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Peasant Movements In Kerala

Kerala, the southern-most region on the western coast of India, is one of the states where land monopoly and absentee landlordism had been abolished under the statutory provisions of land reform acts and other legislations since 1970. Behind this development is a long history of protest movements, agrarian struggles and peasant revolts. Since the establishment of the British Raj in Malabar and its political hegemony over Travancore and Cochin, there were armed revolts and rebellions against the alien government in which the peasantry and the feudal class participated. The revenue regulation of the British, a mixture of Zamindari and Ryotwari systems, adversely affected pre-colonial agrarian relations in this region.


The large-scale extraction of surplus-produce in the form of revenue and cash payment directly and indirectly by the British from the peasantry contributed to the growth of rural poverty and pauperization among all classes related to production. The major revolts in the early decades of the nineteenth century against the colonial system, led by Pazhassi, Veluthampi, Paliyat Achan and the Kurichiyas, had taken place in this background. The spontaneous and sporadic revolts by the Mappila peasantry continued throughout the last century in south Malabar. Even colonial administrators like William Logan were compelled to highlight the agrarian origins of such disturbances. The British efforts to ameliorate the grievances of the peasantry by statutory intervention in the existing landlord-tenant relations failed miserably, as the colonial jurists and administrators did not want to abrogate the rights and privileges of the landowning class or the Janmis. They believed that any step in that direction would weaken ultimately the colonial government.


However in Travancore and Cochin, the native feudalistic governments introduced certain agrarian legislations in the second half of the nineteenth century to fulfil the requirements of fixity of tenure, fair rent and free transfer and thereby facilitate capital investments in coffee and tea plantations by the European capitalists and joint stock companies. These legislations and their amendments and the subsequent legislations like the Nair Regulations against the matrilineal system, a feudal institution, in the long-run weakened the traditional feudal class and landlordism. In Malabar, the planter capitalist interests had been concentrated mainly in Wayanad, where the major part of the land holdings had been obtained by the British government through escheat and confiscation. Therefore, the British never felt the necessity of an agrarian legislation in Malabar. There they strengthened the interests of the feudal class and kept the peasantry without fixity of tenure and fair rent. This intra-regional difference in the land tenurial relations of Malabar and Travancore- Cochin can be traced in the character and growth of agrarian struggles in these two regions as well.


In the 20th century, Malabar and Kasargod came to the forefront of anti-feudal and antiimperialist struggles, in which the peasantry were the main participants, whereas in Travancore- Cochin the main role in these struggles was played by the labourers and working class.


In Malabar-Kasargod, the peasant movements and agrarian struggles were part of the mainstream of the nationalist movement. This situation even led to the emergence of peasant nationalism. The Khilafat and Non-Cooperation movements in Malabar led to violent uprisings mainly by the Mappila peasantry in the southern taluks of Ernad and Valluvanad. This rebellion of 1921 in Malabar was probably the greatest anti-feudal and anti-imperialist revolt after 1857. The revolt was brutally suppressed by the British through enforcing 'shoot at sight' orders against the Mappilas under martial law. The rebellion drew its strength primarily from the marginal and poor peasantry. Later the Indian National Congress disowned this peasant mobilization as it culminated in violence and rebellion. The brutal suppression of the marginal peasantry and the subsequent introduction of Muslim League politics by the rich sections of the Mappila community restricted the growth of the nationalist movement in the southern taluks of Malabar. In brief, these taluks were kept away from the mainstream of the nationalist movement.


During the 1930s, the Civil Disobedience Movement, a programme launched as part of the struggle for freedom, spread to places like Calicut, Cannanore, Payyanur and Kasargod in Malabar. The peasantry and the rural proletariat participated in the programme as individuals but not as a united class. The reason was that the orthodox Congress leadership, which largely originated from the urban middle class, did not like the politicization of the peasantry. They did not realise the need for a separate platform for peasants as they felt the Indian National Congress itself was a kisan or peasant organisation.


However the impact of the Great Depression and the growing frustration with Gandhian methods in the struggle for freedom compelled many of the nationalists to organize the Congress- Socialist Party and bring out radical changes in the programme. A unit of the party was organized in Malabar in 1934 and it decided to mobilize the workers and peasants as separate class organizations. In 1936, the All-India Kisan Sabha was organized with the ultimate aim of 'complete freedom from economic exploitation and achievement of full economic and political power for peasants and workers and all other exploited classes'.


Subsequently, the All-Malabar Karshaka Sangham, an association of the peasantry, was organized with a network of units at taluk and village levels. The class differentiation among the peasants like the rich, middle, poor and landless agricultural labourers was not taken into account as part of a united programme. The leadership of the movement came from the educated middle class and primary school teachers in the beginning. Gradually through the peasant study classes and organizational work, a group of leaders came up from the peasants themselves. The peasant association determined to stop all illegal collections and feudal levies realized by the landlords as customary dues from the peasants. The association led peasant marches or Jathas to the houses of local landlords and demanded several concessions. When the Congress Ministry came into power in Madras, the association demanded the implementation of the Karachi resolutions relating to the agrarian programme of the Congress. They also demanded effective tenancy legislation for Malabar and Kasargod.


For the peasant activists, it was a difficult task to organize a peasantry divided by the caste system and sectarianism. Many of the peasant activists in Malabar belonged to the upper castes and feudal families. Their visits to ordinary peasant families, not as exploiters but as emancipators, established a cordial relationship with the peasantry. From the houses of low caste families the activists took 'Kanji' or porridge and showed them that the traditional caste barriers which separated them were broken. The local association like the Abhinava Bharat Yuvak Sangham helped the Congress-Socialists in their work of organizing the peasantry.


The organization of the peasantry was a difficult task in many of the villages on account of the fear complex of the peasants against their landlords. Most of the peasantry, who had no permanent tenurial rights on the lands and enjoyed only inferior rights like Verumpattam first hesitated to join the movement. Further, the dominant caste position of the landlords helped them excommunicate the tenants from society and suspend their traditional social relations based on 'purificatory cloth' on occasions of birth, puberty and death. Many such customs had their origin in a superstitious caste-oriented feudal system. As such the landlords were in a position to suppress a rebellious tenant at material and ideological levels.


The peasants belonged to different ritualistic and caste groups. Thus to organize them at an ideological level in the struggle against the dominant economic and caste groups was a difficult process. The illiterate peasants could not digest the ideology of Marxism-Leninism properly, or its political philosophy of class struggle and economic determinism. There the indigenous social philosophy which criticized caste and priesthood and economic exploitation came to the help of the peasant activists and the nationalists. Philosophers like Brahmananda Siva Yogi, Vagbhatananda and other reformers came to the help of peasant activists in an ideological struggle against the dominant feudal class. Some of the traditional institutions that existed in this region also helped the growth of the peasant movement.


In north Malabar there had been a network of ritualistic caste associations which had existed through centuries. Each caste had a common organization and their folk deities like Teyyam. These caste associations were entirely different from the modern caste associations like the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam and the Nair Service Society. The traditional ritualistic caste associations like Kazhakam, Muchilot and Kannangat were integral parts of a feudal society. Such associations had virtually been controlled by dominant land owning institutions like Tarawads and rich matrilineal houses. As such these traditional associations strengthened feudal exploitation through their elders even in the colonial system.


When nationalism had developed in this region these associations had played a constructive role in the entire movement. The members of these associations met every month in Manram, a common place of worship, where Teyyam deities were propitiated. Therefore in the new political context, the nationalists and the peasant activists could work upon this existing traditional foundation of ritualistic caste organizations. Leaders like E.M.S.Namboodiripad had stated that the caste associations had helped in the organizational part of the political association. Later, when the communist movement developed in this region, most of the members of the ritualistic caste associations joined the party.


In 1937, a secret cell of the Communist Party of Kerala had been organized in Calicut consisting of P. Krishna Pillai, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, N.C. Sekhar and K. Damodaran. The leadership was given to this cell by S.V. Ghate from the Communist Party of India. In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the Congress-Socialists in Malabar decided to convert themselves into Communists and launch a mass movement against the war and the imperialists.


The All-Malabar Karshaka Sangham and the Communist Party decided to observe an Anti- Repression Day on 15th September 1940, against the war situation and the repressive measures of the government. The meetings and processions on that day were banned by the authorities. In spite of such orders the peasants and workers participated in large numbers in processions organized on that day. In places like Tellicherry, Mattanur and Morazha there were firings against the demonstrators. They also reacted violently. Following these developments the Malabar Karshaka Sangham and its local units were banned by the government. The police took all sorts of oppressive measures against the nationalists and the peasant activists.


Therefore the political mobilization of the peasantry against the landlords and the British Raj was given priority by the Communists and the peasant activists. In a small village known as Kayyur, in March 1941, there was a demonstration by them against the oppressive measures of the police in the rural areas. It was organized by the local Communist cell. Further these peasants demanded the release of remanded peasants and activists in the Morazha and Mattanur cases. Some of these demonstrators from Kayyur were also arrested by the police.


Being Communists, the peasants were inspired by the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, the philosophy of the working class. Thus they shouted slogans for the victory of the Soviet Union, the first State established by the workers and peasants. There were further protest movements in Kayyur village against the police arrests which led to the drowning and death of a police constable. Such developments and transformation of an illiterate and oppressed peasantry in a remote village into politically motivated freedom fighters and anti-imperialist are interesting aspects of the modern history of Kerala. After the termination of the World War, the Communists once again decided to carry out their anti-feudal and anti-imperialist struggles. In Malabar, the pauperised peasantry and the agricultural labourers adopted an action programme to stop black-marketing of food grains and cultivate more wastelands owned by the landowning class and the government.


The incorporation of the princely states into the Indian Union and the mass struggle for that programme had been adopted as policy by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Therefore in Travancore the peasantry and the working class decided to fight against the policy of the Dewan, who wanted Travancore to be an independent state with an American-model constitution. The oppressive measures of the Travancore government resulted in violent clashes which culminated in an armed struggle against the police in Punnapra and Vayalar from 24 to 27 October, 1946. Nearly 800 persons were killed and many found missing. The Communist Party and its feeder associations valiantly sacrificed many of their members for the right cause of integration of Travancore with the Indian Union. A Travancore-aid committee was organized in Malabar to help the victims. Punnapra-Vayalar gave a new message to the workers and peasants in Malabar to activize their movement against feudal agrarian relations and imperialism.


In Malabar, the peasant struggles had been concentrated mainly on wasteland cultivation, detection of surplus food grains accumulated for black-marketing, etc. In Karivellur, the local landlord wanted to transfer the paddy rent collected by him for utilization in his temple. The peasant organisation protested against his action and the situation led to police firing against the crowd. It took away the lives of two poor peasants.


In Kavumbayi, the peasant association wanted to cultivate the waste land monopolized by the local landlord. It led to police-firing and the death of five small peasants and the arrest of a large number of peasants and activists. In places like Koothali, the peasant association tried to cultivate the wasteland owned by the government. In such organized and activized struggles thousands of peasants were imprisoned. The Government of Madras promulgated an ordinance on 23 January, 1947, to suppress these struggles and arrest the Communists. In some places there were struggles against the caste system and for authorization of temple entry to the depressed caste members. Several cases were charged against the peasant activists involved in such struggles against the feudal order.


A study of the peasant struggles in Kerala highlights some significant characteristics of the movement. They developed as part of the nationalist movement in which all sections of the peasantry participated. But in the post-war crisis of 1946 and 1948 it was mainly a movement of the small peasantry and the landless agricultural labourers. The leadership of such struggles was provided by the Communists and their peasant organizations. These struggles had qualitatively changed from those of the early phase on account of various factors like ideology, changes in the pattern of agrarian classes and social transition. During the early phase the struggles were influenced by the philosophy of non-violence, the ideology of the national movement, although the class organization of the peasantry had been based on the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Further it was a united movement consisting of all sections of the peasantry.


The main techniques of the agrarian struggles were militant agitations, demonstrations and protest movements. Further, the programme was not concentrated on abolition of landlordism or nationalization of large land holdings. The role of landless agricultural labourers had not been articulated as it was a united movement. It was mainly an ideological struggle fought against the imperialists and the landlords by large sections of peasantry. In Kerala, the class character of the national movement had significantly influenced the character of the peasant struggles during the first phase of the movement.

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