternative life-styles, health, education and many other social action processes. While com. Damodaran was a memory for me politically personally, my own social and political reality seems to be very different. For an intellectual like Marx who was entrenched in the historical situations of an emerging working class struggle in Europe , it could be foolish from our part to expect him to analyse many of our contemporary problems. For he did not witness these contradictions in his time. So was the case with com. Damodaran. But the younger generation can be different. They need not study Marxism through Stalin. History of Soviet Union and China unfold like open texts. The war is not just in Iraq . A large section of our struggling majority of people is facing it and hence they are coming out in the form of diverse freedom struggles. Predominant sections of the left and right are hopelessly away from this freedom struggle. I am aware that many comrades are struggling with these issues and ideas inside the party structures even today like K. Damodaran. As far as outsiders like us are concerned, we have no option but to support the left on crucial areas, because other mainstream political parties have proven to be far worse and more dangerous.
No K. Damodaran is indispensable in history. But our lives are shaped today to hold on to the remnants of what we have inherited. Otherwise, we will vanish in the same manner how several species vanished due to interference of humankind. There is no need to feel proud about the size of our civilization or our per capita growth. It does not take much time to wipe out all these with our growing preoccupations of modern technology. A philosophy sworn by `false growth and development’ will do nothing to wake us up. We will only die in sleep.
Com. Damodaran passed away before witnessing many of the grave contemporary struggles or debates. I do not know if he would have changed his analysis, if he had witnessed such debates from recent history. However, K. Damodaran was as much a victim of his times as much as everyone else including me. The only difference is the courage to break away from one’s own prisons of social consciousness. The spirits of Marx, Gandhi, Ambedkar or Buddha are certainly relevant according to contexts. But history is more than what we have witnessed in the past. We have to deal with the present history also. The only way we can show respect to com. Damodaran is to ally through thought, action and skills with the existing struggles for survival. Even if com. Damodaran did not write about many of these issues.
As a final analysis, I feel that Com. Damodaran started as a rebel right from his childhood. Later, the rebellion within him conformed to a radical social movement. Thanks to Stalin, the seeds of self-questioning within him started after Khrushchev’s criticism on Stalin. He became more open to ideas outside the parameters of sectarian party lines. His intellectual pursuits grew, but his organisational base started diminishing. He was more a loner without a party base during his last phase of life. His close friends were only those who shared similar searches at that time. Perhaps he felt that he needed to clarify many things before he acted. Perhaps it was a matter of disillusionment with the party. Perhaps it was a matter of sheer convenience. In any case, I am eager to discuss it with him in one of my future dreams.