The CPIM has painted Pinarayi red, quite literally. The village in north Kerala’s Kannur is the birthplace of chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and falls in his Dharmadam constituency. It is swathed in communist flags, Che Guevara and Bhagat Singh posters, and lifesize cutouts of Vijayan himself.
Pinarayi, though, has been a part of communist folklore in Kerala from far before Vijayan rose on the scene, featuring in the movement’s origin story. It’s a story that KP Mohanan relishes to tell.
Mohanan, 65, is a former Youth Congress and Janata Party worker who has spent a lifetime writing on Kerala’s politics and political history. He currently edits a fortnightly magazine Punar Vayana.
KP Mohanan says Pinarayi's story is hundreds of years old.
“The word ‘Pinarayi’ is a bit haunting,” Mohanan began the story. It has been transmitted through folk tales that hundreds of years ago, when the Kottayam kingdom ruled the region, they would bury their corpses in Pinarayi. Pinam means dead body and azhi is cremation, he explained.
The place was loosely called Pinamtheeni Vayal, or blood-soaked fields, which over time got shortened to Pinarayi. “There’s no way for me to verify this, but this is how Pinarayi is described in our folk stories,” he added.
To the west of Pinarayi, five minutes away by car, is Parapram. On the main road to Parapram there is a red, fort-like structure that sticks out. Inside, a skin-coloured clenched fist juts out from atop a stone plinth. On its side is a strip of gold-plated metal etched with “1939”. And next to it is a marble slab with eight names etched on it. This is a monument to the birth of the communist movement in Kerala.
Parapram is part of communist lore in Kerala.
In 1939, eight leaders, including AK Gopalan and EMS Namboodiripad, broke away from the Congress Socialist Party. They met in a “secret enclave” at Parapram and launched the Communist Party of India in Kerala. “These men had such large followings that people who supported them blindly shifted to supporting the CPI,” Mohanan said.
In 1964, the CPI , with 32 top leaders walking away and launching the CPI Marxist. The two parties have since reconciled, partnering in the Left Democratic Front, which has alternated in power with the Congress led-United Democratic Front since 1996.
Parapram holds on to its communist legacy dearly. Young men and women often refer to the village as the red fort, red being the color associated with communism.
Young men and women often refer to Parapram as the red fort.
Situated about 5 km inland from the Arabian Sea and hemmed in by rivers on three sides, Parapram could be a postcard picture. The villagers traditionally made a living tapping the local liquor toddy, or working in beedi factories or textile weaving mills. “Right now many young people are getting educated, moving out and opting for various careers, but our parents worked in these three industries,” said Dishna Prasad, 25, who is studying to be a teacher.
Beedi factory workers, in fact, played a key role in the foundation and growth of the communist movement in Kannur. In 1937, the called a strike to press a series of demands such as for better wages, pensions, bonuses and loans. The strike lasted 38 days and resulted in just one of the demands being met. It was a small concession but it would prove to have profound consequences: the workers would thenceforth be allowed to read whenever they didn’t have enough work. They were soon gorging on communist messaging. To begin with, every morning the workers would pick one among them to read aloud a newspaper, recalled P Raghavan, 72, who worked in Dinesh Beedi Company.
“Everyone in the factory would quietly listen to the local news while making beedis,” he said. “Since most of the villagers were working in those factories and most of the news was about the Communist Party, we were automatically drawn to it.”
Dishna Prasad is studying to be a teacher.
Over time, the communists gained enough sway to make sure Kannur’s numerous cooperatives employed . As Ullekh NP notes in his book Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics, “Beedi units had become a nursery of sorts for recruiting members to the CPIM.”
Such was the significance of beedi workers to the communist movement that in 1969, Namboodiripad’s Left government invested Rs 13.5 lakh in Kerala Dinesh Beedi, a workers’ cooperative in Kannur, leading it to become one of India’s largest beedi makers.
The same year, Vadikkal Ramakrishnan, a Jan Sangh leader, was killed in Kannur, allegedly by CPIM workers. Ramakrishnan had set up Ganesh Beedi Company in Kannur to attract workers to the Jan Sangh, political front of the RSS and forerunner to the BJP. To counter him, Gopalan and Namboodripad mobilised their supporters to demand better pay. The company eventually moved out of Kannur to Mangalore, an RSS stronghold then as now. Ramakrishanan’s is considered to be the in Kannur.
Ullekh NP notes in his book that the main accused in Ramakrishnan’s murder was none other now-chief minister Vijayan, “Though the case was dismissed in court, the call to reinvestigate has become shriller, especially after Vijiyan became the twelfth chief minister of Kerala.”
There has been no formal demand for reopening the case, however.
The CPIM supporters we spoke with insisted that Vijiyan was being falsely accused by his rivals to distract the public from the good work that he has done so far.
Vijayan of Pinarayi
In Parapram today, much of the community life revolves around its small but well-stocked library, one of whose inside walls is decorated with a large portrait of the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara. “This is a special place for us. In the evenings people come and sit in the courtyard to discuss politics,” said Dishna. “During jackfruit season we peel jackfruits and distribute them. If there’s a celebration in town, we hand out payasam to everyone.”
It was at the library, in fact, that we met Dishna, Raghavan, and KV Balan, who has lived all life in Dharmadam and was secretary of the CPIM’s local chapter for eight years starting 1965.
“Previously you couldn’t reach this village easily. The only road that was there wasn’t good, so you had to take a boat,” said Balan, 82. “The area’s inaccessibility made it easier for communism to grow without much interference from other parties. By the time connectivity had improved, villages such as Parapram and Pinarayi were bastions of the Communist Party.”
KV Balan was secretary of the CPIM’s local chapter for eight years starting 1965.
Today, Parapram is far from being a remote hamlet. It’s serviced by eight bridges and tarred roads and boasts strong internet connectivity.
Balan has known Vijiyan a lifetime and has fond memories of the chief minister. “I call him Vijayan,” said Balan, smiling. Back in the day, he recalled, there were two politicians of renown in Dharmadam named Vijayan. One was from Pinarayi, the other was from a village Balan couldn’t recall. “To distinguish them, we started calling our Vijayan Pinarayi’s Vijayan which soon became simply Pinarayi Vijayan,” he added, laughing. “Now I know him as our chief minister although in my heart he is still Vijayan.”
Balan is five years older than Vijayan. “We used to walk home after yoga together and I would discuss a few of my family problems with him,” he reminisced. That was partly because Vijyan had developed a reputation as a “big neta” early on. “People automatically went to him when they had problems,” Balan explained. “He has been a crowd-puller from the time I remember him.”
In the 1970s, Vijayan was arrested for and tortured in custody, so badly that his shirt was soaked in blood. Before being jailed in Kannur, he was briefly taken to a Thalassery hospital where Balan went to meet him.
“He was entirely physically broken. He was bleeding, he was in pain but the moment I saw him he greeted me warmly and started discussing how he intended to fight back,” he recalled. “He has managed to preserve that fiery spirit to this day.”
In 1977, after the Emergency had been lifted and Vijayan was reelected legislator, he wore that same blood-soaked shirt to the assembly, where he made a speech condemning the excesses of the Congress, said Balan.
‘No other party stands a chance’
Considering its history and Vijayan’s influence, it is unsurprising that Dharmadam is a Marxist bastion. When we asked people in Parapram if any other contender stood a winning chance, they laughed or smirked in response. “This is a Marxist territory,” they invariably said.
As we drove out of Parapram, a man sat outside the rundown office of the Congress. Meenoth Manoharan, 56, is a labourer who canvasses for the party. Inside the office were posters of the Congress nominee, C Raghunath, and dusty framed portraits of MK Gandhi and Indira Gandhi.
Congress worker Meenoth Manoharan accepts his party has no chance in Dharmadam.
When were they planning to put up the posters? “We put up posters slowly,” he replied. “Every day we put up 5-6 posters only because by evening the CPIM workers tear them down. So, we need to save our posters and make them last through the election.”
Meenoth forthrightly said the Congress was not expecting to win in Dharmadam. He will still vote for the party, he added, because it’s a family tradition. “People have no other reason to vote for the Congress. It’s not like we have any faith in the party. Initially when Rahul Gandhi won in Wayanad, we felt encouraged but then that faded off soon,” he said. “Most people who vote for the party do so because their families have been doing it since ages.”
So, Parapram isn’t waiting to find out who will win their constituency, but to begin celebrating. “Like last time, we will arrange a bus to go see Pinarayi Vijayan’s oath-taking ceremony,” said Dishna.
Pictures by Aditya Varier.
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